The Progressive Case For Israel

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rainbow magen davidZionism is a broad and diverse movement, encompassing a wide array of philosophies and solutions to the ongoing conflict. Included under the vast constituency of Zionist thought are progressives and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, war hawks and peace activists, Christians and Muslims, Naftali Bennett and David Ben-Gurion. The nucleus of Zionism, the underlying ideology that binds all of these disparate groups together, is the simple acknowledgement that Jews are a people, and the recognition of their inalienable right to self-governance in at least part of their homeland. But that hasn’t dissuaded Israel’s enemies (and to a lesser extent, right wing elements within Zionism itself) from endeavoring to pigeonhole Zionism as the exclusive purview of the right. This inimical typecasting of the Jewish liberation project as an extremist credo denoting fascism and religious fundamentalism has caused great harm to Zionism and, in a less direct sense, to Jews worldwide.

All of that aside, why should young (or not so young) left-of-center activists support Zionism? As anyone with even the remotest familiarity with the modern progressive left or alternative subcultures (which I have been associated with for years) would know, there are no physical (let alone social or economic) benefits to speak of, so why do I advocate for and openly embrace this moral principle, given the risks involved? Because it is essential to any genuine liberal/progressive framework. Singling out the Jewish people for selective deprivation of fundamental rights is incompatible with any substantive, authentic anti-racist outlook.

I will brush aside the usual arguments that are deployed to woo progressives (gay rights, women’s rights, only democracy in the Middle East, etc) as I believe them to be ineffectual. Chances are that if you already have it drilled into your head that Israel is an “oppressive settler colonial entity” on par with the United States, or even Nazi Germany, you are unlikely to care about anything else. And why would you? Why would Israel’s track record with women, gays, and minorities matter to people who are convinced that Israel’s rebirth is a historic wrong and that it shouldn’t even be there in the first place? The simple answer is: they won’t. This is why the main prerogative of any pro-Israel activist should be to cut through the misinformation and lay bare the inherent justice of the Zionist project before focusing on the finer details.

Israel is the first (and probably only) nation state built by a historically dispossessed native people on their ancestral soil. Far from being the “last bastion of European colonialism”, it is an unprecedented realization of an indigenous people’s dream of repatriation and the reversal of a longstanding historic injustice. In a world that is increasingly cognizant of the importance of multiculturalism and indigenous rights, Israel’s revival ought to be a cause for celebration. Progressives who care about indigenous rights (which is to say, most progressives) would do well to apply these principles consistently across the board. This means supporting the rights of all indigenous groups, and this must include the Jews. Failing to do so would invariably result is an antisemitic exclusion.

Granted, the events leading up to Israel’s rebirth are not without controversy. On the anti-Zionist left, one often hears lachrymose tales of Yiddish speaking Jews showing up seemingly out of nowhere, with a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other, forcibly removing people from their homes, shattering the once peaceful co-existence between Arabs, Jews, and other minorities throughout the land. Whereas a comprehensive look at the history behind the conflict paints a very different picture; one of Arab/Muslim subjugation of indigenous minorities, antisemitic pogroms, Nazi-inspired incitement, collaboration with Hitler, Arab waged wars of genocide (including Israel’s War of Independence), and the resulting refugee crisis on both sides. In discussions on the origins of the Israel/Palestine conflict, this vital context is almost always left out.

It is equally important to consider how the existence of an autonomous Jewish state ensures us sanctuary in times of need. As a globally oppressed, dominated ethnic minority, the State of Israel is essential to our survival. It is our “safe space”, so to speak. More specifically, it is the only guarantee we have that we will always be able to defend ourselves, preserve our culture, and shelter ourselves from persecution. These are rights that other groups all too often take for granted. Herzl realized all of this after the Dreyfus Affair, whereas the Holocaust cemented it in stone for the rest of us (save for a very loud anti-Zionist minority). It stands to reason that if the State of Israel existed just 10 years prior to 1948, the Holocaust would never have happened. Those 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis all would have had somewhere to go, because it’s not like the rest of the world (barring some noble exceptions) were eager to help us in our hour of need. Further, Jewish self-determination is a legally recognized right and a fact of international law. Advocating for the non-existence of a Jewish state today would be incompatible with any substantive belief in Jewish equality. By identifying as an anti-Zionist, you are telling us that we must forfeit legal rights that we already enjoy, and re-submit ourselves to perpetual subordination in lands that are not our own. This is a demand made of no other nation, and it cannot be reconciled with a genuine egalitarian attitude towards the Jewish people.

I often use Critical Race Theory as a reference point and template whenever I want to highlight structural antisemitism, as I believe it plays a tremendous role in the success of the anti-Israel movement throughout the West and the Middle East. In a world with ingrained and structural systems of domination, it is unsurprising that a large portion of the criticism leveled at Israel is informed by present and historic anti-Jewish cultural biases. The trope that Jews call anyone who criticizes Israel “antisemitic” is a bogus chestnut, but truth be told, considerations of antisemitism should absolutely be a feature of any discussion on Israel. To ignore or avoid privilege, power dynamics, and historic Jewish subjugation when discussing Israel is to contravene or selectively apply the left’s own preferred approach for examining and confronting racism vis a vis minority groups.

The left prides itself on paying close attention to minority groups when they are trying to say something, but this standard is almost entirely absent when Jews enter the picture. Instead, we are seen as a slightly quirky iteration of white people, whose history of persecution is to be utilized in the struggles of other minority groups, and then soundly brushed aside. No consideration is given to the depth and breadth of antisemitism (no, it didn’t “die” after the Holocaust). Jews must be given the space to define their own oppression if we are to be consistent across prejudices. And when the majority of the Jewish community believes anti-Zionism is an antisemitic ideology, that should tell you something.

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