Is Liberal Zionism Dead?

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Steven Gotlib

Review of Shaul Magid, The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance (Brooklyn; Ayin Press, 2023)

Jews under the age of fifty do not know Israel as anything other than an occupying power. And with the advent of the internet, English-Speaking Jews can read the Jerusalem Post alongside Al Jazeera, The Forward alongside The Guardian. In such an open-access environment, Israel’s propaganda industry is failing miserably. It has some talented people, but it simply doesn’t stand a chance against the present media ecosystem – or against the complex reality that is Israel/Palestine, now being reported on by diverse voices within that ecosystem. And the reality is grim. The half-century occupation has arguably become de facto annexation. The prospects for a two-state solution are at their nadir. Many younger Jews – often progressive in politics and questioning after their own Jewish spiritual identity – find that a presumption of reflective support for Israel as an occupying power insults their conscience and their intelligence. Urging someone committed to liberal or progressive politics to support an illiberal state, just because it happens to be Israel (an argument that gestures toward a kind of Jewish exceptionalism), will not bear much fruit in my view. (112-113)[1]
–  Shaul Magid

In a 2021 Sources article, Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman described himself as a “troubled committed Zionist” in that he was “unconditionally committed to Israel’s survival” while recognizing “a gap between Israel as it was and Israel as I believed it should be… that there was a people who did not want to be a part of my state, and whom, conversely, I did not wish to occupy.” In his words,

I am troubled because something very wrong is going on in our country, because our commitment to human rights and equality, to treating all people as created in the image of God, is inconsistently applied in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. I’m troubled because Israel, however committed to peace, is no longer resolute in pursuing it. I’m troubled because our power has afforded us the ability to maintain the current political status quo while desensitizing us to the moral abuses it conceals and legitimizes. I’m troubled because we can—and must—do better, but many of us are no longer trying.

Unlike the “troubled committed,” the “untroubled committed” have “all but given up on peace, content instead with peace and quiet, tempered occasionally by manageable spasms of violence.” The “troubled uncommitted,” meanwhile, are those who embrace “a progressive universalist discourse and value system which rejects particularism and national identities,” or for whom “the dissonance between their liberal Jewish values and the reality on the ground in Israel simply grew intolerable… the extended occupation made Israel no longer an ongoing experiment but a failed one.” Finally, the “untroubled uncommitted” are “those who simply had become disenfranchised and uninterested in Israel.”

The growing prominence of the latter two groups in North America (a survey cited by Hartman indicated that “close to a third of American Jews believe that it is legitimate to associate Israel’s policies with apartheid”) has led to a situation in which “parents do not know how to talk about Israel to their increasingly hyper-troubled children for whom being committed to Israel is no longer taken for granted,” and many find themselves wondering “whether they should become increasingly uncommitted” to Zionism. This is exacerbated by pro-Israel discourse being run by the “untroubled committed” who “have very little to offer” to the troubled.

Hartman writes that, in addressing the troubled, “there has to be a belief that Israel shares their commitment to peace and human rights,” which is no longer a given. Speaking on behalf of the troubled committed, Hartman says that “we see Israel ceding the moral high ground by no longer raising the mantle of a peace process; by putting up hindrances to a future peaceful resolution instead of dismantling obstacles; and by tolerating and institutionalizing power abuses toward Palestinians.” Hartman then calls for a “Liberal Zionist Agenda” embracing six components:

  1. As liberal Zionists, we need to first of all embrace Zionism and support the right and need of the Jewish people to a Jewish state in the land of Israel.
  2. We embrace Israel’s mission to act as a strong, safe, and vibrant homeland for the Jewish people, and at the same time function as a democratic state committed to equal rights, freedom, and dignity of all citizens regardless of national or religious identity, Jew and Arab alike.
  3. We must commit to a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian conflict in a way that enables the Palestinian and Israeli peoples to fulfill their inalienable human rights and live in freedom, dignity, peace and security; and to correcting the moral shortcomings of the Occupation as long as it continues.
  4. The discourse around Israel must shift its basic premise: we must focus not only on a defense of Israel but also on our moral expectations from Israel.
  5. We must relax the manifold rules that govern what Israel discourse is allowed and what not; when and where one is allowed to express one’s opinions; who one can talk with and who not; who is in and who out.
  6. We must articulate a new narrative of power that seriously engages both with power’s useful purposes and with its potential and actual abuses.

