In the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, many supporters of Israel have doubled down on the idea that Jews can only be safe in a state whose government they control through majority rule and laws favoring Jews over non-Jews.
This idea — a fundamental tenet of Zionism, first articulated by Theodor Herzl in his pamphlet, The Jewish State (1896) — is what led the United Nations to vote for creating the state of Israel in 1948, despite the united opposition of Palestinian and Arab spokespersons.
How has this belief held up in the light of the past 75 years?
Have Israel’s repeated wars against its Arab neighbors — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq — kept Jews safe?
Have even the most draconian methods succeeded in stamping out the resistance of the indigenous Palestinian population to military rule and forced displacement?
I would argue that the killing of approximately 1,200 Israelis by Hamas on October 7 actually shows the opposite of what many are claiming. Rather than proving that the state of Israel keeps Jews safe, the bloodshed shows that Israeli Jews cannot expect to enjoy security by imposing a brutal siege, erecting walls, multiplying checkpoints, demolishing homes, confiscating land, and dehumanizing, imprisoning, or killing any Palestinians who stand up for their rights, whether nonviolently or violently.
People inclined to question the claim that Jewish safety depends on the existence of a strong Jewish state often fear being accused of antisemitism. Yet opposition to Zionism has always existed within the Jewish community.
When Herzl launched the Zionist movement in 1897, the vast majority of the world’s Jews rejected it as a dangerous heresy. German rabbis objected so strenuously to Herzl’s holding the first World Zionist Congress in Munich that he moved its venue to Basel, Switzerland.
In those early years, rabbis representing the entire spectrum of Jewish theology denounced Zionism on both religious and political grounds. Orthodox rabbis accused Zionists of usurping the role of the Messiah, whose coming was to redeem the Jewish people from spiritual exile and usher in the universal reign of peace, justice and righteousness.
Reform rabbis in the U.S. decried the attempt to establish a Jewish state. Indeed, Reform Judaism’s Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 had already specified: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine . . . nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”
Politically, both Orthodox and Reform rabbis feared that by calling on Jews to emigrate to Palestine, Zionism would impugn their patriotism and imperil their status as loyal citizens of the countries in which they resided.
During and after World War I, Zionists won influence not over the Jewish public or the rabbinate, but over key statesmen who could help them achieve their aims. Thus, the British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann convinced U.K. Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour that it would be in the country’s interest to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, which could serve both to divert Jewish immigrants away from Britain and to protect British imperial holdings in the Middle East. Simultaneously, U.S. Zionist leaders, chief among them U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, courted President Woodrow Wilson, who gave his blessing in 1917 to what became the Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration gained the support of some non-Zionist Reform Jews, thereby blunting their opposition to Zionist ideology. Further undermining any effective opposition, non-Zionists agreed to collaborate with Zionists without endorsing their aims.
Nevertheless, prominent Jews continued to raise their voices against the Zionist goal of a Jewish state. In Britain, the sole Jewish member of the cabinet, Edwin Montagu, voted against the Balfour Declaration, warning that it would make Palestine’s Muslims and Christians “foreigners” in their own land, while making Jews “foreigners in every country but Palestine.” In the U.S., 299 distinguished Jews signed a statement to the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which was presented to President Wilson by the German-born Jewish congressman from San Francisco, Julius Kahn. It read: “We protest against the political segregation of the Jews and the re-establishment in Palestine of a distinctively Jewish State as utterly opposed to the principles of democracy which it is the avowed purpose of the World’s Peace Conference to establish.”
Although dissenting Jews failed to prevent Zionists from advancing toward their goal in Palestine, where the League of Nations granted Britain a mandate for administratively preparing the country to become a “Jewish national home,” Zionism remained a minority movement among Jews until the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Two factors then combined to win a majority of Jews over to the Zionist claim that antisemitism could never be eradicated and that only a Jewish state could provide a secure refuge. First, in one European country after another, previously well-integrated Jewish citizens found themselves dismissed from their jobs, their shops and businesses smashed, their homes raided, and their community members rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Second, the U.S., which had hitherto served as the main refuge from persecution for Jews, had closed its doors in 1924 by passing a law that drastically restricted the immigration of groups deemed undesirable.
