Zionism and Jewish identity

JVL Introduction

Professor of Philosophy Joseph Levine, a Jewish Voice for Peace activist in Boston, responds to a recent American article which argues that, because Zionism is an essential component of Jewish identity, it is antisemitic to criticise it. Wouldn’t such an argument apply equally to white supremacists, asks Levine, to exempt them from criticism too?

The argument for identity is one that effectively rules out any question as to whether Zionism is just or not. Its aim argues Levine is “to structure the public debate so that criticisms of Zionism cannot be aired in the first place…”

This article was originally published by Mondoweiss on Mon 2 Sep 2019. Read the original here.

‘Zionism is at the core of Jewish identity, so anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic’ — A response

It seems like the attacks on Palestinian rights advocacy as a form of anti-Semitism just keep increasing.  At my institution – University of Massachusetts Amherst – we had the lawsuit and political campaign to stop the event “Not Backing Down”.  Ironically, this event, intended as a response to charges of anti-Semitism, was itself smeared as anti-Semitic.  Recently the House overwhelmingly passed HR 246, the anti-BDS bill. (Even one member of “the Squad” voted for it, not to mention most (but not all) of the other progressive Democrats.) We are now facing a worse bill, the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which would direct the Department of Education to use the infamous IHRA definition of anti-Semitism when investigating complaints of anti-Semitism on campuses. That definition explicitly makes opposition to Zionism and the notion of a Jewish state a form of anti-Semitism.

What I find so fascinating – and disturbing – about all this activity is that if you seek a clear, fully articulated argument for characterizing anti-Zionism and Palestinian advocacy as forms of anti-Semitism, you won’t find one.  Mostly it’s just name calling, with liberal use of the term “delegitimizing”.

However, if you comb through the various diatribes against Palestinian rights advocacy you can find three implicit arguments: one having to do with the notion of Jewish “self-determination”, one having to do with “double standards”, and the third having to do with “identity”.  The argument from Jews’ “right to self-determination” I have dealt with here. There is also Joel Doerfler’s excellent treatment here. I have also addressed the argument from “double standards” here. The argument from “identity” has not been trotted out a lot, but I expect to see it more and more.  It fits so well with the “harm” paradigm that the Israel lobby is now so fond of pushing.

Recently I ran across a talk by Professor Judea Pearl of UCLA that helpfully presented the “identity” argument.  As the keynote speaker at a special ceremony for Jewish grads at UCLA, Pearl argued that anti-Zionism was correctly seen as an attack on Jews because Zionism is an essential component of Jewish identity.  If you attack Zionism then you are attacking a core principle around which Jews organize their self-conception as Jews, and so you are exhibiting an anti-Jewish attitude.  (This line had been taken by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mervis in an oped in the Daily Telegraph, discussed by Robert Cohen here).

Pearl begins by asking what it is to be Jewish.  His answer is one that I myself find congenial (with some reservations), given I doubt that any definition based on biology or other relatively “objective” criteria will work.  His simple answer:

“To me, being Jewish means to identify with the past, present, and future of a collective of individuals who happen to call themselves ‘Jews.’ This is indeed what ‘people-hood’ means: A collective bonded by common history and common destiny.”

So far so good. Jews are people who identify as “Jews”, which means identifying with a certain collective history.  Presumably it also means finding a special sense of community with others who also identify as “Jews”.  That this sense of identity is important to many people – that it forms a fundamental aspect of their life project – seems clear, and it also seems clear that people should be allowed to pursue their communal life, in accordance with their sense of identity, without fear of being harassed, discriminated against, persecuted, or interfered with.  I would agree that all people, so obviously including Jews, have a right to pursue their lives in a way that expresses their identity if they so wish.

Okay, but now Pearl adds Zionism into the mix.  Zionism itself is a kind of identity, one that is inextricably linked to Jewish identity.  Again, here’s Pearl:

“Since Jews are a history-bonded collective, and Israel is the culmination of Jewish history, elementary high school algebra dictates that Zionism is an essential component of Jewish identity. Zionist students and faculty should therefore be recognized as legitimate participants in UCLA’s tapestry of inclusion and diversity.”

