Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Assessing Zionism’s Impact On Judaism And U.S. Middle East Policy

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2020

181 pages, $14.95  
Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, has had a dramatic impact upon Judaism and U.S. policy in the Middle East. In this important book, Sheldon Richman shares his evolving views. Considering his historical analyses will be instructive both to those who agree with his conclusions and those who do not.  
Richman is executive editor of the Libertarian Institute and is a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former Vice President at the Future of Freedom Foundation. He is the author of a number of books, including “Ancient History: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East since World War II and the Folly of Intervention.”  
Growing up in Philadelphia, Richman recalls “collecting money to plant trees in Israel. I recall as well the frequent discourses provided by Hebrew-school teachers of Jewish heroism and devotion in the midst of a hostile sea of Arabs. And I’ll never forget the day my schoolmates and I were taken downtown in 1960 to see the eagerly awaited movie, “Exodus.” Mine was a childhood that in large part evolved around Israel.  
Early Heroes  
Ben- Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir were heroes. My parents, Conservative Jews, were not Zionists in the strictest sense; moving to Israel, or seeing their children do so, was unthinkable. But they were loyalist Israelis, committed to the Jewish state as necessary for the existence of Judaism and for the victims, present and future, of ubiquitous anti-Semitism.”  
One exception to this apparent consensus was Richman’s paternal grandfather. He recalls that, “Sam Richman was a joyous, tolerant Orthodox Jew from Lithuania. Every Saturday afternoon, after Sabbath services, we’d visit Zayde and Bubby (Grandpa and Grandma) at their apartment. The conversation would often turn to the Middle East. I would sit quietly and listen. There, and only there, did I hear criticism of Israel. I think this became particularly pronounced after the Six Day War in 1967.”  
Richman describes these weekly visits: “‘The Jews of Israel are causing all the trouble,’ he (grandpa) would say repeatedly. ‘The Arabs want peace.’ My father and mother would counter, ‘How can you say that? Israel wants peace. It is one little slice of land. The Arabs have so much, but they won’t sit down and talk.’ They would suggest that my grandfather visit Israel and see the nation for himself. Zayde wouldn’t budge. ‘I will never go,’ he’d say. Each year, as he led the Passover Seders, when he was supposed to say ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ he’d improvise with a smile, ‘Next year in Philadelphia.’ The family always regarded Zayde as a venerable patriarch. But on this issue, he was treated as uninformed and stubborn. It was confusing. Little did I realize then that he represented an important position in the original Jewish debate over Zionism.”  
Counterfeit Judaism  
To Richman’s grandfather, “Zionism was counterfeit Judaism ...His Orthodox belief held that the re-establishment of Israel was a matter for God in the messianic future. He would have agreed with Yehoshofat Harkabi, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence who said, “Jews always considered that the land belonged to them, but in fact it belonged to the Arabs. I would go further: I would say the original source of this conflict lies with Israel.’”  
By the time of the 1967 war, Richman was 17 years old. He recalls that, “I never imagined that there was another side to the Israeli-Arab dispute. As I understood it, the Jews had a biblical and legal right to the land and were eager to live peacefully with the Arabs, but the Arabs hated the Jews because they were Jews. So there was no peace. I don’t think I heard the word Palestinian.”  
In the early 1970s, Richman began to have misgivings about other aspects of the Zionist narrative he had been taught. He notes that, “I began to understand that Palestinians were the latest of a long line of groups oppressed by political power. Jews, of course, have been similarly oppressed in many places. Now, some Jews, the Zionists, were in the role of oppressors. My childhood view of Israel was unraveling. Belatedly, I began investigating the real story of the creation of Israel read Elmer Berger’s ‘Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew,’ and the writings of Alfred Lilienthal, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and others. I revised my views on the relationship between Judaism and Zionism, on the Arab -Israeli wars...”  
Anti-Zionist Jewish Tradition  
Slowly, Sheldon Richman found himself associating himself with the anti-Zionist Jewish tradition exemplified by the American Council for Judaism, which has maintained Reform Judaism’s opposition to nationalism and its belief that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality. He rejects the fanciful notion that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews and makes the case that American Jews are Jews by religion and American by nationality. In this book, he has gathered together essays and articles he has written on this subject over the years.  
