oh, silly nuance. like a pebble in my vegan shoe.

July 25, 2006

Last night I attended a “workshop” called “Anti-Semitism on the Left” at Bluestockings Bookstore, a self-described “radical bookstore, fair trade cafe, and activist center” on the lower east side of Manhattan. I put workshop in quotations because the tiny store was so packed with people that there was no space for any sort of “workshopping.” There was a panel discussion of three people whose perspectives and areas of expertise seemed to overlap quite a bit, followed by a Q+A (mostly Q’s, of the long tirade variety) of some very passionate progressive Jews (and some very loud non-Jews, of course). Full disclosure: it was a beautiful evening outside and stifling inside the bookstore. The yogurt friend and I arrived exactly on time, only to find that the only seats left were on the floor. Hot and uncomfortable do make it very difficult to sit patiently for someone to say something innovative and/or productive, but I sat and listened intently for a good hour and remained mostly bored throughout. Eh.

I don’t really want to go through all the points of the evening. But some of the discussions that came up during the Q+A that were brushed aside quite quickly were really interesting and I think are worth unpacking. Part of the point of the evening was to delve into what anti-semitism really is about, and more specifically, what it means in the general wing we like to call “LEFT” (whatever that means). What I saw was a lot of Jews with anti-occupation politics who seem to be quite angry at the way that Zionism has hijacked “Judaism” and the way that this has caused many non-Jews define our religion/culture/ethnicity according to their [negative] opinions of Zionism and the state of Israel. What I did not see was anyone, besides the panelists, who was able to talk about their own experiences with anti-Semitism in their left-wing lives. In some weird way, a discussion that was framed as “look what’s happening in our movement, let’s figure out how to change it,” turned into, “why are these other Jews doing this to us?” Which lead me to believe, while swept up in the anti-Semitism train of thought, is that a serious symptom of anti-Semitism is when Jews pit themselves against each other instead of addressing a larger issue.

One particularly tense point came about when one of the panelists, in answering a question, touched on the complexity of the fact that the state of Israel was founded following some very intense anti-Semitism in Europe (um, hello?), and now I paraphrase: this makes our hatred for the state of Israel quite complicated. And from the back of the room there was lots of murmuring that I loosely interpreted as: why is she saying that out loud? Doesn’t she know that the whole anti-Semitism thing that pushed the founding of Israel is so overplayed? And now these interpreted thoughts are starting to sound like those of a Holocaust denier. And now I’m getting ahead of myself.

To me, that could’ve been a really intense part of the evening, unpacking that question. I don’t understand why we can’t see these issues with more nuances. Isn’t it possible that the Jews have been both oppressed by anti-Semitism and also have and continue to act out a different kind of oppression on Palestinians? Forget Israel for a second. Let’s take the Crown Heights riots of 1991. To keep my argument short (and please forgive me for my oversimplification), can’t we admit that the riots were a product of some complex combination of anti-Semitism, racism, and classism? Why does it have to be one or the other?

In some ways I felt like an outsider last night, like suddenly, after all these arguments I have had with my family where they look at me like I’ve gone so far to the left I must have lost my head, I felt like a right-wing Zionist. When I mentioned that discussion about the anti-Semitism that immediately preceded the founding of the state to my mother today, she said that it demonstrates a lack of knowledge of history. And I guess that’s just it. It could also be just ignoring certain inconvenient facts that complicate one’s argument or perspective. Thinking about the history of the state of Israel, and maybe more broadly, the history of the Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries, one has to use to be very delicate in forming opinions about current affairs in the middle east. I’m deeply opposed to the occupation and even more opposed to and frightened by a Jewish state that is based on its military might. However, I can’t say with a full heart that Israel should never have been founded, as I believe many of last night’s workshop attendees seem to believe. Simply put, it’s too simple a perspective. It’s also not real or productive in terms of present politics.

Perhaps this sort of conversation should take place in a Jewish context, where we can have a serious discussion about what Jews who don’t want to prioritize Israel or Zionism can do to identify strongly as Jews without feeling ostracized for not being Zionists. That might be a good place to stop this posting. I’m seeing a part two in the near future. Stay tuned…next week: learning to love your Diaspora!



  1. I love the way you think, Salty.

  2. It seems to me that some young people who lack a historical perspective on Israel are nervous and upset about the current conflict and what they see as Israel = military might = oppression of a weaker people. They love peace and can’t understand why a Jewish state has to be so militaristic. Their distaste for Israel translates into a distaste for Zionism (which is a dirty word for many) which then translates into a kind of self-hatred.
    The fact is that Israel is still, after 58 years of independence, in a struggle for its existence. The fact is that with all its military might, Israeli cities and towns are being bombarded daily by rocket fire. Would any sovereign state take this without some response? Of course there is the occupation. After almost 40 years of it the Israeli political consensus that it has to end finally won out. Israel was in the process of ending it. Still, it was attacked. Why? Because Israel’s radical Islamic enemies are not satisfied with the 1967 lines. They want to return to the pre-1948 lines, when Israel did not exist. Their goal is the elimination of Israel.
    There may be some self-hating Jews for which this is an agreeable solution to their Jewish problem. But for most of us, Israel has every right to exist behind secure, recognized borders. Yes, there must be a just solution to the Palestinian issue. But that will take time and some political will on the part of the Palestinians. With the rise of Hamas and Hizbollah, the issues become even more complicated. Ultimately, there is no military solution to the conflict. Right now Israel is defending its citizens and trying to root out Hizbollah. The only hope is that, after the fighting dies down, some new situation will prevail. We who love Israel have to believe that peace, which seems like such a distant dream, will someday be achieved.

  3. AM-Very interesting. There are a lot of discussions we could have based on what you wrote. I do want to respond to one thing you said. I carefully chose not to use the term “self-hating Jew” to describe anyone in the room in this written post (though I may have done so in casual conversation). I don’t think it’s a productive term. I think it’s valid that non-Zionist Jews should be able to talk openly about the fact that they want their Judaism and Jewish identity to exist without a connection to the state of Israel. In fact, there are many people that I know who have made their own Judaism stronger by living and appreciating their lives in the “here and now.” Non- or post- or even anti- Zionist Jews should not be berated simply because they don’t connect with Israel, whether it’s from ideological opposition or from a philosophy of “doikeyt” (“here-ness” in Yiddish) that is meaningful for many because it teaches us to work within our own communities, where we live. That said, I do think that such Jews have an obligation, like anyone else, to understand their oppositions and the complications and histories behind those beliefs. All angles of those beliefs.

  4. I don’t accept the idea that one can be a Jew today without some connection to Israel. The existence of the Jewish state was a revolution in Jewish history – it created a fundamental change in the Jewish people and in Jewish history. One can love Israel or hate it, but a Jew today has to have some relationship with its reality. To ignore it, to say that it has no bearing on my Jewishness is putting one’s head in the sand.

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