I am not a Zionist. For the first half of my life and then some, the idea that a Jewish man or woman could say those words and mean them was almost as far-fetched as the idea that Jews had horns. Israel – it had been drilled into me from the moment I was old enough to understand there was a place called Israel – was a categorical imperative of Jewish existence. To suggest the Jews were not a nation was not just to be in league with all those who had tried to wipe us out, not just to deny a central truth of how we’d managed to survive in spite of those attempts, but also to cut yourself off from your own people, to make yourself like a limb severed from its body, and what kind of existence was that? Despite the fact that I’d never been there, that I had no intention of making aliyah, Israel was my country too, without ambiguity, but not without ambivalence.
Having two countries that I could call my home – Israel and the United States – brought with it the question of divided loyalties: Are you a Jewish-American or an American-Jew? If the United States and Israel went to war, on whose side would you fight? I remember thinking, when one of my Hebrew school teachers asked the latter question – and if I was in Hebrew school, then I was still in elementary school – that it would depend on which side I thought was right, but I also remember being afraid to give that answer, since I knew I would be told that I was wrong. The United States might be a good place for us to live as Jews for now, but not only did we have to remember that it–meaning the Holocaust – could happen here too, and so Israel, the Jewish State, the place we could all flee to if we had to, was the only place we could really call home; the very fact that Israel was a Jewish state, founded in the blood of Jewish heroes, on the land that had been the kingdom ruled by David, our ancient God-given homeland, meant that it could claim, that we owed it, a commitment transcending the accident of our place-of-birth.
Mine, in other words, was not entirely a secular Zionism. God’s hand could be seen everywhere in the story of Israel’s founding, most especially in its victory over the surrounding Arab nations when they invaded in 1948 after Israel declared its independence. Contemporary Israeli historians have been questioning the traditional narrative of that war – i.e., that the Arabs invaded to prevent Israel’s founding – but even if the alternative narratives that some of those historians have proposed are indeed closer to the truth than what I was taught, I doubt it would have changed significantly the conclusion to which I was supposed to come: that God wanted to give Israel back to the Jews and that it was his right as the creator of the world to do so. The fact of Israel’s existence was all the proof anyone should need.
It wouldn’t have mattered, in other words, that Israel’s provisional government could have avoided the 1948 war – at least according to Simha Flapan in his book The Birth Of Israel: Myths and Realities–by accepting, as the Arabs had already done, an American proposal for a three month truce (cited here) and that this truce might conceivably have led to a peaceful declaration of Israeli statehood. My teachers, especially once I’d entered yeshiva, would still, I believe, have quoted to me the commentary given by Rashi on the very first word of the Torah, b’reisheet, which is usually translated as “In the beginning,” but which is more accurately rendered as “at the beginning of.” Rashi quotes Rabbi Isaac, who points out that since the Torah’s main purpose is to teach the commandments Jews are expected to follow, it was not necessary to begin the Torah with the creation of the world. So why did God begin at the beginning?
For if the nations of the world should say to Israel: “You are robbers, because you have seized by force the lands of the seven nations” [of Canaan], they [Israel] could say to them, “The entire world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, He created it and gave it to whomever it was right in his eyes. Of His own will He gave it to them and of His own will He took it from them and gave it to us.”
I read those words now and it’s hard for me to believe I actually believed them; and I also, as I read, remember very clearly when my belief started to unweave itself. I was an undergraduate arguing with another student in my dorm about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – which was then known as the Arab-Israeli conflict – and I was citing chapter and verse of every argument I had been taught to justify both Israel’s presence in the world and its treatment of the Palestinians, including the horribly racist canard of Palestinian mothers breeding their sons to become terrorists, which was repeated as common knowledge in the circles where I got my initial Jewish education.
I don’t remember exactly how I said it, but when I uttered whatever words I uttered, my dormmate’s lower jaw dropped, and he looked at me with a mixture of speechless pity and absolute disbelief. “Do you really think,” he asked me, “that Palestinian mothers are any different from your mother or mine? Do you really think they want for their sons anything other” – and here he began to count off on his fingers – “than a long and full and happy and productive life?” He went on to say some other things as well, but I don’t remember what they were because I had stopped paying attention. It was my turn to stare, slack jawed and filled with disbelief. How could it never have occurred to me that Palestinian mothers and their sons were actual human beings?
During my undergraduate years, I spent my summers working at a Federation of Jewish Philanthropies sleep away camp. Part of my job was to be the camp’s Jewish Resource Specialist, someone sent by the New York City Board of Jewish Education to help make Jewish cultural programming a more integral part of the daily activities the camp offered. On rainy days, when outdoor activities were impossible, we would herd the kids into the largest room available and show them movies. On this particular rainy day, we were told there would be a movie from I forget which Jewish organization about Israel, and I was excited because I thought it would provide material for me to work with as I planned activities for the rest of the week. Part of what I was supposed to do, after all, was to get the campers at least to think about, if not fully appreciate, the central place Israel occupied in Jewish identity and the role it played, historically and on a daily basis, in Jewish survival.
I don’t remember the beginning of the movie well, though I think it started innocently enough, with scenes of Israelis living their lives in cities – especially Jerusalem – on the beach, a kibbutz, and there were plenty of shots of young people, spanning the age range of the campers in the gym, from about 7 or 8 to about 15 or 16, and there were lots and lots of happy families. At some point, though, the music went tragic and we were looking at scenes from some well known PLO attacks within Israel. I recall this one in particular:
It’s from the Ma’alot massacre, which took place in 1974, when three members of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine killed 22 Israeli high school students. As I remember it, the image was often used in programs directed at young people to impress on them both the dire situation in which Israel found itself and the ostensible fact that what happened in Israel was directly relevant to their lives as Jews growing up in the United States. If the mere fact of living in Israel, the Jewish State, placed young Jews at risk, how much more so might we someday be at risk in the United States; and if they were willing to live with that risk for the sake of the Jewish State, what could we do to be worthy of that sacrifice? The movie we were watching, however, did not continue in that vein. Instead, what followed was a piece of propaganda intended to impress the audience with the advanced weaponry being used by the Israeli military to fight what the narrator referred to as the barbaric Arab terrorists threatening Israel’s existence. The film’s narration lauded the aid Israel received from the US as absolutely necessary to prevent the inhumanity of the terrorists from destroying America’s only true friend in the Middle East, and it also included a pitch for more money, though since the campers were clearly not the pitch’s intended audience, it was not clear to whom precisely the appeal was being made.
