Identity, Israel, Justice, Politics

Sad About Not Finding My Place

Warning: this post is sort of about me.
Coming of age in Israel, I encountered quite a few reminders of how strange politics can be. In the mid-80s, I went with members of the scouts (Tzofim) to protest Meir Kahane outside a venue in Petah Tikva. An elderly man came to argue with us. He didn’t yell and wore a forgiving smile. And a kippa. He said that Arabs are dogs, they only look human. Looking back, I can finally appreciate how bizarre he was. Only… he was one of the more normal Kahane supporters. And he didn’t try and assault anyone (that I saw). Not like the other guys spitting and throwing punches at us.
A few short years later, Kahane came to my little hometown. I only found out because the bus passed the town square he was using. A couple hundred folks had gathered – more than I’d ever seen assembled (outside of the soccer games). I got off the bus, put away my schoolbag, put on my keffiyah, and marched over there to protest. By myself. While I didn’t have a sign, I did have bright yellow stickers reading ‘say no to racism’. I held one up and stood not four meters away from him.
Again, looking back, I have to say that was stupid. Even if thugs hadn’t followed me in a car and given me a stomping outside my apartment building in front of all the neighbors.
Later still, when I was a soldier, I was forced to attend a lecture by the commander of our corps. Which is to say, he was above the head of our training base and in charge of all sorts of things related to our specialty, though he would never again lead troops into battle. In this lecture, he gave a military-political survey of the situation with Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. When he opened up the Q and A, I said: “Officer sir, since the conflict with the Palestinian people can only have a political solution, not a military one, aren’t you deceiving us by talking about ‘winning’?”
Boy was he mad. I never got punished though. Just ostracized.
These incidents surely paint a picture of the young man as a foolish dissident. But grant me that I had heart – lots of heart. Whatever my politics, however wrong headed my political analysis or ideology, it was sincere and flowed from a sense that my reference group, my peers in Israeli society, included both Palestinian and Jewish comrades. Whenever some right winger or patriot made a bloviating reference to ‘we’ meaning Israeli Jews, I always thought to myself – yes, ‘you’, because my ‘we’ is made up of Arabs AND Jews. Of all Israelis, exactly in the way that in America, ‘we’ includes whites AND blacks.
How odd then, to find myself dismissed as a ‘Zionist’ here and there in the Palestinian solidarity movement. Not like so many people actually know me or anything. But… there was that JATO woman at the UFPJ gathering, the trainer at the Student PSC conference, the outright verbal assualts on the activist listserve, and a picture comes to mind.
The Palestinian solidarity movement, especially as it has coalesced around the strategy of BDS, has two faces. One face is warm, friendly and intelligent. It says that BDS is a tactic not a preferred political solution. It doesn’t require B, D and S, and it can be directed at the occupation or at Israel in general – no coercion. It makes Gush Shalom feel right at home.
The other face is quite clear that the one state solution is preferred and the two state solution is dead – and good riddance. Anyone in support of an Israeli identity is a Zionist. Anyone seeking compromise with Zionists is a Zionist. Anti- or non-Zionists who refrain from calling for an end to Israel are ‘soft-Zionists.’ Israelis are ‘butchers’ who commit ‘massacres’, their peace camp isn’t really for peace except for a handful, the Palestinian Authority is not only corrupt, it is ‘only corrupt’, lacking in any other attributes or identity. It’s everything awful about the 90s campus culture wars/identity politics madness, with the eager pleasure in despising whatever isn’t politically correct.
Everything I used to hate and fear about the Israeli right wing: the extremist language, the eagerness to demonize the other, the closing of ranks around a narrow set of ideas, the very harshness of the voice and tone. It’s the flattening of every nuance into a slogan or holy truth. It’s the utter impossibility of dialogue with people who feel differently.
I used to be part of that first group. Some days, I still am. But… I keep running into that second group and it turns my stomach. Sometimes it’s the same person displaying one face or the other, depending the audience. It’s as if all the experiences I have growing up in Israel and ‘putting myself out there’ as a refusenik, participant in militant demonstrations, getting arrested, working inside of majority Palestinian political organizations – count for nothing. Because I’m insisting on the slogans of my youth (Arab/Jewish unity, two states for two peoples, down with the occupation, negotiations yes/war no) somehow I’m excluded from the cool kids lunch table at the Palestinian solidarity middle school. Back in Israel, that’s who I sat with. Now they sneer at me.
But I can’t sit with the Zionist kids anymore! Not after all that stuff I said about not being a Zionist…. sniff.
I guess I’ll go sit by myself. And I am NOT a Zionist! I’m just another Israeli yored  in New York waiting for the occupation to be over. So I can go home.

