The following essay represents years worth of contemplation on the profound tension between Judaism as I know it and what Israel has become. It was weeks in the writing and benefited from comments of a number of academic friends and readers. Since it did not find a home in a Jewish or progressive publication, you get to read it here. I hope you will help disseminate the ideas you find here via social media and other outlets.
Often arguments over political or religious terms used in everyday discourse are dry or the province purely of zealots. But these terms can develop a power all their own. Religious or political zealots take them to heart and make life and death decisions based on their interpretation. This is the case regarding Judaism and Zionism.
Israel’s founding document and sacred text of Zionism, the Declaration of Independence, defined the state as “Jewish” and inextricably tied to the Diaspora, which was anticipated to ensure its future by furnishing much of its immigrant population. Later in 1985, Israel’s Basic Law added the term “democratic,” thus yoking the two words inextricably.
After 1977, and the ascendancy of the far-right Likud and other ultra-nationalist parties, the unresolvable tension between “Jewish” and “democratic” become clear. They paid lip-service to Israel’s democracy and embraced the supremacy of Israeli Jews. Passage in 2018 of the nation-state law as a Basic Law enshrined the notion of Judeo-supremacy. It also defined with solemn permanence the subjugation of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
But the seeds of Israeli racism were there from the state’s inception. It was not democratic because it did not offer non-Jewish citizens equal rights. In fact, Palestinians lived under martial law from 1948-1966.
Israel offered Jewish citizens superior rights, the definition of an ethnocracy. That is, a nation in which the majority ethnic or religious group enjoys a set of rights which the minority is denied. This phenomenon was strengthened after 1967, when the settler movement became a de facto form of Judeo-supremacy. Its original focus was on “settling” Jews outside the Green Line in what it called the Greater Land of Israel (i.e. Palestine). But its political ambitions gradually became much more expansive till today, when it maintains a firm grip on virtually all the levers of state power.
Many Diaspora and Israeli Jews shared a liberal Zionist dream of a Jewish democratic state. But we have come to understand that democracy and “Jewishness,” in terms of the Israeli state, cannot be reconciled. They simply cannot coexist.
The same is true of Judaism and Zionism. Israel, in the beginning, was a secular state in which the ruling parties endorsed socialism and offered a version of the welfare state. But when Benjamin Netanyahu became finance minister in 2003, he dismantled it with a series of harsh Thatcherite polices. They in turn rendered socialism obsolete. Even more recently Israel has dropped secularism as well. A plurality of Jews continue to be secular, but overwhelming political power and social control rests on a system of Judeo-supremacism.
It is parallel to white supremacism in both the U.S. and Europe, in that both suggest that in their societies one particular racial or religious group will reign supreme. They offer varying proposals for dealing with subordinate minority groups ranging from expulsion to genocide (in Israel’s case, a war of conquest) to subordination.
It is difficult for many Diaspora Jews to feel any kinship to this Israeli definition of Judaism. Jews living outside Israel live as minorities within their societies. They have learned to integrate themselves and their Jewish identity into the greater whole. They would reject out of hand the Christo-supremacist claim, for example, that America is a “Christian nation” in which the Bible, rather than the Constitution, should be the foundational document. Yet this is precisely how Israel has come to define itself (in Jewish terms).
Similarly, Diaspora Jews are shocked at the hate and violence of Israeli settler Jews who exploit sacred texts and rituals, turning Judaism into a form of pagan “stones and bones” idolatry. This is akin to the Nazi slogan, Blood and Soil, which suggested a powerful mystical bond between race and homeland. Most Jews outside Israel abhor the notion that our religion should be triumphalist, and that Christian or Muslim citizens of the state should be disrespected or worse. Yet this is what it has become.
Judaism as Religion, Zionism as Ideology
For this reason, it’s critical to distinguish between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political ideology. Israel is a nation, not a religion. Zionism is a political movement, not a theology. Judaism as a religion is a spiritual expression which eschews, at least in the Diaspora, political power. Remember Zechariah’s famous dictum: “Not by might, now by power, but by My Spirit says the Lord of Hosts.”
