On Jews, un-Jews, and anti-Jews

In an exclusive excerpt from his new book, rabbi and scholar Shaul Magid examines the hegemony of Zionism in today’s Jewish world and questions whether this is healthy for Jews or Judaism.

On Jews, un-Jews, and anti-Jews
Jewish Voice for Peace protesters take over the Grand Concourse in New York City's Grand Central Station on 27 October 2023 to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Credit: Jewish Voice for Peace

The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance was published this week by Ayin Press.

The relationship between Israel, Zionism, anti-Zionism, Jewish identity, and Jewish peoplehood has become, in the past few decades, a main topic of conversation in American Jewish opinion pieces and, most recently, on social media. The rhetoric has been heating up, as seen in several essays from the 2010s and ’20s which argued, variously, that those who do not support the Jewish nation-state are bad Jews, disloyal Jews, not really “Jews” at all (JINO, Jews in name only) – or, at the very least, complicit Jews. That is, if you are not pro-Israel, you are (according to these arguments) a kind of anti-Jew, or, as one essay put it, an “Un-Jew.” One could cite thousands of pieces written in the last hundred years in which the gatekeepers of Zionist Jewish identity try to write anyone who doesn’t share their nationalist project out of Judaism. This rhetorical posture has become part of our collective history of argumentation. 

What these current-day pundits seem unaware of (or are perhaps simply uninterested in) is that they are in fact reinventing the wheel. American Jewry today is often viewed through the lens of a process of Zionization (the supposed “Zionist consensus”), but if we examine the history of American Jewry in the twentieth century, we will find that opposition to Zionism was far more pervasive than we might have thought. This is explored in great detail in Marjorie Feld’s book Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism, which documents the resistance to Zionism by prominent Jewish American thinkers even after the state of Israel was established. 

Most American Jews today don’t know that William Zuckerman and Henry Hurwitz, both influential editors of popular mid-century Jewish publications (the Jewish Newsletter and the Menorah Journal, respectively), were deeply critical of Zionism or outright opposed to it. Henry Hurwitz, the founder and editor of the Menorah Journal from 1915 until his death in 1961, also held leadership roles in the American Jewish Congress (AJC) – not in any way an outsider or fringe character when it came to the Jewish establishment. Maybe some American Jews know of Rabbi Elmer Berger and the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), an unofficial anti-Zionist outgrowth of the Reform movement, but the ACJ was only one of numerous anti-Zionist organizations active at the time. 

Recent scholarship has detailed this history, documenting the vibrant political activism of progressive American Jews in support of Palestinian rights, and critical of Zionism as a political movement, before and after the founding of the state of Israel. In this chapter, I explore what the present-day marginalization of so-called Jewish anti-Zionism (or robust critique of Israel in general) in the Jewish community is really about. Perhaps the famous Free Speech Movement motto from the mid-1960s applies here as well: “The issue isn’t the issue.” That is, the “issue” up for debate conceals a much more substantive and structural problem. 

One of the classic tools of the trade of Zionist policing is the demonization of the term “anti-Zionism.” As Hannah Arendt noted in her essay “To Save the Jewish Homeland,” which she penned on the cusp of Israeli statehood, there existed a healthy tension in the Jewish community between Zionism and non-Zionism – and anti-Zionism – that she predicted would wane with the impending founding of the state of Israel. She lamented the imminent loss of that tension since, as she saw it, ideological hegemony is always a dangerous political phenomenon. We find her prediction playing out today, aided by strategic, rhetorical slipperiness on the part of Zionist gatekeepers and enforcers. 

Those who demonize “anti-Zionism” today never quite define the term. Is it denial of a “Jewish” state? Or the denouncement of Jewish chauvinism or Jewish supremacy? Or rejection of the state of Israel itself? 

There are multiple kinds of anti-Zionism, each with their own foundations and reasoning. There is the theological anti-Zionism of ultra-Orthodoxy, which is most explicit in the writings of the Satmar rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum; the moral and anti-nationalist anti-Zionism of Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig; the secular anti-Zionism of the ACJ, associated with Reform Judaism; the diasporist anti-Zionism of the philosopher Judith Butler, or of the historian and Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin; and the anti-imperialist anti-Zionism of linguist and political critic Noam Chomsky. 

Are they all the same? Of course not. All have different assumptions, different thought processes, and in some cases, different goals. But for the enforcers of Zionist ideology, and the gatekeepers of Jewish identity, these nuances and distinctions don’t really matter. 

