What is Zionism, anyway?

Episode Summary

Zionism is a nineteenth century ideology that sought to solve nineteenth century problems, but it remains remarkably entrenched in Jewish life in the United States. So what is it?

Episode Notes

Tallie and Nava discuss what Zionism is - a form of Jewish nationalism.

At [2:40] we hear from Dr. Rachel Feldman, who is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. She explains what Zionism meant for Jewish people in Europe, and some of the ways it became a central ideology for Jewish people in the United States.

At [7:40] we also hear from Dr. Sherene Seikaly, who is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She explains how Zionism impacted Palestinians, especially once the Israeli state was established.

At [12:30] Tallie and Nava start discussing what "diaspora" could mean.

We want thank to Professor Rachel Feldman and Professor Sherene Seikaly for their time and insights.

Our theme music is the song “For Our Stories” by Decibelists, off the album Decibelists. Diaspora podcast is produced by Tallie Ben Daniel. It’s written and hosted by Tallie Ben Daniel and Nava EtShalom, and edited by Jenny Asarnow.


You can find Dr. Seikaly's book, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine, here.

Dr. Feldman is currently working on her first book, The Children of Noah: Jewish Messianism in the Digital Age.

We strongly recommend Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz's The Colors of Jews, which you can find here.



Episode Transcription

Tallie: Nava, do you remember the first thing you learned about Zionism?

Nava: it’s so hard to remember! It was just always in the air. But I do remember, when I was a teenager, I was a camp counselor for a bunch of nine year olds, and I led this activity to introduce *them* to Zionism.

Tallie:  Jewish summer camp, i'm assuming, tell me

Nava: We made a map of Israel out of ice cream

Tallie: wow wait what? 

Nava: Yeah. We were on the porch outside the dining hall. We gave the kids tons of ice cream and sprinkles and chocolate chips and decorations and these baking trays from the kitchen, and we told them to make a map of Israel. and we might have used different ice creams for different landscapes? I don't know . This was 20 years ago. We did use chocolate chips, I remember this, to mark important landmarks. I was secretly worried i didn’t know the geography well enough myself, because nobody ever taught *me* to make israel out of ice cream.

Tallie: I never did this but i probably would have loved it because I love ice cream 

Nava: I mean, it’s a good way to learn geography when you’re 9. If kind of wasteful. But obviously the point of it all was to make Israel, which is this far away place most of the kids had never been, feel immediate and fun and DELICIOUS. One hundred percent dessert. [01:11] 

[Theme Music]

Nava: Welcome to the Diaspora podcast, I’m Nava, I’m a poet and educator in Philly.

Tallie: and hi, I’m Tallie. I’m a political educator with Jewish Voice for Peace living in oakland. 

:theme music: 

Tallie: So Nava, in this episode we really wanted to talk about where Zionism came from -- a history episode! There’s a ton of things we could talk about, but I think I figured out the thing that really explains where Zionism comes from. And that thing is nationalism.  It’s a way of thinking about yourself in the world  that comes from 19c Europe. And in some ways, even though so much has changed, it still feels like we are all living out the legacies of this moment in European history. In the United States we have been experiencing this resurgence of nationalism, it’s one of the things that brought us Trump. And nationalism is what threatened Jewish life in Europe and what threatens Palestinian life now. 

Nava: That’s so true, Tallie. We have to talk about this more.

Tallie: Let's do that. Let’s talk about what nationalism is, and what that means for Jewish people today. [02:30]

In order to really understand how Zionism came to be, I spoke to a couple of really smart people, starting with this one.  


Tallie: so do you wanna do a little intro


Feldman: My name is Rachel Feldman, I am a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Franklin and Marshall college in Pennsylvania. I am a cultural anthropologist by training so I focus on contemporary issues around religious Zionism in Israel and abroad.


Tallie: So, I want to know how Dr. Feldman defines Zionism


Feldman: A very simple definition of Zionism, like textbook definition, would just be something like a movement to establish a Jewish nation state.  


Tallie: In nineteenth century Europe, some Jewish people believed: 


Feldman: The only way we could ever truly be liberated and live safely as Jews would be to have a national project of our own, modeled after the European nation states in which European Jews were living. 


Tallie: So, in the nineteenth century, nationalism became the most dominant way of understanding oneself in relation to the world. 


On the one hand - what that meant was, you were not just a member of your family or your class, or your region, you were also a member of your nation. It gave you access to something bigger than you. 


