The Jewish Tradition of Criticizing Israel

This reading list explores Jewish authors who have placed an extremely critical eye in the direction of Israel.

The Jewish Tradition of Criticizing Israel

As Israel’s war in Gaza continues into its fourth month and nearly 30,000 Palestinians and 1, 500 Israelis have been killed, more people than ever are speaking up about the historic dispossession of the Palestinian people. What many pro-Israel organizations have done is presented Jewish people as holding a monolithically Zionist opinion, and the Jewish voices most raised up are those who support the Western consensus on Israel-Palestine. This, however, does not track with what is happening with Jews across the diaspora, thousands of which have been vocally demanding a ceasefire and organizing to take action. They are part of the long Jewish tradition of criticizing Israel and Zionism, which has existed as long as the idea of Israel has and draws on many different strains of Jewish thought, theology, and politics.

In an effort to honor the diversity of Jewish opinions on Israel-Palestine, we have put together a list of Jewish authors who offer a decidedly critical take on the State of Israel. Each of these authors (or, even, groups of authors) are often distinct from one another, each having their own interpretive perspective on the conflict and its possible solutions, owing to the fact that with every two Jews you’ll likely find three opinions. 

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10. Ten Myths About Israel - Ilan Pappe (Verso)

From notorious Israeli socialist “New Historian” Ilan Pappe, Ten Myths About Israel is one of the most accessible books ever written to access entry into the conflict. Pappe gained a reputation for his stark anti-Zionism and position on the Jewish left, something that has made him persona non grata in his home country and pushed him to finally move abroad. Pappe funnels his vast historical knowledge of the politics of Israel-Palestine into ten commonly repeated “facts” that are often used to prop up Israel’s own justifications for its military behavior, inevitability, or need for demographic superiority . These short conversations help to reframe the entire history and open a window into possible futures outside of the occupation and dispossession of Palestinian land. These include chapters challenging the idea that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East,” the notion that Israel was a largely good-faith actor during the Oslo peace process, or that a two-state solution is the only viable one.

9. Except for Palestine - The Limits of Progressive Politics - Marc Lamont Hill and Mitchell Plitnick (The New Press)

Named after the phrase commonly said about synagogues and Jewish institutions—that they are “progressive, except for Palestine”—this book by journalist Marc Lamont Hill and writer and activist Mitchell Plitnick take a similar approach to Pappe by tracing through different misconceptions about the conflict, such as what it means to say “from the river to the sea” and what a single, democratic state in the region could look like. Easy to read and tied to known stories and characters, such as the claims commonly made about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Trump’s recent role in accelerating the crisis, and who is responsible for the condition of Gaza, Except for Palestine is a great crack at why Israel ends up dividing so many in the Jewish community and beyond.

8. The Crisis of Zionism - Peter Beinart (Times Books)

Beinart’s 2012 book, The Crisis of Zionism, was a landmark title on modern Zionism that tore through Jewish reading groups when it was first released. Beinart lays out how Zionism was beginning to betray the principles that he had admired of it in the first place. Beinart has fundamentally changed his position from the time when he wrote that book, previously supporting a “two-state” solution and now supporting a unified Israel-Palestine with equal rights for all its citizens. But, as a critique of the Zionist trajectory from a voice whose concerns include the future of Jewish Israelis, The Crisis of Zionism still begs to be read. 

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7. The “New Historians”

A bit of a cheat for a “top ten” list: this is a category of authors that should become an important entry point into this history. In the 1990s, a new class of historians emerged in Israel who now had access to government records about the state’s founding. What they revealed challenged Israel's official narratives, revealing war crimes and intentional ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. Those revelations completely changed the discussion on Israel’s future, contributed to the growth of post-Zionism, and created a canon of foundational texts on the conflict. These authors include Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev, Simha Flapan, and Avi Shlaim, each of whom have essential early books about Israel’s founding wars. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 by Benny Morris, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations by Avi Shlaim, A State at Any Cost - The Life of David Ben-Gurion by Tom Segev, and The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities by Simha Flapan are just a few of the important volumes that the “New Historians” have contributed.

6. The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance - Shaul Magid (Ayin Press)

No scholar has chronicled the changes in American Jewishness more succinctly than Shaul Magid. In this most recent collection of essays, he takes his scalpel to the American Zionist consensus and unpacks its functions, costs, and future. Magid’s own history moving into, and out of, Haredi communities and formerly living in Israel gives him a distinct vantage point for this discussion, as does his deep knowledge of hasidism, the Jewish far-right, kabbalah, and the American Jewish Establishment (as Peter Beinart is known to call it). This book features essays on separating Judaism from Zionism, Magid’s own doomed relationship to Zionism, and religious alternatives to the nation state. Magid also introduces the concept of “counter-Zionism” as a new way of thinking critically about, and thinking about, past Zionism. This book was released in 2023 at a moment when the question of Zionism dominates conversation on global politics, and Magid hopes to create an alternative framework that backs away from Zionism as a political motivation for the region without taking on some of the political baggage associated with anti-Zionism.

