Israel, Politics

Recap: Palestine Rising at the Social Forum

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.
Previous USSF Posts:
http://jewschool.com/21/23261/anti-zionist-jews-and-palestine-solidarity-at-the-us-social-forum-the-most-anti-zionist-ever/
http://jewschool.com/22/23284/zionists-at-the-social-forum/

14 thoughts on “Recap: Palestine Rising at the Social Forum

  1. I love that video (anyone have the link?) of a Polish nationalist addressing Jews in an empty stadium. He says – “Jews! Come back! We are haunted by your ghosts, and only you can exorcise them on our behalf. Without you, Poland is not Polish!”
    (or something to that effect.)

  2. Very interesting post, JG! I think you’re right to point out the problem with merely tearing down Zionist forms of Jewish identity, but without proposing or pointing to a substantive form of Jewish identity (or better, Judaism) to put/restore in its place. This is especially the case if they are trying to reach out to other Jews–my sense is that there are a lot of Jews who find it hard to explicitly call Zionism into question, not because they are fans of exclusivist ethno-nationalisms, but because they don’t have a clear conception of what being a Jew would look like apart from that (even though, as you point out, it was the norm 100 years ago). Thus, because they lack other conceptions, they feel that they can’t call Zionism into question without also calling their Jewishness into question–so they feel stuck. Thus, alternative visions need to be fleshed out and made more visible.
    Even their self-description is telling: they call themselves “anti-Zionist Jewish activists,” rather than “activists for anti-Zionist Jewishness/Judaism.” So, yeah, maybe the latter is a movement that is yet to get going in earnest.

  3. Thanks BA. I agree. And:
    One reason I don’t want to be part of demonizing Zionists (and yes, this is quite common on the left) is because they are often more attached to the label than to the ideology. By some standards (Do you think Israel is your homeland? Will you move to Israel? Is Israeli culture a more authentic expression of the Jewish people than American Jewish culture?) most US Jews are not very good Zionists at all….

  4. “It doesn’t mean my hackles aren’t raised when folks claim that Israel is the tag that wags the dog.”
    Generally, I would prefer to think that the US-backing of the State of Israel is out of some geopolitical interest. However, I am not sure how true this is considering exploitation of Palestinians, and it does seem that Israel has a wealthy lobby.
    (1) 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.
    (2)
    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,
    I don’t see how 1. and 2. are mutually exclusive. Efforts to build a special religious-national identity among non-religious Jews could make them feel uncomfortable, like you say, but it makes sense if they feel that it puts a certain kind of religion onto them. For example, I don’t want to feel pressure to join a religion just because I was born with a certain ethnicity. So there is some sympathy to be felt for their “uncomfortable sideways glance.” Of course, this has nothing to do with whether the goal of human rights and democracy for occupied Palestinians is right.
    I am glad you went to the social forum and hope you keep an open mind, developing more desire for democracy.
    “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.” Shouldn’t there be a tent for all the people of the world who want democracy and love God?
    Go Democracy and international brotherhood!

  5. I take issue with the idea of Jewish exceptionalism.One of the goals of Zionism was to make Jews “normal”.

  6. “I don’t want to feel pressure to join a religion just because I was born with a certain ethnicity.”
    I’d much rather religions stuck to their ethnic groups of origin and didn’t try to conquer the world and wipe out all other religions. There was a lot less religious violence when people respected the gods folks inherited with their language and cuisine from their culture.

  7. “One reason I don’t want to be part of demonizing Zionists… is because they are often more attached to the label than to the ideology.”
    Well if those hollow Zionists still end up supporting the apartheid then you shouldn’t hesitate to demonize Zionism. What exactly is Zionism? If it means that Jews are the chosen people (Master race) and any Jew born in any part of the world has the right to go to the “Holy Land” and kick its native inhabitants out, then you shouldn’t hesitate to attack Zionism. If today Zionism is about Jewish identity while ensuring human rights of gentiles then we wouldn’t be having this discussion!