On the other hand, what that meant was that you were defining yourself against people who were not members of your nation. And that caused a lot of violence across Europe and around the world. Including violence against Jewish people


So according to Dr Feldman: 


Feldman: At the end of the 19th century, European Jews were faced with a difficult question. They had largely been locked out of the developing nation states in Europe. In many cases their assimilation had failed, they were still a persecuted minority. They were still seen as a kind of foreign presence in Europe. So the question really was, at the end of the 19th Century, what’s the solution? Do we fight in Europe for assimilation? Do we fight for our right to be members of these new European nation states? Do we join Communism and fight for a kind of universal economic liberation that might bring our liberation with it? Or, an alternative at the time was Zionism. 04:52 


Tallie: So, European thinkers at the time referred to this thing called "the jewish problem." And basically, it's this idea that Jewish people are irredeemable. 


According to racist scientists and political theorists, there was this something in...... Jewish blood or the Jewish body that made it impossible for Jewish people to assimilate into these European nations. 


Nava: So what you’re saying Tallie is that the “problem”  - when people say “the Jewish problem” - was the fact that Jewish people are different. And that difference was so threatening to the nation that the only way to resolve it was though violence. 


Tallie: Exactly. This took many forms across Europe...European nationalists pressured Jews to assimilate and let go of their Jewishness. 


They kicked Jews out of whatever country they were in. They attacked Jewish homes and businesses in anti-Jewish raids. They forced Jewish people to live in small, confined neighborhoods, known as ghettos. 


And all this violent nationalism didn’t end in the nineteenth century. One of the most violent expressions of nationalism in Europe happened in the twentieth century - the Nazi Holocaust. 


As a part of the reinvention of German nationalism under Adolf Hitler, eleven million people were systematically killed - because they had the wrong politics, or because they were queer or disabled, because they didn’t fit into the Nazi version of an ideal German person. 


And Jewish people were singled out as especially threatening to the German nation. By the end of 1945, six million Jewish people had been murdered as part of what Nazis called “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”


Nava: and, and a part of what made the brutality of the Holocaust possible was the revival of these nineteenth century ideas of race:


first, that there were actual human races, second, that those races were fundamentally different from one another, and third, that European races were better or smarter, superior, to others.


A bunch of different movements grew in response to all this violence and exclusion. They had different ideas about how to make things better for European Jews.


One of those movements was Zionism -- a nationalism for Jewish people. 


Tallie: to learn more about this, I talked with Dr. Sherene Seikaly 


Seikaly: I’m an associate professor of history at the University of California Santa Barbara. I’m a Palestinian, I’m the child of Palestinians who became refugees in 1948.


Tallie: Dr Seikaly explains how Zionism modeled itself after other European nationalisms.07:40 


Saikely: My understanding of Zionism has shifted over time. In the beginning I saw it as only a kind of imperial and colonial framework because of what it meant to me and my people. But with time and through studying I could also begin to better understand how Zionism was essentially a response to a really exclusive nationalism in Europe that defined the Jewish body and the Jewish collective as an irredeemable other. So, in the 19th century, it really is understanding itself as a colonial movement and in some tragic ways it understands, or perceives itself as, finally able to transform the Jewish body from this irredeemable other into a finally realized European. The problem with doing that though, is that it basically re-creates once again the hierarchies and makes the people who live in this land of Palestine the kind of irredeemable other that has to be excluded. 


Tallie: So Zionism, in some ways, defined itself against Palestinians. This has had, maybe unsurprisingly, pretty devastating consequences. 


In 1948, during the Nakba, or catastrophe, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, about half of the Palestinian population. Jewish Zionists recreated the same dynamics of European nationalism, except now Palestinians were the outsiders.09:20 


Saikely:  In 1948 you have the birth of the Jewish state and you have the birth of the Palestinian refugee condition. And that condition is the way to understand what it means to be Palestinian and what Zionism has meant for most Palestinians. 


Tallie: We are going to hear more from Dr Seikaly and get more into the impact of Zionism on Palestinians in our next episode. 


But this idea that Zionism made Palestinians into the irredeemable other is incredibly important for understanding what Zionism is. Because Zionism essentially transformed Judaism into nationalism. 


Nava: “Transformed Judaism into nationalism.” Yes Tallie, that's such a good way to explain it. 


Tallie: Totally. Before Zionism, Jewish people around the world shared culture and ancestry, and practiced the same religion to some degree. 