Hartman concludes his article by stating outright that “liberal Zionism cannot persevere with its liberal story if Israel does not aspire to be a liberal Jewish state and does not itself embrace the basic liberal Zionist policies outlined above,” but qualifying that liberal Zionists “cannot afford the luxury of pessimism. If we embrace liberal Zionism with a clear and consistent voice, I choose to believe that we still have time.”

Unfortunately, many now believe such time has passed. In his recent book, The Necessity of Exile, Professor Shaul Magid of Dartmouth College argues that liberal Zionism has nothing to stand on, being “a failure on liberal grounds if it cannot offer those who live within Israel’s borders the very same rights of self-determination that Zionism claims for Jews” (35). Hartman’s pleas, for Magid, fall apart because they offer “a liberal Zionist narrative for an illiberal post-two-state reality: that is, one where Jews continue to dominate on all fronts while they accept, but attempt to minimize, discrimination and oppression of Palestinians” (36).

Magid, though, takes his argument a step further in arguing that the problem is with Zionism itself, rather than with any adjectives attached. As such, his book is self-described as a counter-Zionist project which aims “to sever Zionism as an ideology from Israel as a nation-state.” This is done by acknowledging “the land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and the same land as the homeland of the Palestinian people,” while granting “the legitimacy of the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people in their homeland and for the Jewish people in their homeland.” Israel can do so by “acting as a nation-state that protects and exercises the rights of both peoples,” even if this eventually means “changing the name of the country to better represent all its citizens.” Magid argues that no forms of Zionism can ensure such equal rights to Jews and Palestinians, and that a new collective identity is needed that “could serve Israel as a more liberal and more democratic place for the next phase of its existence” (18).

Magid acknowledges that his critique of Zionism could be countered by “focusing on Palestinian accountability in all of this.” It is indisputable, after all, that “the Palestinian leadership and populace bear some responsibility for the effects of their ideologies and tactics.” He responds, however, that doing so is “a deflection that avoids the real work of trying to understand where we are and how we got here.” His overarching goal “is not to adjudicate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but to question whether Zionism is still a relevant ideology for liberal Jews… who remain wed to Israel as an important part of their Jewish identity but cannot support the ethnonational chauvinistic state it has become” (38-39). In service of that goal, Magid presents an “intra-Jewish” narrative rather than sharing Palestinian voices on exile, national autonomy, or territorial rights.

Of course, it is impossible to even think about this question without addressing the tragic events of October 7. Magid himself acknowledges this in a note before the online version of one his chapters:

One cannot write, one cannot even think, about Israel without confronting the horrific day of October 7th, 2023 and its increasingly horrifying aftermath. The Hamas massacre on that day—the brutal murder of civilians, including many women, children, and elders, the torture and heinous sexual crimes, and the abduction of over two hundred hostages, including toddlers, children, and the elderly—struck Israel, and the Jewish people, to its very core. After a breach of its sovereign territory, and the murder of those who the state (like any state) was supposed to protect, the Israeli Defence Force[s] responded, as it must. The military response has been devastating, and has resulted in the death and suffering of many innocent Gazans, including thousands of children, and the destruction of huge swaths of residential areas. This is not the place to explore the complexity and horror of mass death. Innocent Palestinians have certainly paid a high price for the savagery of Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response, and it is not a stretch to say that the movement for Palestinian national self-determination has greatly suffered as a result of these events. But still, amidst the mourning and devastation, when the fog of war lifts and the mourners rise from shiva or take down their mourning tents, the same dilemma will exist: competing claims for rights, claims of ownership, and the land, the land, the land. Thus, returning to examine this core problem of the ownership of the land is not a deflection from current events. We can think—we must think—a way out of the cognitive trap of exceptionalism and exclusivity, rights and victimhood, on both sides, and the illusion of seeing violence as a solution, whether terrorism or state violence, even if we must do so through tears of grief, of sorrow, and of pain. In memory of the more than 1,200 souls, Jewish and non-Jewish, who lost their lives on October 7th, 2023, and the thousands of innocent Gazans who lost their lives in the war that followed.

