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Jews Confront Zionism

Daniel Lang/Levitsky is a theatre worker and organizer based in New York City, and a co-founder of Jews Against the Occupation/NYC. Current projects include Palestine solidarity work with Adalah-NY: The Coalition for Justice in the Middle East; supporting the Right to the City Alliance with the Rude Mechanical Orchestra (NYC’s radical brass band) and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice; and staging a new queer & gendertreyf production, “Who Loved You Before You Were Mine,” with Killer Sideburns Nepon.

One of the main accomplishments of the Israeli government’s bombing and invasion of the Gaza Strip last winter was to inspire new vitality within leftist and peace groups in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation. This wave of activity has continued after the supposed ceasefire, with demonstrations and direct actions from New York to Los Angeles, Paris, Jaffa, and Tel Aviv. Most noteworthy has been a coming out of sorts of an increasingly large and vocal segment of the Jewish world that is not only opposed to the Israeli government’s wars and military occupations, but critical of Zionism itself.

Blockades of the Israeli consulates in Los Angeles and San Francisco were undertaken in part by members of the recently launched International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network. The occupation of the Toronto consulate was carried out by Jewish Women for Gaza, including members of the Canadian anti-Zionist Not In Our Name network. A seven-hundred-person demonstration in New York City was organized by Jews Say No, an ad hoc group of Jewish activists, many of them longstanding critics of Zionism. The London diasporist group Jewdas used a hoax e-mail to cancel a pro-war rally called by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and received a flood of support. And the Israeli antinationalist direct action group, Anarchists Against the Wall, blockaded an Israeli Air Force base in Tel Aviv. Almost all of the most visible public events showing Jewish opposition to the latest escalation in the war on Gaza were organized and carried out largely by non- and anti-Zionist Jews (as well as those who oppose Zionism but prefer not to define their politics in relation to it).

This is no coincidence. The eight years of the current intifada have also seen the growth of the global Palestine solidarity movement and its current boycott/divestment/sanctions strategy. At the same time Jewish criticism of Zionism has grown more widespread and vocal than at any time since Israel’s founding in 1948, despite the unqualified backing the U.S. government has offered Israel since 1967. That support has been explained by Israel’s advocates and defenders, as well as by Washington, as the result of the overwhelming support of U.S. Jewish communities for Israel. This is, of course, patently untrue. As many analysts have pointed out—most recently Mearsheimer and Walt in their much-attacked The Israel Lobby & U.S. Foreign Policy — U.S. Jewish communities play a rather marginal role in fostering U.S. government support for Israel. Far more significant are the arms industry, which U.S. aid to Israel subsidizes; the oil industry, which sees Israel as a balance to the regional power of oil-rich Arab states; the Christian right, which believes Jewish rule over all of biblical Israel is a prerequisite for the Second Coming; and anti-Arab/anti-Muslim racism and xenophobia, particularly after the September 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Where Jewish influence is significant—in the lobbying efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for instance—it is the influence of a small number of wealthy, right-wing individuals whose politics in no way reflect U.S. Jewish public opinion, even as it is reflected in data collected by conservative pollsters.

The rhetoric of U.S. support for Israel as a response to U.S. Jewish interests and desires has, however, become less and less convincing over time. The recent rise to visibility of Jewish critiques of Zionism has taken place in a context of rising expression and acceptance of criticism of Israel within U.S. Jewish communities. It’s very hard to gauge this in a definitive way, but stories like the following, all of which I’ve heard since the beginning of the most recent Israeli attacks on Gaza, have not been common at any earlier time during the decade I’ve spent working intensively in the Jewish side of the Palestinian solidarity movement:

  • The child of an educator at a Jewish private school refuses to join their family and school at a pro-war rally.
  • A rabbi’s wife resigns from all congregational activity after an event on nonviolence—unrelated to Palestine or Israel—is canceled by the synagogue’s board.
  • A Hillel officer at Columbia University publishes an essay on the contradiction between her desire to appear legitimately progressive and her job “selling” “under duress” (her words) the Birthright Israel program.

One indication of the extent of these critiques is a poll commissioned by J Street, the allegedly liberal Zionist lobby group, which finds U.S. Jews—even with a disproportionately old, wealthy, and religiously affiliated sample—strongly opposed to collective punishment and settlements, hostile to the Israeli electoral right wing, and supportive of a Fatah-Hamas unity government as a “partner for peace.”