  8. I find this discussion very interesting.
    A lot of both JG’s and IJAN’s (as well as some of the commenters’) anti-Zionist ideologies seem to be rooted in an idealistic anti-nationalist/anti-colonialist perspective: the idea that the nation-state itself is unjust.
    It seems many leftists want to supplant Israel and the occupied territories with a single, secular state with strong democratic institutions and better equal protection for all races and religions. I completely understand and sympathize with those aspirations (and wish Israel would do more to address its shortcomings in those areas), but is there a single example in history of such an ideal state?
    The US is among the world’s strongest and oldest democracies, yet we still have all kinds of problems with race relations, immigration policy, etc., and Native Americans have no hope of ever getting back the lands that were taken from them by colonizers from Europe. The former Yugoslavia was once held up as a bastion of inter-ethnic tolerance, but as soon as its totalitarian regime crumbled, it launched into a bloody civil war and was eventually divided on largely ethno-linguistic lines.
    JG seems to suggest by his “liberation tents” comment (which is a most excellent rhetorical device) that Jewish leftist anti-Zionists are too often getting mixed up in the cause of Palestinian nationalism. I’d go further, however, to suggest it’s not just problematic from the point of view of Jewish identity, but is anathema to leftist ideals. If Jewish nationalism (aka Zionism) is wrong, how is Palestinian nationalism any different? Is it really possible to separate Palestinian “liberation” from Palestinian nationalism?
    I assume most serious leftists are smart enough to realize that leftism is about more than just supporting the perceived underdog. Because if the anti-Zionist left ultimately succeeds in delegitimizing Israel to the point of eliminating the concept of a Jewish state without laying the groundwork for something better to replace it, they’re going to be right back at square one as a Palestinian nationalist state takes its place. Fatah and Hamas may like to use leftist revolutionary rhetoric, but it’s very difficult to imagine either of them or any other Palestinian organization helming a more democratic, more equal society than already exists in Israel.
    I guess what I’m asking is: why does so much leftist energy seem to be focused on delegitimizing Israel rather than helping it improve?

  9. This might help.
    The left is following through on three ideological tracks. The first is support for the national liberation struggle as an essential component of the bourgeois revolution that must, or usually, precedes the fight for socialism. This was updated during the era of decolonization to mean that pushing western imperialism out of the colonial periphery is essential if we are to have any chance of revolution in the metropoles.
    The second, is that ‘the representatives of the oppressed/marginalized should be supported as they lead the struggle for liberation.’ In other words, in the fight against sexism, men should follow women. In the fight against heterosexism, straights should follow queers. In the fight against racism, whites should follow people of color. It follows that in the struggle against Israel’s policies, whose main victims are Palestinian, one should follow a Palestinian leadership.
    The third, is that in the realm of identity politics some identities are seen as inherently liberatory, while others are not. Black pride – yes. White pride – no. Womanism – hell yes, thank the lorde. Manism? Too stupid to even be funny. What’s happened over the course of the 20th Century, is that the Jewish identity has moved over from column A to column B among the left, aided in large part by official Soviet efforts, starting right after WWII, and peaking with the passage of the UN resolution declaring Zionism to be racism.
    All too often, we have a left that follows some combination of these three rules but without a true understanding of them. The rules are applied mechanically, without regard to other sources of progressive thought, and especially without respecting the arc of the history of Jewish oppression.
    The reality of the Israeli Palestinian conflict is so depressing, so discouraging, I’m finding it possible to feel compassion to those on all sides of the debate who seek to simplify it. They are being wrong, but all too human.
    As an alternative, why not measure Zionism by the yardstick of it’s founders like Herzl and Ahad Ha’am? Or by looking at Yehuda Halevi answer to the Khazar King’s question: would Jews be any different than the rest of the world of God granted them a return to Zion?

  10. That wasn’t the hadracha technique I learned in the shmutz! It was all democratic chinuch, all the time. And sarcastic songs about brainwashing.

  11. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I think all three of those points can be summed up (untidily) as “leftists support the perceived underdog.” And for whatever reason the left seems to have bought into the idea of Palestinian underdog status hook line and sinker, and completely forgotten about the reasons Israel was created, which is that Jews were the international underdogs for two millennia prior. Former underdog status doesn’t justify the way that Israel has treated the Palestinians, and I support efforts to push Israel to treat its minority populations with true equality and to make room for a real Palestinian state in the occupied territories with a capital in a shared Jerusalem. But the hard leftist idea of seeking to completely eliminate Israel seems very, very wrong to me–even misguided–because all it will do is create a different underdog, a true Pyrrhic victory.

  12. themicah – Except that “the left” is so trained now to not recognize Jewish identity as legitimate, than I doubt they’d even consider a post-destruction-of-Israel Jewish diaspora as an underdog at all. Since like shlomo sand wrote, the Jewish people doesn’t actually exist.

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