Jewish Alternatives to Zionism: A Partial History

By Ben Lorber

For over a century, Jews around the world have maintained a robust critique of Zionism and the state of Israel.

The tradition of Jewish dissent against Zionism has taken many forms. From the moment Theodore Herzl strode upon the world stage, many of us have insisted that leaving the diaspora for a Jewish nation-state is the wrong way to achieve safety, fight antisemitism, actualize Jewish identity, and work for justice in the world. Many have claimed that our peoples’ relationship to the land of Israel is far more complicated than a narrow nationalist vision can allow, or that we are religiously forbidden, at this time, from setting up a Jewish state in the holy land. And many have protested Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians indigenous to the land of Israel.

Though these arguments, and many others, animated Jewish life and discourse for generations, they are too often forgotten in today’s mainstream discourse, buried under the mistaken assumption that all Jews have always supported Zionism.

But today, as more Jews are awakening to the depth of Israel’s unjust oppression of Palestinians, there is a real thirst for new Jewish identities, to guide us through these troubled times. In order to dream the Jewish future beyond Zionism, we need to trace the Jewish past beyond Zionism.

This article seeks to uncover the lineages of difference and dissent, the moments in history when alternatives appeared on the horizon. This concise survey of modern Jewish non- and anti-Zionist history cannot, of course, do full justice to these issues in all their complexity; the reader is encouraged to use this overview as a starting point for further research.

The movements profiled here should not be uncritically valorized- like all movements, they remain products of their era, with strengths and limitations specific to the soil in which they grew. In tracing this lineage, we do not intend to cherry-pick the ‘good’ streams of Jewish history from the ‘bad’- any honest look backwards cannot admit such simplicity. Rather, we seek to uplift dissident voices, and roads not fully taken, so that we may learn to wrestle more fully with the totality of our past, so that we may glimpse, in its twists and turns, flares of hope that help light the way, in these dark times, towards the new Jewish future, already bursting into view.

Orthodox anti-Zionism

For the first decades of its existence, Zionism was a marginal movement in Jewish life. The persuasions of Zionist leader Theodore Herzl were resoundingly rejected by most European rabbis, and in 1897, Herzl even had to relocate his First Zionist Congress from Munich, due to fierce objections from rabbinic leadership there. Up until the mid-20th century, opposition to Zionism, carried out through advocacy organizations like Agudath Israel, was the dominant position in the orthodox  Jewish world.

For Orthodox Jews, to be Jewish meant to exist in a state of  galut. Commonly translated as ‘exile’, galut means both that the world remains in ‘metaphysical exile’, broken, incomplete and not-yet-redeemed, and that the Jewish people are to remain in ‘physical exile’, scattered in diaspora among the nations of the world. While Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) was revered as an intensely holy place, and it was considered a mitzvah to financially support the small communities of pious Jews living in the holy land, it was specifically forbidden for Jews to return en masse and set up a Jewish political entity there, until the coming of the Messiah. According to Jewish thought, the return of the Messiah would usher in the end of galut- the restitution of a religious Jewish kingdom in the holy land, and an era of peace and justice around the world.

For decades, with few exceptions, most European Orthodox Jews rejected the secular doctrine of Zionism as a ‘false Messiah’, and vociferously condemned the movement’s presumption that Jews could accomplish the process of redemption through their own handiwork, rather than relying on the will of G-d.  “The Holy One, blessed be He, will redeem Israel [the Jewish people] as a reward for piety and for faith in Him,” wrote the Sfas Emes in 1901. “Let no one imagine that the redemption and salvation of Israel will come through the Zionists. [1]

In a modern world where the promises of assimilation and secularism threatened to uproot inherited tradition, observant Jews were worried that Jewish nationalism would corrode and supplant religious identity and practice. “The Zionists have done even more harm than the Maskilim [supporters of Jewish enlightenment],” claimed the Rebbe Rashab, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, leader of the Chabad Hasidic movement, in 1903, because rather than urging Jews to give up their separate identity entirely and blend in as secular modern citizens, “the Zionists are far more cunning in their evil and have made nationalism a substitute for Torah and commandments” [2]. As we shall see, ultra-Orthodox opposition to Zionism continues to this day.

