Out of Zionism

Originally published Oct. 24, 2023

Over the last 24 hours, the Israeli military says it struck over 400 targets in Gaza, including in at least two refugee camps. Those airstrikes, an escalation over the already intensifying bombing a day before, killed over 700 people. That one-day death toll is according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry—which is the only source on death tolls in Gaza, in part because Israel has killed at least eighteen journalists on the strip during the war so far. In all, the latest brings the total number of reported deaths in Gaza to over 5,700 people. Nearly half were children.

I lead with that because it’s the news. I’m a journalist, and it’s an ongoing story. Pointing out the simple fact that Israel is committing mass murder in Gaza does not erase the suffering of the families of 1,033 Israeli civilians and around 300 soldiers who were brutally murdered by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad fighters seventeen days ago. It does not ignore the over 200 Israeli and foreign hostages still believed to be trapped on the Gaza Strip—hostages whose lives are now in danger from both sides of a deeply unequal war. It is simply the most urgent thing that is happening right now. And it is a catastrophe that, unless action is taken quickly and pressure is brought to bear, is clearly only going to get much worse—as water runs out, hospitals shut down, and Israeli forces mass for a ground reinvasion in which Israeli leaders have pledged to “annihilate Hamas” and “wipe them off the face of the Earth.”

Hamas may well be exaggerating the death tolls—I don’t trust any government to be honest with such things, especially not them, and not now. But all you have to do is watch citizen feeds from Gaza or see the news photos or videos of school bombings or read the reports of independent experts or even Holocaust scholars to get the gist. As the Israeli historian Raz Segal—educated at Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv Universities, who directs the Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Stockton University—says: Israel is carrying out “a textbook case of genocide” in Gaza. And, I might add, with building intensity in the West Bank as well. Protestations that this is unavoidable, that Israel is trying to preserve human life, that these civilians must die because Hamas is using them as “human shields,” fall apart under the Israeli military’s own assertions, such as when IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told the press on Oct. 10 that, the Gaza airstrikes, “the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy.”

Yet if all you consume is a carefully manicured diet of mainstream and certain Israeli news sources; if you are, perhaps, an American Jew of a certain age and disposition whose primary window on the world is Facebook, everything I just wrote—sources, details, caveats, and all—may have sounded like an incendiary, antisemitic (or in my case, “self-hating”) pack of lies.

I know people will react like that for two reasons. One is because I have been reading and watching such takes on social media and in mainstream media sources for weeks. There was the die-hard Hillary Clinton supporter1 Amy Siskind proclaiming “Our Allies Have Abandoned Us, and No, We are Not Okay,” the New York Times turning that hot take into a whole news article, or Josh Gad (yes, Olaf from Frozen) taking to Threads to declare that “people we have stood by again and again” are sharing “Hamas propaganda and talking points” while an allegedly “deafening silence” surrounds the Oct. 7 attacks. The intensity of this reaction has ensured that writers and public figures who simply decry the mass killing—or who simply agree with agencies like Human Rights Watch that “the fact that Palestinian fighters committed unspeakable war crimes against Israeli civilians does not justify Israeli authorities committing war crimes against Palestinian civilians”—are losing jobs, having events and conferences canceled, and seeing their social media accounts throttled. It is thus the dominant view.

But I also know it for another reason: Because for decades, I thought that way myself.

I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t heard of Israel. As a kid, a common (and, let’s be honest, pretty lackluster) gift to mark birthdays or other special events was a card telling me that a tree had been planted in Israel in my name. There was an Israeli flag on the bimah, or stage, at the front of the Conservative synagogue I went to as a child, next to the U.S. flag and the holy ark containing the Torah scrolls. When my parents moved to a Reform synagogue closer to our house, I remember thinking it was wrong that there wasn’t an Israeli flag next to the stars and stripes. (The Reform movement, whose primary aim was assimilation into American culture, had been institutionally opposed to the creation of a Jewish state until the Holocaust; remnants of that opposition survived into the 1980s.) But by the time of my bar mitzvah, our new temple had put up a degel yisrael too.