It is obvious that in some cases, the opponents of such gatekeepers aren’t only Jews, but pretty serious ones. To take one example, Yoel Teitelbaum (1887–1979), the ultra-Orthodox Satmar rebbe, argued for his anti-Zionism from deep within Jewish religious sources; this sentiment was shared by most of his ultra-Orthodox contemporaries before the second world war. The same could be said for others, too, such as Daniel Boyarin, a widely respected contemporary scholar of rabbinics and ancient Judaism, whose 2023 book The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto articulates his anti-Zionist position. And of course, Hermann Cohen was one of the great philosophers of his generation and had a solid Jewish education as well; Franz Rosenzweig was one of Judaism’s great defenders. 

One may disagree with their highly informed readings, culled from the traditional sources, but one can hardly question their credentials as Jews. But this may be beside the point: many of their critics on this question haven’t even read their work. 

To be fair, those maligning non- or anti-Zionists are not saying they are not Jews; it’s even worse than that. These critics argue that those who diverge from the Zionist platform are essentially anti-Jews, or counter-Jews, because for these enforcers, Zionism – meaning support for the state of Israel as a Jewish state – has become a more essential marker of Jewish identity than Jewish practice, or any other criteria. 

In a sense, this is an exercise in marking modern-day heretics: Jews who, while still inside the orbit of the Jewish people, have become forces that actively undermine the Jewish collective. The Talmudic sages teach that the heretic (apikorus or min) is actually worse than the idolater. In their estimation, unlike the idolator, the heretic subverts Judaism from the inside. (This idea is so central to Judaism that it is codified in Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah.) 

I would argue that Zionist enforcers are using this sentiment, rooted deep in the Jewish tradition, cynically. What matters most to those who want to marginalize critics of Israel from the Jewish community is the full Zionization of American Jewry: hegemonic support for Zionism as the national Jewish project, and at its center, support for the state of Israel as a Jewish state. Anything outside of that is taken to be a form of Jewish heresy. But if we contextualize these claims in Jewish history, especially in the complex contestations over the boundaries of Jewishness in the modern era, they become much harder to take seriously. 

One question that often arises when one makes a normative claim – that is, a claim that is not just descriptive but prescriptive, assuming judgment over how things ought to be – is: By what authority is this prescription (the ought) derived? Many pro-Israelists place a lot of weight on popular opinion. They claim correctly that most American Jews today are Zionists in some form because they support Israel as a “Jewish” state. But so what? No serious thinker believes that popular opinion is a good metric for a normative claim. If that were true, Judaism as we know it would not have come into existence: the rabbinic sages, who were the architects of what we now think of as normative Judaism, were a small minority of the Jewish population of their time. 

And according to such majoritarian logic, the early Zionists were the true heretics of the first part of the twentieth century – and actually, in many circles, they were considered so. Up until the 1930s, the preponderance of Jews in Europe and America were against the Zionist project. Consider also that, according to this same majoritarian reasoning, intermarriage would be the normative claim of Jewishness in America, since over 60% of American Jews who’ve married in recent years have intermarried – meaning that in order to be considered Jewish, one ought to intermarry. As one can see, this is a logic in danger of collapsing in on itself. 

Essays attacking anti- or non-Zionist Jews seem to be driven by a terror that, unless the alarm is sounded, soon the majority of Jews won’t be Zionists. This, of course, seems highly unlikely; the Zionist consensus will almost surely hold as it has for the past 75 years. But it has its challengers. Serious ones. Jewish ones. And that, I submit, is good for the Jews. If we are to honor the way – in the words of anti-anti-Zionists Gil Troy and Natan Sharansky – “actual Jews do Jewishness,” then we have to honor it even when they do Jewishness in a non-Zionist (or even anti-Zionist) way. That is, if we are committed to pluralism, then anti-Zionism should be included in that orbit of tolerance. It is only when Zionism becomes Jewishness itself that non- or anti-Zionism is excluded.

Resetting an old table

All of that said, normative claims have a complicated place in both Jewish history and practice. For example, while the rabbinic sages claim “majority opinion” is not a legitimate argument for adopting religious norms, it is operative for legal decisions in a rabbinic court. With this in mind, what happens if we take the argument that anti-Zionism is antithetical to Jewishness seriously – in fact, more seriously than some of these Zionist or pro-Israel enforcers do? The problem with this argument is that it’s easily contradicted by Zionist history itself. Some well-known early Zionists would have enthusiastically agreed that they themselves were out of step with any notion of normative Jewishness. 

