In the era of a new McCarthyism that has thrown the English-speaking Jewish community into a state of siege, I am technically obligated to begin any piece critical of Israel with a description of my unremarkable background to preempt any accusations of “self-hating” or worse.
Here’s the prelude: I went to Jewish day school for eight years. I grew up in a family where Israel was nearly always present – in conversation, at the dinner table, and in books. I marched in Yom HaAtzmaut parades with my classmates and observed Yom HaZikaron with my Israeli teachers. I tearfully watched images on TV of people pulled from their homes during the 2006 Disengagement. When I switched into public school, I struggled to adjust to the secular morning ritual of roll-call and the Pledge of Allegiance after praying shacharit and saying HaTikva for so long.
During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 I had no one to turn to with my fear, sorrow, anger, and despair. I identified with Israel. I was frightened for my family and friends, pained by the scenes of carnage and strife, and ashamed by Israel’s conduct during the war. The scale of the destruction wreaked in Gaza was beyond any rationalization. The conflict was in no way one between two equal adversaries – on one side was the Middle East’s strongest military with American support, on the other were ragtag militants with homemade rockets. As I became aware of the power dynamics inherent to the occupation, my faith in Israel wavered. I had been raised on stories, like the ones in O’ Jerusalem, of Israel as the underdog; the would-be victim miraculously defeating her oppressors. But during Cast Lead, Israel resembled the oppressors I learned about in Jewish history class.
I spent most of high school trying desperately to remain connected to the place I had been taught to love that now terribly violated the values associated with that love. With the help of the internet and a few dusty books in my basement I found what I thought was a way to remain in the Zionist world: Ber Borochov and Nahman Syrkin – the great Socialist-Zionist theoreticians who articulated the fight for a Jewish homeland as part and parcel of a greater struggle for universal liberation – and Meir Yaari – the leader of Mapam and ideologist for Hashomer Hatzair, the vanguard of the kibbutz movement. In their writings and history, I saw a model for asserting my critical commitment to Israel. They seemed to demonstrate that Jewish self-determination need not come at the expense of the Palestinians. “If the suppression of the Jew is an affront to justice and is rooted in the rule of the fist, then his existence is a protest against injustice,” wrote Syrkin. “The Jew symbolizes the battle for human rights.” And I believed that as an expression of Zionism. Decades after Syrkin, Yaari proposed a binational, workers’ state in the party platform of Hashomer Hatzair and harshly censured Ben Gurion’s policies and the Haganah’s practices towards Palestinians. These articulations of a different kind of Zionism hinted that it was possible to believe in peaceful coexistence and equality with the Arabs if we would only let ourselves try.
Contemporary Zionism looks very different from that of Borochov, Syrkin, and even Ya’air, whose views swung rightward in the 60s. Merely criticizing Israel now places one on the left of the Zionist spectrum. Applying the lens of universal human rights to the conflict puts one foot firmly outside. And entertaining the possibility of a bi-national state forces exile from the Zionist world on those who dare to do so. Zionism, once a vibrant and heterogenous mix of parties and tendencies, has become a narrow and limited ideology with a party-line enforced with a fervor that would make the most ardent Leninist jealous. Most of the chalutzim, many of whom were Hashomer Hatzair members, would not even pass today’s Zionist litmus test.
I tried tirelessly to explain the Zionism of Borochov and Syrkin to family and friends in the mainstream Zionist community. I had countless conversations trying to argue that yes, the bi-nationalism of Hashomer Hatzair was still Zionism. I insisted to all who criticized me that I grounded my critique of Israel in Zionist texts and thought and not self-hatred and veiled anti-Semitism. It took a year in Israel for me to surrender to the arbiters of Zionism’s current incarnation – those who brandish it as an ideology of occupation, chauvinism, and ethno-religious exclusivism. I watched hopelessly as the occupation became more entrenched. I felt the hatred that ordinary Israelis directed towards leftists and human rights workers. And I witnessed the racism experienced by Arabs, Africans, and Mizrachi Jews on a daily basis. The Israeli government’s strong right turn moved the consensus of what Zionism is. Believing in equality, justice, and the right of self-determination for all peoples situates one outside the shrunken and collapsing Zionist tent. I thought I was a Zionist, until Zionists kept telling me I wasn’t.
Being an outsider to an ideology and movement I once identified with gave me the distance I needed to look critically at my own brand of pseudo-Zionism. Borochov and Syrkin may have put the promise of emancipatory socialism into uniquely Jewish terms. But their progressive, socialist vision never had a place for Palestinians. Hashomer Hatzair, which prior to 1948 supported a bi-national state, created communal farming collectives that also functioned as exclusive Jews-only communities. The bi-national workers’ state existed only in theory; in practice, the Histatdrut kept Jewish and Arab workers separate, only accepting Arabs as members in 1959. Meir Yaari, who once denounced the removal of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war, supported the continued occupation of the territories conquered in 1967. Even the most left-leaning, seemingly inclusive Zionism had the same foundations of injustice as the more right-wing and militaristic versions.
I am not a Zionist – not by anyone else’s definition and no longer by my own. But after living in a Zionist community for nearly all of my life, I find it impossible to avoid engaging with Israel; I am also not an anti-Zionist. That moniker implies too much animosity towards people I deeply care about – my family, friends, and most of all my comrades from the mechina who have now been drafted into the IDF – and requires disassociation from Israel I am not capable of. I am an ex-Zionist: no longer a part of that world but still in dialogue with it.