Thursday, November 01, 2007

Is left anti-Zionism anti-Jewish?

As I've written previously on this blog, there's a myth that leftists have to choose between fighting antisemitism and fighting Zionism. One version of this myth trivializes antisemitism and sometimes embraces it: witness James Petras's claim that "the Jewish lobby" controls U.S. policy on the Mideast. The other version of the myth shies away from a systematic critique of Zionism out of the belief that such critique is inherently anti-Jewish.

This is a false choice. Zionism -- by which I mean the movement and ideology that says Israel is and should be the state of the Jewish people -- is not only inherently oppressive to Palestinians but also deeply harmful to Jews. I've written about this in "Why I Oppose Zionism", and I won't repeat all of my arguments here.

I do want to respond to some criticisms of left anti-Zionism that appeared on Three Way Fight this summer. In a string responding to Allen Ruff's critical review of Petras's book, The Power of Israel in the United States, two lengthy comments argued that all existing anti-Zionism is antisemitic. Both comments are unsigned but they appear to be written by the same person. I'll call them Anonymous 7/23 and Anonymous 8/18, for the dates when they were posted. The two comments, I believe, reflect a perspective that is widespread in sections of the left.

For the sake of organizing my response more clearly, I will summarize the main arguments in Anonymous 7/23 and Anonymous 8/18 as follows:

Claim 1: Left anti-Zionists wrongly conflate Zionism in its totality with imperialism. This is an economistic perspective that ignores the role of cultural oppression in Israel's founding.

Claim 2: Left anti-Zionists deny that Jews constitute a nation with the right of self-determination in a specific body of land. This denial reflects the antisemitic view that Jews are not real flesh and blood humans, but rather air beings defined by abstraction, internationalism, and money.

Claim 3: Left anti-Zionists don't recognize European Jews' right to flee their oppression, especially the Nazi genocide, and that Israel exists to fight antisemitism and be a place of refuge for Jews.

Claim 4: Left anti-Zionists don't take antisemitism seriously as an object of analysis. Three Way Fight authors, specifically, have never tried to understand antisemitism as a system with its own logic of oppression. Doing so would force them to confront the anti-Jewish assumptions that underlie their own anti-Zionism.


In tackling these claims, I will draw particularly on two books: Matzpen's The Other Israel and Isaac Deutscher's The Non-Jewish Jew. In an earlier response to Anonymous 7/23, I suggested these works as examples of anti-Zionism that takes cultural oppression seriously. Anonymous 8/18 rejected that suggestion.

The 1972 book The Other Israel: The Radical Case Against Zionism (nominally edited by Arie Bober) consists of essays by members of the Israeli Socialist Organization, better known by the title of its newspaper, Matzpen (Compass). Matzpen was founded in 1962 as an anti-Stalinist offshoot of the Israeli Communist Party united around anti-Zionism and revolutionary socialism. The essays gathered in The Other Israel helped to bring Matzpen's analysis to an international audience. The book has its limitations (its take on nationhood is arguably dated, it says little about Ashkenazi oppression of Mizrahi Jews, and nothing about the oppression of women), but it remains valuable, among other reasons, precisely because it critiques Zionism while taking Jews' cultural identities and anti-Jewish opppression seriously. (The full text of The Other Israel is available online at http://www.matzpen.org/index.asp?p=other.)

The Non-Jewish Jew is a 1968 compilation of essays by the Polish Marxist Isaac Deutscher, published shortly after his death in 1967. Over his adult life, Deutscher moved from Stalinism to Trotskyism to an independent position that hoped (naively) for peaceful reform of the Soviet bureaucracy, but his writings are infused with a thoughtful, undogmatic spirit and were my introduction to Marxism as serious scholarship. As Anonymous 8/18 rightly pointed out, I was mistaken to describe The Non-Jewish Jew as anti-Zionist -- following the Nazi genocide Deutscher refused to condemn Zionism, but refused to embrace it either. Exploring this position critically can shed some useful light on the debate.