Take, for example, the radical Zionist Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski who identified himself as the “last Jew and the first Hebrew.” Or the Canaanites, a small but influential artistic and ideological movement in Palestine and then Israel in the 1940s and ’50s, founded by poet Yonatan Ratosh, who openly repudiated Judaism and Jewishness in favor of a new Hebrew nation – one that was explicitly not “Jewish.” To those familiar with the history of Zionism, it is well-known that many of these early Zionist ideologues viewed Zionism as the replacement for Judaism – not a complement or extension of it, nor a faction within it. Zionism as a political movement was, in effect, Judaism’s fulfillment, in the sense of completion; returning to the land of Israel was meant to make the Jewish religion superfluous. Even the most conventional Zionists of that era were devoted to the creation of a Hebrew – not necessarily Jewish – nation.

Debates about Judaism as a religion, and Jewishness as an identity, were central to early Zionist thought. For example, the foundational Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’Am argued for cultural Zionism, the idea that Israel should become a “spiritual center” for world Jewry, in parallel with the continued Jewish diaspora. On the other hand, one of the tenets of early Zionism, exemplified in its extreme by Berdyczewski and the Canaanite movement, but present in most Zionist ideology, was the “negation of exile” (or the “negation of the diaspora”) – the erasure of exilic existence (and its supposed ills) through the foundation of a state in the Jewish homeland. As one can see, the relationship of early Zionists to Judaism was often quite tortured and complex.

Today’s “heresy hunting” ignores, dismisses, or perhaps is simply unaware of the utterly radical, and revolutionary, nature of Zionism itself. It elides how Zionism often claimed to replace Judaism, which some viewed derisively as essentially a product of exile. It ignores recent Jewish history and culture, before most of American Jewry had become Zionist, and before statist Zionism was the dominant form of the Jewish national project. These simplistic thinkers who attack non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews don’t realize that the Zionism they take as coextensive with Judaism today was, for many of its architects, meant to be the alternative to Judaism. 

Even if we accept that some anti-Zionist Jews are abandoning normative Judaism, or even their identity as Jews, it’s shortsighted and simplistic to want to write them out of the tradition as heretics. Some so-called heretics have, throughout history, become indispensable to the Jewish tradition. The most glaring examples are Jewish thinkers and rabbis whose commentary threatened the rabbinical establishment. Let us not forget that the rabbis of northern France banned and may have contributed to the public burning of Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed, claiming it was heresy and thus forbidden. And in the modern era, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook’s books have been burned in some ultra-Orthodox circles in Jerusalem because of his affiliation with Zionism. 

Then there are thinkers like Spinoza, who was considered a heretic by the Jewish community of his time (although he never converted to Christianity). Today, he is often called the “first modern Jew” because he had the courage to say things that got him excommunicated from his community in Amsterdam – a community to which he never tried to return, all the while never abandoning the label “Jew.” His Theological-Political Treatise remains a classic of both modern Jewish thought and modern Western philosophy. Should Spinoza now be considered the first modern un-Jew? The label of heretic is clearly relative to its time and place, and so-called “heretics” can be absorbed back into the Jewish tradition as groundbreaking thinkers later on. 

There were also Jews who abandoned Judaism, or the Jewish people, but not their identity as Jews. For instance, on his deathbed, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger – an apostate (convert) from a Polish Jewish family who became the archbishop of Paris in the 1980s – requested that the kaddish be recited at his funeral (which it was, with the permission of the chief rabbi of Paris). The great German literary figure Heinrich Heine famously said, “I was merely baptized, not converted.” 

And one of the most fascinating cases of this kind is Oswald Rufeisen, also known as “Brother Daniel,” a Polish Jew who converted to Catholicism during the second world war and became a monk. But before his conversion, he saved over two hundred Jewish lives in the Mir ghetto, while working undercover as a Polish translator for the Nazi police. Rufeisen became the subject of the Israeli supreme court’s famous “Who is a Jew” case in 1962 when he applied to immigrate to Israel under the law of return. Although a lifelong Zionist, his request was denied because he was a Christian – even though he was also a Jew. 

The Rabbanut (the Chief Rabbinate of Israel) disagreed with the supreme court decision. From a halachic standpoint, why is a Christian Jew any less Jewish than an atheist Jew? Rufeisen claimed that although he was a Christian and a Carmelite monk, he never repudiated his Jewishness. He said, “My ethnic origin is and always will be Jewish … I did not accept Christianity to leave my people. It added to my Judaism.”