We were recognizable largely because of the way we kept time. We marked the Jewish calendar. We celebrated Jewish holidays, we practiced Jewish rituals for births, deaths, weddings. And we still do all of those things.  


But Zionism shifted that. With state-based nationalism, Jewish identity became less oriented to time, and more oriented to the land of Israel. 


Dr feldman had more to say about this: 


Feldman: To be a Jew was to be a member of the Jewish nation. Being Jewish became defined by a national identity and even a very racialized one which in many ways mirrored European nationalist movements of the 20th century which were defining peoplehood on the basis of ethnonationalism.  10:57 


Tallie: And that's why we wanted to talk about the history of Zionism. Because right now, almost every Jewish institution in the US, from synagogues to summer camps, have some affiliation with Zionism. But this wasn’t always the case. 


Nava: Yeah! Living in 2019, Zionism often seems like it was inevitable. 


But actually, even for a couple decades after the founding of Israel in 1948, there were still big divisions about Zionism even in mainstream U.S. Jewish conversations.  


You know, rabbis and intellectuals and radicals and communists and leaders and lay people and secular Jews did not agree with each other. They had conflicting ideas about how to be safe, even from violent antisemitism. 


Some of them thought safety was only possible in the U.S., some thought it was only possible in Israel, some thought Jewish safety depended on revolutionary overthrow of oppressive regimes. 


So they argued with each other: how do we become American? is it possible for Jews to be American? which of us can become white and how? should we assimilate into Christian culture? should we join transnational movements to overthrow the owning class? (yes, we should) should we support or actually move to Israel? 


In the end it wasn’t really until like 20 years after israel was founded that all of these debates settled into a kind of mainstream Jewish consensus on Israel, which is where we are now


This was a huge moment of struggle and decisionmaking in history.  It’s so important to me to talk about it. 


Because i feel like the more we pay attention to history as a series of decisions, the better we get at thinking big about what else might be possible right now.12:30  


Tallie: YES! and one important way that progressive and leftist Jewish people are imagining that different future is through the concept of diaspora. 


So what is diaspora, aside from the name of this podcast? Here’s  Dr Feldman’s definition.  


Feldman: Nationalism is the correlation of a particular ethnic or religious or linguistic group to a particular territory. Diaspora is the idea that a people of a shared ethnic religious or linguistic origins could be dispersed across territories. Could maintain a cohesive sense of peoplehood that’s not bounded to or determined by one particular territory. 


Tallie: “A cohesive sense of peoplehood that’s not bounded to a territory.” I don’t know why, but there’s something about that that just makes me feel hopeful. 


I’m going to be honest - when i first learned about the term diaspora, I learned it as this idea that Jewish people outside Israel were all just longing to go live in Israel, so it meant sadness and loss. 


But actually the way people are using it now in progressive movements, it means something completely different. It’s about the ways we can belong to each other - to our people - across distance.13:48  


Nava: For me, what it means to build Jewish diaspora is to make home where we are. To me, Zionism means isolation and separation, but diaspora means we’re neighbors. 


In diaspora,  we build with and live with and love people who are Jewish and people who aren’t Jewish. It’s not just a fact of geography; it’s a commitment. 


Tallie, there’s a writer I read who really helps me remember how much diaspora and home are the same. Her name is Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz, may her memory be for a blessing. 


She was a poet, anti racist activist, a feminist, a real Jewish queer elder we lost a couple years ago. This is what she writes: 


“What do I mean by home? Not the nation state; not religious worship; not the deepest grief of a people marked by hatred. I mean a commitment to what is and is not mine; to the strangeness of others, to my strangeness to others; to common threads twisted with surprise.” 


In her definition, connection to a place can be really important. It’s such a big part of home. But the way Melanie Kay Kantrowitz talks about diaspora, connection to place doesn’t have to mean nationalism.15:13  


Tallie: Yeah. we’re not throwing anything away. We are imagining a different future, one where everyone belongs. 


Nava: exactly.  


:Outro music:


Credits: Diaspora podcast is produced by me, Tallie Ben Daniel, its written and hosted by me and Nava EtShalom, and edited by Jenny Asarnow. 


We wanna thank Professor Rachel Feldman and Professor Sherene Seikaly for your time and insights.


Our theme music is the song “for our stories” by the decibelists, off the album galapagos. 


If you like this podcast, please  spread the word, and rate and review us on iTunes! That helps other people find and listen to Diaspora.