Zionism Has Become An Existential Threat — To Jews

From Tikkun Magazine Mark LeVine writes on the latest onslaught by Israel against unarmed Palestinians. 

With each new death in Gaza the Israeli government is not only sealing the judgement of history as to the irredeemably racist and violent core of Zionist nationalism, it is also flashing a giant red light at Jews everywhere, warning us that the movement started ostensibly to protect and normalize Jewish existence has become an existential threat—to Jews.

What else can one reasonably conclude when a new American embassy is opened to great fanfare in Jerusalem, its inauguration “blessed” by two pastors who openly call for the eternal damnation of the Jews as Israeli and Diaspora Jewish leaders beam with pride and sip champagne, while sixty miles away young Jews, in the name of their religion, massacre dozen of unarmed Palestinian women, men, children, elderly and young with utter inhumanity and impunity.

The increasingly fascistic Jewish nationalism of the State of Israel and its supporters in the organized Jewish communities of the Diaspora is widening a split within world Jewry, one that won’t be reconciled through dialog and understanding precisely because the choice is so stark and ground for compromise non-existent. Globally there is a Jewish population of some 15 million souls. Well over half of them (about a third of American Jews, most Israeli Jews and the large majority of other Diaspora Jews) more or less enthusiastically support an unending and brutal colonial Occupation and Apartheid regime, an illegal and unconscionable dispossession of the colonized population of its lands and resources, the unremitting if spasmodic ethnic cleansing of the land, the increasingly genocidal rhetoric of the political leadership, and the insidious transformation of Jewish history, culture and faith these policies both demand and inevitably produce.

Those opposed to these policies, comprising a small percentage of Israeli Jews, a somewhat larger percentage of the global Diaspora, and the (sadly still too silent) majority of American Jews, have little power and even less room for manoeuvre, as they are squeezed between a rising tide of nationalism and anti-Semitism in their home countries and a Judaism in practice that is completely alien to the humanistic values of justice, mercy and equality which they always assumed represented the core of their identity.

We are quickly facing a moment of rupture potentially as great as that which split Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad or Christianity after Luther’s challenge to the Church. But with well over 1 billion adherents each, Christianity and Islam are simply too big to fail, even if they have literally split over core issues of theology and power. With comparative so few adherents Judaism is in a much more precarious position and cannot easily survive the kind of split that fundamentally divided the other Abrahamic faiths into competing and often warring factions. Quite simply, when the Prime Minister of Israel and the Jewish children of the President of the United States openly cavort with Christians preaching eternal hellfire for Jews and Muslim monarchs who’ve spent untold billions to spread the most viciously anti-Semitic ideology since Nazism then the Jewish people are in mortal danger indeed.

To be sure, many might celebrate the performance at the Embassy as the ultimate act of realpolitik, with each side winking to its own faithful as they clang their champagne glasses in celebration of their mutual power and interests. But as the crematoria remind us, hell fire doesn’t need the End of Days to descend upon us. (In fact, American evangelicals are literally giddy with the prospect that the violence in Gaza heralds the Apocalypse.)

Undaunted by the hatred of their most ardent Christian supporters, the fascist axis that has hijacked Judaism see little reason to compromise or reconcile with their fellow Jews, never mind Palestinians. They are too drunk with power even to acknowledge the opposition, other than to attempt to crush it. Netanyahu, Kushner, Adelson & Co. firmly believe that they are the tail wagging the American dog, as American professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt famously claimed, who can bend America to Israel’s will and ensure US support for even the most atrocious policies and wars.

But these claims have always betrayed a confusion of cause and effect. Make no mistake, Israel is the tail wagging to the American war dog’s rhythm, for whom the Jewish state’s worth and function have ultimately been as a conduit for untold billions in profit from arms deals, wars, high oil prices, a hyper militarized global order and the “shared values” that protect and expand them all. In fact, Israel is more like a salamander’s tail than a dog’s; it can be sloughed off the moment it stops being useful, has fulfilled its purpose, or gets the US caught in a particularly unpleasant or dangerous situation. When that happens the Jew-hatred will return unfettered, and those with whom the Netanyahus and Kushners supped while Gaza bled and burned will turn their knives towards us.

