Why I Am A Zionist

by Robert Wolfe (August 2010)


In the year 2001 of the Christian era my wife and I became Israeli citizens and moved from New York City to Netanya in Israel. We are living there still. I guess that makes me a Zionist. But when people in Israel ask me why I gave up our comfortable life in the United States to live in a nation under siege, I have trouble coming up with a good answer. I usually say, “Because I want to live in a Jewish neighborhood.”

That answer is not false, but it’s not entirely true either. Before making aliyah we lived in Forest Hills in Queens, which is or was as close to a Jewish neighborhood as it gets in the United States outside of a few Hasidic enclaves. But even then Forest Hills was becoming less Jewish, and I don’t doubt that the trend has continued. The normal pattern in the United States is for Jewish neighborhoods to gradually change character as Jews move out to the suburbs and new immigrants move in. Only in Israel do Jewish neighborhoods stay Jewish. 

On the other hand, most of the people in the Jewish neighborhood where we now live speak Hebrew, a language which I only began to study late in life and still do not speak or understand all that well. As a result many facets of the culture of our neighborhood are closed to me because of the language barrier. If choosing a Jewish neighborhood were my only motive, I am not sure which I would prefer, Forest Hills or Netanya. And for that matter, I am not even sure that I would insist on a Jewish neighborhood, assuming that I could find a non-Jewish one where I could feel at home. Of course I never have, but I might still be looking for one in the United States if there weren’t something more to my Zionism than wanting to live in a Jewish neighborhood.

I was born in 1937 and grew up in Washington Heights in New York City, a neighborhood that was about half Jewish when I was a boy. My family was Jewish, most of my friends were Jewish, but because my parents were not at all religious, I had very little in the way of a Jewish education. I was eleven when the state of Israel was founded but I have no memory of any celebration at the time or even someone mentioning that this had happened. The goal of my parents was to be Americans, and that was my goal too. Due to my grandfather’s influence we did celebrate Hanukah and Passover, but that was about it. Being Jewish in my eyes was a kind of minor or incidental aspect of being American, which was the main thing. Little did I know that having grown up among Jews and absorbed a good deal of secular Jewish culture I was a typical Jew in the eyes of most non-Jews.

My first inkling that my being Jewish was more than an incidental detail came when I went away to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. There were no public dining facilities at Wesleyan at that time; to eat you had to belong to the eating club of a fraternity, or else to the John Wesley Club. I applied to three fraternities but was rejected by all three. Only then did I discover that almost all the fraternities on campus had a clause barring membership to “Jews, Negroes and Orientals.” Not feeling the need for Christian fellowship, I ended up as a waiter for the John Wesley Club, which solved my eating problem but left me feeling like an outsider in relation to the non-Jewish world. 

Fortunately I was not the only one, and I gravitated to a circle of proto-beatniks, would-be poets and writers, mostly non-Jewish, but nonetheless in rebellion against the cultural norms of the America of the late Fifties, Yet even in this circle I was a little bit different; my cultural rebellion had more of a political tinge. In the Jewish world where I grew up, people took politics very seriously. Republicans were unknown; the political spectrum ranged from Communists on the left to liberal Democrats on the right. Spurred on by a few left wing professors at Wesleyan, I decided to become a Marxist and devote my life to the theory and practice of revolution. After a year “on the road” in the beatnik mode, I entered graduate school in the fall of 1959, an aspiring history professor by day and cultural radical by night. Yet even then, the thought that all this was happening because I was Jewish never entered my head.

As you might imagine, I took to the Movement of the Sixties as a duck takes to water. It was just what I needed: revolutionary politics and cultural radicalism all rolled into one. I became a “Movement person” and by the early Seventies I was an ex-history professor living on welfare after serving a 3 month prison term for my political activities. The Movement was all I had left, but just around this time came the first stirrings of anti-Zionism on the American left. Only then did I feel compelled, for the first time in my life, to learn something about Jewish history in order to decide for myself whether Israel had a right to exist. I also joined a small group called the Jewish Socialist Community and began to think of myself as Jewish in a way that I had not previously done. I had never denied it, but neither had I affirmed it until then. Strangely enough, the more anti-Zionism came to permeate the Movement (or what remained of it), the stronger my need to identify as a Jew became.

