2. 23. 2024

To Oppose Zionism, We Have to Deal with Christian Zionism

Ashley J. Bohrer

In the face of the genocide Israel is unleashing against Palestinians in Gaza, and the continued campaign of ethnic cleansing in the rest of historic Palestine, the spectre of antisemitism looms large. The Israeli state itself is far from the only entity advancing the pernicious idea that it’s antisemitic to critique Israel, the genocide in Gaza, or Zionism. In fact, several countries (
32 in Europe) and US states have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which condemns all criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and many jurisdictions have adopted laws against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which is modelled on the global solidarity campaign that helped to dismantle apartheid in South Africa. 

This conflation between Zionism and Jewishness is pure farce. Jewishness is many things – a culture, an ethnicity, a religion, a tradition – but it long predates Zionism as a political philosophy and the state of Israel as a political entity. To say that Jewishness is constituted in part or in whole by conscription into a genocidal project is not only politically despicable, but intellectually vacuous. 

I have spent the last months (and most of the last decade) as a Jewish person organizing in Jewish community around the liberation of Palestine. Judaism is not Zionism. Jewishness cannot in any way be reduced to the political ideology supporting a Jewish-supremacist ethnostate in the land of Palestine. While many institutions, including the State of Israel, promote this conflation, activists working for the liberation of Palestine must remain attentive to the ideological character of this association and find ways to counter it wherever it appears. Calls for violence against all Jews or treating Jews as a whole as responsible for the actions of the Israeli state are problematic, as are protests outside of Jewish institutions that do not have a specific material connection to Zionism. Simply replacing the word “Jews” with “Zionists” is not sufficient to alleviate this problem. Such a conflation also misrepresents history and material concentrations of power in important ways.


White Christian colonialism and the Israeli state

In critiquing Zionism, it’s imperative that we centre the diverse range of actors that constitute the Zionist project, both historically and in the contemporary world. Much of the current discourse around the State of Israel’s grotesque violence in Palestine focuses on the politics of Jewish communities and institutions in the rest of the world, which essentially gives a free pass to Christian Zionism and non-Jewish liberal Zionism. There are today more Christian Zionists in the US than all Jews – not Jewish Zionists, but all Jews in the whole world. Some Christian Zionism is based on theological principles, but political and racial elements are prominent as well. Christian Zionist organizations operate in at least 90 countries. There is even historical evidence to suggest that Christian Zionism predates Jewish Zionism, and perhaps even caused it. Though Israel is a Jewish-supremacist state, our analysis and theory of power must reflect the actual concentration of power worldwide in the Zionist movement – and that isn’t predominantly with Jews. 

Similar considerations should shape our historical analysis as well. The State of Israel was created by a variety of large transnational actors, especially the United Nations, the United States, and the United Kingdom, none of which are controlled by Jews. While those bodies continue to rehearse the narrative that establishing a Zionist state was a benevolent gift to the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust, each of them had their own economic and geopolitical interests in the establishment of the Israeli state. In the immediately post-Holocaust moment, there was an uptick in Jewish support for the Zionist project – which had never been the dominant political orientation inside Jewish communities before the Second World War – but that does not explain why those states and international organizations chose to advance that project. In the face of a whirlwind global movement toward decolonization, all of those state and transnational actors had an interest in stabilizing colonialism in Palestine, begun by the British. 

It is naive to rewrite this colonial history to suggest that the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine was primarily or exclusively about the safety or protection of Jewish people; there were other geopolitical, racist, colonial interests at play, in relation to which the invocation of Jewish suffering became a useful tool. It continues to be a useful tool, deployed constantly against Palestinians, but also against non- and anti-Zionist Jews.


Building alliances that serve the aim of liberation

Narratives that posit Jews as the ultimate power behind the Zionist state, either historically or contemporarily, teeter into replaying problematic antisemitic stereotypes about disproportionate Jewish power in politics, finance, and media. Even those of us who dedicate our political energy to mobilizing from our Jewishness, as much as anyone else, can begin to believe that what is most necessary to break the US-Israel alliance is the transformation of Jewish support for the Israeli state. This analysis ignores the myriad interests the US and other countries have in maintaining a settler state in the land of Palestine. Today the charge of antisemitism carries particular heft in some liberal states, but this ruling class support is offered to Jews primarily to defend – and strictly on condition of support for – the settler project in the US, Canada, and Palestine. It is much more likely that Jewish people will be pushed to the margin of settler societies as those societies disinvest in apartheid than that the US, Canada, the UK, or Europe will divest from the imperial and colonial circuits of political, economic, social, and epistemological power on which they are built. 

No imperial alliances actually serve Jewish safety. This has never been their goal. Radical right-wing parties, including those with antisemitic politics, have cozied up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and been vociferous in their adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. When we abide the conflation of Jewishness and Zionism, we undermine our ability to combat actual instances of antisemitism, which have become more frequent as the global radical right gains power.

With that context in mind, the strongest critiques of Zionism:

  1. Refuse conflation of Jewish people with Zionists or Jewishness with Zionism. This means that our targets of political protest should not be random individual Jews or Jewish institutions, but institutions – Jewish or not – that hold a material stake in the reproduction of Palestinian death.

  2. Recognize Zionism as a political ideology rooted in white-supremacist logic, settler colonialism, and ethno-nationalism, rather than in Jewish liturgy, culture, religion, or values. If Jews have also participated in settler-colonial and apartheid projects, it is not because of the uniqueness of Jewishness, but because of the hegemony of white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism, which influences Jews just as much as other groups of people.

  3. Understand Zionism for what it truly is: not an isolated political form of Jewish supremacy, but an outgrowth of European, predominantly Christian colonization and white supremacy – and ultimately a project of Christian supremacy.

  4. Contextualize Zionism as a formation similar to other instances of settler colonialism, including in Canada, the US, and Australia, and across Latin America. For those of us who live in such settler-colonial states, we must be clear about how and when the critiques we apply to Israel and Israelis equally apply to us.

  5. Denounce any attempt at exploiting Jewish history, trauma, and vulnerability toward supremacist, exclusionary ends.

  6. Enact a wholesale critique of Zionist ideology, bringing together feminism, anti-racism, critiques of Islamophobia, critiques of capitalism, and critiques of antisemitism to understand the intersectional nature of Israeli settler colonialism.

We must suffuse our political work with a vision of liberation for all. The strength of our movements to end a settler-colonial state in Palestine is directly related to the clarity of our politics around white supremacy, Islamophobia, antisemitism, feminism, and anti-Arab racism. None of us is free until we all are.

Dr. Ashley J. Bohrer is an academic and activist based in Chicago. By day, Bohrer is Assistant Professor of Gender and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and writes academic research on theories of oppression and liberation; check out Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism for more of that work. By night and weekend, Ashley spends most hours organizing with Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations in the global Palestine solidarity movement. You can find more information and other writing at: ashleybohrer.com.