Open Zion

05.14.13

Establishing the 'Anti-Semitic' Roots of Zionism?

In a rambling essay on Al Jazeera, Columbia University professor Joseph Massad seeks to establish what he calls the “anti-Semitic” roots of Zionism. It’s not the first time this year that an alleged relationship between Zionism and Nazism has been tossed into the wind. Back in January, Mahmoud Abbas made similar claims, prompting historian David N. Myers to respond in Open Zion.

But Massad’s argument goes beyond historical aspersion and into the realm of the philosophical. It can be summed up by this sentence:

What Israel and its American and European allies have sought to do in the last six and a half decades is to convince Palestinians that they too must become anti-Semites and believe as the Nazis, Israel, and its Western anti-Semitic allies do, that Jews are a race that is different from European races, that Palestine is their country, and that Israel speaks for all Jews.

Let’s start with the least controversial—but still lacking—of these three claims, namely that Israel and its allies attempt to cast Israel as the legitimate speaker of the Jewish people. Certainly there is some truth to this observation. But Massad misses an important component of the dynamic.

True, the Diaspora-Israel relationship has attempted to establish Israel as a natural homeland in the minds of Jews. The annual general meeting of a Jewish Community Centre—today more fitness facility than kibbutz dining hall—in any given North American city might typically open with the singing of Hatikvah. The fully-subsidized trip that Diaspora Jewish youth take to Israel is called Birthright. The annual Jewish Federation of North American annual fundraising campaign includes a portion of precious monies that could be spent on protecting Jewish education instead being sent to Israel. And so on.

The idea of Israel speaking in the name of Jews is reinforced most strongly, and ironically, by the two opposing poles: on one hand are Jewish critics of Zionism like the group Not in My Name; on the other are the many mainstream Diaspora supporters of Israel who view vocal and public criticism as a form of collective treason. But missing from these two groups is the incredibly embattled, liberal middle of Diaspora discourse: the supporters of groups like J Street, Peace Now and Ameinu—organizations that seek to establish a more robust, vocal, dialectical relationship between Israel and its Diaspora, where Diaspora Jews can wrestle with the Jewish State, struggling to define the future of Zionism, together.

Massad makes two other claims about Zionism, namely that it holds “that Jews are a race that is different from European races, [and] that Palestine is their country.” Contemporary Zionism has abandoned whatever racial discourse it may have once nurtured in certain corners. But Massad is right in describing Zionism as being premised on Jewish distinctiveness. At its core, Zionism casts Jews as a people deserving of physical rehabilitation in the one area on earth where centuries-long collective Jewish imaginings have pointed.

Buoyed by a thin layer of overlap between Jewish self-described distinctiveness and anti-Semitism as having cast Jews as distinct, Massad implies that the unjustness of Zionist claims is self-evident. But why should one follow from the other? If Zionists articulated a collective Jewish national self-awareness that had previously belonged to the Jew haters, what of it?

Here I would borrow from the words of Israeli security analyst Yossi Alpher. Last week, Alpher spoke in Ottawa, at one point politely responding to a skeptical Israeli-Canadian audience member regarding the Palestinian claim to national distinctiveness. After thoughtfully grappling with the question historically, Alpher concluded with five simple words: “Who are we to judge?”

There is no doubt that the Palestinian Nakba casts a long shadow on the Zionist enterprise. But today the solution to the competing claims of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism is widely known: dividing the land between two national peoples where each can live with collective dignity, nursing their mutually-inflicted wounds while building their future. As an intellectual exercise, Massad’s essay is interesting for anyone seeking to understand how ideologies sometimes oddly intersect across the pages of history. But by undermining one nation’s political legitimacy, Massad’s polemic moves us farther away from a solution. Ironically, in so doing, his attacks on Zionism sadly resemble the Jewish right’s oft-heard attempts to delegitimize Palestinian identity. So it is to both sides that I ask today: who are we to judge?

CORRECTION: This story mistakenly identified Joseph Massad as a Jewish critic of Zionism. The reference has been removed and we regret the error.