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Ruben Brosbe

Life after Zionism

This Monday evening marks the first night of Passover, the Jewish festival celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Jews all over the world will observe Passover with a seder, a ritual-laden meal that essentially recounts the origin story of the Jewish people. But for many American Jews, this Passover night will feel different from previous ones. 

The Passover seder includes myriad references to Israel and traditionally ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” Furthermore, depending on one’s politics, the seder offers countless opportunities to see one’s self in the role of the victim, or the oppressor. In the wake of October 7 and Israel’s bombardment on Gaza, gathering with family promises to be a fraught experience, particularly for Jews from Zionist families who no longer identify with Zionism. 

On the surface, it would appear that American Jews overwhelmingly support Israel and Zionism. A 2020 Pew poll found that "Eight in ten U.S. Jews say caring about Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them." 

But a recent survey released by the Pew Research Center shows Israel’s six-month bombardment of Gaza does not enjoy universal support from U.S. Jews. The survey of Jewish Americans, conducted February 13 - 25th, found mixed views on support for Israel and its war on Gaza. According to Pew, 33% of Jewish Americans say the way Israel is carrying out its response to Hamas’ attack is unacceptable. Among the 18-34 year-old cohort, this number is 42%. 

The data suggests Israel’s war on Gaza may represent a turning point away from support for Israel and Zionism for some American Jews. To understand this experience I spoke to eight U.S. Jews who were raised Zionist but no longer identify as such. Some chose to be identified by their first name only because of concern for doxxing which has been used against people advocating for Palestinian solidarity. For one, October 7 represented a breaking point, however the others experienced their own moments of realignment at different points over the past six decades. 

“Zionist by Default”

Many of the Jewish Americans I spoke to are part of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ), a group to which I also belong. Many recount receiving messages about Israel early on from their families, synagogue communities, and Hebrew schools. Jay, a member of JFREJ and Jewish Voice for Peace-NYC (JVP) from Brooklyn who uses they/them pronouns, recalls “I was a Zionist by default in the way that a lot of American Jews are… In the same way that, you know, if you grew up in the U.S. and you go to school in the U.S., you're patriotic by default.”

A strong relationship to Israel was encouraged in part by associating the state with Jewish safety. “It was always connected with the narrative of the Holocaust,” Katie, another member of JFREJ and JVP from Brooklyn, says, “But then afterwards, I'd say there was sort of a happy ending to the story in that we Jews finally got a homeland, a place where they're safe. 

Jay also remembers being “taught that if we need to leave here for whatever reason, Israel will take you in no questions asked.” They add, “As someone who has pretty immediate family histories of real persecution and exile as I think a lot of American Jews do, that was very comforting.” 

At the same time, Israel was described not only as a haven, but as a source of Jewish strength and pride. Farrel Brody is an 86-year-old member of JVP-Central Ohio. “I had a little wooden rifle that I had been given for Hanukkah,” Brody remembers. “And I would go around with my little rifle pretending that I was a member of the Haganah [the Zionist paramilitary] and that's when I was 11, 12 years old.”

Robbie Liben, 64, a member of JVP-Montana says the founding of Israel was presented as “a heroic and triumphant story. It's like, ‘We're no longer oppressed. We have heroes now. We've had Jews who have created a whole country.’”

For Rabbi David Cooper, 72, rabbi emeritus and co-founder of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, California, those founders were celebrated and honored in his Jewish classrooms in the same way Abraham Lincoln and George Washington might be in secular classrooms. 

Meanwhile, all of these narratives depended, implicitly or explicitly, on expunging Palestinians from the history and present of the land. Arielle, 33, a member of JFREJ and JVP from Astoria, Queens, says “I heard repeated the lie that it was a land without a people for people without a land.” This phrase was repeated by several others who shared their recollections of Zionist upbringings. 

When Palestinians were discussed, they were characterized as “anti Jewish” Cooper recalls. He was told that “They didn't want us there in Israel” and were “essentially evil [for] not making, allowing, or understanding our need to be in this place.”

The confluence of messages instilling pride, anxiety, and fear made for a powerful combination. But each person I spoke to eventually grew disillusioned by political and personal disruptions to their Zionist indoctrination.

