Since the neo-Nazi rally at Charlottesville on August 12, Zionist movements in America have been advocating how Zionism is part of the left’s struggle against White Supremacy and the fight for social justice. One obstacle though is that many liberal social movements consider Zionism to be an inherently racist ideology as well. A couple of examples were the events that took place at the Chicago Dyke March and SlutWalk, where participants were harassed and expelled for their flags’ association with Zionism and was described as an “inherently white-supremacist ideology.”

Indeed, the recent wave of anti-Zionist sentiment from the American civil society is yet another challenge to “liberal Zionism for the Trump era” and possesses a component of anti-Semitism, as it denies the Jews’ right to self-determination while conceding to the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. However, in order to truly dispel the myth that Zionism is inherently racist, we as liberal Zionists must first honestly understand why progressive social movements are expressing anti-Zionism and siding with the Palestinians.

Dr. Johanna Ray Vollhardt’s academic article “Inclusive Victim Consciousness in Advocacy, Social Movements, and Intergroup Relations: Promises and Pitfalls” offers some interesting insights through a social psychology perspective. Liberal social movements’ support for the Palestinians can be explained through what is described as “inclusive victim consciousness.” Professor Vollhardt defines inclusive victim consciousness as “perceived similarity between the suffering of one’s own group and other groups” and would therefore be in solidarity with them.  

The Palestinian narrative of victimhood is primarily based on suffering from human rights violations through occupation, blockade, and land lost, while Israel’s narrative of victimhood is based more on suffering from terrorism and isolation. Therefore, social movements that advocate for human rights are going to relate and empathize more with the Palestinian narrative and thus be in solidarity with them. Unfortunately, one of the potential negative consequences of inclusive victim consciousness is uncritical support for one side.

This would not be the first time we have seen inclusive victim consciousness manifest in solidarity with the Palestinians transnationally. For example, Republican Nationalists in Northern Ireland and Kashmiris have also expressed support and solidarity with the Palestinians in their common struggle for independence and living under occupation.

Israel has also received transnational support through inclusive victim consciousness. For instance, just as the Republican Nationalists in Northern Ireland have expressed solidarity with the Palestinians, the Unionists have expressed support for Israel. They identify themselves with Israel because they too narrate their victimhood based on terrorism, isolation, and being “surrounded by hostile forces.”

Israel and the Kurds in northern Iraq have also expressed willingness to support each other out of inclusive victim consciousness. Even though the Kurds are a stateless people struggling for independence like the Palestinians, the Kurds in northern Iraq have identified themselves more with Israel because their victimhood has also been based on being surrounded by hostile Arab forces.

Nevertheless, as Vollhardt emphasizes in her article, empathy alone cannot explain why a third party may side with another group in a separate conflict. Other motivations that may compel a third party to support one side through inclusive victim consciousness are the possibility of coalition building and having shared values and ideologies. The latter may be of particular relevance in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

American leftists and Palestinians may share the same ideology of anti-Western colonialism. Palestinians feel Israel stole and colonized their land and leftists in the West are going to be disproportionately critical of countries that are perceived as Western outposts. As Peter Beinart explains in his book the Crisis of Zionism, “Leftists in…(the West) revile imperialism because their nations committed it… The main reason Israel generates disproportionate criticism from leftist academics, artists, and labor unionists…is not because it’s a Jewish state but because it’s perceived as a Western one.”

Nonetheless, the American left is still wrong to equate Zionism with colonialism. For one, unlike the British in India, the French in Algeria, and the Whites in South Africa, Jews have a historical connection to the land. Secondly, if you look at the roots of Zionism, you will see that it was inspired more from European nationalism rather than European colonialism.

Zionism was inspired by the idea of establishing a nation for a particular group of people to allow them to practice their right to self-determination. For instance, just as Israel has a Magen David on its flag, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Greece, Slovakia, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark all have crosses on their flags. Additionally, Germany, Ireland, Finland, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic uphold preferential immigration laws for a particular group of people similar to Israel’s aliya policy.  

To equate Zionism with colonialism is essentially the equivalent of denying Palestinian peoplehood, and to pull such a double standard is strongly associated with anti-Semitism.  Both accusations make the same fundamental mistake of not looking at their identities through the perspective of modern nationalism. As author of Diaspora Nationalism Joshua Shanes says, “Both the modern Jewish and Palestinian nations…were constructed around the same time, beginning with intellectuals in the 1880’s and growing into a mass movement in the twentieth century. Like all nations, they are epistemological, not ontological realities.”  

As a result, when defending Zionism, we must understand that, though the left’s anti-Zionist sentiment is strongly associated with anti-Semitism, it is rooted in how Zionism is misperceived. We must focus less on Zionists’ activism for social justice and more on the perspective of nationalism in order to dispel the myth that Zionism is colonialism.