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?
Oy! So I was, with mild interest, reading over at Alas the conversation that was beginning to develop around the post written by Julie about J Street opening local chapters. I say “mild interest” because I find so much of the politics surrounding the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians – which also means the conflicts between and among all the various groups who have an interest in how that conflict is, or is not, resolved – not only tiresome, but also, all too often, childish. It’s not that I think the issues are not profoundly, world-changingly important; it’s just that I no longer have the patience that I once had for sifting through the partisan nitpicking and political opportunism, not to mention the outright hatred, into which so many discussions of those issues inevitably devolve. Still, the little bit that I have heard about J Street has suggested to me that they are trying to be adults by, at the very least, broadening the conversation both in terms of content and in terms of who gets to participate, and that is refreshing, even though I don’t know enough about most of their positions to say how much I support them beyond the statement I have just made.
What caught my interest about the conversation Julie’s post started was that it concerned literature, the role of literature in political movements, the stance political movements should take towards individual works of literature, what it means to write politically engaged literature and what it means to engage literature politically. The first part of the conversation is about the play Seven Jewish Children, written in 2009 by Caryl Churchill in response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza. The play consists of a series of simple imperative sentences, each beginning with “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her”–her being a female of indeterminate age, though she is probably pretty young. Collectively, these imperatives represent some of the positions that Jews, as groups and as individuals, Israeli and not, have taken in response to both the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Israel’s existence. In my own opinion, the play, which I have not read as carefully as I might, and so I am willing to be convinced otherwise, walks a fine line between exposing and critiquing, but also humanizing, the denial and hypocrisy of many who support Israel’s policies out of fear for their own and the Jewish community’s survival, and propagandizing that position as a tool to demonize both Jews and Israel. Ultimately, I don’t think the play crosses the line into propaganda, though I can see how others might reasonably say that it does. Moreover, since it is a play, I suppose that what really matters in terms of this question is how the play is produced, not simply how it reads on the page.
I do not remember seeing any discussion of J Street [on Alas]. Before you rush and support them, check at least the Wiki entry… and maybe look into how mainstream Israel supporters feel about them. Maybe also read Seven Jewish Children and remember that J Street endorses the play.
Chingona then points out that J Street did not “endorse” the play. Rather, the organization asserted that the play is not necessarily antisemitic and they defended the theater company that put the play on. Sebastian then admits not that he’d misread J Street’s position on the play, but that he hadn’t even bothered to read the original statement; he also explains that he thinks “it’s worth reading and discussing [Seven Jewish Children], but staging it according to the terms of the author is taking a stance with which I most certainly do not agree.” Presumably, since he does not specify, the part of the terms of performance that Sebastian objects to is the text in boldface below:
The play can be read or performed anywhere, by any number of people. Anyone who wishes to do it should contact the author’s agent (details below), who will license performances free of charge provided that no admission fee is charged and that a collection is taken at each performance for Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), 33a Islington Park Street, London N1 1QB, tel +44 (0)20 7226 4114, e-mail email@example.com, web www.map-uk.org.
Certainly, Sebastian is within his right to disagree with these terms, and he is within his right not to attend any performance of the play and to try to convince others not to attend; he also would be within his rights to organize a boycott of the play in his community were someone trying to put it on there. What I am interested in, however, is that the disagreement he expresses is not with the text of the play itself, which he thinks is worth reading and discussing, but with people putting the play to political use, to serve a practical purpose in the world, one that involves human being, human bodies and the relationships between and among them. Some might argue that medical aid is not political, or at least that it ought to be beyond politicization. In principle, I agree, if by politicization you mean the kind of partisanship that is more about who wins and who loses than about finding solutions; but it’s not just that there is nothing about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that is not already, always, political and politicized; it’s that medicine is itself, wherever and however it is practiced, is already, always, political simply because it is about human being and human bodies; and to suggest that literature ought not to be used to make medical care available to people who need it, regardless of the politics of the organizations involved, is to suggest that literature needs to be controlled, hemmed in, fenced in, to be kept safe from those who would corrupt it, to protect its purity, so that it can be read and discussed, for example, without the taint of an overt political agenda. Or maybe it is to suggest that it’s us who need to be kept safe from literature, because literature has the power to move people to act, not just to think and to feel.