“Cognitive Dissonance”

For several people, the Second Intifada which began in 2001, marked a turning point. Katie felt the events of the Second Intifada shook her understanding of Israel as a peace-seeking country. “I read about how Ariel Sharon went up on the Temple Mount, and it sparked these kind of violent protests,” Katie recounts. “Somehow it seems to me very clear from reading this, that he had done this on purpose to derail the peace process.” Sharon’s subsequent election as Israel’s prime minister combined with what Katie saw as a disproportionately violent response to Palestinian protests changed her outlook. “There was a lot of cognitive dissonance for me,” Katie says, “This was not the idea of Israel that I had. I thought of it as this country of people who want to make peace and yet it was not behaving like that.” 

The Second Intifada also affected Socket's understanding of Israel, a 47-year-old who uses they/they pronouns and lives in middle Tennessee. “I knew people who are Palestinian so I was hearing from people what was happening to them and I was like, ‘Oh, this is really really bad,’” Socket says. “It was just very clear to me that I had to be an anti-Zionist.” 

By 2001, Socket had been involved in radical leftist political activism for some time. That September, the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa erupted in controversy over a draft statement equating Zionism with racism. The U.S. and Israel withdrew from the conference in protest. After the conference, Socket says their peers were “talking so casually, [saying] Zionism is racism. I didn't want to show that I didn't understand it.” Socket remembers calling their sister, feeling confused. “I just thought [Zionism] was this thing where it's like a socialist idea. I thought it was good and I thought it was about us having a place to be and so that was the beginning for me.” Afterwards Socket joined a group called Jews for a Free Palestine and embarked on a process of group and independent study about the history of Israel and Zionism. Socket says the period also began “a lot of hard conversations with my family members” that led to “not talking to them for months, if not years at a time.”

Arielle’s break from Zionism was a process that first began during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza in 2021. She remembers feeling very upset and confused and calling a Zionist friend for support. She told her friend, “This doesn't feel right. I don't think the Israeli side is right.” In response, her friend “implied that [Palestinians] were troublemakers. And I knew that was wrong.” In the wake of the racial justice protests of 2020, Arielle felt a disconnect between her commitment to antiracism and her Zionism. “I was like, I'm missing something. Like there's no way Angela Davis has it wrong.”

After October 7, Arielle says she read 12 books in a month. "I started studying the history that I had avoided, that I had held at arm's length because it made me so uncomfortable to really hold the cognitive dissonance of my family story and this other truth.”  She was especially struck by the racism of early Zionist founders. “It was doomed,” Arielle says she felt upon reading about the history of Zionism. “If it started racist, how was it ever going to stop being racist?”

“What About the People Who Lived There?”

For many former Zionists, it was firsthand experiences in Israel and occupied Palestine that reshaped their relationship with Zionism. Brody spent three years teaching English at an agricultural high school in northern Israel. He remembers learning that the families of Arab students who received scholarships were threatened. According to Brody, these families were told if they participated in any sort of anti-Israel action, “You will not only lose your scholarship and you will possibly lose your life.” 

Later, Brody was visited by a group of Israeli students who were upset because he awarded the highest score to an Arab student. He still feels outraged about the incident, “You're telling me I can't give an objective grade because I'm from the diaspora, and that here in Israel it has to be known that Arabs are lesser human beings? It hurt me. It hurt me deeply.”

Rabbi Cooper was 16 when he traveled to Israel right after the 1967 war. Israel had just occupied East Jerusalem, including the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall. “I had grown up going to synagogues,” Cooper explains, “And in Hebrew school, there was always a picture of the Western Wall on one of the walls.” Whether it was a painting or a photograph, Cooper always remembers the image of people praying against the wall. Behind them was a small street and a neighborhood. 

Cooper was excited to see this image come to life upon his visit to the wall. “I knew I was gonna walk right into that picture. And when we got there, it didn't look anything like it. It was the wall. And then it was like an open area. There were no buildings facing it.” Confused, Cooper asked his tour guide what happened to the neighborhood he saw in the pictures, “‘Didn't there used to be buildings facing over here? Did the Jordanians tear it down between 1948 and now?’ And he said, ‘No, no, we just did that.’” 

But Cooper’s confusion was not allayed, “I asked the obvious question. I said, ‘What about the people who live there?’ And he looks at me goes, ‘What does that matter?’” It was a defining experience for Cooper. “That was a sort of a weird moment for me as a kid,” Cooper retells, “because to me, it did matter. And it's mattered ever since in a sense.”