The upshot of Magid’s note is that the horrific events of October 7 do not change the fact that a conversation must be had about how Jews relate to the land, as well as the State, of Israel. As he writes, the same dilemmas exist after October 7 as did before. If anything, for Magid, it is even more important to have these discussions now than it was before, so that the cycle of violence we find ourselves in the midst of can potentially be brought to a decisive end.

In acknowledging the profound importance of engaging in these conversations at this moment, it is also important to acknowledge the change that many liberal Zionists experienced post-October 7.  R. Shai Held formulated this well in a public Facebook post at the end of October:

… there are people who believe that their “priors” about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were confirmed by October 7 and that, therefore, they have nothing to rethink. “End the occupation” and all that. I shared many of those “priors,” though without the naivete that the creation of a Palestinian State in the West Bank and/or Gaza would somehow bring the conflict to an end. But here is what has changed for me, and if I may be so bold, ought to have changed for them too (though I am not holding out hope):

First, people need to confront the reality of who and what Hamas is, of their genocidal (the real kind) fantasies. Anyone who says they “expected” the sheer depths of brutality and inhumanity Hamas displayed on October 7 is either lying to you or to themselves.

But more importantly: anyone who cares about the people of Gaza, and about Palestinians and Israelis in general – as human beings rather than ideological tropes – has to face the reality that for Hamas, this has never been about the Occupation. They have been telling us for decades that their goal is to destroy Israel and kill Jews. And they mean it. If your only response to the events of October 7 is to say Israel should end the Occupation, you are living in a kind of epistemological closure.

Now, it is true that poverty, hopelessness, and occupation drive (some) people to radical, extremist, toxic ideologies and I do think, as I always have, that there will need to be a Palestinian State one day in which Palestinians can l[i]ve in freedom and dignity. But one cannot make this happen with one’s eyes closed, and one cannot wish away the impact Hamas has had on many, many Gazans.

Which brings me to my next point: People who care about the people of Gaza should call upon the international community to engage in the equivalent of de[-]Nazification in Gaza.  An entire generation has been brought up in Hamas schools. The most humane thing is to help purge the death-loving and death-dealing ideology that has so poisoned the wells of Gaza.

The perspective articulated by Held is representative of almost every committed North American Zionist – troubled or untroubled – whom I have spoken to since October. Those who are committed to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state are now largely equally committed to completely eradicating Hamas from Gaza – something that can only come from a decisive Israeli victory in the current conflict and temporary tabling of talk about a two-state solution. Another who said this well around the same time as Held is Yossi Klein Halevi:

To win this war against evil requires steadiness and balance. Leftwing Jews need to understand that the Jewish people cannot afford the purity of powerlessness, while rightwing Jews need to understand that power requires moral limits. As a people, we must not be indifferent to the anguish of Gaza. And we must not allow that anguish to undermine our resolve to destroy Hamas.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a time where even the most dovish Zionist supporters of peace are exhibiting hawklike resolve in the war against Hamas. Magid’s already counter-Zionist position may not have changed since October 7, but the positions of many of his Zionist readers undoubtedly have. There are likely many readers of the Necessity of Exile who could have been swayed by Magid’s arguments before October 7, but who cannot accept them now. 

This review will examine Magid’s counter-Zionist project with the goal of making it as understandable as possible to a broad Zionist readership.[2] It is my contention that understanding Magid’s perspective can only help to inform and strengthen Zionist responses to Magid and to the ever-increasing number of North American Jews who share his perspective, even post October 7.[3] It will particularly examine Magid’s arguments about ownership over the land of Israel, what it means to be pro- or anti-Israel, and the future of Zionism in Jewish discourse.[4]

Any discussion of ownership over the land of Israel must sort out claims of indigeneity. The Oxford Dictionary defines this as “the fact of originating or occurring naturally in a particular place.” This calls into question both Jewish and Palestinian arguments.

Such claims, Magid writes, have been “often used by Palestinians who argue that their families have lived on the land for centuries prior to the establishment of the State of Israel,” and that it was only in more recent years that “Jewish settlers have begun to use the same rhetoric in order to make counterclaims that Jews are the true ‘Indigenous’ people of the land,” despite having “not lived there en masse for millennia.” This Jewish counter-narrative allows such settlers to view themselves not as colonizers, but as natives “decolonizing the land” of Arabs who colonized it during Muslim conquests. Magid notes that this Jewish claim of indigeneity uses the term “rhetorically and polemically to cast Arabs who have been living in the land for generations as the interlopers, instead of the Jews.” He goes on to write that Jews who use it “are essentially co-opting the Palestinian argument and flipping it on its head” (138-139).

