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The Death Of Liberal Zionism

Above photo: A view of destroyed Al Amin Muhammad Mosque hit by Israeli airstrike, in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza Strip on October 08, 2023. Abed Zagout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

Rabbi Shaul Magid on Israel’s descent into genocidal fanaticism.

Liberal Zionism, the notion that Israel’s existence can be compatible with liberal values, has run its course. As Israel’s genocide in Gaza continues despite the outcry of the world and the International Court of Justice, it is clear that any hopes of earlier generations to build a humanistic society in Israel have failed.

Israel has long legitimized itself by purporting to be necessary for the protection of Jewish people from antisemitism. But Judaism and Jewish identity are far older than Zionism, and far more diverse than Zionism’s narrow claims to monopolize the meaning of faith and ancestry. Rabbi Shaul Magid joins The Chris Hedges Report for a discussion on how religious fanaticism has come to dominate Israeli politics, and how a Jewish identity that rejects Zionism can be constructed from the rich and profound history of the Jewish faith and people.

Transcript

Chris Hedges:  Has Zionism, especially liberal Zionism, exhausted itself? The humanistic constructs of liberal Zionism are always in conflict with itself because of its refusal to grant Palestinians equal civil and political rights and has led many Israelis to embrace a far more chauvinistic and fanatic religious Zionism. What does this mean for Israel? And as important, what does this mean for Judaism? The Zionist movement which became a dominating force with the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, has sought to shut out Jewish critics of Zionism. It not only maligned Jews who did not embrace Zionism but labels them “anti-Jews,” “self-hating Jews,” or “counter-Jews.” This war within Judaism, between those who put Israel at the center of Jewish identity and those who do not, has ripped apart the Jewish collective. As Rabbi Shaul Magid writes, “The Talmudic sages teach that the heretic is actually worse than the idolater. In their estimation, unlike the idolater, the heretic subverts Judaism from the inside.”

Rabbi Magid goes on to argue that the demand for the full Zionization of American Jewry is an attempt to brand all who do not give their primary loyalty to the state of Israel as heretics or apostates. This battle within Zionism raises crucial questions: What role does exile play in Jewish belief? What role does the state of Israel play in Jewish belief? Is Zionism the only true refuge for Jews? Are Jews who reject Zionism and Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, who embrace lives outside of Israel, upholding or defying Jewish tradition? Is the nation’s state the best or the healthiest collective structure for Jews? Is a Jewish homeland, known by Jews as the land of Israel, connected to sovereignty? Judaism existed long before the concept of sovereignty and the land of Israel has been the homeland of the Jews for millennia without sovereignty. Is the concept of homeland dependent on statehood or even residents in Israel? Or is this concept, in its origins, a theological concept? Joining me to discuss Zionism and its relationship to Jewish belief is Rabbi Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, as well as the author of The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance.

I read your book and loved it. As you know, I went to Harvard Divinity School and came out of a Presbyterian household. One of the things that I watched and have some sense you’re reacting to as well, is especially during crises like the Vietnam War, what a large percentage of Christian clergy were willing to sanctify war, and sanctify the American state. My father was in the anti-war movement; Those who challenged the sanctification of state power were rapidly marginalized, not only within the society but often within the institutional church as well. Are you writing about much the same phenomena?

Shaul Magid:  First of all, thanks for having me. I appreciate it and it’s an honor for me to be here. To some degree, there is an intersection between religion and politics that emerges through Zionism that hadn’t existed for Jews for a very long time before that. Navigating those very, very complicated waters of politics, especially when you’re dealing with – As politics almost always does – Ruling over other people, religion often comes in to challenge the political and then is sometimes used to confirm the political. That’s part of what the relationship between Zionism and Judaism is today. What role does the political play within the history of Judaism in exile? The assumption that I begin with is that the Jews still live in a state of exile, whether they live in the land of Israel or whether they live in the diaspora. The distinction between diaspora and exile is an important one, it’s an important part of the book.

