Anti-Zionism is NOT Anti-Semitism: Reflections on Palestine and What I’ve Learned About Being an Editor, a Jew, and a Leftist.
“Take a look at your promised land, your deed is that gun in your hand. Mt. Zion's a minefield. The West Bank. The Gaza Strip. Soon to be parking lots for American tourists and fascist cops.” -Propaghandi-
In the fall of 2004 I edited Bad Subjects #70, an issue that featured essays on a wide variety of topics including a piece by Rebeca Siegel about the correlation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. At the time, there was (and still is) a great deal of controversy taking place in academia because various scholars/teachers had been pushing their respective universities to divest funds from Israel because of their treatment of Palestinians, and their continual defiance of U.N. law. In addition, a growing number of scholars were beginning to raise general concerns about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. While anti-Zionist perspectives had been most clearly articulated by, and thus associated with, faculty and students in Middle East Studies and Ethnic Studies programs, there were more professors outside of these fields that were becoming visibly upset about the policies of the Israeli government and the general project of Zionism. Among those dissenters were Judith Butler, a well known and respected Jewish academic who teaches at U.C. Berkeley. In an essay entitled “The Charge of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and the Risks of Public Critique” Butler spoke out against the manner in which anti-Zionism had been publicly conflated with anti-Semitism by a wide variety of public figures including Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard. Sometime thereafter, I published an essay from Rebeca Siegel in which she offered a detailed critique of Butler’s position ("Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism: A Response to Judith Butler").
So why am I bringing this up? Why bother to discuss an article that I published over two years ago? The answer is very simple: after spending the last year becoming more educated about the “Israel-Palestine conflict” I feel the need to take responsibility for what I published and what I inadvertently contributed to by doing so. At the time, I was particularly ignorant about Israel’s history and their track record of violations against the Palestinian people, having never thoroughly questioned the ideological assumptions of Zionism or really thought about the implications of publishing a piece that implicitly equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. So, I’m taking this time to lay out my position because I’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half, and I feel like it is absolutely critical for Leftists—particularly Leftist Jews, like myself—to have an open discussion about the nature of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic discourse. In an era of uncompromising violence and aggression against Palestinians and the larger Arab community, it is crucial for Jews to come to grips with our past mistakes, our misguided notions of nationalism, and our possible role as peaceful activists against oppression and occupation.
Where I’m coming from
Following a brief stint as a summer camp counselor for a Zionist Jewish organization in the summer of 1996, I began to develop a sense of skepticism about the intent and purpose of U.S. Jews who move to Israel, particularly those who move to the settlements in the occupied territories. While I was particularly struck by the religious fervor of some of the counselors, several of whom were barely 18 years old, my time as a counselor was an amazing experience because of the friends who accompanied me and my introduction to both new forms of Jewish music (composer/saxophonist John Zorn’s Masada project) and the writings of Asher Ginsburg aka. Ahad Ha-Am, a cultural Zionist who advocated for the revival of Jewish culture as a necessary pretext to the establishment of an actual “homeland.” Having encountered Ha-Am’s work by way of John Zorn, I read the project of cultural Zionism as an effort to restore the positive aspects of Jewish traditions that had been lost, and I lamented the fact that Ha-Am’s perspective had been lost in the wake of Theodor Herzl’s singular focus on creating lasting settlements in Palestine. Through this lens, I somehow separated these forms of Zionism in my head, and saw the resurgence of secular Jewish culture in the United States as a possible means to achieve a more positive, less violent, means of identification for Jews everywhere. Through the act of redefinition and transformation, I genuinely thought that Jews could create something stronger and less tenuous than that which must be cast under barbed wire, walled off, and guarded by military checkpoints.
