Jewish Anti-Zionism is White Saviorism

To understand why, we must explore the cornerstones of Jewish anti-Zionism: the assumptions and assertions that often if not always characterize its structure. 
June 21, 2023
Peter Beinart, Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet the Press; Photo from “Israelism” documentary

About a year ago, the media company VICE News published a YouTube video featuring a young woman with an unsettling mask over her head to conceal her identity. When she responds to questions from the off-camera interviewer, her voice is altered to a low frequency to make her true persona truly hidden. She speaks openly and honestly about her experience as a young woman from America’s upper middle to upper class, one of many who took advantage of summer volunteer programs abroad. “Volunteer tourism is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” she says. “It sells wealthier people access to impoverished and struggling communities in exchange for a life-affirming experience. Kids [from these communities] would see vans of volunteers pull toward them and immediately rub dirt on their faces to look more appealing and in need of more help.” The young woman shares with us damning information—that of the thousands of dollars paid to participate in this trip, none of it went to the orphanage that she was under the impression she was building. And after each day of building, local construction workers would undo the progress the westerners made, considering mistakes and safety violations could not be avoided.

Many readers will know what this woman is talking about, for many have seen the photos on social media of sun-kissed Americans posing with dark-skinned children, on a retreat that they will no doubt highlight on future resumes for high-paying jobs. Some of us recognize the blatant exploitation of those living in obscene conditions as self-indulgent and unethical. But perhaps many are unaware that such an attitude, dubbed in our modern lexicon as “white saviorism,” or as a “white savior complex,” doesn’t need to express itself as Instagram hashtags in war-torn Africa, for it also manifests in less covert ways, such as within the Jewish community in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would characterize the mostly diasporic Jewish attitude of anti-Zionism, the belief that the Jewish state is an immoral concept and that by way of its oppression of the Palestinian people it has lost its privilege to operate as the nation state for the Jewish people, as a form of white saviorism. To understand why, we must explore the cornerstones of Jewish anti-Zionism: the assumptions and assertions that often if not always characterize its structure.

The first cornerstone, a foundation without which Jewish anti-Zionism cannot survive, is the construction of a narrative of Zionism that follows a formula of Jewish action and Arab reaction. Take for example Itay Epstein, an Israeli who works as a senior advisor to the Norwegian Refugee Council, who several weeks ago tweeted “On this day, 56 years ago, Israel invaded – in a premeditated attack – Gaza and the West Bank. Despite subduing its Egyptian and Jordanian adversaries by the 10th of June, it has since occupied Palestinian territory with no military exigency.” Epstein here engages in historical revisionism, implying that Israel in June of 1967 attacked its Arab neighbors unprovoked—never mind the several declaratives from Arab leaders in the days prior that they would attack Israel, never mind the buildup of Arab weaponry on Israel’s borders, nor the cutting off of the highly lucrative and essential to Israel’s survival Straits of Tiran, an abject act of war. Epstein also portrays the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory as if it is the cause and not an effect of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors, thereby eliminating terrorism and ongoing war from the reasons Israel maintains a hold over the land.

You see a similar attitude in Jewish anti-Zionist discussions of the events of 1948, such as when IfNotNow, a left-wing Jewish organization, tweeted in May of 2022, “Today is Nakba Day, the 74th anniversary of the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe,) when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes. The Nakba continues today, and Jews across the country are showing up with Palestinians to mourn and resist.” IfNotNow conveniently omits the fact that the flight of Palestinians from land that would become Israel in 1948 was merely one chapter in a brutal invasion of Israel by seven different Arab militias, another chapter being the more than 800,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries as well. Unfortunately, the drumbeat from Jewish organizations to commemorate “Nakba Day” continued in 2023.

This first cornerstone, of Jewish action and Arab reaction, is evidence of white saviorism because it robs non-white people, or at least those who have been constructed in progressive spaces to be non-white (more on that later), to be without agency. The undertones of the narrative that not only the Palestinians but also the surrounding Arab countries have been helpless objects to the Zionist project, without the resources and without previous opportunities to make decisions for themselves, are both condescending and supremacist.

This first cornerstone, of Jewish action and Arab reaction, is evidence of white saviorism because it robs non-white people, or at least those who have been constructed in progressive spaces to be non-white … to be without agency.

The second cornerstone of Jewish anti-Zionism is heavily related to the first. It is something former Member of Knesset Dr. Einat Wilf describes as “westsplaining.” Dr. Wilf explains: “Westsplaining is when international activists, diplomats, and journalists head to the Gaza border, and when they ask: ‘what do you want?’ They are told by Palestinians that they want total war against Israel, that they want to return to their ancestral homeland and throw the Jews out. But then the journalist will look back at the camera and say, ‘the Palestinians in Gaza merely want access to better resources and employment opportunities.” Like “mansplaining,” when a man lectures a woman on something she already is well aware of, westsplaining is when people from the west attempt to explain away what a Palestinian has ] said in order to bolster their own political agenda.

An example of a serial westsplainer is American-Jewish author and commentator Peter Beinart. Beinart is a strong advocate for the binational solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, believing that the focal point to the Palestinian struggle for liberation is not to take back what they believe was stolen from them with fire and blood like a Game of Thrones character, but rather simply to achieve equal rights under the law in one state from the river to the sea. At the height of the protests against the Netanyahu government this year, Beinart tweeted: “If Jewish Israelis truly invited Palestinians to join their democratic struggle—and made it a struggle for freedom for everyone, not just for Jews—that movement wouldn’t just defeat Bibi. It would defeat apartheid and change the world.”

