Jewishness and Ethnic Studies

Part 2: Zionism and “The Jewish Question”

This blog post is a continuation of the dialogue between WAESN Executive Director, Tracy Castro-Gill, and Educator/Librarian, Jeff Treistman. The first installment tried to answer the question, “Are Jews white?” This installment explains Zionism and tries to answer the questions, “Are Jews indigenous to Israel?” and “What is ‘The Jewish Question’?”

We enter into this dialogue because some conservative, white Jews argue that the focus on indigeneity in ethnic studies is intentionally antisemitic and is used to consider Israel a settler-colonial state. Some Jews believe all Jews are indigenous to Israel and have a right to take the land back from Palestinians. While Jeff and I may not entirely agree on the term, “settler-colonial,” we do agree that the actions of the Israeli State are crimes against humanity.

Ultimately, the concepts of indigeneity and Zionism are being used to fuel the attacks on ethnic studies scholars of color and shut down ethnic studies across the country. The infringement on ethnic studies by conservative, white Jews insisting on addressing “The Jewish Question” in spaces that are meant to center people of color is also interrupting our movement.

What are Zionists and how are they influencing ethnic studies movements?

Tracy: Now may be a good time to introduce the difference between “Jewish” and “Zionist.” Much of the push-back against ethnic studies from Jewish people has come from some Jewish folks who may more accurately be described as Zionists. I read a tweet recently from a Zionist suggesting that ethnic studies’ focus on indigeneity and indigenous epistemologies is harmful to the State of Israel and is the basis for why we consider the modern State of Israel a settler-colonial state. From my understanding, Zionists believe all Jewish people are indigenous to Israel, but is that true? 

What are Zionists and is the modern State of Israel the indigenous homeland of all Jews across the globe?

Jeff: Personally, I’d prefer you to just call them Zionists. Again, the number of Christian Zionists far outnumbers the total number of Jews in the world but I don’t know in what way Christians may factor into that argument against Ethnic Studies. MLK considered himself a supporter of Israel and even a Zionist, so there are clearly nuances.

Indigeneity is yet another complex topic. I am Jewish but I don’t claim indigeneity to the land of Israel/Palestine. In my understanding indigeneity has to do with the formation of a people-hood. In that sense I have a better claim to indigeneity in Eastern Europe because that is where the people-hood of Ashkenazi formed. I could successfully apply for a Polish passport because I can prove my grandfather’s birth in Warsaw and locate the graves of my great grandparents who are both buried in Warsaw. The Palestinians are indigenous to Israel/Palestine because their people-hood formed there. I don’t think anyone can dispute that. But there is another legalistic category that needs to be highlighted, that of aboriginal rights. Aboriginal rights are granted to the first peoples of a land who have created cultural ties to a land that has been uninterrupted  at least since prehistoric times. In that sense Jews have the right of entry, sojourn and settlement in Israel/Palestine, especially in the Judean Hills where Jerusalem is located.

Current Israeli State and Palestinian territories

When it comes to the modern State of Israel, my focus goes to the concept of Statehood. Jewish anti Zionists in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century were opposed because they were opposed to Nationalism which was surging in Europe. Jewish Anarchists, of which there were hundreds of thousands, opposed the state, any state, outright. They saw the state as the dominant force of the oppression of all peoples. The State of Israel oppresses Palestinians and violates their indigenous rights and for that reason it is criminal. I don’t understand how Zionists can claim indigenous rights while disallowing the rights of Palestinians, it just isn’t logical. And aboriginal rights do not grant the right to statehood.

I don’t really buy the settler/colonial argument but I do buy the anti-imperialist argument. In my view the Global Imperialists weaponized the Jewish question and made Israel into a proxy state for the prosecution of the Cold War and its proximity to oil resources. This does not excuse individual Jews who embraced the power of the state for their own purposes. In my mind Netanyahu is a criminal and I hope he sees jail time but most people are just trying to survive and get by. That is why I blame the state and not the people.

Tracy: Thank you for clarifying that Zionism isn’t limited to Jewish folks. 

I think in these discussions of systemic power it is essential to differentiate between the system – in this case the State of Israel – and individuals. I’m not sure how you can distinguish between settler-colonialism and imperialism, though. Colonization is establishing control over land and its resources and people. It becomes settler-colonialism when the colonizers choose to live on the land they’ve colonized. Who are the “Global Imperialists”you mention that weaponized the Jewish question? If they aren’t the Jews themselves, are they the same Europeans who colonized the rest of the world? 

In our previous discussions, you mentioned the connection between the modern State of Israel and a European movement called Protestant Nationalism which aimed to expel Jews from Europe into Israel. This wouldn’t be the only example of Europeans being settler-colonists by proxy. After the successful revolution carried out by enslaved Africans in Haiti, British colonists brought Chinese folks into their colonies in the West Indies to,“provide a security,”against revolts. While the Chinese may not have been the colonizers, the West Indies were still settler-colonies. Couldn’t the same be said of the modern State of Israel?

