A Gangrenous Appendage: Zionism in American Jewry

by Ben Geier

Whenever I tell people I’m Jewish (as if my hair, beard and general aura weren’t enough to let them know), I always feel like I have to give them a few disclaimers. First, my mother is not Jewish, so if you’re the type of person who puts a lot of stock in Talmudic law, I am technically not a member of the tribe. Second, I did not go to Hebrew school or have a bar mitzvah, so I can’t wear a prayer shawl and I can’t share in telling stories about remembering my Haftorah portion.

For years this made me feel self-conscious around other Jews, like I was an outsider even among other outsiders. So it was not despite my lack of Jewish education and training but because of it that, as a teenager and young adult, I latched on to another aspect of contemporary American Jewish life—Zionism. No, I wasn’t an obsessive, reading biographies of Golda Meir underneath my blue-and-white bedsheets, but I was passively supportive of Israel, because no matter what anyone else said about how I wasn’t a real Jew or that I didn’t understand actual Jewish life, I could fall back on my support of Jews over there, and feel some level of self-satisfaction in knowing that I was making the right choice and supporting my guys.

As you might guess from the tone of my writing and the publication you are reading these words in, I don’t feel that way anymore. So now I have a third disclaimer I feel like I have to give, one that more often than not I let go unspoken so as not to start a fight or ruin everyone’s enjoyment of the kugel at my more religious cousin’s Seder: I am an anti-Zionist Jew, rejecting the notion of a Jewish state on stolen Palestinian land. On the rare occasions I do bring this up with my Jewish family and friends, I often feel like I have to keep repeating myself: No, I’m not just anti-Netanyahu; no, I don’t support Israel’s “right to exist” as a brutal apartheid ethnostate, and no, I do not believe this makes me anti-Semitic.

Zionism is the gangrenous appendage to the body politic of American Jewry. It sits, unexamined and untreated, festering. It must be cut off, lest the sepsis spread and leave us sick and, ultimately, dead.

The first part of my story is not unique. For the past half-century, many of the things that made American Jewish identity special have either faded or become ubiquitous. Bagels are now available at every supermarket, and even the most goyish of people can enjoy a pastrami sandwich (many of them even know not to put mayonnaise on it). Everyone can enjoy Jerry Seinfeld, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which takes 20th century Jewish culture and boils it down to its very essence, is created by and stars a group of goyim. And our religiosity has faded right along with every other group of Americans, especially among urban and suburban young people. Everything that set Jews aside in America has, by-and-large, become mainstream, and there really isn’t much left to make us different from other white people.

Except, of course, for our devotion to the State of Israel. This has become our shibboleth, our birthmark. And it weighs us down. It makes us weak. American Jews are generally supportive of many left-wing and liberal projects. We are legion in the Resistance to President Trump, and I believe that many liberal Jews are sincere when they proclaim to support multiculturalism and ethnic pluralism in America. But when Israel is brought up, they retreat. They make excuses, and they can’t bring themselves to apply those very same principles to the situation in Palestine.

Zionism is the gangrenous appendage to the body politic of American Jewry. It sits, unexamined and untreated, festering. It must be cut off, lest the sepsis spread and leave us sick and, ultimately, dead. It has not always been this way. One of the most common misconceptions about American Jewish life is that since the end of the Second World War we have been steadfastly devoted to Zionism. The belief is that when the state of Israel was formed, an epigenetic shift happened within our cells that caused all of us to suddenly have a deep devotion to a land that most of us have never been to, that most of our families haven’t lived in for a thousand years. The belief seems to be that it support of Israel is hardwired into our brains. This is utter nonsense, and anti-Semitic to the core. It consigns Jews to having a superhuman (or, perhaps, subhuman) sense of political allegiance. Whereas other people’s allegiances and nationalities are shaped by culture, politics, and upbringing, the Zionist canard makes us believe that ours are somehow ingrained in our bodies, that we are predestined to support a nation. No matter how we are raised and where we are from, it is assumed that something inscrutable resides in our bloodstream and must lead us all to the same conclusions.

How can Jews claim to support the oppressed on the border in Texas, in Ferguson or in Chicago if we don’t have the backs of their counterparts in the West Bank, Gaza, and Tel Aviv?

Yet American Jewish support for Israel did not arise in any serious fashion until the late 1960s, two decades after the United Nations helped found the state. In The Holocaust Industry, political scientist Norman Finkelstein details how, beginning around this time, American Jewish political elites started using Holocaust remembrance and support for Israel as a way to cohere Jews into a political entity. The wars of survival fought by Israel during this time—notably 1967’s Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War—provided the perfect catalyst. These groups could point to those wars and claim that by attacking Israel, the Arab nations were in effect attacking all Jews. They were the new Hitlers, and it was the duty of those of us living in America and elsewhere in the West to support the nation where our brethren had fallen under attack.