Chris Hedges:  Explain that concept.

Shaul Magid:  Diaspora is a descriptive term, it means dispersion. It was created by the Greeks, maybe to refer to the Jews or maybe not. But in any event, it’s something that doesn’t have much value to it; It’s simply the existence of people who are living outside of a homeland. Whereas exile is a theological term. It’s not a descriptive term, it’s an existential term. The idea is that somehow the covenant as it exists is not in a state of fulfillment but in a process of becoming. And that is not something that is only part of Judaism. I argue that exile is at the very center of Judaism. Judaism as we know it today is born in exile and is, in many ways, a response to it.

Chris Hedges:  And flesh that out, the idea that you could live in the Jewish homeland, as it’s called, and yet be in a state of exile.

Shaul Magid:  Exile simply means – Certainly from the traditional perspective – A state of becoming; It means a state of not yet, it means a state of existing outside of the fulfillment of the covenantal promise that’s made by the prophets. So in a way, the end of exile merely is in the prophetic imagination. The end of exile is simply the coming of the Messiah and since Jews don’t believe that the Messiah has come, they’re living in a state of exile. Zionism, to some degree, challenges that by making the claim that one could end exile without its messianic fulfillment. That’s part of what Zionism sought to accomplish in establishing a sovereign Jewish nation-state.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about Zionism as a movement – At its inception a very marginal movement, but now a very powerful movement. You write in the book that liberal Zionism hasn’t had a new idea in almost 40 years. But let’s talk about Zionism and its interplay now within Judaism.

Shaul Magid:  Zionism emerged in the late 19th century in Europe as a response to what became known as the “Jewish question” which was the new antisemitism that emerged after the emancipation of the Jews and the unwillingness or resistance of European society to fully integrate the Jews and question whether Jews could be integrated into European society. It goes back to Marx’s famous essay on that question, and Herzl then wrote another essay in 1897, which asks the question again. So Zionism emerged as a Jewish movement of liberation based on Western European nationalism, as a way to solve the Jewish question. To say that since there’s no solution to the Jewish question in Europe, the only solution is for the Jews to become a normal nation that is with a land, a language, and a country.

The way to do that was to establish a Jewish nation-state. Whether it was going to happen in the historic land of Israel or not was another question but that seemed to be the obvious place. Although it contains certain deep problems that we’re still facing in 2024, which is what do you do with the fact that there are other people living there? In any event, Zionism as a solution to a European Jewish problem – And it was a European Jewish problem – Was made more powerful by the collapse of Europe by the 1880s, 1890s, and certainly by the 1930s, when it became impossible or extremely dangerous for Jews to continue to live in Europe. Zionism became the alternative. There were many other alternatives at the time. That was the most reasonable, although certainly not the easiest alternative.

Chris Hedges:  You write that Zionism buttresses antisemitism. Explain that idea.

Shaul Magid:  Buttresses or there’s a complicated relationship between Zionism and antisemitism. Herzl knew that and said in a diary entry that the antisemites could be some of our best advocates. In a way, what Herzl was saying to the antisemites is, I have a solution to the Jews: I’ll take them out of Europe and put them in a nation-state somewhere far away in the Middle East. And for a lot of European antisemites, that was a perfectly fine solution, especially given colonialism. So one of the big questions that is asked these days is, is Israel a settler-colonial project or a colonial project? That’s something that can be debated, but it can’t be debated that Zionism benefited from colonialism.

The idea that we can establish a Jewish nation-state of mostly European Jews, although Jews from the Arab land certainly came at the establishment of the state, in a part of the world that was being colonized by Europe, in a certain way made perfect sense. In a way, Zionism was able to be as successful as it was for a number of reasons: First of all, it focused on the land of Israel which spoke to the historical and theological aspirations of Jews. Second of all, Europe began to crumble and it became necessary; almost like an emergency situation. But there were problems that were inherent in Zionism from the beginning that we’re still living with and we’re seeing the fruits of today.