Unlike a lot of Jewish youth from my generation, I didn’t go on a Birthright trip. But I did go on a bus tour with my family in 1995. It was an exceedingly optimistic time. It was two years after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the first Oslo Accord with Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat in which the two governing bodies agreed to recognize each other, and just months before a right-wing Jewish extremist opposed to the treaty assassinated Rabin. We visited the Old City of Jerusalem, hiked the hills of Haifa, lazed on the beach in Tel Aviv, snorkeled in the Red Sea, and looked over Syria from atop the Golan Heights. Our tour guide, a reservist Israeli air force colonel, regaled us with jokes and stories of Israeli pluckiness and bravery—such as the time Israelis stole their own boats from a French shipyard under embargo and a Soviet-built Iraqi plane. At a desert cave near the Dead Sea, on the outskirts of the West Bank, he made a big show of strapping on his pistol. “In case of mountain lions!” he said. Everyone knew what he meant—he meant it was in case some Arabs showed up—and laughed.

I loved everything about Israel—the food, the weather, the language, the fact that there were Jews of all kinds and colors doing all kinds of things. Being a fifteen-year-old boy, I was especially taken with the attractive Israeli girls in their army uniforms carrying their M16s. My parents bought me an olive-green Israel Defense Forces shirt, which I proceeded to wear with pride throughout high school. I didn’t think I was cut out for military life; but if I did join an army, I thought, it would be the Israeli one.

If you’d asked me then, I would have told you with pride and in detail the Story of Israel that I’d been taught my whole life: an outnumbered, outgunned group of Jews (just like my family) had fled persecution in Europe and the rest of the Middle East back to our biblical homeland, a homeland which the goyishe British and Romans called Palestine. The United Nations offered a partition plan, which the Jews accepted and the Arabs rejected. So the Jews went ahead and declared the State of Israel. They were immediately attacked on all sides by the evil Arab countries and won. Then they were attacked again in 1967 and won. And in 1973 and won. It was a modern-day version of the story of half a dozen Jewish holidays including Hanukkah, Purim, and Passover: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.

There were no Palestinians in this version of the story. They simply did not exist.

My first hint that something was wrong with that story came about two years later, when a cousin gave me two books by Noam Chomsky. I believe they were Deterring Democracy and What Uncle Sam Really Wants, though I may have that wrong. What I remember was that I was engrossed with the material about the United States. The idea that my Christian neighbors and past governments, especially those of the arch-villains in my house like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, were capable of atrocities and deceit was both intriguing and unsurprising. But then I got to the parts about Israel, and a pit formed in my stomach. Chomsky claimed that Israel hadn’t been attacked, but started the 1967 war, in which they illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza. He said they rejected a peace treaty with Egypt two years before the 1973 war. That they had illegally invaded Lebanon in 1982. That U.S. aid to them was illegal, because they had an undeclared nuclear program, but that the U.S. did it anyway because Israel—plucky, Jewish Israel—was integral to a U.S.-run global system of control.

Well, I reasoned, maybe this Chomksy guy doesn’t get everything right.

In college, I maintained my liberal position: I was pro-peace and pro-Israel, not necessarily in that order. The problem with the Palestinians, I thought, could be solved if outside powers—especially the United States—would just get out of the way, and if the Palestinians would get out of their own. I was a cartoonist at the student paper, and used my spot to sketch out what I thought was a nuanced view. I excoriated Ariel Sharon—the butcher of Sabra and Shatila—when he became the prime minister, propelled by the Second Intifada he had effectively started. (I drew Sharon spelling out “victory” with bloody handprints on the Western Wall, which I thought was very clever.) On another occasion, I drew a tiny Israeli soldier in a tiny tank, staring up at a giant representing “the Arab World,” with a little Palestinian flag on the toe. I labeled the toe “David” and the tiny Israeli soldier “Goliath.” I thought this was very clever too. On that occasion though, I got a call at my apartment landline from a Palestinian student (to this day I have no idea how she got my number) who told me how deeply offensive and wrongheaded my cartoon was. I heard her out. But I didn’t understand.

After college, I went to grad school in journalism, where I found myself covering the Pentagon during the start of the Iraq War. I made a point of going to antiwar protests in D.C.—as a journalist, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, and not as a protester; in those days I was trying my damnedest to be the model of a neutral (and not incidentally employable) mainstream reporter.2 At one protest I distinctly remember seeing Palestinian flags, and—the memory is foggier here—a sign decrying Israel with a big Jewish star. It may have had a swastika on it, a common way at the time of comparing the Israeli occupation with Nazi Germany. Whatever I saw, I remember feeling confused. Why was a Palestinian flag at a protest against a war against Iraq? What did any of this have to do with Jews? Most crucially, I felt unwelcome.

