Fiddler on the Nakba: Phoebe Maltz Bovy examines the strange new wave of Jewish anti-nationalism

In the great ideological reshuffling of post-Oct. 7, one of the most jarring things to see has been a rise in a kind of from-the-left blood-and-soil nationalism. The right-thinking progressive stance suddenly seemed to be that the world can be neatly divided between interlopers (settlers) and a land’s true and original inhabitants, and that the new arrivals should scram. Freeing Palestine was not merely a matter of stopping the killing—indeed, the slogan predated the IDF’s response to Hamas’s attacks—but more profoundly about the idea that there had been this glorious place, Palestine, an independent, perhaps even trans-inclusive Arab nation-state, that a bunch of white Jews from Brooklyn or Poland or something, unclear, but definitely very blond, randomly showed up in, under the misguided impression that it was 1492 and they were Christopher Columbus, erecting the flag of the Republic of Zabar’s and claiming that they, and not the indigenous population, had invented falafel.

The above digresses into satire, yes, but is also a paraphrase of what people on the Free Palestine side have been posting—on social media, and literally, as in, on signposts—for the past few months.

All of this puts antizionist Jews in an awkward spot. If you don’t think Jews should be in Israel, because you think national self-determination means a country’s true owners get to decide who’s in or out, where then can Jews go, given how often countries where we think we’re being vibrant and diasporic and rootless-cosmopolitans-in-a-good-way want nothing to do with us? And if you think Palestinians’ mistreatment kinda-sorta excuses Hamas, then why wouldn’t historical antisemitism—including, yes, apologies for being so basic, the Holocaust—also kinda-sorta excuse Israel itself messing up in ways that postcolonial states sometimes do?

Since Oct. 7, there have been 10,000 articles written about each of the 10 antizionist Jews. I speak hyperbolically, and also, I myself am part of the problem—if it is indeed a problem—as a member of the media, sharing and discussing and contributing to this discourse.

I do have theories about the over-representation of what is ultimately a marginal view among a tiny population: most Jews are pro-Israel, but the ones who are not tend to be young, outspoken, intellectually inclined, and therefore well-situated to get their messages across. This is why you can log onto social media or look at photos of a pro-Palestine protest and it will feel as if ‘not all Jews are Zionists’ refers to a 50-50 shot on where a Jew might stand, as versus the existence of a handful of rule-proving exceptions.

It’s good to show that not all Jews agree about… well, about anything, but can also be tricky when you get to sorting out when antizionism is antisemitism. A lot rather does ride on whether “Zionism” is or is not understood to be a belief system held almost universally by—though not exclusively by—Jews.

Marc Tracy’s compelling New York Times article about “diasporism” deserves credit for contextualizing the movement one hears so much about these days. Tracy spells out that the Jews he’s describing, the ones who have in a sense time-travelled by at least a century and veto the idea of modern political Zionism from the (relative) safety of their own 21st century North American homes, are the exceptions. He gets into the complicated religious and secular reasons some Jews want to de-centre Israel, as well as the pushback this receives, particularly in a world where Israel does exist and have millions of Jews living in it.

It’s a balanced, informative article about something I’d been wondering about, and pairs nicely (?) with a somewhat more out-there one, in the New York Times Magazine from a few days later. In this one—already being torn to bits—or rather, its subjects are being torn to bits on Tablet‘s social media account—another journalist, Daniel Bergner, revisits Black-Jewish relations, but through the lens of pro-Palestinian activism. For some Jews, a Free Palestine banner at a Black Lives Matter march is a feature, not a bug. Who knew? OK, anyone who noticed the one or two articles on antizionist Jews might have known, but Bergner’s story is also worth a read behind the paywall.

Eva Borgwardt, an American Jewish activist who graduated from high school in 2014, is contrasted with Susan Talve, a 71-year-old rabbi. Both are antiracist white Jews who overlapped in the St. Louis area—where 18-year-old Michael was shot and killed by a police officer, also in 2014—but Talve is of a different generation, the one that naively believed you could do social justice and include advocacy for Jews. That Jews could be part of the olam we were tikkun-ing, as it were. I’m 40 and I guess count me as an old—objectively as well, but here, I mean, on this particular generational divide. Meanwhile, Shaul Magid, a professor and rabbi Tracy interviews, is 65 and firmly diasporist.

Borgwardt, for her part, rewatched The Fiddler on the Roof as an adult, and “‘was sobbing, sobbing for the Nakba.'” We’re all different. My own takeaway was that it would be nice to have “one long staircase just going up and one even longer coming down.” Borgwardt’s politics may be objectionable but she is doubtless a better person than I am.

Bergner also interviews a woman named Nicole Carty, who is Black and is not Jewish (requisite mentioning of the should-be-obvious fact that some people are both), who holds the very sophisticated idea that Passover—a Jewish holiday, to once again state the obvious—is too Judeocentric:

“‘I’ve been to a lot of Passover celebrations,’ she added, ‘and it’s so weird that the story is only of Jewish subjugation, even though subjugation is still so present for other people.'”

Yes, so extremely “weird,” Jews centring Jews on Jewish holidays. Must be something nefarious afoot.

In all seriousness, the only “weird” thing here is that people keep inviting Carty to seders, given how she reacts to them. But maybe it’s like how Saira Rao would host dinners where (I paraphrase) white women would pay thousands of dollars to learn how they were awful Karens who should be ashamed of themselves. Never underestimate the draw of masochism.

“Carty, who is in her mid-30s, learned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during college at Brown, partly through a play, ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie.'” The most generous thing I can say about this is, adds up. Carty is so edgy that she objected to If Not Now holding post-Oct. 7 vigils mourning Israelis and Palestinians killed, because… look, here there is no generous interpretation.

So I have sat with Tracy’s and Bergner’s articles, trying to make sense of where to go from here. Is “diasporism” fundamentally a form of American Jewish privilege—privilege, that is, relative to Jews elsewhere? Borgwardt is from a “well-off St. Louis neighborhood” as well as someone who went to “boarding school” and then Stanford. Does this matter for substantive reasons—namely, someone like this is never going to need Israel (unless they do)—or am I being rude here, dismissing a young person’s politics as radical chic, just because of a background she herself didn’t choose?

I realize this is boring of me but I think my own politics are just a let-people-live-where-they-are-ism. This means not advocating for anyone’s displacement—not Diaspora Jews, not Israeli Jews, and no, not Palestinians, either. I also think everyone gets to be a bit parochial, and that “everyone” includes Jews.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.