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Military Judaism and the Celebration of May Day

The Albatross of Israel

by NORMAN POLLACK

Appropriately, today is May Day, and in mid-Michigan a strikingly beautiful a.m., unusual for the dismal gray to which we have become accustomed of late, and moments ago, I awoke from sleep with a phrase recurring in mind, one that easily rolls off the tongue, yet that the two words of which I had never quite combined before: “military Judaism.”  Why they should come to me upon awakening (I think all writers are aware that their thoughts are constantly gestating below the surface) I cannot explain, except that immediately I made the connection with May Day, a time for the celebration of radicalism and, at least in the past, taking some form of action—of which I, about to turn 80, am no longer capable—true to one’s beliefs and position in the social structure.  I have never engaged in a diatribe against the State of Israel, nor intend to now.  But May Day is also a time for reflection, and in this case my identity as a Jew and, as I see it, indeed am old enough to have lived it, what has happened to my people in America over my lifetime.

Growing up in the 1940s I was intensely proud of being Jewish.  Partly, this was a simple yet I believe honest and correct attachment to America fighting a War Against Fascism, a patriotism unshakeable given the clarity of ideological issues and the known persecution of Jews in Europe.  In addition, there was a personal factor—an illness that kept me bedridden for two years, which enormously raised my political consciousness, so that at age thirteen, and learning how to walk again, I not only quite naturally identified with FDR and his courage in surmounting polio, but I think more pertinent, somehow reaching out to militant unionism, the struggles against racial segregation, and yes, somewhat diluted, simplistic Marxism (perhaps showing off to my friends).  The important point, though, is that Jews were in the forefront of radical causes in that period and earlier.  Even more prosperous businessmen and lawyers had, and were not ashamed of expressing, sympathies for labor, opposition to racism, and a vision of One World.

That began to change rather quickly, in great part, I suspect, because of the intense climate of fear generated by McCarthyism and kindred social pathologies (for Joe could never have gotten started were not conditions ripe for political and ideological persecution in this country), and Jews, feeling vulnerable, were coming forward as superpatriots.  The Cold War encased America in a patriotic bubble, probably its intended purpose, so that one saw the turning rightward clearly taking form in intellectual circles in the mid-1950s, from Daniel Bell and Seymour Lipset to Richard Hofstadter, an ersatz liberalism designed to cover over the retreat from the past of solidarity with radical causes to, now, a denial, in the form of the Consensus Thesis, of protest in the American past.  I’m ashamed to say that, just as in the case of the NeoCons of today, a disproportionate number of rightwing (disguised as socialist) intellectuals were members of the faith.  I, of course, fought back, writing the first major critique of this trend, in a scholarly article on Hofstadter’s Age of Reform, followed by other works.  Yet my ties to Judaism, not necessarily as one who was observant, remained virtually absolute, to the extent of being blind to what we now can see as a form of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinian people with the formative stages in the establishment of Israel.

Still, in the late 1940s, I travelled in rare circles, shaking hands with Abba Eban at a fund-raising event, etc., and into the next decade admittedly taking pride in Israeli militarism as necessary and desirable in the aftermath of the Holocaust.  Only very gradually did my perception of Israel change—far later than was the case of fellow radicals.  I will not, in this May Day moment, elaborate further on the progression of my thinking during the intervening period, but rather turn to the present, and pose the question:  Can one be Jewish (and by that I mean, proud of its radical heritage, conversant with and respectful of Torah, and therefore, comfortable with and not defensive over an identity as a Jew) and at the same time be unalterably opposed to the policies and actions of the State of Israel?  I think, Yes.  Obviously, the political-cultural-ideological scene argues the diametric opposite: one must be a staunch supporter of Isreal or one is a self-hating Jew.  Simple as that.  And further, one must not only ignore Israeli atrocities, but also champion retrograde forces on the world scene—from US interventions on a global basis to assassination as an acceptable practice, whether Mossad or CIA.

I remain defiant when I say, not only can and should Judaism be disentangled from Israel in all things pertaining to its militarism and the persecution of others, but also, that Judaism as a noble religion cannot survive with the albatross of Israel around its neck—and the corresponding rightward turning of Jews in America.  The best thing American Jews can do, and I say this for the sake of Israel, but a truly democratized Israel, and one that would be a blessing to Judaism, is to cut through the patriotic verbiage, the cant, the playing upon Holocaust memories, and unceremoniously condemn Israel where condemnation is warranted, starting with the victimization of the Palestinian people—but not stopping there, because at present Israel is the flash point of an explosive region, isolated largely from its own doing, for which its nuclear arsenal will not protect it and just may be provoke a world conflagration.

Earnestly, I wish to all a Happy May Day.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.