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In the fall of 2003, I moved to Jerusalem—not on Birthright or to join the IDF, but as a reporter. My grad school had a program in which it placed students with news organizations around the world. A professor had gotten the idea to send someone to the Associated Press in Jerusalem, and that someone turned out to be me. I had to sign a bunch of paperwork—I think my parents had to sign some too—promising not to sue Northwestern if I got killed in the ongoing Second Intifada. I moved into a cousin’s house near the neighborhood known as the German Colony. There was still blood on the sidewalk from a suicide bombing at a neighborhood café a few weeks before.

The months I spent covering the conflict, as I thought of it then, were eye-opening. I learned that there were far more than two sides of the issue. I met doggedly pro-Palestinian Israeli activists, including one of my cousin’s friends, a Jewish survivor of a suicide bombing, who swore he would not visit the Western Wall (which is in occupied East Jerusalem) until he “needed a passport to get there.” I also talked at length with Jerusalemite Palestinians, many of whom were incredibly perceptive and kind. On a few occasions, noticing just my reddish-blonde hair, a couple made some mildly antisemitic remarks with what they assumed was a sympathetic foreign Christian journalist. Any illusions I’d harbored that Israel was a more moral or noble country than any other were shattered. Once, for instance, I went on a midnight raid with Israeli immigration officers rounding up Chinese workers whose bosses had forced them to overstay their visas. I then briefly got pulled off the street and detained by a security officer after trying to interview foreign workers from Thailand who were doing renovations at the Knesset.

I learned that the Israeli army lied, routinely, about things big and small. I once took a phone call from some militants—I think Islamic Jihad—taking credit for a suicide bombing. I learned about the factions within Palestine, who seemed to hate each other as much as they hated the Israelis, and the factions on the Israeli side who did the same in reverse. I lived, as did everyone else in West Jerusalem, in mortal fear of being killed in the next suicide bombing; taking taxis instead of buses, always trying to guess if it was safer to eat at the front (where I could get out more quickly) or the back of a restaurant (where I would hopefully be farther from the blast). I also learned from my colleagues about Nazeh Darwazi, a Palestinian cameraman with AP, who had been shot in the head and killed by Israeli soldiers in Nablus a few months earlier.

I was not technically allowed, per the terms of my school’s waiver, to go into the Occupied Territories on my own. But I did get to the West Bank on several occasions. Once I went with left-wing Israeli lawmakers and the activist group Peace Now to illegal hilltop settlements near Nablus, one of which the Sharon government was claiming had been dismantled. (It had not.) At a larger settlement, Yitzhar, I was carefully watched and filmed by Orthodox settlers with machine guns. (On one hilltop I ran into Jeffrey Goldberg, now the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic, who was working on a story.)

Another time I snuck with a friend over the Green Line into Ramallah, where we had an excellent lunch. But it wasn’t the hummus she wanted to show me; it was the experience of crossing back into Israel. At the checkpoint—common targets of suicide bombings in those days—we were herded with hundreds of Palestinians into concrete chutes, made to wait interminably under the blazing sun. When I tried to sneak a picture of Israeli soldiers rifling wildly through a working-class Palestinian family’s car, throwing things out of the trunk, the soldiers yelled at me to remove the film from my camera. I gave a thumbs up and a Hebrew “kol b’seder!” Then I muttered to my friend, very quietly, that it was a good thing they didn’t know it was a digital camera. When I got to the front, the soldier said, in English, “give me the digital camera.” I guess they were listening somehow. We then piled in with exhausted, humiliated Palestinians into a dusty van for the ride back to occupied East Jerusalem.

Even then, I wouldn’t say I left Israel feeling consciously different than I had before. If anything, the plurality of voices on both the Israeli and Palestinian side made me feel more comfortable in my liberal, nuanced position: pro-Israel, pro-Palestinians, pro-peace. My one shift was that I was now convinced of both the justice and necessity of a Palestinian state. It was 2004 now, and that was still a radical position in the states and among many American Jews, who imagined it as a future foothold for the Muslim enemies sure to try to wipe out “our” state. But I knew now that even the right-wing Ariel Sharon—whom I’d met and interviewed on a few occasions—believed in its necessity. It was why he was building the “security barrier” on his unilaterally declared border with the West Bank and why, a few weeks before I left the country, he had announced his “disengagement plan” from Gaza. When even George W. Bush reiterated his support for a Palestinian state later that year, I felt especially justified.

It was during that stint in Israel that I learned the axiom that Israel wants to be three things, but can only ever be two: a democratic, Jewish state, on the whole land—from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The worst case scenarios were an apartheid Jewish state on the whole land, or a theocratic Muslim Palestinian state that would exile or kill the Jews. But my experience, from peace activists to Ariel Sharon—the butcher himself—left me convinced that Israel would soon content itself with the first two: democratic and majority Jewish, alongside, eventually, a friendly State of Palestine.

