Antisemitism, Anti-Zionism & important conversations

UPJ Co-President David Knoll AM wrote the following article in response to comments made about UPJ Immediate Past President Roger Mendelson's Good News column published In October. Click on "Read More" to read David's full article.

In October of this year, the UPJ News and Drash reaffirmed that the UPJ supports the Jerusalem program and is a Zionist organisation.  That said, ours is a broad and welcoming tent.  It was said that those who are Anti-Zionist should look elsewhere, and it referred to an activity whose participants strongly disagreed with that characterisation, and responded that: "There must be a place in Progressive Jewish congregations to discuss Judaism and Israel, to state one's positive beliefs in a supportive atmosphere without being labelled or condemned."

This is an example of a complaint along the lines of lack of diversity of opinion or that we are a closed-minded community.  Mostly the complaint is about how we relate to Israel, and how we feel about the Zionist enterprise.

From inception, Zionism has been neither left wing nor right wing.  Jews of all persuasions - left, right, religious and secular - formed the Zionist movement and have long worked together toward its goals, albeit not always harmoniously.   The debates have been vigorous, and regrettably, not always respectful.

Is it alright as Professor Alan Dershowitz said many years ago on a visit to Sydney, that it was ok to criticise Israel to show you care about how she is going and about what is best for the Jewish people?  He answered in the affirmative.

For example, those who criticise Israel for discrimination but do not describe her as a Nazi, Apartheid, colonialist or inherently racist state, can and often are pressing for Israel to adopt and apply Jewish values towards human dignity. 

Can we discuss and debate among ourselves our angst at Israel’s current policies, whether issues of peacemaking and security, lack of gender equality and racism emanating from parts of Israeli society, the failure to honour agreements relating to the Kotel, or the ever worsening sore over the failure to extradite Malka Leifer, and the list can go on?  That there even is a list shows that we think about issues facing Israel and we care about them.

And, we facilitate pluralism on issues of gender, life choices and the ways we pray.  Can we facilitate healthy discussion for example about what is best for Israel and her neighbours including the Palestinians? There is hardly a soul within our movement who would not support the view that between Israel and her Arab neighbours, including in particular, the Palestinians, a dignified peace is essential, and has been far too long delayed. How to get there is very vexed question. There are however some limits on how we approach this vexed question, examples of which appear below.  Read on.

The UPJ is a Zionist organization and support and love for Israel is at the heart of Progressive Judaism.  Our vision for Israel is of being a democratic and pluralistic state, where all religious practices are treated equally and where rights of minorities are protected.  We express our support for these ideals through support for our institutions in Israel, such as IRAC and the IMPJ.  Congregational dialogue that is respectful of Progressive Judaism’s relationship with Israel is most unlikely to be Anti-Zionist.

We encourage healthy, respectful conversation about what is best for Israel. That said, labelling positions or people as Antisemitic or Anti-Zionist can have the effect of impeding rather than facilitating the conversation.  There are occasions when such labels are appropriate, but used too easily and the labels lose their intended effect.

Antisemitism, or hatred toward Jews, is something well known, and in today’s world very widely felt.  Recently the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance of which Australia is a member adopted a working definition of Antisemitism which states that some forms of vitriol against Israel, including comparing it to Nazi Germany, are examples of anti-Semitism, though generally criticizing Israel’s policies is not.  See: https://www.holocaustremembrance.com/working-definition-antisemitism.  This definition has been adopted by many countries including, France, the United Kingdom and Germany.

What then is Anti-Zionism? 

Zionism is the proposition that the Jewish people are entitled to their right of self-determination in their ancestral homeland.  It transcends which party is governing Israel.  It is a fundamental right enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. See: https://www.knesset.gov.il/docs/eng/megilat_eng.htm.

Anti-Zionism is the proposition that every people on this planet, except Jews, are entitled to the right of self-determination. 

Experience has taught that those who advocate violence towards Jews or towards the Jewish people or Israel, and those who equate Zionism with Apartheid, Nazism, colonialism or racism, are Anti-Zionist, and Antisemitic.  They usually can be distinguished from those advocate a peace involving a Jewish State of Israel and a Palestinian state living side-by-side. 

And then there are those who do not engage with Zionism, do not support or oppose it, but still wish to be active in their Jewish community.  This distinction, called perhaps non-Zionism, from anti-Zionism and its very problematic connotations, is important, and can lead to unproductive definitional debates. 

More importantly, one can legitimately be troubled by indifference. It prompts the question of how can one be indifferent to both the Jewish and Palestinian rights to self-determination?  This is an important conversation.  We need to care. Let us find a way a pathway towards having a conversation that heals and does not divide, that is inclusive of diverse views, but which does not descend into Antisemitism, and which respects the UPJ as a Zionist organisation.

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