This context of comparative openness to criticism of Israel is in large part the result of years of organizing, agitation, and education by groups and networks like Jews Against the Occupation/NYC, Jewish Voices for Peace (nationwide), Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel (Washington, DC), Jews for a Free Palestine (Bay Area), and No Time to Celebrate (nationwide), all of which have broken with the orthodoxy of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” position to focus on justice for Palestinians. The Zionist “pro-peace” groups, like Meretz USA, Americans for Peace Now, Tikkun, the Shalom Center, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, have been active primarily on paper since 2000 or as conveners of conferences with high registration fees. The “pro-justice” groups, by contrast, have been able to maintain a growing presence on the street and in the media over the nine years of the current intifada. Their structural critiques of Israeli government actions and the Zionist project have opened up space for these moderate criticisms to be spoken openly, as they were not five or ten years ago.

So why now? Why have these more “radical” voices come to the fore so strongly this winter? I believe it is because of shifts in the Palestine solidarity movement as well as in the larger political landscape of the left, and changes in Jewish thinking around identity and politics.

One source is a set of developments within the Palestine solidarity movement which have pushed the movement as a whole toward a structural analysis centered on Zionism. The outbreak of the 2000 intifada sparked a much wider awareness on the left (and beyond) of both the 1967 Occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem and the realities of the Israeli government’s war on Palestinians. A closer examination of the Oslo Accords and their role as cover for further land theft and as a means of co-optation of parts of the Palestinian leadership soon led to a shift of emphasis within the movement away from a return to the status quo of 1999. Increasing familiarity with the day-to-day experience of Palestinians (under occupation, inside Israel’s 1948 boundaries, and in the diaspora) showed organizers how many elements of the present situation were directly connected, not to the war of 1967, but to that of 1948 (for example, a majority of Palestinians, including a majority of those in the Occupied Territories, are refugees from the Nakba, “catastrophe,” as the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine is known in Arabic), or to the pre-state Zionist colonization effort (for example, the role of the Keren Kayemet L’Israel/Jewish National Fund as an agent of displacement and land theft).

As a result, by the end of 2008, a significant part of the solidarity movement began to focus its attention on Zionism as such, and shape its strategy accordingly. This has taken the form of support for Palestinian civil society’s call for a combined boycott/divestment/sanctions strategy, and in a reconsideration (and often rejection) of the partition (“two-state”) model for a long-term solution. These shifts have involved the Jewish participants in Palestine solidarity work no less than anyone else, and have in some cases been driven or supported by their analyses of Zionism as a colonial movement (for a recent example, see Nava EtShalom and Matthew N. Lyons’s 2008 essay “‘Bring on the bulldozers and let’s plant trees’: The Problems of Labor Zionism.”

Another key element in the newly visible surge in Jewish critiques of Zionism, though one that’s rarely remarked on in the liberal or progressive press, is the pivotal role that feminist and queer movements and their analyses have played in its development. This influence is most obvious in the prominence in Jewish (and non-Jewish) Palestine solidarity organizing of groups like Women in Black; Kvisa Shchora (an Israeli queer radical group, known for their eye-catching “No Pride in the Occupation” actions); New Profile (the feminist organization largely responsible for the visibility and growth of the high school conscription resistance movement in Israel); Aswat: Palestinian Gay Women; and the International Women’s Peace Service’s accompaniment project in the West Bank. All of these projects bring to the movement an orientation toward structural analysis, a core antinationalist and antimilitarist position, and an eye to the ways that racial, economic, national, gendered, and sexual structures of power intersect and often support each other. Their sophisticated examinations of Israeli nationalism and Zionism have had an influence beyond their direct contact with other organizations.

Perhaps even more pervasive, however, is the presence of Palestine solidarity organizers in the U.S. Jewish sphere with backgrounds in feminist and queer movements. Veterans of ACT UP, the Lesbian Avengers, riot grrrl, Gay Shame, Fed Up Queers, and a myriad of local reproductive rights campaigns (not to mention specifically Jewish feminist and lesbian projects like Di Vilde Chayes and the Jewish Women’s Committee to End the Occupation) and other specifically Jewish feminist and lesbian projects) play key roles setting the tone and political direction of Jewish Palestine solidarity groups including Jews Say No, Jews Against the Occupation/NYC, and Jewish Voices for Peace. The actions mentioned at the beginning of this article show that influence: office occupations, blockades, hoaxes—all part of the repertoire refined by ACT UP, the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), Women’s Health Action & Mobilization (WHAM!), and the Lesbian Avengers during the Oslo years. This legacy is also a key source of the willingness of these groups to challenge Zionism directly rather than limiting their critiques of Israel to specific policies and actions. These same organizers are often also involved in Palestine solidarity work that’s not specifically Jewish (Adalah-NY being a particularly notable example because of its wholehearted adoption of ACT UP-descended visibility tactics), further extending the reach of these activist lineages.

