Earlier this year I had occasion to speak at a synagogue in Johannesburg, South Africa. The subject was my motivation and experience as an American Jew who made aliya to Israel more than thirty years ago. The presentation included a description of my Jewish and Zionist education and concluded with an explanation that my primary motivation was a personal desire to be a participant in the making of modern Jewish history. What better place could I do so, I concluded, than by living with my family in the State of Israel.
Immediately following my presentation the hands went up. One after another of the participants in the audience challenged me with biting comments and striking allegations all of which I thought were both surprising and of course incongruous. How could I possibly call myself a Zionist when to do so is to embrace an ideology advocating apartheid? How can I identify with a regime which is oppressive and dismissive of the human rights of the Palestinians? Is not Judaism and Zionism incompatible? Are not Zionists acting just like the white nationalists did in apartheid South Africa?
The people asking the questions seemed sincere. It appeared to me that they were genuinely struggling with themselves both intellectually and spiritually. On the one hand they were trying to find an acceptable way to identify as Jews. On the other hand they could not reconcile their identification with a Jewish State that in their minds, no less than in official political circles, was perceived as the very incarnation of evil. No doubt, there are growing numbers of Jews in other diaspora countries who share the same dilemma which may not be the case with many non-Jewish critics of Israeli policy.
It is true that many non-Jews throughout the world are bitter critics of Israeli policy. As such, many exaggerate and generalize about Jews and what they believe to be normative Zionist ideology. Their conviction is that Zionism is a racist ideology and the plight of the Palestinian people is proof positive of this fact. Thus, it is a short distance between identifying Jews as a group with the Jewish state and ergo their presumed support for the oppressive policies of the state. In their minds this legitimizes their struggle in support of the long suffering Palestinians.
As Jews we may prefer drawing a distinction between our religious or ethnic identity and the specific political policy of any given government of Israel. Nonetheless, such efforts are judged to be ingenuous by our critics. This is hardly surprising considering the fact that Israeli policy today is defined by right wing revisionists who have perpetuated the occupation of the Palestinian people for the most part of nearly 50 years. For the greater part of this half century, they have successfully advanced their ultra-nationalist and irredentist vision of Zionism. Sadly too, the contours of this policy have increasingly resulted in a growing number of separatist realities.
In spite of the aforementioned, I do not accept the idea that being critical of, or opposed to, Israeli policy, automatically makes one an anti-Semite. I would suggest that taking such a position is incorrect as it feeds the illusory idea that what is being alleged about Jews and Zionism has credence. After all, there are Jews who are Zionists and Israeli, like myself, who are strongly opposed to the principles and policies of the current Israeli government. We are in fact, passionate critics. I explained these positions to my South African Jewish interlocutors. I spoke about how I became a Zionist in the tradition of the Labor Zionist Movement. Our ideological vision is rooted in the principles of social and economic justice, liberal democracy and the pursuit of a just peace. I am opposed to the occupation and consider the settlement program to be destructive of our vital interests and threatening to our security. And of course I acknowledge the fact that settling Jews in occupied territories is in contradiction of international law as defined by the Geneva Conventions. For me and a not inconsequential percentage of Israelis and Jews worldwide, progressive Zionism is as legitimate and normative as Revisionism is for others.
Perhaps if Israel’s Jewish and non-Jewish critics were better educated about the differing streams of Zionism, they would be less inclined to generalize based on the policies of Israel’s current government.
Perhaps too, they would begin to understand the differences by learning about the accusations made by our right wing critics here in Israel. Among other allegations they assert that we are self-hating anti-Zionists and anti-Semites! It is likely that they make these charges because we expose their activities and reject their views as submissive to the ideological fantasies of intolerant political and theological extremists.
There is a profound distinction to be made between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and criticism of the policies of a particular Israeli government.
Rabbi Stanley Ringler is an Israeli Reform Rabbi and Social and Political Activist.