No. 3

The Rise and Fall of Baby Boomer Zionism

Zionism has long been the tip of a spear aimed at the heart of a multiracial left.

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Thousands of pro-Israel supporters converged in Washington, DC, during the March for Israel held on the National Mall on Nov. 14, 2023. Photograph by Michael Nigro.

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have forced open a chasm of outrage between peoples and regimes around the world through sheer steadfastness in the face of untold violence. This is most true in the United States, where polls consistently show widespread support for a cease-fire while the ruling class doubles down on genocide in the name of Israel’s “self-defense.” Elite panic, manifested in crackdowns on dissent, has clarified to growing numbers of people a basic truth: any hope of building a multiracial left strong enough to confront the resurgence of fascism depends on solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. This is because Zionism, the movement for a state for the Jewish people in the eastern Mediterranean, is the cause that happens to most powerfully unite liberals and the right in open expression of racist warmongering.

In its aspiration to racialize Jews worldwide, Zionism has two poles: in Palestine, it is a colonial project of Jewish supremacy. In the United States, the most important center of Jewish life outside of Palestine, Zionism has buttressed a liberal multiracial order in which Jews of European origin are considered both white and an aggrieved minority. This combination explains the outrage cycles over antisemitism that punctuate American public life, in which Zionists can weaponize the language of antiracism against critics of Israel. When directed at actual victims of Euro-American racism and colonialism, however, tendentious accusations of antisemitism have always carried a whiff of desperation — which is also why the multiracial character of the Palestine solidarity movement has threatened  Zionism and must be either downplayed or disrupted.

This dynamic, which leaves antisemitism on the far right to metastasize unchecked, has only intensified since Oct. 7. Many of the flashpoints over Palestine have been sites of ruling-class power purportedly charged with reproducing a multiracial meritocratic elite: electoral politics, government bureaucracy, corporations, nonprofits, the arts, journalism, and above all higher education. And it is predictable that after Palestinians themselves, those punished for speaking out on Palestine in these spaces are often Black.

The endless scroll of open letters, doxxing campaigns, canceled events, and firings can feel trivial compared with the genocidal carnage Israel has unleashed on Palestinians in Gaza, and indeed these culture war skirmishes partly function as a distraction. But the struggle on the ground in Palestine and the struggle over Palestine in the imperial core are intertwined. The ruling class’s steady support for Israel threatens to erase the gains of social-movement organizing over the past decade and demobilize key constituencies in the Democratic Party’s own electoral coalition, including people of color, younger voters, and many other progressives. The consequences of such an implosion of left-liberal politics have yet to be reckoned, but they could pave the way for Donald Trump’s return to the presidency and a rapid acceleration of fascism. The stakes have never been higher — not only for Palestine but also for the American imperium and those suffering under it.

The Rise of Boomer Zionism

Zionism’s hegemony in American public life is an integral part of the world crafted by the baby boomer generation in its heyday, from the 1970s onward. Obvious examples of boomer Zionists include dispensers of conventional wisdom like New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker. But just as many Jews of this generation are not Zionist, many of the most important boomer Zionists are not Jews. Joe Biden, though born in 1942 and a Catholic, is an exemplary boomer Zionist, proudly making self-damning statements like “I’m a Zionist. Where there’s no Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world [that is] safe.” So is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who has waxed eloquent about first visiting Israel at age 19 (“a treasure of civilization for the entire human community, but a most vulnerable one,” he said in blurbing Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel). In pretty much any domain, boomer Zionists are amply represented among the gatekeepers.

Anyone who moves through elite institutions implicitly understands the parameters set by boomer Zionists. One learns to follow the lead of friends, colleagues, and kin who reflexively give Israel the benefit of the doubt, fostering a culture of deference — what Umayyah Cable has called “compulsory Zionism” — reinforced by the punishment of dissenting voices. As a result, it is very common for even those with no emotional attachment to Israel to nonetheless practice a willful ignorance stemming from empty mantras about Israel’s “right” to self-defense or about “Middle East politics” being a faraway, messy, “just don’t go there” issue.

Boomer Zionism was made possible by the geopolitics of U.S. imperialism. Israel’s military victory in the 1967 war, which completed the conquest of Palestine and resulted in the capture of Syrian and Egyptian territories as well, confirmed its status as a regional power. By dealing a crippling blow to the cause of pan-Arabism, Israel proved its strategic value to the United States and cemented the close alliance that persists to this day.

But the geopolitics alone cannot account for the seemingly bottomless depth of support in terms of dollars, UN vetoes, and affective identification among elites. In contrast, U.S. support for Saudi Arabia is arguably just as reactionary and durable, but it can be publicly criticized with far less consequence. Any materialist analysis must also reckon with Zionism’s small but significant social base inside the United States, which cuts across conventional partisan divides and unites constituencies beyond the national security bureaucracy and arms companies that typically shape U.S. foreign policy. The Zionist coalition is heterogenous. On the right, Christian evangelicals have become a major source of support for Israel. More relevant for any left analysis, however, is the other significant part of Zionism’s social base: the professional classes, where many American Jews of European origin happen to be located.

