podcast playback

Einat Wilf: ‘Anti-Zionism is a destructive idea by its very definition’

The former Knesset member spoke to JI’s podcast about Zionism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the state of Israeli democracy today

Rose Eichenbaum

Einat Wilf

Einat Wilf has been in the public eye for nearly 15 years as a prominent voice espousing liberal Zionism. A former foreign policy advisor to then-Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Wilf sat in the Knesset from 2010 to 2013, first with the Labor party and later with the Independence party, which she helped form. 

Wilf, 52, who in August 2022 published her most recent book, a collection of essays titled, We Should All Be Zionists: Essays on the Jewish State and the Path to Peace, joined JI’s podcast this week to discuss Zionism and anti-Zionism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the state of Israeli democracy today.

Below are excerpts from the conversation.

On the state of Zionism today: “A few months ago, I published a collection of essays, [a] book titled We Should All Be Zionists. And it was the culmination of four years of writing essays that spoke about the importance of Zionism to Jews abroad, the importance of Zionism to the Arab world as a path to peace, but, I had not imagined that the title of the book, We Should All Be Zionists, would actually become relevant inwardly, and I think this is much of what’s happening now. It’s a kind of revival of secular Zionism that for so many years, even decades, was almost taken for granted, viewed as something that is no longer relevant. Zionism became associated with the more religious, even extreme right-wing elements of Israeli politics and society. And you could hear them even say things like that the descendants, the heirs of the secular Zionism that basically built the state, were a bunch of ‘left-wing globalists, rootless cosmopolitans, who have no real connection to the land. If anything doesn’t go their way they’re gonna leave at the first opportunity. They all hold second passports.’ So you have this kind of demonization, this notion that this is a [completely] irrelevant group on its way to just being a dying minority. Even when the first protests happened, much of the commentary from the right was like, ‘this is a bunch of aging people, the median age of the protests is 75. They’re just lamenting a country that is no longer theirs,’ and what I think has happened is that all of that was just proven to be absolutely and completely wrong. And in many ways, this is the most hopeful thing that I take from what’s been happening.”

Zionism versus anti-Zionism: “Zionism is essentially a constructive idea. It’s an idea about imagining a future and then building that future, and it’s all about construction, it’s all about building. And this is why Zionism has been a remarkably powerful idea, and I would argue in many ways, the only idea that ultimately triumphed as a successful way to be a Jew in the modern era. Of all the ideas that emerged beginning of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, from Communism, to Bundism, to European assimilation and emancipation, Zionism, that was the dark horse — you know, when the Zionist Congress is established, maybe 1% of Jews in the world are Zionists — really triumphed as the only relevant idea that was left standing.

“Anti-Zionism is a destructive idea by its very definition. It’s an idea that sees something vibrant, something that was built, and believes that it shouldn’t exist, that it must be destroyed. Which is why, for example, I’ve seen a lot of commentators recently looking at all these protests and demonstrations in Israel and saying, ‘If Palestinians had done that, they would not have been contained.’ I mean, we need to remember, these were massive protests, no one died. I mean, there was no violence as such. At the margins, but it’s actually quite remarkable that an entire country can, essentially, just explode without violence. So you had some commentators saying, you know, ‘If Palestinians had gone on these demonstrations, you know, it would have been met with Israeli guns and it would not have been contained,’ and it’s part of a bigger argument made sometimes on behalf of Palestinian apologists that, you know, ‘You’re not giving Palestinians any room to protest, you know, because when it’s terrorism, then terrorism is wrong, when it’s boycotts, then boycotts is wrong.’ Like, you know, ‘There’s no way that Palestinians can express themselves.’ And my argument is always [that] the problem was never with the Palestinian means. The problem was always, and remains, with the Palestinian goal. As long as the Palestinian goal remains the same that it has always been, and to their credit they have been consistent about making clear that that’s their goal, that the goal was no Jewish state in any border whatsoever between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. As long as their supreme goal is first and foremost that the Jews will not have their state in any part of the land, the problem is not whether they use BDS or whether they use demonstration or whether they use terrorism, the problem is that regardless of the means that they try to pursue, they’re pursuing a destructive goal, which as a result, will not succeed because destructive goals just do not have the energy that we can see that a constructive goal like classic Zionism has.”

On Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s comments that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian nation”: “Whenever any side in the conflict says that the other is not a people, they’re not saying it as a historical argument, they’re saying it because the next phrase after that: ‘And because they’re not a people, they do not partake in what has become acknowledged as the universal right of all peoples to self-determination.’ Because this is the essence of the way that our world is structured right now. The 20th century represented the transition from empires to states and, when lucky, self-determined nation-states based on the principle of self determination. This was the basis for Zionism’s universal legitimacy. When Herzl said, ‘We are a people, one people,’ he was exercising the notion of self-determination. We are people, we are saying that we are a people, we are not going to accept the 19th-century construct that Judaism is only a religion and therefore Jews should assimilate as French or German citizens of the mosaic faith. We’re not only a religion, in fact, religion, whether one will be a mitzvot person or not is a personal choice, whether one wants to believe in the existence of a god is a personal choice, but the thing that defines us more than anything is that we are a people. And in the name of self-determination, Zionism claimed the universal right of Ukrainians and Poles and Czechs and Slovaks and French and Germans to have a state — a state, a sovereign state to be ruled by our own, and where else, in the only geography that was ever connected with the Jews as a people rather than as individuals. Now, to claim that the Jews are not a people, which is a common refrain in the Arab world, and especially among Palestinians, this is why, for example, you will find someone like Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] wishing members of the Jewish faith ‘Happy Rosh Hashanah’ or something. And a lot of people think, ‘Oh, wow, that’s really nice. He’s making an overture of peace.’ No, he’s actually saying, ‘We have no problem to recognize Jews as members of a faith, but they are not a people.’ So when you say that the other is not a people, [it] is because you want to argue that they don’t partake in the universal right to self-determination, and therefore should not have a state. So people on the extreme right-wing in Israel, when they use that phrase, certainly publicly, they are not saying it as a matter of history. I mean, it’s clear that the Palestinian people, as a separate people from Arabs — I mean, Arab nationalism is an independent phenomenon — but the idea of a separate Palestinian nationalism is clearly deeply intertwined with the battle against Zionism, and it emerges as a more recent and distinct identity much later, but by now, it is clearly the identity of a separate people that has been forged in this battle against Zionism. Which is why I said the problem is not that the Palestinians are a people by now — they are — the problem is that the core ethos of their people is anti-Zionism. The core ethos is the pursuit of a destructive cause. So I end this by saying that no matter what each side says about the other, they seem to violently agree that they are not the other. And because those are two distinct collectives, I think, ultimately, the best thing that they could both do, which will only be possible once the Palestinians end their war against Zionism and change their core ethos away from anti-Zionism, the best thing that they can both do, is govern themselves by themselves based on the principle of self-determination in two distinct political entities, which means that ultimately, the land between the river and the sea will have to be divided.”

On the Abraham Accords: “This is the greatest hope to come out of the region for a long time. There’s absolutely no question about it, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if it ever was really just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or just the Jews and Arabs between the river and the sea, that conflict was over in April 1948. In April 1948, the Jews and the Arabs are basically, pretty much settled in the lines. That conflict is over. It’s a small conflict, it lasted several months, it was pretty much settled. In May 1948, it becomes the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Arab world, and ultimately the Soviet Union and the Non-Aligned Movement, are the fuel that feeds Palestinian intransigence for decades. The Palestinians, if they had been on their own, would not have been able to sustain decades of saying no — they would have had to come to terms with reality at one point. All this fuel that has been flowing in for decades allowed them to avoid reality. So the question is, are we finally getting to the point where some of this fuel is being taken away? And the Abraham Accords represent a refocusing of Arab priorities away from anti-Zionism, away from supporting Palestinian rejectionism. It’s not really about us, I sometimes call the Abraham Accords a ‘collateral benefit’ of a bigger shift in the Arab world, and certainly in the Gulf countries, much more towards focusing on fighting extremism, developing a vision of a moderate Islam, serving their citizens, and in that process, they find that anti-Zionism is no longer as useful to them as a scapegoat, as a way of redirecting anger, as they once needed it. And because it’s beginning to lose its value, they can basically begin to move away the fuel that sustains Palestinian intransigence. But it is only the beginning. It is completely a ray of hope. But one of the things that I find devastating about the current government, is that as much as [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has, I think, the good and smart vision of a broader peace and normalization with the Arab world, and he correctly recognizes this opportunity, members of his coalition have been doing their utmost, unfortunately quite successfully, to undo a lot of them.”

On UNRWA today: “In the UNRWA schools and in the UNRWA refugee camps, a separate Palestinian national identity was forged separate from the surrounding Arab countries. And again, that in itself is not a problem, most of the world’s national identities are fairly recent, but the problem is that the foundational ethos became one of return and revenge, and this remains the foundational ethos, not just of the Palestinian people, but the one that is taught at UNRWA schools. And Western nations that fund UNRWA to billions of dollars are essentially fueling the conflict. They are playing the role that Arab countries, that the Soviet Union has played for so many decades, of fueling Palestinian reductionism and the dream of Israeli temporariness. And it gets me very angry, because, again, I know Joe Biden loves Israel. I mean, he really loves Israel, but from the American administration, and I asked many people, they just think of it as cheap money to buy quiet. But this has always been the view. This was protection money. This was bribe. ‘Let’s just give this money to buy another year of quiet,’ but it actually doesn’t buy quiet. I mean, I can even debate whether it buys quiet in the short term, but it definitely does not buy quiet in the long term, because it feeds another generation of Palestinians who believe it is their most noble duty to rid the land of Zionism and of the Jewish state. And ultimately, the people who pay for that are not Americans or Australians or friends, the people who pay for that are Israelis in blood and life.”

Bonus lightning round: Favorite Yiddish word or phrase? “The usual, ‘putz,’ ‘schlep,’ they’re just great.” Favorite Jewish food? “Matzah with butter.” Favorite Israeli wine? “It’s called Clos de Gat. They’re very good.”

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