This argument is breathtaking in its scope and in the boldness of the inference.  We start with the idea that to be Jewish is to identify with a certain collective history, and then it turns out that a specific view about how that collective should develop becomes essential to the identity.  Is Israel “the culmination of Jewish history”?  Well, Zionists may think so, but many other Jews – many Haredi Jews in particular – would beg to differ, claiming that the coming of the Messiah would be the “culmination of Jewish history”.  We all know that for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Zionism was a minority opinion among Jews.  That a position that was only adopted by a large segment of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust should count as essential to Jewish identity – an  identity constituted by a self-conscious identification with a three-thousand year history – is really quite hard to swallow.

But suppose we set these doubts aside and accept the premise that Zionism is essential to Jewish identity.  What’s supposed to follow?  Well, according to Pearl, it should follow that:

“… in all matters concerning code of conduct, Zionism should attain the same protection status as any religion or nationality or identity-distinct collective, and anti-Zionism should turn as despicable and condemnable as Islamophobia, women inferiority or white supremacy.”

Since nothing of the sort follows automatically, how is the argument meant to go?

I imagine it goes like this.  People have a strong and legitimate interest in identifying themselves with a community – it’s what gives them (a significant part of) their sense of their own identity.  As a strong and legitimate interest, it grounds a right to pursue and develop their connections with, and sense of identity with, the relevant community.  If I attack or denigrate aspects of someone’s identity, then I am harming them and my actions are appropriately condemned for that reason.  So if someone says that Zionism is racism, or a form of settler-colonialism, or is in any way unjustified, they have denigrated a crucial feature of Jewish identity and therefore their speech amounts to an expression of anti-Semitism.  The person attacking Zionism is harming Jews by undermining their sense of their own identity.

Once spelled out, it’s obvious that there is a lot wrong with this argument.  To begin with, Pearl’s argument proves too much; it applies to “identities” of all sorts.  What if white supremacists argued that belief in the supremacy of white Europeans, along with their civilizing mission in the world (Kipling’s “white man’s burden”), is an essential element of their sense of their own white-European identity?  If I attack the doctrine of white supremacy and the idea of the “white man’s burden” as racist and evil, have I “delegitimized” white-European identity and thereby unjustifiably harmed those who hold this view?  (This is not just a fanciful thought experiment: Richard Spencer has said that with his “white Zionism” he is just trying to do here what Israel has done there.)

The question isn’t (as the ADL seems to think it is) whether the motivations behind Zionism and white supremacy are similar or not.  What matters for Pearl’s argument is this.  If indeed there are people who see themselves as part of a white-European collective history, and deem this identity essential to their own self-conception, and also hold that their biological and cultural superiority is an essential ingredient of this white-European identity, how is one not guilty of attacking someone’s identity if one combats white supremacist doctrine?  Put another way, what immunizes Zionism from criticism but not white supremacy?

Now maybe one might reply that white-European identity can’t count as the kind of identity we have a duty to protect because it is not the identity of an oppressed group.  Only the identities of oppressed peoples – oppressed usually by white-Europeans in fact – deserve the kind of protection Pearl is seeking for Zionists-Jews.  Of course I see that the issue of protection is clearly more pressing for oppressed peoples than for dominant ones, but if what we’re talking about is a right – a right to have one’s identity validated by others – then I don’t see how recognition of that right can be justifiably restricted to oppressed peoples.  Rights are the kind of thing that applies universally, or not at all.

But let’s put aside for the moment the problem of white-European identity.  Even if one could find a basis for distinguishing the Jewish-Zionist case from the white-European case, it still seems evident that Pearl’s inference is invalid.  He starts from the premise that Zionism is essential to Jewish identity and then concludes that Zionism merits protection from attack on that basis.  But what if Zionism itself is an unjust doctrine; one that entails the violation of others’ – i.e. Palestinians’ – rights?  Can its inherent injustice be immunized from attack and exposure merely because many people take the doctrine to be essential to their own self-conception?  (Again, couldn’t that apply to white supremacy too? I know I said we’ll ignore that for now.  But it’s hard to ignore.) Suppose, just to make the point, that a group of Jews took God’s order to Joshua to commit genocide in Canaan as a currently binding commandment. Suppose they also took the Torah’s commandments to be essential to their Jewish identity (a more plausible hypothesis than that Zionism is, to my mind). Would we be bound to accept this view because it’s essential to their identity, or would we be justified – indeed, required – to fight against it?