The question of Palestine has attracted much attention and discussion over the years. To the question of why “Palestine matters,” Richman provides this assessment: “First, perhaps most basically, the sheer cruelty —-the scope of the evolution of human, i.e. natural individual rights—-of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians warrants the concern of all who favor freedom and other classic liberal values: justice social cooperation, free exchange, and peace. Let’s start with the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, says first and center on its website: “Israel’s regime of occupation is inextricably bound up in human rights violations. No one who sheds the institutional barriers to normal life, not to mention the literal destruction of life, that are regular features of Israel’s role in the West Bank (with nearly three million Palestinians, East Jerusalem, over 300,000, and the Gaza Strip, nearly, three million). It is no exaggeration to describe the system as an instance of apartheid, which is the word used by Israeli human rights organizations and former government officials. Then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin used the word in a warning as far back as 1976. So did Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, when he was out of office after the 1967 war.”  
A second reason Palestine matters, Richman argues, is that “American taxpayers underwrite the system of injustice and oppression. The U.S. government provides Israel the Middle East’s only nuclear state, over $3 billion a year in military aid on the most favorable terms. ..Israel violates U.S. law and international law by using its weapons to repress the Palestinians and to wage war against civilians...Some justify this unstinting and unique support for Israel because Israel is an American ‘strategic asset,’ and Israeli leaders cynically talk in those terms. But that makes no sense. For one thing, as many American political and military leaders have acknowledged, since 9/11, rather than being an asset, Israel has been a liability. A big reason for the Muslim terrorism directed at Americans is precisely the unconditional U.S. military assistance to, not to mention the diplomatic support of Israel. ...What goes a long way toward explaining the huge sums given to Israel each year —-Over $10 million a day—-is the influential Israeli lobby, which brags about its power over U.S. politicians. AIPAC and the other organizations have created an environment in which criticism of Israel or Zionism is smeared as anti-Semitism, though this baseless association has begun to wear thin. It’s worth pointing out that some of the first and most incisive anti-Zionists were Jewish.”  
The Zionist Narrative  
The Zionist narrative——which declares that Palestine was “a land without people for “a people without a land” is, Richman shows us, almost the opposite of the truth. The early Zionists who promoted this idea knew that it was not true. When Theodor Herzl’s friend Max Nordau visited Palestine in the 19th century, he was surprised to find people——Palestinians——living in this allegedly people -free land. “I didn’t know that,” he said. “But then we are committing an injustice.” When Herzl had a Zionist student leader, Leo Motzkin, visit Palestine, Motzkin reported: “One must admit that the density of the population does not give the visitor much cause for cheer. In whole stretches throughout the land one constantly comes across large Arab villages, and it is an established fact the most fertile areas of our country is occupied by Arabs.”  
When Theodor Herzl himself visited Palestine, he referred to the indigenous Arab population as people “we will try to spirit...across the border.” in 1891, the Russian Jewish writer Ahad Ha’am described the conduct of the early Zionist settlers: “Serfs they were in the lands of the diaspora. Now, as they evidently find themselves enjoying unconstrained freedom, they become despots themselves. They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause and then boast of these deeds, and nobody among us opposed this despicable inclination.”  
Some years later, Ahad Ha’am pointed out that, “Zionists “were angry towards those who remind them that there is still another people in Eretz Israel that has been living here and does not intend to leave.” In a letter to a settler he wrote: “I can’t put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way...to another people, and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: If this is so now, what will our relations with the others be like if, at the end of time, we shall really achieve power in Eretz Israel? And if this be the Messiah, I do not wish to see his coming.”  
Relations with Arabs  
In 1917, an early Zionist leader, Dr. Yitzhak Epstein declared: “among the grave questions linked with the concept of our people’s renaissance on its own soil, there is the question here more mighty than all the others put together. That is the question of our relations with the Arabs. Our own national aspirations depend upon the correct solution of this problem. The regrettable fact is that our intention could be diverted from such a fundamental question, and after thirty years of settlement activity it is being talked about as if it is a new topic——all this proves is that our movement is unreasonable....We forget that the people now living in this land also has a heart and a soul...We shall commit a grave sin against our people and our future if we throw away so lightly our principal weapons: righteousness and sincerity.”  
Richman points out that, “These first-hand observations by Jewish Palestinians and others paint a picture quite opposite “from that promoted both by the Israeli government and Zionists in the United States. “It was the political Zionists who refused to accept the existence of the Palestinian Arabs. By in effect making war on them, the Zionists disrupted peaceful relations between Arabs and Jew. Even in the late 1940s, there was no monolithic Arab objection to a Jewish state, as historian Avi Shlaim notes. King Abdullah of Transjordan formed a partnership with the Zionists to quash the proposed Palestinian state and did not challenge Israel. And the prominent Nashashibi family of Palestine, rival of the Mufti H’aj Amin al-Husseini, supported partition and peaceful coexistence.”  
