DEBATE: What Relationship Should American Jews Have With Israel?
The most basic assumptions you have about Jews and Israel are wrong.
I’ve been publishing highly unconventional and controversial takes on Jewish issues for The Black Sheep, and frankly they haven’t exactly been our most beloved content. I don’t merely challenge the details of people’s religious or political beliefs, but the very core of the validity and morality of Jewish ethnic identity. As you might imagine, people don’t tend to take very kindly to having the group identities that give them meaning attacked, especially when that group has been victimized by some of the worst bigotry in human history. But to challenge the entrenched conventional thinking of groups is exactly what a black sheep is supposed to do. This process is the only way groups can become aware of the flaws in their worldview and gain the opportunity to improve.
Thanks to an invite from a fellow member of the group Atheists for Liberty, which I’m the Virginia chapter leader for, I had the opportunity earlier this week to take part in a debate against the founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, David L. Bernstein. Our topic: “What Relationship Should American Jews Have With Israel?” I argued the anti-Zionist position, while David argued the pro-Zionist position. We at The Black Sheep are proud to co-release the video of this debate.
The reaction of those who feel threatened by challenging opinions can instill a fear that prevents people from sharing them or publicly agreeing with them, what’s called a “spiral of silence.” If you agree with what I have to say, or even if you merely find it interesting enough to believe it deserves to be heard, I hope you will share this debate or the text of my opening statement below.
— Joseph (Jake) Klein
First, I want to thank David for participating in this debate. As will come out over the course of this evening, David and I have immense differences, but we also have many areas where we’re 100% aligned. To prepare for this debate I read David’s book Woke Antisemitism, which chronicles David bravely defending liberal values while employed in a Jewish activist network that increasingly punished him for it. David and I are both dedicated classical liberals, and his interest in having this debate proves that he practices what he preaches about open discourse instead of silencing opponents.
However, when it comes to tonight’s topic of “What Relationship American-Jews Should Have With Israel,” I don’t think David and I could be at more polar opposites. I don’t just believe that American-Jews should see Israel negatively, but that they should view the entire Zionist project as out to harm them personally. As I’m an atheist, Roling is an atheist, and David has publicly identified as agnostic, my argument is tailored towards secular Jews.
I intend to try to convince you, our viewers, that the most basic assumptions you likely have about what Jewishness and Israel even are are flawed. My views developed out of a lifetime of questioning deeper and deeper into the premises of the Modern Orthodox Jewish and Zionist community I was raised in. In a previous conversation between David and Roling, David accused me of being “biased” because “Judaism wasn’t a fit” for me, but the views that I have are not convenient for me; they have strained my relationships with my family and friends, and they currently imperil my ability to find new work in the right-of-center activist space I've spent 8-years of my career in. I was puzzled to be accused of bias, as advocating the same views one’s parents taught them to have, one’s community sought to reinforce, and that one has spent their career earning their living by advocating, as David has, would seem much better signifiers of bias, not that being biased makes any given argument true or false.
There are three primary reasons American-Jews are taught they should feel a connection to Israel: 1. Because of their ethnic connection to both the history of the land and their fellow Jews in it. 2. Because Zionism keeps Jews safe from the ever present threat of antisemitism. And 3. Because Israel is morally virtuous nation that practices liberalism in a region otherwise hostile to it. Not only are all three of these premises false, the truth is the precise opposite.
When it comes to Jew’s ethnic connection to the land and other Jews, we must first understand that ethnic Jewishness is a religious idea. The Bible describes the Jews as God’s chosen people with an unbroken lineage going back to Abraham. Nonetheless, you have been taught that Judaism is separable into a religion and an ethnicity, and thus that there’s a coherent concept of secular Jewishness. In fact, if you identify as a secular Jew, you have taken on belief in at least one core element of the Jewish religion—even if you don’t see yourself as religious.
Israeli Historian Shlomo Sand argues in his book The Invention of the Jewish People that the secular notion of an ethnic Jewish nation was a product of the rise of nationalism in the 19th century. During that period, Europeans nations organized politically around the generally false idea that they were always one people with a shared ancestry. Many Jews, historically persecuted on religious grounds, sought to integrate into these new nationalist communities, but others, including historians who paved the way for Zionism, sought to create a distinct Jewish national identity instead. These historians took for granted the Christian myth that the Jews were expelled from Israel after the destruction of the Second Temple. In fact, there is no historical evidence that the Jews were expelled, but there is substantial evidence that Judaism was for many centuries a proselytizing religion that converted many people.
Sand’s book gained controversy for its promotion of the “Khazar hypothesis,” which states that Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of a Caucasian people who converted to Judaism, without any meaningful amount of ancestry from ancient Israel. But Sand also documented uncontested mass conversions in Yemen, North Africa, and around the Mediterranean. Even looking at the genetic data used by those opposed to the Khazar hypothesis shows that Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews are more closely genetically related to Italians than they are to each other. And both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews are more closely genetically related to modern Palestinians than they are to the Jews who immigrated to Modern Israel from Yemen and Iran.