Chris Hedges:  You talk about Zionism as… One of the core manifestations of the ideology is that it posits that Israel or the Jewish state makes you safe, you’ll never be safe in the diaspora. You break down antisemitism into three parts. I can’t remember whether you got that from Hannah Arendt or whether that’s your own formulation, but explain. And the levels of danger from antisemitism are determined by those three different forms or expressions of antisemitism.

Shaul Magid:  Yeah, I borrow it from Arendt, but Arendt uses it in her essay, Reflections on Little Rock, about racism. There are three forms of racism, what she calls the individual, the social, and the political. She makes the claim that… I don’t want to get into the Little Rock article about racism but what I’m saying is that there are various forms of antisemitism. There are people who don’t like Jews for whatever reason, but their dislike of Jews remains very much within their private sphere; She calls it private, social, and political. Then there’s social antisemitism which extends out of the private sphere into the social sphere, for example, like summer camps and country clubs and all things like that. Then there’s political antisemitism that becomes part of the political culture, and for Arendt on the racism question, it’s only when racism becomes political that it becomes dangerous.

I was trying to bring that to the question of antisemitism to show that the difference between European antisemitism before the war and antisemitism that exists in the US today, is that in the US, antisemitism rarely reaches the level of the political. It stays much more in the individual and social sphere, which is not to say that’s not a problem but it doesn’t necessarily curtail the ability for Jews to live as Jews in the US. Which is why I say in the book that I don’t feel like Jews in America are oppressed.

Chris Hedges:  Arendt also, when she writes about antisemitism, talks about the difference between vice and crime. She writes in Origins of Totalitarianism that Marcel Proust perhaps explicated the nature of antisemitism better than anyone else in France at the turn of the century. Of course, Jews before the Dreyfus affair are invited into the salon as exotic figures, Swan being an example after Dreyfus. This is Alfred Dreyfus the officer who was falsely accused of – He’s Jewish – Selling secrets to the Germans, you see Jews shunned. But she says that for a crime to be explicated, you can serve time or you can be punished. Whereas when you’re infected with the vice of “Jewishness” or whatever, racism, that can never be washed away. That it’s always there. Can you talk a little bit about that idea of antisemitism?

Shaul Magid:  Yeah. In a certain way, she’s getting that a little bit perhaps from Max Nordau who calls antisemitism a disease. It’s the same basic idea. She uses this category of what she calls “eternal antisemitism” which she uses critically because she doesn’t feel like antisemitism could be understood if it’s understood as an eternal hatred. Although a lot of scholars of antisemitism make that argument. What I tried to do in that chapter on antisemitism, is play off Arendt’s long, unfinished article that she wrote on antisemitism and also the part of her totalitarianism on The Origins of Totalitarianism and Antisemitism, is that we have to understand it within a particular historical context, and we can’t call everything the same thing. We can’t use this umbrella term to define how Jews were thought about in Christian Europe, how Jews were thought about in Muslim lands, how Jews were thought about in America, or how Jews were thought about by Palestinians in Israel.

If you’re going to use the term antisemitism as a catch-all for hatred of the Jew or Yudin, as it was called in Germany, she feels like we’re not understanding the phenomena. We’re weaponizing it. So she took antisemitism very seriously, as we all do. She felt like not understanding it and by not only not understanding it but attempting to claim that it’s everywhere and always, whether there are Jews or whether there are no Jews, is a problem in terms of understanding the phenomena.

Chris Hedges:  I want to talk about your own experiences in Israel. You grew up in a counterculture environment and you ended up in Yeshiva Meah Shearim, which is this Orthodox religious section of Jerusalem, where you served in the IDF – These were formative experiences in terms of your understanding both of Israel and Judaism. Can you explain?

