Friday, July 1, 2016

Why I avoid the word "Zionism"

"If you would converse with me, define your terms." -- Voltaire

The word "Zionism" is used online in so many different ways nowadays -- often with totally conflicting definitions -- that I believe it has become useless for any kind of real dialogue.

The Meriam-Webster dictionary defines Zionism as "an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel." The Jewish Virtual Library has a more expanded version of this definition, which is pretty standard in the mainstream Jewish community.  Zionism was, and still is, primarily a political movement.

But in addition to this positive version, adds a secondary negative definition for Zionist that is all too common online: "A substitute word for Jew used by antisemites who, for whatever reason, wish to hide their racist intent."  And I have indeed come across people who use it that way, often the same people who use expressions like "jew the price down."  But is every criticism of Israel or Zionism automatically racist?  And are Jews and Zionists always synonymous?

On the other side, there are those who argue that Zionism itself is a racist ideology.  Again, what exactly does that mean?

Hitler defined Jews as a race, but he was hardly an authoritative source.  Biologically, Jews are not a race.  Anthropologically, Jews are more like a tribal people, with the "12 Tribes" actually being 12 clans within a tribe.  Converting to Judaism is more like being adopted into a tribe than just taking on a "religion."  So many people of all races and nationalities have done that over the centuries that Jews now come in every possible race and nationality.  So what, exactly, is meant by "Zionism is racism?"  What "race" would it be promoting?

As you can see, we are already in a tangle of confusion, and it doesn't end there.  Still others talk of a conspiracy theory where a secret organization called "The Elders of Zion" or "Zionist Occupying Government" (ZOG) is supposedly controlling the world (or the media, or the banks, or Congress, or Hollywood, or whatever else people are mad about at the moment.)

So,  for my Twitter and Facebook readers who are constantly asking me where I stand on the subject of Israel and Zionism, here's a brief rundown of the various ways the word is used, and why I now shy away from using "Zionist" altogether.

Nathan Birnbaum
Where does the word "Zionism" come from, anyway?

The term Zionism was coined by Nathan Birnbaum in 1890.  Birnbaum was an Austrian journalist and freethinker who played a major role in the First Zionist Congress, but, ironically, he did not remain in the Zionist movement.  His life had three main phases, representing a progression in his thinking: 1) A Zionist phase; 2) a Jewish cultural autonomy phase which included the promotion of the Yiddish language; and 3) a religious phase when he turned to Orthodox Judaism and became staunchly anti-Zionist. (More on anti-Zionist Jews below.)

 The word "Zion" itself was taken from the name of Mount Zion, a hill in Jerusalem, but the exact location has shifted in the minds of the people over time.  (The Wikipedia page discusses three different sites.)   The Prophet Isaiah referred to Zion as being synonymous with Jerusalem, the seat of government in the time of King David, and prophesied that:

Many peoples will come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. God will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in God's paths." The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3)

This quote and others like it in the Bible may partially account for the antisemitic idea that Jews are out to rule the world.  However, the Jewish interpretation is that A) this is something that will happen in messianic times and B) the people will voluntarily "walk in God's paths," not be forced to convert to Judaism.  Jews do not have missionaries like some other religions do.  (For more on the Jewish concept of the Messianic Age, read here. Jews also do not believe everyone must be Jewish in order to be saved. You can find God through your own religion.)

It is important to keep in mind that Isaiah was preaching at a time when the Jews had been conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians.  So what he was prophesying was a return to self-rule, a future time of peace when the nations of the world would "beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4) 

And is that not the hope of most people on earth, to have world peace?

Is criticizing Israel always antisemitic?

Not if you are criticizing specific policies.  Israelis themselves are quite critical of their own government and society, as anybody who reads the Israeli press certainly knows.  Unfortunately these criticisms do not get much coverage in the mainstream American press, but if you follow publications like The Jewish Daily Forward, the English version of the Jerusalem Post, or Haaretz you will see a wide diversity of opinions on Middle East affairs.

In Israel and the Jewish community at large, "Zionism" has a lot of different meanings, the same as "Americanism" means different things to different Americans.  There are religious Zionists, secular Zionists, left-wing Zionists, right-wing Zionists, militant Zionists, pacifist Zionists, Green Party Zionists --  and everything in between.

There are even non-Jewish Zionists, often Christians who support Israel as fulfillment of  the "Holy Land" prophecies in their own religion.  (Read more on Christian Zionism.)  However, not all Christian groups agree with this stance, and many actively oppose it.

