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Amid Israel’s Brutality in Gaza, It’s Time to Commit to Anti-Zionism

As Israel devastates Gaza, Jewish anti-Zionists are resisting and insisting that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

Activists from the group Jewish Voice for Peace stage a sit-in blockade of the Manhattan Bridge on November 26, 2023, in New York City.

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Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed growing calls to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism. Since Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s subsequent military assault on Gaza, however, Israel advocates have doubled down yet further politically on this cynical accusation. On November 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution asserting that “denying Israel’s right to exist is a form of antisemitism.” Now, the House is considering an ever more wrong-headed resolution. Citing the deeply problematic International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, it “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

If ever there was a moment for Jewish anti-Zionists to proudly show up and be counted, this is it. There could not be a more terrifying demonstration of the end game of Zionism than the genocidal violence Israel has been unleashing on Gaza. From the very origins of the concept of Zionism, its raison d’etre was the creation of a Jewish state by acquiring the greatest amount of land with the fewest Palestinians on it. Over the past few weeks, Israeli politicians have been unabashedly honest about these intentions, making it clear that their ultimate end goal is to ethnically cleanse Gaza of its residents — thereby eliminating up to 2.2 million Palestinians from the demographic equation.

At the same time, the Israeli military is systemically reducing that equation through the sheer force of its violence on Gaza’s population. An extensive investigation by the Israeli online magazine +972 determined that Israel’s onslaught in Gaza represents “one of the deadliest military campaigns against Palestinians since the Nakba of 1948.” As a recent New York Times article has chillingly pointed out, “experts say that even a conservative reading of the casualty figures reported from Gaza shows that the pace of death during Israel’s campaign has few precedents in this century.”

Most recently, the Israeli military has ordered Palestinians in South Gaza to evacuate as it renews its massive bombing of that region, leaving hundreds of thousands of internal refugees from the north with literally nowhere left to run. In all, almost 1.9 million Palestinians, 80 percent of Gaza’s population have been displaced. Martin Griffiths, the UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs has described the situation in Gaza as “apocalyptic.”

With the internal logic of Zionism becoming so clear for all to see, it’s not surprising to witness increasing numbers of Jews proudly and openly identifying as anti-Zionist. If we needed any evidence, the regular public protests of Jews calling for a ceasefire in Gaza — and who are willing to take arrest in the thousands — are a powerful testimony to this phenomenon.

There could not be a more terrifying demonstration of the end game of Zionism than the genocidal violence Israel has been unleashing on Gaza.

As the rabbi of the anti-Zionist Jewish congregation Tzedek Chicago, I can attest to this powerful new trend. Over the past two months, we have acquired close to 30 new member households; almost all of them report that they are actively seeking out an anti-Zionist Jewish community in this critical moment.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the Jewish community is currently facing a “which side are you on?” moment. This reckoning is particularly critical for liberal supporters of Israel. Indeed, the oxymoronic contradiction of the term “liberal Zionism” has never been more abundantly clear. There is simply nothing liberal about ethnonationalism, i.e., establishing a nation-state exclusively on the demographic majority of one particular group of people. Though this contradiction is not new, the carnage Israel is inflicting on Gaza is shining an unsparingly bright light on the impossible marriage between Jewish majority statehood and equal rights for all.

This tension was painfully on display during a “March for Israel” last month in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the rally attracted a broad tent of Israel advocates, including liberal groups, such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and the rabbinical organization T’ruah. Notably, however, one of the keynote speakers at the event was Pastor John Hagee, one of the most powerful antisemites in the U.S., who promotes apocalyptic Christian Zionist ideology.

While liberal Zionist attendees — who called themselves the “peace bloc” at the rally — cried foul at Hagee’s inclusion, they nonetheless commented on the “harmonious dynamic” at the event. According to Maytal Kowalski, executive director of Partners for a Progressive Israel, “We were all there at the rally because we wanted to be with the community. I don’t think that it helps anybody to walk away in defiance.”

Is it even ethical to build congregational communities in which some congregational members cherish and celebrate an ethno-nationalist Jewish project, while others rightly call it out as an apartheid, settler colonial state?

Of course, walking away would certainly have helped, considering that the central goal of the rally was to voice collective Jewish support for a nation that was at that moment engaging in genocidal violence against an essentially imprisoned population in a military onslaught that had already killed thousands of children. As journalist Mitchell Plitnick correctly pointed out, this was a “hate march,” adding, “those who objected [to Hagee’s inclusion] should not have attended except to protest it.”

This inherent tension is also evident in the increasing numbers of Jewish congregations promoting an “open tent” approach when it comes to Zionism — i.e., congregations that openly make room for the views of non- and anti-Zionists along with liberal Zionists in their communities. Though this might seem to be a welcome development, the challenge remains: Is this so-called open tent ultimately tenable? Is it sustainable? Is it even ethical to build congregational communities in which members have such fundamentally different moral approaches to being Jewish? In which some congregational members cherish and celebrate an ethno-nationalist Jewish project, while others rightly call it out as an apartheid, settler colonial state?

Too often, liberal Jewish congregations wield the word “inclusion” to provide them with convenient cover for avoiding the painful choice on Israel’s structural oppression of the Palestinian people. But in the face of Israel’s merciless assault on Gaza, this equivocation now rings more pitifully hollow than ever — accentuating all the more the extent to which Zionism has presented the Jewish community with an untenable, unbridgeable divide.

In a recent episode of the Truthout podcast, “Movement Memos,” I commented sadly on this divide:

From my vantage point as a Jewish American, I can attest that our community has now been deeply, profoundly broken, perhaps irrevocably. … I am staggered by the voices in the Jewish community that support Israel’s atrocities without reservation. Otherwise, so-called progressive leaders who cannot get themselves to endorse a simple ceasefire. When the dust settles — and please may it settle soon — I don’t know if the brokenness of my community will ever, ever truly heal from this.

While I still grieve over the moral brokenness of the Jewish community, I nonetheless take heart in a rapidly growing Jewish community of conscience that unabashedly rejects Zionism in favor of a Judaism that promotes solidarity and liberation for all. Jewish Voice for Peace, explaining its approach to Zionism, expressed this vision powerfully: “Rather than accept the inevitability of occupation and dispossession, we choose a different path. … We choose a future where everyone, including Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, can live their lives freely in vibrant, safe, equitable communities, with basic human needs fulfilled.”

Likewise, when the membership of Tzedek Chicago voted to affirm anti-Zionism as a core value, the leadership of my synagogue stated:

Moving away from a Judaism that looks to Israel as its fully realized home releases us into rich imaginings of what the World to Come might look like, where it might be, and how we might go about inhabiting it now. … We also believe that Jewish diasporic consciousness has the real potential to help us reach a deeper solidarity with those who have been historically colonized and oppressed.

In other words, anti-Zionist Judaism is not merely a rejection of ethno-national Jewish statehood: it is a Jewish vision of justice and liberation for all who live between the river and the sea — and for all who dwell on earth.

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