Watching local Vermont Jewish organizations react to the crisis in Gaza and pro-Palestinian protests in Burlington with victimization, dehumanizing language, and even the outright rejection of anti-Zionist Jews as members of the broader Vermont Jewish community, has affirmed to me, an anti-Zionist trans woman and Jewish Vermonter, that Zionism has completely hollowed out generations of Jewish values, even in Vermont.
I grew up steeped in a Zionist household and Jewish Orthodox community. I attended 10 years of religious Jewish day school, with another three years of liberal and secular Hebrew school. While attending UVM, I was a work-study at UVM Hillel for four years, a youth leader for the Zionist youth organization Young Judaea, and went to Israel with Birthright. For a total of 22 years – over half my life – I have been exposed to intense pro-Zionist and anti-Palestinian propaganda, which go hand-in-hand.
During that time, I was indoctrinated with pro-Zionist propaganda. These organizations, like all Jewish Zionist organizations and the state of Israel, upheld Zionist values of Jewish supremacy and white supremacy. Jewish Vermonters are unfortunately not immune from this ideology.
The logic and rationale changed depending on who you talked to, but the conclusion was always the same: Israel must always put Jewish people first, even if it means putting Palestinians into concentration camps or prisons; Israel must remain a Jewish country, no matter the cost; to question or criticize the Israeli state meant you didn’t care about other Jews and were antisemitic; Judaism and Zionism are so intertwined that all Jews should or must be Zionists and that there is no meaningful difference between Judaism and Zionism. Only Zionists are allowed to admit this and do so by using the IHRA’s bogus definition of antisemitism, which includes all instances of anti-Zionism and anti-Israel political organizing. By claiming they feel unsafe anytime anyone questions Israel’s legitimacy, Zionists are able to silence and sanction Palestinians and their Jewish anti-Zionist allies, while centering their own feelings.
In recent years, local Vermont Jewish groups have gone ballistic anytime there is a public conversation about or in support of Palestinians, showing their true fascist colors. Two years ago they came out in force against a BDS bill. This month they went so far as to sign on to a letter decrying a recent pro-Palestinian protest, trying to deny Palestinians the right to free assembly, and celebrating the canceled talk by Mohammed el-Kurd at UVM.
At a pro-Israel rally in Burlington on October 15th, attended by Governor Phil Scott, Mayor Weinberger, and city councilor and now-mayoral candidate Karen Paul, Vermont rabbis used dehumanizing language to defend what has become another Israeli slaughter of Palestinians. Rabbi Eliyahu Junik from Chabad of Burlington called Hamas a “cancer” and “armed savages” and compared them to Nazis. Rabbi Aaron Philmus of Ohavi Zedek used Islamophobic rhetoric to claim that Hamas’ “sole intention is to murder Israeli civilians and replace Israeli civilians with a Muslim caliphate” and “they have no regard for human life… their own people they use as human shields.” No one at this event has spoken out against the Israeli military killing over 10,000 Gaza residents in the past month alone, many of whom are children, or increasing violence and pogroms against Palestinians in the West Bank by Israeli settlers.
Zionism and Fascism Go Hand in Hand
Growing up under Zionism, I was inundated with the fascist founding myths of Israel’s early Zionists. The story I was told was that men, from Menachem Begin to David Ben-Gurion, were selfless Jewish heroes who fought British and Arab soldiers because they wanted Jewish people around the world to be free, and the only way to achieve this freedom was by creating a country for Jewish people.
For those not indoctrinated by Jewish day schools or the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow into the pro-Israel propaganda machine, the truth is very different. Zionism not only shares fundamental ideology with fascism and nazism, many founding Zionists supported Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy as long as those regimes supported Zionism in return.
Zionism, which grew up alongside racist and white supremacist ideology, was often supported by right-wingers who were aligned with, and envious of, Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascist views. These views included classic fascist ideology such as fighting for a ‘fatherland’ based on a shared racial background, a false founding myth of communal identity, building a nation on racial exclusion, extreme nationalism, hyper-militarization, and uniting different economic classes by dissolving the individual in service of the state: an ethno-nationalist, fascist country.
This is why Zionists were in regular communication with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy beginning in 1933. Polish Zionist Vladimir Jabotinski collaborated with the antisemitic and authoritarian Polish government in the 1930s. Zionists continued to work with the Nazi and Polish regimes even as they rounded up tens of thousands of communists and socialists who were Jewish.
