Liberal Zionism and the ethnonational imperative

Liberal Zionists are terrified to hear Palestinians express a simple desire for equality.

Ashraf Amra APA images

I recently shared a stage with Columbia University professor Joseph Massad and listened to him vigorously condemn anti-Semitism, deconstructing with his characteristic acuity the problems of conflating Jewish peoplehood with the conduct of the state of Israel.

Zionists often usually charge Massad with a number of sins including anti-Semitism, accusations raised loudly in the context of a decade-long campaign of defamation that aimed to get him fired.

Massad’s predecessor at Columbia, Edward Said, once referred to himself, proudly, as a Jewish intellectual.

Said eloquently castigated any articulation of anti-Semitism and demanded that it be no part of Palestine’s national movement. Zionists often deemed Said anti-Semitic and spent countless hours attempting to get him fired, too.

Ali Abunimah, another Palestinian luminary, so robustly criticizes anti-Semitism that right-wing anti-Semites accuse him of being a covert Zionist, unaware perhaps that they’re reproducing a feature of Zionism.

Last week, Avi Mayer, an American settler in Palestine who works for the propaganda arm of the Israeli government-backed Jewish Agency, alleged anti-Semitism against Abunimah. Abunimah’s transgression was to insist that the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur not be conflated with a celebration of Israel.

A significant community of Palestinian intellectuals, journalists and activists loudly disdains anti-Semitism and desires democratic coexistence with Jews. Members of this community frequently sustain slander as anti-Semitic and are targeted for recrimination or even criminalization.

It makes no sense – except in the context of liberal Zionism, where it is perfectly sensible.

The horror of democratic coexistence

That Zionists accuse adamant critics of anti-Semitism of being anti-Semitic isn’t actually a disconnect; it is a vital feature of Zionism, especially visible in its liberal incarnations.

Take Mayer’s claim against Abunimah. It’s easy (and tempting) to dismiss it as the paranoid dishonesty of a dullard whose vapidity surpasses his acumen, or, if we are to be more generous, as the preening war cry of a professional colonizer, but Mayer’s duplicity is systematic.

We must take it seriously even if we cannot extend the same courtesy to its purveyor.

To make sense of this bizarre sensibility, we should explore how Zionist notions of anti-Semitism function in relation to iniquitous norms of citizenship in Israel.

According to the logic of settler colonization, anti-Semitism is located not in hatred of Jews, but in the refusal to accept Israeli iniquity.

Those who disassociate Israel from Judaism frequently field false accusations of anti-Semitism. Those accusations don’t generally result from misreading. It’s precisely the disassociation of Israel from Judaism that so disturbs people who view Zionism as an atavistic duty.

The Zionist ideal of a state exclusive to Jews, as defined by a theocratic bureaucracy, reduces culture and history to the fanciful motifs of ethnonationalism.

Jewish peoplehood is thus contingent on fealty to Israel. Delinking Jewishness from Zionism constitutes a grievous act of anti-Semitism. All forms of Zionism, no matter how progressive they sound, rely on that linkage.

When Palestinians support democratic coexistence, which requires equal rights and nonsectarian citizenship, they implicitly desire the end of Zionism.

When Zionists reduce Israel to emblems of cultural uplift (Jewish redemption, biblical fulfillment, ethnic refuge, enlightenment of other nations), they elide its presence as a state that behaves in relation to certain geopolitical realities. It becomes exceptional and sacrosanct. It fulfills the exclusive destiny of an anointed few, sorted from the unchosen through the blunt rites of biology. (All forms of ethnonationalism do the same.)

The state’s critics, then, are not seen to be maligning unjust policies, but as performing acts of cultural insensitivity.

The Palestinian menace

Those of Palestinian origin are especially prone (and vulnerable) to charges of anti-Semitism. Israel’s propaganda technique of conceptualizing Palestinians as beholden to inveterate Jew-hatred initiates the oft-repeated assertion that mindless violence motivates Palestinian resistance.

The technique also serves a more insidious purpose. For Zionism to function, Palestinians must disappear or become anti-Semitic.

The Palestinian who welcomes the opportunity to share a nation and a national identity with Jews exposes the irreconcilable contradiction of Zionism, that something called a “Jewish state” can also be a legitimate democracy.

The Palestinian puts the Zionist in the unusual position of exemplifying what the Palestinian is supposed to embody: tribalism, irrationality, belligerence, fanaticism, chauvinism, superstition.

It is easier to either ignore Palestinians or defame them based on the Zionist’s peculiar obsession with ethnic purity.

These ethical contortions make little sense to those with worldviews that accommodate compassion, but we’re dealing with ethnonationalism, which values group supremacy above all other considerations.

The necessity of liberal slander

In the months after being fired from a tenured professorship at the University of Illinois in August 2014, for condemning Israeli war crimes, I was periodically aggravated that some commentators were unwilling or unable to recognize that my supposedly anti-Semitic tweets actually defend Jews against essentialism.

