Coming out as a leftwing Zionist

The recent decision by US President Barack Obama to not veto a critical UN-Security Council Resolution regarding Israel has re-erupted a decades old discussion. What to do with one of the most long-lasting conflicts in modern times? The discussion is not just one of many. It has become a rallying point of many ideological stances, the nuance is gone, black and white are the only choices. You are either for or against. There is no middle ground.

As a leftwing European I often feel quite isolated with my Zionist stances. Yes. I am a Zionist. Even a proud one. But in Europe, certainly in leftwing circles, it is not easy anymore to come out as one.  And I am not the only one. Many Jews, Zionist or not, have left our parties. Always known for their leftwing stances they now feel isolated and singled out because of what people think about Israel. Questions are rarely asked.

I post this opinion piece on the blog of Graduates, a group created by the European social democrats for people with normally similar ideals. We advocate diversity, discuss gender issues, quotas [not unquestioned] and we claim to be tolerant and inclusive. But Israel and antisemitism are sensitive topics. We are a group that wants to underline the plurality of opinions circulating in Europe’s left. But when Zionism or Jews come up the room seems to small. The elephant in the room is being discussed and that leads to friction. Defending Zionism or Israel is equalized to support apartheid and racism. Not by all, but enough to set the tone. An article critical of Obama’s approach is seen as spreading a “Zionist agenda by a murderous state”. A constructive discussion is not possible, tension and aggressive reactions are the result. And I am sick of it.

Zionism; what does it mean?

As a Zionist, I support the right of the Jewish people to have a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel. I am also a proud Zionist. I think it is one of the most noble causes of past centuries. After decades of persecution, many Jews left Europe to buy and build their own land in the Ottoman province of Palestine. The Holocaust is not a justification for Israel, but it did underline what the Jews were fleeing for. That the Jews despite those horrors have a place to call home, their own sanctuary of freedom. I think that is not only their right but also humanity’s mission to protect.

Regardless, opinions differ. And it is a good thing they do. Anti-Zionism is not similar to antisemitism. Criticism towards Israel or its policies don’t have to be either. Anti-Zionism is the opposition to the ethno-nationalist and political movement of Jews to have a Jewish state. Antisemitism is the discrimination against Jews as a people and/or against their culture. Clearly different thus. Anti-Zionism however is also used by people critical of Israeli policies. They label themselves as such just for being critical. This label is wrong and it’s also part of the problem. The discussion is not this black and white. You can be against the Jewish state in what is now Israel but still argue that Jews do have the right to have their own state in a different location. You can support Zionism, even the right of Israel to exist in its current form, but still be critical of Israeli politics. And there are many more alternatives.

The same counts for me; I am a Zionist but that doesn’t mean I support everything Israel does. The settlement policy has started as a way to force the PLO of Yasser Arafat, who did not see any reason to talk about peace at that time, to the negotiation table and talk about peace. Regardless, the settlements have gone completely out of control and continuous buildings projects only harm the fragile peace process. You can agree or disagree, but I believe in the two state solution. And I still think it is possible. There are many Zionists like me. ‘We’ are not anti-Palestinian or against Palestinian statehood. We just want a fair solution for all and refuse to point the finger to one single person, people, or country. The reality is not black and white. But people think it is.

Zionism in Europe

It all seems so logical, so progressive, but then why do I feel so isolated in leftwing Europe? It has not always been like this. After the foundation of Israel, European Jews or supporters of Israel had no problem expressing their stance in leftwing parties. This was mainly the result of Israel being leftwing itself and being build upon a sort of socialistic model. Modern Israeli politics is dominated by center right and right-wing groups. But for decades after its foundation, Israel was led by leftwing parties. David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Gold Meir, and the late Shimon Peres were all members and leaders of the labour party. Israel was a leftwing example with its kibbutz and socialist policies. It was not weird to see Israel as an exemplary country. Certainly for social democrats.

