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A brief history of Jewish anti-Zionism
(Jews Against Zionism)

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A brief history of Jewish anti-Zionism
(Jews Against Zionism)

Jewish Anti Zionism is a phenomenon peculiar to the Jewish people: a part of a people or religion who deny that they are a people, or who deny that they deserve a state. 

The existence of Jewish anti-Zionists is offered by Anti-Zionists as "proof" that Zionism is not is a valid national movement. No other people have such a large contingent of traitors. However, it arises from the peculiar condition of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and the definition of who is a Jew rather than through any fault of Zionism. A Frenchman who does not wish to French has only to emigrate to a different country, learn a different language and get a passport as an Englishman, a German or an American for example. A Jew has no such option. A French Jew who emigrates to the United States becomes an American Jew. If he or she changes their religion, they are still identified as Jews very often, at least in their own generation. Karl Marx was baptized at the age of 8 and never professed to be of the Jewish religion or nationality, but most people think of him as a Jew, and he had to deal with the problem in his own lifetime. Leon Trotsky was a leader of the Soviet Communist revolution, creator of the Red Army, identified himself as a Russian, denied the importance of his Jewish ancestry, but was still considered a "Jew." Jewish Anti-Zionism and the related aberration of Jewish anti-Semitism arise in part from the fact that it is nearly impossible for anyone who so desires to be rid of their Jewishness. A non-religious Jew who asserts that they are anti-Zionist and that there is no Jewish people may be asserting a logically impossible proposition, since if there was no Jewish people, there would be nothing to identify that person as Jewish. They would not belong to any logical category.

For religious anti-Zionists, the problem is much more straightforward. In modern western culture, "nation" and "religion" are totally separate and unrelated concepts. Judaism, like some other religions and nationalities, has not been differentiated in that way, so that Jewish religion and Jewish nationality are overlapping concepts. A person of the Jewish faith could logically assert that they are not part of the Jewish nation. That in itself would not be a reason for anti-Zionism, since their personal self-identification doesn't threaten the self-identification of others. However, religious Jews who are anti-Zionists invariable assert in addition, that they are opposed to Zionism and that it is "heresy." Once again there may be a logical contradiction, for they have asserted at one and the same time that Zionists do not belong to their faith, and also that they claim jurisdiction over the faith of the Zionists. 

There are several types of anti-Zionist Jews:

- Ultraorthodox Jews who object to the state of Israel because Zionism is a secular enterprise that eliminated the traditional rabbinical control over the Jewish community.

Assimilationist or Semi-assimilationist Jews who want to blend in with their local community. They are not interested in any political movement that would call attention to the fact of their Judaism, and particularly not interested in a movement that might be used to raise accusations of disloyalty or double loyalty respecting their adopted host country. In this category we may also include religious Jews of the early reform Judaism stream. Reform Jews originally asserted that Judaism is a religion and not a people, and they cleansed their ritual of all national characteristics, including worship in the Hebrew language. They were not true assimilationists as they did not desire to give up their Jewish identity entirely, but they didn't wish to be too "different" from the surrounding society. 

Socialist or Communist  Jews who believe that socialism will bring about the abolition of national distinctions.

The two latter types of anti-Zionists convinced themselves that progress in society at large would eliminate Anti-Semitism and render a Jewish national home unnecessary. The largest contingent of assimilationist Jews existed in Germany until World War II, and were exterminated during the Holocaust or emigrated at the end of World War II. Similar approaches are to be found today in the United States, The Jewish Bund and Jews who joined the Communist party were anti-Zionist. Most of the Polish-Jewish Bundists perished in the Holocaust. Many Jewish Soviet Communists perished in Lubjanka prison and in Gulag prisons. 

Jewish anti-Zionism has always been the most effective weapon in the hands of the enemies of Israel. Anti-Zionists are happy to quote the protests of anti-Zionist Jews that Zionism is apostasy and anti-Semitism. They omit other parts of these texts, which often show that they were based on fatuous fears, communist extremism, reactionary and oppressive religious ideas, and discredited racist biological theories. They neglect to note that the militant anti-Zionist Jews always represented a small and ever-shrinking minority, and that they today consist of a tiny handful of very vocal polemicists, whose views are magnified and echoed by anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic journals and Web sites.  Writings of anti-Zionist Jews are often trotted out in revisionist (Holocaust denying) and neo-Nazi articles and Web sites, where they may appear alongside the writings of Adolf Hitler and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, offered as spurious "proof" that the the philosophy on offer is not racist.