As you can see, all of these different kinds of Zionists have a lot of differences among themselves --and often criticize each other quite strongly.

On the other hand, if you oppose the very existence of Israel and call for its total destruction, then you will be perceived as antisemitic as well as anti-Israel.  Calling for the destruction of any country is taken as a threat of war -- and what country would sit by and calmly let themselves be annihilated? In the same vein, what country would not fight back if people were lobbing bombs over the border? What country would not arrest people who throw stones or knife civilians on the street?  Here is not the place to go into the Israel-Palestinian conflict, but it is important to keep in mind that even in this conflict, there is a wide variety of opinions.  So the rule of thumb seems to be to criticize policies of Israel all you want, but don't deny the right of Israel to exist.

What about anti-Zionist Jews?  Who are they?

It may be hard to believe today, but Zionism was not met with great enthusiasm by most Jews in its early days.  The majority of rabbis objected to the idea of establishing a secular state, believing that to do so without the Messiah was blasphemy.  The original Zionists were, with very few exceptions, secularized Jews who no longer observed "the religion," although they felt connected to the Jewish people as a culture.

At the time, many Europeans thought of Jews as a bunch of homeless parasites, (the old "wandering Jew" stereotype) and antisemitism was on the rise.  The early Zionists believed that if Jews had a country of their own, then the non-Jews would see them as simply another nationality like Irish or French, and antisemitism would cease to exist.

Unfortunately that did not work.  Antisemites simply transferred their hatred for "the Jews" to "the Zionists," carrying over all the old negative stereotypes from one to the other.  More on that later.

Satmar Hasidim protesting the Israeli draft
After World War II, when the State of Israel became a reality, most Jews ceased to oppose it.  However, there are still some very Orthodox groups, most notably the Satmar Hasidim, who do not recognize the State of Israel as a "Jewish" state, but see it the same as any other secular government they have lived under in the past.  These groups do not object to living in Israel -- some families have been in Jerusalem for centuries -- but they are opposed to Zionism as such and refuse to serve in the Israeli army. (More on that...)

In the past these anti-Zionist groups were marginalized in the Jewish community, but since the advent of the Internet you can find them posting on Facebook and Twitter.  On March 3, 2015, 3000 Satmar Jews protested in NYC against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech claiming he spoke for all Jews.  They do not see Israel or Netanyahu as representing them.

Some anti-Zionist Orthodox rabbis go so far as to say that Zionists are not true Jews -- a stance I disagree with, because halachah (Jewish law) does not define Jewishness according to one's politics.  According to Jewish law, if your mother is Jewish or if you have formally converted, then you are Jewish, period, regardless of your level of religious observance and/or politics.

Display of Religious Zionist yarmulkes
However, there are some Jews who practice what they call "religious Zionism," a more recent movement that combines the biblical idea of the Holy Land with the present government.  An old saying has it that "God, the Torah, and Israel are one."  The "Israel" here refers to the Jewish people, after the new name, Israel, given to Jacob by the angel. (Genesis 35:10.)  Religious Zionists re-define it as referring to the State of Israel, giving it a nationalist twist.  Some go so far as make loyalty to Israel as a requirement for being a good Jew.  The anti-Zionist Orthodox groups, on the other hand, see this as a heresy.

There are also non-Orthodox and secular anti-Zionist Jews.  These are individuals who are opposed to the occupation of Palestinian lands, and who see Israel as an extension of Western colonialism.  This is, of course, a very simplistic definition, because there are also Zionist groups that oppose the Occupation, such as J Street and others.  Opposing the Occupation does not automatically make one into an anti-Zionist.  It may, however, get you called a "self-hating Jew" by the mainstream Jewish press.

What about the "Elders of Zion" who secretly rule the world? 

They don't exist!  There is no secret cabal of Jewish Illuminati or ZOG conspiracy "shadow government."  The idea dates to a  book called The Protocols of the meetings of the learned Elders of Zion (called The Protocols for short) published in Russia in 1903.  The book, which claims to be the minutes from a secret meeting of these "Elders," is a proven forgery that also contains a lot of plagiarism from other non-Jewish sources.   (The Wikipedia page on this topic goes into more detail about this plagiarism.)  Nevertheless the book was promoted by Hitler, and more recently has been passed around in both Arab and white supremacist circles.

