Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Wrestling with Zionism"

Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, the co-editors of "Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," say in their introduction that they wanted to read a book of dissident American Jewish responses to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. No such book existed so they created this anthology of essays and poem which was published in 2003. The book has an impressive roster of contributors of American Jewish poets, playwrights, and academics including Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich and many others. This anthology ably documents the 100-year historical tradition within the Jewish community of those Jews who criticized first Zionism and then Israeli policies; however, the book’s last section “Resistance and Activism” has weaknesses.

Section I reprints the writings of three neglected left Zionists: Ahad Ha’am, the creator of spiritual Zionism; Judah Magnes, the founder of the Hebrew University, and Martin Buber, the philosopher. Before 1948 all three men rejected Jewish military might and a Jewish state but instead championed a cultural Zionism in a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Judah Magnes went the furthest in advocating a binational state in which all groups—Jews, Arabs, Moslems, Christians—would have equal rights. Magnes’ binational state where Jews would have no special privileges was indeed a Zionist position though many Israelis now treat the idea like anti-semitic heresy.

These historical writings show that before 1970 American Jewish progressives as well as Ahad Ha’am, Magnes, and Buber severely criticized mainstream and right-wing Zionists. The editors happily rescue from oblivion the 1948 letter where philosopher Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook and over 30 American Jews roundly condemned Begin’s right-wing group, the Irgun, for the massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin and they called the Irgun fascist. Adding to these earlier criticisms, journalist I.F. Stone develops an anti-imperialist critique of Israel in 1967 describing how mainstream Zionists offered themselves as outposts in the Arab world to imperial powers: the Turks in 1900; the German Kaiser soon thereafter; and the British in 1915.

Section II “The Contemporary Crisis” provides excellent essays both analyzing and criticizing current U.S and Israeli policies. Joel Benin in “The United States-Israel Alliance” describes how after 1967 Israel in return for carrying out U.S policies got U.S. arms. Michael Massing’s “Deal Breakers” discusses how two right wing American Zionist organizations effectively lobby U.S. presidents and the Congress. Seth Ackerman’s “Israel and the Media” shows how U.S. mass media in the 1970s-1990s became ardently pro-Israel. Finally, Phyllis Bennis in “Of Dogs and Tails” analyzes the four pillars of this U.S.-Israel alliance: Israel’s acting as U.S. #1 Middle Eastern ally; the Christian Zionists support of Israel; the neo-conservatives politicians; and the defense industry’s advocacy of increased military aid. These essays are a must read for anyone seriously interested in a critical understanding of the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

The third area where this anthology does good work is documenting a thirty-year right-wing Zionist assault on American Jewish dissidents. Michael E. Staub’s “If We Really Care About Israel: Breira and Its Limits” is a fine essay describing how in the 1970s right-wing Zionists destroyed the moderate Jewish peace group. Though Breira was quite mainstream (it never identified as left-wing and was often led by moderate Hillel rabbis), right-wing Zionists assaulted it in the media, libeled it as pro-PLO, resulting in Breira’s destruction. Staub argues that after Breira was destroyed the American Jewish community splintered: many Jews left the community physically or spiritually. The anthology's essays point out how right-wing Zionists again and again resorted to smear attacks from smashing Breira in the 1970s to attacking Jewish anti-war critics of Israel in 2003, which Esther Kaplan discusses in “Globalize the Intifada.”

Section Four in particular deals with right-wing Zionist charges that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler takes on Lawrence Summer’s statement that calls for boycotts of Israeli are anti-semitic. Butler argues that when criticisms of Israel’s policies are called anti-semitic, the charge is both an attack on freedom of speech and an act that undermines attempts to fight real anti-semitism.

In the same section Phillip Green in his essay argues that the left is not anti-semitic but when right-wing Zionists make Israel and Jewishness synonymous, it is they—and not the left—who have sown the dangerous seed of the new waves of anti-Semitism. This is all too clear in Europe today, where the nationalist ideological equation [Jews = Israel] has helped to inflame some youth who commit most of the anti-Semitic outrages attributed by American propagandists to “the French”—among whom, contrarily, it is chiefly the student left who participates in marches against anti-Semitism. Both Butler and Green construct powerful, coherent arguments that right-wing Zionists make bogus claims that they defend Jews from anti-Semitism.

Many of these writers--Tony Kushner, Alisa Solomon, Adrienne Rich et al.—decry the attempt of right-wing Zionists to impose ideological conformity as harmful to the American Jewish community. Furthermore, Kushner et al. refer to Jewish sources demanding justice for all in their criticism of Israel, particularly the centrality of justice in both secular and religious Jewish thinking. Harvard researcher Sara Roy, a child of Holocaust survivors, and poet Irene Klepfisz, a Holocaust survivor, both argue that the best way to honor Jews who died in the Holocaust is to keep alive their vision of justice for all and their outrage against injustice, as Klepfisz says, “apply it to all situations, whether they involve Jews or non-Jews.”

Marc Ellis, a controversial founder of Jewish liberation theology, contributes some of the most original ideas in the book. Prior to 1948 the large majority of Orthodox (highly religious) Jews were hostile to Zionism. Ellis argues that in the 1950s some Israel right-wing theologians have created a branch of Orthodox Judaism—the religious in the settler movement-- in service to the state and its power. In reaction to this religion-serving-the-state Judaism, Ellis calls for the rebirth of the prophetic voices to criticize Israel just as the prophets in the past did. He gives a Jewish theological blessing for the “secular Jews of conscience who have come into solidarity with the Palestinian people.” When these writers’ advocate that American Jews put the struggle for justice for all at the core of their values, they open up a safe space for both secular and religious Jews critical of Israel.