This is especially fascinating for Magid, since those for whom indigeneity is “quickly becoming a favorite new line of argument” utilize biblical texts which themselves “state very clearly that the Israelites were conquerors to whom the land was bequeathed by God, and expressly not indigenous to the land,” leading to “a paradoxical and arguably illogical notion” of Jews as “Indigenous conquerors” of the land (139-140).

Not being indigenous, however, does not mean that Jews have no right to the land. Rashi, in his first comment on the Torah, writes that God gave Israel to the Jewish people, so no other nation has any right to complain. The people who God wants living in the land effectively have ‘honorary indigenous’ status. Magid argues that “dwelling in the land should be – must be – an act of imitatio Dei” and that “to fail to embody that religious precept is to forfeit the right to dwell in that sacred place” according to numerous Biblical verses. In fact, “Jews were exiled from the land precisely because they failed to act in fidelity with God as sole owner of the land” (145).

Israel may be the Jewish people’s homeland, but they do not necessarily have a right to establish a state there. In Magid’s words, “a homeland is an expression of longing and an attachment to a place as an anchor of one’s collective identity. The Land of Israel is a homeland for the Jews with or without a state.” Having a state “instantiates a homeland as a political reality” but “needn’t deny the rights of others who live there.” He even goes on to say that “the [S]tate of Israel needn’t be a Jewish state in order to be a state that functions as the Jewish homeland” (153).

What might Israel look like as the Jewish homeland but not a Jewish state? A state for all its citizens “on the land Jews and Palestinians call home, a place that can offer a just political reality for two peoples, Jews and Palestinians (Muslims, Christians, and others).” This state, Magid argues, would be “both Jewish and Palestinian. It would not be structured on the notion that this land “belongs” to anyone. This would not be a Jewish country, but rather “the country of all the people who live there, equally” (19-20).

Without making any claims of indigeneity, this project acknowledges that “Palestinians have an entire society and culture, one that is robust and deeply ingrained in the land.” In fact, Palestinians have “a profound rootedness in the soil that one can only feel by entering deep inside the Arab world,” which “Zionism has in some way put a net over” (57). Zionism’s ultimate price was not that Arabs be seen as enemies, but “that Arabs don’t (or shouldn’t) even exist in the land of Israel.” Therefore Zionism “was not a project of eradication as much as a project of erasure. And not necessarily in a hateful way, but more in a romantic way” (59). This romantic settling of Arab-occupied land is what Magid refers to as an “occupational hazard” of Zionism which “can yield a toxic mix of aspiration and discrimination under the guise of a vision for a redemptive future” and which begs the question, “When the universal disappears under the rainbow prayer shawl of a romantic spirit, what value does any particularity have?” (67-68).

It is for this reason that Magid severs his ties with Zionism in favor of “a humble and non-proprietary Jewish relationship to the land” (19).  For Magid, Zionism inevitably leads to the unequal treatment of Palestinians, and his counter-Zionist response proposes that it “become a matter of history, an ideology that has had its time, a Jewish politics that has both done its work and created damage” (299-300). If done right, Magid argues that embracing counter-Zionism

promotes a society that would one day affirm that the others who share this holy land have as much a right to it as we Jews do. The proprietary Zionist notion that “this land is ours and we will share it with you under certain conditions we alone determine,” would, in such a society, become obsolete. In its place we would build a Jewish/Arab society, or better, an Israeli/Palestinian society, that protects and promotes the rights, cultures, languages, and religions of all constituencies equally. As we move further into the twenty-first century, this project certainly has many obstacles, but the first stages of implementation may require a realization that Zionism is indeed an obstacle to such a, dare I say, messianic vision. (300)

Magid considers his view anti-Zionist, but still pro-Israel. He writes that “the fact that many confuse a critique of full Jewish hegemony in Israel with anti-Israelism” is “part of the problem” (18-19). To think that Israel has to exist as a Jewish state is, Magid claims, a category error. He goes on to write that Zionism hampers Israel’s “ability to overcome the chauvinistic ethnonationalism in which it is presently mired” and that “Israel the nation-state could continue to flourish by circumventing, in effect rejecting, Zionism” and embracing it only as “an important relic of the past” (22).

