By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel, Lebanon
It is frankly embarrassing that our contemporary society seems to require a defense of Zionism, but if there’s anything more blatantly obvious about the need for a secure Jewish state, it’s the depth of hate that anti-Semites will rationalize in order to illegitimately demonize Israel.
On mainstream media outlets, across previously progressive spaces, the right for a Jewish state to merely exist is under attack. Bari Weiss’ How to Fight Anti-Semitism and David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count reiterate the truth that people who are overtly anti-Zionist are actually anti-Semitic.
Why? Because their criticism of Israel often isn’t constructed in order to make improvements to the existing state, but levied unevenly, doled out solely to Israel with the express purpose to remove it (and over half the Jews in the world) from existence. Despite hundreds of countries with atrocious human rights records, this double standard belies malicious intent.
Most susceptible to this intellectual persecution are the students attending colleges that are confronted with Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolutions and anti-Kosher food policies. The entry fee to be welcomed at many student government association meetings is to publicly denounce Israel, separating “good” Jews from “bad” Jews.
Some colleges have attempted to delegitimize Hillel Houses on campus grounds, even holding voting referendums on Jewish holidays to remove educated Jews from scrutinizing their controversial tactics. So, in order to re-legitimize Jewish Nationalism in light of intersectional identity politics, I will engender you to the most common polemics surrounding the modern State of Israel, and how we should respond to (or ignore) people who refuse to acknowledge the right for the State of Israel to exist.
“Israel is a colonist empire and therefore shouldn’t exist” was the line given to me by my progressive friends in college a decade ago. This was the tender moment I realized that I had lost some of my friends, because their perverted sense of social justice and lack of Jewish history had undermined their capacity for empathy.
The rebuttal to this is obvious: Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel. Not just because my sinuses clear up upon entering the Negev desert, but because when you dig in the sandy ruins there, you find ancient relics, almost always with the same Hebrew letters that you pray with in your siddur today.
No colony that I am familiar with discovers troves of ancient artifacts from their ancestors. You can read the Bible and see the history. You respond to this anti-Semitic canard with “Jews are actually decolonizing the land of Israel. Jews have always lived in the land of Israel, with varying populations depending on various eras of persecution.”
“Israel is a White supremacist country,” is the most uneducated perspective I’ve heard over the last few weeks, and can be rebutted simply. Approximately one million Middle Eastern Jews, all from Arab lands, were kicked out of their homelands at the same time that the State of Israel was being founded. The Farhud roiled the Jews of Iran, and most Persian Jews are indistinguishable from their Palestinian neighbors.
While the skin color of Israelis is only important when Americans superimpose their racial issues onto foreign geopolitics, make a note that Israel is not white at all. Ask any Ethiopian Jew rescued from Africa, like Miss Israel 2013. Bonus fact: almost every citizen is a refugee or a child or grandchild of a refugee.
“Israel is committing ethnic cleansing against Palestinians” read posters displayed at anti-Israel rallies. While the reality of the mere number of Palestinians growing in the land, both in Israel proper and Gaza and the occupied West Bank, is enough to dispel this prevarication, some people are convinced that oppression is enough to call Israel “an apartheid state.” You can respond by telling them “The population of Palestinian citizens has increased exponentially and the definition of apartheid doesn’t hold.”
If you’d like to know more about apartheid, you’re welcome to read the criticism of UNHRW. This conversation hinges on a person's perspective of the United Nations, which has a history of exonerating countries with horrible human rights violations. Example? After the most recent session, North Korea has fourteen human rights condemnations, Syria has thirty-six, and Saudi Arabia has zero. At ninety-four, Israel has the most.
“But still, Israel has the most human rights violations,” is usually the follow up point. And while that must be conceded to be true, look at who is condemning Israel - nations of brigands and thugs. In a lot of ways, the UN is dedicated to facilitating pan-Arab nationalism at the expense of Israel.
