Real, equitable social justice is only possible when social, political, and economic structures enable everyone within and proximate to them to live with safety, dignity, and agency. To many, Zionism is about just that: creating and sustaining a place in which Jewish safety and self-determination are assured.
Wherever in the world our people have been, we’ve borne the brunt of anti-Jewish oppression or woven it into collective memory. When I think about the vulnerability, fear, and pain that Jews have navigated across time and borders, my heart breaks. When I think about the courageous choices Jews have had to make to both survive and to eke out semblances of security, my heart swells with complicated pride. How do we both celebrate this resilience that has, for many, been channeled into Zionism, and also recognize and heal the “scars” that have accumulated within and among us because of intergenerational experiences of and warnings about anti-Semitism?
Those scars can mask and/or heighten our internalized anxiety and fear, activate the urgency of self-protection, and complicate our ability to discern between real and perceived threats — because we are constantly, necessarily, looking out for them, especially when it comes to Israel. This alchemy results in structures that are disrespectful, at best, and oppressive, at worst, which are framed as justifiable in the name of security but in fact project unhealed Jewish trauma onto minority communities. This undermines both holistic social justice for Palestinians, refugees, migrant workers, and other minorities — and sadly, by extension, the long-term safety and agency of Jews in Israel.
Israel is a symbol of and a means toward our own communal “justice,” but its structures do not currently enable everyone proximate to them to experience the kinds of dignity and agency described above. Our ability to see and deal with this hinges on becoming curious about three things: how we remain traumatized by the past, how that pain influences our advocacy about Israel and beyond, and what it means to truly heal.
From its inception, Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, was a political movement with social justice values incorporated in it. This should not come as a surprise, since Zionism stems from Judaism, which so strongly emphasizes social responsibility.
One of the most recurring principles in the Bible is the uncompromising obligation to take care of the weak and the poor and supply them with food and clothing. Countless mitzvot are aimed at increasing social awareness to the “foreigner, fatherless, and widow” as well as the underprivileged layers of society. A weekly day of rest for all workers and animals is embedded in the form of Shabbat, and there is a strict order from God to judge people justly and without bias.
In his literary prophecy Altneuland, Theodor Herzl foretells the establishment of Israel as a country that is characterized by its high degree of equality and freedom. Additional forefathers of modern Zionism like Jabotinsky (“and its foundation is equal rights for the people”) and Katznelson (“national, human, moral, and social bases are separable only in dictionaries”) proudly carried the social justice flag as well. The first Israeli communities, kibbutzim, took social equality to the extreme and fundamentally challenged the concepts of individualism and possession.
In practice, this utopian vision of the Zionist founders was not fully realized during the first decades of Israel’s existence. Among very progressive landmarks, like electing a female prime minister and abolishing anti-LGBT laws, there were policies that discriminated against Jews who immigrated to Israel from Africa and Asia. Today, however, Israel is highly advanced in the aspect of social rights, with national health care, education, social services, and laws against discrimination.
In my view, Zionism is synonymous with social justice. I cannot think of an ideal that is more historically and morally just than the establishment of a haven for one of the most ancient yet most persecuted peoples on earth, especially in the wake of the last century.