The Limits of Sentimental Zionism

On Friday afternoon, a late-middle-aged woman, who I will call M. sat down across from me at table in a coffee-shop.

“You must be worried about what’s happening with Israel,” she said. M. had probably seen the Hebrew sticker on the front of my laptop, though she clearly could not read the anti-government slogan from Hadash, Israel’s joint Jewish-Arab socialist party. She saw the familiar letters and made an assumption (incorrectly) about my politics. She was right to assume that I was worried about Israel, but not for the reasons that she thought I was.

Without any prompting, she unfurled a copy of the The New York Times and proceeded to denounce the “unbalanced coverage” of the conflict. Isn’t terrible, she told me while gesturing to the headlines. But suddenly her tone changed. She began to speak about the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

“I can’t believe Jews would do such a thing.” She sounded both genuinely contrite and incredulous, as if there had to be another explanation for the Palestinian boy’s death: that Israeli Jews could not be responsible for such a crime, and that this kind of brutality isn’t part of the Jewish DNA. During the eighteen days of searching for the three kidnapped Israeli boys, the Western and Jewish presses published articles on Palestinians who refused to believe the boys had actually been kidnapped and thought it was an Israeli ploy to consolidate control over the West Bank. And yet after the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Jewish and Israeli media demonstrated a similar and sickening kind of denial, even suggesting that the boy’s murder had been an “honor killing” carried out by Palestinians.

“Here, look,” M. said, pulling a pen out of her purse to underline several sentences in the Times article that described the backgrounds of the alleged killers: yeshiva drop-outs with behavioral problems. M. found what she was looking for, solace in the fact that Mohammed’s killers came from the neglected margins of Israeli society. The implication of her underlining was clear. These murders were not indicative of trends in Israeli society or Jewish communities, unrepresentative of Israelis’ feelings towards their Arab neighbors. M. looked up at me from her paper, looking for signs of my agreement with her annotations to the daily paper.

For a young leftist, I spend a lot of time talking with older, conservative Jews. And I’ve grown accustomed to sitting silently, or nodding gently as a more senior coreligionist ranted about Israel, Obama, or, most frequently, The New York Times. But this time, I sensed that M. might be receptive to a different perspective. She hadn’t resorted to the usual, preposterous cliches about the Grey Lady as a bastion of anti-semitism.

“You know, I wish I could tell you that racist violence is an anomaly in Israel,” I said to her. “But I can’t.”

I told her that during the year I lived in Israel, I experienced more instances of racist intimidation and witnessed more racist violence than I ever expected to. The people who killed Mohammed Abu Khdeir were exceptions only in that they took their hatred to its most odious conclusion. For years, there have been warning signs, hints at the racism that now is fully on display: hateful gangs shouting “death to Arabs” marching through Jerusalem, assaults on left-wingers and peace activists, and politicians like Miri Regev and Naftali Bennett, who call for all kinds of brutal and inhuman measures to be taken against the Palestinians.


Israeli society has a racism problem. For nearly half a century, the Israeli military has occupied the West Bank, keeping a civilian population of nearly two million under martial law. Even before the 1967 war, Palestinians living in Israel lacked basic civil rights. And while defenders of the occupation and the status quo like to call leftists and peace activists naive, those who are truly naive are those who expect the tremendous power imbalance and violence inherent to the occupation to have no visible effect on Israeli society. An army charged with subjugating a civilian population to military rule cannot allow its soldiers to view the people it subjugates as equals. Occupation is dehumanizing–and the systemic dehumanization of Palestinians by Israel (and the diaspora Jewish communities that aid and accept this dehumanization) is largely the product of decades of maintaining a military occupation.

But Israel is not unique among the world’s nations–it is a sad fact that today, many countries are ruled by oppressive governments that sponsor racist policies, subjugate entire populations, and subject millions to brutal human rights violations. The other countries of the Middle East are not models of stability or humanity. Even civilized, enlightened Europe often treats immigrants and Roma with a violent, authoritarian hand. Why then, do American Jews adamantly refuse to acknowledge that Israel, like a great number of other countries, is deeply flawed and downright oppressive? Why, when it comes to U.S. policy, are so many American Jews willing to denounce senseless war and overseas aggression, but when it comes to Israel are they often unwilling to tolerate even the gentlest criticism?

In recent years, this double-standard has weakened a bit, and I sense that certain segment of the American Jewish population is increasingly willing to accept strong criticism of Israel. Still, in well-established and more traditional Jewish communities, there has not been any kind of thaw in recent years. If anything, support for the uncritical party line has become stronger in more observant Jewish communities. It is telling, I think, that M. guessed from my laptop sticker (also incorrectly) that I had attended Ramaz, a modern Orthodox day school in Manhattan.