Typical ZOG cartoon implying that Jews
control the American government
Anybody who knows anything about real Judaism can immediately see that The Protocols is not only a vicious forgery, it is ludicrous in terms of style and dialogue.  Unfortunately there are still gullible people who believe anything they read, and with the advent of the Internet, a lot of old junk -- much of it long discredited -- is getting resurrected from the past and posted.  And since the Net is worldwide, people on the other side of the world who have never met a Jew and have no historical context for this bogus text sometimes mistake it for fact.

Among other things, this book is a source of the false definition of the Hebrew word goy as meaning "pig" or "subhuman" for non-Jews.  (More than ironic, since the white supremicists who distribute The Protocols consider Jews and non-white races to be inferior and see themselves as a "master race .")

The word goy simply means "nation" in biblical Hebrew and occurs 550 times in reference to both Jews and gentiles.  Genesis 10:5 uses it in a neutral way applying to non-Israelite nations.  In Genesis 12:2 God promises Abraham that his descendants with be goy gadol, "a great nation."  Exodus 19:6 refers to the Jewish people as goy kadosh, a "holy nation." The prophet Isaiah uses it universally when he prophesies that "nation (goy) shall not lift up sword against nation (goy) neither shall they learn war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4)

While it is true that in recent years goy has sometimes been used as an insult (same as "Jew" is used by some people as an insult), that is vulgar street usage and not the true meaning of the word.  However, many Jews nowadays shy away from using it to avoid misunderstanding, and prefer "gentile" or "non-Jew" instead. (Most of the time when I see it online it is being thrown at me by antisemites trying to look informed about Jews.  Again pretty ironic.)

On the other hand, the recently-coined term "goysplaining" is sometimes used, meaning when a non-Jewish "expert" explains Jewish beliefs/issues to a Jew and gets it wrong. (read more on that...)

So where do I stand on all this?

As I said above, the word "Zionism" is now used in so many different ways that it confuses more than clarifies.  Therefore I try to avoid it altogether.  But if you insist, then politically I have  called myself a "non-Zionist."  Zionism and the State of Israel simply do not play much of a role in my Jewish identity, which centers more on God, spirituality, and love of humanity, rather than on nationalism.  I have no theological objection to the existence of the State of Israel, but I do not see it as the fulfillment of messianic prophecies, either. The land of Israel is holy, but the State, to me, is a secular government.  As such it can be criticized and questioned the same as any other government.

(This article was updated on January 11, 2017 by the author)

Monday, May 23, 2016

In praise of dandelions!

Why would I be praising dandelions?  Aren't they the bane of every homeowner with a lawn?  Yes, if you want to maintain a total monoculture in your yard.  But nature abhors monocultures, and will do everything she can to diversify them. Perhaps it is time for us to rethink the way we use the land around our homes.

Early-blooming flowers like dandelions are a major source of spring food for bees, butterflies, and other pollenators.  With the current bee shortage in many parts of the world, these insects need all the help they can get.  So I let the dandelions alone until they are done blooming, then mow them down. Sure, that spreads the seeds around -- but since I want dandelions, that's no problem for me.  After all, a "weed" is by definition simply a plant growing where you don't want it.

Our street number in spring
Granted, I live out in the country, where the philosophy pretty much is "if it's green, its a lawn."  In more controlled suburban neighborhoods you might have a hard time convincing your neighbors to let you have a lawn full of dandelions -- but then again, that's why I don't live there.  Nature is more important to me than social status.  If you visit me in the spring, you will likely be greeted with hundreds of these bright yellow flowers dotting the landscape.

Dandelions are also nutritious. In fact, they were brought to the USA as a vegetable by the French. ("Dandelion" comes from the French dent de leon, "Lion's Tooth," named or the jagged edges of the leaves.)  Old herbals prescribe them as a cure for scurvy, and recommend eating as many leaves as you can find in the spring.  Good advice at a time when people didn't understand about Vitamin C deficiency.  But they did know that the plants leafed out very early and the cure worked.

You need to pick dandelion greens before the plants flower, however.  Once the blooms appear, the whole plant gets very bitter -- so bitter, in fact, that I've known nature-oriented Jews to use them for the "bitter herbs" at the Passover Seder instead of the usual horseradish. (Which is perfectly kosher -- the Torah says "bitter herbs" but does not name a species.)