The close alliance between the two states allowed mainstream Jewish organizations in the United States to decisively embrace Israel, ending decades of ambivalence partly rooted in fear of stoking antisemitic perceptions of “dual loyalty.” As Hannah Arendt foresaw in her 1945 critical reassessment of Zionism, anxieties over accusations of dual loyalty gave way to dual privilege: American Jews, entering the middle class in ever greater numbers, could be avidly Zionist and exemplary U.S. citizens at the same time. Publicly questioning the role of Zionism in the U.S.-Israel relationship on nearly any grounds came to be cast as a form of antisemitism in itself. What Arendt did not clearly understand — and what her uncritical celebration of settler notions of freedom blinded her to — was that Zionism facilitated assimilation not only into American society but into American whiteness in particular.

Israel’s existence furnished an “old country” that Jews of European origin could refer back to as a point of origin and cultural connection within the category of the West, in the way that white ethnics could relate to Italy, Greece, Poland, and so on. Yet unlike these European homelands, Israel was also, in the words of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, an “old-new land”: a settler colony with an active frontier. Colonizing newly seized territories while suppressing a restive indigenous population made Israel a source of identification and vicarious enjoyment not only for assimilating American Jews but for white Americans in general.

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During a December 1964 press conference, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holds photographs of the three young civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman — murdered in Mississippi. Photograph via Bettmann/Getty Images.

Yet at the same time, the Black freedom struggle, whose high-water mark was also around 1967, shaped the contours of Jewish assimilation. The revolutionary energies of this moment resulted in a significant renegotiation of the social contract in the name of civil rights liberalism. This included surface commitments to creating a racially and ethnically diverse meritocracy in government, corporate boardrooms, universities, newsrooms, and other elite institutions that could steward the emergent neoliberal order. In the post–civil rights order, Jews of European origin were understood as historical victims of American white supremacy who struggled alongside African Americans — as allies, donors, and even martyrs, in the case of the murdered civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

The dovetailing of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the Black freedom struggle set the stage for the rise of Holocaust memory culture. As a major touchstone of Jewish identity in the United States, the Holocaust stood for a history of oppression that one could relate to regardless of religious or cultural practice and enshrined the status of American Jews as an oppressed minority group. Moreover, the understanding of the Holocaust as the superlative mass atrocity of modern history elevated antisemitism above ordinary (and especially anti-Black) racism into something even more objectionable. Given the broad embrace of Zionism, the weaponized conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism was not far behind. Anti-antisemitism became the language through which Zionism was normalized.

For the newly diversifying post–civil rights elites, clear red lines were established. The most important, of course, was a commitment to anti-communism and a concomitant rejection of anti-imperialist solidarity: in this sense, both Jewish and Black radicals had to be brought to heel. A second red line — one that would outlast the end of the Cold War — was deference to Zionism. And unlike anti-communism, anti-antisemitism powerfully weaponized the language of post–civil rights consensus itself, resonating with anti-racist liberals who might otherwise be skeptical of redbaiting.

Zionism and the Domestication of Black Freedom Struggles

People of color have been a persistent concern for boomer Zionism, being less likely than whites to identify with notions of settler freedom extolled by Israel or to feel historical responsibility for antisemitism. And boomer Zionism’s most formidable obstacle has arguably been Black internationalism. In the years after 1967, skepticism toward Israel became key to many visions of an autonomous Black American approach to U.S. foreign policy due to Israel’s close alliance with apartheid South Africa as well as sympathy for Palestinians as a colonized people.

From the 1970s onward, antisemitism accusations have been routinely weaponized against Black Americans engaged in anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist politics in order to stigmatize them in the eyes of potential white allies, whether in more radical groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party or in the mainstream. In 1979, Andrew Young, the first Black American ambassador to the United Nations and a close aide to Martin Luther King Jr. (accompanying him on the day of his assassination), was ousted after Israeli intelligence leaked news of his secret meeting with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Throughout the 1980s, the Zionist movement repeatedly clashed with another civil rights stalwart, Rev. Jesse Jackson, who mounted significant bids for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988. Jackson’s progressive agenda, fueled by his background in movement politics and informed by joint struggle with Arab American leftists, included comparatively critical stances on Israel, such as demanding that the United States negotiate with the PLO. He also became a sort of shadow envoy for Black and progressive America, traveling to various regimes vilified by the United States government — including Syria, Cuba, Iraq, and Yugoslavia — to negotiate the release of captured U.S. citizens.