In retrospect, it is still shocking how liberal and progressive Jews have for so long enabled such intense racism, oppression and violence in their name with so little resistance. How easily and tenaciously they’ve clung to the notion that underneath all the harm wrought by Zionism something remained that could be redeemed; that the idea of a democratic and Jewish state was still possible if only Palestinians could make the hard compromises necessary to allow the Occupation to end. So strongly has this lie been been accepted by generations of Israeli and Diaspora Jews that despite massive human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed by Israel, by Jews against Palestinians, Lebanese, and the citizens of dozens of dictatorships and war-torn countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia whose murderous rulers have routinely counted on Israeli aid and counsel, Jews have held fast to the Jewish state as if its purity and innocence remained untouched, all that blood simply running off, disappearing and forgotten, into the earth.

Of course, this belief was never anything but a willfully ignorant fantasy, as could be easily seen by anyone, Jew as well as gentile, who cared to look. The internal logic and goals of Zionism, as an openly, self-described settler colonial movement, were and remain based on the conquest of territory and the removal of as many of the indigenous population as possible in order to ensure permanent Jewish sovereignty over it. Everything else has been little more window-dressing at best, smoke and mirrors at worst.

Yes, Zionism has been and could always be many other things as well—hi-tech start-ups, medical miracles, avant-garde dance troupes, biblical scenery, Oriental heavy metal, to name just a few—just as the United States, Australia or any of the other European settler colonial states that emerged in the last two centuries could be and have been many other things besides ruthless colonial enterprises. But they couldn’t be those things without ethnic cleansing and genocide, the sine qua non for their creation, expansion and continued existence. America’s own “manifest destiny” and “exceptionalism” tell us as much, without apology. The ongoing Nakba is Israel’s manifest destiny.

It is also true that there has always been a surface tension within Zionism about the two faces of Jewish nationalism. The historically dominant Socialist Zionist movement did everything possible to mask the urge to conquest within a civilizing mission that successfully portrayed the inevitable conflict as the result of the ignorance and intransigence of the natives and the perfidy and hatred of their leaders for a people who only wanted to make the desert bloom and bring modernity to a benighted land. Revisionist leaders, starting with the movements’ founder, Ze’v Jabotinisky, at least had the decency to be honest, declaring in 1937 that “apart from those who have been virtually ‘blind’ since childhood, all the other moderate Zionists have long since understood that there is not even the slightest hope of ever obtaining the agreement of the Arabs of the Land of Israel to ‘Palestine’ becoming a country with a Jewish majority… The inhabitants (no matter whether they are civilized or savages) have always put up a stubborn fight.”

And so when Golda Meir infamously claimed there was no such thing as a Palestinian people, she wasn’t just denying their peoplehood, she was denying their humanity, making any sort of violence necessary to secure Zionist goals legitimate. Indeed, from the pre-1948 era and particularly after Zionist leaders understood that the surest path to victory was to dehumanize Palestinians through violence to the point where the only response they could produce was a far more feeble, but in fact quite useful, attempt at dehumanization in return, with whatever violence they could deploy merely serving to justify even more violence (and more to the point, more settlements) by Israel.

Similarly, when Ehud Barak declared that if he were Palestinian he would join Hamas, he was not admitting to a sin but rather letting us in on a strategy. He understood as well as anyone that the way to continue to hold the world’s grudging sympathy or at least indulgence was to push Palestinians past the point of any possibility of peaceful resistance so that they turn to the exact kind of dehumanizing violence that would trigger Israel’s (self-righteous) “purity of arms” in response. So well has this discourse worked that even as Palestinians have always, and today continue, to engage in innumerable and creative acts of non-violent resistance, the continue to be jailed, tortured and murdered on an almost daily basis without comment or concern by the majority of Israeli and Diaspora Jews, never mind Israel’s “allies” and defenders around the world.

What the present moment reminds us is that true liberal or progressive values simply can’t coexist with racially, religiously and/or ethnically grounded nationalisms. They are two very different epistemological and even ontological systems; when they interact, it is the latter which almost always triumphs, as Trump’s path of destruction of whatever remains of the liberal American state attests. Similarly, Zionism’s myriad sins are not accidental; nor are they mistakes or excesses of a basically (or at least originally) moral enterprise. Rather, they are original to the movement, coded into its baseline programming from the start—the same “conquest of land” and “conquest of labor” that guided Zionist policies in 1909 produced the Nakba in 1948, the Occupation in 1967, and the rise of Greater, fascist Israel in the last generation.