My chickens and geese also know the value of dandelions as food, and will choose them over other greens. Here you see two geese gobbling down fresh dandelion leaves, while ignoring the grain feed they've been eating all winter.  They know good nutrition when they see it!

Dandelions can also be used to make dandelion wine.  There are a lot of good recipes online, but one thing they may not tell you is to use the yellow petals only!!! The first time I tried it, I used whole dandelion heads and ended up with a bitter brew that only a masochist would care to drink.  That's because the green base of the flower (called the calyx) has the same bitter taste as the stems.  Having learned my lesson, I now use only petals.  The easiest way to prepare these is to hold the flower head in one hand and cut off the yellow ends of the petals with a scissors. A bit tedious, but you'll have a far better wine.

If nothing else, I find dandelions to be a welcome, happy greeting in spring after a long Minnesota winter.  Like little yellow smiley faces, telling me to come out of hibernation -- spring is here!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On heroes and political correctness: Nobody's perfect!

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about removing the names of political figures from various monuments, schools, and buildings, because the people so honored are not politically correct by 21st century standards.  For example, there was the recent demand by some students at Princeton University to rename the Woodrow Wilson public policy school because of Wilson's "racist" attitudes.  Students claimed that the very presence of Wilson's name was offensive and made them feel "unsafe." In the end, the board of regents at Princeton decided to keep the name but also do more education and discussion about Wilson's mixed legacy.

In my opinion, this was the right choice.  Wilson, like everyone else on earth, was not perfect.  He is best known as the 38th U.S. President, who helped found the League of Nations, and also received a Nobel Prize.  But it is also true that he supported and encouraged segregation.  However, nobody would argue that Wilson is being honored at Princeton for his racism.  That was a flaw in his personality that we can justly criticize.  But to allow this flaw to overwrite and erase all the good he did is, in my opinion, taking things too far.  If we start doing that, where will it end?

Charles Lindbergh & his plane, 1927
In Minnesota, where I live, Charles Lindbergh's name probably crops up as often as Wilson's at Princeton.   He is fondly remembered as the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in his little single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.  In 1957, a film by that name was released, with James Stuart playing the role of Lindbergh.  There's a Charles A. Lindbergh State Park and a Charles A. Lindbergh Historic Site, both in Little Falls, MN, where he spent his childhood.  Then there's the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, where a terminal is named after him, and a reproduction of his plane (one used in the film) is on display.  The original plane is at the Smithsonian's Aeronautics and Space Museum.  Clearly, this daring flight is why we remember and honor Lindbergh.

But there is a dark side to this story.  Lindbergh was also a Nazi sympathizer and an antisemite -- a fact that was recently well-documented in the PBS American Experience segment, Fallen Hero: Charles Lindbergh in the 1940s.  In 1936, Lindbergh visited Nazi Germany and was so impressed with the country's industry and revitalized economy that by 1938 he and his family were making plans to move to Berlin.  Also in 1938, Lindbergh was awarded the Service Cross of the German Eagle for his contributions to aviation -- presented by Hermann Goering on behalf of the Fuehrer.  Lindbergh became so convinced that Hitler would inevitably win the war, he advocated for America to follow an isolationist policy and stay out of it.  And he blamed the Jews for getting us into it.

As a Jew myself, I most certainly do find this side of Lindbergh offensive.  But I do not feel "unsafe" in the Lindbergh Terminal because of it.  Nor do I advocate erasing his name from our history or renaming the terminal.*  As with Wilson, Lindbergh is not being honored for his racism.  I see him as a genius in one area, and a flawed human being in other areas.  

Insisting that historical figures of the past must stand up to the scrutiny of 21st-century values is a very slippery slope.  For that matter, a lot of modern heroes don't measure up in every way, either. If we insist that all of our heroes be absolutely perfect, then we shall soon have no role models at all.  Sometimes it is necessary, as Rabbi Meir in the Talmud once said, to keep the kernel and throw away the chaff.

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*Although in a way it was renamed, as Terminal 1, because apparently out-of-state people could not distinguish between the Lindbergh Terminal and the Humphrey Terminal and got lost.  But apparently they can tell the difference between 1 and 2.  As of this writing, there is currently a movement to rename Lindbergh Terminal-1 after Prince: see

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See also my Nov 20, 2017 article, Franken's Apology: A Jewish Perspective, which explores the question of repentance and forgiveness for flawed leaders (and the rest of us, too.).