Boomer Zionism’s peak years, like that of the U.S. imperium, were the 1990s and 2000s. The opening of negotiations between Israel and the PLO heralded a sense of optimism that a U.S.-brokered peace was within reach. While it did nothing to stop Jewish colonization in the West Bank, the “peace process” represented the official Palestinian leadership’s implicit acceptance of Zionism, undermining anti-Zionist critique everywhere.

In the meantime, the marginalization of any autonomous Black foreign policy continued unabated. Ironically, it was George W. Bush who appointed Black Americans to the highest positions of the foreign policy apparatus, but neither Colin Powell nor Condoleezza Rice (nor Barack Obama’s UN ambassador Susan Rice years later) had a significant political base or constituency of their own, especially not in Black communities. And the ascendancy of Obama exemplified the parameters of the post–civil rights meritocracy that was, as Aziz Rana has argued, shorn from his own family legacies of Third Worldism. Obama was Ivy League educated enough for white voters and legible to Black voters as an adopted son of Chicago’s South Side, all while being largely deferential to the interests of capital and the national security state.

Obama’s repudiation of the pastor Jeremiah Wright, who became notorious for his critiques of U.S. racism and imperialism and was of course also anti-Zionist, sealed his fealty to the ruling consensus and represented the best hope yet that boomer Zionism had of reproducing itself in a new generation. When Jesse Jackson was caught on a hot mic disparaging Obama for performing respectability politics during the 2008 campaign, he was easily cast as an irrelevant and resentful has-been.

The Unraveling of Boomer Zionism

While the neoliberal consensus has buckled since the 2008 financial crisis under pressure from both left and right, boomer Zionism has been slowly unraveling in the background. Syncopated to the rhythms of dissent and discontent have been Israel’s mass slaughters in Gaza in 2008–9, 2012, and 2014 — made possible by the Oslo era’s reconfiguration of the occupation from boots-on-the-ground repression to siege warfare and aerial bombardment.

A key moment was in the summer of 2010, when right-wing activists protested plans to open a mosque in southern Manhattan near the World Trade Center site, part of intensified anti-Muslim sentiments that served as a surrogate for white backlash to the election of the country’s first Black president. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) joined the campaign, to the dismay of some of its mainstream allies. The ADL had long exemplified boomer Zionism: it was fervently pro-Israel but also supported religious freedom for U.S. Muslims, a cynical stance that sought to cultivate a depoliticized Muslim identity as a counterweight to Arab nationalism. Though the ADL apologized more than a decade later, its alignment with the anti-mosque campaign was an early sign that the carefully manicured fence separating boomer Zionism’s support for Israel abroad from its civil rights liberalism at home was collapsing under its own weight.

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Protesters demonstrate on South Grand Avenue in St. Louis the day after VonDderrit Myers Jr., a Black teenager, was shot and killed by an off-duty police officer working as a security guard, Oct. 9, 2014. Photograph by Whitney Curtis.

Before long, the disappointments of the Obama project on both racial justice and economic justice grounds gave rise to what has arguably been the single most transformative factor in the landscape for Palestine solidarity organizing in the United States in recent decades: the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. The fateful summer of 2014, with the Ferguson uprisings and the Israeli onslaught against Gaza, organizers revived attempts to build solidarity between the Black American and Palestinian freedom struggles. Reading groups, delegations, think pieces about “lost histories” of solidarity, fascination with Afro-Palestinians, and other acts of mutual learning and joint struggle began to spread.

Boomer Zionism’s policing of post–civil rights parameters had its first major test in the summer of 2016, when a policy platform document produced by a major BLM movement organization (and co-authored by Rachel Gilmer, a Black Jewish organizer), the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) crossed a red line of Zionist consensus by accusing Israel of genocide against Palestinians. The blowback was swift and predictable: Zionist groups decried the statement, and a New York City fund-raiser for BLM was canceled. But compared to critics of Israel in the academy and nonprofit sector, BLM was a robust social movement and less vulnerable to Zionist pressures. Instead the move backfired, amplifying intergenerational schisms within Jewish communities. Activists who had been energized by BLM turned against the heavy-handed tactics of boomer Zionists. Some did so out of solidarity with Palestinians, others because they wanted to preserve the possibility of building alliances with Black activists. For these younger Jews, interrogating their whiteness in the United States also pushed them to question their Jewish privilege under Zionism. In modeling an antiracist approach that departed from post–civil rights parameters, BLM helped shift the conditions for critique within Jewish communities as well, influencing groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.

What BLM provided, especially through its 2020 crescendo, was a mass mobilization in the United States and a generational reckoning, however limited, with the failures and contradictions of the post–civil rights settlement. It sparked two divergent responses from the ruling class: on the one hand, a doubling down on co-optation and recommitment to the core parameters of the project, under the guise of “diversity, equity, and inclusion”; and on the other hand, an amplified white backlash that turned “critical race theory” from the name of a relatively superannuated body of legal scholarship into a free-floating signifier for racial threat.