Shaul Magid:  Yeah. I was a wandering Jew, so to speak; Someone who grew up in a middle-class, counter-cultural environment, went to Israel, and was completely taken in by the country and also by the religion. So I sought out the most extreme form of the religion of Judaism and ended up in the ultra-Orthodox world of Meah Shearim, which was very anti-Zionist but that didn’t concern me at that point. I was looking to live some alternative lifestyle, I suppose. And I found, in ultra-Orthodoxy, a great way to exist and be part of a parallel world. I became disenchanted with it over the course of time because my liberal or even progressive proclivities started to bump up against a very deep sense of, for lack of a better term, misogyny, and racism.

I felt like ultra-Orthodoxy was trying to maintain or retain the past. What originally drew me to settler Zionism or the Zionism of Rabbi’s Kook is that it was a Judaism that was looking toward the future. That’s how I understood my own experience: living in a society that was trying to preserve the past versus a society that was trying to create a future. I became very drawn into that future-looking society until I began to see its underside in terms of how it understood the other people that were living there and the fact that the Arabs and the Palestinians were not considered part of that future vision.

Chris Hedges:  You call it “a holy land fantasy.” What do you mean?

Shaul Magid:  Yeah. It was a holy land fantasy. In the days when I was there in the 1980s, it was a fantasy, the way it isn’t now. For example, you were able to drive to the beach in Gaza, you were able to go to Ramallah or go to Nablus, and go to the marketplace. You were footloose in the land of Israel. There were people there who did not like you and maybe wished you harm, but at that time there were very few who were willing to do that. That changed after the first Intifada in 1989. But before that, there was a sense of someone coming from the US living in some kind of a fantasy.

Chris Hedges:  I’m going to read this passage and then you can talk about the IDF. “I did not lose my Zionism in left-wing protests, I lost my Zionism in the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force. It was there that I witnessed the depths and intractability of ethno-national chauvinism. It was there that I understood what longtime leader of the Jewish National Fund and lifelong Zionist, Yosef Weiss, said long ago in his diary popularized in the 2021 film Blue Box, ‘The Arabs will never forgive us for what we have done to them.’” Talk about the IDF and that experience.

Shaul Magid:  Not everybody, but a lot of people, in the IDF, are confronted with the realities of what it means to dominate another society in ways that Israelis who are not serving in the IDF don’t experience. Many serve in the IDF, and what I came to realize is that when you are walking through a Palestinian village fully armed with a loaded gun, and you see the hatred in the eyes of the children towards you, you start to understand it. You are dominating their lives, you are humiliating their father, you’re arresting their brother – There’s a sense of hatred that is palpable and not only palpable but from my perspective, fully understandable. And if I would’ve been in their situation, I would’ve felt the same way.

I came out of that experience even with all of the rationalizations that we were taught: this is necessary for security and so on and so forth. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean that the domination is any more excusable and that the hatred is any more unreasonable. So that’s where the fantasy cracked: When I realized for me to live the fantasy of life in the land of Israel, means that I have to control the movement of other people. And that suddenly seemed to me inexcusable.

Chris Hedges:  You write in the book about how the Holocaust is taught in Jewish education. You said it’s instilled a sense of permanent existential crisis. What political scientist, Ian Lustick calls “Holocaustia,” creating a perpetual state of Israeli exceptionalism and giving rise to a parliamentary perspective in which antisemitism has all but become Israel’s foreign policy. Explain that and explain how Zionism uses the Holocaust.

Shaul Magid:  It’s very interesting because people like David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, were quite against using the Holocaust as a justification for Zionism. But what’s come to be, and this is Lustick’s Holocaustia, is that the Holocaust has become the re-instantiation of trauma to legitimize and necessitate the existence of a sovereign Jewish state. So taking sixth graders from Israel to Auschwitz and having that very traumatic experience… Even for the Jews not of European descent, for the Jews from Morocco or from Algeria or Yemen, to take them to Poland to experience the remnants of the Holocaust is used to instill a sense of patriotism in the need for the state of Israel, as if there is the state of Israel or the Holocaust. Those were the two options.

