On the eve of the Holocaust, international apathy toward the suffering of Jews led future Israeli President Chaim Weizmann to conclude that the world had been divided into two parts: “places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.” Only after the extermination of Jewish Europe did the birth of the Jewish nation-state offer history’s most reviled and persecuted people a homeland at long last.
Nevertheless, 73 years after Israel’s founding, organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) insist that Zionism is a “false and failed answer” to Europe’s millennia-long anti-Semitic onslaught. Fortunately, renowned columnist Jonathan Power proposes a solution, presenting not only a case study epitomizing the necessity for the Jewish state’s location in historical Israel, but an exercise in the pathetic lengths anti-Zionists will go to delegitimize said Jewish state.
Power romanticizes a bizarre and often overlooked episode in Jewish history — the revival of Birobidzhan, a destitute region on the Soviet-Chinese border declared the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in 1934. Desperate Jews enthusiastically responded to the Soviet call of “To the Jewish Homeland!” but the expectation of a Yiddish cultural center founded on Marxist ideals fell embarrassingly short of a Zionist alternative.
If not for the cultural-religious detachment and infrastructural impediments, Joseph Stalin’s ruthless purge of the few “rootless cosmopolitans” effectively finalized the failure of the Birobidzhan project. Author of Where the Jews Aren’t, Masha Gessen, explains in an interview that the “ultimate irony of Birobidzhan is that the people who moved there because they were Jewish or who were sent there because they were Jewish became afraid of talking about being Jewish…because of the anti-Jewish purges that happened in their nominally Jewish state.”
Of course, no evidence substantiates Power’s claim that Russian Jews so desperately long to return to the region void of any Jewish historical attachment besides false hope and suffering, but even so, who cares? A Birobidzhan “aliyah” makes absolutely no sense for the Mizrahim, Sephardim or Ethiopian Jews who do not speak Yiddish or study the works of Sholem Aleichem, who offer their own distinct Diasporan experience and hardship.
According to JVP’s revisionist history, the actual hardship began when the Jews of the Arab world and North Africa embraced Zionism. For more than 2,000 years, dhimmitude, pogrom, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and expulsion dominated the region’s Jewish community — what JVP describes as sharing “community, language, and custom.” Zionism allegedly created a hierarchy that marginalized Jews of color and invalidated their experiences. In reality, it’s JVP’s rejection of Zionism that marginalizes Jews of color and invalidates their experiences — reason number one being that Zionism is the very reason why these communities continue to exist in the first place.
Let’s give the anti-Zionists their day in court anyway. If Zionism is truly the failure JVP claims it is, what does Power’s “Red Zion” offer that Israel does not? In contemporary Israel, Zionism has reconnected the Diaspora. Jews converse with one another in their native tongue. They freely practice a religion intended to be practiced in the land. They protect and serve under the Star of David, at one time a public marker for a national death sentence, now a vibrant symbol of national pride and power unlike any time in history. Juxtaposed with the region so void of Jewish life that the community centers can barely summon a minyan, the New Birobidzhan or any other nonindigenous proposition cannot possibly merit any serious consideration.
That’s what Power and JVP fail to understand. The debate is long over. Years before the Balfour Declaration, a parliamentarian of the British House of Lords asked Weizmann something the early Zionists debated urgently in the shadow of the Kishinev pogrom: “Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently?”
Theodor Herzl considered establishing a temporary refuge in Uganda only to face dramatic opposition from the Zionist Congress. “These people have a rope around their necks,” Herzl said, “but they still refuse.” These people had a point, however. Herzl knew it and Birobidzhan would eventually vouch for it. No matter how immediate the danger, the Uganda Scheme would only introduce the cruelty of anti-Semitism to East Africa, postponing the inevitable next attack. The Congress on the verge of schism, Herzl reaffirmed the delegates that the Zionist project must carry on with the Land of Israel always in its sights. He closed the session reciting Psalm 137, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.”
Herzl may have awakened the global Jewish consciousness in the modern political sense, but the religious, cultural and geographical reality of Israel long predicted Zionism’s natural success. These Jews insist on Israel for the same reasons Italians insist on Italy and the Japanese insist on Japan. Better yet, consider Weizmann’s response to the British House of Lords: “That is like me asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street?
Aidan Segal is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh and a 2021-22 campus fellow for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.