The US Social Forum in Detroit concluded on Saturday, so I finally had time to figure out what was important for me to say.
Boy, were there a lot of workshops on Palestine, BDS, and anti-Zionism! I was only able to attend one of them, run by the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network (IJAN). It was a four hour session on ‘unlearning Zionism.’ This is the kind of education that surely keeps Dershowitz and Foxman up at night.
My impression: meh. A lot of the workshops here are structured so that after some initial conversations, the group has a relatively open ended conversation. In this case, IJAN has a specific orthodoxy on what anti-Zionism means, and their session used creative, interactive methods to impart it. Creative to a point of course. It reminded me of old fashioned training manuals for Shomer Hatzair peulot (meeting/lesson plans) that had the counselor ask a question, and right below was the answer you should be trying to elicit from the group.
[Oh yeah, the Shmu”tz was at the Social Forum.] Of possible interest to folks not immersed in the world of anti-Zionist thought and practice was the emphasis on Zionism as situated within broader isms: sexism, racism, Christian supremacy, colonialism, heterosexism and economic injustice. According to this model, Zionism is a particular manifestation of the engines of oppression in the world today, one that is a product of those other ones, while supporting them in turn.
This exercise takes away from the narrative of Jewish exceptionalism, which is shared by anti-Semites and many Jewish supporters of Israel. At the same time, Zionism is a rare example of an ‘ism’ specific to only one situation, just as Apartheid was. There’s lots of racist nationalism in France, but no one word to evoke it. The focus on Zionism on the part of folks who are not Jewish or Palestinian sort of invites an extraordinary amount of negative attention aimed at Jews, which is perceived by some, including on the left, as objectively anti-Semitic, regardless of intent.
And, I mostly agree that focusing on Israel’s behavior makes a lot of sense in the United States because of our large Jewish community and special relationship in supporting Israel. It doesn’t mean my hackles aren’t raised when folks claim that Israel is the tag that wags the dog. (They mean Jews, right?)
A more interesting argument among the anti-Zionists has to do with the role of Judaism and spirituality proper. IJAN argues that its raison d’être is to wield the legitimacy of Jews on this issue in support of some factions of the Palestinian liberation movement. (They support a faction which has no name; but I conclude it is a small faction that would exclude all of the following: Hamas, Fateh, Palestinian Authority,  Hadash, and Balad. All of them have positions that contradict IJAN’s.)
At the last IJAN presentation at the 2007 Social Forum, the speakers explicitly rejected support for Jewish spiritual and religious practices that de-center Israel and Zionism. My impression is that IJAN is very interested in turning Jews into anti-Zionists, but does not see value in helping anti-Zionists feel strengthened in their Judaism or secular Jewish people-hood (as a Bundist might wish.) That said, they are having a conversation about it.
Taken together, the insistence on promoting a very specific version of anti-Zionism, placing Zionism at the center of multiple systems of oppression, and an uncomfortable sideways glance at efforts to build Jewish identity (while tearing down its Zionist variants) combine to something that makes me very uncomfortable. My vision for the Jewish community is one that emphasizes Judaism over and above the existing or messianic versions of Israel. It’s a Jewish community that retains and celebrates diversity, even if parts of that spectrum make me really angry. With all my opposition to Israel’s actions and the shrill voices of those backing them, I’m aware that 100 years ago most Jews were not Zionists, and 100 years from hence that could be true again.
Israel should not be the graveyard of Jewish people-hood, as it was for so many specific Jewish cultures. Anti-Zionist Jews that I respect aren’t working primarily as subcontractors for Palestinian liberation, they are embracing a positive vision of Jews, for Jews, and by Jews, for Jewish liberation. I know I’m not the only leftist who thinks that the Jewish liberation tent should be next to the Palestine liberation tent and not inside of it.
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