January 11, 2009

Philip Weiss's Declaration of Independence


The one effect of Gaza that I'm not sad about is the slo-mo collapse of the Jewish monolith. What is needed is to accelerate it.

Philip Weiss wrote a post that will one day be in an anthology. It's about why he's anti-Zionist and not post-Zionist. Weiss responds to a liberal Jewish writer in the name of Dana Goldstein, who wrote:
Heer calls us "post-Zionist," and that just sits better with me. "Anti-Zionism" is not always anti-Semitic, but it sometimes is. "Non-Zionism" implies a lack of support for Israel in any form. Post-Zionism, I think, acknowledges Zionism's place in modern Jewish history while urging a pretty radical rethinking of the Zionist project itself --
So here is Weiss, and I'll add some commentary when strictly necesary:
First, perhaps most important: My feelings are not neutral about Zionism; I don't like it. I find that I think about it a lot and there is nothing I can really embrace in it outside of the Jewish pride and the historical significance of it and its visionary component. All these elements have lost their value: Zionism privileges Jews and justifies oppression, and this appalls me. Saying I'm anti-Zionist is a sincere expression of my pluralist, minority-respecting worldview.
Ditto. If something makes you sick, you're anti-it. If you're not, you're confused. And if you understand Zionism and it doesn't make you sick, you're sick.
Second, Post-Zionist strikes me as an evasion. At this moment, Zionism reigns in historical Palestine and in American Jewry. To say you're a post-Zionist is like saying you're a post-Communist during the Stalin purges. You are tastefully separating yourself from the world, dainty as an English person drinking tea with their little finger separated from the teacup handle. Zionism is a very powerful force in world affairs, certainly Middle East and American society. It is not helpful to one's own thinking or to others who are trying to understand these matters to evade this fact or suggest that post-Zionism is actually a real factor in, say, the life of Gaza City. I urge my readers and others to take a stand if they find Zionist beliefs that so privilege 6 million Jews over 5-6 million non-Jews and that have entailed apartheid and ethnic cleansing a supportable ideology, especially in the age of our mutt [sic!] president-to-be.
That is the most important point. Zionism is a system of domination. It isn't over and you can't chose to be over it. You can choose to do your best to overthrow it, or you can chose to support it, or you can chose to forget about it and ignore it. But you can't make it a thing of the past by snapping your fingers. And I would add that you certainly don't have to call yourself a Zionist in order to acknowledge that, obviously, "Zionism's place in modern Jewish history" is (unfortunately) substantial, just as you don't need to wave a confederate flag in order to acknowledge that the U.S. was built with slave labor. (which is one reason why using words like 'mutt' here would not be my first choice).
Third, anti-Zionism is a great idealistic Jewish tradition. I have said that anti-Zionism is the new Zionism. It draws on the same visionaryand If-you-dream-it feeling that Zionism did 100 years ago, before the militants ruined it, and engages the same young restless sensibilities and liberationist feeling as Zionism did. We anti-Zionists can say with honor that great Jewish anti-Zionists like Rabbi Elmer Berger identified the problems with Zionism 60 years ago, accurately, and Jack Ross who is biographing Berger continues that in his bold youth: Berger said that Zionism meant contempt for the Arab population, dependence on a backroom lobby in the United States, and the introduction of dual loyalty into American Jewish life. All true. Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin and Norman Mailer all opposed Zionism to one degree or another out of ethnocentric concerns. Didn't like the Is-it-good-for-the-Jews stuff. These problems are larger today than ever, especially post-Iraq and Iraq's idiot stepson, Gaza.
I think it is a great point to remember that anti-zionism is a tradition, a long and respectable tradition, and a tradition that has today the unpleasant pleasure to say, "we told you so." I'm totally opposed to "anti-zionism is the new Zionism." One reason is that I disagree with Weiss about the notion that Zionism was ruined by the militants. Political, Labor and Revisionist Zionism were rotten from the get go. And the other ones were footnotes that were compromised by their failure to see the dominant rot. Surely, many idealistic young people were caught in these movements because of the hype and because they did not understand what they were getting into. But that's a somewhat different proposition. The problem with Weiss's formulation is that it romanticizes youthful idealism. Idealism is a good thing when it attached to sound analysis. Anti-Zionism shouldn't be the new Zionism for Jews. It should be one way today to participate in the larger struggles for justice that are much bigger than the struggle with Zionism.