Mixing politics and religion poses tremendous danger. When a conflict lies in the realm of politics it is often possible to arrive at compromise. It might not be easy, and it may take years. But political differences can be negotiated and resolved. Politics are not always rational, but at their best they are. Conflicting political views can be resolved through rational discussion and analysis.
But once a conflict takes on a religious dimension, compromise becomes almost impossible. You have moved from the material world to the divine. A nation which believes that God has sanctified it has assumed a mantle of omnipotence and infallibility. With God on your side, you are invincible. Such beliefs have been the cause of immense human suffering over the ages.
Israel’s prevailing religious ultra-nationalism has succeeded in wielding religion as a powerful tool in a political conflict. Just as von Clausewitz said that war was “politics by other means,” so Israel’s political-religious extremists offer warrior Judaism as politics by other means. This is the malady afflicting Israel today.
After the 1967 War, the legacy of religious nationalists like Rav Avraham Kook and his son and disciple, Zvi Yehudah Kook, was testimony that Israel’s victory was divinely ordained. Kook’s son urged their followers to redeem the lands of Judea and Samaria and resettle them just as our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob once did. He believed that such holy acts would hasten the coming of the messiah.
This conviction led, in the decades following, to the land theft, mass violence, and hatred against the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants. It morphed from Jewish messianism to Judeo-supremacy. It’s what the distinguished Orthodox Israeli philosopher, Yeshaya Leibowitz, called “Judeo-Nazism.” Writing in Haaretz, Uri Misgav characterized it this way:
It’s not neo-Nazis. It’s Judeo-Nazis. Scions of a unique group which Yeshayahu Leibowitz prophesized so well immediately after the “great victory” of 1967. Racism, murderousness and profound hatred originating in a religious-messianic worldview that is fueled by the occupation and settlement enterprise.
Abusing the Holocaust
The Holocaust is without doubt the greatest tragedy to befall the Jewish people in its history. In four short years, almost an entire continent’s Jewish presence wiped out along with its culture, language and traditions. Over half of the world’s Jews exterminated in the greatest genocide perhaps in the history of the human race, at least in recorded annals.
The Yishuv, Israel’s pre-state government reacted with approaches that varied between valiant efforts to rescue victims to outright collaboration with the Nazi perpetrators of the catastrophe. But mainly, at least in Ben Gurion’s mind, it was an unforeseen tragedy which he sought to take advantage of. He famously said that it he could save all of Europe’s Jews by permitting them to emigrate to western nations or only save half who could only settle in Israel, he would save half. In other words, for Ben Gurion, saving European Jewry was not an end in itself, but only a means toward an end that was in the interest of Zionism and the future state. A harsh, even cynical approach.
Nor were Ben Gurion and the Zionist movement above advocating that the only appropriate Jewish response to the Holocaust was the creation of a Jewish nation. It was an almost inarguable proposition. Six million died, most of whom might have been saved had there been a refuge for them. Israel was conceived as that refuge. To avoid the next Holocaust (for Zionism posits there will always be a next one given the eternal hatred for the Jew in the gentile world), there must be such a state offering safe haven.
The problem with this approach is that Zionism, to justify its existence, must continually and eternally raise the specter of the Holocaust in order to justify its continued relevance; and in the case of the state, it’s very existence. Diaspora Jews living comfortable lives and practicing their religion peaceably, negate the very raison d’etre of Israel.
Although the Holocaust happened 80 years ago, Israel’s leaders constantly invoke it to defend against any criticism of its policies. Because we were the ultimate victims then, Israel perceives itself as a perpetual victim. Anyone who dares to declare Israel responsible for the injustices of Nakba or Occupation; or perpetrating some of the same crimes inflicted on us during that horrible era, is branded as an enemy not just of Israel, but of the Jewish people. Our suffering then is a shield to protect us from the suffering we inflict on others now.
Today, the Holocaust is also invoked to stifle debate over Israel’s apartheid, racist policies toward Palestinians. Israel and the Israel Lobby in the Diaspora have sought to conflate Israel and the Holocaust by transforming anti-Semitism from its historical meaning as an attack on Jews, to an attack on Israel. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) “working definition” is now being exploited as a tool with which to tar Israel critics as not just political opponents of such an ideology; but as the eternal haters of the Jewish people, classical anti-Semites.