I spent the next decade trying to get back to Israel. It was like my own personal seder: with every job listing and cover letter I’d say to myself l’shana haba’ah—next year in Jerusalem. The possibility of covering such a meaningful story while eating falafel and dancing in Tel Aviv nightclubs in my off-time was intoxicating. But life, as they say, had other plans. In the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, my boss on the international desk promised that I could go back to Jerusalem if I stayed in Port-au-Prince for just one more year. By the time that year was up, my boss had forgotten, and I was too burned out (and in love with a girl I’d met) to ask. I moved to Brooklyn, happy enough to remain in the galut.

By then it was becoming clearer that “two out of three” were trending in a different direction. After the Gaza withdrawl, Sharon had a stroke and fell into a coma from which he’d never awake. Hamas won the election in Gaza. Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, imposed a ground, air, and maritime blockade. In November 2008, Israel launched a limited invasion of Gaza, to destroy a tunnel it claimed was violating a ceasefire agreement, killing six Hamas soldiers. Hamas launched a futile barrage of rocket attacks. Olmert ordered a full ground and air invasion, known as Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel killed 1,400 Palestinians, at least half of whom were estimated to be civilians. A U.N. report headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone (a member of an old Jewish family from outside Johannesburg) found that both Israel and Palestinian militants had committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Israel rejected the report and any accountability.

Benjamin Netanyahu took power a year later. Settlement activity in the West Bank accelerated, fractalizing, then dissolving, the hoped-for border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. He also launched brutal air wars against Gaza in 2012 and 2014. The Israeli left that I had met and placed my hopes in turned out to be much weaker than I’d thought—weakened, no doubt, by the years of terror during the Second Intifada. But it was also, I was coming to understand, a regression to the settler-colonial mean.

For years I’d responded to claims that Israel was a settler colonial state with anger and incomprehension: “A colony of what?” But by the mid-2010s I wasn’t caught in the daily grind of journalism anymore, and had more time to read and think. I learned that “settler” was not just a meaningless modifier; that a settler-colonial system was an actual thing, one that described the formation of many states, including the United States, Australia, South Africa, and Brazil. I began to understand that the early Zionists saw themselves as colonizers; that they were proud of it, that they thought they were bringing European civilization to a benighted and backward desert land. I read Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, the latter of whom wrote movingly both of the understandability of the Jews’ desire to protect ourselves from antisemitism, the debates between Jews as to how best to do so, and the vicious colonial project that the Zionists ultimately wrought, culminating in 1948 with the violent expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians known as the Nakba.

In 2018, Israel troops fired on a protest at the Gaza fence, injuring thousands more and killing 58. I wrote my rabbi, asking him to make a statement condemning Israel’s violence on behalf of our community. “It’s our duty to speak out when a state that represents us in the world does wrong,” I said. “If we don’t, we risk the allies we have left, and our souls. We can’t afford to lose either right now.” The rabbi responded by forwarding an email from a reservist who was at the fence, who said he was critical of the Netanyahu government, but that “when there is no alternative … the soldiers make heroic and sometimes dangerous efforts not to kill and only to injure those on the other side”—a claim that seemed to fly in the face of the death toll. He also said that the soldiers had logged “every bullet and every hit” in “Excel spreadsheets.” I asked my rabbi why any of that mattered in the face of what was clearly a massacre. He didn’t respond.

In 2021, I reached a breaking point. During Ramadan’s Night of Power, one of the holiest nights of the Muslim year, and in the midst of escalating tensions over the removal of Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes, some Palestinian worshipers at the Al-Aqsa mosque started throwing rocks at Israeli police. The police stormed the mosque, firing stun grenades and tear gas into the third most important site in all of Islam, built next to the site of the holiest place in the world for Jews. Hundreds of Palestinians were severely injured. Two days later, Israeli police again stormed the mosque, injuring hundreds more. At the Western Wall below, a crowd of Jewish extremists spotted a tree that had caught fire in the melee, and began singling verses from the prophets and shouting “yimach shemam!”—may their names be erased—a traditional curse reserved for the vilest enemies of Judaism. The Israeli commentator Yair Wallach called them “genocidal songs of vengeance.”

Hamas fired thousands of rockets in reply, killing three Israeli civilians. Netanyahu unleashed hell, killing hundreds of Gazans and destroying thousands of homes. The Israeli air force destroyed the skyscraper that housed the Gaza City offices of several news organizations, including my former colleagues at AP. It was clear that they did not want anyone reporting on what was happening. Supporters of the Israeli government on Twitter mocked the journalists who had barely fled with their lives.