However one understands the impulse to keep literature out of the material reality of people’s lives, that impulse at its core is the impulse to censor, to control meaning and thereby to control people’s imaginations. Let me be clear, though: I am not accusing Sebastian of censorship or of wanting to censor anyone. He is neither making nor advocating policy in his comments on Alas; and let me be clear about something else as well: I am talking in this post about literature, works that aspire to the level of art, the purpose of which is to explore human being and feeling, not – as propaganda attempts, and is designed, to do – dictate it. I can imagine, for example, a production of Seven Jewish Children that might qualify as propaganda, one in which, say, the characters were all wearing Nazi uniforms and in which there was no irony to make that costuming decision anything other than a simple equating of Israel with Nazi Germany. I would not argue that such a production should be censored, but it is unambiguously a production neither I nor anyone I know would support, no matter how worthy the goal of fund raising for Medical Aid for Palestinians might be – and from what I can tell that is a worthy goal. What if, though, the director of the play, the one who made the choice to put Nazi uniforms on the actors, was Jewish, and let’s say he or she was making in this production a serious attempt to use that costuming in an ironic way, as a reference to the fact that the Jews – and I am assuming that the characters in Seven Jewish Children are Jewish – who were the victims in the Holocaust, are now, in Israel, in the position of being an occupying oppressor, of victimizing the Palestinians.[1. I wish I didn’t feel the need to add this footnote, but I do: To make this reference is, of course, not to deny that the Palestinians have also been guilty of victimizing Israelis.] The point of the comparison, in other words, is not to say that Israel – and, by extension, the Jews – are no different from the Nazis, that the Israelis are committing what is tantamount to genocide against the Palestinians, but rather to illuminate the dynamic by which violence begets violence, all too often turning those who were victims of violence into perpetrators of the kinds of violence they suffered. Further, imagine that the program notes for this imaginary production make clear that it is intended to explore what it means that the violence done by the Israelis to the Palestinians has become part of Jewish identity, in the sense that if one is Jewish, one must be accountable in some way for one’s responses to that violence. Moreover, let’s even say that there is a note in the program explaining that the choice of Nazi uniforms was because the Holocaust, more than any other persecution the Jews have suffered, can stand for all the persecutions through which the Jews have lived. The comparison to the Holocaust per se, in other words,is not even the point. » Read the rest of this entry «
Writing in the January issue of Harper’s Magazine,Joshua Cohen wrote this at the end of his review of Laor’s book:
It often seems that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just […] a textual problem. If so, then the muddle of meaning that must be analyzed lies in parsing not Palestinian from Israeli, but “Israeli” from “Jew.” Only once those epithets have been dissevered can some sort of dialogue begin, between two political entities and not between two (or three) religions or Peoples. Until then, “Israel” will continue to be vilified as a word that means something other than what it should, while all critics of Israel will be accused of anti-Semitism.
It is not clear to me from the review how much of this is Cohen, how much of this is Laor and how much of it is Cohen putting into his own words what he agrees with in Laor’s book, but any book that leads to this kind of thinking, to asking these kinds of questions, whether I ultimately agree with the book or not, is a book worth reading. Now, if there were only 36 hours or more in a day. Sigh.
Late last month, the Daily News published this article: Harry Potter part of Zionist conspiracy, Iranian film claims. The ridiculousness of the video speaks for itself, and so, except for a couple of points that I think bear making, I am loathe to spend too much time responding to the analyses and accusations the Iranian so-called experts make:
Note the subtle (and not so subtle) conflation of Jews with Zionists throughout.
Note as well the reference to the idea of Jewish racial supremacy, which the film attributes to the Zionists in a way that – at least as I read the translation – could be read to suggest that the Jews (and not just the members of the purported global Zionist conspiracy) do indeed believe in our own racial superiority.
Note the portrayal of Judaism as a religion of witchcraft and wizardry, a trope that has a long history in European antisemitism.
Note the mention of Christian Zionists, which I confess I almost missed. It’s interesting to think about the significance of that mention in light of the discussion of Christian Zionism in part one my antisemtism series.
There are, I am sure, other things worth pointing out. Please have at it.