Reflections on White Zionism

Originally published on .

Images of Israeli exclusion, which Spencer claims to look to for guidance. Photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi. Whole image credit:

In a recent article by Ali Abunimah, Richard Spencer is quoted as saying he turns to Israel “for guidance”. Spencer advocates for an Aryan homeland in the U.S., which he describes as a “sort of white Zionism”.

In this article, Abunimah takes the opportunity to review a telling moment that occurred at a Spencer event in Texas last December. At this event, a rabbi in the audience challenges Spencer’s “message of radical exclusion”. He explains that his “tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love,” and invites Spencer to study Torah with him.

Spencer challenges the rabbi’s claim by asking if he really wants radical inclusion into the state of Israel, such that “maybe all of the middle east could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem”. Self-congratulatory that the rabbi doesn’t have a retort, he shares his rationale: The Jewish people are a people “precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles. It’s axiomatic.”

Spencer considers it axiomatic that survival of the Jewish people as a people relies on the (conveniently anti-Semitic) premise that we will only ever be safe if we are alone, separate, and isolated from our fellow human beings. Yet, such an argument can only be posited if Jewish identity is conflated with, or mistaken for, the political ideology of Zionism as it has manifested in the Israeli state and its ongoing expansion.

The crimes committed against the Palestinian people cannot be justified by ignoring thousands of years Jewish cultural survival, in far corners of the planet. Sure, some of that resilience has been a cause and consequence of the insularity of Jewish communities. Some of it has been imbued with spiritual longings for “Zion”. None of it is explained by the nationalistic aspirations for state power of the last 100 years.

A sound reply to Spencer’s challenge, and what the rabbi did not say, is that Jewish identity exists precisely to the extent that we have been able to access, participate in and help realize inclusion – of both individuals and communities – in the places where we reside and sometimes come to call home. Jews who publicly denounce and disassociate themselves from Israeli policies of exclusion, and therefore repression and state violence, don’t want a homeland for this people without a home. We, I, want to live in the world with our fellow human beings in dignity and respect.

The State of Israel, however, is built through ongoing displacement, siege, repression of media, and myriad other forms of violent exclusion. Defending, justifying or assuming the intrinsic need for this (exclusive) Jewish state hinders the ability to challenge white nationalism effectively.

Zionism and European/U.S. forms of white nationalism are birds of a feather. Their exclusive concerns for survival have the religious zeal of people who believe themselves to be chosen, wrapped tidily in the “scientific” racism of social Darwinism.

It is no surprise then that Zionism could be used to justify and reinforce the ideologies of the far right and white supremacy as they re-emerge in the West in the early 21st century.

Outside of the Zionist narrative, one of the historical and cultural aspects of European Jewish identity is our rootlessness. This is less the case for Arab Jewish identities because coexistence in that region had been much more stable until Zionist state building. The identities of cultural groups are not handed down or stable; they are constructed, and constantly redefined. They need not be guarded behind lock and key to remain ours; the contours and character of cultural identities emerge in relation to other communities, not despite them.

In today’s world of more displacement of people and communities since World War Two, the history of preserving and evolving Jewish identity in coexistence with others is indeed specific, but not rare. The specific, Jewish history of rootlessness that is mine is part of a deep and collective human history we are still in the process of writing – and is to be neither exceptionalized nor erased. It is to be honored and valued – as a way to make sense of the past in the present, and shed light on possibilities for a shared future.


Note: This 30-minute radio interview is a follow-up to the article above.

The time is now, but what time is it?

Some say it’s time to make America great again. Others say it’s time to manifest the promise of democracy this country holds. Still others (or maybe some of those people also) say it’s high time to take seriously the threat of global warming and the planet’s ability to sustain life. For the sake of brevity, I stop this list here.

There is a general sense that the time is now, but what time is it?

To a great degree, the dominant culture of today, and the world we live in that it has so greatly informed, was shaped by the Enlightenment Era and the French and American revolutions. I say that we live at a time no less significant. (It is perhaps even more significant in the sense of how tenuous life on planet Earth seems to have become since then.) The changes in the air and in every aspect of people’s lives – jobs to be had, homes being lost, access to quality formal education, police violence, domestic terrorism, environmental damage, policies coming out of the new administration – are not about perfecting something that’s working or even finding better ways of doing something: they involve some kind of awareness that “the way things are” is unacceptable, not the only way or that it doesn’t actually have to be this way.

It’s not only people’s actions that are changing, or even the thinking and feeling behind those actions: people’s beliefs about the way things are is changing. For example, there has been a surge in political engagement since the 2016 election process and outcomes. While this participation is being driven by assessments of what the problems are and how people feel about that, it’s also changing popular beliefs about what democracy is and how it operates. It’s not just that people are less complacent or have less faith that their government representatives are acting with their best interests in mind; the meaning of democracy is transforming to also be more participatory, dynamic and localized.

I call this kind of qualitative change a change of the third order.  It is the stuff of which paradigm shifts are made. A paradigm shift occurs when a paradigm no longer explains the facts.

Since the Enlightenment Era, more or less, we have lived in a “progressive” paradigm. It has been a time, so we thought, of economic and social progress. Of progressive politics. This linear understanding of time, history and possibility goes with the pursuit of development. The developing nation, human development and even sustainable development are all part of this current era, yet the concept of “progress” no longer seems to explain the facts.

Some people conclude that if pushing forward no longer makes sense or seems possible, then they want to go back to what they thought worked in the past – or was supposed to work – and do that again. But neither the economy nor history work like that. If options for going forward, going back, or continuing the way we are now all see untenable, what is it time to do instead?

I argue that the answer is so difficult to imagine, see or understand because it is so different. We are standing on the edge of a waning paradigm and on the brink of a new one that has not yet fully formed. It’s not quite here because we haven’t quite gotten there. We haven’t lived it yet; it’s entirely new.

If it is a time of profound, paradigmatic change, it is also a time of disorientation, of asking questions. Of not having answers or one Right Answer. It is a time of often not even knowing where to look for answers or if the answers we’re finding are useful. During the Enlightenment Era, popular conceptions of what it was possible to know and control, of law and what is valued, of the individual’s relationship to society transformed entirely while the political economy leapfrogged toward the representative democracies of capitalist/socialist national economies. It is time again to understand the limitations in knowing from which our very worldview emerges. It is time to try to understand the limitations of modern thought that shape our own contemporary, collective experience.

However, one of the fundamental differences this time is that even the ability to fully know, to have an answer, to feel control over our environment, has been disproven. There are no formulas or easy answers. That means it’s time to decipher what it is we are learning how to do together and who we can collectively become.  What must this change look like if we, or our descendants, are to live in a world able to support our individual and collective well-being? For that we will need to instill democratic practices made of the varied narratives that help us understand where we are collectively coming from and from which we can construct visions of a shared future.

It is time to develop, in words and deeds, ways for working effectively across differences, structural inequity and systems of exclusion – not maintaining or reviving these divisions. Myriad contemporary social struggles are leading the way, helping map this unknown terrain and shaping the way it is viewed. An awareness of this emergent, complex, dynamic worldview, and the transformative process we are in as a species, will allow us to engage with and participate in these changes as consciously and effectively as possible. It’s been a long, long time coming, and if it’s going to happen, the time is now.

If you’d like to participate in conversations about these ideas, two options are workshops and study groups.