Reform Anti-Zionism

Across the USA and much of Europe, the Reform movement also remained firmly anti-Zionist throughout the early 20th century. Guided by modern values of humanist universalism, Reform held that the Jewish people should remain in diaspora, where they would fulfill their divine commandment to be a moral ‘light unto the nations’. Until the late 1930s, the leadership of the American Reform movement- and a likely large majority of the millions of American Jews who fell under Reform’s umbrella- held that ‘America is our Zion’,  and taught that Jews would help bring the Messianic age by working to spread democratic pluralism and tolerance in America, and around the world.

Stressing their commitment to universalism, Reformers removed all references to a Messianic rebuilding of Jerusalem from liturgy, and controversially insisted that Jews were not a ‘people’ with any ethno-national identity, but simply a faith-based religious community [3]. Afraid of attracting the antisemitic motif of ‘dual loyalty’ then spreading across Europe, they were careful to broadcast that their political loyalty was to the USA, not to a  not-yet-actualized Jewish nation.

The fear that the spread of Zionist ideology would endanger the precarious integration of Jews into their home countries, was held not only by the Reform movement, but by thousands of Jews around the world, of varying political and religious stripes. For example, Sir Edwin Montagu, who cast the sole opposing Cabinet vote to Britain’s Balfour Declaration in 1917, insisted that “Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom…when the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens”. Across the diaspora, a plethora of Jewish religious and secular voices echoed this concern, in a variety of ways, that the spread of Zionism would help encourage the growth of anti-Semitism around the world.

Opposition  in the Old Yishuv

Palestinian Jews, who had lived peacefully in Eretz Yisrael for generations, largely rejected the arrival of European Zionists, whose secular norms and colonial ambitions clashed with the largely religious local Jewish population. Many Palestinian Jewish leaders joined their Muslim and Christian neighbors in writing statements, building organizations, and lobbying internationally against Zionist settlement.

In one example of resistance, leading rabbis of the traditional Sephardic Jewish communities in the holy land ordered their communities to disobey attempts by the British Mandate government, in the 1920s, to register every Jew in Palestine under the Zionist National Council. Here, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the majority of Jews shared a strong communal bond with their neighbors, forged over centuries of often peaceful co-existence, and resisted external attempts to bifurcate their hybrid Arab-Jewish national/cultural identities.

Meanwhile, in the first decades of Zionist settlement, Jewish activists within the Palestinian Communist Party, and in some far-left Labor Zionist circles, fought in mandate Palestine against the expropriation of Palestinian peasants, the exclusion of Palestinian workers from Zionist Jewish-only labor unions, and other unfolding injustices. Other minority Jewish voices in mandate Palestine called for Jews and Arabs to unite in anti-colonial revolt against British imperialism, while still others, like the martyred Jacob Israël de Haan, worked diplomatically to promote alternate paths of Jewish-Arab cooperation.

The Zionist movement itself carried small but fierce currents of opposition to the dominant colonial trend. Leading ‘Cultural Zionist’ voices like Ahad Ha’am, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Judah Magnes, and Albert Einstein formed organizations like Brit Shalom, decrying political Zionism’s unjust treatment of Palestinians and alliance with colonial powers, and advocating for a binational rather than a Jewish-majority state. Zionism, for these activists, meant less a project of territorial expansion and state-building, and more a project of global Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal. Often, they and other Jewish intellectuals of the era were sharply critical of Herzlian Zionism’s desire to assimilate Jewish identity into European Christian norms of culture, nationhood, masculinity, and more.

Alternatives in Eastern Europe

In eastern Europe, a number of alternatives to Zionism flourished through the first half of the 20th century. The General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia- known simply as ‘The Bund’- was a grassroots Jewish socialist movement  that, at its height, claimed hundreds of thousands of members across Eastern Europe. Rooted in Yiddish as the language of the Jewish working class, the Bund organized Jews alongside other national minorities for an end to capitalist exploitation and racist oppression in all its forms.

The Bund strongly rejected Zionism as a bourgeois answer to the ‘Jewish question’. The call for a Jewish state, they argued, was a pessimistic, escapist response to anti-Semitism, favored by the Jewish and Gentile upper classes, that did little to combat anti-Jewish oppression, but simply re-segregated the Jews into an exclusivist nation-state that, by its very nature, could not be truly liberatory [4]. Instead, the Bund called for ‘national cultural autonomy’- protected minority status, with independent institutions and flourishing language and culture, for Jews across Eastern Europe, and insisted that only a socialist society, committed to racial and economic equity, could secure genuine safety and liberation for Jews and all people.