Zionists in Germany were given special privileges in the early Nazi regime to continue their organizations and newspapers as late as 1938, even while organizations and papers that were anti-fascist and democratic were forcibly shuttered and their members imprisoned and sent to concentration camps. For a time, Nazi Germany and Zionists shared the same goal – to remove Jews from Germany to Palestine by any means necessary. This is why Yitzhak Shamir tried working with Hitler in 1941 against Britain, even after it was clear that the Nazis were rounding up Jewish people for genocide.
Chaim Weizmann went to Berlin in 1933 to negotiate a trade and banking deal with the Nazis. Ben-Gurion turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering, since his goal was to bring wealthy capitalists to Palestine and to save “the Hebrew nation in its land” and not the working-class Jewish people in Europe, most of whom were anti-Zionist.
Just like how modern Zionists do not support BDS, and did not support the boycotts in South Africa, this agreement with Nazi Germany undermined a robust Jewish movement to boycott German products in the middle of the Great Depression, as it required that Zionist immigrants to Palestine buy exclusively from German companies.
Israel’s Continued Fascist Tendencies
Jewish Zionists like to claim that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East” even though Israelis continue to slide into open fascism. Since 1977, Israel has elected Prime Ministers from the Likud Party for all but 7 years, a party that has increasingly embraced the far right inside and outside of Israel.
The Likud Party was founded by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1977-83), who had ties to terrorists, state genocides, and fascist appeasers. Begin’s mentor was Jabotinsky, the aforementioned Ukrainian Zionist who tried working with Mussolini and emulated Nazi brown shirts.
Although modern Zionists refuse to acknowledge Israel’s history, Jews in the late 1940s had no such trouble. In a 1948 letter in the New York Times, Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi, Albert Einstein, and philosopher Hannah Arendt, responded to Begin’s visit to the US by calling him a fascist and terrorist. They also repeatedly called Israeli violence “fascist,” all while Begin was being embraced by Israeli society, even after his terrorist organization, the Irgun, blew up hundreds of Palestinian civilians in marketplaces in the early 1940s. Future Likud Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir (1983-84, 86-92), committed acts of terrorism alongside Begin.
Into the 1980s, some Israelis were still willing to speak honestly about Israeli society’s growing embrace of outright fascism. Amos Elon, an Israeli journalist, wrote that Begin represented a “fascism with a Jewish face” when Israel occupied Lebanon. Begin refused to fire his defense minister, Ariel Sharon (who had become a Likud prime minister from 2001-2005), even after a commission found Sharon responsible for the genocide of over 2,000 Palestinian refugees in Beirut. Sharon, who only left the Likud Party near the end of his life, has been described by critics like Israeli academic Baruch Kimmerling as “semi-fascist.”
Jewish Vermonters should recognize the similarities Israel shares with other fascist leaders and fascist countries and recoil in horror, instead of embracing this corrosive ideology. The results speak for themselves: nearly 75% of Jews in Israel between 18 and 24 identify as conservative, many of them supportive of an openly fascist Israeli apartheid. In the US, less than 25% of young people consider themselves conservative, yet young Jewish Zionists refuse to understand that their conservative ideology, and not antisemitism, is why they find themselves out of step with the rest of American youth.
Fascists Flock Together
Israel’s history of cozying up to fascists and dictators around the world is long but worth remembering, as these new fascists have often looked to Israel as a country to emulate. As early as 1949, but even more so in the 1960s, Israel’s Mossad was working closely with former Nazi scientists and war criminals. In the 1980s, Israel sold arms to fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile and shared knowledge about nuclear bombs with South African President John Voor, a white supremacist and who was a Nazi sympathizer during the Second World War. As late as 1987, Israel was the last Western country to support apartheid South Africa.
More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud Party 1996-99, 2009-2021, 2022 – present) endorsed former Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro in 2022 and regularly met with anti-semites and fascist leaders of other countries who endorse Zionism, including Vladimir Putin, the far-right Viktor Orban of Hungary, Ilham Aliyev, the fascist president of Azerbaijan, and even the brutal dictator Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Israel made arms deals with India’s fascist Hindutva Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mainstream Zionist organizations have supported growing fascist Hindutva organizations, showing them how to cry bigotry and victimization anytime their fascist nationalist ideology is questioned.
