Despite Conflation of Israel with Judaism, Anti-Zionism is More Kosher Than You Think

Do Israel’s actions in Gaza—the bombing of hospitals, apartments, and entire towns; policies of forced starvation and orders for people to flee their homesconstitute genocide? Last week South Africa made that claim in the International Court of Justice. In response, Israel’s government spokesman Eylon Levy dismissed the genocide charge as a “blood libel”historically, the false claim by European Christians that Jews used the blood of Christian babies to bake Matzoh, which resulted in mob violence against defenseless Jewish communities. (Incidentally, if you want to see how an actual blood libel functions, read about the response to what should, by all rights, have been a local story about tunnels discovered beneath Chabad’s headquarters in Brooklyn.) 

Like the Israeli government, Levy implies any charges against Israel as a nation-state are attacks on the Jewish people as a whole: that any anti-Zionism is antisemitic. So is the state of Israel actually the sole political representative of the Jews? Or, per the world’s largest Hasidic court, does Israel have no legitimate Jewish status at all? For Satmar authority Rabbi Shimon Israel Posen argued that Israel’s claim to legally represent Judaism is nothing less than “forging the signature of God.” 

And is the identification of the state of Israel with Judaism a political exaggeration? Is it, as Shaul Magid writes, “just another chapter in the narrative to make sure Jews in America don’t feel too safe, or too wanted, as Jews [because that] is not very good for Israel”? In Magid’s argument, automatic identification with Israel “gives American Jews, who have largely abandoned religion, a solid foundation of Jewish identity that requires very little effort.”

Indeed, when the House of Representatives passed a GOP bill asserting all anti-Zionism was antisemitism they found a surprising opponent in Jerry Nadler (NY-12), the representative with the largest Jewish constituency in the country. Painfully alive to the problem of antisemitism, Nadler nonetheless described the bill as trying “to weaponize Jewish lives for political gains.” He ripped into the House claim as “either intellectually disingenuous or just factually wrong,” and argued that “the authors, if they were at all familiar with Jewish history and culture, should know about Jewish anti-Zionism that was, and is, expressly NOT antisemitic [because] even today, certain orthodox Hasidic Jewish communities…as well as adherents of the pre-state Jewish labor movement have held views that are at odds with the modern Zionist conception.”

What is the anti-Zionist Jewish history and culture Nadler is talking about? Do the classical sources of Rabbinic thought and law actually agree that anti-Zionism is antisemitismor that a secular state of Israel was even desirable? If it is true, as Marc Tracy writes in the New York Times, that “[i]n 2024, anti-Zionism is the closest thing organized Judaism has to heresy,” then for most of Jewish history it may have been closer to the opposite. 

For 2000 years Jewish prayer has hoped ardently that the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) would soon be redeemed by God and led by His Messiah; some even made pilgrimage to visit or dwell with others in the Holy Land. But there is surprisingly little evidence that Jews also always longed for a sovereign State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) or to be a Middle Eastern political power. It turns out the idea may be shockingly recent, but its novelty is hard to see because we stand on the other side of such a radical transformation in thought. The shift from Holy Land to sovereign secular state has been rendered almost invisible.

Just like any other nation 

The problem for anyone who wants to declare that anti-Zionism is non-Kosher is that, for most of Rabbinic history, it was actually in the mainstream of Jewish thought. And according to many traditional readings of the Torah, it even goes back to God himself. Indeed a number of biblical books go beyond merely denouncing or delegitimizing Israel’s “right to exist.”  

At the time of the original covenant, God threatens that, if Israel disobeys His teaching, the people of Israel will “flee in defeat before your enemies; you may make a unified stand against them but you will run away in every direction; and you will become a horror to all the states in the world.” (Deut 28:25-26)

God is arguably even more “anti-Israel” in his speeches to the Prophet Amos. Addressing the northern kingdom of Israel he says:

         If they burrow down to Hell,

         From there My hand shall take them;

         And if they ascend to heaven,

         From there I will bring them down.

4      And if they go into captivity

         Before their enemies,

         There I will command

         The sword to slay them


7      To Me, O Israelites, [you are just like any other nation, near or far]

         Just like the Ethiopians… the Philistines …

         And the Arameans

What notion of Jewish history explains this? God already puts the people of Judah on notice around 600 BCE: 

If you really mend your ways and your actions; if you do justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place…— then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time. (Jer 7)

Kings elaborates: 

The LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet [and] every seer, saying: “Turn back from your wicked ways, and observe My commandments and My laws…” [But] they spurned His laws…. So the LORD spurned all the offspring of Israel, and He afflicted them and delivered them into the hands of plunderers, and finally He cast them out from His presence. (2 Kings 17) 

But good luck to anyone trying to paint these words as antisemitic, let alone ban them. You’d have to pry them out of the fingers of every observant Christian and Jew—and from every library in America.  

Were these speeches hyperbole or seriously intended for all time? From an academic point of view, of course all the words attributed to God in the Hebrew Bible were written by humans and only apply to their original context; people may want to apply them to later times but there is no historical basis to do so. God’s speeches granting the right to the land of Israel to the descendants of Abraham is no more or less historical than his revoking it—both are ancient literature applicable only to ancient realities.

Maimonides, Mendelssohn, and Messianism

You can’t have it both ways. If God’s condemnation of Israel is only relevant in its ancient historical context, his promise to Israel is too. By this logic, like most biblical pronouncements about Israel that were only relevant for their own time, this would mean none of it is relevant today. It’s only the continuing relevance of the whole Bible, including the curses, that would give modern Israel a claim to ancient roots. The “settler colonialist” critique is that today’s Israel is less an offshoot of ancient history and more a modern project made possible by Western European empires. Without the direct relevance of the Bible, that’s harder to deny.