Often, Israeli leaders deliberately conflate Judaism and Israel in order to amplify the power of their message. If Benjamin Netanyahu says that Iran poses a threat to Israel, it does not resonate nearly as much as saying it poses a threat to Israel and the Jewish people. That, in effect, press-gangs world Jewry into service on behalf of the Israeli state and makes us unwilling accomplices to whatever policy he advocates.
Such a conflation also offers another potent weapon in the fight to promote objectionable Israeli policies, which might otherwise receive a far harsher reception. The Holocaust, for example, becomes a powerful cudgel to use against “enemies of Israel.” Take Shimon Peres, who called an Iranian nuclear weapon a “flying gas chamber.” It’s a diabolically clever rhetorical device because it offers a short powerful catchphrase whose menace is crystal-clear. It also invokes an association between Iran and the Nazis.
Abba Eban popularized a similar slogan, “Israel will never return to Auschwitz borders,” which effectively anaesthetized criticism of Israel’s expansionist policies in the region. How could you overcome a defense which suggests any censure of Israel is akin to hastening another Holocaust?
But a closer examination exposes the falsehood of Peres’ phrase. First, Iran has no nuclear weapon and has avowed it would not produce one. Second, no Iranian leader has ever threatened to use a nuclear weapon to destroy Israel. Parenthetically, Netanyahu has threatened Iran with nuclear annihilation during a speech outside the nation’s Dimona nuclear reactor. Third, Iran is not Nazi Germany. Fourth, the phrase debases the real Holocaust, in which 6-million Jews were murdered by men who hated Jews, not Israel.
Linking Judaism and Israel in this way endangers all Jews. It encourages everyone from anti-Semites like David Duke to Islamist terrorists to yoke Jews with Israel. Israeli policies which bring widespread death and devastation to the Middle East legitimate, in their eyes, blaming not just Israelis, but Jews–all Jews. This is at the root of Islamist attacks against Diaspora communities in France, Belgium, Tunisia, and Turkey. In this sense, Zionism poses a very real danger to Jews. Instead of making the world safer and offering us refuge from persecution, Israeli policies incite its enemies to target us as if we were them. Jesus, in common Christian theology, may have “died for our sins,” but I don’t want to die for Israel’s.
Another troubling element of Zionism is the notion of blood-sacrifice on behalf of the nation. Baruch Kimmerling called this phenomenon the “cult of martyrdom.” He was referring not only to ancient history like the mass suicide of Eleazar Ben Yair with his fellow 800 Judean warriors in the face of the Roman siege of Masada; but also modern martyrdom like that of Joseph Trumpeldor at Tel Hair, where he was purported to have said: “How good it is to give one’s life for one’s country.” Each year, young IDF recruits trek to Masada’s summit to pledge their lives on behalf of the Jewish homeland, ending their oath: “Masada shall not fall again.” Though much about these historical incidents may be apocryphal, they clearly illustrate what I’ve called Zionism and the cult of death.
Diaspora Jews don’t want a religion of death. There has been enough of that over the centuries. They want a religion of life. That is why the founding myth of Diaspora Judaism is based on a story from the Babylonian Talmud about Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai. As the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem and it was in its last days, he was smuggled out of the city in a coffin. His students brought him to the Roman commander, Vespasian, who he greeted as emperor (which he later became). Flattered, the general asked the rabbi what he wanted. To which, Ben Zakkai is reported to have said: “Give me Yavneh.” So in order to preserve Jewish life from destruction, Ben Zakkai chose life over martyrdom. In doing so, he created a house of learning which became the source of world-wide rabbinical leadership, as his students fanned out, tending congregations in Diaspora communities in Rome, Alexandria and throughout the Empire.
Thus, it becomes ever more imperative that the Diaspora marks a clear distinction between us as Jews, and Israel as a state. Of course, as Jews we have a bond to Israel. Zion is a place we have read and dreamt about for centuries. But Israel is no longer that imagined place we prayed about daily (if we prayed). It is not the spiritual vision of Isaiah and the pioneering cultural Zionist, Ahad HaAm: Zion: a “light unto the nations.” Rather, Israel is a nation no different than any other. One that is capable of behaving far worse than many others. Indeed, it is a nation capable of committing the very same atrocities against Palestinians (and Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians, etc.) as those committed against Jews throughout their history by ancient Romans, medieval Spanish Catholics and 20th century Nazis.