Given those two options, who wouldn’t choose the former? We find it elsewhere in statements made by Yitzhak Shamir and even Netanyahu that the borders of Israel are like the borders of Auschwitz. I would even enter to say the way in which there are analogies between what happened on October 7 and the Holocaust. There’s a way in which the Holocaust becomes, I wouldn’t say a weapon, it becomes the perennial justification for the need of a Jewish state. You can make that argument and we can debate that argument in a number of different ways but educationally what it does is almost like re-traumatizing the Jews again and again and again. And I can’t see that healthy people will emerge from that.

Chris Hedges:  Publicly, Netanyahu has called the Palestinians Nazis.

Shaul Magid:  Yes. Right, of course.

Chris Hedges:  The irony is the Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust.

Shaul Magid:  Not only that, I would say that if you are going to make some comparison between those Kibbutzim in the Gaza envelope that were savagely destroyed and the Warsaw ghetto, then Zionism hasn’t accomplished anything. The analogy undermines that which it’s trying to prove. The book was written before October 7, it came out after October 7. Jews feel traumatized by October 7 understandably so, but I don’t think that working, as Lustick said in another article after October 7 “Vengeance is not a national policy.” And that’s what Israelis and Jews worldwide are trying to grapple with at this point.

Chris Hedges:  Talk about the interplay between Judaism and the Israeli state. When I lived in Israel, I assume it’s even worse now, but reformed rabbis had no religious legitimacy. Even then the Orthodox had complete control. David Hartman was running the Hartman Institute but he was very marginalized. This was liberal Judaism. But talk about that relationship between the state and Judaism.

Shaul Magid:  There’s something very ironic about that because Israel is found as a secular Jewish state. Zionism was a secular movement and the religious sector of the early Zionist movement was quite small. Gurion, when he was in the process of creating a coalition, wanted to invite the religious parties into the project. The religious parties were quite resistant because many of those religious Jews who were part of those religious parties, even though they were sympathetic to Zionism because Zionism allowed them to live in the land of Israel, they understood what they considered to be the head of heretical nature of secular Zionism. So Ben-Gurion made a deal that he called The Status-Quo Agreement in which he gave the religious parties jurisdiction, over a number of things. One of them was marriage, another was divorce, another was conversion, and another was burial rights.

As opposed to America which has a separation of church and state, Israel doesn’t have a separation of church and state in that way. The Israeli rabbinate is a government agency and they have jurisdiction over those particular areas. So when people say, is Judaism the official religion of Israel? The answer is no. The official religion of Israel is Orthodox Judaism. And they were able to nullify or not accept any conversions that were being done by non-Orthodox Jews. By the way, there’s no civil marriage in Israel either so a representative of the Israeli rabbinate has to be present at a Jewish wedding for the wedding to be sanctioned by the state. This is changing and there’s some loosening up of some of those strictures.

Probably at some point in time, there will be some form of civil marriage. And non-Orthodox rabbis, while they’re not officially recognized, are given a little bit more authority than they were in the past as well as non-Orthodox Jewish institutions. But the Jewish religion, not Islam or Christianity, in Israel is run by Orthodox Judaism.

Chris Hedges:  And Orthodox Judaism is expanding. It’s certainly grown quite a bit since I lived in Israel.

Shaul Magid:  Tremendously. Not only among the ultra-Orthodox communities but among the national religious Orthodox communities. One of the things that Ben-Gurion did by making a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties or the Orthodox parties in The Status Quo is he thought that most of the ultra-Orthodox Jews would leave. Either they would leave because why would they want to live in a secular Jewish state or the next generation would secularize. And that did not happen. In fact, the opposite happened. So with very, very large families; ultra-Orthodox Jews with five or six children on average; national Zionist and Orthodox Jews with maybe a little bit less, and the secular Jewish population ha probably around two-two point something children per family. So over the course of time, it’s expanding tremendously. Among Jews in the diaspora who immigrated to Israel, something like 70% of them are Orthodox. So Israel is becoming a more religious country, it’s becoming a less liberal country, and we’re seeing the effects of that in a number of different ways.