After writing my undergraduate thesis on John Zorn and cultural Zionism, I didn’t think much about the issue of Zionism for a number of years, until a close friend of mine (a graduate student in Middle East studies) contacted me after I suggested that she check out Bad Subjects for some recent essays about politics in the Middle East and Jewish identity. Also, I wanted to brag about the fact that I had just edited my first issue. She seemed very concerned about the article that Rebecca Siegal wrote for the issue—which surprised me—and proceeded to ask me a number of questions about my knowledge of the subject and my perspective about Zionism. I spoke about how I thought the piece reflected a detailed engagement with Butler’s work and although I didn’t entirely agree with the author’s position, I thought her perspective should be heard. Throughout the context of the conversation, I began to realize that most of my own justification for including the article in the issue was based on what I’ve come to refer to as “passive Zionism”—the general belief that the creation of Israel was/is a good idea. Passive Zionism is what I gleaned from years of Sunday school/Hebrew school at a Reform Jewish congregation where I spent most of my teenage years talking about heavy metal bands with my friend Aaron. Passive Zionism is a perspective that doesn’t talk about Israel with religious fervor, nor does it demand any self-reflection. The position could basically be summed up like this: Jews have caught centuries worth of shit from people everywhere, Israel was made for Jews, therefore Israel is kosher. In thinking about this perspective, I started to realize one important subject that had never really been discussed in my years of Sunday/Hebrew school—Palestinians. I explicitly remembered reading about Israel’s triumph over Arab forces in the war for independence, and again in 1967, but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall a single lesson about Palestinians.
In the wake of my phone conversation, I realized that, in fact, I didn’t know a hell of a lot about the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine. So, with the help of my friend I began to read more about the history of Israel, the Palestinian people, and atrocious state of affairs that somehow still gets equated with “Zion”—a word used to symbolically denote the promised land, or paradise.
What I’ve learned
More than anything, the last year of inquiry has made me sad, frustrated, sympathetic, and incredibly pissed off. I’m absolutely disgusted and appalled by the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, but I’m also angry about the singular manner in which the U.S. mass media reports on Israel. I’m angry about the utter lack of history that I was taught in Hebrew school. I’m angry that I can’t do anything to console Palestinians about how things will definitely get better in the future. I’m angry because I can’t personally change any policies that allow the Israeli government to brutalize and terrorize people….to destroy olive orchards, water supplies, schools, houses, streets, neighborhoods, families, trust, and lives. I’m angry because I’ve come to realize that the atrocities of occupation are so commonplace, so mundane, so inhumanely routine that every Palestinian has such stories to tell.
But you know what I’m the most angry about? I’m fed up with the way in which people in the United States have turned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into an issue of Jews vs. Arabs. What a convenient position, eh? It’s simply a matter of religion! Jews hate Arabs, Arabs hate Jews, it’s always been that way, it will always be that way…case closed (or as an Arabic speaker would say: khalas!) The only problem with this nifty little binary is that it entirely misses the mark. So, I’m going to put this real simply for everyone out there, and if you gain nothing else from reading this article, I hope you at least come away with this much:
Anti-Zionism is not grounded in anti-Semitism, it is grounded in collective disdain and anger over ILLEGAL military occupation, racist nationalism, and bold defiance of U.N. resolutions and international law.
Since David Horowitz (Front Page Magazine), Daniel Pipes (Campus Watch), and their other reactionary lackeys have already stopped reading and put me on a blacklist somewhere, I’ll try to explain my position for the rest of you. First, there are obviously Jews in the world that unjustifiably hate Arabs, just as there are Arabs who unjustifiably hate Jews. In fact, there are millions of people throughout the world that hate one another for no reason. This is a sad state of affairs and as unfortunate as it may be, there are only so many things we can do to change the situation. However, when we reduce criticism of Zionism and the Israeli government into an issue of anti-Semitism, everyone loses. Why does everyone lose? Because people everywhere are forced to make a decision about which faith and/or culture they support and which one they do not. Because it encourages the worst behavior from religious fundamentalists in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Finally, everyone loses because this simplistic reduction continues to put everyone on the defensive as it fuels the fire of a debate that largely obscures the facts of the situation. The most unfortunate aspect of this predicament is that even when people can discuss Zionism outside of these terms, it typically resorts to similar dead-end debates about who lived where 2000 years ago, or whether support for Palestinians equals support for Hamas and other fundamentalist religious groups. Most critics of Zionism, including myself, are not trying to make a case that all Palestinians are implicitly innocent or that all Israelis are implicitly guilty. What we’re calling for, is a discussion—especially amongst Leftists— about the facts of the situation as they relate to both the current status and history of Israel, i.e. from 1948 until now. Unfortunately, we have not reached that seemingly simple point of entry.