Given this, if you’re a person who feels ethnic solidarity towards others based on shared ancestry, perhaps you ought to take your Birthright trip to Rome instead of Jerusalem. And before you direct your feelings of brotherhood towards much of Israeli Jewry, perhaps you ought to direct it to the Palestinians, who you’re more closely related to. A significant portion of Palestinian ancestry comes from the ancient Jews who rather than being exiled, stayed and converted to Christianity and Islam.
Despite its blatant lack of truth, the idea of ethnic, national, communities with shared histories that arose in the 19th century had a world changing impact. It wasn’t just many Jews that wanted to organize themselves along these the lines, unfortunately there was another Volk.
This brings me to the second premise, that Zionism serves to protect Jews from antisemitism. While I acknowledge the intention, Zionism’s impact has been and continues to be to protect its ideological commitments at great cost to Jewish people.
By adopting and forwarding the false premise that the people of the world can and should be divided into ethnic ancestral groups, Zionists failed to meaningfully confront the transmutation of centuries of religious based anti-Judaism into an immutable race-based antisemitism. Instead, they embraced this change and sought to use it for their own ends.
There’s a phenomenon called “bootleggers & baptists,” where two groups that couldn’t appear more opposed end up aligning in pursuit of common goals. Baptists sought to ban alcohol, but so did bootleggers, who also worked to keep it illegal to control a black market.
Zionists and antisemites collaborate in the same way. At the beginning of Nazi rule, many Zionists saw the Nazi’s rise as a useful opportunity to boost Jewish immigration to Palestine. Members of the Zionist Federation of Germany invited Nazi Party officials on a trip to Palestine in 1933 with the goal of depicting Zionism as aligned with Nazi ethnonationalism. Joseph Goebbels published an article series called “A Nazi Travels to Palestine” recording the trip and praising Zionism. The Nazis even issued commemorative coins with a Star of David on one side and a Swastika on the other.
From 1934 to 1936, it was official SS policy to encourage the activities of Zionists within the German Jewish community in-order to combat the then popular competing idea of Jewish assimilation into German society, which was viewed as the real danger.
In 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, David Ben-Gurion, the future first Prime Minister of Israel, stated, “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children of Germany by transporting them to England, and only half by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter, for before us lies not only the numbers of these children but the historical reckoning of the people of Israel.”
The leader of the Zionist-right, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was inspired by Italian fascism and was praised by Mussolini. The Zionist terrorist group Lehi proposed as late as 1941 to “actively take part in the war on Germany’s side” and after an Axis victory to build a “totalitarian” Jewish state bound by treaty with the German Reich. In 1948, the group assassinated U.N. Mediator Count Bernadotte, a famed humanitarian responsible for saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, in-order to prevent enactment of a peace plan. Lehi’s leader Yitzchak Shamir went on to serve two terms as Israeli Prime Minister, during which he successfully lobbied the United States not to admit Jews as refugees after the Soviet Union’s collapse so they’d be forced to settle in Israel. Shamir called past Soviet Jews’ decision to emigrate to the U.S. “defection.”
From the beginning, members of Palestine’s “Old Yishuv,” the Jewish community that lived in Palestine before any Zionist immigration, opposed the Zionist movement because they feared, correctly, that it would lead to conflict and endanger them. Palestine had long been home to diverse religious communities, including the Old Yishuv, and Palestinians were originally welcoming of Jewish immigration.
So what changed? This brings me to the final premise: that Israel is a morally upstanding bastion of liberalism.
The British first promised the Arabs a state in Palestine, but also promised Jews a “national home” there in 1917’s Balfour Declaration. They explained to the Arabs that a “national home” wouldn’t mean an independent Jewish ethnostate, but as more Zionists immigrated it became clear they had no intention of integrating into a shared state. Rather than adopt Arabic, they revived the dead language of Hebrew.
Under Ottoman Rule, Palestinian land worked by families for generations was split up into deeds and registered to absentee land lords in Turkey. The Palestinians were promised that they could continue to live on and work their land as long as they paid taxes, but under British rule this property was sold to Zionists, who kicked them off of the only land their families had ever known and refused to hire anyone but Jews. As Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Movement gained steam, more and more Zionists spoke openly about ethnically cleansing the land.
The British proposed numerous offers for Jews and Palestinians to govern together in a shared, representative system, where Jews would be a legally protected group. The Palestinians said yes to plans that would’ve given them far smaller voting representation than was proportionate to their population, but the Zionists refused any binational offer and would only accept a Jewish ethnostate.
The Zionists got what they wanted from 1948’s war. In the process they pioneered the same terrorist tactics used by Hamas on October 7th. Lehi and the fellow Zionist paramilitary Irgun, led by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, conducted intentionally brutal massacres on Palestinian villages for the expressly terroristic purpose of frightening Palestinians into fleeing their land, as documented by Israeli historian Benny Morris. During the Deir Yassin massacre, surrendered Palestinians were executed, a captured baby was shot before its mother’s eyes, who was then shot herself, bodies were mutilated, and women were raped. According to Zionist military Plan Dalet, it was a war goal to empty and conquer villages well past the borders promised to Israel in the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan.