Support for Israel was rarely based upon an apologetic stance towards the Holocaust as is so often claimed. The Holocaust was in the first decades after the fall of Nazi-Germany not part of the public discourse as it is now. The German youth of the 50s and a large part of the 60s never even heard of Auschwitz till a famous young lawyer from Frankfurt rediscovered the horrors that happened in concentration camps. Furthermore, prejudices against Jews didn’t disappear after World War II. Europeans simply preferred to forget that Jews were an intrinsic part of their own society just a few years before. This doesn’t mean support or sympathy for Israel was not partially based on recognition of Jewish suffering. Many people were aware how much the Jews suffered before and during World War II. This emotional connection made people aware that the Jews were not safe in Europe. That they, as any other people, had the right to have a home to feel safe.

Europe’s undeniable connection to the suffering of the Jewish people made sure the conflict has always received special attention. A form of attention not always healthy and that finds its roots in the century-old antisemitism that dominated European discourse. And as social democrats we must know how difficult social constructs can be to overcome. But next to idealism and ideology, Europeans were increasingly aware of what happened and started to recognize Zionism as a nobel cause.  This was certainly the case for Europe’s socialist and social democrat parties, strengthened by party connections.

Modern Zionism

But times change. And so do sentiments. With the fading of time, lessons of the past disappeared. Jews however, remained to be a powerful social construct in Europe to rally behind. Israel still received an unhealthy portion of European attention but expressed in a completely different way. With the tensions of the Cold War decreasing, Europe’s leftwing elite and parties became increasingly more cosmopolitan orientated. This included an anti-Western (mainly American) focus which portrayed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the Cold War. Israel was nothing more than an American satellite, an imperialist power, occupying and suppressing the Palestinian people. And you don’t have to agree with this but the leftwing ideology started to see criticism on its self-proclaimed inclusive stances as undeniably racist or part of [cultural] imperialism.

Before elaborating on this it is important to look how this way of thinking was strengthened by an influx of Islamic migrants. It underlines the importance of power systems within their communities, discourses, and social constructs. The Middle East used to be one of the more moderate and accepting regions towards Jews. But this started to change with the foundation of Israel and the betrayal of European powers regarding Arab Nationalist ideals. From the Middle East to North Africa, Arabs and mainly Muslims were taught that Israel was the embodiment of evil. First for nationalistic reasons and after that for conservative political-religious reasons and interests. The leaders of the countries and groups where those people identified with,  influenced to a large extent the discourse among Arab and Islamic communities. Israel was their ideal scapegoat and was easily used as the West’s colonial representations in the Middle East.

Muslims were but also are part of hierarchical power systems through which social constructs are spread. These interconnections are often very powerful and influential. We must conclude, even admit, that a plurality of opinions rarely exists when Israel is being discussed among many Arab communities and Muslims. Israel is the embodiment of anti-Arabism (when nationalism was dominating the Middle East) or the enemy of Islam. Being anti-Israel is part of your identity. As an Arab or Muslim, it has to be. It is not a racist thing to say that this is not a healthy way of thinking.

Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism

Anti-Zionism in this form is dogmatic and ideological. Criticism towards Israel, in a black and white environment, is getting similar characteristics in Europe. That is also reflected in the new identities of our countries and parties as said above. The  leftwing identity has moved from a social-economic unity to the ideal of having a cosmopolitan, diverse, and multicultural society. You have to be against war, racism, discrimination and imperialism. Although sounding progressive and ideal, the reality was less inclusive than preached. Our new cosmopolitan ideals needed an enemy, and we became our own. We started to fight what we saw as normal but often blindly. For example it did not just mean distrusting America’s policies around the world but any claim that [seems to] idealize Western Identity and Culture. Europe needed to be independent and inclusive, which means anti-America. Israel was simply seen in Cold War terms and this resulted in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist stances to become the norm. Criticism was used as the magic word, but the reality was that we became less self-critical. We didn’t accept other opinions anymore that conflicted with our stances. We forgot where we came from and why people voted upon our parties. We refused to see the power of new social constructs around us while we kept referring to them as important. The anti-Israel sentiments became interwoven with socialist and social democrat stances.