Secular-Spiritual Critique of Israel
There are two general categories of critique of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and the Arab states. One is based on secular values like international law, pragmatic political analysis and ethics. In particular, pro-Palestinian activists, including some secular anti-Zionist Jews, adopt this approach to their human rights advocacy.
Many Jews, while embracing aspects of this approach, also offer one that is steeped in Jewish tradition and spiritual values. Arguments that are informed by Torah, Talmud and Jewish history resonate far more for many Jews than those which are purely secular. Thus, this is a particularly powerful tool in addressing Jews, ranging from liberal Zionists to settlers.
Another critical element of the Judaic critique of Israel is its special power as a rebuttal to that of Israel’s Judeo-triumphalists. They espouse what I called above a “stones and bones” approach to Judaism. Instead of worship based on spiritual and ethical precepts, they posit a Judaism which reveres land, martyrs and power. Thus, the settlements, the Temple Mount and the ruins of the ancient temple, and the hilltop fortress, Masada, are the “stones,” The ancient warrior-martyrs–ranging from the Maccabees, to Bar Kochba, to Eleazar Ben Yair, to Trumpeldor–are the “bones.” Together these two phrases suggest a pagan idolatry.
Jews lived in the Diaspora for two thousand years without a temple and without warriors. They thrived on spirituality, not naked power. If we succumb to this aberrant form of Judaism, we lose what makes us unique among peoples and become profane. That’s why battling such a politico-religious approach on its own terms, never ceding Judaism to it, is critical.
Today’s ultra-nationalist Zionism forces us not just to struggle for the soul of Israel, but for the soul of the Jewish people. We cannot become a mere appendage of such a movement. We must not wither away in the traditional Zionist conception of the Diaspora. We must offer a clear, coherent, living Judaic alternative.
As progressive Jews, we reject the values espoused by Israeli settlers and their ultra-nationalist allies running the Israeli government for decades. How can we reconcile our own Jewish identity with theirs? If their values are specifically “Jewish,” how can we co-exist in the same tradition?
Given that Judaism is a religion with a decentralized system of authority, this is generally a positive development. It allows for a diverse expression of Jewish religious and communal identity. But in cases like this, in which religion becomes a cudgel or crutch to bolster political power, it compels dissenting Jews to distinguish a normative Jewish identity from an aberrant one.
But one of many tragedies of contemporary Jewry is that rabbinical authorities cannot develop a consensus on these issues. In theory, they could denounce settlerism and Judeo-supremacy as grave violations of Jewish tradition. Even if they could no longer excommunicate such deviant practice from Judaic norms, at least they could label these values as impermissible and violative of our tradition. That would seriously deplete the power of the message offered by Judeo-nationalism to the Jewish and non-Jewish world.
Unfortunately, even the most progressive of denominations has proven unwilling to take such strong stands. Instead, the Reform and Conservative movements have taken to criticizing individual acts of terrorism by settlers against Palestinians. They have treated settlerism as troubling, and claim it does not represent Israel. Doing so, refuses to recognize that the crimes of settlers are, in fact expressions of the state itself. They have refused to delve into the profound violation of religious tradition represented by such violence and hate.
Judeo-Supremacism and White Supremacism
The lack of full-scale resistance against Israeli Judeo-supremacy parallels the mistrust of Jewish communal leaders toward the Black Lives Matter movement here in the U.S. Either they have remained silent or they have attacked outright leaders of the movement when it linked its cause to Palestinian rights. Instead of expressing solidarity with BLM and its own struggle against police brutality and white supremacism, many have stood aside.
You can feel this ambivalence (and even condescension) in this set of talking points published by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs:
…Some in the Jewish community believe that it [BLM] is antisemitic…Black Lives Matter has been accused of being antisemitic, Marxist, a dangerous ideology, creating a tsunami against Jews and Israel and more…A wedge is being forced between the Jewish and black communities, a wedge of fear. Every movement has its radicals. However, it is unfair, untrue and inimical to our own best interests to characterize the movement as antisemitic.
