| Protesters demonstrate outside of the New York office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Aipac a pro Israel lobby group for its role in influencing US support for Israel during the ongoing assault on Gaza on 22 February 2024 John LamparskiReuters | MR Online Protesters demonstrate outside of the New York office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), a pro-Israel lobby group, for its role in influencing US support for Israel during the ongoing assault on Gaza, on 22 February 2024 (Photo: John Lamparski/Reuters)

War on Gaza: Jewish opposition to Israel is as old as Zionism itself

Originally published: Middle East Eye on February 19, 2024 by Joseph Massad (more by Middle East Eye)  | (Posted Mar 02, 2024)

Last week, hundreds of people protested at the Manhattan headquarters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the most formidable pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, as well as at the offices of U.S. senators who receive funding from Aipac, demanding a ceasefire. New York police arrested 12 people.

The action was organised by the New York chapter of the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and was the latest of dozens of Jewish protests against Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza.

In November, Jewish activists occupied the Statue of Liberty, demanding an immediate ceasefire and chanting “Not in our name”. The ongoing protests since 7 October 2023 confirm what pro-Israel groups have feared for the past two decades: that support for Israel is dwindling among American Jews.

In fact, a survey conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute in June and July 2021 found that 22 percent of Jews believed that Israel was “committing genocide against the Palestinians”, while 25 percent agreed that “Israel is an apartheid State”, and 34 percent thought that “Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is similar to racism in the US”. Of those under 40 years old, 33 percent believed that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians. These numbers were collated two years before the current genocide.

Like JVP, a Jewish congregation called Tzedek, founded in 2015, had initially described itself as “non-Zionist” but later redefined itself as “anti-Zionist”. The predominantly younger membership in such organizations also signals a generational shift within U.S. Jewry.

American Jews who oppose Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people are not alone. British Jewish organisations have also been active in the massive demonstrations that have taken place in the UK since October. These include Jewish Voice for Labour and the Jewish Network for Palestine, whose members have also demonstrated under banners such as “Not in our Name”. The British Jewish group Na’amod has been active in opposing Israel’s occupation and apartheid and in staging demonstrations and vigils in support of the Palestinians as well.

In ultra-Zionist France, dozens of prominent Jewish personalities have been active in opposing the ongoing genocide, calling for a ceasefire and even an end to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This is hardly a new development in France. In 2018, the Jewish French Union for Peace demanded a complete boycott of Israel despite efforts in France to outlaw such boycotts. As a result, the group, which remains active in marches against the genocide, lost state funding.

In Germany, Jewish activists, including artists, writers and professionals, and organisations like Judische Stimme have been at the forefront of opposing Israel’s onslaught and condemning the German state’s crackdown on critics of Israel and its scapegoating of Germany’s Muslim and Arab communities.

My dear friend Evelyn Hecht-Galinsky, a tireless German Jewish anti-Zionist activist who is a member of the anti-occupation coalition of Jewish groups called European Jews for a Just Peace, is but one example. Evelyn’s father, Heinz Galinski, a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz, headed West Germany’s Central Council of Jews from 1954 to 1962 and again from 1988 until his death in 1992. A pro-Israel German Christian has accused Evelyn of being “antisemitic” on account of her anti-Zionism.

But none of this is new. European and American Jews have been at the forefront of opposition to Zionism since its birth as a colonial-settler movement at the end of the 19th century.

Early Jewish opposition

In August 1897, Theodor Herzl sought to convene the First Zionist Congress in Munich. Still, it was the combined forces of a large number of Orthodox and Reform rabbis—who usually agreed on very little—that dislodged him and his heretical organisation from Munich. He was forced to convene the conference across the border in Basel, Switzerland, where he maligned the anti-Zionist rabbis as “the protest rabbis”.

Six weeks after the Zionist Organisation was founded, Russian Jews formed the Bund (the General Jewish Workers Union in Lithuania, Poland and Russia) and vehemently opposed and ridiculed Zionism. The Bund maintained this position until its members were erased from existence during the Second World War in the embers of Nazi Germany’s gas chambers and crematoria. This is aside from Eastern European and Soviet Jewish communists who condemned Zionism outright.

Before and after Lord Arthur Balfour, the British evangelical Protestant foreign minister, made his infamous declaration in November 1917, the major British Jewish personalities and organisations opposed his plans resolutely.

The former secretary of state for India and the British cabinet’s only Jewish member at the time, Lord Edwin Montagu, stated:

All my life I have been trying to get out of the ghetto. You want to force me back there.

British Jewish leaders also protested against what they considered to be pro-Zionist and antisemitic British policy. They included Sir Philip Magnus, a member of parliament, and Claude G Montefiore, a British Jewish notable and the great-nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore. The younger Montefiore, who founded British “Liberal Judaism”, served as the president of the Anglo-Jewish Association and established the anti-Zionist “League of British Jews” in 1918.

Other prominent anti-Zionist Jews opposing the Balfour Declaration included the Jewish journalist Lucien Wolf, another president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, and Sir Leonard Lionel Cohen, a banker and head of the Jewish Colonisation Association.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association, the two most important British Jewish organizations at the time, wrote a letter published in The Times stating that “the establishment of a Jewish nationality in Palestine founded on this theory of Jewish homelessness, must have the effect throughout the world of stamping the Jews as strangers in their native lands, and of undermining their hard-won position as citizens and nationals of those lands”.