I was indignant, though not because I disagreed in principle with what the movie had to say. I may have started to understand that most Palestinians were ordinary people just like me, but it was still a fact that the PLO was sworn to destroy Israel; attacks such as the one at Ma’alot were still going on; and so Israel needed to be able to defend itself, even if that defense meant going on the offense, as it did when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1978 with weapons like the ones described in the movie. Rather, what I objected to was the fact that the film had no educational value whatsoever. It was intended not to provoke thought, but to inspire feelings, and I complained that we had no business showing it to kids who deserved to learn about the situation in Israel without such overt manipulation. I said this to the person the camp had called in to show the film and lead the discussion afterwards. To be honest, he told me, he was not an educator. The film was part of a fundraising presentation he gave regularly at Hadassah meetings, but he didn’t understand why I was complaining. Sooner or later the kids would understand what animals the Arabs were, so why not now? Israel, he said, should just wipe them all out; the Middle East would be far better off, and the Jews, at last, could live in peace.
It was hard for me then, as it is hard for me now, to know how to respond to such a statement, not because I don’t have a response, but because my experience has been that pointing out to Jewish people who say such things that they are advocating genocide is throwing a pebble of reason against a brick wall of denial. Are you seriously comparing me to the Nazis? they will ask; and neither a yes nor a no will move the discussion any closer to talking about the issues raised by what they said. Since I did not have the authority to do what I wanted to do – which was to start a new discussion with the campers about how to know propaganda when you see it, and how to read it critically – I walked out into the rain, pretending there was something I needed to get from bunk.
As I wandered down to the lake that was just a few dozen yards from the building where that man was now leading his discussion, the one thing I was certain of was that his Zionism was not a Zionism I wanted any part of, and I started to think some version of what many Zionists probably think when they hear Jews say the kinds of thing that man said. That’s not Zionism; it can’t be. Zionism, plain and simple, is the belief that Israel’s founding and continued existence as a Jewish State was and is legitimate. This legitimacy needs to be recognized and respected as such by the rest of the world, as does every Jew’s right to settle in Israel if he or she chooses, and as does Israel’s right to protect itself against aggression. None of this requires the oppression of the Palestinians or the military occupation of their land; but if the Palestinians make such measures necessary, Israel is within its rights to do what it needs to do to protect itself.
What that man said, however, was (and is) Zionism. Certainly it was the Zionism to which I was first exposed, and certainly it is the Zionism expressed by many of the people in this video posted on Jewschool. “There’s only way to deal with a cancer,” one woman says. “You either burn it out or you remove it.” And check out the woman who, at around 2:04, answers the interviewer’s question about how many civilian casualties would cause her to question the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza by describing a picture she saw that morning of a girl in Lebanon whose father was slashing her head with a dagger as part of a custom of ritual bloodletting that some Shiite Muslims observe on the day of Ashura, when they mourn the death of Imam Hussein and his family, inflicting symbolic suffering on themselves in order to express their grief. The woman’s point is that, clearly, the question of civilian casualties needs to be seen in the context of the Muslim Arab’s barbaric nature, and when the interviewer interrupts her to point out that his parents hired a mohel to slash his penis when he was just eight days old, she is left almost speechless. “I don’t think you can compare this,” she says. “That’s inappropriate.”
To claim that the anti-Arab racism these sentiments express is not part of Zionism is not only to deny historical fact – the Zionist movement has been shot through with anti-Arab racism from its beginning, some of which I pointed out in Part Four of this series – but it is also implicitly to suggest that Zionism exists primarily not in the real world, where the actions it inspires are shaped by the beliefs of the people who take those actions, which then have real consequences in the lives of real people, Jewish, Palestinian and otherwise, but rather in a realm of pure semantics, where it is possible to isolate from its ideological consequences the assertion that the Jews – all of us, everywhere – are a single nation and that Israel’s founding and continued existence as a Jewish State was and is legitimate. Despite the initial willingness of the Zionist movement to consider a Jewish state in Madagascar, for example – and leaving aside the obvious reality that Madagascar was not uninhabited at the time – how could any Jewish nationalistic reading of Jewish history and tradition not have eventually lead the Zionists to conclude that the Jewish homeland they were pursuing had to be founded in the Middle East? How, given the logic of European nationalism which informed Zionism from its inception – even if Zionism is not, properly speaking, understood as European nationalism – could the idea of that Jewish homeland not have become the idea of the Jewish state that we have today.
Sure, it’s possible to argue that the logic of Jewish nationalism did not have to lead Zionism as a movement to these conclusions. More to the point, it is a fact that there were Zionists who did not reach these conclusions. Not a few Zionists, for example, Judah Magnes among them, believed that Israel should be a binational state, though even that position does not address the question of why the people already living in the region should have had to accept such a state to begin with. It is important to be able to make this argument in response to those who want to define Zionism as a monolithic movement which has found its apotheosis in the actions and policies of the current Israeli government and who then hold all Jews worldwide, Zionist (of whatever stripe) or not, responsible for those policies and actions. Not that I think you can argue an antisemite out of her or his antisemitism; but it is important to be able to educate people, Jews and non-Jews alike, that talking about Zionism as if it were one thing to all Jews is both misleading and irresponsible.
