Zionism and Jewish identity

There is — at last– an assault on Zionism inside the left/liberal press. The Intercept and the Forward have run pieces saluting Jewish anti-Zionists of years gone by, the American Council for Judaism and the Bund. And even the New Republic is now asking whether Zionism has lost its rationale.

In a similar spirit, the academic Freddie deBoer published an excellent essay about Jewish delusions about Zionism. Why don’t American Jews understand that this is their Zion, the United States, the land of equality, and they should not be supporting an ethnic supremacist country that hurts Palestinians over there, a country they wouldn’t want to live in, deBoer asks.

deBoer expresses an idealism I have often voiced myself:

For my entire adult life, I have debated with American Zionist Jews who passionately defend Israel’s government and Israel as a concept, who wax poetic about Aliyah, who insist on the necessity of a muscular Jewish state which explicitly codifies itself as a country for and by Jews, who say to be Jewish is to yearn for a return to Zion – but who have zero interest in living in Israel. I could make fun of them, I guess, but I wouldn’t ever do so. For so many American Jews, whether committed Zionists or the ever-growing number of the permanently conflicted, Israel is just an idea, not a place; it’s where they put their thoughts and feelings about being Jewish, the repository for their unhappiness over the various forms of disrespect they’ve no doubt endured in their lives for being Jewish. Those feelings are understandable, but the Zionism they result in is destructive. For Jews and Palestinians alike.

This argument is naïve. Israel is no fantasy. There exists an essential bond between Israeli Zionists and American Zionists, and an understanding of the vital necessity of each partner to the other. deBoer is appealing to the better angels of Jewish nature — embodied today by IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace. What he does not perceive is the darker angels of Jewish identity, which are shaped by Jewish history and today embodied by the Israel lobby and the Jewish state even as it massacres civilians.

American Zionists are not deluded about Zionism. Israel is not a fantasia of their Jewish identity. Passionate American Zionists know exactly what Israel is. They have been there a million times, they have heaps of friends in Israel, and they know that they have an absolutely essential job in supporting it here that they cannot abandon. These Jews are actively supporting blatant supremacy, racism, and apartheid, while lying to themselves and the rest of us that such things don’t go on in Israel.

In short, there needs to be an ideological battle between the JVP Jews and the AIPAC-and-liberal Zionist Jews in this country over Jewish identity. Which thankfully is quickening.

Let me explain why American Jewish Zionists are so aware of and necessary to the Zionist project.

About half of American Jews have been to Israel and I venture that half of that half have been there many times (as I have). They care deeply about Israel (as I do), and they are utterly thrilled with what Israel is. The common refrain from such committed American Jews visiting Israel is:

I was finally in a country where I am not a minority. For the first time I could relax and feel sovereign in a land. I did not carry the burden of being a persecuted minority anymore. What joy I felt to see bricklayers who were Jewish, and busdrivers and soldiers. And prime ministers and waiters!

These are utterly genuine feelings, and they anchor the American Jewish relationship to Israel. These Zionists regard Israel as the fruit of a liberation movement that ended European oppression. The Jewish culture of Eastern Europe has been born in Jerusalem. The writer Bernard Avishai scolded me on just this point many years ago when he was trying to argue me out of being an anti-Zionist. The great Yiddish culture of Warsaw and Vilnius and Kiev and Bialystok and Lvov and Hungary too – it has been recreated here in the living Hebrew language. The great writer Agnon moved from the Ukraine to Jerusalem. You must appreciate that culture and not destroy it, he said.

I’ve met many such cultural Zionists. They love the feeling of walking thru the neighborhoods of West and South Jerusalem at night and hearing the murmurs in English of London and Johannesburg Jews who have apartments there. The Judean hills are the head of the lance of American Zionism, the settlers in gated communities in occupied territory. Culture and politics meld. Rightwing Zionists and liberal Zionists– same difference.

These are generational feelings, but they are being cultivated in young Jews too. This is the whole point of Birthright. You need to see how it feels when the bus driver and the boys and girls with guns who get on the bus are all Jewish, how thrilling that is! Yes, the Bedouin tent we go to for one night—those are “Arabs” – but the indoctrination supports a living fantasia, a bustling “startup nation” that survives via majoritarian nationalism, religious myth, military brutality, and U.S. support.

The fact that Palestinians are oppressed by that society means nothing to these Jews. We have been persecuted for so long ourselves– in their understanding of history– we’re finally getting ours. (In other words, these nationalist Jews are as bad as any other set of human beings.)

The second and more important aspect of the relationship is that American Zionists know that they are absolutely essential to the project. Arthur Koestler’s memoirs, Exodus by Leon Uris, and The Pledge by Leonard Slater show how American and English Jews supported the infant Jewish state with illegal arms — and cheered the terrorisms of the Nakba as a war of liberation. In the 60s, AIPAC arose and made sure that Lyndon Johnson understood that he should look the other way about the bomb, not to mention Israel’s slaughter of 34 Americans on the USS Liberty (the spy ship in the Mediterranean during the 1967 war). Grant Smith makes a very compelling argument that American Jews bought a uranium processing plant in western Pennsylvania and then smuggled out the enriched metal to Israel so Israel could get the bomb, in utter defiance of international and U.S. law and policy. American Jews made sure that Eisenhower’s outrage over the Palestinian refugees would never become U.S. policy. Nor Kennedy’s adamant opposition to Israeli nukes.