Chris Hedges:  Talk about the relationship between the settler movement and the fanatic or right-wing Zionism of the settlers. They are now not only within the Netanyahu government, but they are within the IDF. The chief-of-staff comes out of the settler movement. This is something that, 20 years ago when I lived in Israel, settlers or people who embrace that chauvinistic Zionism like Meir Kahane – I was in Israel, you wrote a book on Kahane, but I knew him and was there – His party was outlawed in 1994, Kahane, and he was later assassinated. He wasn’t allowed to run. That’s all changed. And many of these people are heirs to Kahane. That’s a new phenomenon.

Shaul Magid:  Yeah. Part of the ideology of the settler movement is something called “greater Israel” and greater Israel is an ideology that all of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is Jewish land. So the idea of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip as being Palestinian land or Palestinians having rights to that land is subverted and undermined by that notion of greater Israel. It’s arguably the case that the government is advocating a greater Israel ideology, which governments previously had rejected. 1977 Menachem Begin is elected as prime minister from the Likud Party, a right-wing party.

He was nominally religious but he adhered to a particular greater Israel ideology. What’s happened is with the expansion of the settlements, you have an entire culture – I wouldn’t even call it a subculture anymore – Of Israelis who are raised with a particular religious, messianic ideology whereby all of the land has to remain in Jewish hands, that only Jews should have the legal rights, and that Palestinians who want to live there, live there as second class citizens. This is something in the 1980s when Kahane was around, was considered to be so extreme that even the right wing rejected him. But now it’s become normative or normal, not only among the extreme right-wing settlers but some of the more center-right members of the Israeli Parliament.

Chris Hedges:  Liberal Zionism – We’ll go back to that quote I read. What’s happening? Is it withering away? Is it being replaced by religious Zionism? Is it finding a new identity? What’s going on with it?

Shaul Magid:  It’s a good question. Liberal Zionism, first of all, is something that only existed in the US. There was an Israeli left but the Israeli left was not liberal Zionism. The Israeli left in many ways was far to the left of liberal Zionism. So liberal Zionism in some way begins with Louis Brandeis – Back in the teens of the 20th century – Who made that famous speech. It was 1915 where he said to be a good American is to be a Zionist and to be a Zionist is to be a good American. The liberal values that Brandeis espoused were the liberal values of Zionism. This is obviously long before a state. To some degree, liberal Zionism was able to survive the establishment of the state and even up until the 1970s.

But liberal Zionism is in a defensive mode at this point. Because you have a group of people who consider themselves liberal Zionists, who are committed to liberal ideas, who are committed to equality, who are committed to justice, and they’re supporting a state that’s not committed to those values and not committed to those ideas. So the question is, what value does it have for a liberal movement to support an illiberal state? Now, we can argue about the nature of the state but one of the things that is the underside of democracy is that the people that are living in the state choose the state. It’s not that Netanyahu won in a fluke election; Netanyahu has been winning for a long time. The Israeli left not only is now in the opposition, but the Israeli left didn’t make enough votes to be in the government at all. So we’re in a situation where, my perspective is that liberal Zionism doesn’t have any new ideas, partly because the country that it supports has chosen a different path.

Chris Hedges:  I want to talk about BDS: The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement. You, along with two other great scholars I admire; Noam Chomsky, and Norman Finkelstein, do not support BDS. I’m a strong supporter of BDS but I want you to lay out why you don’t support BDS.

Shaul Magid:  It’s a very good question and I don’t have a very good answer. I would say it in another way: I don’t have a rational answer, I have an emotional answer. I can’t think of a good reason why not to support a nonviolent movement that’s seeking to end the occupation. Now, some people in BDS are seeking to eradicate the state completely. Others in BDS simply are trying to eradicate the occupation. For me, two things: I don’t feel like it will have the impact that the anti-Apartheid movement had, for example, of forcing South Africa to end apartheid. I don’t think it has that power. I don’t think it has the teeth to do that. It also becomes so mixed up with a particular left community that simply doesn’t acknowledge the viability of the existence of the state, which I don’t support. I do think that the state has a right to exist like any states have a right to exist. Or I don’t know if any states have a right to exist.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you argue in the book that you can’t use that term.