So if the Zionism of the racists is Zionism, and the Zionism of the anti-racists is Zionism, and the Zionism of those who want a Jewish state in Israel is Zionism, and the Zionism of those who wanted something other than a Jewish state in Israel is Zionism; if, in other words, any version of a stance towards Israel that does not question the underlying notion that it should somehow, in some form, be a home for any Jew who wants to live there is Zionsim, because the Jews are a single nation with a right to such a place, then what is Zionism? I am reminded of the joke in which two men ask their rabbi to settle a dispute between them. The first man tells his side of the story.
“You’re right!” the rabbi says.
Then the second man tells his side. After listening closely, the rabbi says, “You’re right!”
The two men look at him in exasperation. “Wait a minute! We can’t both be right!”
Without missing a beat, the rabbi looks at them both and says, “Also right!”
I am not a Zionist, and I have not been one for quite a long time now, and yet writing those words still makes me cringe a little, the way I imagine people are supposed to cringe when they tell family secrets, or the way, in certain contexts, I still cringe when I reveal that I was sexually abused as a boy. Not that I am comparing the experience of no longer being a Zionist to the experience of sexual abuse, but each is a revelation that leaves me vulnerable, not necessarily to attack – though that, too – but to instances of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, willful and otherwise, that can sometimes be worse than a full-on frontal assault. I know, for example, that there are Jewish anti-Zionists who will use what I have said about my early Jewish education as further evidence that Zionism is a racist ideology of Jewish supremacy; but then, in the same breath, those same people will argue, as the charter of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network does, that “Zionism is not just racist but anti-Semitic. It endorses the sexist European anti-Semitic imagery of the effeminate and weak ‘diaspora Jew’ and counters it with a violent and militarist ‘new Jew,’ one who is a perpetrator rather than a victim of racialized violence.” (I wrote a little bit about the stereotype of the effeminate Jew in Part 4 of this series.)
To be Zionist, in other words, at least according to this logic, is to believe both the antisemitic oppressor’s definition of the Jew and the white oppressor’s definition of all those who are not white. It is to be within oneself, simultaneously, the oppressed and the oppressor, truly a fucked up state of affairs for anyone trying to live a reasonably meaningful life; but while I can disagree with Jewish anti-Zionists about what it means to be an authentic Jew – because you cannot have, within a single ethnic group, one identity-related movement that is anti another identity-related movement without raising the question of authenticity – what am I to make of the fact that the very same analysis of Zionism will be made by non-Jewish anti-Zionists who are unambiguously and unapologetically antisemitic? David Duke, for example, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a former Louisiana State Representative – whose website I will not link to – includes in his book, Jewish Supremacism: My Awakening To The Jewish Question, the following quote by Dr. Stephen Steinlight, a former Director of National Affairs at the American Jewish Committee:
I’ll confess it, at least: like thousands of other typical Jewish kids of my generation, I was reared as a Jewish nationalist, even a quasi-separatist. Every summer for two months for 10 formative years during my childhood and adolescence I attended Jewish summer camp. There, each morning, I saluted a foreign flag, dressed in a uniform reflecting its colors, sang a foreign national anthem, learned a foreign language, learned foreign folk songs and dances, and was taught that Israel was the true homeland. Emigration to Israel was considered the highest virtue, and, like many other Jewish teens of my generation, I spent two summers working in Israel on a collective farm while I contemplated that possibility. More tacitly and subconsciously, I was taught the superiority of my people to the gentiles who had oppressed us. We were taught to view non-Jews as untrustworthy outsiders, people from whom sudden gusts of hatred might be anticipated, people less sensitive, intelligent, and moral than ourselves. We were also taught that the lesson of our dark history is that we could rely on no one.
The quote is from “The Jewish Stake in America’s Changing Demography: Reconsidering a Misguided Immigration Policy,” a long and thoughtful essay (here’s the pdf) that I don’t ultimately agree with, but which asks important questions about the Jewish community in the United States in relation to trends in immigration that have been changing the demographics of this country for some time. Duke wants to use the quote to show that Jewish supremacism (read: Zionism) is the dominant force in Jewish life, and one can find throughout his website many instances of the world-Zionist-conspiracy canard. More to the point, Duke too is concerned with who is and who is not an authentic Jew – or in Duke’s case perhaps “good Jew” would be more appropriate – and he cites Israel Shahak as an example. Shahak, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto and Bergen-Belsen who became a professor of chemistry at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a former president of the Israeli League for Human and Civil rights, was an outspoken critic of both the Israeli government and orthodox Judaism. Shahak’s writing about Judaism, which has been seriously challenged –see as well the Wikipedia entry on Shahak – is one of the sources that informs Duke’s antisemitic tract, but whether or not Shahak’s ideas about Judaism and Zionism are accurate, the fact that Duke uses him to show that there are “good/authentic Jews” in the same way that the International Anti-Zionist Jewish Network uses its critique of Zionism to demonstrate that they are the “good/authentic Jews” should give pause to anyone who continues to see the questions surrounding Zionism in such neatly binary terms. (And please note: I am not accusing the International Anti-Zionist Jewish Network of being self-hating; I want merely to point out that when Jews acting in good faith and antisemites, whom I believe are acting in bad faith by definition, approach the question of Zionism using an intellectual framework built on the same kind of good-Jew/bad-Jew dichotomy, then it is important to question the nature of the framework itself.)
Steinlight’s confession, however, is not – as Duke’s decontextualized use of it makes it sound – an expression of guilt over having been an adherent of so-called Jewish supremacism. Rather, Steinlight is describing the Jewish version of an idea that most, if not all, oppressed communities have in common: the idea that the oppressed are somehow more moral, more sensitive and, in general, “better people” than the oppressor. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by, among others, women about men, Black people about white people, gay people about straight people and, of course, Jewish people about non-Jews; given how close Steinlight’s generation is to the generation of the Holocaust – I believe, though I could be wrong, that he is about 15 or 20 years older than I am – it is not surprising that he grew up with a particularly hard core version of this sentiment. (I should also point out that the white nationalism of which David Duke is a primary spokesperson has its own version of this sentiment as well.)