At the war’s end, approximately 750,000 Palestinians, about half of of the Arab population, were expelled or fled. Unusual after a war, civilians were never allowed to return. Instead, Israel passed “Absentee Property” laws to reassign their land to Jewish owners.
In 1967, Israel took control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and other territories. Israel claims it started this war in a preemptive strike, but had previously received intelligence from the United States that their Arab neighbors were not planning to initiate an attack. Israel retains control of the West Bank, where over two-million Arabs continue to live under Israeli military control without receiving equal rights with Israelis nor the West Bank’s over 500,000 Jewish settlers, a situation that has been accurately described as apartheid.
In 1977, Israel came under the control of Begin and Shamir’s Likud Party, and has governed Israel for the majority of the time since. Likud’s founding charter states that "between the Sea and the Jordan [river] there will only be Israeli sovereignty,” a sentence that has been called antisemitic when flipped to be said by Palestinians.
Likud and its coalition partners represent the interests of the now mainstreamed settler movement, which seeks to make Palestinian self-sovereignty in the West Bank impossible by establishing the Zionist presence as an irreversible fact. Likud’s co-founder Ariel Sharon rushed to support the settlers after the first settlement was founded when a group of Zionists pretended to be Swiss tourists, booked rooms in a West Bank hotel, kicked out the hotel’s owner, and claimed the property as their own.
In the interests of making it so that there’s no credible Palestinian partner for peace, Likud has intentionally propped up Islamists including Hamas. Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in 2019 explaining that “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas. This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.”
All of this history was disheartening for me to learn, but my intention in this debate isn’t to leave American-Jews with a hopeless negativity. Instead, we can look back to what led the Jewish people down this path and identify a better direction.
There is a figure in Jewish history I admire named Israel Zangwill. Zangwill was born in Britain, but his father survived the brutal pogroms in Russia. Knowing the pressing need to save Eastern Europe’s Jews, Zangwill became an early leader in the Zionist movement. He popularized the slogan, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” but after traveling to Palestine he realizing that forming a Jewish state there would force the Zionists to ethnically cleanse the large existing population. Zangwill left the Zionist movement after they rejected a British offer to settle in Uganda. He formed the competing Jewish Territorial Organization, which sought to create a Jewish homeland anywhere fast to provide an urgent safe haven for Europe’s Jews. Unfortunately, because of the larger Zionist movement’s commitment to Palestine, his territorial movement failed to unify Jews and shut down. Had they received more support, perhaps they could have provided a refuge before the Holocaust.
What makes Zangwill so interesting is not just his rejection of Zionism, but the ideal he dreamed of instead. A Jewish territory was merely a solution for the needs of his time, not the dream. Zangwill wrote the famous 1908 play The Melting-Pot, which tells the love story between a Russian-Jewish immigrant a Russian-Christian immigrant in New York’s Lower-East Side. The story’s twist is that the woman’s father led the pogrom that killed the Jewish man’s parents. Despite this intense past, in America, she no longer needed to be a Russian and he no longer a Jew. America was the great Melting-Pot, in which the best from every ethnic group could be adopted by all, the worst from every ethnic group could be left to the dustbin of history, and a new American ethnogenesis could take place to forge us as one people.
Historians believe that the origin of the Jewish religion came from a merging of tribes in the region of Israel who believed in two different gods: El and Yahweh. By merging these gods and the origin story of these tribes—one had the story told in Genesis and the other the story from Exodus—it brought them together as one people. Today’s Judaism does the precise opposite. It causes Israeli Jews to see themselves as a separate people from the Palestinians, and those who believe in the false premises of ethnic Judaism in America too separate themselves from other Americans in a smaller way.
As I’ve said, I believe secular Jewishness is an incoherent concept, and thus I do not identify as one. Instead, I think of myself as an ex-Jew, or perhaps even better, a post-Jew. My philosophy could be called neo-assimilationism. Zangwill’s dream of integration died in the eyes of most Jews with the Holocaust; the assimilationism that had been popular beforehand went out of fashion as Jews doubled down on their identity in solidarity with each other. David in his book describes his “intense rage” after witnessing a fellow Jew hide their identity while David was experiencing real antisemitism. I think entrenching our differences from others in response to hatred is the wrong way. Instead of taking on the identity antisemites place upon us, in a world where the Nazis were defeated, Jews finally have the freedom to be one people with their neighbors, just as the ancient Israelites sought to.
If you’re looking for an identity and a people, Israel is the wrong place to look for it. Instead, choose to be fully one here with Americans. Or even better with the people in your state. Or best, with your neighbors and whoever the people that make up your day to day interactions are.
You, today, live in the place where Zangwill’s dream can be possible. But it can only become a reality if you choose to take part in it.
The Black Sheep is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.