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Israel’s Violence Will Never Bring “Safety” to Anyone, Including Jews

As the horrific siege against Gaza escalates, we need to confront the violence of Israel’s ethnonationalist militarism.

A group of Jewish activists stage a demonstration near the White House, calling for the ceasefire in Israel, in Washington D.C., on October 16, 2023.

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The horror and heartbreak in Gaza reaches new proportions each minute: Israel’s siege has killed at least 3,400 people and injured more than 12,000 in the past week and a half, and a possible ground invasion threatens unspeakable levels of new violence. The Israeli forces and settlers have also killed 61 and injured 1,250 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The death tolls climb even as Palestinians and those in solidarity with them are marching and rallying worldwide in powerful and urgent protests.

For us, as anti-Zionist Jewish journalists, the past week and a half has been a flood of many griefs.

We grieve and struggle against the ongoing, now catastrophically heightened violence of Israeli colonization, occupation, apartheid and genocidal campaign against Palestinians, carried out by a government that is cynically invoking the names of Jews to intensify the oppressive policies it was already invested in.

And we watch with rising horror as the Israeli government instrumentalizes the grief of Jewish people who’ve lost loved ones in the Hamas attacks, which killed 1,400 people and injured 3,400. The Israeli government is fashioning this grief into a weapon, exploiting it to justify the annihilation of Gaza (even as some Israelis who lost loved ones in the attacks urge against taking vengeance against Palestinians).

Indeed, it is in the name of Jewish “safety” and Jewish grief that not only Israel but almost all of Europe, and certainly the United States, are marching lockstep behind the new unity government’s maximalist war, as it kills thousands and carries out a potential second Nakba, forcing an estimated 1.1 million people from their homes. Jewish “safety” is the rationale for deploying white phosphorus, which can cause severe toxic burns, in Gaza and Lebanon, as Israel’s defense minister declares “we are fighting human animals.” President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, nearly every member of Congress, and the likes of Lindsay Graham, an open affiliate of antisemitic pastor John Hagee, are all invoking Jewish safety to lend their unqualified support to what is clearly a massacre.

But a growing number of Jews — including many descendants of Holocaust survivors and pogrom survivors — are rejecting the idea that colonial violence ever brings “safety” for anyone. This includes, for some, recognizing that the political ideology of modern Zionism, and the military apparatus that has developed alongside it, is a danger to all, including Jews.

The actions of the state of Israel, whose 75-year history was forged in British colonialism, steeped in the blood and ethnic displacement of Palestinians, and politically and financially upheld by the U.S., are a tragic illustration of this reality. The events of the last week and a half clarify this further. Israel’s systems of occupation and apartheid, which have built upon an infrastructure of ever-increasing militarism and subjugation of Palestinians, are a deep well of violence. The roots of the tragic deaths we saw unfold on October 7 are, as Jewish Voice for Peace has pointed out, apartheid and systemic colonial oppression. And Israel’s apparent lack of concern even for its own people, as it attacks Gaza wholesale while 199 Israelis are reportedly held hostage there, should remind us that human lives (including the lives of Jews) are not its top priority.

This disregard for human life, including Jewish life, is rooted in a specific history. Theodor Herzl, a founder of modern Zionism, said in his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State that Israel will be “neutral” and will require only a “professional army.” However, the concept of “neutrality” on colonized land is a contradiction in terms, and predictably, Israel was established as a heavily militarized society in which, from the beginning, military service has been compulsory for Jews. In The Jewish State, Herzl called for the creation of a company to liquidate the business interests of Jews departing their home countries and organize commerce in the new country. To raise capital for this company, he wrote, “Not only poor Jews, but also Christians who wanted to get rid of them, would subscribe a small amount to this fund.” Former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who issued the declaration announcing Britain’s support for a Jewish state in Palestine, was motivated by his fear of what he termed the “undoubted evils” of Eastern European Jewish migration to Britain.

For the colonizers who pushed for the creation of Israel, safety for Jews was never the real goal. Instead, Israel presented a convenient alternative to welcoming large numbers of Jewish refugees into their own countries. The U.S. turned away and persecuted thousands of Jewish refugees, including those seeking asylum from Nazi Germany. The “Jewish state,” which is often portrayed as having emerged as a peaceful answer to antisemitic violence, was partly forged to serve the interests of actors who were either antisemitic or callous to the suffering of Jews. In supporting Israel, the U.S. and other colonizers were pursuing geopolitical power in a colonial context, a reality that continues today, at the expense primarily of Palestinians, as racist dehumanization undergirds modern Zionism.