In those tweets, I warn against conflating an entire community with the behavior of a nation-state busy showering civilians with bombs and chemical weapons, a warning I offer in much of my work.

Yet Cary Nelson, Todd Gitlin, Mira Sucharov, David Myers, Michelle Goldberg and other liberal Zionist academics and pundits all declared or suggested that I had disparaged Jews.

It was remarkably frustrating. These folks could obviously read, even if not competently. They all have impeccable credentials, but I tried not to hold that against them. I couldn’t understand their phonic malfunction until I forced myself to think like an apologist for ethnocracy.

The political identity of liberal Zionists is filled with acute incongruity. They cannot consume or disseminate ideas without the magical benefit of denial. Disassociating Judaism from Israel renders Zionism superfluous. That kind of disassociation requires one to rethink the commonplaces of Israel’s self-image. It is more convenient to outsource failures of imagination to the Palestinian.

The liberal Zionist must constantly choose between a self-professed commitment to democracy and protecting Israel’s reputation.

When pressed, the liberal Zionist always chooses to protect Israel’s reputation. That choice defines liberal Zionism.

The ethnonational imperative

This mentality is evident in, say, the asinine interpretation of Abunimah’s tweets and in the career-long nonsense Edward Said endured.

Every Palestinian activist or intellectual who delinks Zionism and Jewishness – which is to say, nearly all of us – suffers the conflicted rhetoric of colonizers pretending to be enlightened.

The problem isn’t that liberal Zionists ignore what Palestinian activists and intellectuals actually say. They listen closely, in fact. They’re merely terrified to hear the native express a desire for equality. If actualized, that desire would force the destruction of an ideology they refuse to abandon.

I term this phenomenon the ethnonational imperative, which explains spurious accusations of anti-Semitism not as an inability to comprehend the delinking of Zionism and Jewishness, but as an inclination to link them permanently and to punish those who do not.

It does little good for a victim of the ethnonational imperative to insist that he or she refuses to define a complex and multivalent community in relation to a perpetual human rights violator. Such insistence will only intensify accusations of anti-Semitism.

I have no pithy alternative on offer. I can only represent my own experience and identify which approaches suit me at the moment.

Others exist in different circumstances. I encourage them to think closely about strategies that allow them to continue speaking from positions of belonging and to retain the dignity of the Palestinian struggle.

I will no longer respond to accusations of anti-Semitism by appealing to my accusers’ sense of fairness or discretion. They don’t raise those accusations to foster reconciliation or dialogue, to use the favored parlance of the liberal Zionist. They do it to cause harm.

The impulse, even when unstated, is to center themselves as stewards of Palestine’s destiny. In the meantime, their recalcitrance prolongs heinous suffering.

I am willing to work out difficult ideas with ideological opponents, but I have no interest in forestalling the liberation of Palestine to accommodate the colonizer’s identity crisis.




Here is a compliment far afield of your important topics. I just finished reading Uncivil Rites. I always thought I was a fairly literate person but I had to look up many words in your book. So much for my vanity. Thanks for stretching my mind both in terms of Zionism and vocabulary. I believe a one state solution with equality for all is the only answer.


Nope. 2 states, or at least Israel and something else. It's the only way. And Israel needs to finish drawing our borders and then officially withdraw in every conceivable way from a future Palestine.


Sorry but the possibility of a two state solution was closed by Israel quite a while ago when they began their program of land theft.


Those charlatans and mountebanks can lie and obfuscate until they turn blue in the face. Their rank hypocrisy, racism and Torah desecration are apparent to all people of good will worldwide. Provided they take the time to study and consider the issue of Zionism and its wrongness.


"It was remarkably frustrating. These folks could obviously read, even if not competently."

It matters not how well they could read or how competently, you need not be frustrated. They know perfectly well what you mean but will not admit it lest their world crumbles. Consequently they feign anger and indignation in an attempt to discredit you. It is a well used and practiced tactic by Zionists be they Jews or not, it relies upon the wider public not having enough insight into their motives. Gain solace in the certain knowledge that Zionism will eventually only be a footnote, it is a great pity though that so many people will suffer in the meantime because of this selfish, primitive belief.


Dr. Salaita masterfully gets to the root of the Zionists' mental/emotional quagmire behind their inability to see their conflation between Judaism and Zionism. It's like their internal programming has been irrevocably set and any information coming into the system that would require a change or reassessment triggers a cascading panicked response that normally would only arise due to a dire threat to survival. This sorry state of being will probably remain until a tipping point comes when the majority of people and institutions around the world can see the Zionist delusion and call it out for what it is. Articles such as this one must be shared and disseminated widely, published, posted, repeated until this understanding becomes universally accepted as the obvious reality.