He was eventually permitted to immigrate, and to become an Israeli citizen, as a “righteous gentile” (ger toshav) – but not as a Jew. Rufeisen lived the rest of his life in the Stella Maris Monastery in Haifa, traveling the country teaching Israeli children about Christianity. He was sometimes visited by Holocaust survivors whose lives he had saved. He continued to identify as a Jew until his death in 1998. 

I raise these examples to illustrate that the issue of crossing borders and transgressing norms, while maintaining fidelity to Jewish identity and peoplehood, has always been a complicated matter for Jews. Certainly much more complicated than identifying with only one Jewish project among many. Were these figures – from Spinoza to Brother Daniel – Jews, non-Jews, ex-Jews, bad Jews, or anti-Jews? These figures raise essential questions for us today: By what criteria do we judge such people? And who gets the final say on deciding what that criteria is? 

The Zionists policing Jews’ opinions about Israel are implicitly suggesting a radical reassessment of Jewishness, one that is no longer based on halacha (that is, on one’s maternal line or a rabbinically supervised conversion), nor on religious practice (however defined), nor even on ethnicity. For them, legitimate Jewishness pivots on identification with, and fidelity to, the Jewish national political project of Zionism. This line of thinking seems to place more value on completely secular, assimilated, non-practicing Jews who love Israel than on devout, observant Jews who do not. Perhaps this is the true heresy. 

In his provocative and brilliant work Knesset Yisrael and the Gentile Wars, written as a response to the first world war, the ultra-Orthodox pacifist Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares (1869–1931) called “eretz moledet” – literally “the birth land,” by which he likely meant “territorial nationalism” – the “modern idolatry.” For Tamares, this included political Zionism. 

For our present-day Zionist enforcers, matters of Jewish practice and commitment to the Jewish people have been replaced by political affiliation. They are arguing that one’s Jewishness can only be exercised through support of a territorial state – an eretz moledet – and that the very boundaries of legitimacy are rooted in this support. Can this type of nationalism be a form of idolatry, as Tamares suggested a century ago? Jewish thinkers from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to Yeshayahu Leibowitz have argued this point quite powerfully since then. 

The notion that Zionism is the only possible way to be properly Jewish is, ironically, grounded in an antisemitic premise. Both before and after Jews were legally emancipated in Europe (whereby they were granted the full rights of citizenship and equality), antisemites argued that Jews were not fit for membership in civilized society because they were a sick and cultureless people. Joseph Stalin once said that the Jews are not a nation because they lack the two essential attributes of nations: language and territory. And many Zionists agreed with these claims! In some ways, the Zionist project was founded on such antisemitic assumptions: that the Jews in the diaspora were a flawed people, made diseased and unhealthy by centuries of exile, with no meaningful culture of their own. 

It is both well-known and well-documented that Zionism and antisemitism have long had a complex relationship. One could argue that contemporary antisemitism continues to fortify the Zionist narrative in complicated ways, although nowadays it is framed primarily as a threat from which Zionism offers the only true refuge. 

The idea of Zionism as the only solution to the continued crisis of Jewish diasporic existence was not uncommon among many early Zionists; Zionism was presented as the last possible avenue of Jewish survival, and the only way for Jews to overcome their state of decrepitude and demise. 

This relationship between Zionism and Jewishness was concretized in a provocative essay by Shai Ish Hurwitz (1861–1922), published in the Hebrew-language journal Ha-Shiloach in 1904. In this essay, Hurwitz questioned the legitimacy of Jews’ continued existence at all. Given the persecution Jews suffered, Hurwitz asked, why would anyone want to continue identifying as a Jew? In short, why should the Jews survive? (As extreme as Hurwitz’s position may seem today, it’s worth remembering that the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, once advocated mass conversion to Christianity as the only solution to the so-called “Jewish Question” in European politics.) 

Judaism, according to such a view, could perhaps be salvaged by Zionism alone. This unfortunate line of argument ostensibly fusing Judaism to Zionism is now being raised to a whole new level by those arguing that any attempt to separate Judaism, or Jewishness, from Jewish nationalism—that is, through non- or anti-Zionism—is an act of collective suicide. 

However, this assessment is based on faulty premises. That is, while Zionism has indeed provided extraordinary opportunities for Jewish self-flourishing (including the founding of a Jewish state, the revival of the Hebrew language, and the creation of a unique Hebrew culture, one that is not merely an adaptation of those around it), the future of the Jewish diaspora did not turn out as Hurwitz and others imagined in 1904 – it turned out much worse, and then much better. 