And, of course, in ’67 and ’73, the broad base of the American Jewish community exulted at Israeli victories and agonized over its setbacks, while calling the Six Day War a miracle. Even the great Noam Chomsky attended an emergency meeting for Israel at MIT. While the young operator Chuck Schumer held his transistor radio to his ear at Madison High School in Brooklyn. And Tom Friedman gave chalktalks on the Israeli army in the Sinai to his high school class in St. Louis Park, MN.

The organized Jewish community always whitewashed Palestinian persecution and built the modern Israel lobby in the form of countless powerful organizations, including the Jewish Federations, AIPAC, the AJC, the Conference of Presidents, and the ADL. Those five horsemen are reassembled now as the 10/7 Project, with millions to propagandize the U.S. media against the humanity of the tens of thousands of massacred and maimed Palestinian civilians.

American Jews have played an absolutely essential role for Israel on the world stage. Those leading organizations are an arm of the Jewish state diplomatically and politically. David Harris of the AJC was famously “the foreign minister of the Jewish people,” working in New York. They have carte blanche in the White House, per Obama’s top aide, thanks to campaign donations.

The lobby works to ensure bounteous military aid and legal immunity to a country with the living standard of France that regularly commits war crimes and is denounced by the global south and even Europe and China for those crimes. The organized Jewish community makes sure that every president loves Benjamin Netanyahu, the eternal prime minister — as well as the Labor and centrist ministers, too. When the world came up with a compromise on the two claims to Palestine in the Partition of 1947 and the Oslo process of the 90s, the American Jewish community made sure that there would be Zero Consequences to the Jewish state of ignoring those agreements and taking more land and kicking the Palestinians out of their houses and never compensating them for the losses. Stu Eizenstat’s memoir of the Carter years — he was Carter’s top domestic advisor and also Jewish liaison — makes it clear that the Jewish community stymied Carter’s opposition to settlements, and may have cost him his job in 1980. Just as the Jewish community and AIPAC flooded to Bill Clinton in 1992 when one-termer George Bush opposed settlements, with the result that no president would ever be out-Israel’d again, as Tom Friedman explained.

Leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meet with Benjamin Netanyahu, June 1, 2021, and state that it is “an honor” to meet with the Israeli PM “to express solidarity with Israel on behalf of American Jewry.” From Conference twitter feed. Jewish leaders are, l to r, Malcolm Hoenlein, Dianne Lob, Netanyahu, and William Daroff.

This is no idle task. It is a serious job taken on with massive intent and, at times, great arrogance. Alan Dershowitz laid out the job — and the entitlement — to a Westchester synagogue in 2017:  

People write a book called the Israel lobby and complain that AIPAC is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. My response to that is, that’s not good enough. We should be the most powerful lobby in Washington….

We are entitled to use our power. We have contributed disproportionately to the success of this country. We have done so much for this country. When you think of how much better this country has become since our grandparents and great grandparents took the risk of coming, here, we have not only the right we have the obligation to speak out, and use every piece, every bit of power available in support of Israel.

The indoctrination has worked. Today, the Forward tells us that inflexible support for Israeli militarism is part of Jewish identity: A “Cease-Fire Shabbat” at Binghamton University is “a cause that many mainstream Jewish organizations see as antithetical to being Jewish.” While the ADL and Jewish Insider state that Jews who are anti-Zionist are antisemitic. Even J Street has endorsed that view.

Long Island Jewish center with Israeli and American flags at half mast after Ariel Sharon’s death in January 2014, photo by Scott Roth

deBoer says that the U.S. is our Zion, and I agree. I love American traditions of freedom and the struggle for equal rights. Why have American Jews, the most liberal and highly educated prosperous group in the U.S., so readily put aside their American experience and liberal values (and role in the civil rights movement) to fulfill such hateful chores a world away?

There’s some guilt and delusion involved. Israelis love to say American Jews would not be safe without Israel, that Israeli military might has changed the status of Jews everywhere. Joe Biden has echoed that idea and I’ve heard American Zionists state that Israel has made us puissant, not passive.

American Jews feel guilty that they lead cushy lives here while Israeli Jews are “on the front lines” – i.e., in the occupation – and their sons and daughters are dying. Who are we to criticize when they are putting their lives down? Bill Kristol says, and even liberal Zionists agree. My mother’s best friend in Jerusalem, a Yiddish translator, used to quote the Talmud to me, that “Aliyah means higher and to be in Jerusalem is to be higher, and you American Jews are yoredim, or lower.”

But the biggest reason for this dependent relationship transcends the American experience. It is the sense of Jewish isolation, of a corporate minority stateless existence bred in Europe and forged by the Holocaust. The feeling that we must stick together against the goyim. We can have 400 different opinions about this or that, but when it comes to Jewish life, we must stand as one, because the world has always hated Jews. This is the mantra inside all the major Jewish organizations, but it does not even have to be stated, it is inculcated in Jewish holidays and prayer.

I understand why that feeling arose. It is alive in my mother to this day. Her best friend left Berlin when she was 8, after Kristallnacht. The world turned its back on us. So we must ask, What is good for the Jews?

This attitude is a complete anachronism, and a very dangerous one. Jews need to tear down this belief and reconstruct Jewish identity.

It’s a big job, and we will need the help of many idealistic Jews (including IfNotNow and Molly Crabapple and the American Council for Judaism and Matzpen and every other antizionist). And we will need the help of many non Jews. So to Freddie deBoer– Go ahead, make fun of the Jews who won’t move there! They need a scolding.

h/t Norman Finkelstein for Schumer anecdote.

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