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The Support of Non-Zionist Jews for Palestine

By Ilan Pappe

From the very moment the Zionist movement appeared it encountered a principled and ideological opposition by many Jews. When it surfaced in the late nineteenth century its main argument was that the only solution for the growing antisemitism in Europe was the redefinition of Judaism as nationalism through the colonization of Palestine.

Socialist and Communist Jews believed that an international revolution was a better solution and liberal Jews put their faith in a more democratic and liberal world. For them Judaism was a faith, to which they subscribed in different ways, but one that should have led them to take part in making the world as a whole a better place.

These counter-voices died out for a while during and after the Holocaust. The genocide of the Jews in Europe gave credence in the eyes of many Jews to the need for a Jewish state, even at the price of destroying Palestine and the Palestinians.

The most important Jewish support for Zionism and later Israel, came from the American Jewish community. This community until 1918 was largely indifferent to Zionism, and many of its members were even hostile to the idea.

However, since the end of the First World War, and in particular after the Second World War, the American Jewish community was exponentially Zionized. Even before the appearance of AIPAC, pro-Zionist groups had begun to influence American policy towards Palestine and later Israel. (I have just finished a book tracing that history in detail, Lobbying for Zionism on Both Sides of the Atlantic.)

Since the creation of the State of Israel, some bodies such as the American Council for Judaism remained critical of Zionism and Israel, and although this group has declined in numbers and tamed its criticism of Israel since 1967, it still serves as a reminder that one can be an American Jew without being a Zionist one.

In this century, there are two leading anti-Zionist voices among American Jews. One is a section of Orthodox Jewry in America, the Satmar and Neturei Karta communities. The former, the largest community, is more non-Zionist than anti-Zionist while the latter takes an active part in the pro-Palestine solidarity movement.

The other is the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) founded in 1996 by three American Jewish undergraduate women from Berkeley. They are officially committed to act against the Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and fully support the BDS campaign. The JVP became a very important part of the pro-Palestinian demonstrations after Israel began its genocidal policies in the Gaza Strip.

More than one hundred years after the success of the Zionist movement in Zionizing large sections of the American Jewish community, it seems that the inherent problems in such an approach are coming back to haunt American Jews in general and the supporters of Israel in particular.

 

Anti-Zionists Neturei Karta supporting the Palestinian struggle.

The first challenge was that of a dual loyalty. If the Jews are a nation to themselves, whose interests do they serve? The solution American Zionists found was that Judaism is not nationalism in America but only in Israel. This worked for a while, even though AIPAC violated American lobbying laws by recruiting money for lobbying on behalf of a foreign country. The question will become more acute in the future when acts like genocide in Gaza would be seen by many Americans as clashing with the American national interest.

The other older challenge was that early on it was clear that the “natural” allies of the Zionist American Jews were the Christian Zionists. This latter group’s strong support for Israel comes with a price. The coalition of fundamentalist Christians  unconditionally endorsed Israel as they wished to see the Jews in Israel and not in the US, and they were confident that the Judaization of Palestine was part of the divine plan for the return of the Messiah and the end of time (which included the conversion of the Jews to Christianity). In the meanwhile, it is imperative that the faithful lend unconditional support to Israel, but that does not easily conceal the antisemitic dimensions of Christian Zionism. It is nowadays identified clearly with the fundamentalist Jewish settlers in the West Bank and more extreme factions within the Israeli political system.

But it is the new challenge that leads many of us to believe that the next generation of American Jews will have a different view on Zionism and Israel. Gradually since 1967, American Jews were exposed to the scope of the oppression by Israel of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and found it difficult to support Israel.

The moral challenge of supporting Israel has become more formidable with each passing year since 1967. The siege on Gaza that began in 2006 increased the number of young Jews in America who were not only turning their back on Israel but becoming deeply involved in the solidarity movement with the Palestinians.

Thus, it is not surprising that many more young Jews took to the street when the Israeli genocide in Gaza began. Their prominent participation has revealed something deeper, or at least exposed a potentially more profound prospective phenomenon in the future. This particular solidarity indicates a future in which, for many American Jews, Zionism will not be the only option for defining their Judaism, and even more so, they may share the notion that their Judaism juxtaposes them against Israel and its policies.

If it happens, it will be translated into the transition from American Jewish indifference to Zionism into a decision to jettison Zionism altogether. (The verb jettison in this context was suggested by Peter Beinart whose personal trajectory out of Zionism epitomizes this possible future scenario.)

If this is a valid scenario, it is an intriguing closure of a moral and ideological cycle, maybe even a rectification of historical injustice. American Jews were often loyal to universal values (be they liberal or socialist) that located them in the middle of the important struggles for social justice in the US. These values were cast aside when Israel was concerned, creating a hypothetical position, known in the common jargon as PEOP – progressive except on Palestine.

The radical changes are clearly the domain of the millennials and Generation Z, which accentuates the prospect of a radical change in the future that may not yet be easily detected in the present. But the potential for many Jews, not only in the US but worldwide, to dissociate themselves from Israel, with quite a few of them playing a central role in the attempt to make Israel a pariah state, is a feasible prospect for the near future.

American Jews push for Gaza ceasefire at the US Congress. Photo courtesy of Daily Sabah.

Without strong support from the American Jewish community, and with the possible erosion of such support from Jewish communities elsewhere, the lobbying for Israel will be maintained by Christian Zionists and right-wing Republicans, while worldwide, Israel will have to rely on Fascist and right-wing nationalist parties and movements. Such a coalition will undermine the moral pillar on which the Zionist project rests and may also subsequently affect the material pillar of strategic alliances in the region and the world at large.

Within that possible scenario, some more concrete examples might be interesting to follow. The first is the movement Jewish Voice for Peace which took a cardinal role in pro-Palestinian activism after October 7, 2023. It is still a marginal movement, but its organic connection to the general Palestinian solidarity movement could exponentially expand it in the future.

Another case study to follow is the huge student movement on American campuses known as the Hillel House. Members of this movement rebelled against their mother organization after the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014 and established a far more critical organization towards Israel called Open Hillel.

Finally, there is the case of a movement called ReturnTheBirthright. It emerged as an antidote to the Israeli Law of Return. According to that law, any Jew born in the world can become immediately an Israeli citizen. The initiative rejected this Israeli offer by “transferring” the right to Palestinian refugees and their descendants. The logic behind it is that while Palestinians who were expelled from Palestine cannot return, and the relatives of the Palestinians in historical Palestine cannot reunite their families, it is grossly unjust to give this preferential treatment to Jews wherever they are.

Jews protesting at Grand Central Station, New York.

Thus, non-Zionist Jewish support for the liberation of Palestine can – and will – play a role in the future. By itself, it is not a transformative process, but within a matrix of other fundamental changes in public opinion, the balance of power on the ground, and the implosion of the Israeli Jewish society from within, it can help shorten the inevitable dark days that precede a new dawn for Jews and Arabs alike in historical Palestine.

  • Professor Ilan Pappe is the director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. He is also the author of 20 books, among them The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), and two books with Noam Chomsky (The War on Gaza and On Palestine). His two latest books are The Historical Dictionary of Palestine (with Johnny Mansour) and Our Vision for Liberation (with Ramzy Baroud).

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