A Zionism of Fear

Engraving of Jews Marching

Images such as this engraving from a memorial for Jewish fighters from the Warsaw Ghetto stand as grim reminders of the context in which the “Zionism of Fear” –- a yearning for a safe haven for Jews -- first arose. Credit: Creative Commons/archer10.

After many years of reading the New York Review of Books and the London Review, I thought I might finally end my affair with Zionism. But a recent trip to Israel—which I was sure would rid me of all vestigial Zionism left over from twelve years of Jewish parochial school in New York—didn’t work, after all. It did, however, help me redefine it in terms I can live with. Ultimately, I left with the conviction that the State of Israel, for all its sins, is necessary. A Jewish state that has discriminatory immigration policies is necessary and is justifiable because of the continuing risk of cruelty aimed against Jews. Call this a Zionism of Fear.

The form of Zionism I reject came into clear focus as I met with someone on the Palestinian Negotiations Support Unit and someone from the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolitions, and as I took a tour of the disconcerting things Israel is doing in East Jerusalem, drove through the West Bank on the good roads for Jews, bore witness to the microcosmos that is Ma’ale Adumim, a huge and ever-expanding settlement in the heart of the West Bank, and spoke to tired Israelis who can’t be bothered to engage in leftist politics anymore. I reject the Zionism of Desire: a Zionism that justifies a Jewish state on the grounds of a Jewish desire for that liberal fiction of “self-determination,” an erotic love for self-expression and authenticity, a sense that the realization of a Jewish identity requires nationhood linked to a nation-state.

The Zionism of Desire needn’t have racist manifestations—but the dangers are apparent and have become manifest. Israel’s expansionism relies on the Zionism of Desire. Indeed, the building of settlements—and worse, the continued expansion and building of settlements in Palestinian territory in light of the current situation—is essentially unimaginable without it. The Zionism of Desire is the problem and must be opposed.

The Zionism of Desire surely explains, in part, why the Jewish state cannot legitimate itself in the modern world, at least for liberals of a cosmopolitan bent. There has to be a justification for why Jews can have discriminatory immigration policies and for why they may, in the modern world, build a state with Jewish characteristics, which invariably makes non-Jews feel like outsiders. A true commitment to cosmopolitan principles and a true antagonism to ethnocentrism leave the legitimacy of the State of Israel in real flux. The challenge to the State of Israel from the Left is not mere anti-Semitism; it derives from commitments to universalism that can be important and sincere.

I used to believe in the “right of self-determination.” But then I realized that the only way peoples could have that right is if one already granted that there were things called peoples in the world that had moral relevance. At some point, I stopped being able to believe in the premise because I couldn’t decide on how fat we are supposed to slice the baloney of collective history narratives: Are the whites a people? The blacks? The Sephardic Jews? Yale alumni? Surely, a national identity can’t be built into the definition of a people—for the right to territorial nationhood and the right to exclude non-nationals is the very question in dispute. So this old reliable standard can’t do the work of justifying the state’s right to exist as a discriminatory polity. Of course, all states exclude. But embracing such invidious discrimination on the basis of ethnicity calls for further justification.

It gets even harder to buy into the Zionism of Desire for those of us who see culture as fluid and contingent. That is, there is no Jewish culture that could ever lay claim to authenticity. In Jerusalem, they debate whether bread may be displayed in public on Passover; in Tel-Aviv it is hard to find a kosher establishment on Passover. In New York, bagels and lox can sometimes pass for Judaism; but you can’t get a decent bagel in San Francisco, even though one can be culturally Jewish there. You can be a hipster Jew in New York, call yourself a “Heeb,” and read Zeek magazine—but when you move to San Francisco, you have to get more earnest and political as a hippie or Buddhist Jew (and read Tikkun, of course). John Zorn may be an exciting musician that has hit the zeitgeist among a certain subgroup of Jews of a particular age, but my parents’ generation hadn’t heard of him until he was paraded at Radio City Music Hall for a celebration (in New York) of Israel’ssixtieth. It is hard to know what is more authentically Jewish: Yiddish or Hebrew.

Jewish Israeli Settlement

Ma'ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, is representative of the expansionism embedded in a Zionism of Desire. Creative Commons/Jeremy Price.

Admittedly, Israel allows all this “culture” to come under one Mediterranean umbrella where they serve falafel (though the explosion of fancy restaurants makes the country seem much less “ethnic”!). Still, nothing unifies these practices and customs into an über-culture called authentic Jewish culture. Zionism can’t emerge from a desire to put these strands together to achieve authenticity. Even as a movement to “preserve” culture, the Zionism of Desire is troublesome: there is nothing static to preserve (save, perhaps, an acknowledgement of some form of Yom Kippur)—and the value of the culture only comes from the people who are doing the valuing. What needs preserving is individual Jews as valuable human beings, who themselves engage in the extremely important human capacity to value; the Zionism of Desire mistakes the important goal of preserving Jewish selves for the preserving of Jews as mere vessels for a culture that is always a moving target.