Now let's look at Anonymous's various claims, one by one.

Claim 1: Left anti-Zionists wrongly conflate Zionism in its totality with imperialism. This is an economistic perspective that ignores the role of cultural oppression in Israel's founding.

Contrary to what Anonymous 8/18 asserts, The Other Israel states clearly that the Zionist movement originated as a reaction to anti-Jewish persecution and discrimination in late 19th century Europe, and that the Nazi genocide transformed Zionism from a minority current to a dominant political force among Jews worldwide. But, the Matzpen writers argue, the "solution" that Zionism offered was inherently oppressive -- to transform Jews from a persecuted people into settler-colonial oppressors of another people:

"Israeli society and the Zionist state are the products of Zionist colonization of Palestine. This colonization process consisted of the organized immigration of Jews; the influx of capital under Zionist control; the formation of exclusively Jewish political, educational and cultural institutions; the construction of Jewish armed forces; the development of an exclusively Jewish economy through land purchases from absentee Palestine landlords, followed by the violent dispossession of the Palestinian peasantry; denying Arabs employment in industries working with capital under Zionist control; and a tightly enforced Jewish boycott of Arab-produced goods. In 1948, this process reached a climax in the establishment of the state of Israel – and in the physical expulsion of almost a million Palestinian Arabs from the territory occupied by the new state. The process is by no means at an end."

The nature of this program "required the economic, military and diplomatic support of one or more imperialist powers. From the very beginning, a primary goal of Zionist leaders has been to cement the alliance with imperialism.... Without this support the settler community could not have been secured, and the state could neither have been established nor could it continue to exist in the face of the implacable hostility of the violently dispossessed Palestinians and the intensifying opposition of the other Arab peoples. And because of this, the alliance is by no means one of equals; on the contrary, the imperialist partner is overwhelmingly dominant, and the Zionist state is utterly dependent on imperialism."

"Israel is the only country in the Middle East that not only is not economically exploited by imperialism but is actually subsidized by it. The Zionist state, in short, is a client state of imperialism, and Israeli-Jewish society as a whole has the aspect of a counter-revolutionary, military outpost of imperialism." (All three of the above quotes are from the Conclusion to The Other Israel.)

Elsewhere, The Other Israel notes that Israel isn't just an imperialist puppet. It's an autonomous player ready to act on its own or take advantage of divisions between imperialist powers -- as in 1956, when it joined with Britain and France in invading Egypt against U.S. opposition.

As a left anti-Zionist, I agree with all of the above points. Is this analysis "economistic"? Decide for yourself.

(Two secondary points: First, Anonymous 8/18 claims that the Soviet Union's support for Israeli independence in 1947-48 weakens the argument that Israel is intrinsically tied to western imperialism. That's like claiming that Chiang Kai-shek wasn't pro-capitalist because the Soviets supported him in the mid 1920s. The USSR's abandonment of revolutionary politics led it to support "progressive" capitalist regimes repeatedly for geostrategic reasons. Second, Anonymous 8/18 misreads The Other Israel in claiming that its authors "don't just accept, but they explain away the open anti-semitism of the Grand Mufti Haj Muhammed Amin al-Husseini, whose illustrious career included organizing Muslim SS units." On the contrary, The Other Israel emphasizes al-Husseini's "religious fanaticism and right-wing nationalism," as well as his hypocrisy in denouncing Zionists publicly while collaborating with them privately.)

Claim 2: Left anti-Zionists deny that Jews constitute a nation with the right of self-determination in a discrete body of land. This denial reflects the antisemitic view that Jews are not real flesh and blood humans, but rather air beings defined by abstraction, internationalism, and money.

Zionism claims that all Jews everywhere form one nation and that Israel is our state. This is an abstract, ahistorical, essentialist conception of Jewishness that obscures the many national differences and divisions among Jews, including the emergence of an Israeli Jewish national community. Matzpen pioneered in addressing this point. The group rejected the Zionist claim of Jewish nationhood while arguing that Israeli Jews constitute a nation with a distinctive national culture, language, and class structure. "Despite the fact that it was created by Zionism, a Hebrew nation in the full sense of the term now exists in Palestine. And as such it has the right to self-determination, not certainly in the Zionist sense, but within the context of a socialist federation of the Middle East" (Chapter 12).

