Newsletter #88: Zionism vs. Anti-Zionism w/ Shaul Magid

In December, The Dig published our two interviews with Shaul Magid, the distinguished fellow in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue in Fire Island, New York. The interviews traverse the long history of Jewish Zionism and its antagonist, Jewish anti-Zionism, tracing the remarkable diversity of both traditions and their centuries-long evolutions. 

For listeners interested in taking this inquiry further, we asked Magid to assemble a reading list on Israel, Zionism, and the debates animating and surrounding its binational and diasporic alternatives. These were his recommendations. 

Geoffrey Levin’s Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948–1978 (2023)

From the publisher: “American Jews began debating Palestinian rights issues even before Israel’s founding in 1948. Geoffrey Levin recovers the voices of American Jews who, in the early decades of Israel’s existence, called for an honest reckoning with the moral and political plight of Palestinians. These now‑forgotten voices, which include an aid‑worker‑turned‑academic with Palestinian Sephardic roots, a former Yiddish journalist, anti‑Zionist Reform rabbis, and young left‑wing Zionist activists, felt drawn to support Palestinian rights by their understanding of Jewish history, identity, and ethics. They sometimes worked with mainstream American Jewish leaders who feared that ignoring Palestinian rights could foster antisemitism, leading them to press Israeli officials for reform. But Israeli diplomats viewed any American Jewish interest in Palestinian affairs with deep suspicion, provoking a series of quiet confrontations that ultimately kept Palestinian rights off the American Jewish agenda up to the present era.  

“In reconstructing this hidden history, Levin lays the groundwork for more forthright debates over Palestinian rights issues, American Jewish identity, and the U.S.‑Israel relationship more broadly.”

Omri Boehm’s Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel (2021)

From the publisher: “Haifa Republic: A Democratic Future for Israel is an urgent wake-up call. The philosopher Omri Boehm argues that it is long past time to recognize that there will not be a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people. After fifty years, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank constitutes annexation in all but name, even as the legitimate claims of the Arab population, soon to be a national majority, remain unaddressed. Meanwhile, daily life goes on under conditions rightly likened to apartheid. For liberals in Israel and America to continue to place their hopes in a two-state solution is a form of willful and culpable blindness, especially now that Israeli leaders across the political spectrum have begun to speak of ethnic cleansing. A catastrophe is in the making.

“But Haifa Republic also offers grounds for hope. Catastrophe can be averted, Boehm contends, by reconfiguring Israel as a single binational state in which Palestinians and Jews both possess human rights and equal citizenship. The original Zionists — Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and, early in his career, David Ben-Gurion — all advocated such a federation, and as prime minister, Menachem Begin successfully submitted a kindred plan to the Knesset. A binational federation offers a last chance for the two peoples who call Palestine home to live in peace and mutual respect and to have a truly democratic future in common.” 

Jonathan Graubart’s Jewish Self-Determination Beyond Zionism: Lessons From Hannah Arendt and Other Pariahs (2023)

From the publisher: “Jewish Self-Determination beyond Zionism examines the liberal Zionist and Jewish anti-Zionist perspectives that developed in the decades following Israeli statehood. In his timely book, Jonathan Graubart advances a non-statist vision of Jewish self-determination to be realized in a binational political arrangement that rejects Apartheid practices and features a just and collaborative coexistence of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The book’s vision advances a distinct Jewish self-determination committed to cultural enrichment and emancipation, internationalism, and the fostering of new political, social, and economic channels for attaining genuine reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. 

“Jewish Self-Determination beyond Zionism also engages a Humanist Zionist vision to confront the Zionist movement’s foundational sins and demands a full reckoning with the Palestinians. Graubart focuses on two of Humanist Zionism’s most insightful thinkers, Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt, putting them ‘in conversation’ with each other, and synthesizing their collective insights and critical Jewish perspectives alongside the ideas of Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler, Ella Shohat, Edward Said, and other philosophers and academics. Jewish Self-Determination beyond Zionism concludes that an updated, binational program is the best path forward.” 

Daniel Boyarin’s The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto (2023)

From the publisher: “Today there are two seemingly mutually exclusive notions of what ‘the Jews’ are: either a religion or a nation/ethnicity. The widespread conception is that the Jews were formerly either a religious community in exile or a nation based on Jewish ethnicity. The latter position is commonly known as Zionism, and all articulations of a political theory of Zionism are taken to be variations of that view.   

“In this provocative book, based on his decades of study of the history of the Jews, Daniel Boyarin lays out the problematic aspects of this binary opposition and offers the outlines of a different — and very old — answer to the question of the identity of a diaspora nation. He aims to drive a wedge between the ‘nation’ and the ‘state,’ only very recently conjoined, and recover a robust sense of nationalism that does not involve sovereignty.”

Unacknowledged Kinships: Postcolonial Studies and the Historiography of Zionism, edited by Stefan Vogt, Derek Penslar, and Arieh Saposnik (2023)

From the publisher: “Unacknowledged Kinships strives to facilitate a conversation between the historiography of Zionism and postcolonial studies by identifying and exploring possible linkages and affiliations between their subjects as well as the limits of such connections. The contributors to this volume discuss central theoretical concepts developed within the field of postcolonial studies, and they use these concepts to analyze crucial aspects of the history of Zionism while contextualizing Zionist thought, politics, and culture within colonial and postcolonial histories. This book also argues that postcolonial studies could gain from looking at the history of Zionism as an example of not only colonial domination but also the seemingly contradictory processes of national liberation and self-empowerment.   

“Unacknowledged Kinships is the first work to systematically investigate the potential for a dialogue between postcolonial studies and Zionist historiography. It is also unique in suggesting that postcolonial concepts can be applied to the history of European Zionism just as comprehensively as to the history of Zionism in Palestine and Israel or Arab countries. Most importantly, the book is an overture for a dialogue between postcolonial studies and the historiography of Zionism.”