Steinlight makes his confession in the context of explaining why “Jews need to be especially sensitive to the [fact that] one person’s ‘celebration’ of his own diversity, foreign ties, and the maintenance of cultural and religious traditions that set him apart is another’s balkanizing identity politics.” He continues:
For Jews, it is at best hypocritical, and, worse, an example of an utter lack of self-awareness, not to recognize that we are up to our necks in this problem. This has been especially true once we were sufficiently accepted in the United States to feel confident enough to go public with our own identity politics. But this newfound confidence carries its own costs; people are observing us closely, and what they see in our behavior is not always distinct from what we loudly decry in others. One has to be amused, even amazed, when colleagues in the organized Jewish world wring their hands about black nationalism, Afrocentrism, or with cultural separatism in general – without considering Jewish behavioral parallels.
In my own experience, the thing that made Jewish identity politics different from any other identity politics, at least according to the Jews who were my teachers, was that we’d just been through the Holocaust. The trauma of recent history, they argued both implicitly and explicitly, allowed us to claim a special status that it was just not possible for Blacks, for example, to claim. (While it may be different now, when I was receiving this education during the 1970s, African-Americans were the only point of comparison ever used.) No one questioned, according to this line of thinking, that African-Americans were in fact American, or at least not anyone with a significant amount of power; and slavery – while it was of course fairly recent and had, of course, been horrible, with consequences still being felt – had not been a genocide, which meant that the relationship of African-Americans to the United States was radically different from the relationship of the Jews to a world that had, for the most part, turned its back on us while the Nazis tried to wipe us out.
To argue that there are no significant differences between the Holocaust and slavery would be pointless, as it would be pointless to argue that those differences don’t make a difference in how Jews and African Americans experience themselves both psychologically and in terms of their socio-economic, cultural and political positioning relative to those groups that hold power. What is not pointless to argue, and this is what Steinlight says, is that Blacks – along with all other similarly situated groups – are as entitled to their nationalisms as the Jews are to ours. Nor is it pointless to point out the Jewish community’s self-indulgent hypocrisy when it refuses to recognize that fact. More to the point, though I am not sure Steinlight would put it quite this way, that hypocrisy is one means by which the Jewish community in the United States either finds it difficult to acknowledge or – more insidiously – willfully hides from itself a central fact of our existence here: “[P]ound for pound,” Steinlight writes, and he is right, Jews have the most political power “of any ethnic/cultural group in America.”
Not that this power is absolute, not that it means antisemitism has disappeared or that Jews don’t need to be as vigilant as ever in defending ourselves against it; but to deny that we have the political clout Steinlight talks about, or that we have worked damned hard as a community since, say, the 1950s (if not before) to acquire and hold this power, or that this power affords us privileges that other oppressed minorities in the United States do not yet have, is not merely hypocrisy of the worse sort, aligning us with the status quo that had formerly discriminated against us. It is also to be blind to the fact that we could lose that power very easily, and that blindness, Steinlight asserts, could turn out to be our tragic, if not fatal, flaw:
We cannot consider the inevitable consequences of current trends [in immigration] — not least among them diminished Jewish political power—with detachment. Our present privilege, success, and power do not inure us from the effect of historical processes, and history has not come to an end, even in America. We have an enormous stake in the outcome of this process, and we should start acting as if we understood that we do. A people that lost one-third of its world population within living memory due to its powerlessness cannot contemplate the loss of power with complacency. We rightly ask, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” (Emphasis mine)
Whether current trends in immigration will indeed result in the diminished Jewish political power Steinlight is worried about is not entirely clear to me, and since my goal here has nothing to do, really, with what he has to say either about US immigration policy or what the Jewish position on that policy should be, I am going to put the substance of his essay aside. Instead, I want to call attention to the way Steinlight’s argument positions the Jewish community in the United States as a community not simply with real political power, but also with a vested interest in preserving that power as the continuing source of our claim to a legitimate place in American society. Nowhere does he suggest, for example, that the Jewish response to the dangers he sees should be – as I believe it would have been when I was getting my Jewish education – to work for a stronger Israel to which we can all move/flee when the time comes. Nowhere does he suggest that we are Jews who just happen, by virtue of our centuries-long exile, to have been born in the United States, and so we should assume that nothing we do to protect ourselves here will ultimately work, since no one, including ourselves, believes we truly belong here. Rather, he wants the Jewish community in the United States to consider the kinds of immigration policies that will, in his opinion, help us preserve our status and standing as a community of American citizens who are Jewish, for whom being of the US is our national identity and for whom the quality and character of US culture and society is a paramount concern. Whether or not you agree with what Steinlight has to say about immigration, you cannot call his stance towards what it means to be a Jew in the United States conventionally Zionist, at least to the degree that conventional Zionism in the US can be measured by the degree to which he and I – and many, many Jews of our generations – were taught to see ourselves as, for want of a better term, contingent Americans.
The feeling that one doesn’t really belong where one is, that one doesn’t have an inalienable right to one’s own physical presence in that place, is part of what it feels like to have been victimized; and if there’s one thing that Jews have a right to feel in the aftermath of the Holocaust, it is that we have been victimized. More to the point, given the context of century after century of having been oppressed in almost every place we have ever lived, it was entirely reasonable for those Jews who either survived the Holocaust or who witnessed it from afar to make this feeling of victimization not only part of their identity as Jews, but also part of the Jewish identity they passed on to future generations. At some point, however, victims have a choice to make: either they continue to hold on to the idea of themselves as victims or they begin to see themselves as survivors, and – at least in my experience – one of the primary differences between the two is that victims tend to be reactive in relation to their surroundings, while survivors tend to be proactive.