My study of Jewish history played a key role here. At first I consulted Marxist writers, like Kautsky and Rodinson, who maintained that the Jews were a merchant people (Kautsky) who had established a “colonial settler state” (Rodinson) in “Palestine.” I later learned that “Palestine” is a Roman term which was applied to the country which the Romans had previously called “Judea” in 135 CE following the “Second Jewish War” during the course of which the Romans killed 580,000 Jews according to their own account. Something like 1 million Jews were also killed by the Romans and their Greek allies during the “First Jewish War”, from 66 to 73 CE, and many additional hundreds of thousands of Jews were also killed by the Greeks and Romans during the “Diaspora revolt” of 115-117 CE. This entire history of mass murder spanning a century is almost completely invisible in the standard academic accounts of Roman history, which focus instead on the growing popularity during this same period of a new mystery religion focused around pretending to eat the flesh and drink the blood of a Jewish man once a week.

Most of the Jews murdered by the Greeks and Romans were farmers, or landless laborers who had lost their farms, or urban artisans. Kautsky’s view of the Jews as a merchant people turned out to be completely fraudulent, not only with reference to Greco-Roman antiquity, but also with reference to later Jewish history as well. Most Jews in Kautsky’s own day were artisans, urban workers or impoverished peddlers. As for Rodinson’s “colonial settler state,” close to half of the current Jewish population of Israel is composed of Jews of Middle Eastern descent whose ancestors lived in North Africa, Iraq, Iran and Yemen long before the Arab conquest of these areas. The other half is largely composed of Jews from Europe who were forced to flee murderous persecution there, culminating in the Holocaust, motivated on the grounds that they were Middle Eastern “Semites” and therefore unfit to live in Europe. And no one can deny that the Jews of Israel speak Hebrew, a Middle Eastern language, and are descended, whether physically or spiritually, from the population of the ancient Jewish kingdoms of Judah and Israel which were situated in the region which is universally known as the “land of Israel” in Jewish tradition. 

Gradually it dawned on me that the values which I had derived from the Jewish community in which I grew up, values of sympathy for the underdog and the desire for a more peaceful, equitable and rational social order, were Jewish values, values which the Jewish people had upheld throughout our history and been persecuted for doing so by one autocratic ruler after another. And as it so happened, those countries and organizations which took the lead in attacking and denouncing Israel were also, without exception, founded on autocratic principles and therefore hostile to the democratic socialist principles on which Israel was founded. But although this realization led me to reject the growing anti-Zionism of the Movement and become a supporter of the state of Israel, it did not turn me into a Zionist. By the late Seventies I had begun to find work as an adjunct teaching history at various colleges in the New York area, and I had also begun the first of several drafts of a book on Jewish history, which I eventually self-published under the title of Dark Star in 1984. I became a Jewish nationalist, one with a secular bent, whose mission in life was to promote a greater understanding on the American left of the progressive role which the Jewish people has played in world history.

I was shocked to discover that the American left wasn’t interested in what I had say. I should have got the message early on, when Monthly Review, a Marxist publishing house, rejected an early draft of Dark Star. Just to show that there were no hard feelings, they invited me to their Christmas party. Evidently Marxism and Christianity coexisted in their mind in a way that Marxism and Judaism never could. And in general it became increasingly clear to me that most leftists just didn’t want to hear about the Jewish roots of their own beliefs. They were perfectly willing to ascribe a progressive content to Christianity and Islam, but Judaism was becoming more and more identified in their minds with the twin evils of “patriarchy” and “racism.” Since I had impeccable Movement credentials they couldn’t really denounce my critique of this stereotype, but they could and did ignore me.

I found this attitude on the part of the left particularly galling because in the course of my study of Jewish history I had become convinced of something which I thought would fascinate my leftist friends. Unknown to the general public, the small world of “Biblical scholarship” had been debating for years whether the ancient Hebrews were in fact “Habiru,” runaway slaves who had organized themselves into armed detachments and eked out a living as bandits or mercenaries in many parts of the Middle East during the 2nd millenium BCE (see "From Habiru to Hebrews: The Roots of the Jewish Tradition," New English Review, October 2009). I found that the evidence of the identity of the Hebrews and Habiru was overwhelming, but most Biblical scholars had resisted this conclusion because it conflicted with the Biblical image of the Hebrews as all descended from the twelve sons of one father. Never mind, I thought, my leftist friends will have no diffculty understanding that it was precisely because the Hebrews had formed a revolutionary social class rather than an enormous extended family that Jewish tradition had such an egalitarian tone and was so hostile to the idols of ruling class culture. But to my amazement I found far more interest among religious Jews in what I had to say on this subject than among leftists, who just didn’t want to know anything which would make the Jews look good from a leftist perspective.

