Judaism, Zionism and the Left

As a progressive I have wondered why every other national liberation movement has found support among my peers and yet the national liberation movement of my people is often distained.

Given my background as a child of Holocaust survivors I struggle to understand elements of anti-Semitism.

Although secular I am profoundly Jewish in my world outlook. And while some Christians find that difficult to understand, my Jewish friends don’t at all.

What drives me most to write is the assumption by non Jewish, and some Jewish, friends that as a progressive I must by fact be opposed to everything Israeli or as a Jew blindly supportive of Israel. And since I must be opposed to all things Israeli, they can make any specious comment about Israel, support any anti-Israeli cause and often find common bedfellows in anti-Semites and I will understand.

I don’t understand and I won’t accept treating Jews and Jewish aspirations as different in kind and intent from other national groups or political entities. I will not accept the intellectual blinkers that often accompany the discussion of my people’s desires as compared to others. And I think there are some very dark underlying reasons why this often happens.

There are many nationalist/liberation/independence movements around the world, from Quebec nationalism to the IRA, from the Tamils to ETA. Most of them receive relatively unqualified support from the Left.

While there were historic wars of independence fought by Jews in Palestine since biblical times, only with the advent of Christianity did the issue become seriously ideological. Anti-Semitism is embedded in Christianity in many ways but the two most injurious ways might be the Jew as Christ-killer and the concept of Christianity as a supercessionist religion vis a vis Judaism.

Islam has issues with Judaism as well. Both religions struggled in their early days to supercede Judaism as the one true monotheistic faith and, as a result, sought to degrade Judaism theologically from the beginning. Judaism, having come first, has little to say about the other two monotheistic religions (as opposed to its strict antagonism toward paganism).

The point here is that as a result of these theocratic (and other) concerns anti-Semitism was born, not just as a national antagonism but an ideological one.

The Holocaust, which formed the final crucible in which the international community finally formally recognized the Jewish right to self determination, was only the culmination of two thousand years of prolonged oppression and attempts at extermination. From the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, the Iberian Inquisition and expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 to the Chmeilnicki massacre of the 17th Century to the post 1948 flight of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries, the concerns of Jewish liberation have been urgent and profound. This might be contrasted with, for example, the struggle of an ethnicity such as the Quebecois for language rights within a democratic and tolerant Canada

The different nature of Jewish identity and nationalism is also confounding. Judaism is at once ethnic and religious. No one can doubt that there is a body of learning and tradition that defines a Jewish civilization. And yet almost 50% of Jewish Israelis (and, I would think a similar percentage of Jews in the Diaspora) consider themselves atheist… or at least see no reason to believe in a god.

So theism alone is not the binding factor. And yet, of course, the concept of religion is indeed central to Judaism. I would argue, though, that this is a concept based more on moral concerns than theistic ones.

Recent attempts in Israel to legislatively define it as a ‘Jewish’ state is raising concerns around the world. These concerns are, I think, valid. But they are no more troublesome than, say Egypt’s official name: The Arab Republic of Egypt or The Islamic Republic of Iran or numerous other examples. One of these designations gathers great international concern. The others don’t. Is this a double standard? I think so.

All nationalist movements have tendencies of concern. By its nature nationalism is exclusionist. We all know about ‘pure laine’ Quebecois. What about the IRA and Catholicism? These are very difficult issues and many more learned and intelligent people have written about them than myself.

Within nationalist movements there are conservative, more exclusionary tendencies and more liberal expansive and accepting tendencies. It behooves people of good will to struggle to make room for all ‘non members’ within their national struggle’s final outcomes.

With regard to Palestine (which by the way is considered by some to have been the preferred name for the Jewish provinces in the Roman Empire as a means of reducing Jewish recognition (re: Judea) in an attempt to suppress Jewish nationalism) there have been Jewish inhabitants of the area for about 3000 years. Jews were the majority population until the second Jewish uprising against the Romans which finally led to a massive massacre and expulsion. Nevertheless there was a significant Jewish population right up to the Crusades in the 13th Century. While a continuous Jewish community has always existed in Palestine, it remained a minority overall subsequently.

I think all this is important because opponents of Zionism characterize it as a European colonial movement of displacement of an indigenous Arab population. While there is no doubt that some Zionists are anti-Arab and exclusionary, most progressive Zionists believe that Israel, as the expression of Zionism, is an unfinished project that will only be fully achieved by the peaceful co-existence of Jews and their Arab neighbours in mutual respect and harmony. Of interest,  about 50% of the Jewish population of Israel are  Sephardic Jews, most of whom are what are often referred to as Arab Jews.

There is no doubt, however, that most Jews are Zionist if that expression means that Jews are entitled to a home of their own like any other nation. That simple statement is made only more urgent and real given the history of the people and the current prevalence of anti-semitism. It should be noted that according to reported statistics in the United States, as one example, there are many more instances of anti-semitic incidents than of anti-Muslim incidents annually.

From Biblical and Talmudic writings, to festival and traditional celebrations, Israel has been an important theme in the Jewish imagination. Once, on a trip to Portugal, I visited a small village family of Marano Jews. These were people who had pretended to be Christians since the Portuguese Inquisition at the end of the 15th Century. Yet in discussion they expressed their one day longing to see the land of Israel.