And take this:
The antisemitism point. The American Jewish Committee has said the same thing, of course: anti-Zionism is antisemitism. It would thus conflate Jewishness with Zionism. A conflation that is damaging Jewish experience around the world. When Dana says it, I feel a hovering penumbra of censoriousness. There are things you can and can't say. Well I am an empowered Jew who has never experienced functional antisemitism ever in my life, and that too is important, my empowerment: I insist on speaking about Jewish cultural/financial power in the U.S. as a component of my Zionist critique. Do I think that Jews should be denied power? No! Do I think that there should be quotas on Jewish inclusion in elite institutions? No! Well: I would like Jewish participation in mainstream media roundtables on the Middle East held to 50 percent or lower. That is my quota. These ideas--including my description of Jewish place in the Establishment and the underrepresentation of Jews in the military-- have made some readers uncomfortable. They've made me uncomfortable. I grew up in fear of lurking antisemitism. I have decided in my 50s that these are things I think about all the time as a mature person, however intellectually and emotionally flawed I am, and so I am going to talk about them come what may because I think they're important.
All I can say is, "wow!"

O.K., there's one more thing I can say. I am uncomfortable with the idea that the endorsement of Zionism by the leadership of the Jewish community is rooted in fear of antisemitism (and by implication the memory of the holocaust). I did not grow up in the U.S., so I lack Weiss's personal relation to this point. But let me point out a few problems: Jews discovered the Holocaust as a community issue with a significant delay. In Israel, the Holocaust entered national consciousness in 1961 through the Eichmann trial, namely, in the context of a show trial orchestrated by Ben Gurion. In the U.S., Finkelstein points out the Holocaust became a Jewish community concern only after 1967, after the Israeli victory in the war and the forging of the 'special relationship'. In both case, the Holocaust emerges as a pole of identification in the context of Jewish empowerment, not in the context of Jewish persecution. it doesn't seem to me the case that the Jewish community leadership supports israel and seek to influence U.S. politics because of the fear of antisemitism and the memory of the Holocaust. The opposite seems to me truer, because the Jewish community leadership supports Israel and is in the position to play a role in U.S. politics, it is obsessed with antisemitism and the memory of the Holocaust. The facts about the rarity of antisemitism compared to the eagerness with which antisemitism is produced by the bodies supposed to record it, including the bruhahah about the so called "new antisemitism," support this.

And consider this too. In "Eichmann in Jerusalem" Arendt describes the frightened attitudes and inability of Jewish community leadership around Europe to stand up to the Nazis. One can criticize that behavior or one can find excuses for it. But certainly, this is how frightened, cowered communities behave. The way Jewish community leaders behave today doesn't rhyme with "fearful," of antisemitism or of anything else. On the contrary, there is an amazing arrogance and almost an "I dare you" attitude, in which people behave like antisemitic cartoons in an in-your-face manner, bragging about Jewish power and money, persecuting critics, ostensibly not giving a damn about anybody not Jewish, etc. And the latest week offers many examples. Israel is not the only rotten state some U.S. citizens support, so it is sad but hardly shocking that people go to demonstrations in support for Israel. But surely in a week in which Israeli soldiers left babies to die near the decomposing body of their mother, to organize a demonstration in support of Israel seems downright insane, even from the perspective of pure self-preservation. You don't have to be particularly fearful of what other people may think about you to chose that week to lay low. I'm quite comfortable with sticking to political and sociological arguments, but if I were to reach for my copy of Freud, I'd reach for "beyond the pleasure principle" and talk about the death drive and a "longing for antisemitism" as a more relavant explanation than "fear of antisemitism".

Now you can go read the whole thing.


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