It may not seem particularly important how and why American Jews came to be such stalwart supporters of Israel, but it is key to understand if we are going to succeed in our project of breaking that support—eradicating the sepsis, to continue the metaphor. It isn’t a natural state of being that those of us with Jewish heritage end up supporting the Jewish state. It is a cultivated political project. I never went on Birthright, but when I was in college, I would frequently hear family and friends returning from their trips tell me that when they landed, they felt some sort of natural connection to this land. I’m sure they felt a connection, but it was anything but natural. The connection was inculcated, built into them artificially. American Jewish politicians, religious leaders, and our very own families have been telling us since we were born that that land is our land. The very name of the trip so many of us take—Birthright—pushes us to believe that since birth we have been promised a connection to, and an ownership of, that country. We must acknowledge that this support is politically derived if we are to figure out a way to change it. It won’t come through any natural evolution. Indeed, if we are to change the course of the American Jewry towards a support for civil rights and ethnic pluralism, we must look to explicitly political solutions.

In the television program Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—perhaps not as explicitly Jewish as Mrs. Maisel, but very connected to Jewish humor nonetheless—main character Rebecca Bunch gets in a rap battle with a fellow Jewish lawyer, punnily coined a “JAP Battle” (Jewish-American Princess, for any goyim reading this). After listing off their academic accomplishments and putting each other down for various perceived deficiencies, the two rap about their liberal bona fides—spending a semester in Africa, being a member of the ACLU. It is a fairly subversive take on performative white liberalism. Then, though, after one of the combatants proclaims that she is “progressive as hell,” the two come together to complete the rhyme, proclaiming, “though, of course, we support Israel.” One could dismiss this as a silly conceit in a television show, but the inclusion of support for Israel here is a fine example of just how important Zionism is to American Jews. How, then, do those of us who want to see change in our world go about affecting it?

As I’ve said, it won’t be through simply ignoring the problem. In his book (((Semitism))), journalist Jonathan Weisman tells Jews to stop fighting so much about Israel, to stop caring about it. In his mind, the urgency of the Trump era means that American Jews need to forget about Israel and focus on the injustices happening in the United States: the brutality at the border, the stripping away of civil rights protections, the scourge of police murders of people of color. Yet this is clearly insufficient. After all, anyone who puts even a small amount of effort into analyzing the news can see the connections between what is happening in America and the situation in Israel. Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are so close because they have fundamentally the same worldview; indeed, the support Israel has in the United States beyond the Jewish community is largely because the American colonial project and the Zionist colonial project are so fundamentally in sync. (There is also the evangelical eschatological angle to consider, though that is responsible for a smaller sliver of non-Jewish American Zionism).

We can’t just forget about Israel—not if we are going to actually take on fascism and white supremacy. America’s border policy has a direct correlation to the way Israel treats its own quasi-border with Gaza. Our police train with Israeli police in the “best” ways to deal with so-called terrorism. And the increasingly mainstream idea that immigration of people from other cultures coming into our country and voting in our elections is going to spell a death knell for “our people” is an exact echo of the language Bibi Netanyahu used in the 2015 Israeli elections, when he warned of Arabs being bussed to the polls. We cannot simply ignore Israel and focus on our own house. Right-wing politics are a global threat and must be considered on a global scale. How can Jews claim to support the oppressed on the border in Texas, in Ferguson or in Chicago if we don’t have the backs of their counterparts in the West Bank, Gaza, and Tel Aviv?

For those of us have already seen the light on justice in Palestine, convincing our fellow Jews to join us can seem an arduous task. It is easy to do as I have done for so many years: to be cowardly, to sit and listen while our family and friends denigrate Donald Trump from one side of their mouths while praising the IDF from the other. In 2014, during one of Netanyahu’s incursions into Gaza, I was at a gathering of family and friends, most of them Jewish. Knowing that I was a journalist, one woman, a person I had known since birth, told me how she and other Jews she knew were boycotting CNN because of its supposedly anti-Israel coverage. She told me she didn’t know where to find journalism that wouldn’t upset her. I took a sip of my beer, put my head down, and slinked away.

We can’t slink away. We are up against a powerful lobby, a bipartisan political coalition, and decades of propaganda. The only way we are going to win is through conversation and political organization. Until we win, American Jewry will continue to carry this burden. We will still be hobbled, dragging the dying limb behind us. Every person we win over, though, is a stroke of the surgeon’s blade. We will win, and the body politic of American Jews will come through stronger, a more able-bodied participant in the war so many of us do believe in: the war against fascism, white supremacy, and capitalism.

But only if we fight.

Ben Geier is a journalist, writer, and graduate student in political science at the City University of New York. Originally from Alexandria, Virginia, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife. He can be found on Twitter.