Judaism Can’t Exist Without Zionism
by Sabrina Soffer
Not long ago, while walking through George Washington University’s campus, I came across several posters with headlines that read “Judaism does not equal Zionism,” “Judaism values love,” and “Jewish values reject Zionism.”
One particular headline grabbed my attention: “Judaism exists without Zionism.”
Really? I think not. Giving this proposition the slightest consideration would entail some serious historical distortion. We simply cannot ignore that Zionism is the only safeguard to the survival and prosperity of Jewish life today, and that Jews have longed for a homeland of their own for centuries.
Across US campuses, the Jewish Voice for Peace organization (JVP) has become the face of Jewish anti-Zionism, in solidarity with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and numerous other organizations that seek to undermine or eliminate Israel.
JVP claims that Zionism corrupts Jewish values of “justice, equality, and dignity,” and that Israel’s eradication will foster peace and a return to authentic Jewish values.
JVP does perhaps get one thing right: Judaism can exist without Zionism — but only as a religious philosophy. Indeed, modern Zionism began as a secular movement, yet its DNA is inextricably shared with Judaism. Jewish history, culture, and values make them not only inseparable, but interdependent.
Zionism is defined as the movement for self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, the land of Israel. Theodore Herzl, a secular Austro-Hungarian Jewish journalist, conceived Zionism as a means for Jews to have a “normal existence” in a state of their own, in the face of incessant and violent antisemitism.
Zionism has enabled both diaspora and Israeli Jews to practice their religion in relative safety and engage in Tikkun Olam, the Jewish principle of repairing the world. It has contributed to the peaceful practice of Jewish worship on almost every continent, even in some regions once hostile to Jews.
According to a 2022 survey published by the American Jewish Committee about the state of antisemitism in America, 90% of the public agrees that saying “Israel has no right to exist” is inherently antisemitic. Yet, contrary to common sense, the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitism is widely contested, especially across college campuses where BDS is highly active.
This contradiction illustrates that many college students are either ignorant about Zionism, or have been turned against Israel by lies from groups like JVP, SJP, and more.
To be clear, anti-Zionism is shorthand for “Israel has no right to exist.” And when we see anti-Zionism on the rise, we know that antisemitic persecution will follow.
BDS makes no secret of its mission to seek an “end of Israel” — and they use JVP to perpetuate their anti-Jewish bigotry. Tragically, well-intended JVP members have fallen victim to BDS propaganda.
Make no mistake, anti-Zionist Jew-hatred is an attack on all Jews. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a BDS supporter, denigrates Tikkun Olam as a philosophy that “camouflages [Israel’s] oppressive power”; he also spews antisemitic tropes such as “Jews use money for nefarious purposes.” These same efforts to demonize and delegitimize Jewish self-determination trace directly to ancient Jew-hatred rooted in Christian blood-libel propaganda used during the Spanish Inquisition, Russian pogroms, and the Nazi Holocaust.
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Hezbollah terrorist group, once wrote, “If we searched the entire world for a person more despicable, weak and feeble in mind, ideology and religion, we would not find anyone like the Jew.” He then adds, “Notice, I do not say the Israeli.”
The charter of another terrorist group, Hamas, reads, “the Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them.” In essence, Hitler’s Final Solution is what anti-Zionism espouses after all.
JVP envisions not a two-state solution for the neighborly coexistence of Palestinians and Israelis, but one bi-national state for both peoples. Eventually, this will mean Israel cannot remain a democracy, or will become an Arab state.
Regional demographics cannot be ignored: While only 7 million Jews inhabit Israel, more than 300 million Muslim Arabs occupy neighboring Middle Eastern nations. The Pew Research center expects a 74% increase in the Middle Eastern Muslim population by 2050. Clearly, Jews will always remain the regional minority.
Disavowing Zionism, as JVP suggests, effectively subjects Jews to their former state of precariousness — to the same conditions that Jews endured in old Europe, the Soviet Union, or the Arab world before Israel’s independence. Israel provided the only viable safeguard for three million Soviet Jews and approximately one million Jews from Arab lands who were expelled from the communities they inhabited for centuries. Zionism made this possible.
Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once said, “I can live as a Jew outside Israel, but not without Israel.” Over the centuries, Jews have emphatically written things down, driven by the tenet of “le dor va dor” — from generation to generation. Annual Haggadah readings during Passover remind Jews of liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt, calling upon Jews to fight for freedom and believe in God.
Despite all of Israel’s internal turmoil, modern Zionism remains rooted in compromise while enabling the existence of Judaism. It was for this purpose that the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan established side-by-side Jewish and Palestinian states. Israel accepted the plan but, to this day, militant Palestinian organizations prevent the establishment of a formal Palestinian nation.
Palestinian Human Rights activist Bassem Eid has said, “Why trust the BDS? Why trust the Jewish Voice for Peace? We lost trust with these people … Everybody knows the BDS agenda is to destroy Israel and not to bring peace. The Palestinians should not participate in this.”
The Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh always preserves life — existence — over death. Eradicating Zionism — effectively, the destruction of Israel — achieves neither peace, equality, nor justice. A true Jewish voice for peace would engage with Zionism through the lens of Jewish values, employing the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam for constructive criticism. Perhaps JVP should alter its vision or change its name.
By Sabrina Soffer, the commissioner of the Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism at George Washington University.