In looking back on the essay that I published by Rebeca Siegal, I do not read the work of a person who is uninformed, malicious, or uncritical, and my purpose in framing this essay around my editorial decision is not to make myself look good or, subsequently, to make her look bad. Rather, it forces me to think specifically about what it means to be an editor, and more importantly, what it means to be a Leftist. I feel like so much of the academic Left is willing to be hypercritical about every ideological, political, and socioeconomic position in the history of history, but people tend to put on the brakes when it comes to Zionism, or at least resort to positions that would be highly suspect in any other situation. Equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism seems to be about as theoretically justified as equating black power with racism, or equating criticism of American foreign policy with support for terrorism. Dr. Siegal raises some interesting points with regard to Butler’s “monolithic” use of the term Zionism, and she rightfully expresses concern over the potential for increased anti-Semitism in the wake of anti-Zionist discourse. However, the major point of her essay seems to be that Leftist academics are being oppressed or repressed by their inability to challenge anti-Zionism, which she perceives to the be the prevailing norm in universities: “if we traditionally identify with left-wing politics, we feel the more isolated if we do not align fully with the political agenda of the academic left which mostly adopts en bloc and as a given an “anti-Zionist” stance.” While I am sympathetic to the idea that there should be dialogue about this issue, I am hardly sympathetic to the idea that Leftist academics have no space in which to be critical of people who challenge the tenets of Zionism or the manner in which Israel has established its legacy.
The idea that there are no “discursive spaces” (places for discussion) in which to “repudiate Judeophobia” (critically analyze anti-Zionism) is preposterous to me, especially in the wake of the continued witch-hunt that has been conducted against nearly every academic who criticizes Israel. If you want to talk about a lack of room for discussion amongst people on the Left, what about the lack of space available to people who want to challenge Zionism, or critique Israel? Looking back on this essay, the author makes it seem as if academic departments are filled to the brim with active, vocal critics of Zionism, which is not only ludicrous, it is the same type of argument made by right-wing fanatics such as Pipes, Horowitz, and droves of fundamentalist Christian neo-cons. In the 10 years that I spent in ‘liberal’ departments (English and Communication) of two major universities, I never read a single article criticizing Zionism or advocating for Palestinians, nor did I ever hear an anti-Zionist comment made by a professor in class. To my knowledge, this situation is the same for all of my friends and colleagues who are not in academic departments that focus explicitly on issues of race or ethnicity. Given the fact that I’ve barely even heard discussions of Palestine or Zionism amongst my most radical activist friends (who are not in the university) I hardly find it reasonable to assert the idea that anti-Zionism is the prevailing norm amongst Leftists at universities. More importantly, I find it absurd to believe that academics have some type of cultural capital or ‘in’ status to gain by taking an anti-Zionist position, which is what Siegel alludes to at several points in her essay. Anti-Zionism or anti-Israeli discourse is not as en vogue as it may seem to all you eager, attention-starved academic readers out there who are looking for the next trendy political position to endorse…unless you want to walk headfirst into the biggest shitstorm of your life, because that is the reality for people to dare to criticize Israel. Maybe we should ask professors Rashid Khalidi (Columbia), Joel Beinin (Stanford), John Mearsheimer (Chicago), or Stephen Walt (Harvard) whether they have attained some sort of new ‘cool’ ‘radical’ status by writing critically about Israel. My guess is that between the constant harassment of Campus Watch, the Federal government, Zionist student organizations, the national mainstream press, and their respective university administrators, they probably don’t have much time in which to consider the value of their newfound status. In addition, I doubt that the graduate students who deal critically with Israel have time to reflect upon their newfound Lefty ‘cred’ because they are too busy working extra jobs to pay for tuition since they can’t get funding to teach or conduct research on any subject deemed critical of Israel. Israel is generally off limits for criticism and everyone in academia who attempts to do so gets subject to the type of investigation that typically requires latex gloves and a water-soluble lubricant.
