Jewish challenges to Zionism on the rise in the US

Mich Levy and
14 June 2010

In June 2010, two opposite ends of the Jewish political spectrum will vie for one historical moment. As Israel and the Zionist movement struggle to maintain their century-long pull on Jewish minds, a new project is emerging to rechart the course away from Zionism and toward embracing a renewed commitment to a shared humanity.

On 19-22 June, just prior to the US Social Forum, North American Jews will gather in Detroit to challenge racism, colonialism and imperialism — first and foremost by contributing to efforts to overcome Zionism and decolonize Palestine. The 2010 US Assembly of Jews: Confronting Racism and Israeli Apartheid (www.jewsconfrontapartheid.org), comes at a time when there is great urgency to build on recent successes of the Palestine solidarity movement, and as United States corporations and the government continue to commit grave injustices in Palestine — not to mention in its own communities.

This event follows on the heels of the 36th Congress of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) to be held in Jerusalem that same week. The WZO was founded in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress to serve as the umbrella organization for the Zionist movement. At this upcoming gathering, the Congress will no doubt reassert and refocus its strategies for defending Israel’s legitimacy against growing condemnations, attempts to hold Israel accountable for war crimes, and the successes of the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

The WZO is both a symbol and a founding institution of Zionist political thought and action that brought us to this current historical moment. One finds an illustration of this disastrous trajectory in the press releases the WZO published during Israel’s 2008-09 winter invasion of Gaza. For example, on 12 January, by the time most of the horrible facts of the massacre were already public knowledge, the WZO opposed UN Security Council Resolution 1860 calling for an immediate ceasefire, labeling it “anti-Israel,” and criticized it for failing to demand “humanitarian assistance” to Israel. Many leading Zionist organizations echoed similar positions, whereas “softer” Zionist organizations waffled and fumbled. Reading their expressions of apology, support and indeed even encouragement for unconscionable crimes, it is painful to imagine that a beating heart was linked with the hand that typed them.

Likewise, on 31 May of this year, a monumental effort to break the illegal and crippling siege on Gaza was recently thwarted by the Israeli government. A flotilla comprised of six boats, 700 peace and solidarity activists from more than 40 countries delivering 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid was attacked by the Israeli navy and taken control of by killing and injuring people on a boat flying a Turkish flag in international waters. The inhumanity and illegality of these acts are undeniable and increasingly in the public eye. As awareness of Israel’s moral and political bankruptcy is growing worldwide, so does the authoritarianism, violence and self-righteous fanaticism of the Israeli authorities and of growing sections of the Israeli public.

Overcoming Zionist ideas and practice is crucial, first and foremost, because of the impact of its institutionalized racism and colonialism on the people of Palestine and the broader region. This impact manifests in the demand for political, legal and economic power for Jews and European people and cultures over indigenous people and cultures. This racism is also the cause of the extensive displacement and alienation of Mizrahi Jews (Jews of African and Asian descent) from their diverse histories, languages, traditions and cultures and in the marginalization and economic exploitation of its Mizrahi population and migrant workers within Israeli society.

Zionism is also anti-Semitic in its rejection of Jewish cultures and histories — including both Jews who are “other” than European and the European Jewish “victim” which it attempted to distance itself from in the creation of the “new Jew.” While rejecting the feminized Jewish victims of Christian Europe, it then uses their memory to justify and perpetuate European racism and colonialism and a militarized Jewish state. Likewise, Zionism promotes Islamophobia in Palestine, the broader region, the US and around the world. And the resentment and anger toward Jews living in Israel and elsewhere, aroused by Israeli violence and military domination, is used to justify further Zionist violence.

Zionism perpetuates Jewish exceptionalism and tells a version of Jewish history that is disconnected from the history and experiences of other people. By exceptionalizing the Nazi genocide, Jews are set apart from the victims and survivors of that and other genocides instead of being united with them. As such, Zionism implicates us in the oppression of the Palestinian people and in the debasement of our own heritages, struggles for justice and alliances with our fellow human beings.

The strategy to promote an understanding of Israel as an apartheid state is having increasing success, particularly in its explanation of why boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel are justified. Advances in this arena are rattling Zionist organizations in Israel and around the world. However, Zionist institutions like the WZO, American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, The Simon Wiesenthal Center, B’nai B’rith and others in the US and elsewhere have access to millions of dollars to spend on shielding Israel from accountability for its apartheid policies and its accelerating war crimes, and for furthering the colonization, ethnic cleansing and the theft and destruction of Palestinian land.