Other than quite literally selling all their land and embracing Zionism as a savior—as Herzl imagined would happen in his novel 1902 novel Altneuland (Tel Aviv)–there was nothing Palestinian could do, a century ago or today, to prevent this history from unfolding. Indeed, if Americans, with our vast territory, wealth and security still cannot own up to the costs and continuing toll of African slavery and native American genocide, how can we ever imagine a small country like Israel, still engaged in an all-out struggle to secure and control the territory it claims for itself, will ever be able to do so?

The situation today presents a very troubling question: What are Progressive Jews, those who still put the core Prophetic ideals of our religious and cultural heritage, and our shared humanity with Palestinians and the broader non-Jewish world, ahead of the idolatrous worship of territory and brute power represented by Zionism and Israel, supposed to do? Who can we look to for support if our leaders and institutions have largely sold their souls? As attested by the near miraculous expansion of anti-Zionist Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now and other movements who have built upon the moral witness and foundation of the Prophetic voices such as Tikkun and other Jewish Renewal groups, the Jewish community itself seems finally to be choosing sides—or rather, progressive Jews are in increasing numbers choosing to make a decisive break with Zionism as it presently exists and could conceivably exist in the foreseeable future.

Whether in Occupied Palestine or the US, Jews, especially the younger generation, are standing in radical solidarity with Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, African Americans, and other oppressed communities, as it becomes clear that Zionism and Israeli policies are not just untenable on their own terms, but are inseparable from a much broader set of pathologies at the heart of the world system—whether its Saudi Arabia’s murderous rampage in Yemen, Assad’s genocide against his own people, Trump’s white nationalist renaissance, or dozens of other violent, autocratic, racist and hyper exploitative regimes across the globe.

The power of this solidarity has the potential to offer an unprecedented challenge to the Zionist hegemony within the American and perhaps even Diaspora Jewish communities. That’s precisely why, from the fields of the West Bank to American college campuses, the Israeli state and organized Jewish community leadership have declared an all-out war against any kind of solidarity activism, from BDS to joint actions against land expropriations, illegal detention, and once again, mass slaughter. It’s also why Israel’s greatest admirers today can be found among the likes of white nationalists and Arab wahhabis.

The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, facing odds at least as overwhelming as those faced by anti-Zionist Jews as he struggled against a still young Italy’s movement towards fascism, railed against what he termed the indifference that allows chauvinistic ideologies to take root and spread. “Odio gli indifferenti”–“I hate the indifferent”–he declared, explaining that “I believe to live means to be a partisan” for one side or another. He would ultimately pay for his choice with his life; his martyrdom, like those of Palestinians at the Gaza border fence, remind us that ultimately, we are all making a choice, whether its indifference or complicity, oppression or resistance.

The cries of Gaza’s Palestinians remind liberal and progressive Jews that for too long the choice has been made for them by a leadership in Israel and the Diaspora that has long acted in a manner that is the antithesis of the Prophetic Jewish values that have long been at the forefront of struggles for liberation, humanity and dignity. Zionism has now entered a terminal phase, and it is threatening to take us all down with it if we don’t take a stand. As Rabbi Hillel asked two millennia ago, “If not now, when?”

➤Mark LeVine, Tikkun’s longest serving Editorial Board member, teaches history at UC Irvine and is a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University and, most recently, at the University of Bologna’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He’s currently working on a collaboratively written history of the Occupation with several dozen leading Palestinian, Israeli and international scholars.


  1. An interesting read. I have long said Zionism is a global obstacle to social justice. Thought the religious point was well made, Sam Harris springs to mind, when celebrity atheists are pointing out the fascist element within Islam, or the moral inconsistences within Christianity they never mention the State of Israel was founded on the same line as these religions, the holy trinity of war, the connections with the Saudis and evangelists resonated. In our natural response to criticise other extremists but forget our own, we forget all these fundamentalists in all religions have mutual benefit in acrimony and war believing they're doing their lords bidding.
    An open intellectual opposition to Zionism within Judaism would be much needed. Calling Norman Finklestein and the like self hating Jews is nonsensical. Although Zionism will give anti semites more ammunition sadly these people will always exist, any excuse to hate anybody and make their own lives less tedious, less accountable

  2. I think what puzzles many Jewish people, though, is why Zionism is singled out above all other nationalisms that are equally rampant today and, in fact, lay claims to much larger territories and peoples. The left have not been intellectually persuasive on this. Why is this occupation different from all others?