25 thoughts on “Sad About Not Finding My Place

  1. Your position expressed in this post is much more welcoming (something I can agree with) than what I usually discern from your comments.
    Can you describe the composition of the second (“the other face”) group? Was it mostly Palestinian Arab? Or were Jewish and European individuals also prominent in this group?
    I have another question: Do you believe in another unilateral withdrawal, this time from the entire West Bank?

  2. @Michael, first+second groups are all mixed in terms of ethnicity/background.
    Mostly I support a negotiated Israel surrender to their better, open-hearted selves.
    @Victor, I’m a failure as a hardcore activist. I’m softcore to the bone….

  3. I sympathize. It’s tough to find a place when you have to pick a side, and people assume that if you support Israel you’re anti-Palestinian or anti-Arab or anti-Muslim- basically, they think you’re a racist. And if you support Palestinians, the pro-Israel camp basically call you a race traitor.

  4. JG, You can always come sit with me at lunch, there seems to be plenty of room at the table. In fact, come for Pesach, I want you at my yearly argument with my parents on the topic….

  5. Awww, you guys are so sweet. To bad JG is my anonymizing handle and you shall never know me or my true name.

  6. Yored, you turned your back on your people, your country, your unit, and your mesorah, and you wonder why you are ostracized? Buy a vowel, get a clue, and stop whining. Nicely written article.

  7. As time continues, I suspect the Zionist in you will grow, as it has for others, particularly when the emptiness of far too many of the cool kids. Zionism’s just about political self-determination, something that the true face of PSM does not recognize.

  8. you turned your back on your people, your country, your unit, and your mesorah
    Nice set of priorities. Unit before God, huh?

  9. JG, in response to your comment on Solomonia:
    I won’t argue with your self-image. If you don’t want to consider yourself a Zionist, that’s your choice. I certainly did not intend to throw you into a category against your will. Of course, the definition of Zionism is, today, as flexible as it ever has been. As you note in your article, it is no longer limited to inclusion by affirmation (i.e. I believe so and so, therefore I am a Zionist), but now incorporates inclusion by negation (i.e. If you don’t believe so and so, then you’re a Zionist).
    In some respects, as I think you’ve acknowledged, the anti-Zionist coalition has little interest in distinguishing between non-Zionist and Zionists, making the balance between them a distinction without a difference. And where those distinctions are made, they are often tactical gestures, for those outside the “inner circle” listserves. I don’t have your experiences, but I do have my own. I know what it’s like to spend months working on Palestinian economic development projects and be introduced to Arabs as “the Zionist” as if you don’t have a first name.
    Anyway, as I told you in the past, keep writing. I know you’ve gotten some less than kind comments since this article got posted on Solomonia – nothing too intense, I hope – but you need to know how important your perspective and experience is, at least to me.

  10. What I hate about the whole thing: that the Z word is coming up all the time. Blech. I just don’t think it’s that relevant anymore.

  11. JG, I think the Z word won’t be relevant when a large amount of people stop trying to undermine the basics of what it has created – the State of Israel, Jewish self-determination, and Jewish self-defense.

  12. I agree, though perhaps with a thought process different from yours. In the Soviet Union, where I grew up, Zionism meant something that successfully ran it’s course – i.e. the movement to afford the Jewish people the exercise of self-determination had completed its mission, Israel was a reality. To speak of Zionism as an ongoing process, whether for or against, was anachronistic. I was frankly confused by the use of the term for the first few years of my Israel-related activism in college.
    From an intellectual standpoint, I simply think the term is obsolete. Israel has grown far beyond the original Zionist ideal, and is no longer reliant on the eclipsed 19th century Parisian coffee shop ethnic nationalist ideology of its founders. With gratitude to generations past, he country is strong and vibrant enough to chart its own conceptual future.
    Today, from a cultural and political perspective, I think Zionism no longer refers to the ideology of Israel’s founders, but essentially to international solidarity with Jewish security and sovereignty in the Levant.
    I also think the Arab obsession with the term is a bit obscene, and plays a significant role in keeping the word alive in the Jewish community, out of sheer rebellion at its being hijacked.
    But, in general, I agree. The Z-Word should no longer be relevant. I think the less we use it as a shorthand for a variety of ideas and feelings, and actually elaborate on those ideas and feelings instead, the better.

  13. I just come back from the JVP National Member Meeting. I think you would feel right at home there with JVP. That’s not to say there aren’t Anti-Zionists there–there are, and there should be, just as much as Zionists and non-Zionists–but the focus is on the occupation and how to respond to it.
    Of course, the conversation is different: Do we support targeted or Full BDS? Sometimes the conversations can get really intense, but I haven’t seen anything too bad yet. Seems like a better, more useful conversation to have, anyways.