The competition between these two strategies of containment and repression came to a head after Oct. 7 in one of the key sites of intra-elite struggle: Harvard University. The elevation of Claudine Gay as the first Black woman to lead the country’s most prestigious educational institution was supposed to be the next logical step in the post–civil rights trajectory. And true to form, when students at Harvard erupted in protest against Israel, the university administration sought to mollify Zionist sentiments, standing by as students were doxxed and harassed, and punishing a Black student for attempting to de-escalate a confrontation in his role as a protest marshal. Gay went as far as to condemn the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as antisemitic — an equivalence that itself mobilizes anti-Palestinian stereotypes as immutably Jew-hating even when they call for freedom.

And yet none of this was enough. An online lynch mob egged on by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and former Harvard president Lawrence Summers deemed Harvard insufficiently repressive, no longer to be trusted in its task of reproducing a diversified but politically pliant meritocratic elite. Ackman, a longtime donor to Democratic politicians and a benefactor of the Innocence Project and Planned Parenthood, and Summers, a former Treasury secretary, are classic Zionist centrist liberals. Their relentless attacks dovetailed with the right-wing “anti-woke” campaign led by Rep. Elise Stefanik in Congress (herself accused of advocating racist “Great Replacement” theories) and media provocateur Christopher Rufo, all boosted by nonstop New York Times coverage, to eventually drive Gay from office. Harvard’s governing board faintly lamented the racist harassment Gay endured while washing their hands of her. Her ouster was the strongest message yet that Zionists are abandoning the post–civil rights consensus to openly make common cause with the right.

Anti-Zionism or Barbarism

A persistent challenge for those organizing anti-imperialist politics in the United States has been articulating the shared interests linking progressive forces here with those around the world. This is partly because U.S. power abroad is often exercised not through direct rule but rather through neocolonial relations of dependency that obscure any sense of political connection and therefore responsibility.

During the Vietnam War, the draft unintentionally created such a linkage, allowing enough Americans — especially white middle-class men — to see how their own fates were tied to the course of the war. The government’s decision to largely abandon conscription shortly thereafter was led by none other than Milton Friedman, a leading exponent of neoliberalism. Since then, the United States has been careful to ensure that the burdens of military service have been shouldered by ever-narrower slices of the population or, in the case of privately contracted labor, offloaded onto foreigners. This was a major reason why the record-breaking protests against the Iraq War did not congeal into a robust antiwar movement.

After a post-Occupy decade of uprisings focused on economic and racial justice in the imperial core, Palestine is putting questions of war and militarism back at the forefront of left organizing in the United States. That Palestine has likely been able to get more people in the streets than the Afghanistan War ever could or to maintain pressure on the system for arguably longer than the Iraq War may seem curious given the direct role the U.S. played in those wars. But paradoxically, it is the very closeness between the U.S. and Israel that has made such mobilization possible. More than three-quarters of a million Americans visit the Holy Land every year; many of them are Jewish and Christian Zionists, but they also include Palestinian Americans and others engaged in solidarity tourism. Boomer Zionism may have succeeded in cultivating a level of support and identification with Israel unlike other client states, but making Israel close to a 51st state has also enabled the articulation of a sense of responsibility among progressives, including growing numbers of anti-Zionist Jews.

The task of the moment is clear enough: to do everything possible to disrupt the poisonous settler solidarity that enables Israel’s genocide on Palestinians in Gaza. Looking ahead to the presidential election, in the absence of a dramatic change of course by the White House, all outcomes seem terrifying. A Biden victory would seemingly vindicate the Democratic Party’s politics of disposability, which extend far beyond Palestine; a defeat and the accompanying disaster of Trump’s return would also be a perfect opportunity to lay blame on anti-Zionists. Either way, the Democratic establishment — which has always been more focused on being the power in the party rather than putting the party in power — will readily back any right-wing crackdown on Palestine organizing.

In this light, Palestine solidarity is not merely an abstract moral duty, but a political principle for navigating contradictions in the heart of the U.S. imperium. A greater share of the U.S. population than ever before consists of people for whom imperialism, settler colonialism, and racism are not abstractions but forces that have marked our families and even our bodies. We are better positioned not only to identify with Palestinians but also to see how Zionism has disciplined the racial regime under which we all live. We understand all too well the truth articulated by Audre Lorde: we “are citizens of the most powerful country in the world, a country which stands upon the wrong side of every liberation struggle on earth.”

In propping up the post–civil rights consensus that co-opted and repressed revolutionary energies for decades, Zionism has been the tip of a spear aimed at the heart of a multiracial left. Now Zionism is abandoning that consensus to align with other forces even more terrifying. The fight ahead is a long one, but there is no going back.

Darryl Li is an anthropologist and lawyer who teaches at the University of Chicago.

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