What created this need on their part was above all the anti-Zionism of the international left. In order for anti-Zionism to be justified, Israel had to be a bastion of reaction, and in order for Israel to be a bastion of reaction, Jewish tradition had to be a reactionary force. This conclusion was all the more necessary in that the American left was composed in large part of Jews who were trying to get away from being Jewish. It was so much easier to do this if you thought that you were getting away from a reactionary ideology. Nor were non-Jews on the left at all averse to a situation in which Jewish leftists had to continually prove their right to be considered leftists by denouncing the one and only Jewish state. To be sure, the growing anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism of the American left did not make it all that popular among most Americans, but by this point organizing the masses was no longer the aim of the left. Its goal was rather to advance the personal and professional career of its members in the “politically correct,” “multi-cultural” world which it had created for itself in academia and the professions, and here it was a resounding success.

My answer to this trend was to start visiting Israel. My wife and I visited for the first time in 1981 after winning a monetary settlement from a landlord who wanted to evict us so he could raise the rent. That initial visit had a big effect on me. I remember sitting on the balcony of a cheap hotel with a view of Zion Square in Jerusalem and thinking, “I could live here.” I felt differently in Israel than I did in the United States, more relaxed, more at peace with myself.  Of course this was before the first intifada and Israel did not seem so dangerous as it later appeared. But making aliyah was not a realistic option for us then. Instead my wife and I fell into a pattern of visiting Israel every three years or so, usually for a month in the summer but once for an entire year at the time of the first Gulf War. We seriously considered making aliyah at that time, but eventually decided not to. By this time I had pretty much given up hope of having an impact on the American left, but there was one alternative to aliyah that I had not yet explored. This was trying to make a life for myself as part of a community of secular Jews.

I had taken a step in this direction back in the Seventies by joining the Jewish Socialist Community, but this group didn’t last very long. It was not until after we returned from our year in Israel that I began to actively involve myself in a number of Jewish secular organizations. After my wife and I moved to Forest Hills in the early Nineties, we joined the Queens chapter of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. I also became a member of The Generation After, an organization founded by Holocaust survivors with a left wing outlook dedicated to understanding and teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. And at the same time I started an organization of my own, the Jewish Radical Education Project (J-REP), with a small office and classroom in a building just off Union Square in Manhattan. During the Sixties the Students for a Democratic Society had formed an organization called the Radical Education Project, and my goal was to do something similar but with a Jewish outlook. The idea was to teach secular Jews to identify with the egalitarian values embedded in Jewish history as an alternative to either religious belief or loss of Jewish identity.

All of these groups had some success, but as time went on certain problems became evident. For one thing, most of the secular Jews I came to know were, like myself, aging veterans of involvement with one or another left wing cause. Few young people flocked to our banner, preferring either the path of religious Judaism or that of complete assimilation. For another thing, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the attitude towards Israel which I found in the secular Jewish community. Although many had visited Israel at least once and were basically supportive of Israel’s existence, there was a definite tendency to emphasize the negative side of things, to criticize and complain, echoing in a milder form the standard litany of anti-Israel accusations so prevalent elsewhere on the left. And when it came to opposing manifestations of anti-Semitism in the New York area, especially those associated with the Afro-American community, I found that most secular Jews had little or nothing to say.

Gradually it became apparent to me that if I really wanted to feel a part of a secular Jewish community, I had to move to Israel. Israel was founded by secular Jews and even today, after all the changes that have taken place, a clear majority of the members of the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, is composed of secular Jews. And whereas many secular Jews in the United States have a somewhat defensive, critical attitude toward the rest of the Jewish community, secular Jews in Israel have necessarily to cooperate with religious Jews to deal with the many threats which we all face. The emphasis is less on what divides us and more on what unites us, which I feel is the right approach. Both secular and religious Jews in Israel, each in our own way, are striving to affirm the traditional Jewish vision of a more equitable social order, and although I much prefer the secular to the religious way, I see us both as part of one Jewish nation, something which no longer exists in the Diaspora.

In short, I am a Zionist because I believe in the Jewish people. My study of history has convinced me that the Jewish people was the force behind the crypto-Jewish, semi-progressive ideologies of Christianity, Islam and Marxism, the three dominant ideologies of the modern world, but unfortunately all three assumed an anti-Semitic veneer in order to make their way in a world dominated by kings and tyrants. Moreover, my experience of Jewish life, which is extensive, has left me with a feeling of profound admiration and respect for my fellow Jews. Like they say, “Jews are like everyone else, only more so.” We have to be “more so,” because that is the only way that we can cope with the destiny which the Habiru bequeathed to us, the destiny to act as a “light unto the nations.” Israel is that light, and that is why I am a Zionist.



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