Meanwhile, a variety of diaspora nationalist movements, led by figures like Simon Dubnow, sought Ashkenazi Jewish communal self-rule through the creation of a national territory in Eastern Europe, with Yiddish as a national-cultural language. Thousands of left-wing Jews of various stripes eagerly supported the USSR and socialist or anarchist movements across Europe, drawing sharp distinctions between their varied commitments to workers’ revolution, on the one hand, and the false liberation promised by Zionist bourgeois nationalism, on the other.

In America, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe continued these strong communist, socialist and anarchist traditions of anti-Zionism. Voiced in the pages of The Jewish Daily Forward, the Morgen Freiheit and other publications, hundreds of thousands of Jewish workers rejected the call to join or support the upbuilding of a Jewish nation-state on the other side of the planet, casting their lot, instead, with movements to improve their material conditions, and advocate for workers’ rights and social justice in America. For many decades, the heart of a vibrant secular Jewish Left beat, not for the upbuilding of Jewish settlements in mandate Palestine, but for the Scottsboro Boys, the struggles of workers in factories and fields, the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, the movement to defeat Nazi Germany, the unfolding progressive vision for a more just and equal world [5].

Dissent in the Middle East and North Africa

In the middle of the 20th century, deep-rooted Jewish communities across the Middle East and North Africa found themselves caught in the precarious middle of a dizzying geopolitical battleground. National liberation movements, seeking to uproot European  powers and undo the entrenched cultural and economic vestiges of their rule, looked upon Zionism with hostility as an extension of European colonialism, and viewed with great suspicion the persistent, and usually unsuccessful, attempts by Zionist emissaries to win adherents among Jewish communities across the MENA region.  

While some MENA Jews supported Zionism, the majority regarded themselves, through the middle of the 20th century, as fully part of the countries in which they lived, and found little reason to uproot themselves. Like the rabbis in Europe, many pious Jews throughout MENA were suspicious of Zionism as a secular appropriation of traditional messianic yearning. Many Jewish intellectuals in Arab countries worked to articulate a modern Arab-Jewish identity, asserting natural bonds of solidarity with Palestinians and the larger Arab world in which their Jewish communities had long been deeply rooted. Often, these activists sought to form a united front against Zionism, a path that was explored in a 1932 ‘Jewish-Arab summit’ convened by  groups in Jaffa.

Many secular Arab Jews allied themselves with progressive national and socialist movements in their home countries, convinced of the justness of these struggles and concerned, again, that Zionism would inflame the anti-Semitic prejudice that Jews were ‘foreign’ or ‘traitors’ to the places they lived. Throughout the 20th century, Jewish activists like Henri Curiel in Egypt, Abraham Serfaty in Morocco, and Daniel Timsit in Algeria threw themselves into the anti-colonial and socialist struggles of their era, working alongside other peoples for collective liberation [6].

For example, the Anti-Zionist League was an organization of Iraqi Jewish intellectuals and activists founded in 1945, that opposed Zionism as a form of colonialism and a front for British control over the Middle East. In their 1945 founding petition, they called for “the establishment of [a] completely independent, Arab, democratic state [in Palestine] where all citizens’ rights should be guaranteed regardless of Arabs and Jews”, and wrote that “the Jewish problem [i.e. antisemitism] cannot be resolved except by resolving the Jewish problem of a country where Jews are living, and we are sure that reactionaries and colonialists help Zionism playing a role in confusing Jews and Zionists.”

It is clear that, throughout the first half of the 20th century, a wide variety of Jews and Jewish movements around the world opposed Zionism- whether viewing it as a theological heresy, an inadequate response to antisemitism, an inauthentic Jewish identity, a reactionary political position, or simply as a movement with little relevance to their daily lives. While many were as yet unaware of the ‘Palestinian question’, those who were voiced strong opposition to the steady displacement of a people who already called the holy land home.

The Traumas of the Mid-20th Century

These vibrant alternatives to Zionism were largely swept under the rug of history by the traumas faced by Jews around the world in the mid-20th century. The sudden rise of Nazi fascism snuffed out 6 million Jewish souls and decimated what was, at that time, the largest Jewish civilization on the planet, European Jewry. Across the Middle East and North Africa,  Jews were steadily expelled from countries where they had lived for centuries, sometimes even for millenia. And in the United States, deepening assimilation, as well as the anti-Semitic targeting of Jewish leftists under McCarthyism, relegated radicalism to the margins of Jewish identity.

