Zionism is one of the most complex and controversial issues of our day. The state of Israel is hailed by Evangelical Christians and Zionist Jews as the rightful homeland of the Jewish people. Thousands of people are killing and being killed in support of or in opposition to this ideology. At the same time, many Jews, and non-Jews oppose Zionism, from left-wing organizations like J-Street and IfNotNow, to ultra-Orthodox Jews, for political or religious reasons, or both. Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, a Jewish scholar and pulpit rabbi for over 30 years, has joined the ranks of public intellectuals opposing Zionism. His videos have been seen by millions of viewers and he has addressed live audiences numbering in the tens of thousands. He has recently published a 1300+ page book for Judaic scholars, titled The Empty Wagon: Zionism’s Journey from Identity Crisis to Identity Theft, on the historical and ideological opposition of Zionism to Judaism. We asked the rabbi some questions about his work.
Can you tell us a little about your objections to Zionism? Are they political or religious?
Both. Zionism is a redefining of Jewish identity from a religion to a nationality. Or a race, according to Jabotinsky; or a tribe, according to Franz Rosensweig; or something that “cannot be defined in words,” according to Asher Ginsberg; or something that has no definition altogether, according to Ben Gurion (yes, they really said that and yes it makes no sense), or some other type of identity, as long as it does not involve Judaism the religion. The basic intention of Zionism, Jacob Klatzkin said, was – quote – “to deny any conception of Jewish identity based on spiritual criteria.” They secularized everything in Judaism. They made our holy land into a political national homeland; our holy language into a unifying national speaking language; and our Holy City into the political “capital” of all Jews. Zionism is therefore an attack on Judaism. It wants to erase its spiritual essence and replace it with political or national criteria.
And Zionism is a form of ethnic nationalism, which is always disastrous. And when nationalism is combined with a pseudo-religion, in this case Zionism, it’s even worse.
Aside from all that, there is another important factor as well. Israel is the only country in the world that claims – and they actually wrote this into Israeli law this year – to be the nation-state of people who are not its citizens, never were its citizens nor plan to ever be its citizens. This is not only unethical but unbelievably dangerous for world Jewry. Israel’s Tel Aviv University releases statistics on anti-Semitism annually, and the data says that because of Israel’s claim to be the state of all Jews all over the world, Jews are blamed for Israel’s actions, and anti-Semitism rises. When Israel is not involved in any controversies, anti-Semitism actually goes down all over the world. You don’t hear much about anti-Semitism going down, do you? It very often does but you don’t hear about it. This is because Israel doesn’t want to publicize those numbers, they want us to think anti-Semitism is always going up, so Jews will be scared into moving to Israel. Anti-Semitism is good for the Zionist business.
You’re the only Orthodox intellectual that I know of that presents to completely secular audiences, and the only person I know of at all who is in demand by audiences form leftist intellectuals to Satmar Chasidim. What is your approach to Zionism and what is it that could possibly appeal to such an unlikely variety of audiences?
We can’t compete with the Zionists in terms of marketing and propaganda. They have the resources and a century of experience, not to mention an actual country with control over a complete educational system and media, plus some of the most powerful lobbies in the US and overseas. No way I can compete with that. Nobody can. But we have an advantage over them too. When it comes to facts, logic, and rational arguments, the Zionists can’t compete. Their strength is buying people, bullying people, and indoctrination. The best way to combat that is with sunlight and logic. I dig up information that they try to bury, and with it formulate arguments that dismantle their talking points. My dream is to create an online resource center of historical, Judaic, and Zionist teachings so that people can see for themselves that Zionism contravenes Judaism, is based on fiction and falsehood, and quickly collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.
What is an example of an important fact that Zionists hide from the public?
There are a lot of contenders for that title. But if I had to say one thing, it would be the definition of Zionism itself. They don’t tell you what Zionism really is. And I don’t mean the colonialism or ethnocentrism. Zionism is a robust ideology, a civic religion if you will, with religious beliefs and tenants but without a god, like communism for instance. It has its own value system – even in terms of whose life is more valuable than whom – for example, something called shelilas hagalus, it means Jews outside of Israel are worth less than those in it. They have their idea of holiness. Godless holiness, but holiness nonetheless. The Israeli soldiers, they’re “holy” to Zionists. Not just deserving of honor or heroes. Actually holy, they have stories of miraculous apparitions that soldiers get because they are soldiers in Israel’s army. Not because they are righteous Jews or righteous people, but simply because they are Israel’s soldiers, and Israel’s soldiers are holy. This was taken from Christianity – the Knights Templar became holy warriors. Israel’s soldier myth is taken from that. They have things they will fight and die for and things they will forego, and they’re not the same things Jews or even other regular people would. They look at the world through the fundamentalist but godless religious teachings of Zionism – how the whole world hates them for no rational reason just because they’re all anti-Semites – even those who have nothing against Jews. The holocaust became central to their identity. Not only to their worldview but their identity. I mentioned before various Zionist definitions of a Jew. Herzl had one too. Herzl’s definition of a Jew is whoever the anti-Semites hate, and it is only the hatred of the anti-Semites that unites Jews into a nation. This sounds a little psycho, and it is, but its true. Its also true what many people have said that they don’t believe in G-d but He promised them the land. Both those sentiments – that God doesn’t exist but the Bible is their mandate for the land – were uttered by Ben Gurion. If you don’t fully understand the Zionist religion then you won’t understand what motivates or animates Israel’s actions, because they’re so predictable, they act according to their Zionist ideology, and if their actions seem irrational its no more or less irrational than someone following their religious tenets which may seem irrational to someone who doesn’t know the person is following a religion. And understanding their ideology is also the key to dismantling their talking points.
They say that Zionism is just the right of Jews to a homeland
Which is like saying Communism is just the right of people to equal opportunity. If you believe that definition of Zionism, which was invented by Abba Eban to sanitize Zionism, you’ll never understand them, just like you won’t understand communists if you think all they believe in is equality. And that’s the key to the entire puzzle. You can’t understand the acts of a religious fundamentalist if you don’t realize he’s following his religion. So too dealing with Israel without understanding what Zionism really is will lead only to frustration. Which is why so many people, especially Judaic Jews, are so frustrated with Israel.
Do you have any advice for Israel, that can make the world a better place for Jews?
Yes. They should stop claiming to represent us. As I mentioned, whenever Israel gets into some controversy anti-Semitism rises all over the world, but when Israel is not involved in any conflict anti-Semitism goes down. Because the world conflates Jews with Israel – and Israel promotes this conflation by calling themselves the Jewish state and saying they represent all Jews etc. – Jews get blamed for the actions of Israel. Israel needs to drop this nonsense of claiming to be the nation-state of all Jews and become the state of its citizens, the Israelis, like all other normal countries in the world. Problem is, Zionism makes them say crazy things like this – it’s their religion again. Zionism says the Jews are a nation and Israel is their state. So I’d advise them to drop the religion of Zionism and if they want to be Jews then practice Judaism, not the godless religion of Zionist nationalism. It would make life better for everyone involved.
You can follow up with Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro at https://yaakov-shapiro.com