What did this concept of an Israeli-Jewish nation mean? On the one hand, it meant rejection of the anti-democratic principle, central to Zionism, that Israel is the state of all Jews worldwide, rather than a state of its own citizens. Thus The Other Israel called for "the abolition of Jewish exclusiveness (which is inherent, e.g., in the Law of Return) whereby a Jew living in Brooklyn gets more civil and political rights in Israel than a Palestinian Arab who was born there (whether he is now a refugees or an Israeli citizen). In our view, the fact that the Brooklyn Jew feels an emotional tie to the Holy Land does not entitle him to have any political rights in the country, whereas the Palestinian Arab is entitled to full civil and political rights" (Chapter 13).

On the other hand, asserting that Israeli Jews constituted a nation meant that they could not be "driven into the sea," but had a right to share the land on the basis of civil and political equality with Palestinian Arabs. Further, Matzpen's conception challenged the formula of "a democratic secular state in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews can live together" (put forward by the PLO in the 1970s) because this formula treated Jews as only a religious community. As internationalists, Matzpen advocated a socialist union of the Middle East, but argued that this union must recognize the national rights of all peoples in the region, including both Arab peoples and non-Arabs such as Kurds, Israeli Jews, and South Sudanese.

As a number of leftists have argued, the traditional Marxist discussion of nationhood and national liberation needs to be reexamined critically in the light of changing realities, notably that most national liberation movements have either collapsed, been coopted by global capitalism, or been eclipsed by the anti-imperialist right. With that caveat, Matzpen's approach remains a far better starting point than either the Zionist concept of Jewish nationhood or versions of anti-Zionism that dismiss Israeli Jewish collective identity.

Claim 3: Left anti-Zionists don't recognize European Jews' right to flee their oppression, especially the Nazi genocide, and that Israel exists to fight antisemitism and be a place of refuge for Jews.

The Other Israel criticizes Zionism not only for its oppression of Palestinians, but also for of its oppressive impact on Jews. As the books argues, Zionism's response to antisemitism has been defeatist, in one of two ways: some Zionists have argued that persecution of Jews is inherent in human nature, while others have argued that such persecution is actually helpful because it forces Jews to band together. "The first approach considers anti-Semitism an evil and integration an inevitable failure; the second considers anti-Semitism a blessing and integration an evil to be avoided" (Chapter 11).

As a result, many Zionists have treated antisemites "not as an enemy against whom an implacable struggle must be waged, but as a potential bargaining partner with whom arrangements can be negotiated to achieve a common goal; e.g., the removal of Jews from non-Jewish society and their concentration in a society of their own" (Chapter 11). Such negotiating partners have included the Tsarist government of Russia and even the Nazis. David Ben-Gurion, de facto head of the Zionist settlement and future prime minister of Israel, argued in 1938 that efforts to save Jews from Nazism were a threat to Zionism unless the Jews were brought to Palestine. (In a related statement quoted in Lenni Brenner's Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, Ben-Gurion wrote, "If I knew it would be possible to save all the [Jewish] children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children, but also the history of the People of Israel.")

To the Zionist and Israeli leadership, building the Jewish state has consistently been more important than fighting antisemitism. Many instances show this besides the ones cited in The Other Israel. We could discuss the many Zionists who have echoed anti-Jewish stereotypes and attacked the living Jewish cultures of the diaspora; the Israeli government's urging of Argentinian Jews in the 1970s to keep quiet about the antisemitic terrorism of the Argentinian military junta (an Israeli trade partner); or the Israeli government's efforts in the 1980s to force Soviet Jewish emigres to settle in Israel and nowhere else, e.g. with the help of Dutch police who in 1991 used attack dogs to capture a group of Jewish asylum seekers and forcibly put them on a plane to Israel.

