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January 10, 2022 12:44 pm

Rejecting Zion: A Uniquely Jewish Phenomenon?

avatar by Scott A. Shay


IfNotNow supporters at a rally in New York City. Photo: IfNotNow via Facebook.

There is a growing chasm within the Jewish people between those who consider Zionism to be a legitimate political movement and those who view it as illegitimate. While some “progressive” Jewish organizations and much of the media revels in discussing how American Jews increasingly reject Zionism, few have explored whether this is new or unusual.

In fact, the situation of a national diaspora group opposed to its own national sovereignty is not unprecedented, though it is fairly recent in history. A recap of Jewish views on national sovereignty as well as examples of the views of other peoples can tell us a lot about the current political climate.

For most of their history, Jews mourned their condition of statelessness and Diaspora, and hoped for a return to Zion. With the Roman-Jewish wars 2,000 years ago and the loss of independence, Jewish leadership focused on saving Judaism and some Jewish presence in the Holy Land. As subsequent imperial conquests of the historic Land of Israel unfolded, Jews often hoped to regain a foothold of power in Israel, but were disappointed.

For much of the Middle Ages, Jewish communities therefore continued to focus on preserving their religion in the Diaspora and maintaining small communities in the Land of Israel. While this situation persisted in North Africa and the Middle East until the 20th century, it transformed in Europe starting in the 1700s.

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Jewish ambivalence about national sovereignty started predominantly in the Enlightenment period. Jews responded in different ways to the emerging modernity in Europe. After the French Revolution, Jews were gradually granted citizenship by most European states on the condition they integrate into the majority society. Yet this integration was not always possible due to prejudice — leading Jews to begin to splinter into different groups. Some liberal Jews preferred to assimilate, maintaining their Judaism privately. Others wanted to self-segregate as communities (the non-modern orthodox); to join internationalist political movements like communism; or to seek political autonomy (the Bund) or sovereignty (Zionism).

Other stateless peoples have faced similar situations in the modern period, particularly in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and in the Caucasus. Groups in all these regions (from Slovenes to Lithuanians) were ruled by other states and peoples, and/or lived in a diaspora (e.g., Armenians and Greeks). In the modern period these peoples were often divided politically between assimilationists, nationalists, and autonomists — broadly speaking, between those who wished to integrate into the larger peoples and keep their culture privately, and those who wished to maintain their culture either through autonomy or sovereignty. All of these groups also produced communist adherents, who advocated radical assimilation.

Communists called for the dissolution of separate nationalities. In the Soviet Union, Jews were not the only minority to be told to reject their culture and national aspirations. Prominent communist leaders from the many nations that had comprised the Russian empire rejected the nationalism of their own ethnic groups. Among them was Stalin, a Georgian, who wrote a book on Marxism and the nationality question that explicitly aimed to dissolve the smaller nations into a “higher culture.” He later decreed the execution of a large number of Georgian nationalists during the Great Purge of the 1930s. In his view, Georgians should simply assimilate to the broader Russian culture.

Stalin was the architect of the return to outright Russian imperialism within the Soviet Union. The communist Jews of Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the communist party, had a similar view. Their organization’s stated mission of these sections was the “destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture.”

Jews who oppose Jewish sovereignty today are in some sense like those Jews of the Soviet Union who are simply siding with the majority culture. Today, the majority of Americans on the progressive left share a set of values about culture and politics. These include the principle of national liberation (except for Zionism), anti-imperialism, and multiculturalism.

Yet, in practice, American progressives are often selective in their application of these principles. They support Palestine but either ignore or oppose Tibetan, Kurdish or Assyrian independence. They have lots to say about European and American imperialism but little to say about Turkish, Chinese, Russian and Iranian imperialism. Or they criticize the absence of African American culture in university departments but support Middle Eastern studies programs that ignore non-Arab cultures, or ignore the descendants of the East African slave trade in the Middle East. Some American Jews, like some of their Soviet Jewish forebears, reject Zionism simply because the majority culture does.

The real question, then, is why at any given time the majority culture so rejects the sovereignty of some nationalities and peoples and not others. What factors have created this inconsistency, or even hypocrisy, in today’s political climate? Before that can be answered, we need to embrace fact- and evidence-based history — and not just when it comes to the Jews. By replacing history with ideology, some progressive-left movements are harming the very peoples they claim to champion. The fact that some Jews have joined in embracing false history is not a reflection on Zionism itself, but a symptom of a cultural environment in which ideology trumps facts.

Scott A. Shay is the author of Conspiracy U: A Case Study ( Wicked Son, 2021) and is Chairman and co-founder of Signature Bank of New York.

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