There is now a thriving Jewish diaspora in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, one that is not dependent on Israel for its creative sustenance. This should be celebrated. But the Zionist party line has nothing to say about this. Quite the opposite: a robust diaspora makes some (although certainly not all) Zionists nervous. 

In a sense, for these Zionist ideologues today, Ahad Ha’Am’s theory of the two Jewish centers (Israel and Diaspora) has been completely forgotten and subsumed by the “negation of the diaspora” ideology that informed Zionism from the beginning. Their interest in Zionism as a cultural-political project, here and elsewhere, is not concerned with how to allow for, and increase, Jewish flourishing, but in convincing Jews (and others) of the primacy of their own view of Jewish history and their own narrow definition of Jewishness. 

And here I think we get to why this kind of pressure is being applied now. Israel is a complicated topic for younger generations of Jews, especially (but not only) in North America. Jews under the age of 50 do not know Israel as anything other than an occupying power. And with the advent of the internet, English-speaking Jews can read the Jerusalem Post alongside Al Jazeera, The Forward alongside The Guardian. In such an open-access environment, Israel’s propaganda industry is failing miserably. It has some talented people, but it simply doesn’t stand a chance against the present media ecosystem – or against the complex reality that is Israel/Palestine, now being reported on by diverse voices within that ecosystem. And the reality is grim. 

The half-century occupation has arguably become de facto annexation. The prospects for a two-state solution are at their nadir. Many younger Jews – often progressive in politics and questing after their own Jewish spiritual identity – find that a presumption of reflexive support for Israel as an occupying power insults their conscience and their intelligence. Urging someone committed to liberal or progressive politics to support an illiberal state, just because it happens to be Israel (an argument that gestures toward a kind of Jewish exceptionalism), will not bear much fruit in my view. 

Indeed, one wonders for whom the anti-anti-Zionists are writing. Do they imagine that hectoring people who don’t love the state of Israel unconditionally, or labeling those people as self-loathing, traitorous, or heretical, will bring anyone back into the fold? There is something counterproductive about this whole enterprise, as if it’s the 1960s and all these young Jews need in order to firm up their commitment is a screening of Paul Newman in Exodus, a guilt-inducing call from their grandmother, and a pledge card from their local Jewish Federation. 

If there is a case to be made for Zionism in any of its forms, it’s by having an honest conversation about its history and applications, including its many failures, moral and otherwise – not by questioning the Jewish bona fides of people who are, in many cases, Jews deeply invested in their Jewishness. Zionist hegemony in Jewish communities will be an increasingly tough case to make to these younger Jews. 

In North America today, as in many other parts of the diaspora, Jews who want out of Jewish communities can choose to exit and live full, healthy lives. Unlike throughout most of Jewish history, they don’t even have to convert to live happily as disengaged Jews. They can cultivate their Jewish identities by being critics of Israel, or they can use a plethora of other criteria – ethnic, religious, moral, cultural, artistic – to identify as Jews. Will they be threatened by a few Zionist hegemonists casting doubt on their Jew creds? Doubtful. But will they turn their back on Jewish communities and organizations that demand adherence to the Zionist party line? Or that shame them for expressing criticism? Probably. 

Are we to say that those progressive Jews don’t care about the Jewish people as much as Zionists do? Are we to say that Judith Butler, Daniel Boyarin, Peter Beinart, and Noam Chomsky – and I, for that matter – are not deeply invested in the Jewish people? I don’t think so. Inquisitory tactics rarely bear fruit. They show weakness, not strength. 

After all, drawing boundaries with no power to implement them is a toothless exercise. Do these Zionist hegemonists want to prevent the non-Zionists from visiting Israel? Or from making aliyah, if they so choose? What about putting them on a list that excludes them from Jewish Federation dinners? Should their books be burned or banned? These enforcers are guilty of flattening the Jewish tradition to serve their chauvinistic nationalist political agenda. To them, what a Jew believes, what she eats, if she davens, or how she keeps Shabbat doesn’t really matter. To be a Jew in good standing only means to support the Jewish national project. 

Jewish unity is a precarious notion in part because it never really existed. In truth, the Jewish tradition is composed precisely in such a way to reflect the fact that such a consensus never existed. There are boundaries, of course, and those boundaries are malleable and under constant renegotiation. Has Zionism been successful? Certainly. But part of the danger of that success is the unwillingness to allow anything outside it to exist as equally legitimate. If Zionism remains in the state of obstinacy suggested by some of these enforcers, it will become less creative, less persuasive, and less productive. ▼  

Shaul Magid is a rabbi and a professor of Jewish studies.