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The Ideas Q&A

​Can You Be Anti-Zionist but Pro-Israel?

​The Jewish studies professor S​haul Magid thinks it’s possible to resist Zionism without rejecting the state. He calls this “counter-Zionism.”

Pro-Palestine student protesters at an encampment at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 2024.
ALLISON BAILEY/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images
Pro-Palestine student protesters at an encampment at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., on April 25

In recent weeks, protests calling for divestment from Israel have swept college campuses across the country. For the most part, university administrators have ignored students’ demands in favor of violent repression, summoning riot police that turn the encampments into de facto militarized zones. The largest display of Palestinian solidarity on campuses in American history, the protests recall the campus speech wars of 2020, with roles reversed; appeals for crackdowns emanate from self-styled free speech warriors, as the students and professors frequently decried as oversensitive and censorious take up the mantle of free expression. Much of the organizing has been driven by Jewish students belonging to groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which have drawn the particular ire of American Judaism’s institutional old guard; Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, has labeled such organizations “hate groups,” likened them to Hezbollah, and urged that the National Guard be brought in to crush them. At the center of these debates is the same question that has divided supporters and opponents of Israel since October 7: whether anti-Zionism is by its nature antisemitic, and thus beyond the bounds of campus debate.

Shaul Magid, a scholar of Jewish studies and a visiting professor at Harvard University, offers a path forward for Israel and Palestine that is attentive to the history of this discourse while refusing many of its entrenched positions. A former hippie turned Haredi turned academic, Magid embraces the diasporic tradition that has competed with Jewish ethnonationalism for more than a century. In simplest terms, he rejects Zionism without rejecting the state of Israel. His recent book, The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance, offers an alternative vision for a country whose values have become incompatible with those of many American Jews. In April, I spoke with Magid about how The Necessity of Exile should be read, six months into Israel’s assault on Gaza, about the deepening fissures in American Jewish communities, and about the possibility of Jewish political realignment. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ben Metzner: Since October 7, many of the Jewish groups that have been leading the calls for a cease-fire, including Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, have done so under the banner of anti-Zionism. You agree with those groups that Zionism, despite its success as an ideological project, has sort of outlived its purpose, but you propose something slightly different as an alternative: counter-Zionism. How do you differentiate between the two? What is counter-Zionism?

Shaul Magid: In terms of the cease-fire, in terms of the war, I’m basically on the same page. I think that there should be a cease-fire and a hostage exchange. I didn’t really see myself within this realm of anti-Zionism because most anti-Zionism is against the existence of a state at all. I wanted to say—and this is what counter-Zionism tries to do—“Can you have an anti-Zionist, pro-Israel position? Can you separate the ideology and the reality?” Zionism did what it did: created a state for good or evil. You can criticize that, but the state already exists. Why does it have to remain a Zionist state? Why are we so tied to this ideology when we have a serious demographic issue? We have a large minority of non-Jews that are living in the same place, and they’re not going anywhere. The Jews are not going anywhere. So that was the impetus.

Metzner: You wrote that you lost your Zionism not in left-wing protests but in the Israel Defense Forces. How did that happen?

Magid: I was there during the first Intifada. You basically go into the West Bank, you go into these Palestinian villages, fully armed, gun loaded. You see the hatred in the eyes of those kids toward you. You understand it, right? You’re trampling on their town, you’re arresting their brother, you’re humiliating their father. Some people will conclude, “Well, this is what we have to do.” That’s a legitimate choice, I suppose, but I didn’t have that. I just said, “No.” We can talk about “occupation,” we can argue about all of these terms. What I think is more difficult to argue is that this is a culture of domination: You’re dominating those people. They know it, and you know it. And everything is fine as long as everyone knows their place. But how long can that domination continue? And can I be a part of that project? Something broke for me at that moment. I mean, it took years to unravel, but something broke for me.

The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance
Shaul Magid
Ayin Press, 318 pp., $22.95

Metzner: You write that liberal Zionism “hasn’t had an original idea in almost 40 years.” Why has liberal Zionism fallen into “utter conceptual incoherence”?

Magid: Today, liberal Zionism is really part of an American Jewish imaginary. There is no Israeli liberal Zionism. There is an Israeli left, but the Israeli left is far to the left of liberal Zionism. So it’s an American idea, and it’s basically put all its eggs in the basket of “the only solution to the conflict is a two-state solution.” The problem with liberal Zionism is that it’s put into a quandary people who are committed liberals who are now confronted with supporting an illiberal state. I don’t think it can think its way out of that. So what ends up happening is it becomes less liberal because it’s not willing to become less supportive of the state.