These deep and unprecedented ruptures drastically changed Jewish life and consciousness in the mid-20th century. For generations after the exodus or death of most Jews in Europe and MENA, mainstream Jewish opinion held that history itself had disproven the diasporic ideology articulated by the Bund as Doikayt (hereness), and epitomized in slogans like ‘wherever we live, that’s our homeland’. For many, understandably desperate for concrete safety in vulnerable and traumatic times, the Zionist conviction that Jews would never be safe in the diaspora, and could only be protected by a strong Jewish nation-state, seemed fortified by common sense itself.

Nonetheless, history would prove Zionism to be an unstable long-term answer to the Jewish question. As decades unfolded of deepening Israeli occupation and dispossession of Palestinians and oppression of Mizrahi, Ethiopian and other marginalized Jews- and rising resistance to these injustices- Jewish voices in Israel and the diaspora continued to question the foundational ideology of Zionism that undergirded Israel as a Jewish state.

Modern resistance in Israel

In the decades following the creation of the state of Israel, resistance to the ongoing Palestinian Nakba, and to Zionism, could still be found amongst the Israeli Jewish public.

In 1971, Mizrahi Jews in Israel, frustrated by systemic Ashkenazi discrimination in all aspects of life, began organizing to demand equal rights, access to jobs, housing, public services and an end to second-class status in Israel. Even without always articulating their struggle as anti-Zionist, the Israeli Black Panthers, as the movement came to call itself, struck at the root of European Zionism’s internal racial hierarchy “from the standpoint”, as Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat put it, “of its Jewish victims”. In many cases, Mizrahi activists built, and continue to build, solidarity with Palestinians, recognizing the affinities between their parallel, and distinct, struggles against systemic racism in Israel/Palestine.

Over the years, as Israel’s 1967 occupation deepened and awareness of the ongoing plight of Palestinians gained traction worldwide, there remained within Israeli society a stream of dissident voices, a constant presence of New Left organizations like Matzpen and Vanguard, and student movements like SIACH, calling for a secular, democratic state in Israel/Palestine. Tirelessly dedicated and ruthlessly scapegoated, Israeli activists like Felicia Langer, Moshe Machover, Akiva Orr, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and many others organized not only against the occupation, but against the Palestinian refugee crisis and the ongoing Nakba, working side by side with Palestinians both within Israel/Palestine, and across Europe and the Middle East, to dream and demand an Israel/Palestine beyond Zionism. In 1977, the non-Zionist political party Hadash formed, uniting Mizrahim, Palestinians, Ashkenazim and more into a coalition that today holds 5 seats in the Israeli Knesset.

Beginning in the 1980s, Israeli society saw the emergence of the New Historians and the intellectual and cultural movement of Post-Zionism, crafting a new historical narrative foregrounding the Palestinian Nakba, the Mizrahi question, and other submerged injustices, and calling for a new Jewish-Israeli paradigm rooted in recognition of historical wrongs, and committed to a future of coexistence. In recent years, even while faced with frightening repression, Israeli groups like Anarchists Against the Wall, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, Zochrot, and many others continue to organize against the root causes of injustice in Israel/Palestine, within the Israeli Jewish community and in coalition alongside Palestinians.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, living in Israel and around the world, remain non- or in some cases even anti-Zionist. While members of thriving Hasidic movements like Satmar maintain deep-rooted theological opposition to Zionism, the smaller Haredi group Neturei Karta takes it one step further, engaging in vocal and often controversial advocacy for the Palestinian cause. These ultra-Orthodox groups, and more like them, refuse enlistment into the Israeli army- often facing prison time as a result- and avoid interaction with the secular state on theological grounds, insisting, again, that Jewish tradition forbids the establishment of a secular state in Eretz Yisrael before the Messianic era. While framed in religious categories that often sound foreign to progressive ears, their strong legacy of dissent should not be overlooked.   

Around the world

In the decades after the Holocaust, opposition to Zionism transformed to enthusiastic support for Israel within the mainstream American Jewish community. While the Reform movement helped lead this trend, dissident anti-Zionist voices, such as Elmer Berger and his American Council for Judaism, could still be heard within American Reform Judaism.

Nonetheless, support for Israel and Zionism was far from uniform in American Jewry. From the latter half of the 20th century into the present, Jewish activists in labor unions, progressive politics, the civil rights movement, the New Left, and across movements for racial, economic, and gender justice have continued to articulate Jewish identities founded, not upon Israel-centrism, but upon intersectional struggles for liberation wherever we live.    