Shaul Magid:  Yeah. I don’t like to use the term “right to exist.” I would say it differently – Israel as a state, exists. The question that interests me is what kind of a state it’s going to be and that’s where my energy is. I don’t think that my energy is well spent if I sign onto the BDS movement.

Chris Hedges:  For those of us who abhor violence… And I knew two of the leaders of Hamas and was quite upfront. This was during the suicide bombing attacks in Jerusalem which I had to cover. And I argue both in the home of Abdelaziz Runtisi, one of the co-founders of Hamas and then after he was assassinated, Nizar Ryan that by carrying out indiscriminate suicide bombing attacks against Israeli civilians, they were essentially abrogating or taking from themselves the moral high ground they had. Not to mention the fact that it was a war crime. But among Palestinian friends without being a strong supporter of BDS, I don’t know how I can counter this call to resist the violence.

Shaul Magid:  I hear you. That’s a very serious critique. And again, I don’t have an answer for it. What happens from within the circles that I live in, signing on to BDS puts you outside the conversation, and at this point, I prefer to be inside that conversation. I can understand BDS, if it’s a movement that’s seeking to end the occupation and create justice and equality for Palestinians, from everybody that lives from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, I can support that as a non-violent movement because I agree with those goals. Do I think that those goals can be achieved with or without BDS? The argument in my book is, not as long as Zionism is the ideology that dominates the state.

Chris Hedges:  I want to ask you about Jeremy Corbyn. That was another… Now there’s very strong evidence that antisemitism was weaponized to bring down Corbyn and his supporters, many of whom were Jewish. But you say that he may be an antisemite. I am curious what your perspective is now on the whole campaign against Corbyn.

Shaul Magid:  Yeah, it’s a good question. It was a bit of a throwaway line that maybe on second thought, I probably [laughs] … I honestly don’t feel like I know enough about the ins and outs of British parliamentary politics. I would say all I know about Corbyn is what he said, and there were a lot of things that he said that I agreed with and there were things he said that I didn’t agree with. Determining whether somebody is an antisemite is a much more complicated process in terms of what’s the intention of what they said and from the distance that I have, I wasn’t able to ascertain that.

I do think though that the weaponization of antisemitism… And it’s not being used against people like Jeremy Corbyn. Just yesterday it was used against a colleague of mine who’s a historian of Zionism, Derek Penslar, who was appointed to be the co-director of the task force on antisemitism at Harvard University, who is a Zionist. So it’s become a term that’s been used and here I fault the ADL and Jonathan Greenblatt so extensively and so sloppily that it doesn’t mean anything anymore. Somebody who’s a Zionist and spent his entire adult life teaching Jewish history and Jewish students, for that person to be called an antisemite because he criticizes Israel, the term loses all of its meaning.

Chris Hedges:  You begin one chapter with these three quotes, and I want to ask you to respond to them. The first is from David Ben-Gurion, “The Bible is our mandate.” The second from Pat Boone, that horrible singer, the theme song to the film Exodus “This land is mine. God gave this land to me.” And then Danny Danon, “This is our deed to our land” holding up a copy of the Bible before the UN Security Council in 2019. Talk about that appropriation of a divine mandate to justify a colonial-settler project.

Shaul Magid:  This is one of the deep-seated problems of the political ideology of Zionism, not only of religious Zionism. I don’t know Danny Danon’s religious life, but David Ben-Gurion certainly was not a religious Jew. And yet the idea that the notion of what Chaim Gantz calls “proprietary Zionism” which begins with the assumption the land of Israel belongs to the Jews, and we will do with it what we want, and maybe we will give a piece of it to other people under conditions that we determine, is something that is embedded in the entire Zionist project. That’s why we keep hitting our heads against the wall. We have to get outside of this notion of proprietary Zionism that somehow it’s our land because God gave it to us very innocuously.