Certainly for the Jews of my grandparent’s generation, and probably my parents’ generation as well, the moment when Jews chose decisively to be survivors rather than victims corresponds, more or less, to the moment when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, and it is a deeply sad irony that acknowledging the validity of that sentiment means, almost by definition, subordinating to it the suffering of the Palestinians, for whom the founding of the State of Israel marks the beginning of their own oppression. To survive on the coattails of someone else’s victimization is not a survival that can be sustained indefinitely, especially if the survivor is the one doing the victimizing, and even if Israel is not the only party in the Middle East to have victimized the Palestinians, that does not absolve Israel, or the original Zionist settlers, of its own acts of victimization. Nonetheless, it would constitute a falsification of history to deny that, for my grandparents, Israel’s founding represented a moment of psychological – if not actual, since they lived here – liberation. It was, certainly in their lifetimes, the first proactively Jewish stance that Jews had taken in the world, both as an assertion of Jewish national identity and as a response to world antisemitism, not to mention that Israel’s founding spoke very strongly, if not without ambivalence and ambiguity, to the religious belief in the Jews’ eventual return to that land.
Looked at from the perspective of my lifetime, however, which spans slightly more than the last third of the 20th century and, now, the first decade of the 21st, the Jewish community in the United States has also been nothing if not proactive. The political power that Steinlight talks about is real, and we have worked very hard over the years to claim it. Not that it means we control the news media, Hollywood or the financial system, or that we run Congress – when my wife was visiting Iran about 10 or so years ago, someone told her that Newt Gingrich was Jewish, a Zionist agent who was posing as a Southern Baptist – or that there is a secret, Protocols-like cabal that controls the presidency, or any of the other unfortunately all too common canards that antisemites use to perpetuate the myths of Jewish power. Nonetheless, to deny that the Jews in the United States have reached a point where members of our community, in not insignificant numbers, have power and influence is to deny a reality of our lives. More to the point, it is to deny that power as an assertion of the fact that we belong here.
The Jews in the United States, in other words, as a community, are no longer victims. Antisemitism is alive and well here – the minority for and to which David Duke speaks, minority though it is, is not inconsequential – but we are not victims. We do not need to worry about systemic police brutality or employment discrimination; the criminal justice system is not stacked against us; we can marry whomever we want, live pretty much wherever we want; we are not subject to any of the various official profilings that are used to victimize, among others, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, Arabs and Iranians; large pockets of our community do not live in a poverty that has at least some of its major roots in slavery and other forms of oppression/discrimination or outright genocidal violence (I am thinking here of Native Americans); and this list gets much longer if I start to count the ways in which Jews in the US are no longer made victims in the ways we were right from the start of the European colonization of this land. As Leonard Dinnerstein shows in Anti-Semitism In America, the earliest colonists imported classical European antisemitism to these shores when they came here. The Jews who were allowed to settle in New Netherlands, for example — only after the Dutch West India Company told Peter Stuyvesant he had no choice but to accept them — were legally prohibited from worshipping in public, voting, holding public office, purchasing land, working as craftsmen, engaging in retail operations, trading with Indians, or standing guard with other members of the community — a fact which did not prevent the community from taxing Jews for not performing this duty. One merchant, most probably expressing the feelings of his peers, explained that Jews had “no other God than the Mammon of unrighteousness [i.e., money], and no other aim than to get possession of Christian property,” a standard European antisemitic canard (5).
One of the reasons Jews in the United States have, as a community, been able to leave our status as victims behind is that Jews here are generally assumed to be white people. This assumption, of course, renders Jews of color invisible, and I do not want to overlook the fact that Jews of color – especially if they are women and/or queer – are subject to multiple invisibilities and oppressions that effect them in complex ways I could not even begin to address; but, as far as I know, and if I am wrong about this then I will obviously have to rethink what I am saying here, Jews of color are not systematically victimized in the United States as Jews in any of the ways I have just described. My point, in other words, is that Jew as a category of victimization no longer has the currency it once did in this country, and that matters to me, because if I take seriously the fact that the Jews in the United States are no longer victims, if I am willing to accept that we have, as a community, become survivors, then my relationship to the Zionism I was taught when I was younger must change. Because that Zionism is predicated on the notion that all Jews living outside the land of Israel are living in a permanent state of victimization, that living outside the land of Israel, in fact, defines Jewish victimization.
I am not naïve. I recognize that the potential for a resurgence in the victimization of the Jews exists here, as it exists almost everywhere I know of, even in countries where few if any Jews live. I know that antisemitic violence still happens in the United States, and I know the dangers of the antisemitic rhetoric that gets woven, purposefully and not, into many of the discourses of my daily life; I know that the Jews are still a minority community and that our culture and traditions – religious and otherwise – remain unacknowledged in many parts of this country; and I know that if the inclusion of Jew in the category white is the only thing we rely on to keep the potential for government sanctioned, institutionalized, systemic oppression of the Jews from once again becoming a reality, then we are relying on a very precarious inclusion indeed. Not only does the mere existence of Jews of color give the lie to the guarantee such inclusion might otherwise be assumed to imply, but even for someone like me – a middle-class, nearly middle-aged white guy who, if you did not know I was Jewish, would be just a middle-class, nearly middle-aged (assumed to be Christian) white guy – the question of whether Jews are really white people is fraught with ambivalence, not because I have not benefitted from white privilege, because I have, but because I have also seen how easily white privilege can be taken away from me.