  3. Julian,
    I think the simple answer to that is the high profile people who are Zionist. Cecil Rhodes, Churchill through to the Clintonsm Macron so on and so forth, and of course everybody's favourite bogey men the Rothschilds. If any movement had that calibre of operators it would come under just as much scrutiny

  4. David,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I see the connection you make with Israel, colonialism and banking. But is there a nation state on the planet that does not owe its existence to the architects of imperialism and finance of some kind or another? Further there were times in history when Israelis fought against colonial powers (e.g. against the British). Does it not flatten the complexity of Israel's history to only see Zionism only through the lens of collaboration with bogeymen?

    Or does such strong Israel opposition underlie a particular anxiety with Jewish self-determination/nationalism? Would there be less vitriol against Zionism if Jewish people were to return to how they lived throughout previous centuries; in ghettos, shetles or subject to the trials of Dreyfus.

    Now, I'm not trying to justify or excuse the policies of the current Israeli government with "whataboutary". I have no particular interest in doing so. But for me to be completely persuaded by the article in question, I think such an intellectual interrogation of its assumptions are necessary.

  5. David

    Invocation of the power of the Rothschilds is a classic antisemitic trope of both far right abnd far left.

    Unlike Saudi Arabia and the city state of Geneva , the State of Israel was founded on liberal democratic and Jewish principles. Zionism is just another form of nationalism with left wing, right wing, secular and religious manifestations. Why the need to demonise it in particular/

  6. Julian,
    Peoples opinion on the Israel/Palestine question is their own. I have sympathy for both. I am merely pointing out the obvious distinction between Zionism and other national movements.
    Barry, debating people like you is debating robots, the same arguments come up constantly, anti semitic trope? It's a non statement, extend it far enough and any criticism of anybody of Jewish heritage Is anti semitic. I was answering Julian about the intense, somtimes crackpot obsession with Zionism has to do with the calibre of people invovled, a lot of them not even Jewish. How would the anti semitic trope argument work if you criticised John McCain's, for example, defence of Zionism

  7. David

    Actually there is a lot in the article I agree with. Yes, Likudnik expansive nationalism is deeply unpleasant just like the populist nationalism on the rampage in Europe today.

    But where I disagree with the article is its description of Zionism as a settler, colonial enterprise. The State of Israel was founded as a place of refuge for Jews feeling the Shoah/Holocaust and before that waves of anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe and came into being on the basis of a UN resolution.

    I support a two-state solution as both Jews and Arabs are indigenous to historic Palestine.

  8. Barry,
    You would have to have no heart not to empathise with the Jewish people and no brain not to understand the yearning for a homeland. That, however doesn't mean you can't be objective when presented with evidence. The two state solution is a non starter, where would the state of Palestine be? The best solution for Palestinians, as i see it, is to be equal citizens in the state of Israel. Obviously that would have massive opposition from the extreme of both sides. If current polarisation keeps on the extinction of the Palestinian people is almost inevitable. It's incumbent that the liberal zionist movement keeps being vocal against the dehumanisation of Palestinians. The origin of Israel doesn't matter, it's not going anywhere. The liberal zionist has to be more critical of corporate zionism or at least stop acquiescing with the irritating argument that pointing out zionist influence in politics through the l.f.i of c.f.i or aipac or the financial industry is an anti semtic trope it's not, it's a statement of fact. Saying that these influences are sinister is another argument but one we can't have if the go to response is to silence debate through accusations of racism.

  9. David, to be persuasive, you really do need to address the question. A whole range of nation states have been supported by high profile villains involved for financial and military gain (King Leopold in Belgium etc.) But why the disproportionate attention on Israel? Maybe you are against all nationalisms. That could be a defensible position. But why start with Israel, not, for instance, China?

  10. Julian,
    I've no interest in being persuasive. I think you answer your own question, disproportionate attention is a direct response to disproprotionate influence. That's the key word. If China, as you mentioned, had lobbies in major western political parties then they would be scrutinised as closely. To me that's just common sense. look at the Russian hysteria in the U.S over their alleged influence. I understand conversations about Zionism can draw emotions and loonies, however for me interest in Zionism is basic human nature, a desire to understand who has power over you.

  11. David

    So is Zionism a uniquely power driven ideology in your opinion?

    The concerns about Russian interference in the US Presidential election (and most likely in the Brexit referendum on top of their support for the far right in France , Hungary and Austria) arise not from hysteria but well documented evidence as in Hilary Clinton's book "What Happened". Putin's Russia is a much more toxic (sometimes literally!) threat to Western liberal democracy then Israel could ever be

    In any case most medium to large powers have lobbies in other countries to a greater or lesser extent. Israel is hardly unique in that regard.

