Kamel: Like most things in life, Zionism is not black and white

Jonathan Kamel, Op-Ed Contributor

The emotions and passions surrounding Israel-Palestine are volatile, to say the least. There are few issues in our political discourse that cause people to run to their ideological corners faster than when the conversation turns to the latest round of violence in the small sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. 

I, like many Jewish alumni and current Northwestern students, know this all too well. During my time at NU, the campus at large was embroiled in frequent debates over Israel-Palestine, with students and faculty often feeling the need to choose a side and engage in acts of political performance that did nothing but reinforce the binary, zero-sum nature of the conflict. 

That is why it is disappointing that in her recent Op-Ed, Deanna Othman repeats the same unflinching, uncompromising and misleading narratives that some have shared when it comes to how Jews, Muslims and peoples of all faiths interact with questions of Zionism. Like most questions of national identity and peoplehood, the issues at hand are not black and white.

Othman posits that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-racist and never crosses the line into attacks on Jews or acts of antisemitism. However, the irony is she never defines what Zionism actually is. In order to define what a movement is not, it’s important to articulate what it is. 

To me and many Jews and non-Jews all over the world, Zionism is simply Jewish self-determination in some portion of our ancestral homeland, a land Jews have lived in continuously for thousands of years even after the vast majority were forcibly removed or colonized by the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans and British; the list goes on and on dating back to A.D. 70. 

It is easy to structure an argument on the merits of anti-Zionism if the philosophy of Zionism is shrouded in a cloak of ethnic cleansing. However, this fails to grapple with its complicated history and imperfect realization. 

In reality, Zionism is a complex and ideologically diverse movement that means something different to any person with a physical, religious, emotional or spiritual connection to the land or people of Israel-Palestine. The intellectual underpinnings of Zionism span political ideology — from left-wing Socialism to right-wing Revisionism — with deep divisions on how the Jewish people should actualize self-determination: some wanted a nation-state, others a cultural homeland with shared political borders. At the core of Zionism is the essence that Jews are not just members of a religious community, but rather a distinct ethnic people with a shared future, language and destiny.

This is why overwhelming majorities of diasporic Jews identify with Zionism in some way and are pained when oversimplified narratives of Israel’s existence or the structures of anti-Semitism are lumped together. We are also pained when collective movements of Palestinian liberation claim to stand against anti-Semitism, yet are silent when American Jews are attacked in cities across the country for their association or connection to the State of Israel. 

Intriguingly, Othman and I agree on some points: anti-Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitic; structural racism exists within the State of Israel; and the fufillment of political Zionism has led to the dispossession, widespread removal and tragic statelessness of the Palestininian people who live under military occupation in the West Bank and woeful conditions in the Gaza Strip. I embrace this discomfort in my Zionist identity and never seek to derail the conversations of liberation Othman seeks. Yet, I wonder if she would do the same for Jewish Zionists like me. 

While I recognize Othman’s point that “From the River to the Sea” can be understood to mean a shared society of Jews and Arabs in the historic land of Israel-Palestine, Othman fails to acknowledge that this, too, is not black and white. For many Jews, it is heard as a rallying cry of Hamas militants; a call to expel Jews from Israel and to create another expulsion, displacement and trauma that Jews and their ancestors have endured for generations. These words on the Rock were accompanied by phrases equating Zionism to “genocide,” an inflammatory and dangerous accusation that has no basis in reality. Jewish trauma runs deep and can’t be dismissed or ignored in the quest for equality and justice for Palestinians lives.

This is what we miss when we fail to talk to each other, understand complex narratives of peoplehood and move beyond zero-sum identity politics. My fellow NU alumni should strive to unpack uncomfortable histories and call each other in — instead of running to our soothing, yet simpler, ideological corners. 

Jonathan Kamel is a Northwestern alum. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.