The Truth About Zionism

Rabbi Joshua Caruso recently shared some thoughts on the college protests happening around us.

College protest is nothing new; in fact, it is a hallmark of an open and free society. I am proud to live in a country that allows for a voicing of views, even if those views are not always shared by me or my people.

Peaceful protest aimed towards criticism of the State of Israel’s governmental policies towards Palestinians is legitimate. Criticism about the excessive deaths of innocents in Gaza is legitimate. Even support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a movement with which I disagree, is a legitimate form of protest.

However, protests on the campuses of Columbia, Yale, USC, etc., have developed into a demonization of all of Israel (the majority of whose citizens do not support the current government). Alarmingly, these protests have resulted in statements that have inspired fear in the hearts of American-Jewish students, including graduates of our own temple’s religious school.

I want to allow for a little perspective here. The students on college campuses are doing what college students do: speaking from their hearts, and advocating for human rights – and Jewish students are among them. In fact, a group of Jewish students conducted a Passover Seder at the Columbia Gaza encampment. These young adults are growing their views on the world, and many are getting swept up in the fevered moment of a global divide.

But peaceful protest to the war in Israel and Gaza has given way to calls for a “global intifada” (an “uprising” in the form of violent terrorism), the banishing of Zionists on campus (it is a practice at the Columbia protest site to publicly call out Israel supporters by stating, “A Zionist has entered the camp”), the steady refrain of “From the River to the Sea” (an assertion suggesting the expulsion of Israeli Jews), and the dismissive call for Jews to “Go back to Poland” (a curious declaration, as only a minority of Polish Jews settled in Israel; most came here to the United States).

Further, one of the student-leaders at Columbia declared that “Zionists don’t deserve to live” (yesterday, after facing pressure, that student recanted those words). And, in a “Resistance 101” Zoom presentation, a student-leader shared that “there is nothing wrong with being a fighter in Hamas” (Hamas has explicitly stated their intent to perpetrate more attacks like October 7, assaults that resulted in rape, beheadings, and kidnappings).

By demonizing “Zionists” on campus, student-protestors are demonizing the many Jews on campus – born long after 1948 – who view Israel as their homeland – a place representative of Jewish survival.

Here in America, we know all too well the dangers of associating each American with every policy or action of a certain president or congressional leader. The same should apply to the citizens of Israel…and Zionist Jews in our country.

What I’d really like to hear from protestors is a rejection of Hamas’ actions…and solidarity against Iran attacking Israel…and a renewed conversation about a two-state solution. Instead, we have reached a fever-pitch moment, and irresponsible and dangerous protestors are adding fuel to the fire. The term, “Zionism” has been appropriated by individuals who wish to demonize the collective nation-state of Israel.

To the overwhelming majority of Jews in the world, the State of Israel was created as a result of rampant world antisemtism – nobody wanted us. Israel was born from the ashes of the Holocaust, a safe haven for Jews to gain sovereignty after 2,000 years of marginalization wherever they lived in the Diaspora. Israel’s Declaration of Independence says nothing about hatred for the Arab, the Muslim or the Palestinian, and actually states its support for “complete equality of social and political rights to all inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”

Sadly, in past decades, the thrust for peace and a two-state solution have been cast aside. The great vision as articulated by Israel’s founders is far from realized due to a combination of factors, including increased aggressions from Hamas and Hezbollah – proxies of Iran – and intentional roadblocks to peace erected by Israeli and Palestinian leadership throughout the decades. May of 1948 served as a joyous time as a Jewish homeland was established after 2,000 years. That very same period remains a somber one for our Palestinian cousins, who call it the Nakba (“The Catastrophe”).

It’s been more than six months since Israel’s own catastrophe; a trauma-inducing tragedy of epic proportions: the wanton rape and slaughter of 1,200 Israelis and workers by Hamas on October 7. As a result, Israelis have turned inward, focusing on their own healing, and the return of the 133 hostages – whether they are dead or alive.

Of course, Israelis are traumatized all over again to know just how many Gazans, especially children, have been killed in response to October 7. Of course, the great majority of Israel’s citizens do not want any more war and bloodshed.

I lived in Israel for two years. I have family and friends who reside there. I have never heard of aims toward genocide. After all, twenty percent of Israeli citizenry – two million people – identify as Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. Chief among the Israelis is to live in safety and peace.

But, as long as Hamas represents Palestinian Gazans, there will be no peace, because Hamas has clearly pledged to eliminate Jews “from the river to the sea.”

To close, this Talmudic story comes to mind:

For three years, the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha (Jewish legal decision) is like us,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is like us.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halakha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Not only for this reason, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.

Protest and disagreement are a part of the Jewish faith, but showing disregard for another’s lived experience is tone-deaf. Demonizing a nation, people or faith is irresponsible. Calling for an armed struggle and “othering” the stranger who we don’t know is downright dangerous.

We are seeing this play out on campus today.

Rabbi Josh Caruso – Progressive Zionist.