In his address to the Zionist Congress in London on Aug. 2, 1900, Theodor Herzl said:
“Zionism demands a publicly recognized and legally secured home in Palestine for the Jewish people. This platform, which we drew up three years ago, is unchangeable. It must have responded to a very deep necessity, a very old longing of our people, otherwise its effects would be inexplicable. There is no need of my enumerating these effects at the present day. Everyone knows them, everyone sees and hears them. Four years ago in speaking of a Jewish nation one ran the risk of being thought ridiculous. Today, he makes himself ridiculous who denies the existence of a Jewish nation. A glance at this hall, where our people is represented by delegates from all over the world, suffices to prove this.”
The Zionist enterprise has evolved over the past 120 years but has always been predicated on the reestablishment of Jewish statehood in the ancestral homeland. The collective memory of Jewish statelessness and powerlessness was vivid during the early decades of the Jewish state. Left, right or center, the founding fathers of Zionism were all motivated by the imperative of Jewish statehood as both a manifestation of the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination and a means of lessening Jewish vulnerability and increasing the likelihood of Jewish survival.
This foundational axiom was also widely understood by American Jews, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Statehood was seen as the necessary extension of the shared sense of Jewish nationhood that had existed for millennia, a sense of unity and even destiny that went beyond culture or even religion.
Today, however, among an increasing number of American Jews, the idea of a Jewish state is no longer a building block but rather a wedge issue.
The very idea of nations and nation states may be suspect in the 21st century, but no other national movement evokes so uniquely visceral a reaction as does Zionism. No other term for a national movement has been infamously defined by the United Nations as “a form of racism and racial discrimination”—an epithet assigned to it by a bigoted coalition led by the Soviet Union. And no other definition has caused so much anxiety among a movement’s putative supporters and rendered them so unwilling to stand up for their cause. Too many American Jewish supporters of Israel live in fear of being declared racist by enemies of Zionism, or by those who purport to be so “enlightened” that they can see through the façade of Israeli democracy.
Those individuals take it upon themselves to distinguish between the “good” and the “bad” parts of Israel and avail themselves freely of the all-purpose evil of the “occupation.” Today’s left and progressive circles use the 1967 “Green Line” as a red herring in their representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the American Jewish community. Journalist Peter Beinart, one of the driving forces behind this trend, claims “the American Jewish establishment and the Zionist establishment [render themselves] morally corrupt by defending the indefensible, for defending an occupation that holds millions of people occupied.”
Beinart, J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and others believe a “Zionist BDS” directed only against Israeli West Bank neighborhoods (or “settlements”) is fair game. Like many post-Zionists and revisionists, they propound a false reality that puts the entire onus for the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israel. This distorted narrative maintains that Israel is almost exclusively to blame for the collapse of the Oslo “peace process” and the failure to revive it, rather than Arab rejectionism or Yasser Arafat’s web of lies to his people, Israel and the United States.
Cognitive dissonance—the discomfort caused by carrying conflicting beliefs or values simultaneously—applies to many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an especially apt description of the emotions produced by the difference between historical fact and the Palestinians’ view of their national narrative.
The notion of “occupation” has become the defining lens through which everything about the Palestinians’ self-conception is explained and justified. This is exactly the myopic view taken by Beinart and his colleagues. The only difference is that unlike overtly anti-Zionist Israel-bashers like Norman Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe and others, Beinart claims to be a lover of Zion—just one who is having a difficult time grappling with the “harsh” Israeli reality.
American Jewish intellectuals have placed other Jews in the class of people who cannot be debated or remain unpunished for where they live or for their views. Moreover, a strict double standard applies: Jewish organizations like Hillel must include anti-Israel voices or be deemed intolerant or racist, but Palestinians and their supporters should never be expected to reciprocate. Jewish intellectuals must engage in dialogue with BDS representatives or other Palestinian advocates who demand the ethnic cleansing of Israel lest they be called cowards or worse. Leading American Jewish intellectuals have themselves adopted the rhetoric and methods of BDS, to be applied to Jews only.
This strategy has been mostly local up to this point, but individuals like Beinart and Ben-Ami now feel empowered to attempt to hijack the World Zionist Congress and steer funding away from anything related to the “settlements.” The legislative authority of the 120-year-old World Zionist Organization helps determine the fate of $1 billion in spending on Jewish causes. Beinart contends that “Israeli settlements in the West Bank are institutionalized expressions of bigotry. The American and Israeli politicians who legitimize them are the moral equivalent of those politicians who legitimized Jim Crow” because “Jewish settlements are Jewish-only settlements.”
J Street has announced a new campaign to pressure 2020 Democratic candidates into opposing Israel’s presence in the West Bank, with the goal of getting the party to include a formal opposition to the “occupation” in its official platform.
There are countless unresolved questions regarding the territories and “settlements,” all of which should be decided by Israelis and Palestinians. American Jews imposing their conceptions, based on a palpable lack of understanding and sympathy for their Israeli cousins, is patronizing and foolish. Hijacking Zionism’s most important institution to demand that Israelis follow the dictates of Americans is far from what Herzl and his successors intended.
Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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