Bernie Sanders came out with this thing when he was critiquing Biden. He says, “On the one hand, Biden, you’re saying that this is unacceptable. And on the other hand, you’re giving [Netanyahu] $10 billion.” That’s what the liberal Zionist conundrum is. A liberal Zionist on a podcast I listen to says, “Well, just because I’m a Zionist, I don’t want to be accused of supporting ethnonationalism.” But that’s what it is, right? In other words, he feels there’s something dissonant in his own mind. When he hears “ethnonationalism,” he hears white nationalism. And so he basically can’t square that circle.

Metzner: In the aftermath of the World Central Kitchen bombings, we’ve seen stirrings of a change in rhetoric, if not in policy, among pretty mainstream Democratic Party officials. But Jewish organizations have been sort of outflanked in that way, or at least they haven’t changed their tune publicly yet. Do these national Jewish organizations still represent, can they claim to represent, a large American Jewish population? What is their future?

Magid: I think a couple of very interesting things happened as a result of the war. The pro-Israel contingent became very strident in its support of the war and the focus on October 7 as a justification. But that’s at the beginning—that’s November, that’s December. Now we’re at the end of April, and we’re seeing images which are just simply horrific. But what’s also happened is there’s been a tremendous explosion of the Jewish progressive left. I’ll just give you an example. Jewish Currents, which is the standard progressive magazine, had an email list for their weekly newsletter that was something around 34,000. It’s like 300,000 now. Jewish Voice for Peace, which was totally outside the conversation, hundreds and hundreds of new members. In America, the people that have benefited most from this moment are progressive Jews.

Now there’s a separate question, which is what do progressive Jews mean by calling themselves anti-Zionists, as opposed to part of the pro-Palestinian side? A lot of people I know from that world, when they hear, “Oh, you know, the federations and the Hillels, they’re not going to give you space to have your events,” their basic attitude is like, “You know what? We don’t want to come to your fucking party. We’re 25 years old. You’re 70. We’ll just wait it out.” And I think that is actually a really interesting moment, that institutional Judaism is watching itself become obsolete among younger people. If you look at all these Pew polls, the divide between the 18-to-35-year-olds and the above-50-year-olds—it’s actually quite striking.

Metzner: You write very powerfully about a Jewish identity centered on the flourishing of the diaspora—the necessity of exile—and not on nationalism as the sort of apogee of Jewish identity. Obviously, as you point out in the book, these ideas have been contested since long before 1948. And they’re clearly still relevant. How has the debate played out? What twists and turns has it taken?

Magid: Nationalism is obviously a very contested term, and the Jewish relationship to nationalism was always very vexed. I mean, Zionism was not a very popular movement in the early twentieth century. A lot of people before the state, Jews who were against Zionism, a lot of those people had experienced World War I. They saw what nationalism produced, and they did not want to be a part of that. What ended up happening is that once you hit the 1930s, when Hitler comes to power, all these debates going on between Zionists and the anti-Zionists collapse, because now it’s just like, “How do we get these people out of here as quickly as possible?” The United States passed immigration laws, and other countries passed immigration laws, so Palestine was like the only solution—not that they all went there. Not that even most went there.

The Achilles’ heel of nationalism has always been fascism—it had nothing to do with Israel and the Jews. We know that from looking at the history of modern Europe, and the question of trying to balance nationalism with some other kind of liberal value system is the way that countries are able to make it work. When countries feel threatened, nationalism always steps in as this solution that will protect you. And if it’s not in check, it kind of naturally moves in that direction. When you add on a kind of ethnonationalism and the chauvinism that comes out of that, when you have a large minority of nonnationals, it even goes further. When you have 25 percent of the population that is not part of that ethnic group, that have to be controlled, on some level, it’s just a recipe for disaster.

In a certain way, I think that maybe a hundred years from now, historians will look back and say, “Well, it was obvious that this was going to happen.”

Metzner: For better or for worse, right now, American Jewish identity and Israel are basically inextricably linked. What does American Jewish identity look like without Zionism?

Magid: I think that’s the big question, and not only American Jewish identity, but what does American Jewish religion look like without Zionism, because it has become so inextricably intertwined with it. Back in the 1960s, ’70s, if a rabbi wanted to get up on Yom Kippur and give a sermon, the thing that was the least contentious was to talk about Israel. Now there are congregations that tell the rabbi, “You can’t talk about Israel.” So it’s not bringing American Jews together; it’s actually blowing them apart. And that should be very troubling, I think, to people who are really interested in, “What is American Judaism going to look like in 25 years?” We can’t keep teaching the Zionism thing because people aren’t going to buy it anymore. So I think that may be the big challenge, right? And I think it’s for the benefit of the Jews, really.