In any case, the struggle for authenticity and self-expression through nationalism can lead no place good. The Zionism of Desire is just Judaicized Herder, the German Romantic who elevated the volksgeist to a form of essentialism; nationalism spawned by the Zionism of Desire is ugly and illiberal. Worse, sadly and ironically, it makes the need for a Zionism of Fear ever greater.

A Zionism of Fear is a political philosophy that takes as its point of departure the credible threat of cruelty against individual Jews because of their Jewishness. Of course, the Zionism of Fear points to the Holocaust as giving rise to the clear need for a Jewish state (though a Zionism of Fear could have predated the Holocaust, of course, since anti-Semitism obviously predated its most terrifying modern incarnation). But the Holocaust was only a temporary legitimation device. For a Zionism of Fear to sustain itself as a justification for a Jewish state that can constitutionally maintain a Jewish character and a Jewish majority, there must remain a real threat of cruelty against Jews.

To be sure, many of Israel’s actions over the last several decades have done nothing but stoke anti-Semitic sentiment, rendering the threat to Jews in both Israel and the Diaspora even more serious. So, it may be that the Zionism of Fear, if taken to its logical conclusion, recommends the dissolution of the state to save the Jews. But we aren’t there yet. Even the unilateral dissolution of the Jewish state (by, say, annexing the occupied territories and creating a new liberal democracy that does not prefer Jews) would not end the hatred of Jews. And so Israel is necessary. Not quite a necessary evil but necessary because of the ongoing threat of violence against Jewish persons. The entire concept of a Zionism of Fear is a humanitarian one. It is the Zionism of Desire that fuels Hamas and Hezbollah—but is it also the reality of Hamas and Hezbollah that fuels a more palatable Zionism of Fear.

Jewish man looks at border from bus window

A Zionism of Fear demands a Jewish state as refuge for anyone persecuted for being Jewish. Creative Commons/Joseph Lambert.

A Zionism of Fear recommends a set of policies that Israel must embrace to keep itself legitimate: it must remain a safe haven for Jews—for anyone persecuted for being a Jew, whether the Rabbinate in Israel today recognizes that Judaism according to the laws of the Torah or not. Its humanitarian mission for Jews cannot be limited by self-definition and self-expression, as the Zionism of Desire might allow; to stay true to the Zionism of Fear, Israel must be a haven for anyone suffering cruelty on account of Jewishness. It must orient itself only to this mission, not to a mission of triumphalist redemption—whether of culture, politics, or the Bible. That means Israel must continue to exist as a Jewish state, which may maintain discriminatory policies of immigration. Since these commitments are all that Zionism requires, the Zionism of Fear underwrites a minimalist Zionism that does not lead to a dangerous pride—but does explain the need for strong self-defense. It cannot justify using security as an excuse for the oppression of other people, which Israel has gotten so good at. But it helps explain why the preservation of the state is both humanitarian and a deeply existential struggle that must be taken seriously, with tanks and guns.

It also helps explain why Israel’s settlement policies are so terribly misguided: not only is territorial expansion unnecessary for the Zionism of Fear; it is counter-indicated. Destroying the viability of another people—the Palestinians—to accomplish a humanitarian mission is inexcusable. Expansion also leaves a one-state solution ever closer to a reality: continuing Israeli land grabs are dimming the prospect for a two-state solution, the only one that preserves a Jewish Israeli majority. While the binational state is a progressive idea in the abstract, it is also a deeply naïve one: it either leads to further ethnic cleaning or it leads to the dissolution of a safe haven for Jews. Neither of these possibilities is consistent with a Zionism of Fear.

Let me be clear. This is not a Zionism of Paranoia: In reality, Jews are nowhere really safe—not in the United States (the “Israel Lobby” notwithstanding), and not in France. I used to think otherwise—and even now find certain anti-Semite hunters and finger-pointers hard to stomach. Paranoia, of course, creates that which it most fears, and looking for anti-Semitism where it doesn’t exist can only lead to the boy who cried wolf. Still, the Christian character of the United States is apparent to any visitor from abroad, and its asylum laws did not save the Jews when they were banished from elsewhere. The French will not send Jews to the gas chambers anytime soon; but they could conceivably make it very difficult to maintain any semblance of Jewish practice. A sound liberal political culture could justifiably make circumcision illegal—but anti-Semitism would be somewhere in the background, I suspect. Iran will do what it can to kill Jews, not just Israelis. Even if Auschwitz will never happen again, it is a near certainty that Munich will, in some form or other.

The annihilation of individual Jews remains a desire for many—and the Zionism of Fear is an appropriate and proportional response. Taking aim at the Zionism of Desire is necessary; it has proven itself to be a source of evil in the world, along with many other nationalisms. But violence and deep-seated prejudice in the world is also what makes the Zionism of Fear a Zionism that liberals and cosmopolitans don’t have to feel ashamed to embrace.

[Click here for the full debate on this topic, which includes an alternative view  from Rebecca Subar, who argues that safe-haven Zionism is incompatible with the ethics of Jewish cosmopolitanism.]


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