Had Israel existed at the time of the Holocaust, I can only guess how many Jews may have been saved. As the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann said in 1946, prior to the establishment of the State: ‘We feared too little and we hoped too much. We underestimated the bestiality of the enemy; we overestimated the humanity, the wisdom, the sense of justice of our friends’. It is for this reason that, while having many disagreements with Israeli government policy, I believe firmly in the importance and centrality of Israel to the Jewish people, even while firmly believing in the importance and contribution of the Diaspora to Jewish existence.

Now having said all this, many readers may be wondering why I would bother documenting all this. No one is questioning Isreal’s right to exist….well no one except for a few hundred million Muslims who believe that the existence of Israel is an insult to the Umma (the community of Muslims of which many consider Israel/Palestine as an integral part). And many on the Left are now talking about a bi-national state rather than a Jewish state, or repatriation of all the Palestinian refugees of 1948, essentially the same thing.

However, with a just peace proposal one can only hope that the majority of Arab governments can come to grips with a new reality.

My feelings about how some of this relates to anti-semitism is as complicated as the subject. But let me express some of my thoughts.

After the Holocaust there was a revulsion and guilt among Christians that this sort of event could ever have happened… and that the world stood by to let it happen. That guilt made the United Nations partition vote (Palestinian partition into  Jewish and Arab states) possible.

All was dandy. The Christian world had atoned for its sins against the Jews.

But something weird happened. Israel armed itself and fought off a couple of attempts at Arab invasion. Then it actually acquired Arab land by conquest. The Jewish nation of Israel was militarized and strong. Suddenly Jews were no longer victims. The guilt of Christian Europe was no longer necessary. But the crucible of the Holocaust had left a Jewish nation with little trust in international organizations and good words and kind thoughts. Israel had become a nation where Jews were unwilling to say please but rather felt a bit belligerent and defensive and aggressive and all kinds of complicated things. Something like what you might expect from a child who had been raised in an abusive environment. The fact that survivors are still alive makes the Holocaust a contemporary memory and it is of major psychological importance to Jews worldwide.

Well, the world was ok with the Jew as victim but hardly with the Jew as strong and armed. Yes, I do believe that some of the problem the world has with Israel is the old anti-semitic fear/loathing of a strong Jew.

The Left, unfortunately, is often just as simplistic as the Right. And so, post 1967 in particular, the rhetoric of a European colonizer of a Third World Culture (ie: Jew vs Arab) is an attractive and easy stereotype to many, never mind that early Jewish settlers struggled against British colonial rule.

The support of the Right for Israel also propels anti-Israel/anti-Zionist feelings. The Right has its own reasons for supporting Israel from neo-colonialism to a spiritual interpretation by fundamentalist Christians of the need for a resurrected Israel to preceed the second coming of Christ. And some Israeli politicians and Jewish organizations, feeling beleagured and willing to accept support from any source, willingly work along with both these tendencies, in complete rejection of traditional Zionism. Politics does make strange bedfellows.

But one really has to wonder why the United Nations spends such an inordinate amount of energy and passes so many resolutions in opposition to anything Israeli. Why is the Left so pre-occupied with Israel? Why is ‘the Jewish question’ still so much on the agenda?

Why do Western Leftists push for academic boycotts of what are often Leftist and pro-peace Israelis in an effort to isolate Israel from the mainstream of political life when those efforts far outweigh the population statistics, the physical urgency and the economic importance of the actors at play in this tragi-drama?

Is Israel Apartheid? Of course not by any definition of that word that doesn’t simultaneously insult South African blacks and Israeli Jews. But using that appellation effectively ends debate through vilification. To me it as if by characterizing Israelis/Jews as Nazi-like (which Apartheid is the new term for…and indeed one sees swatikas linking Israelis to Naziism at demonstrations) one can undo Western/Christian guilt for the Holocaust. As if to say ‘you see, they can be evil too, not just us’. It is a de-legitimization of Zionism and the State of Israel. The fact that some Jews support these slogans is an enigma of sorts to me. To be sure there have always been Uncle Toms in every culture. Whether it is the need to belong to a particular sub-culture or other cultural/psychological reasons I don’t know.

I honestly find it hard to separate the bitter vilification of all things Israeli from the ancient and worldwide historic feelings about Jews in general. Even as Leftists worry about anti-Muslim sentiments, acts of anti-Semitism continue to be more prevalent than anti-Muslin acts in the West.

As historian Colin Shinder put it:

‘The Zionist saga as understood by many Jews in Israel did not end with the establishment of the state in 1948…… Zionism will have completed its task only when it repairs the past and refurbishes the present… and when a just society arises in Israel.’

I say all of the above without getting into an analysis of rights and wrongs and mistakes made by both sides from the 20th Century to today. A discussion of the history of the Jewish re-settlement of Palestine and the post 1967 Occupation of the West Bank and Jewish settlements there are all beyond this article.

Yes, by all means, criticize Israel (as I do) and drive it towards a greater justice and toward peace (with, one hopes, a neighbour who will one day accept the concept of a Jewish state in its midst, not just make a cynical and practical deal for temporary redress). But that should not call into question the concept of a liberation movement of an historically oppressed people which grew out of an abyss unlike others. Israel is just over 60 years old. And it lives in a pretty tough neighbourhood. Give it a break.

Why can’t justice be expansive instead of simply au courant?


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