Of course Pearl would undoubtedly retort that Zionism is not unjust and therefore isn’t asking for some special exemption from moral criticism merely because of its role in constituting Jewish identity.  Rather, Jews are justified in taking control of Palestine because they have a right to the land.  But if it’s not unjust, why do we care whether or not it forms a crucial part of Jewish identity – just defend it from the charge of injustice directly?  Why this detour through identity politics?

The answer is that for Pearl and many Zionists the point isn’t to defend Zionism at all.  The point is to structure the public debate so that criticisms of Zionism cannot be aired in the first place.  Pearl wants critics of Zionism to be prohibited from making their arguments on the grounds that doing so would violate the identity-rights of Jews.  But if he admits, as I imagined he would, that identity-rights can’t immunize a genuinely-unjust doctrine from public criticism, how do you prohibit criticism of Zionism in the public realm until you’ve shown that it’s not unjust?  And how do you do that if you don’t allow those who claim it is unjust to make their case publicly?  It seems as if there’s a Catch-22 here.  If it’s morally kosher, then Zionism cannot be legitimately criticized because of its role in Jewish identity.  But we can’t know if it’s morally kosher unless we subject it to the critique of anti-Zionists first, which, according to Pearl’s argument, we’re not allowed to do.

I think what Pearl would have to say at this point is something like this.  Of course any doctrine that any person or group holds is subject to moral critique – no matter how deeply held or essential to the group’s identity it is.  However, when the belief in question is of this special identity-constituting sort, then before we allow it to be subject to dispassionate and respectful debate, we first must ascertain both that the criticism is not coming from a place of ethnic/religious/racial hatred and that there is at least a prima facie case that it is unjust, one that any reasonable person can see.  These two conditions are intimately related of course.  As Pearl and other Zionists often argue, the case against Zionism is so obviously silly, unreasonable, whatever, that the only explanation for anyone’s taking the criticisms seriously is that they have a bad case of Jew-hatred.

To this I have two replies.  First, notice that now the role Zionism is playing in grounding Jewish identity is no longer relevant.  All that matters is whether anti-Zionists are so unreasonable in their arguments that you are forced to attribute anti-Semitism to them to explain their behavior.  The whole issue of Zionist identity is just a red herring.  But more important, how can anyone look at the history of the Zionist project and think that characterizing it as a settler-colonial enterprise that stole another people’s land out from under them, expelling the vast majority in the process, is downright silly or unreasonable? Notice that for my point to stand it’s not necessary that I establish the truth of this claim about Zionism (though I think it’s in fact fairly easily established).  The only standard I have to meet is that there is enough evidence in its favor that holding it isn’t silly or unreasonable. Again, even if, after subtle and informed argument, it’s proven wrong, that doesn’t change the situation.  So long as a reasonable, morally sensitive person could see the situation that way, then we must allow their arguments onto the public stage.

Pearl’s detour through identity politics doesn’t change anything.  The point is that once an identity claim threatens to conflict with the rights of others, as anti-Zionists claim it does in this case, it can no longer provide safety from criticism. So show that there’s no anti-Zionist case at all, or shut up about the anti-Semitism (or “Zionophobia”, Pearl’s suggested neologism).  But, again, actually confronting the anti-Zionist’s arguments is the last thing Pearl and fellow Zionists want.


Joseph Levine is Professor of Philosophy at UMass Amherst, member of the Academic Council of JVP, and member of Western Mass chapter of JVP.

Comments (2)

  • Richard Hayward says:

    Actually, the issue doesn’t need lengthy examination. As said, the conflation of ‘Jewish Identity’ and ‘Zionism’ falls apart under even the most simple scrutiny, since many who consider themselves as Jewish do not identify with Zionism as being essential to that identity.

    Demolition complete.

    Now … about Palestinian identity …?

  • Philip Ward says:

    Joseph Levine makes some good arguments, particularly the Catch 22 one, but I’m not sure whether the analogy with white supremacism works. The reason is that Judea Pearl’s position seems to be worse than Joseph admits, as the “reasoning” outlined here indicates that Pearl thinks that those Jews who are not Zionists are not actually Jews. How else can you interpret the idea that “Zionism is an essential component of Jewish identity”? I don’t think white supremacists would argue that those white people who are not racist bigots are not white, as they hope to recruit more white people to their ranks. The analogy only works if you reject Judea’s “identity” aspect of Jewishness and go wholesale for the claim that you only become a Jew once you embrace Zionism, which is what he is actually saying. Well, thanks for that.

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