The confluence of interests between the Israeli state, global capitalist interests, especially that of weapon manufacturers, “post-conflict” construction and security companies and the oil industry is going strong. Islamophobic reactions in Western Europe, the US and Canada and general xenophobia seeks to use Muslims and immigrants as the scapegoats for the universal crisis of capitalism and excuses for perpetual war and occupation.

US and Israeli military aggression in the region support and reinforce each other. Despite American concerns that Israeli policy damages the image of the US, Israel’s economic and military power in the region is deemed vital by Washington. As a corollary, it is ever more apparent that pro-Israel lobbies in the US are opposed to anti-war efforts. The Zionist organizations and the Israeli lobby increasingly align with the neoconservatives in the US and share their investment in the agenda of war, occupation and/or sanctions against Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and Syria.

Anti-Zionist Jews in the US can play a role in asserting to the anti-war movement that meaningful headway will not be possible without confronting the role Israel plays in provoking and justifying the US’s war agenda. After decades of debate and hesitation, Palestine is still a point of contention in the American anti-war movement. Challenging the US funding of Israel is avoided out of concern that it will detract from critiques of the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Contrary to this concern, placing Palestine squarely in the center of an anti-war agenda in the US is the key to a more fundamental shift in US policy and practice of which war is a necessary strategy. In turn, through building with the anti-war movement, we can contribute to efforts to reduce the isolation of the Palestinian struggle, advance challenges to Islamophobia, and directly challenge the mutually beneficial relationship shared by the US and Israel.

Accountability of Israeli, US government and international Zionist support for Israel will not come from a shift in US policy but through shifting American public opinion and debate, fomenting popular movement, using international and US legal sanctions and supporting the Palestinian call for BDS. The 2010 US Assembly of Jews seeks to contribute to these efforts and reflects a significant departure from Zionism that has been building since the second Palestinian intifada broke the stranglehold of the Oslo accords. It has continuity with a long history of Jewish participation in struggles for human emancipation. Ours are among the growing voices of Jews who seek a departure from the course that Zionism has been and continues down — a course that is a betrayal of our humanity as it simultaneously denies that of Palestinians.

Jews have an independent case against Zionism, and we are also part of a solidarity movement. When Jews aren’t clear — either about their own confrontation of Zionism, or about the precedence of the demands of the Palestinian grassroots struggle — Jewish participation threatens to muddle rather than clarify and strengthen the Palestine solidarity movement. We must be cautious to not presume that our commitment and investment in overcoming Zionism suggest “equality” in the struggle; overstepping our actual role in the movement undermines Palestinian leadership in their own struggle, thus reinforcing the centralization of Jewish voices that Zionism promotes and racism suggests. Likewise, equating the need for Palestinian liberation and safety with safety of most Jews in contemporary Western countries is inaccurate.

The Assembly will be a chance to reflect on ourselves as a part of US and international movements for justice and bring clarity to our politics and practices so that we can increase our effectiveness. Jewish anti-Zionism is not an identity, but a politic to develop and actualize and a location from which to challenge Zionism. Organizing to gain the approval of — or legitimacy in relationship to — Jewish popular opinion, liberal Zionist organizations, or US public opinion undermines our ability to be in solidarity. Likewise, in the long-run, rewriting Palestinian demands (e.g. excluding the right of return from BDS campaigns) to fit agendas that reinforce peace as a strategy for maintaining an exclusive Jewish state does not challenge the foundations of Zionist policies and principles. However, in the short-run any participation that advances BDS is useful in delegitimizing Israel. It is the development and sharing of distinctions such as these that will deepen and increase the possibility of a real alternative to Zionism and the ability of Jews to contribute to a powerful and effective Palestine solidarity movement. These are the issues that we hope to raise and explore with Jews and our partners in struggle at the 2010 US Assembly of Jews.

Our commitment to confronting Zionism is part of our commitment to cutting the threads of racism, anti-Semitism, elitism, fascism, colonialism and imperialism that have nourished Zionism and were institutionalized in the apartheid structures of Israel. Instead, we build continuity with the historic and current movements for human emancipation, class struggle, equality, democracy and justice. These threads have always existed in Jewish histories, against histories of Jewish collaboration with those that seek to oppress.

Gabriel Ash is an activist, writer and a core member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN). He writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not.

Emily Katz Kashawi is an activist, communications professional and a mother of twins.

Mich Levy is an activist, educator and an international organizer with IJAN.

Sara Kershnar is an activist and an international organizer of IJAN.