Book review: exploring how Jewish activists reject Zionism

5 April 2012

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Jewish consensus on supporting Israel is slowly crumbling, so it is hardly surprising that growing numbers of Jews are explaining and exploring their new-found criticism of the country.

Avigail Abarbanel offers a thought-provoking addition to the genre — her edited collection Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists consists of 25 Jewish dissidents from across the English-speaking world explaining why they, to a greater or lesser extent, support Palestinian rights. Interspersed in an impressive array of voices from Australia, Israel, the UK and North America, are familiar names such as Anna Baltzer, Jeff Halper and Ilan Pappe.

The tone of the book is, as the title states, personal. Its aim is to track the journey that these people have taken from a broad Zionist background to supporting Palestinian rights. Their accounts form a similar narrative arc: descriptions of Zionist upbringings, stories of their transformation, reactions from fellow Jews and usually a brief account of their activities. It is this narrative focus that provides both the strengths and weaknesses of the collection.

Clarity

Let’s begin with the strengths. The book is unashamedly directive — it seeks to provide guidance to other Jews who have doubts about Israel and reasons for breaking with Zionism. This justifies what might otherwise seem to be a narcissistic focus on stories of the self. Social movement activists have long been aware of the importance of telling such stories, rather than merely reciting facts.

Taking an example, statistics on house demolitions, while important, simply don’t have the immediate impact of Jeff Halper’s description of his friend’s house being destroyed in front of his eyes (105-8). The bewildering legalisms through which Israel discriminates against non-Jews acquires clarity when we read Abarbanel’s account of how, as a 13-year-old, she accompanied armed civil defense volunteers as they hunted Palestinians on building sites in Tel Aviv (142-3).

Abarbanel’s story displays the book’s chief strength — its depiction of Zionism from the inside. Most contributors discuss their previous Zionism, and together they offer one of the most illuminating portraits of this ideology and identity for outsiders. Cumulatively they manage to explain, without excusing, how decent human beings can support this racist project.

Overcoming denial

Their main explanation is, in one word, denial. For instance, Ronit Yarosky tells of the first intifada, during which she “was a soldier in an occupying army, serving in the occupied territories, and was not aware that there was an occupation” (96). Many years later she was flicking through pictures of her army life and saw with newly opened eyes that her military base had been planted in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood she hadn’t previously acknowledged — for the first time, she was seeing homes and lives that had been invisible to her (98).

Accounts of denial among Jews living outside Israel are less dramatic, but equally revealing. “Oppression,” as Ariel Vegosen writes, “feeds on lack of words and lack of knowledge. It relies on an unknowing population of people to continue the cycle. It relies on isolation and silence” (271).

Such stories of blindness lead onto tales of how the scales dropped from people’s eyes. With such a diverse group there are multiple reasons for transformation, but they can be divided into books and experiences. Older participants were more influenced by books, whereas younger ones were moved by their experiences.

The contributors want to share the books and authors which triggered their political transformation, and they are worth listing: The Arabs in Israel 1948-66 by Sabi Jurays, Orientalism by Edward Said, The Other Side of Israel by Susan Nathan, Beyond Chutzpah by Norman Finkelstein, The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem by Benny Morris, The Iron Wall by Avi Shlaim, Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Problem: A Primer by Phyllis Bennis, the works of Noam Chomsky and of the Israeli “new historians” on the Nakba.

The list shows how the Nakba (catastrophe; the wave of ethnic cleansing that preceded Israel’s foundation) and the treatment of Palestinians within Israel are the two issues which supporters of Israel find hardest to reconcile with their Zionism — and by extension that these are the issues which are most repressed.

“Cheated” by Israel

The experiences that occasion change are more diffuse, though most can be divided into encountering Palestinians and reacting to Israel’s wars. The encounter with Palestinians, especially for the younger generation, is as likely to take place in an anti-war demonstration as in a dialogue group.

Yet these are the occasions for transformation, not the transformation itself — an experience which many of the authors describe as accompanied by feelings of betrayal and anger at having been so comprehensively lied to by authority figures they had trusted. It is, as some write, like discovering that your husband has cheated on you all along, that one of your deepest relationships is built out of lies. This depth of feeling, as Abarbanel perceptively comments, comes from the intensity of emotional attachment which Zionism demands of Jews (148-9). Going further, fellow contributor Rich Siegel compares this attachment to membership of a cult.

The first person confessional narrative used in the book provokes sympathy and also affirmation from the reader. There is much to admire here, but there is also a need to move beyond simple affirmation. For starters, the condition for inclusion in this collection was exclusion from Jewish communal orthodoxy. This is problematic as it assumes this diverse group is connected by a Jewish ethnicity which is rejected by several of them. It skates over the real differences in the participants’ political outlooks. Everything is affirmed.

Exclusion

More serious than including too much under the Jewish label is the issue of exclusion. In fairness, the editor acknowledges the problematic aspect of an exclusively Jewish collection of voices. Jewish-only collections, however unintentionally, reinforce the idea that Jews have a special role to speak out about Israel, a fallacy which serves to silence the largely absent Palestinians, and to implicitly tell others not to get involved. On top of this, a Jewish-only collection fails to index how most activists aren’t solely or even mainly engaged in Jewish-led activities but work alongside Palestinians and other solidarity activists. I would have loved to read similar life stories from these people. Such stories belong together, not separately.

In the end, this is an interesting, and at times extremely well-written collection of voices. As a depiction of what it was like to be a Zionist and account of the move from Zionism, these stories are compelling. However, the form of the book may well betray the content of the message of most of the contributors, those who are adamant that Jews should not have a special position in Palestinian rights activism.

David Landy is national organizer of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign and author of Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel.

Image of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists
Manufacturer: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Part Number:
Price: $75.99

Comments

I haven't read this book but I don't think it necessary that a book of Jewish voices against their own indoctrination be criticized for only containing Jewish voices. I would be over the moon if we were in a place where more Jewish people could be reached by a book of all voices, sadly, in reality, we're not there yet and from the sound of it this book should be praised for aiming at a very important target audience. I'd see it as a gateway book.