I was raised on the movie Exodus and a whole generation of people were raised on the movie Exodus; We must have heard that line being sung by Pat Boone hundreds of times and no one’s ever thought about it. But wait, that’s a strangely chauvinistic thing to say. Zionism is a modern national movement. I don’t know that its relationship to Jewish theology, Jewish history, and Jewish messianism is that productive but I don’t think that’s only being espoused by the religious sector. It’s being espoused by everyone from David Ben-Gurion to Danny Danon, to whoever wrote the lyrics to that bad theme song.

Chris Hedges:  You have had these prescient critics – Yeshayahu Leibowitz is pretty amazing, he foresaw the dark places Israel would go if it continued to occupy the Palestinians, Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt. You quote Isaac Bashevis Singer, a writer I love, and he wrote that exile was necessary to perpetuate a longing that produces Jewish genius. And for Singer, Yiddish was the language of exile.

Shaul Magid:  It’s a fascinating essay that I discovered pretty late in writing the book and then decided that he needed to be included because Singer considered himself a Zionist, yet he understood that the greatness of Judaism, the genius of Judaism, was that which was produced in exile. Not only in exile – I think this is Singer’s point – But because of exile. There’s something about that experience, whether it’s an experience of marginalization, an experience of disempowerment, an experience of being apolitical or non-political, that enabled Judaism to form and develop in ways that created an entirely distinctive, robust, and ethical tradition to some degree with all of the caveats. There’s a line that I also quote from Gershom Scholem in his interview with the Mukit Soor from the ’70s where he said, “Zionism sought to end exile and it was those that were opposed to it that understood it more than those that were in favor.”

That’s what I’m trying to get at in the book, is to say that if we think about exile as something that’s not negative, that’s not about punishment, but that’s about the cultivation of an ethical, moral, humane society and push away the idea that this is the footsteps of the coming of the Messiah and just try to live exile fully, we have a better chance of creating the society that a lot of Jews like me can be proud of.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you quote James Cone in the book, The Great Theologian, that’s not accidental. His writing dovetails very much with where you’re coming from and this notion that by being in exile, one doesn’t identify as religious with centers of power but centers of marginalization. Let’s make a list of the great writers of European fascism. I would off the top of my head say 80% of them are probably Jewish. Let’s make a list of the great writers of racism in America and W.E.B Du Bois, Cone, and others, are Black. And that’s because you’re marrying the power of religious convictions and tremendous intellect with a closeness to a marginalized or oppressed community. That is what gives all great religious writing – Christian, Jewish, whatever – Its power and you’re raising that as an idea.

Shaul Magid:  Yeah. And Du Bois is someone who’s very important to me. Cones, his last book, The Cross in the Lynching Tree, was very, very powerful. One of the things I’m working on now is a book on critical race theory and antisemitism because some of these writers, the two that you mentioned and others as well, do speak to what it means to be outside of the orbit of the political. But if one could say as an elevator pitch, Zionism was a movement that was started by Jews who got tired of being in exile, they got tired of being marginalized, and they got tired of being disempowered. They felt that their lives were in danger. As Scholem said, “Power is a very dangerous thing and nationalism is a very dangerous thing.”

Even though it might’ve been necessary, part of the hazards of Zionism is that it almost happened too quickly. And not any fault of its own. It began to gain steam and then Europe fell apart and it became an emergency situation. All of the problems that Martin Buber, Leibovich, and many other people noticed, suddenly got pushed away because it became about saving Jewish bodies and those problems continue to exist into 2024. Those problems created conditions that made October 7 possible. Not to say that it was the fault of Israelis but the conditions of a culture of domination, and that’s what Israel has become. The military experts would say that’s necessary. Maybe that’s true but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t create very dangerous situations and that it doesn’t deteriorate from my perspective, the beauty and the genius of Judaism.

Chris Hedges:  Great. That was Rabbi Shaul Magid, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.

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