What is this Institute for, and for whom?
Grounded in grassroots spaces and committed to working with activists, organizers, and scholars across fields including Jewish studies, the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism is a response to the urgent need to declare space, distribute resources, and galvanize the necessary dialogue and research that will become the knowledge projects of Critical Zionism Studies. The Institute challenges the frequent assumptions that the study of Zionism must necessarily be pro-Zionist, overseen by Zionist faculty, and/or only undertaken in the context of Jewish Studies or Israel Studies.
We have crafted an Institute dedicated to the study of Zionism across multiple fields–among them Asian American studies, Asian studies, critical race and ethnic studies, feminist studies, queer studies, Palestinian studies, and beyond. We also envision the Institute as functioning far beyond academia.
The co-sponsors of our inaugural convening, for example, are varied, interfaith, and not limited to the university. Similarly, our Advisory Board is composed of scholars and activists across myriad organizing and intellectual spaces. A full list of Advisory Board members will be posted shortly.
Zionism is a term with multiple meanings, but in contemporary discussions it generally refers to support and advocacy for the Israeli state, the insistence that it remain a Jewish ethnostate, and the ongoing dispossession and violence against Palestinians produced (and indeed required) by that project. More expansively, the study of Zionism extends to Zionist institutions and logics, their role in the production of racial and gendered knowledge, their function in naturalizing and reproducing structures of militarized colonial violence, and the ways that Zionism interplays with, and relationally shapes, bigger spheres including politics, culture, the movement of capital, and ways of thinking about the world. In some specific contexts, “Zionism” might be used to mean other things: for instance, the entire history of the idea of a Jewish homeland, a European political movement based on socialist or agrarian visions, or a religious wish to live in the Holy Land (rather than any wish for a state). While Jewish and Israel Studies scholars rightly take up the study of Jewish engagement with Zionism, the study of Zionism is not bounded by Jewish and Israel Studies. This study of Zionism includes, for instance, research on the role of Zionism in the development of US hate crimes policy and homonationalism, the linkages between Zionist and Hindutva politics, the ties between Zionist institutions, the Israeli state, and the evangelical Christian right, the Zionist surveillance technology deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border, the destruction of Indigenous agriculture in Guatemala, the centrality of Zionism in the opposition to and attempted cooptation of ethnic studies in the United States, and the fostering of post-9/11 interventionist human rights politics with regard to North Korea. US hate crimes policy and homonationalism, the linkages between Zionist and Hindutva politics, the ties between Zionist institutions, the Israeli state, and the evangelical Christian right, the Zionist surveillance technology deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border, the destruction of Indigenous agriculture in Guatemala, the centrality of Zionism in the opposition to and attempted cooptation of ethnic studies in the United States, and the fostering of post-9/11 interventionist human rights politics with regard to North Korea.
We do not get to undertake the study of Zionism under conditions of freedom, and our work and research is made even more urgent by the constraints we must navigate and the risks we face. Zionism is, after all, the core, avowed ideology of a global military power, Israel, with an entrenched history of brutal racism and violent repression. The state army that enacts Zionism imposes daily, catastrophic violence on Palestinians and their supporters, as well as African and Asian migrants, leftists, and Israelis who withdraw their labor from the military apparatus. In North America, Zionist politics foreclose conversation and label efforts to stop racist state violence “antisemitic” or “extremist.” Critical thinking about, and collective organizing against, the political and ideological project of present-day Zionism must center those who encounter this violence and and are on the receiving end of its repression. It must scrutinize the claims made by its supporters. Therefore, the study of Zionism cannot be confined to Jewish studies alone, although it is and should be taken up critically and self-reflexively by Jewish Studies scholars. Nor is it a project that belongs especially to Israel Studies – particularly since, as recent research has detailed, the rise of Israel Studies in academia has been a project of Zionist donors, encouraged by the Israeli state as a strategic soft-power effort to enlist support for Israel.
