Wrestling With Zionism

Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, the co-editors of Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2003), say in their introduction that they wanted to read a book of dissident American Jewish critics of  right-wing Zionism in Israel. No such book existed so they createdthis anthology of essays and poem which was published in 2003. The book has an impressive roster of contributors:   European and American Jewish poets, playwrights, philosophers, and academics including Martin Buber, Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich and many others. This anthology ably documents the 100-year historical tradition within the Jewish community of those Jews who criticized first right-wing Zionism and then Israeli policies; however, the book’s last section “Resistance and Activism” has weaknesses.

Section I reprints the writings of three neglected left Zionists:  Ahad Ha’am, the creator of spiritual Zionism; Judah Magnes, the founder of the Hebrew University, and Martin Buber, the philosopher. Before 1948 all three men rejected Jewish military might and a Jewish state but instead championed a cultural Zionism in a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Judah Magnes went the furthest in advocating a binational state in which all groups—Jews, Arabs, Moslems, Christians—would have equal rights. Magnes’ binational state where Jews would have no special privileges was indeed a Zionist position though many Israelis now treat the idea like anti-semitic heresy.

These historical writings show American Jewish progressives also criticized mainstream and right-wing Zionists. The editors happily rescue from oblivion the 1948 letter where philosopher Hannah Arndt, Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook and over 30 American Jews roundly condemned Begin’s right-wing group, the Irgun, for the massacre at the Arab village of Deir Yassin, and they called the Irgun fascist. Adding to these earlier criticisms, journalist I.F. Stone develops an anti-imperialist critique of Israel in 1967 describing how mainstream Zionists offered themselves as outposts in the Arab world to imperial powers: the Turks in 1900; the German Kaiser soon thereafter; and the British in 1915.

Section II “The Contemporary Crisis” as of 2003 provides excellent essays both analyzing and criticizing current U.S and Israeli policies. Joel Benin in “The United States-Israel Alliance” describes how after 1967 Israel in return for carrying out U.S policies got U.S. arms. Michael Massing’s “Deal Breakers” discusses how two right wing American Zionist organizations effectively lobby U.S. presidents and the Congress. Seth Ackerman’s “Israel and the Media” shows how U.S. mass media in the 1970s-1990s became ardently pro-Israel. Finally, Phyllis Bennis in “Of Dogs and Tails” analyzes the four pillars of this U.S.-Israel alliance:  Israel’s acting as U.S. #1 Middle Eastern ally; the Christian Zionists support of Israel; the neo-conservatives politicians; and the defense industry’s advocacy of increased military aid. These essays are a must read for anyone seriously interested in a critical understanding of the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

The third area where Wrestling With Zion does good work is documenting a thirty-year right-wing Zionist assault on American Jewish dissidents. Michael E. Staub’s “If We Really Care About Israel: Breira and Its Limits” is a fine essay describing how in the 1970s right-wing Zionists destroyed the moderate Jewish peace group Breira. Though Breira was quite mainstream (it never identified as left-wing and was often led by moderate Hillel rabbis), right-wing Zionists assaulted it in the media, libeled it as pro-PLO, resulting in Breira’s destruction. Staub argues that after Breira was destroyed the American Jewish community splintered:  many Jews left the community physically or spiritually. Wrestling With Zion’s essays point out how right-wing Zionists again and again resorted to smear attacks from smashing Breira in the 1970s to attacking  Jewish anti-war critics of Israel in 2003, which Esther Kaplan discusses in “Globalize the Intifada.”

Section Four in particular deals with right-wing Zionist charges that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. UC Berkeley professor Judith Butler takes on Harvard president Lawrence Summer’s statement that calls for boycotts of Israeli are anti-semitic. Butler argues that when criticisms of Israel’s policies are called anti-semitic, the charge is both an attack on freedom of speech and an act that undermines attempts to fight real anti-semitism. In the same section Phillip Green in his essay argues that the left is not anti-semitic but when right-wing Zionists make

Israel and Jewishness synonymous, it is they—and not the left—who have sown the dangerous seed of the new waves of anti-Semitism…

Naomi Klein in her essays “Sharon, Le Pen, and Anti-Semitism” agrees that Ariel Sharon’s making “Jew’ and “Israeli” synonymous as well as oppressing Palestinians increases anti-semitism: “Jews outside Israel new find themselves in  a tightening vice: the actions of the country that was supposed to ensure their future safety are making them less safe right now.”  Butler, Green, and Klein construct coherent arguments that right-wing Zionists make bogus claims that they defend Jews from anti-Semitism.

Many of these writers–Tony Kushner, Alisa Solomon, Adrienne Rich et al.—decry the attempt of right-wing Zionists to impose ideological conformity as harmful to the American Jewish community. Furthermore, Kushner et al. refer to Jewish sources demanding justice for all in their criticism of Israel; these writers stress the centrality of justice in both secular and religious Jewish thinking. Harvard researcher Sara Roy, a child of Holocaust survivors, and poet Irene Klepfisz, a Holocaust survivor, both argue that the best way to honor Jews who died in the Holocaust is to keep alive their vision of justice for all and their outrage against injustice. Klepfisz says that we must make our outrage against injustice “apply it to all situations, whether they involve Jews or non-Jews.”