This brings me to another question I kept asking Emily in her interview. She kept referring to the,“Jewish question,”as you did in your last response, and I kept asking her why it’s a,“Jewish question?”There are so many parallels white Jews and people of the global majority could be making instead of making it all about the,“Jewish question.”Why do some white Jews, in particular, insist that their experiences with oppression and genocide are somehow unique? There are far more examples of genocide among people of the global majority than white Jews. Each racial and ethnic group has stereotypes they face that can also be amplified by interrogating how they benefit from them. One notable example is the model minority myth about Asians. The myth that Asians excel at all things math and science related is harmful to both Asians and non-Asian people of color, and we have to explore and dissect it to understand how it perpetuates anti-Blackness no matter how much Asian people are discomforted by it.

Thank you to reader, Deepa, for reminding us of James Baldwins’ thoughts on Jewish anti-Blackness.

That was a lot, so let me repeat my questions: How might the modern State of Israel be a settler-colonial state even if Jews, themselves, aren’t the colonists (using the West Indies as an example)? If Jews want to be part of an ethnic studies curriculum, they can’t try to be excused from having their identity pulled apart and examined for how it is used to oppress others, so why do white Jews, specifically, continue to insist there is a “Jewish question,” that is somehow different, or outside of other questions about identity, power, and oppression?

“If it weren’t a question, this piece we are working on would not exist.”

Jeff Treistman

Jeff: Yeah, “Global Imperialist” is pretty vague. I apologize for reverting back to the 70’s rhetoric; this is a term I used to use with Black and White members of the Revolutionary Student Brigades when I was in college. It refers to US and British governmental and business interests. When the State of Israel was established it meant the beginning of the end for the libertarian socialists who settled in Israel/Palestine on communes that were committed to living side by side with the Palestinians and other ethnic groups who were already living there. These folks did not bring a lot of capital with them and were dedicated to hard work to make a living. It wasn’t easy but it was better than trying to survive the pogroms that raged in Eastern Europe in the last part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Then Hitler happened and post-WWII sympathy allowed the creation of the State of Israel and the course was set for where we are today. The left in Israel lost favor and power over several decades as capital flowed into Israel. Other factors like the influx of Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) and later, in the 90s, with the influx of Jews from Russia and Ukraine, Israeli politics significantly changed. But there are still Israeli Anarchists today advocating for a “no state solution.”

If you read the linked article on Jewish aboriginal rights, it makes a compelling argument for the Jewish rights of entry, sojourn and settlement. Even though this argument is being used by Zionists, I find the preponderance of evidence makes an irrefutable case for the connection that almost all Jews have to the land of Israel/Palestine. Based on that I think the use of the word “colonist” is incorrect. European colonies were settled by people with no connection to the land at all. I won’t repeat all of the arguments in the article but I will point out that ancient biblical text and extra-biblical text, Greek and Roman history, archaeological findings, genetic sequencing, the continuous presence of Jews in the territory (mostly as third class citizens), and the 2000 years of Jewish diasporic yearning for a return, all play a part for me in feeling the connection. This is probably an area where we will have disagreements but there it is. We do agree that Israel is acting like an apartheid state today.

apartheid – any system or practice that separates and politically and economically oppresses people according to color, ethnicity, caste, etc.

In 1843 Bruno Bauer wrote The Jewish Question. The following year Karl Marx wrote a response, On the Jewish Question. This was the beginning of a wide ranging debate in 19th and 20th century European society that pertained to the appropriate status and treatment of Jews. It was also called the Jewish Problem which fed into the Final Solution of the Nazis. Earlier I referenced a book called The Finkler Question, whose title is a play on this. It is frequently used in-group in the Jewish community. If it weren’t a question, this piece we are working on would not exist.

Humanistic Jews do not use the word unique when talking about the “Jewish Question”, preferring to use the word “particular”. All peoples are unique and using it to exclusively talk about Jews is contrary to our concept of Humanism. There have been many genocides in world history but the one particular to Jews is called the Shoah or the Holocaust. There are many diasporic people in the world as a result of various horrible situations but the ones particular to Jews are the Babylonian exile in 600 BCE, the Roman dispersion of Jews after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, and the Spanish Expulsion in 1492. Something else particular to Jews are the continuous persecutions over the last 2600 years.    

As for the white Jews who want to be part of the Ethnic Studies curriculum, I suggest that they start by welcoming Jews of Color (JOC) into the big tent of Judaism and learn about their struggles to be accepted as Jews by the Jewish mainstream. And I suggest that WAESN partner with JOC to illuminate the racism they experience in too many Jewish spaces. Studying How Jews became White Folks should be a prerequisite for white Jews to see how Jewish complicity with whiteness has been harmful. When I say this, I am expressing my solidarity with Jews, Jewish culture and Jewish history, warts and all, because many Jews have also been stalwart supporters of and activists in racial justice, social justice, labor rights, immigrant rights and the separation of church and state. 


How can we hold multiple truths about who has historical claims to the land of Israel/Palestine?

What are some examples of a government acting out of alignment with the values of its people?

How do we discuss the oppression various groups experience without minimizing each group’s particular experiences?

Why is it important to understand and critique positionality in ethnic studies discourse, especially in terms of identity?

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