…The Movement for Black Lives, opposes US military aid toward Israel…In 2016, it issued a charter that leveled ugly accusations against Israel. We agree that should this issue creep back into Black Lives Matter movement, the Jewish community relations field should strongly oppose it. But we don’t believe that such an occurrence should cause us to abandon the civil rights movement of our time. We should call out antisemitism when it arises in our coalitions and continue to educate about Israel.
When we Jews are attacked by white supremacists, our natural allies should be other groups similarly attacked. But the ADL doesn’t see it that way and has done nothing to find common ground with BLM. It’s CEO published this letter in Jewish Week:
ADL has not endorsed the Black Lives Matter movement…And we are well aware that a small minority of leaders within the Black Lives Matter movement have supported anti-Israel — and at times anti-Semitic — positions. We have repeatedly made clear that we take offense at those positions and have strongly condemned statements made by those who have expressed support for efforts to boycott and divest from the State of Israel. We will continue to call out such statements because they often are rooted in bigotry and do nothing to advance a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Rather, they only perpetuate hostility and hate.
Israel Judeo-supremacism and U.S. white supremacism are linked and both must be equally and forcefully denounced for our community to have any credibility in this struggle domestically. Similarly, as Jews must ally themselves with BLM because it is in the interests of both groups, Jews must unequivocally renounce ties with Israeli Jewish racism.
Judaism vs. Judeo-Fascism
If we can’t read these extremist forms out of normative Jewish tradition and community, we must do the next best thing. We must distinguish a progressive vision of Jewish identity from one based on Judeo-fascism. We must clearly delineate why and how these values are violations of Judaism as we conceive it.
Some ways to do that: declaring that settler Judaism is based on material, physical objects of worship. We should deny the exploitation of Torah as a sacred text endorsing political Zionism; and declare settlerism a form of idolatry, opposed to the spiritual-ethical monotheism that has dominated tradition for centuries.
Judeo-supemacism’s ultimate goal is political power, rather than spiritual values. We must declare that settlerism and Zionism as practiced by the Israeli state is antithetical to Judaism. That it endangers not only Israeli Jews, but all Jews. When Israeli leaders speak on behalf of all Jews or argue that Israel is the pinnacle of Jewishness, they fall into the same trap as white Supremacists and Islamists, who believe that Jews and Israel are one and the same. They are anti-Semites who are either ignorant of the distinction; or confused by Israel’s own conflation of Zionism and Judaism.
Leibowitz’s pioneering use of the term Judeo-Nazi not only correctly associates settlers and their allies with Nazism; but the term “Judeo” (as opposed to “Jewish”) signifies a separation between these profane values and those of normative Judaism. For this reason, terms like Judeo-supremacist, Judeo-terrorist and Judeo-fascist are useful.
It is critical that as Jews, we make a clear and decisive rupture with those who would drag Judaism into a religious holy war against Islam or Israel’s Arab-Muslim neighbors. The war of conquest they envision, along with the destruction of the Haram al Sharif in favor of the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in its place, will drag not only the Middle East, but all of the Muslim world into a confrontation with Israel and the U.S. its major ally. This is also precisely the Biblical Armageddon which Christian Zionists envision leading to the End of Days and the messianic return of Jesus as their redeemer. We, as Jews want no part of this.
Nor do we want anything to do with the Davidic monarchy they envision and the dismantling of the secular Israeli nation-state. We reject Israel as a theocratic state. We reject ethnic cleansing and Nakba, precisely because it was once used by those who hated us, against us. We reject also an Israel which suppresses internal dissent and drives Israeli Jews and Palestinians either underground, into jail cells or Shin Bet interrogation rooms, or exile. These are fundamentally at odds with any conception of Judaism as recognized by the vast majority of world Jewry. But it is the inexorable direction of Israeli nationalism. For this reason, Israel is not a “Jewish state,” but rather an ethno-state: a “Judeo-state.”
As organized American Judaism gradually weakens and membership in the various denominations (excluding the Orthodox) declines, Israel has become a secular substitute for Judaism in the identity of many Diaspora Jews. Zionism, in their conception, has deified Israel and mounted it upon an altar like a pagan god.