Zionist apologists in both Israel and the U.S., Richman shows us, “depend upon ignorance of the writings of early Zionists for acceptance of the myth of congenital Arab hatred of Jews and categorical hostility to a Jewish homeland.”  
Discrimination against Non-Jews  
In an essay, “Zionism Mandates official Discrimination Against Non-Jews,” Richman writes that, “The question is whether Under Zionism...people are being treated differently on the basis of race, or, more precisely, ethnic or national origin. Can there be any serious doubt that they are? The first law enacted by the Israeli Knesset was the Law of Return. Part of the Basic Law, the closest Israel has to a constitution, Under the Law of return,, a Diaspora Jew, no matter where he or she was born or where he lives may ‘return’ to Israel as a full Israeli national. But an Arab (or other non-Jew) born in Palestine but who fled or was driven out may not. The criterion is simple: One is a Jew, the other is not.”  
Discrimination against non-Jews, Richman shows us, characterizes many aspects of life in Israel——for Non-Jewish citizens, not to mention the lack of most legal rights for those living in the occupied territories.  
Professor Uzi Orman of Hebrew University has written that, “Land controlled by the Israel Lands Administration cannot be leased to non-Jews unless the apartment or plot of land is located in the special ‘zone of residence,’ where non-Jews are permitted to apply for an apartment or for land.” Jewish lessees are not permitted to sublease to non-Jews, Professor Orman has compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during the years of apartheid.  
Defining Anti-Semitism  
In recent days there has been a growing and vocal campaign to equate criticism of Israel and concern with the rights of Palestinians with “anti-Semitism.” Richman writes, in an article, “Defining Anti-Semitism, Threatening Free Speech,” that, “Anti-Semitism, of course, exists. But it’s clearly confined to the fringes of American society. It is so disreputable that people have shied away from criticizing Israel for fear of being accused of Jew-hatred, which can destroy careers and friendships. The legislation (which would equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism) seems designed to reinforce that fear, which fortunately has been fading in recent years, especially among younger people in light of Israel’s periodic military assaults on the essentially defenseless people of Gaza. Every so often the word goes out that anti-Semitism is on the rise, but it’s hard not to notice that those alarms follow the broad international criticism of Israeli systematic brutality against Palestinians resisting the 51-year occupation of their property. As Norman Finkelstein, who monitors this phenomenon closely, writes: ‘Whenever Israel commits another atrocity, its propagandists stage a revival of the ‘New Anti-Semitism’ extravaganza to reflect or squelch global condemnation.’ (see Finkelstein’s book, ‘Beyond Chutzpah, On The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History’).”  
Richman points out that, “The overbroad definition of anti-Semitism in this bill risks incorrectly equating constitutionally protected criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, making it likely that free speech will be chilled on campuses. the examples incorporated into the definition of anti-Semitism include actions and statements critical of Israel, including many constitutionally protected statements. As a result, the proposed legislation is likely to chill the speech of students, faculty and other members of campus communities around the country...As the ACLU letter opposing the legislation notes, even the lead author of the definition, Kenneth Stern, a self-described Zionist, has himself opposed the “application of this definition to campus speech.”  
In a 2016 article opposing South Carolina’s effort to adopt the definition of anti-Semitism as including criticism of Israel, Stern wrote: “It is literally an attempt to create a speech code about Israel. It is an unnecessary law which will hurt Jewish students and the academy...It was never intended as a vehicle to monitor or suppress speech on campus but that’s what some right-wing Jewish groups and individuals behind this legislation seek....”  
Smear Campaign against Israel’s Critics  
Richman expresses the hope that, “...things do not get as bad in the U.S. as they are in the U.K., where a hysterical smear campaign against Israel’s critics has conjured up the term ‘political anti-Semitism targeting Israel’ ( In contrast to ‘racial anti-Semitism targeting Jews’) and alarm in some quarters about the alleged ‘existential threat’ to Jewish life in the country (Great Britain) that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbin-led government. The Labor Party’s National Executive Committee has been accused of Jew-hatred because its new code of conduct on anti-Semitism allegedly failed to incorporate the entire IHRA definition of anti-Semitism....Clearly, the Labor Party leadership stands accused of anti-Semitism purely for adopting a code of conduct that distinguishes anti-Semitism from criticism of Israel. Is this the sort of smear campaign that is in for members of Congress who vote against the Anti-Semitism  
Awareness Act?  