I wrote this essay because I feel responsible for publishing an article that contributes to a type of discourse that is wholly unproductive amongst people on the Left. Anti-Semitism is a problem and it should be taken seriously by anyone who has a stake in social justice and/or progress. But we also need to take seriously the Israeli occupation and the consistent inability for people to have a discussion about Israel where they don’t have to defend the charge of anti-Semitism. If Jews continue to perpetuate the idea that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism then we will inversely perpetuate the idea that Jews should automatically identify themselves with Zionism and offer uncritical support for Israel. This is not a rational position, and it is certainly not a position that speaks to the strong, critical, intellectual tradition that Leftist Jews have shaped and contributed to throughout the last century. I mean seriously…don’t you think it’s time for all Lefties and Jews to step back and re-consider a theoretical/political project that aligns us with people like Pat Robertson?! These are not our peeps. These are the same folks who tell us we’re gonna' burn in hell, or suggest that feminism is destroying society. Because I’ll tell you what…if being a Jew means that I’m supposed to be on board with those fanatics, then I’m turning in my beard, my Bar Mitzvah tallis, my guilt, and my copy of Das Kapital.
Another reason I wrote this essay is because I think it’s important for people on the Left—especially Jews—to challenge the notion that the Israel-Palestine conflict is so complex, so historically entrenched, and so detailed that only experts on the Middle East can understand it or contribute their two cents worth. This is part of the reason I haven’t felt like I could talk about these issues for so long, despite having a relatively informed opinion on the subject. I think most critics of Zionism recognize that the present situation in Israel is complex, but they also realize that the biggest problem is incredibly simple: the Israeli government is illegally violating Articles 33 and 49 of the Geneva Convention and UN resolutions 242, 446, 452, and 465. Until the Israeli government abides by international law, halts the construction of illegal settlements, and pulls out of the occupied territories, we will continue to have a situation in which there can be no space for constructive dialogue, peace talks, or debate. This political stalemate will undoubtedly stoke the fires of resentment against the Israelis, and the brunt of this resentment will most likely be shouldered by American Jews. We are the ones who will be forced to deal with the backlash of Zionist policies that we are encouraged to support. If Jews are willing to uncritically take that chance, then they have no right to complain when they themselves have collapsed the distinction between Zionism and Judaism. But if we are willing to think critically about our identity as Jews and our relationship to Zionism, then we have the opportunity to both distance ourselves from the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and to define our Jewish identities in ways that don’t require the use of AK-47s. Besides, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?
All I know is that the Israeli occupation is suffocating the Palestinians and killing people everyday. Gaza has essentially been turned into the most densely populated prison in history, and the West Bank has continued to serve as both a target range for Israeli soldiers and the stomping grounds for the most overtly racist and violent Jewish settlers in the region. Here in the states, we enjoy a nice, comfortable distance from such harsh realities, but it's our tax dollars that are paying for the occupation and annexation of Palestinian territories. It's our uncritical support that allows Zionist cheerleaders like AIPAC to push the United States towards the brink of war with Iran (and possibly Lebanon and Syria). It's our collective denial of Israel's explicitly militaristic agenda that allows tens of thousands of Palestinians to be murdered, starved, widowed, orphaned, imprisoned, tortured and dehumanized each year. Ultimately, this dire situation will only worsen until Americans decide that enough is enough.
The very least that American Jews can do today is to initiate an open, honest, and critical dialogue about Zionism without resorting to straw man arguments about anti-Semitism, Jewish self-hatred, or support for terrorist ideology. This is still a meager first step towards a resolution to Israeli occupation, but it is a necessary step that few of us have taken.
I refuse to have the Israeli occupation continue in my name, and I encourage you consider whether or not you want to have it continue in yours.
Zack Furness is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team and one of the millions of rational people in this world who understands that a 25 ft. high concrete wall is not a fence.