Why I’m a Zionist (…and the consequences for being one)

It has recently come to my attention that while I was the editor of Leviathan, many of my staff members did not know that I am a Zionist. I find that fact very troubling, since I’ve written repeatedly about my support for the nation, despite the challenges in maintaining that support. This confusion about my Zionism is something I’d like to clear up immediately, because I find that fact central to my position as an American Jewish journalist. So in an effort to be brutally explicit about my intentions and goals (and as a way of mentally preparing for my upcoming trip to Israel and Palestine), here are the reasons why I’m a Zionist, what Zionism means to me, and the consequences of my work thus far.

Let me start first with a little bit of personal background that might help folks understand where I’m coming from. Feel free to skip these paragraphs if you think that this information is irrelevant to my feelings toward Israel. However, I assure you that my family history almost completely informs my opinions. Call me a product of my environment. I’ll thank you for it.

During college, I became deeply invested in my ancestry, and what I found was nothing short of your typical Ashkenazic Jewish background. My mother’s father escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna by the skin of his teeth, joining one of the several thousand Jewish refugees in Shanghai. Her mother fled to England from Nuremberg after Kristallnacht. They met after the end of the war and raised my mother in the heart of the modern-day Pale of Settlement, also known as New York City. My grandmother (from Czechoslovakia) and my grandfather (from Poland) met in a refugee camp in Italy after surviving Aushwitz, and were then taken to Israel on an illegal ship, only to be sent packing to Cypress, before they finally were able to make aliyah. My father and his sister were raised in Israel.

Naturally, I’ve visited the Holy Land several times. In fact, my first language was Hebrew, and it would’ve stayed my native tongue had it not been for my bat-shit crazy preschool teacher who informed my parents that it was too confusing for a child to be raised bilingual (we still curse her to his day). But although my parents raised me in California, I still maintain a deep connection with the state of Israel. I’ve been going to rikkudei-am since I was in vitro, and the smell of za’atar or shakshuka still sends me right back to the steps of the old city.

And of course, I have relatives on both sides of my family who live in Israel. In many ways, the relatives on either side of my family are complete polar opposites. My mother’s side of the family, who live in Haifa, are artists, lesbians, and hippies. They’re also refusenikseither kicked out of the IDF for insubordination or deemed exceptions to the draft for mental instability. My father’s side of the family are a little more what one might call mainstream Israelis. All of them served in the IDF–most in the air force (which is considered the elite in the army)–and they maintain relatively comfortable lives in the suburbs of Tel Aviv.

My relationship with my mom’s relatives in Haifa is an easier one to maintain than my dad’s. For one thing, despite my immaculate appearance I’m a raging hippie. For another thing, I enjoy people-watching in the Druze village much more than I do shopping on Shenkin. So it might come as a shock, but back in the day, I used to dream about joining the IDF myself. Listening to my dad’s stories about the mischief in the army, I wanted nothing more than to don that olive drab uniform and carry a big old Uzi. The day I graduated from high school would be the day I would make aliyah and be done with it. I would be a real Israeli.

You could chalk it up to another one of my many fleeting childhood fantasies, but I rather recall being repelled from the dream of becoming a real Israeli after hearing stories of a so-called “conflict.” As soon as I found out that there was an actual possibility that I’d be required to shoot the uzi, I’m pretty sure I abandoned ship.

The point is… I did not know that there was a conflict in Israel until I was at least thirteen. I distinctly remember a conversation with my mother in which I asked what was really going on, embarrassed that I didn’t actually know. This fact is a mark of my extreme privilege in this conflict. And, as any good social justice advocate knows, as soon as you realize that you’re privileged, it’s time to start listening, learning, and then getting other folks who are similarly privileged to do the same.

When I was in third grade, I started attending religious school. In my own strange and neurotic way, I formed a tenuous relationship with God, prone to frequent temper tantrums and raging fits of mistrust. But while I was studying for my Bat Mitzvah, I suddenly and completely severed that relationship, hoping to turn away from “the whole Jewish thing” for good.

I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but somewhere in between performing an original composition called “Where I Come From” in front of thousands at an Israeli independence day celebration in San Francisco and declaring a second major in Jewish Studies, I began to realize that I do still somehow connect with Jewishness and Israel. Or maybe it was becoming the editor of Leviathan, and subsequently devoting the rest of my life to the transformation of the American Jewish media. But who’s really counting?

To me, Judaism and Zionism are intricately linked, but totally separate entities. Zionism is a belief that Israel should be a Jewish state. Duh. But what does Jewish mean, and what does state mean? Clearly, these two things are the heart of what makes this matter so complicated within the Jewish and Zionist communities. In my mind, Jewishness is a cultural thing, based on a rich and vibrant history. And my form of Zionism calls for a democratic state. Some believe that Israel has already achieved its goal, and are therefore “Post-Zionists.” However, I believe that Israel is not yet a fully Jewish or a democratic state. As long as religious extremists who use God as an excuse to continue their racist, sexist agendas, I will continue criticizing Israel as a fervent, however disappointed, Zionist.

My line of thinking is very much based on the work of Peter Beinart, Aryeh Cohen, Noam SheizafMichael Lerner, and Gershom Gorenberg, and the early Zionists Ahad Ha’am, AD Gordon, Ber Borochov, and Nachman Syrkin. I also owe the majority of my relationship with Jewishness to my former professor Nathaniel Deutsch, and his work on the Russian Jewish ethnographer Ansky and the UCSC Jewish Studies program. In calling myself a Zionist, I in no way hope to ally myself with the likes of Theodore Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or any of the like. I also realize that all of the people I just listed are white males, and I am concerned about that, since that does not adequately express who I’d like to see representing the Zionist cause.

I also need to come clean about my own misgivings with the idea of the nation-state altogether. Rapidly, I am abandoning the will to do any sort of reform with regards to the social framework of the nation-state. I am not an anarchist–I do see the need for structure and government. But I’m quickly starting to despise any kind of hierarchy, maybe including democracy, favoring instead consensus-based social organization. (This thinking comes as a shock to me. I had no idea that the Santa Cruz radical scene had influenced me so much.)

But as long as we’re still doing this whole nation-state thing, I will continue working towards a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land-swaps. I don’t see this as an unattainable goal. I’d like to see the Israeli government completely withdraw from the occupied territories, and provide incentives for Jewish settlers to move out of Palestinian land, or allow them to stay with the knowledge that they would be living under the jurisdiction of Palestinian authority.

There are major consequences to my positon as a Zionist from all sides of the spectrum. In many Zionists’ perspectives, including my own family’s, my form of Zionism is illegitimate, even traitorous. Recently both my cousin and my aunt told me they were very upset with my work, and said that “By being a pro Palestinian, you stopped being a Zionist.” On the flip-side, I feel pressure from many of my Palestinian activist friends for not taking an even harsher stance on Israel.

Perhaps rightly so. I write because I want to change consciousness, and changing the way you think is necessarily uncomfortable. Abandoning my connection with Judaism and relationship with Israel back in middle school was an almost traumatic experience, and it’s a daily struggle to maintain it even today. Continually challenging my beliefs is a daily battle, and shattering one good intention after another can often lead to severe burn-out.

After all, I’m sitting comfortably here in my mother’s home, worrying about my reputation as a journalist/activist/thinker, while many hundreds of people are living as refugees in the country I’m most familiar with, after the US. That is reason enough for me to continue my work, despite the consequences. I am fully prepared to rethink my stances, even if that means debunking all of the arguments I’ve made over the past few years. If I do, you’ll be the first to know.


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