The editors of this anthology have wisely included writers with different opinions. Some essayists have sounded important minor themes. I. F. Stone and Adrienne Rich are only two of the book's over 50 Ashkenazi Jewish writers who point out the importance of Arab Jews (Jews from Arab lands such as Tunisian Jews, Iraqi Jews etc.) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Stone argued in 1967 that one of the first steps needed to be taken toward peace is “the eradication of prejudice that greet the Oriental and Arabic-speaking Jews in Israel …” Adrienne Rich salutes what Israeli novelist Shulamith Hareven calls “Levantine” cultures or that rich mixture of cultures in the Middle East, which Rich likens to American multi-culturalism. Yet this book only includes two Arab Jewish writers. Iraqi Jewish American Ella Habiba Shohat eloquently describes those Jews born in Arabic country who learn to speak Arabic as their first language and who identify with many parts of Arabic culture. Ammiel Alcalay in his essay “No Return, which is a linguistic tour-de-force, describes key moments in Arab Jewish intellectual history of the last forty years.

The American Jewish progressives of Wrestling with Zion need to include more Arab Jews such as writers Sami Shalom Chetrit and Jordan Elgrably. In Los Angeles Moroccan-Jewish American Elgrably has worked with Arabs, Armenians, and Persians et al. to create a Levantine Center that promotes many Middle Eastern cultures. Such centers are crucial to helping the American Jewish community redefine itself as well as to help make peace in the Middle East.

Only I.F. Stone and Phyllis Bennis discuss how, as Stone says, Israel “is creating a kind of schizophrenia in world Jewry.” Stone pointed out that outside of Israel “the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance of secular, non-racial pluralistic societies” while many Diaspora Jews defend within Israel a society where “non-Jews have lesser status than Jews, and in which the idea [of the Israeli state] is racial and exclusionist.” Stone wrote in 1967 when many Jews marched for civil rights in the United States, helping to promote a secular, non-racial society.

Much later Phyllis Bennis writes in 2002 about right-wing American Jews have an alliance with some Christian fundamentalists who call themselves Christian Zionists. Bennis quotes Robert Zimmerman, president of the American Jewish Congress (AJC) that the Christian fundamentalist have a domestic agenda that “threatens ‘the freedoms that make Jews safe in America.’” Bennis points out that all other major American Jewish organizations ignore AJC’s fears. Now American Jews need to take more seriously Bennis’s arguments that alliances with Christian fundamentalists potentially harm American Jews.

Finally, the weakness of book is in its discussion of current activism as of 2003. A whole section of this book debates the so-called “Law of Return,” the Israeli law whereby any Jew in the world can settle in Israel, claiming full citizenship that includes rights and privileges denied to Palestinians who used to live there but cannot return to live. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz intellectually wants to refuse the law of return while Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founders of Ms. magazine, defends it. Throughout this debate neither Kaye/Kantrowitz nor Pogrebin looked at how the Arabs’ fear of an ever-expanding Israel are increased by the Law of Return encouraging world-wide Jewry to return to Israel. After 47 British Jews in August 8, 2002, rejected the right to return to Israel, Kaye/Kantrowitz still ends her essay with an “imaginary” renunciation of the right to return. One wonders why not a real renunciation?

Also a section on Israeli politics would improve this book, particularly critical analysis of three areas: what social classes/ethnic groups support the major Israeli political parties and how has these changed in the last 30 years? how did the settler movement including its religious elements develop in the last 30 years as a political force? what groups comprise the Israeli peace movement and also how have they changed over the last 30 years? Also an essay on how American Jewish critics of Zionists could work with Israeli peace groups would be an addition to the book. Only Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton’s excellent essay on why he founded Friends of Courage to Refuse to support the Refusniks, Israeli soldiers who refuse to fight in the occupied territories, speaks to this point.

The book ends with “Doing Activism: Working for Peace: A Roundtable Discussion” with eight activists representing small dissident groups from Boston, New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area as of 2003. Yes, these groups have bravery and moral vision but they have hardly any presence outside a few urban centers in 2003. Steven Feuerstein from Chicago’s Not in My Name said most of these groups’ anti-occupation demonstrations were ineffectual since these groups lacked defined political goals and strategy to obtain their goals. Most of these activists wanted to reduce or eliminate U.S.’s financial support for Israel’s West Bank settlements, but Feuerstein argued that they lacked “the political will or power” to do so. Instead of discussing Fuerstein’s criticisms, most of the others debated among themselves rhetorical strategies, the uses of history, and even the definition of Zionism. Nobody in these 2003 or pre-2003 pieces took up Feuerstein’s criticisms that a small number of dissident Jewish groups based in a few big cities who disagreed among themselves lack the political vision, strategy, or power to change the nearly 40-year old U.S.-Israel alliance. How should these small groups go in coalition with others in? Which others?

The virtues of this anthology far outweigh its flaws. This is a crucial, important, and informative book. Though published in 2003, the book still has many important historical essays still extremely relevant today.


Viresh said...
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Viresh said...

Yes your right these historical writings show that before 1970 American Jewish progressives as well as Ahad Ha’am, Magnes, and Buber severely criticized mainstream and right-wing Zionists.