  12. I find Stanley Cohen, the author of this piece, a morally courageous individual. He has taken up the unpopular cause and detonated the bomb of disapproval at his own feet rather than lob it over the wall behind which he can seek safety.

    When very young I thought groups like Black September were the proper answer to Israeli repression, the Munich attack was great, the Jews were horrible.

    A decade later while intensively reading into World War 2, I was repulsed by the experience of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. I could readily understand why they would want a safe haven. The same year the involvement of the Israelis in the Sabra and Shatila massacre made me ponder on the evil that can harbour within a people that suffered so much yet can so readily emulate their own persecutors and visit murder and brutality on a subject people which echoed the massacre Lidice at in my mind.

    I no longer propose a solution to the issue of Palestine. Radical rhetoric never removed much other than life. I don't support Hamas, nor its attacks on Israeli civilians. But it seems inescapable that the real aggressor in this situation is Israel. Its record of war crimes is appalling. I see no reason to be morally equivalent when it comes to viewing both Netanyahu and Assad. They are war criminals who should be living out their days alongside Théoneste Bagosora of Rwandan genocide infamy.

  13. Barry,
    I don't know if it's unique though certainly powerful therefore worth vigilance. Not read Hilary' book although my opinion of that women couldn't be lower. Why people like yourself defend her is a source of bewilderment to me. Would advise you to read Christopher Hitchens work on the clintons, there crimes are too many to document. what I mean by hysteria is rival nations have been interfering or trying to since time immemorial, why the big deal now. Name me one country Britian or the US hasn't had influence in and i' ll counter it.
    Is there a friends of Russia in every major western political party? Does any prospective US president make a speech in front of a Chinese lobby? The answer to both is no. On basis i would say Zionist lobbies are more powerful. Ffs Barry these are facts. You can watch the speeches on youtube, see the memberships online. We haven't even got into the pros and cons of Zionism yet and your arguing against recorded facts.
    Let me make this clear before you make the tired Putin puppet argument. I don'like him, mainly for his stance on Gays. Look at the nato camps, the support for the Ukranian coup, Georgian influence, sanctions who's the more aggressive?

  14. David,

    It’s a shame, not least for the Palestinian cause, that you “have no interest in being persuasive” because persuasion is part of the political and peacemaking process. I want only for there to be lasting peace in the region.

    China does lobby in various guises (look at some of the dealings of Lehman-Bush in 2011). Watch, also, the Chinese government’s response the next time the Dalai Lama meets a foreign dignitary. I live in Hong Kong, so I can tell you plenty more about China’s influence in the region and the world. In terms of foreign influence, Russia, UK, China, Germany, France and Japan are all ahead of Israel on the global stage. Lobbying is part of the political process in the US. It can have horrible outcomes that are far from democratic (the NRA, for instance). But I see no serious attempts to reform the system. Only that Israel is by no means the only player.

    The idea you raise of a single state with equal rights is a noble one. But, curiously, it has not gained much traction from those in the region, including the Palestinians themselves, the majority of whom seem opposed to it. The situation of failed states in Syria, Yemen, Iraq etc. suggests that international and local governments are incapable of preventing civil wars or protecting minority ethnic groups in the region, of which Jews would end up being in such a state. None of the one-state advocates have sufficiently addressed this. There are good reasons to be cautious.

    But, to get back to the article, to make “Zionism” into the “existential threat” simply flattens Zionism, apportions no blame or responsibility to Arab or other nationalisms, offers no solution for peace, and is unhelpful.

  15. Julian,
    To be persuasive entails a degree of arrogance. All you can do is say what you feel, listen, sometimes you learn a new way of thinking other times you become further entrenched either way you move on. I've no illusions about various groups/ideologies lobbying power, my point was in the west, I can think of none more powerful in western Europe than Zionism and maybe only the nra to rival it in north America. With that level of power scrutiny is not only inevitable but welcome. Your last point I agree with people talk of Zionism as a single entity and not a broad church. I am guilty of it myself, I concede that. I stand by my earlier point that as long as Zionism has the support of the vast majority of major political parties and influence over the financial markets then observation of activities is normal. Maybe i am naive but I firmly believe if the Labour and Conservative parties had friends of China branches then Chinese actions would be every bit as much under the spotlight