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Austin Cline

Jews vs. Israelis vs. Zionists

By November 3, 2004

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In Israel, there is a growing conflict over people identifying themselves as Jews or Israelis. There was a time when no conflict or difference existed, but now that the Israeli government is doing things that right-wing Jewish groups find objectionable, people are being forced to choose. This does not bode well for the stability of Israeli society.

As Haaretz explains, the current conflict is centered on the likelihood that Israeli soldiers will have to forcibly remove Jewish settlers from Gaza:

It is no coincidence that the settlers are using the word "Jews" in their current struggle. It is not a battle for Gaza, nor a fight for democracy or the rule of law. This struggle, over a limited and problematic unilateral disengagement, brings to the fore - like a spotlight focusing its blinding light on a single hidden spot - the big question that has simmered underneath the surface of the society and State of Israel since 1967.
The question, which the moderate secular public tried to skirt from every side, is that of the clash between Jewishness and Israeliness. Or, to be more precise, between Judaism and Zionism. Zionism posed a challenge to the "We are Jews" of Rabbi Avraham Shapira and his disciples because it stated that the fate of the Jewish people is a matter for human action, not divine action. It is precisely along this fault line that Orthodox rabbis disengaged from Zionism. The religious Zionist movement tore itself away from messianism when it joined the Zionist normalization. But not for long.

This conflict has interesting implications for the debate over whether being anti-Zionist is the same as being anti-Semitic. There are many defenders of Israel who insist that they are identical; there are many supporters of the Palestinian cause who insist that they are not. While it is true that some anti-Zionists appear to be anti-Semitic, the conflict between the Israeli government and far-right Jews complicates matters. If a person supports the Israeli government, are they anti-Semitic for supporting action taken against Jews? If a person supports the settlers, are they anti-Semitic for opposing the Israeli government?

Of course, if any anti-Zionist position were to be identified with anti-Semitism, wouldn't it arguably be the anti-Zionism that is critical religious Jews who see themselves as playing a role in a grand, messianic drama. Anti-Zionism that merely opposes secular, political actions of the Israel government is an unlikely candidate for anti-Semitism, but anti-Zionism that focuses upon religious Jews is a good candidate. At the same time, opposition to the religious Jews who think that God has given them dominion over all the disputed lands and more is also the easiest to defend it's certainly not a Zionist position shared by most Jews around the world.

Is anti-Zionism the same as anti-Semitism? Anyone who says that they are the same has adopted a very superficial, simplistic perspective on matters that are far too complicated for such a facile formulation. One of the reasons is that there is too much variety within both Zionism and Judaism for either to be equated with anything else, much less each other. Dumb anti-Zionists might also be anti-Semites because they aren't bright enough to tell the difference, but that is a judgment that can only be made on an individual basis rather than a generalization that can be applied broadly.

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