At the same time, for the many Muslims it is part of their identity. They are educated and raised in this way and it explains why they are en masse, barely without exception, anti-Israel or anti-Zionist. But do we question them? No. Do we question ourselves? No. We talk about being inclusive and diversity but there apparently are limits.  Being against Israel is among young self-proclaimed leftwing progressives a silently accepted requirement. No matter upon which ideals Israel is build. Zionism is equalized to racism and apartheid. Israel is even becoming enemy number one. We defend LGBT-rights, women rights, human rights but at the same time we prefer to use Israel as an example of where all values have gone wrong. We grunt when human rights are violated in Russia or South Africa. But when Israel is being discussed, we start to scream and shout. We don’t question the lack of attention from the United Nations towards Syria  or North Korea. When almost no resolutions pass the vote. But 20 resolutions about Israel in one single UN-General Assembly are apparently no problem. A double standard, hypocrisy that is even underlined by the UN’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The conclusion has already been reached before the actual discussion. And let’s be fair. An ideological discussion is not a discussion at all. It simply is an exchange of unquestioned dogma’s. You have to be for or against. There is no alternative.

I will repeat it again. anti-Zionism or criticism towards Israel is not antisemitism. But we have a problem if we don’t question the unhealthy social constructs and identities that influence the ways criticism towards Israel is expressed. Which means the use of anti-Zionist ideals as unquestioned pillars of being Muslim, Graduate, Progressive, Social Democrat or whatever. In that case, we must not be surprised when emotions run high and people start to use Israeli symbols, often reflected as being Jewish, in their opposition to Zionism and Israel. We must not be surprised when self-proclaimed critics of Israel started to generalize all Jews as Zionists or representatives of Israel policies. We must not be surprised when people start to threaten and even attack Jewish targets around Europe. We must not be surprised when Jews become the targets of terrorists all over the world. We must not be surprised when demonstrations turn out in heated, aggressive, and hostile rallies against Jews.

But the lack of criticism holds leftwing Europe back. Antisemitism? “No, saying that is only a way to justify Israeli politics. Just as the Holocaust was used.” A dogmatic and ideological tense debate is the result. anti-Zionism or criticism is not antisemitism but it can certainly turn into this when the influence of social interactions in our discourse and the prominent social constructs that come with them are being ignored or remain to be unquestioned. And this is what is currently happening in Europe and to large extent into our leftwing parties.

Zionism has to become acceptable

In short, this opinion piece has not the intention to make anyone pro-Israel. It has not the intention to make the Graduates and readers Zionists. The main objective of this piece is to make people aware of the dogma’s and ideological constructs present in our leftwing discourse. Criticism is not bad. But self-reflection is necessary. Are we critical because we really oppose a certain policy or ideal? Or are we educated and taught to be like this? Is it an unmentioned requirement of being part of a certain group and should we accept it as such? Can we say with certainty that we independently and rationally formed our opinions?

When we ask ourselves these questions. When we start to question ourselves but also the people around us. When Zionism becomes an acceptable ideal where you don’t have to agree with but at least can talk about without feeling offended or threatened. Then my real mission has succeeded and I can stop writing under a pseudonym.

Jelles Gerbrandy

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2 thoughts on “Coming out as a leftwing Zionist

  1. So on the one hand, I agree with everything written here, especially about how European leftist parties need to return to a socialist or social-democratic core in which Jewish liberation has an important place. However, it seems “inopportune” to me to write this without naming Israeli allies with whom to organize: the Israeli Left is at its weakest in decades due to the Second Intifada, Second Lebanon War, multiple Gaza Miniwars, and the Stabbing Intifada.

    It’s not enough to feel bad for abandoning Jewish liberation: the Jewish Left needs solidarity right now to show that an alternative to nationalist bunker-mentality exists.

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    1. You are completely right. Some European parties ally up to Meretz simply because it is more critical regarding Israeli policies. It is in my understanding that we should refocus on that socioeconomic core and boost Labor better. In the old days the relations were very warm, for the reasons expressed above they have basically frozen, boosting left wing movements in Israel such as the Zionist Union will simply make sustainable relations before, during, and after a possible agreement.

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