We could also discuss the semi-theocratic nature of the Israeli state, which gives Orthodox rabbis legal authority over Jews regarding marriage, divorce, abortion, rape, and domestic violence. This system penalizes non-Orthodox Jews and, above all, subordinates Jewish women to a culturally reactionary, all-male hierarchy.

What about Jews' right to flee oppression, especially the Nazi genocide? Here let's turn to Isaac Deutscher. Anonymous 8/18 quotes a famous passage from The Non-Jewish Jew in which Deutscher offers a metaphor to explain the founding of Israel:

"A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person's legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies. The man who escaped from the blazing house, having recovered, would have tried to help and console the other sufferer; and the latter might have realized that he was the victim of circumstances over which neither of them had control. But look what happens when these people behave irrationally. The injured man blames the other for his misery and swears to make him pay for it. The other, afraid of the crippled man's revenge, insults him, kicks him, and beats him up whenever they meet. The kicked man again swears revenge and is again punched and punished. The bitter enmity, so fortuitous at first, hardens and comes to overshadow the whole existence of both men and to poison their minds" (pp. 136-7).

On an individual level, the metaphor of a person jumping from the burning house vividly portrays the tragic irony facing Jewish refugees from Nazism who became Israelis. No question, people facing genocide or the threat of genocide have the right to flee to safety wherever they can. But as a metaphor for the Zionist movement, the passage is deeply misleading. Because the Zionist movement did not urge European Jews to jump to safety wherever they could, but told them instead, "you have to jump to this one spot, on top of this other person's head. It's wrong for you to jump anywhere else, and we will block any attempts you make to do so."

Deutscher himself recognized elsewhere in the same essay that Israel -- not the Palestinians -- bore primary responsibility for the failure to establish a "rational relationship": "Israel never even recognized the Arab grievance. From the outset Zionism worked towards the creation of a purely Jewish state and was glad to rid the country of its Arab inhabitants. No Israeli government has ever seriously looked for an opportunity to remove or assuage the grievance." Further, Deutscher warned against treating the Arab-Israeli conflict as "only a clash of two rival nationalisms, each moving within the vicious circle of its self-righteous and inflated ambitions.... The nationalism of the people in semi-colonial or colonial countries, fighting for their independence, must not be put on the same moral-political level as the nationalism of conquerors and oppressors. The former has its historic justification and progressive aspect which the latter has not. Clearly, Arab nationalism, unlike the Israeli, still belongs to the former category." At the same time, Deutscher warned that Arab nationalism, too, carried its own "streak of irrationality, an inclination to exclusiveness, national egoism and racism" (p. 138).

Claim 4: Left anti-Zionists don't take antisemitism seriously as an object of analysis. Three Way Fight authors, specifically, have never tried to understand antisemitism as a system with its own logic of oppression. Doing so would force them to confront the anti-Jewish assumptions that underlie their own anti-Zionism.

I find this charge particularly galling, since analysis of antisemitism has in fact been central to my work over the past eighteen years on fascism and right-wing movements more broadly. For recent examples, see my "Critiquing Neocons and Scapegoating Jews" (posted on Three Way Fight in May 2006) or my review of April Rosenblum's pamphlet on antisemitism in the current issue of Upping the Anti.

My analysis of antisemitism draws on Marxists such as Abram Leon, Maxime Rodinson, and Moishe Postone; feminists such as Ella Shohat, Elly Bulkin, and Andrea Dworkin; and liberals such as John Higham, George Mosse, and Sander Gilman. For me, understanding the distinctive "logic" of anti-Jewish oppression and scapegoating is pivotal for understanding how some rightists can present themselves as a revolutionary alternative -- an understanding that's central to three-way fight politics. At the same time, the three-way fight also means critiquing movements that oppose revolutionary rightists (such as neonazis) by bolstering the established oppressive order. Zionism -- including left Zionism -- is a prime example.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Matt.

-Nil