The idea that the Jews were a people who belonged together and had a special attachment to the holy land was embedded in Jewish culture and prayer. The creation of modern nation states and increasing consciousness of nationality put those Jews who wished to take advantage of the benefits of emancipation, and participate fully in their societies, in a difficult position. It was no longer safe to claim allegiances to two peoples. The "Jewish problem" became acute. Therefore, the rise of "anti-Zionism" in the sense of opposition to the idea of Jewish nationhood, predates formal Zionism. Many Jews were anxious to protest the nonexistence of the Jewish people. In the first part of 19th century when political Zionism was hardly conceived, the leaders of German and American Jewish reform Jewish congregations were at pains to assert that the Jews are not a nation and that their homes were in their countries of residence. Likewise Karl Marx and early Jewish communists were protesting vigorously that the Jews were not a people. How ironic it is then, that the anti-Zionists now protest that the idea of the Jews as a people was foisted upon the Jews by Theodor Herzl and a small group of Zionists at the end of the 19th century, and never occurred to Jews before that time.

Not surprisingly, the establishment of Hovevei Tzion and above all the Zionist Congress, provoked a severe reaction among Jews. The bases of Jewish anti-Zionism seemed to be:

Jewish theology and world outlook had internalized many of the stereotypes and anti-Semitic percepts of the non-Jews. The exile was viewed as divine punishment, and could only be undone by divine will. The Jews conceived themselves as unsuited by character to lead the lives of normal people. There could never be a Jewish working class or a Jewish army. Previous attempts at Jewish settlement in Palestine, and there was a long history of such attempts, had invariably ended in failure. At the same time, the emancipation of the Jews had opened new economic and social opportunities for Jews in Europe. Those who had succeeded in climbing the social ladder were both anxious to maintain their gains and hopeful of still greater progress, which would wipe out what they believed to be the last vestiges of medieval prejudice against Jews still remaining in countries like Germany.

In Britain, Lucien Wolf asserted that Zionism is "an ignorant and narrow-minded view of a great problem—ignorant because it takes no account of the decisive element of progress in history; and narrow-minded because it confounds a political memory with a religious ideal." Wolf was of the opinion that Jews were "Aryans" not different from other Europeans. Since all the nations of Europe are more or less of the same "race," it is not clear to the modern mind why that would invalidate Jewish nationalism. However, in the contemporary context it must have been a valid-seeming point. Notwithstanding the putative Aryan origin of the Jews, Wolf was soon joining with Israel Zangwill in a project to create a Zionist colony in East Africa. Perhaps the main drawback of the Zionist movement for people like Wolf is that they were not leading it.

Laurie Magnes wrote:  

"A flight which is no flight, an abandonment, and an evacuation—this is the modern rendering of the Messianic hope: instead of Gentiles coming to the light, Dr. Herzl offers the petty picture of Jews content, like foreign visitors, with a 'favorable welcome and treatment.' We have called this a travesty of Judaism. But it is more than satire—it is treason. Dr. Herzl and those who think with him are traitors to the history of the Jews, which they misread and misinterpret. They are themselves part authors of the anti-Semitism which they profess to slay. For how can the European countries which the Jews propose to 'abandon' justify their retention of the Jews? And why should civil equality have been won by the strenuous exertion of the Jews, if the Jews themselves be the first to 'evacuate' their position, and to claim the bare courtesy of 'foreign visitors'?" (Magnes, L., Aspects of the Jewish Question," London, 1902  p. 18)

The Jewish adherents of Marxism were likewise constrained by the doctrine of internationalism, and the Marxist view of the Jewish problem, from accepting the validity of Zionism. Nationalism was the product of capitalist society according to Marxist dogma. Therefore, nationalism in the waning days of capitalism was inherently reactionary. It would vanish with the dissolution of capitalism in the imminent world revolution. Marxism seemed to offer an ideal solution of the Jewish problem in the abolition of all nationalism, and many Jews were anxious to assert their "internationalism." In fact, however, Marxist "internationalism" was almost wholly Jewish in origin. Ultimately, Soviet Marxism was in fact to accept the validity of almost every national struggle, with the exception of that of the Jews, Tatars, Chechnyans and the other unfortunate peoples who suffered genocide at the hands of Stalin. 

Despite the opposition of the Jewish establishment to Zionism, the Jewish Encyclopedia  was able to report in 1911, only 14 years after the first Zionist congress:

The extent to which the Zionist idea has spread among the Jewish people may be seen not only in the number of Jews affiliated with the Zionist organization and congress, but also in the fact that there is hardly a nook or corner of the Jewish world in which Zionistic societies are not to be found. Even where no such organizations exist expressions of approval and adhesion have come from bodies of Jews who have lived practically cut off from all connection with the course of Jewish life. Notable were communications, together with subscriptions for the fund, from a band of descendants of Portuguese Jews in Manecoré in Amazonas, Brazil (March 12, 1901), from Jews settled in Chile, and from the Jadid al-Islam in Khorasan (1901); while societies exist in Tshita (Siberia, on the Manchurian border), Tashkent, Bokhara, Rangoon (Burma), Nagasaki, Tokyo, Hongkong, Singapore, and among the American soldiers in the Philippines. The Shanghai Zionist Association was founded in 1903; the Dr. Herzl East Africa Zionist Association in Nairobi (East-African Protectorate) in 1904. In Australia there are four Zionist federations: New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and West Australia. Queensland has its own federation with its center in Brisbane, and New Zealand has several societies. Even among the Russian Jews settled by the Jewish Colonization Association in Argentina, there is a federation comprising four societies. A Zionist congress was held there May 16, 1904, comprising delegates of 1,150 shekel-paying members. In every country of Europe, in the United States, along the North-African coast, and in Palestine similar societies are to be found. At the St. Louis Exposition, 1904, the Zionist flag (blue and white stripes, with a "Magen Dawid" in the center) floated from one of the buildings together with those of other nationalities.

The above progress is surprising if one reads only the polemics of contemporary Jewish anti-Zionists and takes them as representative of the feelings of "the Jews." The different ideological justifications for anti-Zionism, from religious leaders, racist cranks and Marxists, all had the same basis. The Jewish leadership, the classes who had traditionally appointed themselves to represent "the Jews," faced a revolt. Zionism represented the will of the Jewish people.

Contrary to the dark imaginings of anti-Zionists and anti-Semites, there did not exist any real "international Jewry" in the sense of an organized international Jewish community, prior to the rise of Zionism. There were no Elders of Zion, no protocols and no secret plan. However, on the positive side, contrary to the dogma of anti-Zionists, the informal community and commonality of Jews around the world was a self-evident fact of every day life, that could only be denied by ignoring the commonplaces of Jewish life. A Jew arriving in Paris from Minsk would seek out the Jewish community where he was welcome, and not the community of Russian expatriates. A Polish Jewish immigrant to the United States could expect to be received with condescension but with charity by the established Jews of that country, many of whom had come from Germany. He or she might expect to find employment in the Jewish-controlled garment industry of New York and other Jewish endeavors. Among Polish Christian immigrants to the United States, Polish Jews were certainly not welcome. Hebrew literature and poetry of the Diaspora, as well as the ancient holy books, were kept alive by Jewish culture in London and Berlin and Baghdad and Tehran. On the negative side, it was not necessary to wait for the rise of Nazism to understand that "Jewishness" could not be erased by modern garb or even conversion to Christianity. Jewish Marxists found they could not reconcile the professed internationalism of Marxism with the obvious anti-Semitism of many Jewish Marxists. In Germany, assimilation and integration were obvious failures. Nobody would seriously contend that Karl Marx or Felix Mendelssohn or Benjamin Disraeli were not viewed as "Jews," and the Jewish origin of many such newly minted Christians followed hem about for many generations.

The fact of Jewish nationalism and national identity asserted itself against doctrines that proved to be unrealistic or outmoded. One by one, each of the anti-Zionist movements and communities, among those who survived the persecutions of the twentieth century,  fell into line with what Marxists would call "historical necessity." In part, the practical demonstration of Zionism that it was possible to gather the Jews in Israel, and to have Jewish workers and a Jewish army, dissipated the skepticism of earlier years. In part, the anti-Semitism of the USSR as well as the Holocaust provided horrible proof that "progress" would not necessarily wipe out anti-Semitism.

The transformation of the reform Jewish community, who were the quintessential anti-Zionists, into avid Zionists, is nearly complete by the beginning of the twenty first century. The Orthodox Jewish community likewise took up the Zionist flag. Many of the ultra-orthodox anti-Zionist groups, while never admitting that they are Zionists, came to be zealous supporters not only of Israel, but of aggressive Zionism. Marxist Jews early split off to form a Socialist Zionist movement. Later the Marxist Jewish Bund was formed because the fact of Jewish national identity was too strong to be denied. Plekhanov sneered, not without some truth, that Bundists were Zionists who were afraid of seasickness.

Anti-Zionist Jews who are not of the ultra-orthodox streams invented two mythologies. One was benign and progressive. The other was deceptively enticing and reactionary at heart. The wonderful myth of internationalism and the imminent dissolution of nation-states pervades almost every type of Jewish anti-Zionism. Sometimes it coexisted, as in reform Judaism, with the contradictory notion that the Jews of a particular country could only be nationals of that country. Real internationalism and "cosmopolitanism" were espoused sincerely only by Jews, though they were officially adopted by most socialist and communist groups.

