July 18, 2024

Attempts have been made the world-over to portray opposition to the state of Israel as nothing more than a thinly-veiled disguise for a more general anti-Semitsm. In an age where open disdain for Jewish people is – accurately – viewed as inexcusable bigotry, Israel’s supporters claim that those who speak out against the country hide their anti-Semetic beliefs by simply replacing the word “Jew” with “Zionist.”

This belief has a storied history, the origin of which is as old as Zionism itself. Theodore Herzl, who is widely considered the founder of Zionism as it is known today, justified the creation of the state of Israel through largely secular means, focusing more so on the practical necessity of a Jewish country which could defend itself against persecution as opposed to invoking any religious rights enshrined in the Torah, Judaism’s holy text.

However, when faced with opposition from the contemporary Jewish community of his time, Herzl – in the infamous article, “Mauschel” – employed a startling defense of his cause. As opposed to many of his other works, which viewed the social, political, and economic condition of the European Jewish population as the main argument for supporting the existence of an independent Jewish state, “Mauschel” states that supporting the Zionist movement is a necessary component of the Jewish identity. Therefore, the Jews that did not ascribe to Zionism, according to Herzl, were not Jews at all.

“Who is this Mauschel anyway? A type, my dear friends, a figure that keeps reappearing over the ages, the hideous companion of the Jew and so inseparable from him that the two have always been confused with each other. A Jew is a human being like any other – no better and no worse, possibly intimidated and embittered by persecution, and very steadfast in suffering. Mauschel, on the other hand, is a distortion of human character, something unspeakably low and repugnant.” [1]

In stark contrast to his usual focus on the oppressed position of Jews across Europe, Herzl instead turns his attention to framing what does and does not constitute a Jew. Conveniently for him (and Zionism as a whole), this framing makes the deciding factor support for the state of Israel, a doctrine which the teachings of later Israeli thinkers would later develop into an integral aspect of Zionist ideology. Specifically, Revisionist Zionism, which emerged in the period following Herzl’s death, committed itself to the construction of a ‘new type’ of Jew – far removed from the ‘repugnant’ Mauschel – through the creation of a Jewish state. In the words of Revisionist Zionism’s founder, Ze’ev Jabontinsky:

“Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite … because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent. The Yid is despised by all and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to charm all. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command. The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: “I am a Hebrew!” [2]

As multiple commentators have noted, the ways in which early Zionists such as Herzl and Jabotinsky describe Jewish people are blatantly antisemitic, relying on stereotypes which portray Jewish people as weak, pitiable, and secretive. However, as such rhetoric gradually became socially-unacceptable, Zionism distanced itself from it. Instead of Zionism alone being the factor which separated an honest, kind, humane Jew from a conniving, untrustworthy Mauschel, it became acceptable within Zionism to state that, were a Jew choose not to support Israel, they would not cease to be a Jew; rather, they would just cease to be a ‘good’ Jew.

The need to defend this assertion contributed to Zionism’s adoption of the Jewish religion [3], which was absent from most of its original philosophical underpinnings. Rather than referencing Herzl’s material analysis of historical events pertaining to Jews as a way of explaining the importance of maintaining and defending Israel, Zionists instead turned to Judaism itself. With this shift in reasoning, they could avoid delving into the actuality of Israel, instead focusing on more mystical justifications which directly insert the modern nation-state of Israel into the wider narratives of the three major Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity, and, of course, Judaism, the faith which Zionism most desperately wants to canonize itself as a doctrine of, for obvious reasons.

Such attempts at co-opting the Jewish faith have met varied results. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center, approval for Israel amongst American Jews generally correlates to religiosity, with Orthodox Jews tending to have more favorable opinions about Israel when compared to Conservative and Reformed Jews. [4] From this brief snapshot, it would seem that Zionism’s focus on weaving their ideology into Judaism has been rather effective, since the American Jews who are the most religiously-observant tend to be aligned with Zionist views.

That said, many ultra-Orthodox Jewish people are vehemently opposed to links between their religion and the Zionist movement. Certain communities within Israel itself, such as the Haredis, are openly against any of their members serving in the Israeli Defense Force, or IDF. [5] In their view, many of the activities that a soldier must engage in during times of war are in direct opposition to Jewish law, and if any Haredi were to leave their community in order to join the army, the actions they would be compelled to undertake could eventually lead them into secularization.