When it comes to the Trump administration, Richman shows that those in charge of developing U.S. policy are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Jared Kushner has a history of connection with illegal Israeli settlements. Jason Greenblatt, formerly the Trump Organization’s lawyer, once was a guard at an illegal Israeli settlement. He repeatedly says that “Mr. Trump does not view the settlements as being an obstacle for peace.” David Friedman, former Trump bankruptcy lawyer, is now U.S. Ambassador to Israel. He supports Israeli annexation of some of the West Bank. He previously ran an organization that raised millions of dollars for West Bank settlements.  
Richman writes that, “It would be an understatement to say this trio, like its boss, is entirely in Israel’s corner and have no time whatever for the pesky Palestinians...The Kushner mission got off to a rousing start with the president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv—-on one of the days Israel was gunning down peaceful protestors in the Gaza open-air prison. The status of Jerusalem has long been regarded as one of those to be resolved by the Israelis and Palestinians at the end of the negotiation process, but nevertheless the Israeli position is that Jerusalem is ‘Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.’ Trump agrees.”  
Alleged Palestinian “Intransigence”  
The Palestinians have been accused of “intransigence,” but Richman points to a more complex reality: “How many people realize that the Palestinians have moved from their initial call for one liberal, secular state for Muslims, Christians and Jews (Yasser Arafat speech, 1974) to acceptance of two states along the 1967 borders, with the Palestinians thereby conceding 78 per cent of Palestine to Israel, to acceptance of 60 per cent of the illegal Israeli settlements on 2 per cent of the West Bank, with an equivelant land swap nearby? When have these advances toward a resolution ever been called generous by America’s political and pundit classes? What the Palestinians won’t accept—-the object of their so-called ‘rejectionism’ is a ‘state’ that is little more than a few noncontiguous villages separated by a wall a ‘state’ over which Israel asserts ultimate control in the name of security.”  
Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, In an interview with The Times of Israel, said that the Trump administration’s plan for the region will “ include a resolution to all of the core issues, including the refugee issue and will also focus on Israel’s security concerns. It will be heavily focused on Israel’s security needs. But we also want to be fair to the Palestinians. We have tried hard to find a good balance. Each side will find things in this plan that they don’t like. There are no perfect solutions.”  
In fact, Richman points out, President Trump has already claimed to have resolved the refugee and Jerusalem issues simply through unilateral moves that pleased the Israelis and angered the Palestinians: “To the Palestinians, who are expected to relinquish any right of return for the dispossessed and to give up any hope for an East Jerusalem capital of any future state...And Trump has cut all aid to the Palestinians, refugees or not, intending to redirect the money elsewhere unless they play ball...clearly...Trump has abandoned even the pretense that the U.S. is merely an. ‘honest broker’ in the conflict. It sees itself instead as the unabashed pro-Israel dictator of terms. In this context, optimism comes tough to those who care about justice, freedom and dignity.”  
“The Art of the Smear”  
In an article, “The Art of the Smear—-The Israel Lobby busted,” Richman reports about a program produced by Al Jazeera that documents the Israeli government and U.S. Israel lobby’s efforts to spy on, smear and disrupt American students and other activists who are seeking to tell the Palestine story and defend Palestinian rights. “The Lobby, USA” has never been broadcast by Al Jazeera. It has been reported that it was suppressed after pressure by the lobby on the government of Qatar, which funds Al Jazeera. Still, it is available at the Electronic Intifada and You Tube.  
“The Lobby USA” features an undercover journalist who won the trust of key pro-Israel advocates and who videoed revealing meetings and demonstrates the extremes to which Israelis and their advocates are prepared to go. The effort aims to attack Palestinian students in the U.S. and American activists who advocate for Palestinian rights, as well as political candidates who criticize Israeli policy. They are regularly denounced as being “anti-Semites.” The film shows that pro-Israel operatives, guided by Israeli government officials and embassy staff have used social media and other channels in an attempt to destroy the career potential of student activists. Major targets are activists in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement and Students for Justice in Palestine.  
Al Jazeera produced a similar program about Israeli interference in British politics, which led to resignation of a key Israeli embassy official and. Richman notes that, “I could not do justice to the program even in a long article. Instead, I will urge readers to watch it in its entirety—-and think carefully about what it means as one critic of Israel asks on the program, if Russia, or Iran or China were doing what Israel and its American friends are doing, most people would be outraged...The Israel lobby realizes that the anti-Semitism charge no longer sticks so tenaciously to people who merely indict Israel for its obvious mistreatment of the Palestinians. so the lobby has resorted to a broader brush: it says that those who support BDS and the Palestinians are anti-American...BDS and Students for Justice in Palestine, the lobby contends, are hate groups. This of course is patently absurd, but Israel’s side observes no limits on what it is willing to say and perhaps do to destroy the reputations of anyone who realizes that the Israeli emperor has no clothes.”  
