Tuesday, February 04, 2014

On Jewish anti-Zionism


This collection of essays, Rebels Against Zion: Studies on the Jewish Left Anti-Zionism, edited by August Grabski (The Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw, 2011, 288 pages), includes chapters by three people I know slightly: Canadian professor Henry Srebrnik, Australian academic Philip Mendes (who has contributed material for us over the years), and Prof. Jack Jacobs of CUNY (an authority on the Jewish Workers' Bund).  David Hirsh (a British sociologist who founded the Engage site, and I also know slightly) has written a very thoughtful review essay in fathom journal.  He points out that what was a lively and important debate before the Holocaust on the value and efficacy of Zionism versus other efforts to combat antisemitism, has transformed, after the Holocaust and Israel's founding, into an abstract and retrograde dispute that often enlists antisemitic tropes in a nationalist struggle between Jews and Arabs.  

I don't believe that Hirsh (who basically identifies with the left) denies that there are legitimate human rights issues in Israel's occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but these are often grist for the mill of an outdated ideological battle against Zionism and the very existence of Israel, rather than an effort to change specific Israeli policies.  Still, I must add this wrinkle to Hirsh's valuable insight: most of Israel's right and center-right (along with many of Israel's defenders abroad) promiscuously cast criticisms of Israeli policies with the taint of antisemitism.

Here is part of Hirsh's article, "Studies on the Jewish Left Anti-Zionism":
In the first half of the 20th century, most Jews failed to find their way to a successful strategy for dealing with the threat of antisemitism. Some individuals emigrated, for example to Britain, the United States or Palestine. Some found their way into wider civil society, benefited from emancipation, and lived as citizens of European states. Some Jews found communal ways of continuing to live apart, in a changing world.
There were three overlapping political responses to antisemitism. Universalist socialists hoped that revolution would unite workers into a new world where nations, religions and ethnic differences would cease to be important. Bundists wanted to forge a new Jewish identity and institutions through which Jews could exist in peace alongside others and by which they could defend themselves against antisemitism. Zionists believed that Jewish national self-determination was required to ensure the endurance of Jewish life and to create a Jewish capacity for military self-defence.
. . .  Israel became a reality, a nation state, not because Zionism ‘won’ the debates outlined in this book, but because the material basis of Jewish life in Europe was utterly transformed by the ‘Final Solution’ and by Israel’s victory in the war of 1948 against the Palestinians, and against the Arab Nationalist states which tried to eradicate it at birth.

This brute fact is often ignored, even by Marxists. In a departure from the method of historical materialism, their analyses of Zionism tend to focus more on Zionism as an idea than on the material factors which underlay its transformation from a minority utopian project into a nation state.
In 1954 Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, wrote that he had ‘of course’ abandoned his life-long anti-Zionism. It seemed obvious to him that the world had changed, in Auschwitz and on the battlefield. European Jews had been murdered; the remnants had forged a new nation in Palestine, which Deutscher regarded as a ‘historic necessity’, a ‘raft state.’ Now the key questions changed. It was no longer relevant to ask whether Zionism was a winning strategy against antisemitism; the question was how would the Jewish state reach a peace with its neighbours and how it would negotiate the contradiction between its Jewishness and its democracy?
The political meaning of the term ‘anti-Zionism’ couldn’t be more different after 1948 from its meaning before 1939, yet so often people who consider themselves to be Marxists are more concerned with the continuity of form than with the break in content. Before 1939 anti-Zionism was a position in debates amongst Jewish opponents of antisemitism. After 1948 it became a programme for the destruction of an actually existing nation state. [Emphasis added--R.S.]
The conflation of ‘rebels against Zion[ism]’ with rebels against Israel goes unexplored. Often, in fact, the dogged use of the term ‘Zionism’ by anti-Zionists functions to mask the conflation itself and to deny that significant material changes had occurred. One could confront the reality; that history had forged a Hebrew speaking Jewish nation on the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, or one could deny it. One could come to terms with the world as it existed and start one’s analysis from there, or one could cling onto the hope that the film of history could be unwound, and Israel could somehow be made to disappear. To call Israelis ‘The Zionists’ is to cast them as a political movement rather than as citizens of an existing state; and a political movement can be right or wrong, can be supported or opposed while a nation state can only be recognised as a reality. And if ‘the Zionists’ are characterised as essentially ‘racist’ or ‘apartheid’ or ‘Nazi’, then Israeli Jews can be treated, once again, as exceptional to the human community.   . . .
One can also click here -- On Studies on Jewish left anti-Zionism – David Hirsh -- for the entire article.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hirsh's closing lines seem to rule out dealing w/ reality: Israel is increasingly racist and is effectively instituting apartheid-like practices. Neither means Zionism is inherently racist, only that Israel has in many ways abandoned Zionism while claiming to fulfill it. Also, Israel itself tragically puts into question its future existence. Since it wants to be Jewish-majority, the near annexation of the W. Bank raises the question of how the one state being created will operate. Can it remain democratic AND majority-Jewish? Also, Israel is a state w/ no eastern border (its longest side)and even the rightists argue among themselves re the Palestinian neighborhoods beyond the separation barrier, as to which E. Jerusalem neighborhoods are or are not part of Jerusalem. And, of course, the meaning of "Jewish State" that Bibi insists on is wholly unagreed theologically, legally and culturally in Israel as well as the Diaspora. Israel leaves all this indeterminate so you don't ipso facto have to be bigoted to question just what is Israel and can/will it survive.