5. The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto - Daniel Boyarin (Yale University Press)

Also released in 2023, Boyarin’s book challenges Zionism as a force of continuity in Jewish life and, like Magid, sees diaspora as an essential piece in constructing what is sacred in Jewish tradition and experience. Boyarin’s anti-Zionism imagines Jewish life beyond its centering in simple geographic space, and largely draws from traditions like the Jewish Labour Bund’s concept of “dokyat,” or “hereness,” meaning we remain a Jewish community wherever they are. Boyarin traces through a number of alternatives, but also synthesizes a great bit of the diasporic challenge that the young Jewish left is offering to Zionism.

4. On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings of Ella Shohat (Pluto Press)

Mizrahi scholar Ella Shohat presents an incredibly provocative challenge to Israeli narratives, particularly around the state’s mythology about the immigration of Jews from Arab countries. Shohat’s focus is, as the title of one of her essays reveals, “Zionism From the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims.” She is particularly interested in how Zionism’s quest for a singularly represented Jewish people forced many Jews to sublimate their own cultures in favor of a newly establish Ashkenazi norm. Shohat’s work directly confronts the reigning logic of Israel’s right-wing government, which often points to Mizrahi support as a claim to its legitimacy.

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3. Books about the Israeli Far-Right

As Israel lurches further into the far-right, and as Religious Zionism and the Settlement Movement gain even more power, studies on the Israeli far-right may be the most important analysis available to understand Israel’s future. Among these, the leading scholar may be American-Israeli scholar Ami Pedazhur, whose books The Israeli Radical Right and Jewish Terrorism in Israel are straightforward and easily devoured histories of the fascistic currents in the Israeli right. For a deeper history, The Jewish Radical Right by Evan Kaplan, The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron by Colin Shindler, and the over thirty-years-old The Ascendance of Israel's Radical Right by now deceased journalist Ehud Sprinzak are all essential reads. For the American connection to the Israeli far-right, you could do no better than Shaul Magid’s 2022 intellectual biography Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, that tells the story of Jewish fascist leader Meir Kahane and how he helped to reshape Israeli politics despite being an American original. 

2. Wrapped in the Flag of Israel: Mizrahi Single Mothers and Bureaucratic Torture - Smadar Lavie (University of Nebraska Press)

Smadar Lavie’s groundbreaking study alternates between her own experience as a single mother in Israel and the stories of women she meets while conducting her research. Like Shohat, Lavie presents a counter-narrative to Israel’s story about Mizrahi residents and whose perspective sees the important allegiances that could be made between Mizrahim and Palestinians in the fight against systemic injustice. 

1. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism - Judith Butler (Columbia University Press)

Now a classic, philosopher Judith Butler’s critical look at Zionism and their effort to disentangle the two traditions helped to establish the modern criticism of Israel. Butler’s Jewishness is decisively secular and they present the Jewish tradition as one tied directly to the universalism of the communities they were nestled in, aligning Jewishness with subalternity. The book remains biting both for its definitional relationship to Jewish identity, particularly one that presents a secular alternative to Zionism, and for the outrage it sparked amongst Jewish civic institutions. 

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Additional Reading

In an effort to keep this list focused, I prioritized books that are self-consciously critical of Zionism and written from a Jewish perspective. These are thunderous contributions to the debate, but the conversation doesn’t end with these books. Instead, I wanted to suggest a few more titles that expand on this theme but from sometimes wildly different perspectives. First, Harvard Jewish History professor Derek Penslar’s 2023 book Zionism: An Emotional History provides an incredibly vast, empathetic, and critical eye to the role Zionism has played in the Jewish imagination, considering its relationship to colonialism, anti-Zionism, and modern Jewish identity. If you are looking for a look more at Israel’s internal cultures and current divisions, Isabelle Kershner’s 2023 journalist title The Land of Hope and Fear: Israel’s Battle for Its Inner Soul is a solid read, featuring chapters on different Israeli communities facing their own crises, including Russian immigrants, the Haredim, Palestinian citizens of Israel, modern kibbutz members, and other communities. We also look forward to The Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism by Marjorie Feld, which promises to be the first comprehensive history of Jewish anti-Zionism in the United States.

If you are interested in understanding the Zionist perspective, one book written by a center-right figure that can add immense clarity is We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel by Daniel Gordis. Gordis is right-leaning American immigrant to Israel whose purpose was mostly to accurately display why Israelis and American Jews remain so starkly separate on where their politics should lie. Few books make a clearer case for why anti-Zionism is growing amongst young American Jews and, perhaps unconsciously, lays out a profound critique of the founding politics of the State of Israel. 

But as important as the books on this list are, Palestinian voices need to be front and center in telling a story that is so often weighed in the direction of the powerful. The most relevant of these right now is The Hundred Years War on Palestine by Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi, who’s personal and passionate retelling of a century-long history is perhaps the most concise and demanding book on the subject in years. Likewise, The Question of Palestine and its essay "Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims" by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, also author of Orientalism, remains one of the most important puzzle pieces in putting together an accurate view of what has happened in this small strip of land.