Part of the American Jewish refusal to criticize Israel has to do with anxiety, residual trauma from the Holocaust generation, a good dose of anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia, and a kind of tribalism that in today’s multi-ethnic and multicultural society feels increasingly threatened. All of these factors by themselves are potent parts of a reactionary ideology. But I think there is an additional, and even more significant, reason for American Jewish inability to deal with criticism of Israel.

If there is one thing that Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land added to the current discussion of Israel, it was a demonstration of American Jewry’s peculiar brand of Zionism. Written in the infuriating perpetual-present tense of high idealism and mostly a book of serious men seriously discussing serious subjects, Shavit’s book was hailed by pretty much all of the American Jewish intelligentsia as the most important contemporary book on Israel. But the book was also divisive. For some, my family members and friends’ parents included, My Promised Land added to their understanding of Israeli and Zionist history the narrative of Palestinian dispossession that had been studiously avoided or excluded from Hebrew school curricula. For others, Shavit’s book was a betrayal. In a small community of people who I generally considerable thoughtful and inquisitive, a group discussion of Shavit’s book ended with a barrage of angry mass emails. Some, including a well-known Jewish writer, accused Shavit of being “dishonorable” for pandering to an overwhelming anti-Israel public. There was something apparently treacherous about Shavit breaking the silence about the Palestinian Nakba to an English-speaking audience. Many Americans didn’t want to hear it.

As a text, My Promise Land is forgettable. It gives an American audience little more than a summary of important news stories from Israel over the past couple of decades. It’s not too different from the narrative taught in Israeli high schools schools (at least the good ones). It’s the narrative what I was taught when I enrolled in an Israeli army-preparatory program (a teacher of mine in Israel used the same words to describe Israel’s founding as Shavit used for his book’s subtitle, “the triumph and tragedy of Israel”). But as a sociological phenomenon, the book’s popularity and controversy is informative: it is a representative document of sentimental Zionism, the bizarre amalgam of ideologies and political currents, some of them contradictory, that American Jews embrace.

Sentimental Zionism borrows its spiritual, sometimes messianic tendency from religious Zionism, and its communitarian impulse from the old Labor Zionism. But it lacks both the devout religiosity of contemporary religious Zionism and the sense of justice of liberal Zionism. While uncritical, sentimental Zionism can be thoughtful, except when it comes to Palestinians and their rights. Though not necessarily illiberal, sentimental Zionists are skeptical of the international discourse of human rights and deeply suspicious of the Arab world.

Most importantly, American Jews’ sentimental Zionism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel’s founders’ Zionism. The creation of the Jewish state was supposed to normalize Israel, to make it just like all the other nations of the world. Based on that criteria, Zionism was completely successful. Israel is 66 years old and as flawed and troubled as any other OECD member. Like its benefactor, the U.S., Israel has gaping income inequality, racial disparities, corruption, crime, sex-trafficking, and a bellicose military. And yet, this is so painful for most American Jews to admit because their sentimental Zionism insists that Israel is unique: that it is a “light unto the nations,” that somehow the Jewish state and the Jews who live there are more moral, more humane, more righteous than other nations. This kind of latent supremacism is what makes sentimental Zionism so dangerous. Interpreted differently, sentimental Zionism could hold Israel to a higher moral standard, drawing from the Hebrew prophets an exceptional commitment to social justice. But in practice, sentimental Zionism denies the possibility that Israel could be home to violent military occupiers and racist murders who burnt a 16 year-old boy alive.

Well-intentioned sentimental Zionists, like M., who so desperately want to believe in the fundamental goodness of the state of Israel risk allowing the situation in Israel to become even worse. By denying the reality of occupation, by belittling the suffering of Gazans, and by denouncing international criticism of Israel, sentimental Zionists stoke the fires of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiment worldwide. People like M’s persistent need to see Israel as exceptionally good makes them blind to Israel’s slide into exceptional brutality. And even worse, sentimental Zionism’s insistence on the unconditional justness of Israel’s actions has turned sentimental Zionists into the defenders of profound injustice.

This weekend The Jewish Standard, a local Jewish newspaper that serves the county where I grew up, featured calls to “show no restraint in Gaza,” an article titled “Palestinian Terrorism is Genocide,” and op-ed explaining why one should no longer read the New York Times. Violent, offensive, and deeply sad. This is the reality of sentimental Zionism–an ideology unable to confront reality, unwilling to empathize with others, incapable of dealing with criticism. It is an ideology whose adherents continue to withdraw into a fortress of particularism, resentment, and racism from which they can snarl nastily and condescendingly at all who disagree with them. The Jewish Standard was once where pictures of my day school charity events and bar mitzvah announcement were published. Now it has become something I barely recognize.

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