A disappointing read. You don't actually define what you mean when you talk about "liberal Zionism". Does this differ from conservative Zionism? Are we moving into an era of neo-liberal Zionism? In the same vein, the article is a very simplistic black-and-white approach to analysing Zionist ideology. The appalling generalisations you try to mask with convoluted language.
Did not like.


Nora Relteis, as you say, your problem is that you "Did not like" the piece. I advise you to try one more time to get it. But try harder, this time. Try until it hurts. What you need is a plain confrontation with unpleasant thruths. That is where the understanding lives. (Or else: try living in the Gaza Strip).


I don't believe you.
As far as I have travelled with academia, the paradigm has always been, when the facts change so should your opinion. This author, and you too by the looks of it, eguard, are so set on your opinion that trying to attain a remnant of the truth takes a backseat.Look, don't get me wrong, critiquing Zionism is wholly necessary for the 21st century. As there still hasn't been sustainable peace between Palestinians and Jews in the region, the ideologies of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism both need serious open-heart surgery.
Yet the views in this article are ridiculously black and white. Yeah, it would nice and simple if all Zionists were big, bad and horrible and all Palestinians were lovely, peace seeking people but fact is there are arseholes on both sides. Yet as far as this article is concerned the Pro-Pals can never put a foot wrong and Israel can never put a foot right.


No Nora, 1. "when the facts change so should your opinion" is not an academic approach. Academy don't do Opinion. And 2. there is no need to 'believe' me: another non-academic approach.

Already in your first post here you state that 3. you are missing definition(s), and 4. the approach is b/w. Well, these are mutually exclusive statements. 5. Your "don't like" is non-academic.

I don't need you 6. lecturing me about your truth. Then, moving away from your core points & questions, in this reply you say that 7. Salaita is "black/white", and right after that 8. you turn Zionism/Palestine *into* a simplified normalised singular ("both need") opposition.

All in all, you better leave out all "academic" from your claims & statements. You have not made two coherent statements. As for you opinion: dearly in need of a base.


Ethno-nationalists poison their opponents’ well not only, as you write, to harm, but also to silence them. By its nature, your piece spurns this feeble strategy. Moreover, it puts ethno-nationalists in an untenable position: We see, on the one hand, the implosive contradictions within their ideology and, on the other hand, many of their opponents’ passionate and consistent actions for justice in Palestine and around the globe.

Thanks for your writing,

Corning, NY


Thanking you Steven Salaita for your lucid critique of the Zionist State nationalism and its ideological supporters. Our Jewish national identity has been occupied by the Zionist parties. Our Jewish opposition to Zionism is now significant and growing internationally. From within and without Zionism is being reversed and will become a relic of a sad history. (Commenting from Nablus, Palestine)


I have a few comments on a thought provoking article:
'That Zionists accuse adamant critics of anti-Semitism of being anti-Semitic isn’t actually a disconnect; it is a vital feature of Zionism, especially visible in its liberal incarnations.'

It is a feature of all wings of Zionism. However what we are talking about is a different phenomenon from anti-Semitism of the traditional kind i.e. Jew hatred. It is a 'new anti-Semitism' - the hatred of a State that defines itself as Jewish. Problem is of course that racism is normally directed at human beings, not artificial human constructs such as states. Zionism however cannot decide whether it is a new form of 'anti-Semitism' - some like Robert Wistrich were its apostles. Others like Yehuda Bauer argue that anti-Zionism is the old-type of anti-Semitism.

Opposition to an ethno-religious state is transformed into opposition to the ethnicity itself. How is this done? By defining the state as the state of that ethnicity i.e. a Jewish state.

But we also need to understand the dialectical relationship between what is termed Jewishness and Zionism. There is a danger of locating being Jewish as an eternal, essential condition. Whereas Jewish identity has been a moveable feast for centuries. It is not, like all identities, static. Zionism is possibly the last Jewish identity in its most reactionary form. Zionism has colonised or attempted to colonise Jewish identity, hence those who are Jewish anti-Zionists must hate themselves i.e. their race (a Nazi concept).

Hence the rituals and the essence of the Jewish religion are at the service of the State. It has become, for the most part, a state religion.

This also means that a large part of the diaspora is in danger of being lost to Zionism and therefore to being Jewish. The rate of 'marrying out' in the US diaspora is over 50%. The time will soon come when Israel will constitute the majority of Jews.


@MJayRosenberg's twitter masthead said, March 2015: "I absolutely believe there must be a Jewish state in Palestine, but within '67 lines, with Jerusalem shared. No Jewish settlements in West Bank. Free Gaza." (printscreen available).

Note that he says "'67 lines" not borders. And I think the "No Jewish settlements" was added to pass the check for Liberalness. As in: 'Apart from Israel proper, I'm not racist'.


Dr Salaita states that: "A significant community of Palestinian intellectuals, journalists and activists .................................. desires democratic coexistence with Jews." Perhaps in his next article, he could say more about this community and what it considers democratic coexistence involves.