Not one of the people from whom I experienced antisemitism in the long list I gave at the beginning of Part 1 of this series was a person of color; they were all white, and the fact that I was Jewish clearly trumped for them whatever solidarity one might otherwise have assumed them to feel based on the shared color of our skin. As well, when I have experienced antisemitism from people of color, it has not been the case that the white people in the room all rallied around me because I was one of them and we needed to stand united against this discrimination coming from people who were not white – not that I would have wanted that kind of solidarity. My point is simply that, in my experience, once my being Jewish has become an issue it very clearly takes precedence over the fact that, in appearance anyway, I am white. Indeed, the racial status of the Jews has long been at issue in antisemitic discourse. Sander Gilman writes, for example, about the association of the Jews with blackness – not racial blackness per se, but the blackness of the devil – and how that association informed the racialized antisemitism of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which the Jews were considered to be an even more deeply “mongrelized” race than the Blacks; and in the late 19th and early 20th century United States, while Jews were not considered people of color per se – i.e., we were not Black people – we were also not considered white.
To begin with – this is quoted in Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man–consider that E. D. Cope, America’s leading paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the time declared that mixing the “fine nervous susceptibility and mental force,” of the “highest race of man” (read: white people) with “the fleshly instincts, and dark mind of the African” would result not only in “the [white] mind [being] stagnated, and the life of mere living introduced instead” – remember what Otto Weininger, in Part 4, had to say about the Jews’ ability to live a meaningful life? – but also in the dubiousness or impossibility “of resurrection,” which would have been assured, in the absence of some disqualifying sin, to a child born to two white Christian parents. The Jews, of course, did not need to intermarry to lose their chance at heaven, they were already excluded from resurrection by definition, and so in that way they were not, properly speaking, white. Leonard Dinnerstein gives other, more explicitly obvious, examples: A credit-rating investigator in the nineteenth century, for example, wrote of one potential customer, “We should deem him safe but he is not a white man. He is a Jew…” (20). In 1889, a Baptist publication observed that “the Hebrews are still as distinct a race among us as the Chinese” (42). Writing in support of President Woodrow Wilson’s nomination of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, Ellerton James noted that Brandies “is a Hebrew, and, therefore, of Oriental race” (69). Towards the end of World War I, the Department of the Interior appointed a “Special Collaborator and Racial Advisor on Americans of Jewish Origin” (76, italics mine). Even as late as the 1930s and 40s, many academics believed that the “Jewish race” should be excluded from academia, and letters of recommendation for some of the few Jews who managed to get in contained phrases like “has none of the offensive traits which people associate with his race” and “by temperament and spirit…measure[s] up to the whitest Gentile I know” (88).
Yet another example comes from Madison Grant, who wrote in his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race that
The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew. (18)
I had my own small encounter with a particularly ignorant version of this thinking when a Catholic girlfriend of mine told me that her aunt had advised her not to marry me unless I got a nose job, so our kids “wouldn’t look so Jewish;” and I remember seeing pictures of the signs that read “Burn Jews not oil” during the 1970s oil embargo; and I have read what people have been saying about the Jews on message boards in the wake of the Bernard Madoff scandal; and so I recognize that the distance between the relative safety of my existence here and the kinds of things happening in Venezuela–which could easily, and probably should, be read as the potential beginnings of a more systematic oppression of the Jews there – or the kinds of things that have been said recently by an official of the South African government or by an official of one of that country’s major unions, is not as large as it can feel to me on days when I can be just me, without an issue being made one way or the other of the fact that I am Jewish.
Nonetheless, in the nearly half-century that I have been alive in this world, I have come to value very deeply the stated commitment to pluralism that is a central tenet of United States culture, the idea that we should be a society in which we all can be “just me,” and where “just me” means all of who we are, and where a threat to me as an individual because I am Jewish, or to the Jewish community as a whole, is understood as a threat to all. I know that not everyone in this country accepts this vision of pluralism and that there are many who are right now working assiduously to make sure that it is never fully realized; I know that this notion of pluralism bears little resemblance to what the white, land-owning men who wrote our founding documents envisioned when they put the words “all men are created equal” down on paper. I know, but I also know – because I have seen it happen more than once in my lifetime – that the system of government those men established has turned out to be flexible enough that community after community has been able to argue its way to inclusion. That they have to make such an argument at all, of course, is a problem of no small significance; that the inclusion they do win is rarely fully realized, even in the legal terms by which it is first defined, means that the struggle is a long one. Given the reality of when and where we live, however, the struggle itself does seem to me the point; and to continue to see myself as a contingent American, as a Jew for whom Israel is, just in case, my fallback country – no matter how legitimate the feeling of “just in case” may be (and I continue to believe it is more than legitimate) – is ultimately to play that struggle false.
Yet even as I write that last sentence, I know I do not have the luxury of thinking about these issues only in terms of myself. I have a family, a wife and a son, who are not Jewish, at least not according to traditional Judaism. My wife is Muslim, which means that, at least religiously, my son is not considered a member of my tribe. The fact that neither my wife nor my son is Jewish, technically speaking, however, would not have have saved them from the Nazis; nor, I am guessing, would it matter to anyone, or any group, who decided to target, violently or otherwise, me as an individual Jew or a Jewish group of which I was a part; and so I would be lying if I did not admit that a small part of me still breathes a sigh of relief that Israel and its Law of Return exist – because if the need ever arose, and fleeing to Israel was what I needed to do to save the lives of my wife and son, I can’t imagine that I would not do it. I do not deny that the possibility of such escape affords me a privilege not shared by other oppressed groups in the United States, groups that suffer far greater victimization than Jewish-Americans currently do, but the uncomfortable fact is that the privilege is mine, and when I think about my family, I am glad for it – guiltily glad, but glad nonetheless – even if it seems right now like I would never have to use it.