Marc Ellis, a controversial founder of Jewish liberation theology, contributes some of the most original ideas in the book. Prior to 1948 the large majority of Orthodox (highly religious) Jews were hostile to Zionism and against the establishment of the state of Israel. Ellis argues that in the 1950s some Israel right-wing theologians have created a new branch of Orthodox Judaism—the religious in the settler movement– in service to the state and its power. Ellis compares this settler religion to Constantine’s Christianity, a religion that serves the power of the State. In reaction to this religion-serving-the-state Judaism, Ellis calls for the rebirth of the prophetic voices to criticize Israel just as the prophets in the past did. He gives a Jewish theological blessing for the “secular Jews of conscience who have come into solidarity with the Palestinian people.” When Holocaust survivors or theologians or writers advocate that Jewish history and ethics provides the basis for a criticism of Israeli, they construct a Jewish place for criticizing Israeli government policies.

Some essayists have sounded important minor themes. I. F. Stone and Adrienne Rich are only two of Wrestling with Zion’s over 50 Ashkenazi Jewish writers who point out the importance of Arab Jews (Jews from Arab lands such as Tunisian Jews, Iraqi Jews etc.) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Stone argued in 1967 that one of the first steps needed to be taken toward peace is “the eradication of prejudice that greet the Oriental and Arabic-speaking Jews in Israel …” Rich salutes what Israeli novelist Shulamith Hareven calls “Levantine” cultures or that rich mixture of cultures in the Middle East, which Rich likens to American multi-culturalism.

Yet this book only includes two Arab Jewish writers.  Iraqi Jewish American Ella Habiba Shohat eloquently describes those Jews born in Arabic country who learn to speak Arabic as their first language and who identify with many parts of Arabic culture. Ammiel Alcalay in his essay “No Return” writes a linguistic tour-de-force that describes key moments in Arab Jewish intellectual history of the last forty years.  The American Jewish progressives of Wrestling with Zion need to include more Arab Jews such as writers Sami Shalom Chetrit and Jordan Elgrably. In Los Angeles Moroccan-Jewish American Elgrably has worked with Arabs, Armenians, and Persians et al. to create a Levantine Center that promotes many Middle Eastern cultures. Such centers are crucial to helping the American Jewish community redefine itself as non-Zionist and to making peace in the Middle East.

Only I.F. Stone and Phyllis Bennis discuss how, as Stonesays, Israel “is creating a kind of schizophrenia in world Jewry.” Stone pointed out that outside of Israel “the welfare of Jewry depends on the maintenance of secular, non-racial pluralistic societies” while many Diaspora Jews defend within Israel a society where “non-Jews have lesser status than Jews, and in which the idea [of the Israeli state] is racial and exclusionist.” Stone wrote in 1967 when many Jews marched for civil rights in the United States, helping to promote a secular, non-racial society. Phyllis Bennis writes in 2002 about right-wing American Jews creating an alliance with some Christian fundamentalists who call themselves Christian Zionists. Bennis quotes Robert Zimmerman, president of the American Jewish Congress (AJC) that the Christian fundamentalist have a domestic agenda that “threatens ‘the freedoms that make Jews safe in America.’” Bennis points out that all other major American Jewish organizations ignore AJC’s fears. American Jews need to take more seriously Bennis’s arguments that allianceswith Christian fundamentalists potentially harms American Jews.

Finally, the weakness of Wrestling with Zionis in its discussion of current activism as of 2003. A whole section of this book debates the so-called “Law of Return,” the Israeli law whereby any Jew in the world can settle in Israel, claiming full citizenship that includes rights and privileges denied to Palestinians who used to live there but cannot return to live. Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz intellectually wants to refuse the law of return while Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founders of Ms. magazine, defends it. Throughout this debate neither Kaye/Kantrowitz nor Pogrebin looked at the Arabs’ reactions to the Law of Return . After 47 British Jews in August 8, 2002, rejected the right to return to Israel, Kaye/Kantrowitz still ends her essay with an “imaginary” renunciation of the right to return. One wonders why not a real renunciation?

Also an essay on how American Jewish critics of Zionists could work with Israeli peace groups would be an addition to the book. Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton in his excellent essay on why he founded Friends of Courage to Refuse to support the Refusniks, Israeli soldiers who refuse to fight in the occupied territories, speaks to this point. More essays on American Jewish-Israel peace advocate coalitions would be helpful.

The book ends with “Doing Activism:  Working for Peace:  A Roundtable Discussion” with eight activists representing small dissident groups from Boston, New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area as of 2003. Yes, these groups have bravery and moral vision. Yet since these small groups have hardly any presence outside a few urban centers, an essay analyzing the successes and failures of 23 years of their politics since the demise of Briera would have been more helpful.

Steven Feuerstein from Chicago’s Not in My Name said most of these groups’ anti-occupation demonstrations were ineffectual since these groups lacked defined political goals and strategy to obtain their goals. Most of these activists wanted to reduce or eliminate U.S.’s financial support for Israel’s West Bank settlements, but Feuerstein argued that they lacked “the political will or power” to do so. Instead of discussing Fuerstein’s criticisms, most of the others debated among themselves rhetorical strategies, the uses of history, and even the definition of Zionism. Nobody in these 2003 pieces took up Feuerstein’s criticisms that a small number of dissident Jewish groups based in a few big cities who disagreed among themselves lack the political vision, strategy, or power to change the nearly 60-year old U.S.-Israel alliance. How should these small groups go in coalition with others? Which others? Since 2003 Jewish Voice for Peace has built a national organization working for peace in Palestine/Israel which in the May, 2018, has had numerous demonstrations across the U.S. by American Jews of Israel’s actions in Gaza..

The virtues of Wrestling With Zion far outweigh its flaws. This is a crucial, important, and informative book. The historical essays reclaim a buried history while the analytical essays are still applicable in 2018. These essays clearly document there is a long tradition within American Judaism of criticism of first Zionism and then Israel.