This is because Magid understands Zionism as “the ideology that resulted in the founding of an ethnostate that Zionists call a ‘Jewish state.’” Such a state cannot be a true democracy when it “contains a large minority who have been living on the land for generations, have their own nationalistic aspirations, and have been largely displaced by the ethnostate.” Combine that with the trauma of  “the ethnic majority having undergone a horrific genocide… and the chauvinistic fabric of an ethnostate seems all but inevitable” (69). Magid’s counter-Zionism recognizes this and “abandons Zionism without necessarily abandoning the state it produced (but radically recalibrating it).” This renders Zionism “a thing of the past that can be studied and examined, but not an ideology that supports a twenty-first century nation-state” (72-73). Counter-Zionism, “free from Zionist ideological claims and proprietary principles, free from the intoxication of power, can provide a vision of nationhood that includes (and does not simply tolerate) ethnic difference” in a way that Zionism never can (73). This conviction leads Magid to answer the question of “[C]an one reconceptualize Israel, even if its name may change, as a state of all its citizens without undermining the right of Jewish self-determination?” in the affirmative (37). 

Magid’s position is unlikely to find a place in contemporary pro-Israel discourse, though. Since the founding of the State of Israel, Zionism has, in his words, “been flattened to mean, simply, support of the State of Israel against all detractors.” Similarly, the term pro-Israel “has come to mean the advocacy for and support of the Jewish state that exists between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – so called ‘Greater Israel,’ including the West Bank” (81).

This has led to a reality in which people “are often forced to prove their allegiance to the Jewish people by uncritically supporting the Jewish state, and many feel like they have been pushed out of Jewish communities, or are at odds with collective Jewish identity, if they cannot do so (or choose not to do so on principle)” (84). An example often pointed to is Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy’s 2021 Tablet article, “The Un-Jews,” in which the authors accuse Jewish anti-Zionists of attempting to “undo the ways most actual Jews do Jewishness” by making “war on Israel the same way that the Soviet communists made war on Jewish peoplehood and its institutions.” In so doing, they “are trying to disentangle Judaism from Jewish nationalism, the sense of Jewish peoplehood, while undoing decades of identity-building.” Sharansky and Troy emphasize that “a broad, welcoming dialogue is important,” but also that “those who are set on denying the essence of Jewish peoplehood are rarely interested in the kind of respectful, mutual exchange that builds us all up” and “are bent on destroying the most powerful force that has kept us together.”

Magid argues that accusing Jewish anti-Zionists of being un-Jews is actually worse than calling them non-Jews. To Magid, those like Sharansky and Troy argue “that those who diverge from the Zionist platform are essentially anti-Jews, or counter-Jews” and that “Zionism – meaning support for the State of Israel as a Jewish State – has become a more essential marker of Jewish identity than Jewish practice, or any other criteria” (102). Ironically, Magid argues that it is actually they who undo what has kept Jews together:

The Zionists policing Jews’ opinions about Israel are implicitly suggesting a radical reassessment of Jewishness, one that is no longer based on halacha (that is, on one’s maternal line or a rabbinically supervised conversion), nor on religious practice (however defined), nor even on ethnicity. For them, legitimate Jewishness pivots on identification with, and fidelity to, the Jewish national political project of Zionism. This line of thinking seems to place more value on completely secular, assimilated, non-practicing Jews who love Israel than on devout, observant Jews who do not. (109)[5]

Magid notes that this position is particularly ironic given Zionism’s historic attempt to replace meaningful Jewish observance. “These simplistic thinkers who attack non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews,” Magid writes, “don’t realize that the Zionism they take as coextensive with Judaism today was, for many of its architects, meant to be the alternative to Judaism” (107). In his words, “Zionism paints everything that’s ever happened to the Jews as leading up to this moment of return to their land of origin” and thus “supersedes and contains Judaism (rather than the other way around), or alternatively is Judaism’s fulfillment” (136).