Suppose, though, that the only life at stake were my own? I like to think I would have the courage of my convictions, that if the United States were to turn against its Jews in ways that would make it not unreasonable to flee, I would choose to stay to fight, but there is no way I can know. Everyone has a limit beyond which they cannot go, and were I to reach, or be pushed to the edge of, mine, I might in fact give up and escape to Israel – assuming such an escape were even possible. David Schraub, in a post called The Superseded Jew, makes the case for Israel’s safe-haven existence as a logical necessity devolving from the treatment Jews have received throughout our history, and pretty much throughout the world, as strongly as I have seen it made. The fact remains, however, that while Israel could easily be a safe haven for me now, if I thought I needed it; and while Israel could probably accommodate a couple of hundred Jews from, say Venezuela pretty easily, because let’s assume only that many have decided to leave and move to Israel; and Israel might even be able to accommodate a couple of thousand Jews. But what about 20,000 Jews, or 100,000 Jews, or a million or three million Jews? It’s easy to forget that Israel is, as I suggested in Part 4 of this series, a very small country with limited resources, and that this limit will by definition put a limit on the number of Jewish refugees Israel could reasonably accommodate – especially if the conflict with the Palestinians remains unresolved. As well, as I also suggested in Part 4, it is willfully naïve at best to imagine that racial, gender, sexual, class and many other politics will play no role in how the Law of Return is applied should Jews throughout the world start claiming, en masse, their rights under that law.
The fact is that if we think not in terms of individual or small groups of Jews who right now, for whatever reason, want to “return” to Israel, but in terms of the future Holocaust-like oppression in response to which the Law of Return was written, the safe haven that Israel provides for most of us is primarily, for the very practical reasons I outlined above, a psychological one. I doubt very much that we would all fit, even assuming that every Jew in Israel – and let’s even imagine the Israeli Arabs agree, because peace has finally been achieved and a truly deep sense of mutual trust and commitment has developed – desperately want to make room for us. Yes it is comforting to know that Israel is there, even though that comfort is a privilege I wish I did not (often feel like I have to) have; and yes, there is in the fact of Israel’s existence a sense of justice having been done, however much I might wish that Israel had been founded otherwise and however much I oppose the policies of the Israeli government towards the Palestinians; but neither of those affirmations makes Israel my home, not by a long shot, and the first makes Jewish a nationality I can claim more by virtue of Israel’s existence than because the Jews worldwide are, objectively and without dispute, ambivalence or ambiguity among us, a nation; and so neither of those affirmations makes me a Zionist.
At the same time, however, I am not, and I would refuse the label, anti-Zionist. Not that I don’t take a stand in opposition to Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians; not that I have not been critical of other aspects of Israeli governmental policy – its particularly cozy relationship with apartheid South Africa, for example – and not that I do not have opinions about the issue that are central to Zionism and to the Zionist/anti-Zionist debate, including the ways in which anti-Zionism is and is not used as a front for antisemitic agendas and whether or not Israel should continue to be a Jewish State. It’s just that I do not have the same kind of stake in those issues as I did when I was younger. Whether or not Zionism is racist by definition, in both ideology and practice; whether or not Israel should be a Jewish State; whether a one or two state solution offers the best hope for peace in the Middle East; these are questions that Zionists have to answer in other than theoretical terms, not me, and it is up to progressive Zionists to make sure that the movement in which they believe so fervently does not become, or ceases to be (depending on how you look at it), racist and oppressive.
Equally to the point, it is important to distinguish between the Zionism that is the Jewish nationalism embraced by Jews living outside of Israel and the Zionism that is the Jewish-Israeli nationalism of Israeli-Jews – whether they were born there or emigrated there. It is one thing to call Israel a Jewish homeland from afar; it is quite something else to call Israel home because it is indeed your country. I don’t mean to suggest that one of these nationalisms is necessarily less problematic than the other, but I think that Israel, as its own nation, with its own identity and culture, its own native population (by which I mean people who were born Israeli, Jewish or otherwise) becomes all too easily invisible in discussions such as these because the lens through which those of us outside of Israel, Jewish and otherwise, tend to look at the question of Zionism is the lens of exile through which the original European Zionists framed the whole question of establishing a Jewish homeland to begin with. Understood in this way, the centrality that Zionists outside of Israel give to the idea of Israel-as-safe-haven, as sympathetic as I am to that thinking, seems to me remarkably arrogant, if only because it frames Israel as what “we” need it to be and does not at all account for what Israelis themselves, all of them, including those not yet born, might feel. Ultimately, it is Israelis who get to decide, and who will get to decide over time, the degree to which that country can and should be a safe haven for all Jews worldwide, and I think that non-Israeli Jewish Zionists all too often forget that.
There is another arrogance that needs to be called out as well in the way people outside of Israel talk about Zionism and anti-Zionism, though it has more to do with how we frame our understanding of the Palestinians than the Israelis. Take, for instance, the following story, which Jake told in his comment on this post at Alas:
I once met a man standing outside his house, locked in struggle with a snarling dog that was chained to a tree. The man was beating the chained dog with a baseball bat, and the dog was snarling and snapping, trying to bite the man’s arm as it brought the bat down.
“Stop!” I shouted. “What in the world are you doing?”
The man stopped for a moment and turned to me. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I have to beat this dog; he keeps trying to bite me.”
“But why not just stop beating him and walk away?”
“Then I would be giving my yard up to him.”
“But maybe he would stop attacking you if you stopped beating him.”
“I have to defend myself.”
“But when did he start this snarling and biting?”
“Always. Ever since I first got him and chained him up around this tree, and it got even worse when I stopped feeding him. See? Just something in his breeding.”
Note: In commenting on what I saw that day, I am required by all conventions of American polite discourse to say, “But, of course, I don’t approve of dogs biting people…” I am also required to see some sort of moral equivalence here, or maybe even to say, “of course, I totally support the man’s inalienable right to chain and starve his dog.”