Beinart conveniently leaves out of his many tweets likening Zionists to pro-apartheid South Africans that Palestinians overwhelmingly do not desire a state with equal rights for every person from the river to the sea. In a poll released in March by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, merely 22% of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza reported to desire such a solution, with 75% expressing disapproval. What Palestinians have made clear they actually want apparently does not matter, because Beinart, a Jew with an impressive career living in the Upper West Side, miles away from the conflict, has his own ideas on how things should run. Like the first cornerstone, westsplaining reveals a cringe-worthy air of condescension and arrogance.

The third cornerstone of Jewish anti-Zionism also relates to Beinart, and to a new documentary film he has been promoting from his social media pages called “Israelism.” I have not yet seen this film, but from its trailer, I can deduce that the film follows what I like to call the “I was lied to at summer camp” narrative, in recognition of a piece in “Tablet Magazine” on the same topic written by Suzy Weiss: “The Jews Lied to Me At Summer Camp!” The teaser for “Israelism” features a Palestinian saying, “The first time I came to Israel, American Jews told me ‘We like you, but we don’t like Palestinians.’” A Jewish American then says: “What we’ve been told is the only way that Jews can be safe is if Palestinians are not safe.” There is a flash of a poster that says, “Stop lying to Young Jews,” and a shot of Jeremy Ben-Ami, the Chief Executive of J Street, saying “They do not like the way they were indoctrinated, and justifiably so.”

“I was lied to at summer camp” is a campaign to get as many people as possible to believe that a shadowy American Jewish establishment is manipulating its youth by preventing them from asking any political questions about Israel (a hilarious joke if anyone has spent any time with Jews) and subsequently turning them into henchmen for the Israeli far-right hellbent on stifling criticism of the Jewish state. Considering American Jews are consistently warring with each other in publications about every political issue under the sun, and considering over 70 percent of American Jews vote for Democrats, candidates who routinely advocate for a two-state solution and tough-love against Israel especially in the last several decades, the argument that Jews were lied to at summer camp does not hold water. But nevertheless, it is a highly persuasive if not downright intoxicating forbidden fruit dangled in front of American Jews in progressive spaces to turn them against Israel.

As someone who has spent quite a bit of time in left-wing spaces, I can confirm that expressions of victimization are not only exploited at every possible moment, but they are also a mode of currency: They are how you curry favor with those around you to earn respect. The Jews who find themselves in these spaces, as I did as a high school and college student, are mainly Ashkenazi, and come primarily from moderately assimilated families that are usually well-off (considering they had the money to go to those vile, abusive summer camps). Therefore, the correct “lived experiences” in progressive circles to truly have a horse in the social justice race are difficult to muster up. If you do not have trauma, then simply make it up.

The “I was lied to at summer camp” narrative is a way for privileged, young American Jews to feel as though they too are on the receiving end of the evils of capitalism, racism, colonialism, imperialism—whatever their group of peers regard as the ultimate sins of the day—rather than perpetrating them, as other Jews with similar experiences are being accused. Of course, Jews cleansing themselves from the sins of their communities and subsequently demonizing their background in order to be regarded as true warriors of the latest universalist cause is nothing new, but today it carries unique significance with regard to the white saviorism. This mendacious behavior carries the whiff of cloying for acceptance from the social justice vanguard, in the same way as denying Muslims and Arabs agency and westsplaining away their true desires.

Jews from backgrounds other than Eastern Europe are generally absent from Jewish anti-Zionism. The reason is that Jews of Sephardic or Mizrahi descent did not grow up perceiving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as white people versus people of color, because they themselves do not look or define themselves as white. The only possible way to construct a narrative whereby the Jews only act and Arabs only react, where Arabs desire a democratic state with citizenship for all between the river and the sea, and where there exists a nefarious plot at hand to brainwash Jewish youth with the ideas of the imperialist west, is to paint Jews as white and therefore powerful. Non-Jews in the Middle East, on the other hand, have been constructed as non-white, and therefore not powerful, an attitude that coincides  with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said’s description of “orientalism” and our contemporary understandings of white saviorism.

The young woman in the unsettling mask at VICE news noted that after each day of construction on the orphanage for underprivileged children, local workers dismantled the progress and reorganized the bricks. The work, regardless of how in good faith it was, was in reality useless, unless you count the newly opened career prospects for the young Americans. This is an apt analogy for what Jewish anti-Zionism actually accomplishes on the ground regarding improving the lives of Palestinians, versus what it accomplishes in bolstering the social and professional capital of Jewish anti-Zionists. The white saviors who see the conflict as a zero sum game preach from social media and smile for cameras and accomplish nothing save acceptance (albeit temporary) in progressive spaces, while those who actually recognize the conflict as a complicated mess with fault and agency on both sides are left to clean up the pieces and commit to the hard work, with little or no gratitude from so-called advocates for peace. We would all be better served in listening to these voices and tuning out the leftover noise.

Blake Flayton is the New Media Director and columnist for the Jewish Journal.

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