  14. @Yakov, I’m a fan of JVP. But… I’ve seen them partner with individuals and organizations who are pretty intolerant, in terms of having a highly specific set of ‘correct’ principles and rude dismissive attitudes towards those who disagree. The left (like the right) is still a place where having the correct line is a kind of fetish that excuses all sorts of rude and inappropriate language. (Just take a look at Mondoweiss!)
    J Street, which I like but disagree with from the left, is a much more tolerant organization both in the attitudes of the grassroots AND the attitudes of the staff.
    @ Barnavi: Israel has a large Palestinian minority. I support full civil rights for that group, and see them as desiring to live in an Israel where they are citizens to the same degree as Asians in the US are full citizens. To me, that’s unity.
    But the Palestinian people still deserve a full state.
    I figure – when Palestinians have one state in which they can exercise full sovereignty, and another state where they can live as equals with the Jewish majority, we might be that much closer to a peaceful future.

  15. Wait, J-Street is tolerant? Then why is J-Street the one siding with the Kahanists in shutting down debate at the University of California? Yes, they inviting JVP for a nice little debate at their conference, but when push came to shove they put their weight entirely with the right wing.
    “Zionist” is not a meaningless label. People might have actually been calling you that because of your politics, not because they were trying to out-cool you.
    Every group has assholes. I definitely know lots of Palestine solidarity activists and groups who fall in that category. In fact, you will find asshole activists in every cause.
    I also work with a BDS group that I think is smart, inclusive, and pretty all-around awesome. But being an activists, volunteering to your spare time to work against injustice when you are sitting pretty in NYC while all around you you get hostility and threats and people spitting on you can get tough and it sometimes activists get touchy, get thinskinned, get angry and bitter. Maybe J-Street can be nicer to you because they have lots of funding and time and full, paid staff and are less rough around the edges and don’t have to deal with the constant bullshit those of us on the outside have to.
    I personally try to choose my affiliations based on what position makes moral sense to me, not who is nice to me, and it usually turns out pretty well.

  16. JVP might “partner with individuals and organizations who are pretty intolerant in terms of having a highly specific set of ‘correct’ principles and rude dismissive attitudes towards those who disagree.” JStreet wants to partner with….Netanyahu.
    I’m sorry people treated you badly, Jew Guevara. But being a Jewish Israeli gives you a lot of privilege relative to others in this movement, and sometimes we (I am also) have to accept that our comfort isn’t a priority.

  17. You’ve done a great job of making my point. Perhaps we can agree that funding and popularity aren’t actually preconditions for a welcoming face to the world. All those intolerant leftists on campus who regularly purge each other for imaginary ‘ism’ crimes? They didn’t get that way though hardened street combat.

  18. Oh, for sure, I am not here to defend the petty sniping and insecurities of activists, student or otherwise. I also don’t think its quite fair to compare students to fully funded professional staffed JStreet or the David Project etc. Althought, honestly, you might find it helpful also to step away from student activism. I love student activists, I was a student activist, but you might find more maturity and stability outside the pressures and drama of the university (not to stereotype or anything).

  19. You know, I really appreciate this post. I used to be active in Jewish anti-zionist and Palestinian solidarity orgs that were akin to the 2nd group you mention, but something never felt quite right to me on a gut level. I was very involved and very convinced their politics were right and my nausea was wrong. I became more religious and started seeing Israel in a more nuanced light and I am still not really a zionist, but I am nauseated by much of what I see and encounter from that 2nd group (you described it so well, down to the letter – “soft zionist” is such a curse in that community!). I know if I posted on Facebook what I’m really thinking about what is going on in Israel 3/4 my modern orthodox friends AND 3/4 of my “radical” friends would have a sh*tfit so I try to stay away from I/P discussions on there. If anyone in my current religious community knew about my political history they would run us out of town. where i stand now? well, i’m not so sure. i am not so quick to assume who’s right and who’s wrong, but i still believe in a palestinian state and am still opposed to much of what the israeli government and IDF do. sometimes i hate the fact that i am no longer so convinced i know what’s right. most of the time i’m quite glad.

  20. BTW, re someone’s question about the composition of the 2nd group, I may have been involved in this world in a different area than the author of this post but here’s my experience: I was involved in organizations mostly made up of Jews, but we worked in solidarity/partnership with campus groups like “Students for Justice in Palestine” and the Arab Defense League, etc. on BDS type goals. I met some really cool Palestinian students who were all for coexistence and were non-violent. I met one or two Palestinian students who were more militant. I met some crazy white non-Jews who were WAY too invested in anti-zionism for my comfort. I met some Jews who seemed to hate other Jews and were internalized anti-semites, and I met some who really and truly loved their people (and Israel) and just thought Israel was on the wrong path. Most Jews and Palestinians alike were supporters of a “single, democratic, secular state” where Jews and Arabs could coexist. A pipe dream, but one I could get behind at the time since religious nationalism has always freaked me out. Most of the Palestinian students were not observantly Muslim (some were actually Christian), and ditto the Jews.

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