Such conflicts between Israel’s religious and non-religious Jewish population have only grown in recent years. As Israeli leadership tries to tread the thin tightrope between the two groups, they inevitably discover the impossibility of catering to both the spiritual beliefs of their Orthodox population and the necessary steps to expand their country’s control over increasing amounts of Palestinian territory. More often than not, they choose the latter option, which has not gone unnoticed by religious Jews both within Israel and outside of it.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the rift between Zionism and Judaism is the existence of the Neturei Karta, an international group of Orthodox Jews with a long history of opposing Israel’s attempts to establish their nation by encroaching upon the land of Palestinians. [6] In contrast to some denominations of religious Judaism, members of the Neturei Karta seek to make a definitive distinction between their religious beliefs and the aspects of the Jewish faith which Zionism has tried to absorb into its wider narrative of Israeli sovereignty. Quoth Neturei Karta spokesman, Rabbi Yisrol Dovid Weiss, in an interview with Al-Jazeera:

“Judaism is subservience to God, that’s what it’s all about. While Zionism…[is] a political movement. It’s a materialistic movement. It was started by the Jews who are non-religious. And they’re simply…using the name Israel and using the Star of David and claiming that it’s [Israel] given to them by God.” [7]

As Israel loses support amongst religious Jews, the popularity amongst secular Jewish people, the main supporters of the Zionist program from its inception, are also waning in their support. Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the largest Jewish political organizations in America, is explicitly anti-Zionist, having participated in and organized multiple large scale-protests against Israel’s actions in their ongoing war against Hamas, and multiple Jewish academics, such as Norman Finkelstein and Ilan Pappé, have made it clear that the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli forces constitutes a program of deliberate ethnic cleansing and unjustifiable mass oppression. [8] Yet, time and time again, Israel’s leadership invokes components of the Jewish identity alongside arguments for the continued existence of Israel. In a talk on November 7th, Benjamin Netanyahu referenced the Biblical story of Amalek, which, in the words of NPR correspondent Leila Fadel: “…he’s [Netanyahu] comparing Hamas to the nation of Amalek in a passage from the Book of Samuel. That passage says to smite the Amalekites after the nation launched a vicious surprise attack on the Jewish people.” [9]

Appealing to the spiritual beliefs of religious Jews and the nationalist militarism of secular Israelis has been a winning strategy for Israel in the past, since any critique of the latter can quickly be framed as an attack on the former. However, as dissent grows amongst both religious and non-religious Jewish people, from within Israel and outside of it, the efficiency of this strategy going forward is being called into question, and while Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip are being forced into a brighter limelight than ever before, the last thing the Zionist ideology needs is an influx of doubt and reevaluation. But so long as Zionism fails to completely attach itself to either the Jewish religion or secular Judaism, opposition will continue to arise, which deals a serious blow to Zionism’s popularity and, simultaneously, grants a major victory to anti-Zionist Jews, who are beyond tired of seeing their personal identity being conflated with an ideology of which they want no part.

Endnotes

[1] Herzl, Theodore. Zionist Writings: Essays and Addresses. Vol. 1. Herzl Press, 1973, pp. 163–168.

[2] Rubinstein, Amnon. “From Herzl to Rabin: The Changing Image of Zionism.” Choice Reviews Online, vol. 38, no. 04, 1 Dec. 2000, https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.38-2323.

[3] Friedman, David. “Is Zionism Distinct from Judaism?” The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com, 15 Oct. 2022, www.jpost.com/judaism/article-719599.   

[4] Nortey, Justin. “U.S. Jews Have Widely Differing Views on Israel.” Pew Research Center, 21 May 2021, www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2021/05/21/u-s-jews-have-widely-differing-views-on-israel/.  

[5] Miller, Alex. “The Ultra Orthodox vs. the IDF: Israel’s Other Religious War.” Www.youtube.com, Vice News, 23 Oct. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=me4FqdrmVBs.  

[6] Weiss, Rabbi Y.D. “Speech Delivered at Emergency Protest to Stop the Massacre in Gaza.” Nkusa.org, 7 Dec. 2008, nkusa.org/activities/Speeches/20081227.cfm.  

[7] Auge, Rawaa. “Zionism Is Not the Same as Judaism | Quotable.” Www.youtube.com, Al-Jazeera, 17 Oct. 2023, www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIX368TtOJs.   

[8] Pappé , Ilan , and Amy Goodman. “Israeli Historian Ilan Pappé on Gaza War, Hostages & the Context behind Current Violence.” ZNetwork, 1 Nov. 2023, znetwork.org/zvideo/israeli-historian-ilan-pappe-on-gaza-war-hostages-the-context-behind-curre nt-violence/.  

[9] Fadel, Leile. “Netanyahu’s References to Violent Biblical Passages Raise Alarm among Critics.” NPR, NPR, 7 Nov. 2023, www.npr.org/2023/11/07/1211133201/netanyahus-references-to-violent-biblical-passages-raise-a larm-among-critics.