This is a very scary concept that progressive Americans often fall trap to. The United Nations is not sincerely dedicated to the peace and stability of their regions, or the world. They’re often dedicated to subterfuge so that governing agencies look askance when their dictatorships commit atrocities. How else would countries like Iran be able to get away with skirting nuclear regulations? Or how Eritrea performs genital mutilation on its women? The examples will make your head spin.
“Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!” This is a popular chant at BDS marches and anti-Israel events. The uncomfortable truth to this chant is that it advocates for the destruction, and genocide, of Israel and its people.
Palestinians should be free - from Hamas and terror organizations designed to make proxy wars between Iran and Israel. When there is a reliable governing body to represent Palestinians in peace negotiations, there will be a chance for Palestinian freedom.
Until that time, the terror organizations that are holding the Palestinians hostage have no legitimate interest in peace or recognizing the state of Israel. You can respond to this by asking, “Do you want to wipe Israel off the map?” Don’t be surprised if the response is a terse “yes,” or is so impractically idealistic that it garners the same result.
“Israel uses disproportionate use of force” is another common trope when Israel is effective at degrading enemy infrastructure. This is tragic because it recalls the pictures of piles of rubble that once held Gazan hospitals, schools, and Al Jazeera’s headquarters.
The sad reality of terrorists is that they choose ethically demoralizing locations to headquarter their operations. It is a Hamas policy choice to fire rockets from preschools and public work centers. And it is an IDF policy choice to warn the terror targets of incoming missiles. However, to Hamas, if the IDF retaliates, it is a PR victory embellished in Jihad videos. If the IDF stands down, it’s a terrorist victory because their investment in missile launchers or underground tunnels is protected. You can try to explain the recognized international concept that when a terrorist uses a public space for violence, it becomes a military target, but good luck.
“Israel kills children,” is the ultimate blood libel charge. Civilian death is a sad and unfortunate reality of conflict, and one that haunts soldiers and citizens of Israel alike. It also harkens back to the age-old trope of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I prefer to restate the contemporary accusation as “Hamas uses human shields,” because then the blame is rightfully placed on terrorists who choose to cowardly endanger children.
The moral code of the IDF, which is the most stringent out of all the world's militaries, requires that any military action gets legal approval. While mistakes are made, the length that the IDF goes through to protect the innocent is extensive. Also let us not forget how many rockets are misfired by terrorists and result in civilian casualties in Gaza and the West Bank, and how those children are lionized as martyrs under a terrorist cult of death. How many families receive payouts for offering their youth to martyrdom?
As I close out this article I want to share one of the most pressing points regarding Jewish nationalism. It is about preserving life. The imperative to save a life has so thoroughly been incorporated into Israel’s military that, unlike the past two thousand years of diaspora history, Jewish sacrifices are weighed with the utmost seriousness.
American patriotism differs from Israeli Zionism - by a long shot. Jewish history reveals that there are times when host countries turn on their minority populations, and Jews are often first to feel the isolating chill. It seems like those who have experienced persecution at the hands of the former Soviet Union, or by Arab potentiates, or most recently, by European nations, are in the best position to educate us American Jews on how to embrace the necessary strength we need to become Zionists. If America should continue to turn into how Europe looks today, we will need fortitude and coordination to survive the onslaught of anti-Semitic violence.
Zionism is the belief that the Jews should have a right to live in our indigenous homeland of Israel. This means we have the ability to defend ourselves from physical and intellectual attacks on our existence, in Israel and abroad. As we have watched fundamentalism grow over the past few years, we should not hesitate to call out the anti-Semitic measures that may result in physical attacks.
This last escalation in the Middle East emboldened a vast majority of anti-Israel protesters to endanger our community. At this point, if you believe Israel has a right to exist, you are at odds with the scarier trends in American politics. It may seem uncomfortably redundant to these readers, but please learn how to defend Zionism. And then teach your children and grandchildren.