The complementary mythology to internationalism was a well-meaning but hopelessly and paradoxically chauvinistic reformulation of the "Chosen People" idea. While the Zionists asserted that the Jews had to become a "nation like any other nation," anti-Zionists insisted that the Jews are a people apart, with a special mission. The anti-Zionist reform Jew, Kaufmann Kohler proclaimed:

"The mission of the Jew is not only spiritual or religious in character; it is social and intellectual as well, and the true Zionism demands of the Jews to be martyrs in the cause of truth and justice and peace until the Lord is one and the world one."

In this view, all of the Jews are the anointed of God, sent to earth to suffer martyrdom in the expiation of the sins of mankind. This peculiar notion of the Jews as a community of Christs was echoed again and again in the platforms of anti-Zionist Jewish congregations: The The Pittsburgh platform adopted by reform Jews in 1885 stated:

We maintain that Judaism preserved and defended midst continual struggles and trials and under enforced isolation, this God-idea as the central religious truth for the human race.


We recognize in the Bible the record of the consecration of the Jewish people to its mission as the priest of the one God, and value it as the most potent instrument of religious and moral instruction.

The The Philadelphia Platform of 1869 had stated:

The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of G-d in the confession of the unity of G-d, so as to realize the unity of all rational creatures and their call to moral sanctification.

This revived chosen people mythology was needed to provide a "rational" basis for non-assimilation into gentile society. After all, if customs are based only on irrational survivals and if the Jews are not a people, there could remain no real basis for separate worship and a separate Jewish religion.

As noted, anti-Zionist Jews of the 19th and early 20th century were often of the opinion that anti-Semitism would be wiped out by progress, and that the Jews could integrate into modern society if only they would give up their peculiar and clannish ways and abandon their claims to separate nationality. Like Laurie Magnes, Edwin Montagu and many other Jews especially in Britain and in Germany, were confident that "progress" and democracy would eliminate the need for a national home or refuge for the Jews, and that Jewish nationalist agitation would only exacerbate anti-Semitism. They were to be proven tragically wrong by the rise of Nazism, which spared no-one. It would be unwise to dogmatically assert that the Holocaust is ironclad proof that Jews will never be safe outside of a Jewish national home. It would be fate-tempting hubris to claim that Jews in Israel are guaranteed to be safe. On the other hand, the rise of virulent and lethal anti-Semitism in Germany, where Jews enjoyed the greatest degree of freedom, and where Jews were most completely integrated into society, was certain proof to anyone who wanted to see, that secular democracy,  "progress" and even conversion to Christianity did not guarantee the safety of Jews. Many Jewish anti-Zionists are obsessed with the Holocaust, and try to wish it away with every type of absurd thesis, or to claim that the Nazis did not have a special hatred for Jews. 

Anti-Zionism is not dead among Jews, because many of the structural conditions that motivated it are still in existence. Diaspora Jews are still anxious to integrate as citizens of their countries, still reluctant to give up the social prominence they attained with such difficulty and make their home in a new country. Even among Jewish supporters of Israel, "Zionism" has a bad flavor. "Zion" is a four letter word. They feel threatened by militant Zionism which makes Aliya - immigration to Israel - into a moral imperative. Jews with a family background in the Jewish Bund blame Zionism for the suppression of Yiddish, forgetting that it was the Nazi massacre of Yiddish-speaking Jews and the Soviet suppression of Yiddish culture that threatened Yiddish with extinction, rather than the campaign to revitalize the Hebrew language. 

Under the impetus of the recent virulent anti-Zionist campaign born of the Palestinian struggle,  anti-Zionism has enjoyed a revival. This is aided in no small part by sympathetic audiences and patrons in Arab countries, and the wide dissemination of anti-Zionist views in a range of of forums, from fashionable and respectable doctrinaire publications like The Nation to despicable anti-Semitic groups such as Bible Believers and Jewswatch. The same shibboleths that appear as truths of progressive thought in one publication, are marketed within the rubric of racist and reactionary incitement in the others. The obsolete, absurd notions and predictions of Montagu and of Jewish Marxists, who explained that there could never be a Jewish state and proved that it was so, are dusted off and exhibited as "proof" of the validity of anti-Zionism, as though Israel never happened. Whereas Anti-Zionists once complained that Jews could never form an army, they now complain that Israel is too "militant" and therefore un-Jewish. The acceptance of such doctrines is a function of social convenience and is unrelated to their truth value

Jewish anti-Zionists today consist of several very small and very vocal groups - primarily secular intellectuals such as Marc Ellis, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky and their followers on the one hand, and tiny groups of reactionary ultraorthodox Jews, especially the Neturei Karta, who call themselves  Jews against Zionism, the Satmar and similar groups, as well as an even smaller group of Sephardic anti-Zionist Jews. Their imagined or real complaints against Israel and the Zionist movement are amplified into a thunder of condemnation by the Arab and anti-Semitic groups that feature their writings and market their views. However, they represent only themselves.

Ami Isseroff

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