The lowest moment for me might have been when Israel killed ten members of the same family in the Shati refugee camp, eight of them children. A five-month-old baby was pulled out of the rubble, bloodied but alive. My wife and I had just had our first child a few months before. Most of the Israeli press defended this act of unconscionable murder, accusing the victims of having been “human shields.” I read the news sitting at my kitchen table next to my daughter in her high chair, and burst into uncontrollable sobs.

When I learned about the Oct. 7 attack, I reacted with instinctive double horror. I was horrified by the event itself, that so many Israeli civilians—my people, after all—had been so horrifically murdered and violated in so many ways. But I was also in that instant seized with the revelation of what was about to come. If Israel reacted so murderously in the past to a tunnel, or to people trying to cross a fence, what less than calculated mass murder could follow?

And follow it has. Israel has now dropped over 8,000 “precision-guided” bombs alone on Gaza—more bombs than were dropped by the United States on all of Afghanistan in the heaviest year, on an area smaller than the city of Durham, North Carolina. Gaza City is being razed. Refugees are fleeing south, where they are also being bombed. There is nowhere for them to go.

Yet so many liberals, and to my eternal shame so many of my fellow Jews, are not only defending this slaughter but attacking anyne who criticizes it. They claim that Israel is “doing everything possible” to protect civilians (an utter lie, as admitted by the IDF above); trotting out once again the well-worn piece of hasbara that it is Hamas’ fault for “using them as human shields.” (As my friend the cartoonist Eli Valley has noted, the Israel Defense Forces’ main headquarters is located next to a hospital; the idea that the patients there are all “human shields” too would be considered disgusting, and rightly so.) They say that anyone who speaks out against this genocide is a fool, because Hamas wants to kill Jews (much as Israeli extremists want to kill all Arabs) and doesn’t respect women and hates gay and trans people (as do, I should add, most members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition).

They claim that speaking out on Gazans’ behalf is antisemitic, that it is defending rape and terror, that it excuses or worse yet erases—yimach—the memory of the Jews killed on Oct. 7. They expend all their energy focusing on the narrowest of incidents—above all, of late, whether the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital was bombed by the IDF or an errant Islamic Jihad rocket, and how news media handled the coverage of the incident—the definition of ignoring the forest for a lone and not even particularly clarifying tree. This would all be more compelling to me if it hadn’t been trotted out two years ago, and two years before that, and two years before that; if it wasn’t a farkakte siddur whose binding is fraying from overuse. Following the fashion is the way of Zionism, as Rashid Khalidi has written: When colonialism was in vogue, Zionism as a colonial movement; “once colonialism took on a bad odor in the post-World War II era of decolonization … [Zionists] encouraged the outlandish idea that the Zionist movement was itself anticolonial.”

TikTok is full of Israel defenders claiming everything Israel does is fair because all Jews are “indigenous” to the land—an incoherent claim3 that, even if true, would not erase Palestinian indigeneity much less justify their murder. Liberal Zionists point out, correctly, that Israelis hate Netanyahu; that they were out in force for almost a year protesting his judicial coup; that it seems possible if not likely that the leftist bend of the kibbutzim around Gaza are why he left them so under-defended and open to attack. Yet I have to respond: Where for the last 56 years was the massive liberal Israeli movement shutting down Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with demands to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? Where for the last 75 years were the sit-ins and street actions demanding a right of return for the Palestinians dispossessed by the Nakba? When Israel’s Jewishness runs into its democraticness, the ethnic chauvinists keep winning. The one thing that is abundantly clear now is there is only one state—currently a state with bantustans, but a single state—from the river to the sea. Netanyahu wants it to be a Jewish extremist state. Hamas, it seems, wants it to be a Muslim extremist one.

I am now for neither. Democracy, equal rights, everyone living under one flag regardless of race, religion, etc, that is the only way forward in the long term that will ensure anyone’s survival. Reparations for those who have been harmed, truth and reconciliation between oppressor and oppressed, prosecution for the most incorrigible offenders, a full accounting of all that has been done. The Jews of Israel must survive and remain on the land; they too, as I have written, have nowhere else to go. But so too the people of Gaza (and the West Bank) must not be murdered en masse, literally driven into Egypt, or into the sea. So the first step is for Israel to do what it alone can do, and can do at any moment: Stop the killing. Stop the genocide. Free Palestine, now.

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