There is no safety for anyone in a society based on ethnonationalist militarism. Safety can only come through collective liberation.

While most Jews in the U.S. report that they view Israel as an important part of their Judaism, a significant number do not, and in fact forcefully reject the political ideology reinforcing an ethnonationalist state. It’s worth remembering that ever since modern Zionism has existed, it has had critics, including from the Jewish left. Today, many such critics are involved in efforts, in coalition with Palestinian activists, to reject ethnonationalism and colonization, and instead work toward building a society based on justice and equality, in which Palestinians are neither besieged, occupied, exiled, nor treated as second-class citizens, and all can live in safety.

In the decades leading up to World War II, many leftist Jews did not want to throw in their lot with British imperialism, to which political Zionism was inextricably tied. And some recognized the antisemitism that propelled colonial powers to support the establishment of Israel, while others understood that imposing an exclusivist Jewish state was contrary to democratic principles.

This history is captured in a 2020 article for American Quarterly titled “When Anti-Zionism Was Jewish.” Its author, Benjamin Balthaser, an associate professor of multiethnic literature at Indiana University at South Bend, writes: “Criticism of Zionism was common on the Jewish left in the 1930s and 1940s, so common that a historian of Zionist cultural literature could find only one left-wing Jewish author, Meyer Levin, who took up pro-Zionist themes (and indeed, his novels were widely panned).”

In some sectors of the Jewish left, this sentiment remained after the Holocaust, a reality that is often overlooked. As Balthaser explained in a 2020 In These Times interview:

It’s undeniably correct to say that without the Holocaust there probably would have been no Israel, if just for the single fact that there was a massive influx of Jewish refugees after the war who would have undoubtedly stayed in Europe otherwise. Without that influx of Jews who could fight the 1948 war and populate Israel just after, it’s doubtful an independent state of Israel could have succeeded.

However, one thing I found most surprising going through the Jewish left press in the 1940s — publications of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and writings by Hannah Arendt — is that even after the scope of the Holocaust was widely understood, their official position was still anti-Zionist. They may have called for Jews to be allowed to resettle in the lands from which they were expelled or massacred, with full rights and full citizenship, be allowed to immigrate to the United States, or even be allowed to emigrate to Palestine if there was nowhere else to go (as was often the case). But they were still wholly against partition and the establishment of a Jewish-only state.

Such critiques, of course, were urgently made beyond the Jewish left, forged by Palestinians who were forced by colonial powers to confront the violence of modern Zionism firsthand. Palestinian scholar Edward Said wrote in his 1979 work, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims”:

Institutions were built deliberately shutting out the natives, laws were drafted when Israel came into being that made sure the natives would remain in their “nonplace,” Jews in theirs, and so on…. It is no wonder that today the one issue that electrifies Israel as a society is the problem of the Palestinians, whose negation is the most consistent thread running through Zionism. And it is this perhaps unfortunate aspect of Zionism that ties it ineluctably to imperialism — at least so far as the Palestinian is concerned.

Anti-Zionist Jews recognize that we must do the opposite: Reject the negation of Palestinians, in all its forms.

While Jewish anti-Zionism isn’t a majority position, it is an undeniable force in U.S. politics today. Jewish Voice for Peace, a U.S. organization, released a statement in 2019 explaining why it takes an anti-Zionist position.

“Zionism has meant profound trauma for generations, systematically separating Palestinians from their homes, land, and each other,” it states. “Zionism, in practice, has resulted in massacres of Palestinian people, ancient villages and olive groves destroyed, families who live just a mile away from each other separated by checkpoints and walls, and children holding onto the keys of the homes from which their grandparents were forcibly exiled.”

The statement goes on, “In sharing our stories with one another, we see the ways Zionism has also harmed Jewish people. Many of us have learned from Zionism to treat our neighbors with suspicion, to forget the ways Jews built home and community wherever we found ourselves to be.” And the number of U.S. Jews who are willing to openly critique and question Israel’s occupation, even if they might not consider themselves anti-Zionists, has swelled since the Trump administration.

In the U.S., anti-Zionists, alongside critics of the Israeli government’s actions, also point to the massive military complex that sustains Israel — which spent $23.4 billion on its military in 2022, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute — and our own country’s complicity: Israel receives about $3.3 billion in military aid from the U.S. annually.