Arieh Saposnik’s Zionism’s Redemptions (2022)

From the publisher: “In this volume, Arieh Saposnik examines the complicated relations between nationalism and religious (and non-religious) redemptive traditions through the case study of Zionism. He provides a new framework for understanding the central ideas of this movement and its relationship to traditional Jewish ideas, Christian thought, and modern secular messianisms. Providing a longue-durée and broad view of the central themes and motivations in the making of Zionism, Saposnik connects its intellectual history with the concrete development of the Zionist project in Israel in its cultural, social, and political history. Saposnik demonstrates how Zionism offers lessons for a politics in which human perfectibility continues to serve as a guiding light and as a counter-narrative to the contemporary politics of self-interest, self-promotion and ‘post-truth.’ This is a study that bears implications for our understanding of modernity, of space and place, history and historical trajectories, and the place of Jews and Judaism in the modern world.”

Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin’s Mishna Consciousness, Biblical Consciousness: Safed and Zionist Culture (2022) [Hebrew]

From the publisher: “In the sixteenth century, mainly after the Ottomans gained control of the Land of Israel, a group of venerable Jewish personages assembled in Safed. They included Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the ‘Shulchan Aruch;’ The Holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital; Rabbi Moshe Cordovero; Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz; and the great liturgical poet, Rabbi Yisrael Najara. These figures, each in his own way, reshaped Jewish culture and tradition for the following generations. It was a formative historical moment, an unusual, albeit brief, blossoming. Nevertheless, modern Jewish historical consciousness, and especially Israeli collective memory, have a reserved and ambivalent attitude toward Safed, and even disregard it. The rejection of historical Safed is intertwined with a rejection of its legacy, even though this legacy continues to exist in the world of many Jews. 

“The book Mishna Consciousness, Biblical Consciousness: Safed and Zionist Culture examines the consciousness of the sixteenth-century settlers in Safed in relation to modern Zionist consciousness and presents them as two theological-political models of settlement in the Land of Israel: one is based on the Mishna and the other on the Hebrew Bible. The personages of Safed turned to the Land of Israel of the period following the destruction of the Temple and sought to connect to the Tana’im — first and foremost to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar. Zionism, in contrast, set its sights on the period of the conquest and settlement, especially of Joshua and the Judges, in line with the modern Western Christian approach. The book does not present Safed as an alternative to Zionism, but rather uses it as a mirror for an inquiry into such concepts as nationalism, secularization, and tradition. The focus on Safed and the attitude toward it, the book argues, offers an opening for a reformulation of modern culture in general, and Jewish Israeli culture in particular.”

Mikhael Manekin’s The Dawn of Redemption: Ethics and Tradition in a Time of Power (2021)

From the publisher: “Mikhael Manekin argues that modern Jewish nationalism — widespread today among secular as well as religious Israeli-Jews — is incompatible with traditional Jewish ethics. Manekin, an Orthodox religious Jew and anti-Occupation activist, draws on traditional texts, as well as his own family history, in an attempt to reconcile a religious ethical system created in the diaspora with the political reality of a modern nation state. He argues that Jewish ethics, grounded in a long-time religious-tradition, can fuel and guide critically minded, politically engaged citizens. Specifically, Manekin argues that the Jewish tradition denounces the desire for power and control, as well as ideologies of ethnic superiority and political subjugation.”

Shaul Magid’s The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance (2023)

From the publisher: “What is exile? What is diaspora? What is Zionism? Jewish identity today has been shaped by prior generations’ answers to these questions, and the future of Jewish life will depend on how we respond to them in our own time. In The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance, celebrated rabbi and scholar Shaul Magid offers an essential contribution to this intergenerational process, inviting us to rethink our current moment through religious and political resources from the Jewish tradition. 

“On many levels, Zionism was conceived as an attempt to ‘end the exile’ of the Jewish people, both politically and theologically. In a series of incisive essays, Magid challenges us to consider the price of diminishing or even erasing the exilic character of Jewish life. A thought-provoking work of political imagination, The Necessity of Exile reclaims exile as a positive stance for constructive Jewish engagement with Israel-Palestine, antisemitism, diaspora, and a broken world in need of repair.”

Marjorie Feld’s The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism (forthcoming, 2024)

From the publisher: “Throughout the twentieth century, American Jewish communal leaders projected a unified position of unconditional support for Israel, cementing it as a cornerstone of American Jewish identity. This unwavering position served to marginalize and label dissenters as antisemitic, systematically limiting the threshold of acceptable criticism. In pursuit of this forced consensus, these leaders entered Cold War alliances, distanced themselves from progressive civil rights and anti-colonial movements, and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Israel. In The Threshold of Dissent, Marjorie N. Feld instead shows that today’s vociferous arguments among American Jews over Israel and Zionism are but the newest chapter in a fraught history that stretches to the nineteenth century.  

“Drawing on rich archival research and examining wide-ranging intellectual currents — from the Reform movement and the Yiddish left to anti-colonialism and Jewish feminism — Feld explores American Jewish critics of Zionism and Israel from the 1880s to the 1980s. The book argues that the tireless policing of contrary perspectives led each generation of dissenters to believe that it was the first to question unqualified support for Israel. The Threshold of Dissent positions contemporary critics within a century-long debate about the priorities of the American Jewish community, one which holds profound implications for inclusion in American Jewish communal life and for American Jews’ participation in coalitions working for justice.  

“At a time when American Jewish support for Israel has been diminishing, The Threshold of Dissent uncovers a deeper — and deeply contested — history of intracommunal debate over Zionism among American Jews.”