With each new catastrophe, deepening injustice and stage of resistance in Israel/Palestine- such as the 1967 occupation, the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre, the two Intifadas, the three Gaza massacres- more and more American Jews have chosen to bear witness  to the truth of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and to its root causes. Activist groups like New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s brought progressive Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews together to struggle for a just American foreign and domestic policy. Meanwhile, radical Jews in the anti-nuclear movement, in queer empowerment organizations like ACT UP!, in the movement against apartheid in South Africa, and elsewhere said ‘not in our name!’, again and again, to the unfolding tragedies and traumas of Zionism in Israel/Palestine. Unsurprisingly, in America, Israel and around the world, it has remained for decades women, queer and trans folks who have led the way in articulating and building Jewish movements of resistance to Zionism, and Jewish progressive movements more broadly. 

Today, a plethora of anti- and non-Zionist Jewish groups exist around the world, from the International Jewish Solidarity Network in the UK, to Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN), the Jewish Solidarity Caucus of Democratic Socialists of America in the USA, and many more.

The Jewish Future

Today’s growing Jewish movement for an end to Israeli occupation and racist laws, and for the Palestinian refugee right of return- in short, for full equality beyond Zionism in Israel/Palestine- did not arise in a vacuum. Rather, we inherit a long legacy of visionary Jewish dissent, in the holy land and across the diaspora, championed by dreamers who imagined a different Jewish future, practiced by communities whose ways of life differed from Zionist norms.  In our movement-building, we bear witness to the fact that their hopes and horizons, though long-submerged by the travails and traumas of the 20th century, were not snuffed out, but live anew in the work of our hands.

We should be careful not to overly romanticize the many histories of Jewish alternatives to Zionism, nor should we pretend that every such movement lay some claim to ‘absolute truth’, and should be transplanted, as-is, into the present. Reform anti-Zionism, ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism, and the other movements detailed here took shape in unique historical moments, seized upon unique opportunities and faced unique limitations borne from their particular vantage points.

Nonetheless, there is much we can learn from the Jewish activists in MENA and Eastern Europe, who struggled, as part of broad social movements, against antisemitism alongside all oppressions, for a better world; from the early Reformers, who enshrined moral witness as the pinnacle of Jewish prophetic vision; and from the many other Jewish movements, religious and secular, across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, the United States and the holy land, who charted a vision for a Jewish future founded upon peace, justice and coexistence.

Most importantly, we can learn to see Zionism, and the Jewish movements which opposed it, as different attempts by Jews, rooted in different moments of history, to comprehend and to shape the conditions in which they found themselves. Today, as Israel’s occupation, racist laws and denial of refugee rights deepens and spirals out of control, it is clear to many of us that we need a new Jewish paradigm, to shape anew the conditions in which we now find ourselves. Ken Y’hi Ratzon- may it be so.

Ben Lorber is a former staffer at Jewish Voice for Peace and a member of Democratic Socialists of America. He lives in Chicago and blogs at doikayt.com.

FOOTNOTES

[1]: ‘Statement by the Holy Gerer Rebbe, the Sfas Emes, on Zionism’, 1901. Zionism Reconsidered: The Rejection of Jewish Normalcy, edited by Michael Selzer, The Macmillan Company, 1970.

[2]:  ‘Statement by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shulem ben Schneersohn, on Zionism’, 1903. Zionism Reconsidered.

[3]: From the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, which defined the principles of the Reform movement for generations- “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

[4]:  As one song of the era put it, ‘Oh you foolish little Zionists, with your utopian mentality/ You’d better go down to the factory, and learn the worker’s reality!/ You want to take us to Jerusalem, so we can die as a nation/ We’d rather stay in the diaspora, and fight for our liberation!’ While written partially to satirize anti-Zionists, ‘Oy ir narishe tsienistn’, recorded in 1931 in Kiev by Moshe Beregovski, nonetheless captures their sentiment.

[5]:  For more on this subject, see April Rosenblum, “Offers We Couldn’t Refuse: What Happened to Secular Jewish Identity” (Jewish Currents, May-June 2009)

[6]:  In the wake of the 1967 War, Serfaty expressed hope, in his 1970 article ‘Being a Jewish Moroccan and Fighting Against Israel’, “that Jews from the Arab world, prisoners of Zionism, will gain consciousness of their solidarity with the Arab revolution and will help to shatter the last historical attempt to lock Jews up in a ghetto- and what a ghetto…of global proportions!” See Jewish Radicals of Morocco: Case Study for a New Historiography, Alma Rachel Heckman, Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society, spring 2018.



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