The Need for Progressive Zionism in Light of Charlottesville

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Chelsea Feuchs & Abe Silberstein

Chelsea Feuchs is the Communications Associate at ARZA, where Abe Silberstein works as the Development Assistant

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In Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists held their largest gathering in recent memory. They marched through the streets carrying guns and Confederate flags, proudly displaying swastikas and chanting Nazi slogans. Confrontations turned bloody and violent and, ultimately, deadly.


In response, the President of the United States issues a series of unsettling statements. The most powerful person in the country refused to unequivocally disavow neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists; then he succumbed to pressure to revise his stance, but only a day later backtracked entirely and drew moral equivalencies between Nazis and anti-Nazi protesters. A handful of known racists, and more who have played political footsie with racists as they advanced in their careers, are comfortably ensconced in the Administration. Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller (and until recently Steve Bannon) influence the Trump White House with their toxic views on race, immigration, and Islam, and fuel the unconscionable vitriol spewing from the president’s mouth. 


The chant of “You will not replace us” rings out so strongly in Virginia because it also pervades the current Administration. The same is true of the sister to this chant that specifically targets Jews.


"Jew will not replace us" is probably the perfect anti-Semitic rallying cry, encapsulating the fundamental essence and irrationality of this ideology. Nationalist rage directed at a small percentage of the population, Jews, is nothing new. The desire to ostracize and demonize Jews, excluding them from “the nation,” is what propelled Zionism in the 19th century. Although we have experienced an unprecedented level of acceptance as a people in contemporary America, the march in Charlottesville reminds us that this acceptance is not universal.


While it is doubtful the white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville enjoy anything close to the support of most Americans, or even the tacit support of a significant minority, they evidently do make up an enthusiastic element of this President’s base.  And the movement’s leaders, including David Duke, have been quoted as saying that “We’re going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump…take back our country.”


These chants echo the original motivations for Zionism. It is not unreasonable to be moved to support the Jewish State when swastika-clad men march through the streets chanting “blood and soil.” It is not unreasonable to look toward Israel when anti-Semitic rallies have historically led to violence against Jews. And it is not unreasonable to want the Israel that we look toward to embody the values of democracy, fairness, and equality. That is why now is precisely the time to support Progressive Zionism.


First, let’s define this phrase. Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people has a right to national sovereignty in our historic homeland. “Progressive Zionism” is the belief that this sovereign entity must embody the values of democracy, inclusion, equality, and fairness cherished in progressive society.


Progressive Zionism is under attack on nearly every side, but there has never been a more important time to advocate for an inclusive and democratic Jewish State. Hatred of Jews is openly on vulgar display, as the so-called alt-right views the genocide of our people with nostalgia and earnestly looks to Hitler’s statements for guidance.


At the same time, the Israeli Government is actively scorning Progressive Zionism and millions of Jews. The left remains dormant; despite the increasing likelihood of a criminal indictment against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the recent election of a young charismatic leader of the opposition Labor Party, the coalition of parties that have consistently backed Likud-led governments in recent years, including ultra-Orthodox parties, would still win an election today. Perhaps most hurtfully, Progressive Zionists also find ourselves rejected from the American left.


The Chicago Dyke March banned a rainbow flag with a white Star of David. The city’s SlutWalk followed suit, and many on the left have said explicitly that there is no room for Zionism (or Jews who support Israel’s right to exist) within their coalitions. It does not matter if those trying to march with the flags support an accountable and democratic Israel, donate exclusively to progressive NGOs, or speak out strongly against the occupation. Furthermore, it does not matter if those holding the flags are members of the LGBTQ community or have faced harassment or sexual violence themselves. No, only one litmus test has been used: regardless of any other value, experience, or work one does, Zionists need noy apply.

Those who support a progressive, inclusive Israel should be able to march for other causes they care about. It is unfair to utilize only Zionism as the strawman, disallowing activists room for political disagreement, especially at a time when those activists may feel personally threatened. When Jews stand in solidarity with other targeted groups, it is incumbent on liberal thinkers to allow space for a range of Jewish responses to anti-Semitism, including Progressive Zionism.


After the events in Charlottesville, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied to "unite the right," our reality is clearer than a Virginia summer sky: a Progressive Zionism that aligns itself with contemporary anti-racist and pro-equality movements is an absolute necessity.