Worse, according to Magid, Zionism has accepted and absorbed antisemitic premises:

Both before and after Jews were legally emancipated in Europe (whereby they were granted the full rights of citizenship and equality), antisemites argued that Jews were not fit for membership in civilized society because they were a sick and cultureless people… And many Zionists agreed with these claims! In some ways, the Zionist project was founded on such antisemitic assumptions: that the Jews in the diaspora were a flawed people, made diseased and unhealthy by centuries of exile, with no meaningful culture of their own. It is both well-known and well-documented that Zionism and antisemitism have long had a complex relationship. One could argue that contemporary antisemitism continues to fortify the Zionist narrative in complicated ways, although nowadays it is framed primarily as a threat from which Zionism offers the only true refuge. (110)

Magid argues that those like Troy and Sharansky have nothing of value to say to Jews who celebrate living in the diaspora. In fact, “a robust diaspora makes some (although certainly not all) Zionists nervous” precisely because they are “not concerned with how to allow for, and increase, Jewish flourishing, but in convincing Jews (and others) of the primacy of their own view of Jewish history and their own narrow definition of Jewishness” (111-112). Such rhetoric is comical, Magid writes, coming from the sort of people who see “Jewish life in the diaspora as dangerous (either physically or spiritually) and somehow inferior to Jewish life in the land of Israel,” while they “unquestionably aspire to end their years in Israel – but, in practice, are happy to delay the option for another few years in Riverdale, Boca Raton, Pico-Robertson, or Palo Alto” (262).

This leads Magid to question what such thinkers accomplish by writing Jewish anti-Zionists out of the conversation. “Do they imagine that hectoring people who don’t love the State of Israel unconditionally, or labeling those people as self-loathing, traitorous, or heretical, will bring anyone back into the fold?” Surely such an approach is dead in the water. One can only make a case for Zionism “by having an honest conversation about its history and applications, including its many failures, moral and otherwise – not by questioning the Jewish bona fides of people who are, in many cases, Jews deeply invested in their Jewishness” (113).

If open conversation is not attempted, many will be lost to the Jewish community. “Will they be threatened by a few Zionist hegemonists casting doubt on their Jewish creds? Doubtful. But will they turn their back on Jewish communities and organizations that demand adherence to the Zionist party line? Or that shame them for expressing criticism? Probably. Are we to say that those progressive Jews don’t care about the Jewish people as much as Zionists do? … I don’t think so” (113-114). Additionally, Magid calls such attempts “a toothless exercise”:

Do these Zionist hegemonists want to prevent the non-Zionists from visiting Israel? Or from making aliyah, if they so choose? What about putting them on a list that excludes them from Jewish Federation dinners? Should their books be burned or banned? These enforcers are guilty of flattening the Jewish tradition to serve their chauvinistic nationalist political agenda. To them, what a Jew believes, what she eats, if she davens, or how she keeps Shabbat doesn’t really matter. To be a Jew in good standing only means to support the Jewish national project. (114)

If Zionism remains in the hands of such people, Magid argues, it will only “become less creative, less persuasive, and less productive” (114). Their case is not helped by the fact that relatively few have actually defined anti-Zionism. “Is it denial of a ‘Jewish’ state? Or the denouncement of Jewish chauvinism or Jewish supremacy? Or rejection of the State of Israel itself? There are multiple kinds of anti-Zionism, each with their own foundations and reasoning… All have different assumptions, different thought processes, and in some cases, different goals” (101-102).

One example Magid uses to make this point, perhaps unfortunately for his case, is support of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions).[6] “Some,” Magid writes, “support BDS because they consider all of Israel to be ‘occupied land,’ and thus illegitimate.” Others use BDS as “a tactic to force Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and grant Palestinians the same rights of self-determination that Israeli Jews claim for themselves.”  Magid notes that some argue that “all BDS is the first kind – in other words, that all forms of BDS, on some level, question the right of Israel to exist,” but rejects that argument as “a convenient way to avoid confronting the second kind of BDS – that is, BDS as a legitimate form of political protest” (124).