Yet surprisingly, even among many Jews absolutely committed to the continuing relevance of the Bible the idea of humans starting a state in Israel was long considered destructive—even blasphemous. Israel Prize winner and Hebrew University Jewish Thought Professor Aviezer Ravitzky begins his widely respected Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism with a startling fact: the first Hebrew appearance he can find of “The State of Israel” (Medinat Yisrael) is in the writings of the Polish Rabbi Elyakum Shapira of Grodno in the year 1900. Shapira, outraged by secular Zionist plans for a humanly created Jewish state rather than, as Jewish law requires, a Davidic kingdom led by a divinely chosen Messiah, wrote: “How can I bear that something be called ‘The State of Israel’ without the Torah and the commandments (heaven forbid)?”

And the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, wrote in 1770 that “The Talmud forbids us to even think of a return to Palestine by force. Without the miracles and signs mentioned in the Scripture, we must not take the smallest step in the direction of forcing a return and a restoration of our nation.” 

It turns out that opposition to a Jewish state isn’t an isolated theological quirk but a central conviction among Jews for most of the history of Rabbinic thought. It’s contained in the Talmud itself, expounded by Rashi (the most important Jewish Bible interpreter, whose interpretation every Jewish Day School student learns first), and detailed by Maimonides, arguably Jewish tradition’s single most influential thinker. 

Indeed, according to Ravitzky, Shapira’s response and that of the many Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists today reflects “fundamental tendencies and patterns of thought anchored in a long-standing tradition. In fact, they faithfully reflect the Messianic view prevalent among Jewish believers for many generations.”

This Messianic view is anchored in the Talmud, which says that the Jewish people must swear to keep faith in God’s plan for the world. The messianic end, when God will redeem all of reality, is a goal so desirable as to be like a bride in waiting for marriage. Thus it is in a mystical commentary on the Song of Songs that Israel is first commanded to swear three oaths: not to “ascend the wall” to where the Messiah (the Bride) waits, not to “rebel against the nations of the world,” and not to “force the End [times].”¹

The statement is enshrined in the Babylonian Talmud, the richest source of Jewish law and theology. Rashi and later authoritative commentators make clear that they understand this to mean that it is forbidden to use political or military power to establish a Jewish kingdom. In keeping with these admonitions, Maimonides does not include any command to settle Israel among the 613 commandments Jews are divinely obliged to keep, and authorities from the medieval Ashkenazic Pietists (who transmitted much of the earliest known mystical literature) through 15th century Spanish Kabbalists held to it.

Theological resistance to the early Zionist movement was thus based in the mainstream of Jewish tradition. This resistance spanned the theological spectrum from Orthodox to Reform Judaism which, through the early 20th century,² officially opposed a state of Israel. A principle adopted at its 1869 conference in Philadelphia could scarcely have been more clear: 

“The Messianic aim of Israel is not the restoration of the old Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nations of the earth, but the union of all the children of God in the confession of the unity of God.” 

A principle adopted a few years later at the 1885 Pittsburgh conference only reinforced this view:

“[w]e consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”  

On the other end of the spectrum, one of the founders of the populist Chabad movement, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Sholom DovBaer Schneersohn) who was most influential in bringing Hasidism to the masses, describes political Zionism as an out-and-out denial of central tenets of Judaism; namely that, because it’s the prerogative of God alone to bring a messiah, and because human activity merely usurps his role, placing the state in the role of God indicates that “the Zionists must give nationalism precedence over the Torah.”

And rejection of Zionism on the part of many traditional Jews was hardly confined to Chabad. The Bialer Rebbe Yitzhak Ya’akov Rabinowitz wrote that Zionists wanted to “unite against God and His Messiah,” while Rabbi Yerahmiel Minzberg of Likiva wrote, drawing on Maimonides, that “the Zionist movement is a massive entreaty to terminate the Exile before the appointed time.” And an ideologue of the most uncompromisingly extreme of contemporary anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox groups, the Neturei Karta, writes:

Zionism in and of itself represents a negation of faith in the holiness of the Torah and the holiness of Israel, in the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, in reward and punishment, in all things divine…

So, while nationalist Rabbis like Zvi Yehudah Kook imagined that the state of Israel’s victories could only be interpreted as a sign of divine approval, this was far from the consensus view. Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum, for example, wrote after the victories of the Six-Day War, “As for the conquest of the Old City and the place of the Temple… how could anyone imagine that the Holy One, blessed be he, would perform miracles for idolators? Pure heresy!”³

So what changed? This is a longer story Ravitzky also tells of an opposing idea, spearheaded by the first official Rabbi of Israel, Abraham Isaac Kook, who saw the building of a state by secular, nonreligious leaders as a secretly divine process. It was taken further by his son Zvi Kook who described the state of Israel as itself divine, the throne of God in the world. It was only after these theological foundations were laid that the catastrophe of the Holocaust converted many more to Zionism.

This theology arguably found its final state in the placement of Israeli flags near the ark of the Torah in synagogues across America and the world. This development was criticized by another Israel Prize winner, the chemist and theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz, as being akin to the worship of the golden calf for which God originally threatened to permanently destroy Israel. It may be that a number of today’s Jews, religious and nonreligious alike, who see ongoing genocide in Gaza will view a violent nation-state as a golden calf to be rejected. These anti-Zionists, castigated as non-Jews and antisemites, may ironically find themselves rejoining the historical mainstream of Jewish religious tradition documented by Ravitzky.

¹ Song of Songs Rabbah 2:7, Babylonian Talmud Ketubbot 111a with Rashi’s specifications.

² The first Reform platform calling for “the rehabilitation of Palestine” passed by a single vote in 1937.

³ On Redemption and its [Illegitimate] Substitutes