BDS and Anti-Semitism
Israel has conceived of the world as a battleground on which it fights for its legitimacy and its very existence. It perceives much of the world as its enemy, both progressive Jews and non-Jews. It sees everything in black or white; there are no greys. If you are not a super-patriot mouthing pro-Israel platitudes, then you are an anti-Semite; an enemy not just of Israel, but of all Jews.
It has employed various tools to pursue these objectives. One of them is the coining of the term, delegitimization. It suggests that anyone who disagrees with Israeli policy isn’t just a critic, but someone who wants to undermine the very existence of Israel. It harkens back to the same traumatized conception of Jewish history in which the world is riddled with haters who seek the destruction of the Jewish people, whether by forced exile, auto-da-fé or gas chamber.
The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) has been so labeled by Israel. Not content to merely tell the world itself of the perfidy of this non-violent movement, Israel and its Lobby allies have recruited organizations, city councils, and national and state legislatures to join the fight. In doing so, they have advanced the false notion that BDS is anti-Semitic, that it seeks the destruction of Israel, and that it is funded and supported by terrorists.
As I mentioned above, the IHRA “working-definition” has become a key weapon in the battle against BDS. In actuality, it is no formal definition at all as Kenneth Stern, its original co-author, attested. In fact, the traditional conception of anti-Semitism, hatred of Jews, has nothing to do with Israel at all. Of course, there are those who hate Jews and Israel. They are clearly anti-Semites. But the vast majority of critics of Israel do not hate Jews. Thus the conflation of Israel and Jew is another clever attempt to confuse a general audience into believing critics are Jew-haters. It is a dangerous proposition.
Global Weaponization of Anti-Semitism
But it has achieved some measure of success. European states and political parties have adopted it as an arbiter of acceptable discourse on Israel. More than a dozen U.S. states have decreed that BDS is anti-Semitic and prohibited anyone supporting the movement from doing business with the state. The U.S. Congress has been aggressively lobbied by Aipac and others to adopt the same position. Most politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, either support this push to muzzle the First Amendment or timidly suggest that while they personally oppose BDS, they believe that others have the right to a different opinion.
The UK Lobby used the IHRA and false accusation of anti-Semitism within the Labor Party to destroy its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. They weaponized a term that was meant to identify Jew haters and call them out for their odious beliefs; and turned it into a sledgehammer with which to strike a political enemy. Not satisfied with defeating Labor at the ballot box (after the election loss, the former leader stepped down), they’ve put the screws to the Party. Its new leader, Keir Starmer has dutifully suspended Corbyn, reinstated him, then disinherited him entirety, forcing him to sit in Parliament as an independent.
Further, in echoes of the McCarthy era, the German Stasi, and Holocaust-era Judenrat, the Board of Deputies compiled lists of Jewish Party members they deemed anti-Semites, and demanded they be expelled from the Party. Starmer has been all too obliging, with 37 Jewish members threatened with expulsion (11 of whom were expelled). Among this group was at least one dual Anglo-Israeli citizen, Moshe Machover. The very notion that a Jew can be anti-Semitic is, except in very rare circumstances, preposterous. And these particular Jews are so labelled not because of their view of Jews, but because they are unalterably opposed to Israeli apartheid and support Palestinian rights.
When you single out Jews in this way it becomes, in itself, anti-Semitic. All of these dissenters hold the views of Israel they do, in large part because they are Jewish. Thus the witch hunt becomes persecution of Jews for views they hold as part of their ethnic or religious identity. That, in itself is anti-Semitic.
Returning to Corbyn, why was he an enemy? Certainly not because he hated Jews. But because throughout his career he embraced anti-colonial and national liberation movements including Palestine. He voiced support for the Palestinian struggle. He was willing to meet with Hamas and Hezbollah. Acts that were impermissible in the eyes of Israel and its Lobby defenders.
Exploiting anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to score political points is an egregious sin against the memory of the six-million. It perverts a sacred memory and turns their suffering into a monstrous charade on behalf of a national-political brand.
This article was published by Tikun Olam