In the U.S., prominent American Jews were up in arms when the anti-Black and anti-Native American racist President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the Balfour Declaration. As early as 1919, Julius Kahn, a Jewish congressman from San Francisco, delivered a statement endorsed by 299 Jews, both Rabbis and laymen, to Wilson. The document, which denounced the Zionists for attempting to segregate Jews and reverse the historical trend towards emancipation, objected to the creation of a distinctly Jewish state in Palestine as contrary “to the principles of democracy”.

James N Rosenberg of the American Jewish Committee denounced the Zionist plans to set up an exclusively Jewish state as undemocratic. In an article rebutting Zionist arguments, he objected to the cancellation of the rights of non-Jews as a result of the establishment of a Jewish state.

In 1944, Lessing J Rosenwald, the president of the American Council for Judaism, stated:

The concept of a racial state—the Hitlerian concept—is repugnant to the civilised world, as witness the fearful global war in which we are involved … I urge that we do nothing to set us back on the road to the past. To project at this time the creation of a Jewish state or commonwealth is to launch a singular innovation in world affairs which might well have incalculable consequences.

Among German Jews, the philosopher Hermann Cohen published in 1915 Deutschtum und Judentum, which opposed the Zionist project, arguing that Jews did not need a homeland since they were an integral part of Europe.

When he was asked to sign a petition supporting the settlement of Jews in Palestine, the Austrian Jew Sigmund Freud declined: “I cannot … I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state … It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land.” In the face of the Zionists’ attempt to transform the Western Wall into the most central sacred place for Jews, which it had never been prior to Zionist colonisation, Freud added:

I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.

In 1939, at the height of the Great Palestinian revolt and the use of Zionist death squads to suppress the Palestinians, Albert Einstein wrote:

There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us and the Arab people … We must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people … Let us recall that in former times, no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.

French Jews also seemed immune to the lure of Zionism. Herzl had described them in his diaries in the following contemptuous and antisemitic manner: “I took a look at the Paris Jews and saw a family likeness in their faces: bold, misshapen noses; furtive and cunning eyes.” Herzl was horrified by the patriotism of French Jews, which made them all the more averse to Zionism, something he lamented and condemned.

Even many Hassidic Jews could not tolerate Zionism. Aside from the small Naturei Karta sect, which wholeheartedly and militantly opposes Zionism, today, the largest Hassidic community in the U.S. of about 100,000 Jews, the Satmar, opposes Zionism on religious and humanitarian principles.

‘Antisemitism’ smears

Like present-day anti-Zionist Jews, a growing minority in Jewish communities, the majority of Jews in Europe and the U.S. were opposed to Zionism in its early days. However, the revelations of the Nazi Holocaust would eventually drive many Jews to view Zionism as a possible remedy to antisemitism.

The Zionists would exploit the Holocaust maximally to advance their cause. Jews who began to speak up against Israel after the 1967 War were labelled “self-hating” by Israel and its propagandists, as were Jewish intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and IF Stone. Zionist smears and attacks on Jews who oppose Israel and its atrocities persist today.

Indeed, if the daughter of Holocaust survivors, such as my friend Evelyn, could be accused of antisemitism by a German Christian in fanatically pro-Israel Germany, the New York Post found it just as easy to claim “antisemitism” regarding an altercation at Columbia University between an anti-genocide American Jewish student and an anti-Palestinian Israeli student. The anti-genocide American Jewish student was charged with a hate crime against the anti-Palestinian Israeli student who had served in the Israeli army.

Meanwhile, two other Columbia students who had served in the Israeli military and attacked anti-genocide students, including Jewish students, on campus with chemical weapons, are yet to be charged with anything resembling hate crimes. “Antisemitism” did not appear to have raised its ugly head in this second case.

As I argued in an article some eight months ago, supporters of Israel have also labelled Jewish professors who criticise Israel as “self-hating” and are appalled that there is “an even larger quantity of self-hating Jews” among those who support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Even Zionist rabbis critical of Israeli policies have been attacked as “self-hating”, as have Jewish top White House aides who, despite their fervent support of Israel, were attacked for calling on Israel to “freeze” building settlements in the Occupied Territories.

But the tide has already turned, and US Zionist organisations have already warned of the danger.

Today, anti-Zionist Jews are everywhere, and they are not intimidated by Israel’s dirty tactics or those of its supporters in the US—including doxing, defamation, and the accusation of antisemitism or self-hatred. These activists continue the great Jewish anti-Zionist lineage that goes back to the end of the 19th century.

The main difference is that in the first half of the 20th century, it was prominent and older established U.S. and European Jews, politicians, business people, intellectuals, and rabbis who opposed Zionism. Over the past two decades, however, it has been the younger generation who decidedly opposes the Jewish settler-colony. In that, they are not out of step with the rest of the American population, more than a third of whom believe that Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians, including 49 percent of Americans in the 18-29 age group.

University administrators who, amid Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people, fulminate about the rise of antisemitism on campuses in the U.S. may not care about these anti-Zionist Jews any more than they care about students of colour.

They continue to suppress their voices by banning their leading campus organisations, JVP and Students for Justice in Palestine, as has happened at my own Columbia University, perhaps the most repressive U.S. university of Jewish and gentile opponents of the genocide (no mean achievement, as many other universities are vying for the position).

It seems the sole Jewish voice that university administrators want to hear, under the guise of “combatting antisemitism” on campus, is the Jewish voice for war and genocide of the Palestinians. It is a voice they want to claim represents all Jews—a stance that embodies the height of antisemitism.

But if ongoing protests are any indication, Jewish anti-Zionists cannot and will not be silenced.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.

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