Jewish Anti-Zionism  
Of particular interest is Richman’s 1989 review of the book “Anti-Zionism: Analytical Reflections,” edited by Roselle Tekiner, Samir Abed-Rabbo, and Norton Mezvinsky. Few people understood the nature of Zionism better than Rabbi Elmer Berger, for many years a leader of the American Council for Judaism. This book, Richman points out, “is a festschrift in his honor. Few people deserve to be honored for courage and resourcefulness in the service of justice as Rabbi Berger does. For over forty years he has spoken out and written eloquently against the two-headed perniciousness of Zionism—-the violence it has done to the Palestinians and the damage it has inflicted on Judaism. Among his books and articles is the poignant ‘Memoirs of an anti-Zionist Jew.”  
The book begins with Rabbi Berger’s own classic essay, “Zionist ideology: Obstacle to Peace.” It also includes essays by Israel Shahak, Sally and W. Thomas Mallison, Benjamin M. Joseph, and Norton Mezvinsky, among others. They cover such subjects as Zionism as a recidivist movement, the “who is a Jew?” controversy, the anti-Zionist Democratic alternative, the Israel-South Africa relationship, Israel’s Christian supporters. and Reform Judaism’s attitude toward Zionism.  
Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor and long-time professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, makes the case that Zionism was an explicit reaction against the individualistic Enlightenment and an atavistic attempt to restore the ghettos of 18th century Poland. Zionism’s founders believed Jews could not lead normal lives among non-Jews, even in free democratic countries. They propounded a theory of a “Jewish people” with “national rights.” Zionism, writes Shahak, “can be described as a mirror image of anti-Semitism...Both Zionists and anti-Semites assume anti-Semitism is ineradicable.”  
Zionism as a Source of Conflict  
In the first chapter, Rabbi Berger writes: “Nationalist territorial Zionism’s dehumanizing of Arabs has not been in response to or defense against Arab inhumanity to Jews...The source of conflict was always Zionism.” Norton Mezvinsky discusses the early history of Reform Judaism and its rejection of Zionism. In 1885, Reform rabbis met in Pittsburgh and adopted a platform that declared Judaism a religious community, not as a people or a nation: “We recognize in the era of universal culture of heart and intellect, the approaching realization of Israel’s great messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men.”  
Its first prayer book omitted the usual references to Jewish exile and the future restoration of Israel.  
Richman emphasizes that, “Reform Judaism was, in other words, anti-Zionist . It foretold with perfect accuracy the violence that Zionism would do to Judaism even had there been no Arabs in Palestine. Without Rabbi Berger, we’d be less knowledgeable of this ‘other’ —-the real—-Judaism.”  
It is ironic that white nationalists in the U.S. often are sympathetic to Zionism. Foreign Policy in Focus (FPF) reports that Richard Spencer, the alt-Right leader who gained recognition for his cries of “Hail Trump,” told Israel’s Channel 2 in 2017, “You could say I’m a white Zionist.” FPF went on, “He later described the Jewish state as the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethno-state, the one that I turn to for guidance.”  
Richman writes that, “What Spencer and his ilk, unlike Israel’s supporters, understand is that Israel is an apartheid state—-but with a difference. White supremacist South Africa wanted to separate the whites and the blacks, but they needed the blacks to do society’s dirty jobs. By contrast, the Israeli elite and much of the public want the Arab Christians and Muslims to go. The dirty work can be done by the Arab Jews.”  
Challenge to Zionism  
In the foreword to “Coming To Palestine,” Ramzy Baroud of The Palestine Chronicle, writes: “This book is far more than a deserved celebration of Richman’s intellectual wisdom and astute political and historical analyses throughout the years. It is, first and foremost, a serious and convincing challenge to the protracted Zionist deception...that predate the establishment of Israel itself...In truth, Israel needs more to survive in its current undemocratic, racist, colonial form than a powerful army, nuclear arms and blind U.S. support. It also needs to sustain, for as long as possible, the myth that it is a democratic haven in a tumultuous sea of authoritarian and violent Arabs, who are a threat not only to the Jewish people (all of them) but to Western civilization as well. Richman’s is a book of political myth-busting, a craft the author has mastered through many years of morally guided scholarship...this is the kind of unapologetic truth-telling that Israel fears most.”  
This collection of essays is an essential contribution to understanding Judaism, Zionism, and the continuing conflict in the Middle East. If anyone wonders why Palestine matters, this important book provides an answer  
(This writer contributed the introduction to “Coming To Palestine) *

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.