This grounding in feminist and queer antinationalism, structural and intersectional analysis, and direct action tactics has been supported by the broad shift among U.S. radicals, especially younger radicals, toward what might be called a new transnationalism, or a transnationalism from below. Beginning to some extent with the campaigns in support of the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas (though certainly influenced by earlier work in solidarity with revolutionary movements in Spain, Central America, South Africa, and Palestine), radicals in the United States have experimented in many ways to find strategies for carrying on effective international solidarity campaigns. These have varied widely, from the anti-sweatshop efforts of the late 1990s and the summit-targeting mass mobilizations of 1999–2003, to work focusing on Plan Colombia, Plan Puebla-Panama, and other U.S. ventures elsewhere in the Americas. All have shared, I would argue, a general approach which is now clearly visible in the current Palestine solidarity movement, including its Jewish side.

What I’m labeling as a new transnationalism is resolutely anticolonialist and anti-imperialist, ambivalently antinationalist, firmly if often inchoately anticapitalist, generally anti-authoritarian, and in no way organizationally unified. It recognizes the importance of resistance “in the belly of the beast” while affirming self-determination in an array of communities of resistance and the right of liberation struggles to choose the tactics which they find most suitable to that end. If that sounds like a lot of “anti” and not much “pro,” it often is. The best journal to emerge from this part of the radical left so far is the Canadian “journal of theory and action,” Upping the Anti, which provides a much needed space for sustained discussion of revolutionary politics across generations and between movements. The journal chose its name precisely to highlight its mission of moving from these negative positions to a positive strategic vision.

Be that as it may, this shared approach, with all its internal tensions, is deeply inscribed on current Jewish critiques of Zionism as well as the current Palestine solidarity movement more generally. Thus we see a pervasive ambivalence about the value of a Palestinian state (made largely moot by the increasing implausibility of any viable partition plan); a principled refusal to condemn armed self-defense (alongside strong critiques of specific tactics); support for local resistance committees prioritized over attention to the major Palestinian political parties; a clear analysis of Zionism as a colonial project paired with a less coherent take on Arab nationalism; a loose alignment with the Palestinian left and a strong critique of the fiction of “left Zionism,” but no clear vision for a noncapitalist regional economy; and an increasing attention to the parallels between Israeli and U.S. strategies of “security,” “counter-terrorism,” and militarized policing.

Finally, to return to the specifically Jewish sphere, the rise of criticism of Zionism as such is part of a broad shift in Jewish culture and thinking around identity. After over a half-century of Zionist dominance of Jewish education and community institutions, alternative voices are breaking through, in ways that are often unconnected to Palestine but ultimately support Jewish Palestine solidarity efforts. For the past few decades, there has been a steady increase of interest in diasporic Jewish cultures and histories, especially among younger Jews dissatisfied with both the Herzl-and-Hitler view of Jewish life and history presented by “mainstream” Jewish institutions, and the religious fundamentalism that is its main competitor.

This has been most visible in the United States in its Ashkenazi forms: klezmer bands now fill major venues and “Jewish music” has become a profitable and over-marketed sub-genre; the periodic human-interest headline has switched from “Yiddish is Dying!” to “Yiddish Revives!” as interest and class enrollment swells; the flagship yiddishist arts retreat, Living Traditions’ annual KlezKamp, will turn twenty-five in 2009. Other Jewish communities—Sefardi, Arab-Jewish, Beta Yisrael (Ethiopian), African American, etc.—have seen similar assertions of cultural specificity as well, often in opposition to Ashkenazi dominance of putatively all-encompassing Jewish spaces, as, for instance, in the work of Loolwa Khazoom (The Flying Camel [ed.]), Ammiel Alcalay (After Jews and Arabs; Memories of Our Future), Walter Isaac (“Locating Afro-American Judaism”), and Ella Shohat (Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices; Flagging Patriotism).