Liben spent some time traveling in Israel in 1988. “I'd read The Jerusalem Post every day. And I remember the headline of the Jerusalem Post one day said that like 80% of Israelis want to deport all Arabs.” He was shocked. “What? What? That was a little bit of reality that smacked me in the face.”

For Jay, a trip to Israel via Birthright in their 20s was formative in rethinking Zionism. “It was very clear even at the time that there is a security state that only applies to some people,” says Jay. Upset by what they witnessed as well as the reactions they faced when speaking up, “I asked a lot of questions and people jumped down my throat or shut me down,” Jay explained.”[B]eing there really opened my eyes to the assumptions I had made and how they were wrong.”

For Molly, a gap year trip to Israel held formative experiences. One Shabbat, Molly traveled with a friend to their cousin’s home in a settlement outside of Jerusalem. “We had to take a different kind of bus to get there, go through a checkpoint. And I just remembered… it feeling very sterile. And like it wasn't supposed to be there.” As a result, Molly says, “I was starting to understand that this whole place was built for me at the detriment of other people who are living there.

Overall, these personal experiences with Israel disrupted dominant Zionist narratives. They surfaced the Palestinians who were generally erased from Zionist stories, as well as the racism and oppression faced by Palestinian people. 

“Once I Let Go Of That, It Just Felt A Lot Easier.” 

For many former Zionists, reassessing their relationship with Zionism has felt painful at times, “This has been a very tough couple of months,” says Molly, “I do feel like I have been questioning a lot of things from my childhood and the propaganda that I received.” But the process has also opened up new possibilities regarding their relationship to their Jewish identity.

“I do resent that I was taught things that I feel were distortions,” says Katie. But meanwhile, leaving Zionism has relieved her of a feeling of internal conflict. “I had been trying to make things make ethical sense that didn't fit with my ethics. And suddenly once I let go of that, it just felt a lot easier.” 

For, Klatzker anti-Zionism is a chance to repair harm based on their family’s history as participants in early Jewish settlement in Palestine. “It’s my duty to undo what they did,” explains Klatzker. “They weren’t trying to be colonizers. They were participating in a moment where that was normalized and their safety felt like it depended on it. And they were wrong.” For Klatzer, their anti-Zionism is not in opposition to these ancestors, but rather a way to demonstrate respect: “I feel like as a white person that tries to disentangle from and be aware of how I benefit unfairly from whiteness I need to disentangle and look at how I benefit from Zionism and do as much undoing of it as I can as part of a way to honor my ancestors.”

Rabbi Cooper urges U.S. Jews who are considering rejecting Zionism to hold onto their relationship with Judaism: “I don't want people to resolve their dissonance by feeling that given the conflation of Judaism and Zionism so much that they feel that this is a failure of Judaism… If you're angry about what's happening in Gaza, be angry at Israel, be angry at Zionism, don't be angry at Judaism.”

Molly feels that questioning Zionism is innately Jewish. “It's okay to question things. That's one thing that I keep kind of bringing up when I'm talking to people is as Jewish people one of our values is that we question things.” She adds, “You're not betraying your Jewish identity. You're not betraying your Jewish values. The more you recognize people's humanity, the less cognitive dissonance you'll have.”

For Arielle, leaving Zionism has been an experience of “falling in love with Judaism for the first time in [her] life, because there is Judaism beyond Zionism, and it's beautiful. It is so much more expansive and holy and sacred.” 

It is worth noting that U.S. Jews do not make up the majority of U.S. Zionists. Christians United for Israel, the largest Christian Zionist organization in the United States, claims 10 million members alone. That is more than the entire Jewish population in the United States. Nonetheless, Zionism is the predominant ideology among American Jews, and especially dominates Jewish institutions such as synagogues, non-profits, schools, and summer camps. The horrific reality of more than 33,000 Palestinians killed by Israel’s attacks on Gaza, 14,000 of them children, may bring about a reckoning for Zionism for some portion of America’s Zionist Jews.

To other Jewish Americans rethinking Zionism at this moment, Arielle offers an invitation, “You will lose community but there is a whole other community waiting to welcome you.”

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