Today, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and other Jews and allies are taking action in Washington, D.C., urging President Biden to use his leverage to force Israel to halt its assault on Palestinians in Gaza. They are saying, “No genocide in our name,” and many are taking arrests in acts of civil disobedience.

Some critics of Israeli policies and military actions hail from within Israel itself. Army reservists who refused combat in the Lebanon war formed a group in 1982 called Yesh Gvul, which means “there is a limit.” In 2002, five young people who refused conscription into the Israeli military on ethical grounds were sentenced to two years in prison. In recent years, these refuseniks have called themselves Shministim, Hebrew for “12th graders” — the age at which Israelis are conscripted into the military, an age at which no one should become an arm of an occupier. (Not that there could ever be a good age.) In an army where it’s difficult to get a discharge based on conscientious objector status, many of these young people have faced rolling prison terms.

Journalist Haggai Matar is one of the Israelis who chose prison over enacting occupation in 2002. On October 7, he wrote a heartbreaking plea in the publication +972 Magazine, in which he declared, “The dread Israelis are feeling after today’s assault, myself included, has been the daily experience of millions of Palestinians for far too long.”

“The only solution,” he wrote, “as it has always been, is to bring an end of apartheid, occupation, and siege, and promote a future based on justice and equality for all of us. It is not in spite of the horror that we have to change course — it is exactly because of it.”

Israeli Noy Katzman, speaking of their brother Chaim who was killed by Hamas in the recent attack, told CNN’s Jake Tapper, “The most important thing for me and also for my brother was that his death won’t be used to kill innocent people. And sadly, my government is using cynically the death of people to just kill.”

Some within Israel’s political system are moving to crack down on Israelis who oppose the siege on Gaza. Haaretz reported on October 15 that “Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi is promoting regulations that would allow him to direct police to arrest civilians, remove them from their homes, or seize their property if he believes they have spread information that could harm national morale or served as the basis for enemy propaganda.”

And there are some reports that Israelis who oppose the killing of Palestinian civilians are facing physical threats and firings. These are not the signs of a state that is truly invested in the safety of all Jews, let alone the 18 percent of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian.

Meanwhile, there is a deficit of coverage in the U.S. of what Palestinians are facing right now. Most U.S. press outlets are telling the stories of Israeli civilians killed but still giving shockingly little airtime to Palestinian civilians, even as Israel embraces war on a scale we have not seen in our lifetime.

Palestinians in Gaza, in the West Bank and throughout the world have been speaking out about this atrocity, sometimes at great personal risk to themselves.

Tareq S. Hajjaj, a Palestinian journalist who serves as the Gaza correspondent for the U.S.-based nonprofit news site Mondoweiss, sent a report from Gaza on October 13, after being forced to leave his home as the Israeli military ordered northern Gaza to evacuate.

“I have written many stories about the 1948 Nakba and have interviewed people who left their homes and lands,” Hajjaj wrote. “I have listened to their stories and have seen the tears they shed about what they experienced. This time, I witnessed all these scenes. What I saw on my way can only be described as a new Nakba.”

It is the “deadliest time for journalists in Gaza,” with at least 12 journalists already killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

With rising horror, we witness what Palestinians are facing — the immediate threat of annihilation. Accordingly, we should recognize that, even as we talk about how the reality of the modern Zionist project, helmed by a right-wing government, hurts Jews by offering a false promise of safety and peace, we must never obscure that the group of people most targeted by this political system is Palestinians. They are the ones who have been colonized, displaced and besieged even before Israel launched its relentless bombing campaign and cut off electricity, food and water to a strip that is home to 2 million people, the majority of them children.

Palestinians are the ones living under military occupation in the West Bank, and as second-class citizens in Israel, thrown into administrative detention, evicted from their homes, facing tear gas canisters and live fire for the mere act of protest, forced to navigate apartheid structures that leave them traveling on different roads, suffering systematic dispossession.

Palestinians are the ones who have been exiled from their homes for generations, denied the most basic right to return. And now they are facing an extermination campaign.

There is no safety for anyone in a society based on ethnonationalist militarism. Safety can only come through collective liberation, throwing our grief into the struggle against Palestinian genocide, apartheid and colonization, toward a society premised on justice and equality. We have to confront the brutal history of Zionism and unequivocally reject the unspeakable violence against the Palestinian people carried out in our name.