Along with these cultural shifts, however, has come a new interest in the politics that emerged from these same diasporic communities. Among Ashkenazim, the revolutionary socialist Jewish Workers Union—better known as the Bund—has become a frequent point of reference. In particular, the Bund’s principle of doykayt (here-ness), combining Jewish cultural specificity and inter-ethnic solidarity based on shared class interests—has given definition to the locally focused efforts of Jewish social justice organizations across the country, from Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (in New York) to the Progressive Jewish Alliance (in Los Angeles). Despite the direct link between doykayt and the Bund’s ardent anti-Zionism, however, even the more politicized among the people and organizations involved in this renewed engagement with the diaspora have in general actively refused to engage with the question of Zionism, presented an indistinct “pro-peace” position, or asserted an “art not politics” stance. There have been notable exceptions—from Sefardi and Arab-Jewish viewpoints, Alcalay and Shohat (most strongly in “Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Jewish Victims”), and from Ashkenazi or Yiddishist perspectives, the poet, activist, and essayist Irena Klepfisz (Dreams of an Insomniac and A Few Words in the Mother Tongue), and the historian of religion and culture, Daniel Boyarin (Unheroic Conduct, Dying for God, and Border Lines).

Nonetheless, these increasingly articulate presentations of the value of diasporic Jewish culture soon come into conflict with many aspects of Zionism. And, in the end, they run directly counter to Zionism as a whole: the project of placing the state of Israel at the center of Jewish life depends on devaluing and erasing diasporic cultures and histories, reducing two millennia of Jewish life to a lacuna punctuated only by mass murder and redemptive nationalism. As central to the Zionist movement as Jewish control over the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is the imperative of shlilat hagalut (negation or liquidation of the diaspora), which holds that “degenerate” diasporic Jewish cultures should be eliminated in all but the most token bagels-and-Seinfeld forms and replaced by a new, militarized, and nationalist Hebrew culture. As a result, participants in what Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz has termed “radical diasporism” (in her 2007 The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism) are increasingly seeing themselves in opposition to Zionism, standing in solidarity with Palestinians on the basis of a shared enemy as well as in the interest of justice.

“Radical diasporism,” articulated as such, is far from widespread, though its influence can be seen widely in the cultural sphere. Among musicians alone, it is front and center in much of the work of artists as varied as Montréal’s neo-klezmer Black Ox Orkestar, whose haunting “Ver Tanzt” deals directly with the Occupation in its Yiddish lyrics; Berlin-based Dan Kahn, whose “post-dialectic cabaret” tunes “Dumay” and “Nakam (6,000,000 Germans)” both confront the Zionist project from a historical perspective; Detroit hip-hop m.c. Invincible (“Emperor’s Clothes”); New York queer rockers the Shondes (“I Watched the Temple Fall”); Bay Area vocalist and composer Jewlia Eisenberg; and riot grrrl punk legend Nomy Lamm.

The cultural dynamic radical diasporism expresses, however, is pervasive. The ardently Zionist Bronfman Philanthropies’ 2007 report “Beyond Distancing” gives evidence of just how much so. The Bronfman survey looked past majorities that identified themselves as “pro-Israel” and denied the existence of the Occupation, to find young U.S. Jews, regardless of their political opinions, to be less attached to Israel than their elders (with barely 20 percent “highly attached”) and more likely to be actively “alienated” from the Jewish state (11 percent among “left-leaning” respondents under thirty-five, and a surprising 21 percent among the “right-leaning,” evening out somewhat at 19 to 26 percent among those under forty-nine). Perhaps most tellingly, they could not find a majority of respondents under thirty-five who would claim that the destruction of the Israeli state “would be a personal tragedy.” This “distancing,” it seems to me, is in part a result of diasporist cultural work, and certainly a significant element in the story of the current rise to visibility of Jewish opposition to Zionism.

Jewish critiques of Zionism—and Jewish participation in the Palestine solidarity movement more generally—are significant beyond the bounds of Jewish communities themselves chiefly in the United States, and mainly because of the privileges given to Jewish voices in the discussion of Palestine and Israel here. Still, as Esther Kaplan wrote in her essay “Globalize the Intifada” (in Alisa Solomon & Tony Kushner’s Wrestling with Zion), Jews in the United States and beyond have a role to play in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, and in some cases occupy a strategic position, but are in no way at its center. For Jews, as for everyone engaged in that struggle, the task is to work with our Palestinian, Arab, and other friends and comrades to move from our shared opposition to Zionism into strategies of resistance that can, in the end, free Palestine.

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