Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jewish Dissent - Anti-Zionism And American Political Culture

I am not sure whether I consider myself a Zionist. Zionism was originally a movement among secular Jews in Europe to the obstinate refusal of titularly Christian nations to allow non-Christians to be equal partners in the national project. That the Jewish populations were considered "foreign" even into the early years of the 20th century, and even as some of the most important developments were supported by various Jewish citizens, should say much about the attitude towards national identity in Europe, a legacy of ethnic solidarity and narrow nationalism that is still with us. Especially in the light of the Holocaust, it can be reasonably argued that the escape to Zion, even in the absence of a messiah (secular or otherwise), was an understandable refusal by European Jewish communities to allow themselves to be victimized.

On the other hand, there was and continues to be the not small problem of the indigenous population that would not necessarily be accommodating to the arrival of foreign immigrants of different languages, a different religion, and a certain hauteur towards the non-white local population. I also think that serious, legitimate criticism of the State of Israel by Americans is stymied by a confluence of money and power, fueled not just by the Zionist establishment in America (which conflates Jewish identity with Zionism) and fundamentalist Christianity, whose enthusiasm for the State of Israel is tied more to dreams of the Second Coming than justice for embattled and slaughtered Jews in Europe.

I for one am always amused by those who believe it their bounden duty to defend Israel against criticism in the United States. Disregarding real anti-Semites, serious criticism is often much softer than the most trenchant criticism within Israel itself. This is repeatedly affirmed, but still we hear from the ADL every time a politician voices even mild criticism of certain actions of the State of Israel.

It is in light of my own ambivalent attitude towards Zionism, if not the reality of Israel, that I found this piece at AlterNet by Tony Karon, a senior editor at The growing volume of criticism of various policies of the State of Israel voiced both within Israel and in the wider world is rooted in a growing refusal by Jews outside Israel to accept the insistence that Jewish identity is wrapped up in Zionism. Among Karon's wonderful gems in an article overflowing with substantiations of my own views, however tentative, is the following:
The Zionist establishment has had remarkable success over the past half-century in convincing others that Israel and its supporters speak for, and represent, "the Jews." The value to their cause of making Israel indistinguishable from Jews at large is that it becomes a lot easier to shield Israel from reproach. It suggests, in the most emphatic terms, that serious criticism of Israel amounts to criticism of Jews. More than a millennium of violent Christian persecution of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, has made many in the West rightly sensitive towards any claims of anti-Semitism, a sensitivity many Zionists like to exploit to gain a carte blanche exemption from criticism for a state they claim to be the very personification of Jewishness.

So, despite Israel's ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, then-Harvard president Larry Summers evidently had no trouble saying, in 2002, that harsh criticisms of Israel are "anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent."

Robin Shepherd of the usually sensible British think-tank Chatham House has gone even further, arguing that comparing Israel with apartheid South Africa is "objective anti-Semitism."

Says Shepherd: "Of course one can criticize Israel, but there is a litmus test, and that is when the critics begin using constant key references to South Africa and the Nazis, using terms such as ‘bantustans.' None of these people, of course, will admit to being racist, but this kind of anti-Semitism is a much more sophisticated form of racism, and the kind of hate-filled rhetoric and imagery are on the same moral level as racism, so gross and distorted that they are defaming an entire people, since Israel is an essentially Jewish project." . . .

Actually, Mr. Shepherd, I'd be more inclined to pin the racist label on anyone who conflates the world's 13 million Jews with a country in which 8.2 million of them -- almost two thirds -- have chosen not to live.

Although you wouldn't know it -- not if you followed Jewish life simply through the activities of such major Jewish communal bodies as the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League -- the extent to which the eight million Jews of the Diaspora identify with Israel is increasingly open to question (much to the horror of the Zionist-oriented Jewish establishment). In a recent study funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (an important donor to Jewish communal organizations), Professors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman revealed that their survey data had yielded some extraordinary findings: In order to measure the depth of attachment of American Jews to Israel, the researchers asked whether respondents would consider the destruction of the State of Israel a "personal tragedy." Less than half of those aged under 35 answered "yes" and only 54% percent of those aged 35-50 agreed (compared with 78% of those over 65). The study found that only 54% of those under 35 felt comfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state.

As groups such as the Jewish Agency in Israel (which aims to promote Jewish immigration) and the American Jewish committee expressed dismay over the findings, Cohen and Kelman had more bad news: They believed they were seeing a long-term trend that was unlikely to be reversed, as each generation of American Jews becomes even more integrated into the American mainstream than its parents and grandparents had been. The study, said Cohen, reflected "very significant shifts that have been occurring in what it means to be a Jew."

Cohen's and Kelman's startling figures alone underscore the absurdity of Shepherd's suggestion that to challenge Israel is to "defame an entire people."

I fully expect there to be all sorts of horrid things said about me and this post; it has happened before, and will happen again, I am sure. It is nice, however, to read someone say what needs to be said, even if it results in the slings and arrows of outrageous epithets, such as "Jewish anti-Semitism", "Jewish self-hatred", etc.

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