Yet, even as American Jewish sentiment shifted in favor of creating a Jewish state in Palestine for refugees from Nazism, anti-Zionist Jews advocated alternative solutions. The American Council for Judaism, founded by Reform Jews in 1942, campaigned vigorously both to liberalize U.S. immigration policy and to establish a “democratic, autonomous government in Palestine, wherein Jews, Moslems, and Christians shall be justly represented” and endowed with “equal rights and . . . equal responsibilities.” The International Jewish Labor Bund, a socialist organization transplanted in the United States by refugees from Eastern Europe, called for “a common democratic state [in Palestine] based on the principles of equal community rights for both Jews and Arabs,” as well as “international brotherhood and mutual respect.”
Instead, Zionism triumphed with the creation of Israel as a Jewish state. Palestinians paid a high price for the solution that the Western world chose to compensate Jews for the Nazi Holocaust. Between 1947 and 1949, Zionist militias drove 750,000 Palestinians, amounting to half the country’s Arab population, out of their native land and destroyed more than 500 of their towns and villages. The Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has called this process “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.” Palestinians call it the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.”
The consequences haunt the world to this day. Approximately 200,000 Palestinians fled to Gaza. This more than tripled the population of that small coastal enclave, which now numbers 2.3 million, two-thirds of whom are descendants of refugees. The remainder fled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and other countries, where most of their descendants have languished in refugee camps for 75 years under miserable conditions. Israel has never complied with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which stipulated that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” The Zionist objective of maintaining a Jewish majority required preventing any such return.
At the close of the 1947-49 war, 150,000 Palestinians remained within the borders of what became Israel, a quarter of whom were internally displaced from their original homes. Israel granted them citizenship but imposed martial law on them until 1966. Now amounting to 21 percent of Israel’s population, Palestinian citizens continue to face severe discrimination, as well as land confiscation and home demolition.
Another 300,000 Palestinians became refugees in June 1967, when Israel launched a war against Egypt, Syria and Jordan, allegedly to preempt an “all-Arab attack.” Conquering Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank of Jordan in six days, Israel acquired a Palestinian population larger than the one it had expelled in 1947-49. Since then, it has kept the West Bank under military occupation while filling it with Jewish settlements; lifted its military occupation of Gaza only to replace it with a strangling blockade in 2007; and squeezed more and more Palestinians out of East Jerusalem.
Currently, violent settlers in the West Bank are destroying Palestinian villages and driving their inhabitants away with the explicit intent of enacting another Nakba, or as the Jewish Israeli historian Benny Morris once put it, “finishing the job.” (In a pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C. on November 14, 2023, at least one demonstrator carried a sign that explicitly demanded “Let Israel Finish the Job.”)
Meanwhile, in retaliation for the Hamas attack of October 7, the Israeli army has been bombing Gaza for more than eight weeks, flattening homes, schools, hospitals, water plants, sewage treatment facilities and bakeries, depriving Gazans of food, water, electricity and fuel, and forcing more than 80 percent of Gazans to flee under constant bombardment from the north to the south of the already overcrowded territory, where no safe haven exists. Never has the need to envision alternatives seemed more urgent than now, as we face the horror of the genocide that Israel is perpetrating on Palestinians — with the full support of the U.S. and much of the Western world.
Consequently, increasing numbers of Americans — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — are repudiating the unconditional championship of Israel that our government is mandating. Still, many Jews regard Israel as central to their identity, hence sacrosanct. Very few realize that Israel only became central to Jewish identity after the six-day war, when its military prowess won the admiration of the Western world and thus gifted Jews with a powerful new self-image, as documented by Jonathan D. Sarna in American Judaism: A History. A construct invented so recently can surely be dismantled and replaced by a source of Jewish identity more in harmony with the ethical values that most Jews hold dear.
A variety of Jewish groups have already begun this work. Among them are Jewish Voice for Peace, an intergenerational and multiethnic organization founded in 1996 that features a rabbinical council and Havurah Network and that envisions “a world where all people — from the U.S. to Palestine — live in freedom, justice, equality, and dignity”; IfNotNow, a movement of young Jews, which emerged in response to Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza and which focuses on mobilizing the Jewish community “to end U.S. support for Israel’s apartheid system and demand equality, justice, and a thriving future for all Palestinians and Israelis”; and Judaism On Our Own Terms, formerly known as Open Hillel, a network of independent, diverse, radically inclusive, “justice-minded, student-led Jewish communities” on college campuses, committed to enabling “alternative meanings and realities of Jewishness,” “free from dictates of the legacy Jewish institutions that constrain us and distort Judaism.” In sum, Jews seeking to rebuild their identity on a foundation that does not depend on the oppression and erasure of Palestinians can find many models.