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When Palestinian Solidarity Harms More Than It Helps

Palestinian solidarity activists are using Zionism isn't Judaism on social media to say that Jews aren't the problem, the Zionist state of Israel is the problem, but will this tactic work? Despite good intentions, the answer is no. One problem with Zionism isn't Judaism is that its primary assertion is inaccurate.

As the summer's hostilities in Israel-Palestine drag on, its daily escalations are being intensely discussed and debated by activist-inclined non-Israelis and non-Palestinians. In response to the day's news, and to its parody, all expected positions have been reinforced.

On the one side are those who view Israel as beleaguered, as the region's only democracy in a sea of instability, and as a principled state whose citizens command unqualified empathy during times of threat.

For those who view the Palestinians as the world's pre-eminent disenfranchised population, one relentlessly victimized by unchecked Israeli expansionism, Hamas missiles, though regrettable, are justified as self-defense. It's next to impossible to find anyone who assigns responsibility to both Israelis and Palestinians for either the current crisis or for the trajectory of the historical conflict.

One significant voice in the debate is that being expressed by those who identify as activists in solidarity with the Palestinians. Growing out of ties to organizations in Israel and Palestine, and especially since the collapse of the Olso peace process, international activists have mobilized, and have made inroads on university campuses, in labour unions, and in religious organizations.

Affiliated with what proponents call "a global movement for a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights," Canadian solidarity activists have used the summer's conflagration to challenge mainstream media's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to condemn Israeli 'Apartheid,' and to denounce the Conservative government's one-sided support of Israel.

Given the history and politics surrounding the conflict, one challenge for Palestinian solidarity activists has been finding ways to criticize Israeli state policy without being seen as anti-Jewish. With a range of stakeholders ready to react, advocacy for Palestine will frequently lead to accusations that one is expressing hate, and even doing harm, to Israel, to Jewish Israelis, and to the Jewish people as a whole. Owing to these complex sensitivities, activists know that the movement's ability to gain a wide base of support would be substantially limited if the Jew hating label were to be perceived as true.

In recent years, the tension between Palestinian solidarity activists and their opponents on this issue has routinely played out in the specific debate over whether expressing anti-Zionist politics - challenging Palestinian oppression by assigning its responsibility to Israel's status as a Jewish state - is tantamount to anti-Semitism. Although solidarity activists try to debunk this charge by arguing that anti-Zionism isn't anti-Semitism, many remain both unconvinced and troubled by the singling out of Israel for political attack.

Resulting from their condemnation of Israel for its conduct in the current mini-war in Gaza, Palestinian solidarity activists have faced renewed complaints that they're fomenting hate. To deflect this accusation, activists on Twitter have been including a newer phrase, Zionism isn't Judaism, in their tweets.

In terms of its symbolic meaning, Zionism isn't Judaism is being employed to distinguish a political ideology or system that's being targeted - Zionism - from a religious identity - Jewish - that characterizes a majority of the population of Israel. In the eyes of Palestinian solidarity activists, Zionism isn't Judaism helps because it presents a clear delineation of what is and what isn't the intended object of their denunciations.

Zionism isn't Judaism is a clever reconstruction of the earlier anti-Zionism isn't anti-Semitism refrain. By explicitly freeing Judaism from the 'offending' history and politics of Zionism, supporters can feel safe to join a movement that critiques and calls for political change in Israel, but that has no issue with the Jewish people and their religion.

Separating Judaism from Zionism yields an additional particular benefit for Jewish supporters of Palestine. Their rejection of Israeli policy can't logically be dismissed as Jewish self-hatred when their religious identity is fully excised from the conception of the State of Israel that's rhetorically established by the meme Zionism isn't Judaism.

Palestinian solidarity activists are using Zionism isn't Judaism on social media to say that Jews aren't the problem, the Zionist state of Israel is the problem, but will this tactic work? Does this meme increase legitimacy by helping to remove doubt about anti-Jewish sentiment in Palestine solidarity? Does it pave the way for more Jews with sympathy for the Palestinians to join the movement? Despite good intentions, the answer is no.

One problem with Zionism isn't Judaism is that its primary assertion is inaccurate. Yes, the original founders of Zionism were not religious, but the principle that all peoples have the right to a national homeland provides legitimacy for a range of ties of Jewish affiliation to the State of Israel.

Among other things, this includes historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious-based connections. Not all Jewish Israelis are religious, and there's an internal struggle in Israel regarding separation of state and religion. But, in the context of solidarity activism, saying that contemporary Jewish nationalism has nothing to do with the religion of the Jewish people is either an intentional deception or regrettable ignorance. In either case, this rhetorical move alone renders Zionism isn't Judaism a misnomer.

Probably more problematic for Zionism isn't Judaism are the consequences that flow from acknowledging the political motivations behind separating religion from Jewish nationalism. One can critique the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and propose that Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation will only emerge from the establishment of a secular democratic alternative, without supporting the oppression of Jews in Israel or abroad. But, by inferring that Zionism is inherently illegitimate, in need of dismantling, Zionism isn't Judaism denies Jews access to the same national rights that solidarity activists seek for the Palestinians.

There most certainly are Jews grappling with these dilemmas, as well as those pledging public support for Palestinian solidarity. But, since significant proportions of the Jewish community feel emotionally connected to Israel in its current form, the anti-Zionist politics implicit in Zionism isn't Judaism cannot be credibly perceived as un-threatening to Jews.

By tactically dismissing the lifeworlds of mainstream Israelis and Jews, and by viewing their intractability as the only source of the problem, solidarity activists may very well be following in the footsteps of their colleagues in Palestine and Israel.

Yet, Palestinians are in desperate need of help. They require allies with whom they can work in order to shift the balance of power. The best allies they could get to help them accomplish this are Jews in Israel and in the United States. But, without honest reckoning over the meanings and realities of Jewish nationalism, their potentials to forge a movement with the moral and political credibility to be able to force change for the better will remain elusive for some time.


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