Magid then argues that Zionists are too quick to equate acts of legitimate anti-Zionist protest with antisemitism. Regardless of whether or not Jews in the West are oppressed (a notion that Magid challenges), he argues that violence against Jews must be assessed differently when Jews are the powerful majority as opposed to a vulnerable minority. Magid uses the example of a Palestinian throwing rocks at Israeli cars in protest of Israel’s military occupation:

While it is certainly a violent act, and perhaps even an act of terrorism, is it an antisemitic act? Regardless of one’s view of the occupation, if we can agree that the Palestinians are oppressed, that their individual and collective existence is limited by Jewish hegemony, and Israel is the source of that oppression, can we define the act of resisting such oppression as “antisemitic” – especially in light of the complicated ways that oppression and antisemitism implicate each other, as we have seen above? … how do we define an act against a Jew when the Jew is the one in power and the perpetrator of the act is disempowered? I ask this provocative question to destabilize and interrogate our understanding of antisemitism as simply an act against a Jew qua Jew. The added dimension and question of oppression complicates that understanding. The Israeli occupation is not simply a context in which the Jew is not oppressed, as is the case of the US; rather, here, the Jew is the one in power. (191-192)

Magid goes on to argue that the inability to distinguish between legitimate protest and antisemitism leads to problems maintaining Israeli claims of democracy. “If fighting oppression against Jewish hegemony is antisemitic, what recourse does the Palestinian population have to legitimately express their collective rights?” Further, “if they are denied those collective rights by Zionism, how is Zionism different than those regimes that denied the collective rights of Jews in the past, the very impetus for Zionism in the first place?” (194).

Magid’s second question sounds tongue in cheek, but it is actually an important part of his argument. He argues that it is “very plausible” to assume that “the Jewish experience of violence against them had an impact on the violence now deployed by them.” In fact, “we can use the same logic to explain Black violence against white Americans, or of any colonized population against their former colonizers” (195-196). Ultimately, for Magid, if there’s “a justifiable explanation,” then an act “is not antisemitic,” and “antisemitism should not be used as an explanation, and certainly not as a weapon to invalidate any understandable violent contestation against oppression” (197-198). Indeed, “by framing Palestinian violence against the occupation as inherently antisemitic, we invalidate violent resistance to oppression caused by the Jewish State” (197), and create a false reality in which “the Jews are always going to be portrayed as the victims – whether they are truly the victims, or whether they are the ones in the position of power” (198).

There is much to criticize in the counter-Zionist ideology that Magid articulates. It is, for example, hard to differentiate between protest and antisemitism when the original 1988 charter of Hamas (which was not repudiated by the more recent 2017 charter) is an explicitly anti-Jewish and genocidal document. Magid’s arguments also conflate Jews and Israelis while identifying Palestinians as Muslim, Christian, etc. This is hard to justify when so many Israelis and staunch supporters of Israel are themselves Arab, Christian, Druze, etc. Their lack of mention (one might say erasure) by Magid in favor of a black and white picture of Israeli Jews versus everyone else is rather troubling.

The purpose of this review, though, is not to criticize Magid’s position (despite much room to do so), but to articulate it in its clearest and strongest form to those who may otherwise never be exposed to it. Many of today’s young Jews believe, like Magid, that “if we let go of Zionism, Israel – the country, or even better, the land itself – may have the chance of truly becoming a just and equitable polity of all its citizens, and the Jewish diaspora may flourish without Israel as its necessary center” (300).[7] Committed Zionists – whether troubled or untroubled by the current state of Israel – owe it to Klal Yisrael as a whole to honestly, thoughtfully, and thoroughly engage others as people, rather than as strawmen.  

Will Magid’s counter-Zionist vision be able to unite people in the same way that Zionism has? Will it truly lead “toward the health of the Jews, the health of all those who will one day live in a democratic Israel/Palestine as equal citizens, long overdue justice for Palestinians, and the flourishing of humanity” (23) as Magid wants it to? The jury is out, and it is ultimately up to his readers to rule on those questions.[8] He himself acknowledges that “noble efforts sometimes lead to noble failures. And noble efforts sometimes also lead to surprising results. One can only think from where one stands, and gaze toward a future where one wants to be” (20). This is surely true, and we are left with the question, “Where do we want to be?”

Thank you to Chesky Kopel for editing this review, to R. Avi Herzog for copy-editing, and to Professor Shaul Magid for graciously sending me the volume.

[1] All in-text citations are from Magid’s book.

[2] Since Magid’s book is largely a collection of his essays, it is helpful to reorganize several of the ideas in order to present his overarching case in the strongest and most straightforward form.