Daniel Blatman, an Israeli holocaust professor, has gone so far as to say that there are neo-Nazis in Netanyahu’s government, comparing them to authoritarian regimes in Poland and Hungary.
The religious right in Israel has more similarities to American Christian evangelicals than it does to traditional Jewish values, which is a big reason that Christian Zionist organizations support Israel. Vermont’s liberal Zionists will decry Trump and the evangelical right’s religious repression while supporting that same repression in Israel.
The victimization ideology of fascism, which Trump wields expertly, finds a place in Zionism. In the same way that German Nazis would argue they were not oppressors but in fact victims of “Jewish power,” we see Vermont’s Zionists making similar arguments, all while turning a blind eye to how Israel punishes Palestinians, including children, by destroying their water supplies, violently depriving them of their homes, using blockades to starve them of the basic necessities of life, jailing them through secret military courts, and killing them.
These liberal Zionists will also say that they accept and support queer, trans, and BIPOC Jews, all while ignoring the numerous Israeli state-sanctioned bigotry and genocide committed against these groups. It is well known that Ethiopian Jews in Israel face incredible amounts of state and individual racism, while many were forcibly given birth control similar to the eugenics movements in both Nazi Germany and Vermont.
Israeli women are treated as the property of men and of the state and are often stuck in incredibly abusive relationships because they are not allowed to divorce without the consent of a Rabbinical Court and the explicit permission of their husbands. Men, however, can divorce without needing the permission of their wives. Until it was removed in 2022, women wanting an abortion had to plead their case in front of a termination committee, an incredibly vulnerable and exposed requirement imposed on Israeli women.
Liberals will say that Israel is the “most queer-friendly in the Middle East” as if getting to drink mud instead of water should make queer Israelis and queer Jews feel good about Israel’s own queerphobia. Queer Israelis are not allowed to be married within Israel because the rabbinical courts forbid it, and for that same reason, anti-miscegenation laws keep Jewish people from marrying outside the faith. Trans people are allowed to exist in Israel, but their care is often subpar at best. While Rabbi Philmus of Ohavi Zedek is concerned about a non-existent caliphate in Gaza, he turns a blind eye to the Jewish courts in Israel which have a very similar function.
Israel had no problem blackmailing gay Palestinians with forced outings unless they became moles for the IDF and informed on their family and friends. Zionists point to Palestinians in Israel as a sign of “freedom” and “democracy,” as if the message to these Palestinians isn’t clear: get uppity and you will be outed at best, or rot away in an Israeli prison or concentration camp at worst.
Because Zionism is a nationalist and fascist ideology, most liberal Vermont Jewish organizations are willing to turn a blind eye to these behaviors and policies. They are pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-trans healthcare, and anti-racist, but only, it seems, within the US.
Because Zionist ideology has embedded itself into the Jewish religion after only 100 years, mainstream Judaism no longer upholds such values as loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Hillel once stated (in Shabbat 31a) that the entire Torah can be summed up by saying “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” Yet Zionism’s nationalism and Jewish supremacy are incompatible with this message. It is easy to love your neighbor when you’ve systematically evicted or killed anyone who doesn’t look like you or agree with you.
Jewish Zionists are becoming much more honest about their values, who they consider Jewish, and who deserves to be in their community. Avi Mayor, the editor in chief for the Jerusalem Post, recently wrote that anti-Zionist Jews should “no longer be considered a part of ‘kal Yisrael’ (the nation of Israel).”
UVM Hillel, however, has been providing a master class in muddled messaging. On October 23rd, Executive Director Matt Vogel posted on Hillel’s Instagram page that “…[we] recognize not every student will feel at home in Hillel.” A few weeks later, Vogel posted that a protest organized by Jewish Voice for Peace was a “celebration of vile atrocities against Jews.” But then the next day, he posted that Hillel welcomes “EVERY Jewish student on our campus into our community, regardless of their viewpoint on the war between Hamas and Israel, or any other subject in Jewish life.” And just yesterday, Vogel posted an apology that pledges a face turn in the organization’s communications strategy.
It’s possible that similar tensions are privately playing out, to some extent, in other Jewish organizations. But the past five weeks in Gaza have brought into sharp, deadly relief how vast the difference between pronouncements and actions can be. Local Vermont synagogues and Jewish organizations have all made it clear, by word and by deed, that they do not want a trans, queer anti-Zionist Jewish woman like myself as a member of their community.
Emily is a writer and organizer on the editorial collective of The Rake Vermont.