What is the Critical Study of Zionism? Why do we need to “make space” for it?
“Critical study” means examining a subject in the contexts of power, including its relationship to forces like states, capital, militarism, and political culture. It requires self-reflexive consideration of how power, inequality, and structural violence shape and limit our own perspective, and reproduce the status quo.
In practice, the critical study of Zionism is already underway in a multitude of contexts, both in and beyond formal educational spaces. It is undertaken by activists struggling against Zionist violence against their communities, as well as scholars in Decolonial Studies, Settler Colonial Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Critical Disability Studies, and related scholarship, organizing, and activism. Unfortunately, the same repression limits the reach of that research, so the very notion of studying Zionism critically, particularly from below and by those whom Zionism targets, is still unfamiliar to some and demonized by others. To make space for the study of Zionism, to consider its politics, ideology, institutions, and interactions with other modes of power – in other words, to make space for the critical study of Zionism – we have to delink it from areas of study that fence it off from political and ideological critique. We must also make clear how the critical study of Zionism is deeply and essentially connected to the study of global forces including contests over power, race, colonialism, capital, militarism, and violence.
How does the Institute relate to community organizing/activism?
Housed in no one institutional location but instead accountable to grassroots struggles, ICSZ is a collaboration between academics, and activists, and organizers to produce research and support the development of Critical Zionism Studies. Zionism is both a fraught topic and a constant site of unceasing violence and emergency, meaning that we are constantly called to respond to urgent events in ways that most researchers are not.
ICSZ’s role in confronting this long-term emergency is to provide context for public conversation about Zionism and anti-Zionism, since contexts of history and power are often omitted from dominant narratives and media accounts in order to justify repression. ICSZ research is inspired by and aims to support grassroots organizing for the liberation of Palestinians and all people facing repression in the face of colonial power. ICSZ is reparative and bound by our shared commitment to decolonial justice, building a generative community of study, debate, and discussion. ICSZ is liberatory, hosting rigorous research undertaken in support of real people and their (our) efforts to end repression.
Why is the ICSZ convening closed, and why are the Points of Unity the starting point for discussions at the gathering? What about academic freedom?
Zionist political demands continually interrupt, limit, and foreclose academic freedom. Such politics demand that academic institutions endorse both Zionist ideas and the Israeli state. To be clear: Zionist politics, not the effort to subject Zionism to analytical study, threaten academic freedom, limiting and destroying lives and education and the material conditions for education and research, both in Palestine and abroad. By standing against these forces, we uphold academic freedom. We reject the claim that those who critically study Zionism must debate its merits: our opposition to Zionism, colonialism, and white supremacy is a first principle.
As researchers in the United States, Canada, and Europe have repeatedly documented, efforts to discuss and research Zionism are constantly subjected to a broad spectrum of attacks. Those attacks take the form of efforts to destroy researchers’ reputations, interfere with their employment and professional advancement, deploy institutional administrators against them, subject them to invasive scrutiny, stop them from teaching or meeting, deny them space, withdraw funding, derail them with lawfare, misrepresent or directly lie about their work, and doxx, harass, intimidate, and physically threaten them. (Indeed, the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ) was subjected to these tactics immediately when we launched: attacks have targeted individuals and the organization itself.) These malicious campaigns are supported by megadonors, well-resourced institutions, and state-military infrastructure. By contrast, those who critically engage Zionism, whether through research or political organizing, command little institutional support and minimal resources.
ICSZ is dedicated to establishing space and resources for an intellectual and political community that has been denied political speech, academic freedom, and safety. Our points of unity serve as common ground for the Institute’s community of activist and academic researchers. Starting from this common ground allows for study, debate, and true academic freedom to pursue critical anti-Zionist research unhampered by constant, derailing demands, bullying, smearing, and distractions. Perhaps most importantly, it allows the work to begin without having to declare or justify its first principles, which are a decisive rejection of the animating values of the neoliberal, colonial university.