I think it’s fair to say that this parable and accompanying note captures a truth – not the whole truth, but a truth – about much of the pro-Israel thinking vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the way we are expected to talk about the conflict here in the States. As well, the metaphor of the abused dog chained to the tree captures a truth about the situation of the Palestinians that is rarely acknowledged on the pro-Israel side. Who, after all, would reasonably expect the dog to do anything other than try to bite the man who was beating it?
Compelling as it is, however, the metaphor – by asking us to see the Palestinians as an abused animal – actually obscures more than it clarifies. First, since animals cannot own land, the most likely solution to the situation represented in Jake’s parable would be for a third party to rescue the dog, removing it from the abusive situation and giving it a home where it could, at the very least, live in peace. Clearly that is not, nor should it be seen as, an acceptable solution for the Palestinians in their conflict with Israel. More insidiously, however – and, I would argue, equally as arrogant – the metaphor removes from the Palestinians any notion of human agency, of acting through conscious choice rather than merely reacting to whichever localized violence happens to be prominent at the time. The metaphor flattens, in other words, all forms of Palestinian resistance, equating them to the dog’s desperate, if futile attempts to stop the man from beating it. Not only does this flattening misrepresent the full range and complexity of the Palestinian resistance on its face, but it suggests that the Palestinians themselves are incapable of making choices and decisions about, and/or distinctions between, the various forms of resistance, and negotiation and compromise, available to them. And if the Palestinian state of mind is essentially no different from that of the dog in Jake’s story, how can we reasonably expect them to be trustworthy partners in negotiating a resolution to the conflict?
The metaphor in Jake’s parable thus ends up positing, implicitly at least, a conflict that has no end, despite the fact that his intention was clearly to say something in support of the Palestinians by critiquing the “conventions of American polite discourse.” Yet this metaphor shows up consistently, in various guises, on all sides of conflict, allowing people to profess a desire for peace, a willingness to make whatever compromises are necessary, while at the same time pointing at the Palestinians-as-abused-dogs and saying some version of either, “How can the Israelis be expected to negotiate with such people?” or “What else do you expect the Palestinians to do?”
I have neither the expertise nor the desire to work my way through the complexities of this rhetoric and how it shapes the actions and policies of all interested parties. I would simply like to note that both the Israelis and the Palestinians, despite this rhetoric, know better, and that those of us standing outside the conflict need to take that knowledge into account when we critique or support either side, no matter how much our critique or support is shaped by the fact that we are talking about an oppressed and an oppressor. I suppose I should be more clear: Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are the oppressed, but that means neither that Israel is always wrong in the stance it takes towards Palestinian resistance or the demands they make in negotiation nor that the Palestinians are always right in their demands or in the forms they allow their resistance to take. I am not arguing here for a moral or ethical equivalence between the two sides. Military occupation is wrong; resistance, even violent resistance, is the right of those who are occupied, and this is still true when there is no overt violence being committed by the occupiers. (We forget that military occupation is itself an ongoing act of violence.) I am arguing that it is important to remember that the Palestinians are, even in their resistance, neither more nor less human than the Israelis are in their occupation, and that to forget this equivalence is an arrogance that ultimately perpetuates and exacerbates the conflict.
I have been very aware throughout the writing of this series of feeling like I have been talking out of both sides of my mouth, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that this feeling has come from the fact that I refuse to choose between the sides that have been laid out for me to choose: I am Jewish, but I am not a Zionist, nor am I a Jewish anti-Zionist. I think progressive Zionists have a lot of work to do before their movement can fully lay claim to the progressiveness they want it to have, but that is not my work. Still, because I am Jewish, because I was raised with a particular kind of Zionist education, because – as I said elsewhere in this series, while Jewish identity cannot be reduced to Israel, one cannot have a Jewish identity without having a position in relation to Israel – I have opinions about Zionism, especially because the Zionists claim me, even though I don’t want to be claimed. At the same time, though, despite the fact that I see the US as my home, and that I identify nationally as a US citizen, the realities of antisemitism make me want to allow that claim, just a little bit, just in case. I wish Israel had been founded very differently than it was, but Israel exists, and it exists as a Jewish State, and to deny the validity of that existence is both futile and, usually, antisemitic. I find the notion of a Jewish state problematic because I find it hard to imagine such a state as a truly pluralist society, but I think it is up to the people who live Israel Jewish and otherwise, not people who do not live there and who, most likely, will never live there, to decide what a Jewish State means and whether it should continue. The Palestinians are an occupied people; they have the right to resist that occupation; they have a right to their own nation, but whether that nation is a neighbor of Israel or is a binational/multi-ethnic state where Israel now stands is not for me to decide. Israel, on the other hand, also has the right to take seriously Hamas’ stated intent of destroying the Jewish State and of killing the Jews (go read the charter) and to see and respond to Hamas’ attacks on Israel in the context of that intent. (A similar logic, I think, applies to Israel’s stance towards Hezbollah.) This neither excuses nor in any other way ameliorates the injustices Israel has committed against the Palestinian people.
And I suppose I could go on. These positions are not easily reconcilable one with the other, and there are people who will say that by holding them I am really trying to hold no position, that I am trying to avoid the responsibility, the hard choices, that comes with taking sides; they will argue that taking sides is necessary in order to prove who I am and where I stand, and so, essentially, what I have just written demonstrates that I don’t really have an identity, that I am nobody, and I suppose, in their terms, they are right; but being a nobody in this way does bring with it a freedom that I cherish, because it allows me to pay attention more to actual human beings rather than an ideology – which does not mean I don’t have an ideology or that my ideology is beyond critique or growth – and if I have paid less attention than I could have in this series to the actual human beings who are Palestinians in this conflict (and I readily admit this is true), it is because I have been trying to work through some ideas and questions I have had about my own Jewish identity in relation to Zionism, Israel, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and antisemitism. I am not sure if I have done much more than clarify the questions I have been trying to ask, but that is no inconsequential task, and I will be happy if I have succeeded in that.