[3] An example of this is the popularity of the recent documentary, Israelism. I wrote about my own post-October 7 experience with the film here. The film was discussed in an episode of the Judaism Unbound podcast, which also devoted episodes 117-130 to the changing relationship between American Jews and Israel from a liberal perspective.

[4] It is my aim in this review to “steelman” Magid’s arguments as best as possible in the hopes of generating thoughtful debate and dialogue. This should not be taken as support for, or identification with, his positions.

[5]  A similar point is made by R. Aharon Feldman, head of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College:

Zionism succeeded dramatically, rallied the nation around it, and ultimately achieved its goal: a sovereign Jewish state in the land of Israel. Religious Zionism saw in this success a vindication of its pact with the Zionists. The State was obviously the instrument of God in bringing glory to the Jewish people. It was… the beginning of the ultimate redemption, and everything associated with it was ipso facto sacred and had to be supported. Those who refused to do so, even if they were recognized Torah scholars, were branded as… enemies of the Jewish people. (Aharon Feldman, The Eye of the Storm: A Calm View of Raging Issues (Yad Yosef Publications, 2009) 60).

[6] This description is from the BDS Movement’s official website: “The Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) calls for a boycott of Israeli and international companies that are complicit in violations of Palestinian rights. Virtually all Israeli companies are complicit to some degree in Israel’s system of occupation and apartheid. We focus our boycotts on a small number of companies and products for maximum impact. We focus on companies that play a clear and direct role in Israel’s crimes and where we think we can have an impact.”

[7] I have seen this to be the case firsthand in my work with Jewish young adults in Canada.

[8] I personally cannot help but find it unlikely. Despite the clear passion with which Magid argues, it strikes me as unrealistic to expect the State of Israel to give up its distinctive Jewish identity. Were it to do so, the new state would still sit on the Jewish homeland but would lose its character as possibly the only true safehouse for Jews from across the world. This becomes even less likely in light of the fact that contemporary Israeli Zionism is not only largely statist but also messianic to a significant degree. While Liberal Zionists who argue for a two-state solution may also be overly idealistic, they operate within the reality of modern Israel rather than the hope for one that does not (yet?) exist. Israeli political thinker Micah Goodman noted this divide and suggested a third way forward:

On one side are those who believe the conflict can be solved—an aspiration that many Israelis believe is unrealistic, at this point in time, because of the extraordinary risks and costs involved. On the other are those who believe the conflict can be managed, and the status quo sustained indefinitely—an aspiration that is equally fallacious… There is, it turns out, a third option: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be shrunk, and it can be shrunk dramatically.

Magid devotes only two paragraphs to rejecting Goodman’s position, which he sees as a successful attempt to move the goalposts on the issue of Israeli occupation. In his words,

“Shrinking” the occupation isn’t ending it – it is accepting, and even supporting it. Such a maneuver offers a gentler version of the occupation’s permanence, now crouched in liberal language. The intention here is, on the one hand, to undermine the illiberal rhetoric of the “untroubled committed” (the settlers) and, on the other hand, to appease the concerns of liberals among the “troubled committed” and “troubled uncommitted” by narrowing the chasm between liberalism and permanent occupation. Before you know it, advocating a gentler occupation, and by extension acknowledging the inevitability of the occupation, becomes a liberal idea (34).

What Magid does not address in his critique of Goodman’s position is that the question of the latter’s liberal credibility is largely irrelevant and perhaps even a deflection of the core issue. Regardless of how liberal Goodman’s proposal to dramatically shrink the occupation is or is not, it may well be the only way forward given the reality on the ground. Magid himself acknowledged in his post-October 7 note that “it is not a stretch to say that the movement for Palestinian national self-determination has greatly suffered” due to Hamas’s actions towards Israel. Until their ideology is eliminated, some form of occupation may simply be unavoidable.

Steven Gotlib is Marketing Manager at RIETS and Director of the Capital Jewish Experience. He is the incoming Associate Rabbi at Mekor Habracha - Center City Synagogue in Philadelphia and has held a number of rabbinic positions in Ottawa, Toronto, and New York. A graduate of Rutgers University, Rabbi Gotlib received ordination from RIETS, a certificate in mental health counseling from the Ferkauf School of Psychology in partnership with RIETS, and a certificate in spiritual entrepreneurship from the Glean Network in partnership with Columbia Business School. He can be reached for questions, comments, or criticism at