Jewish Like Me

Jesse Rosenfeld (Josh Chapman/The McGill Daily)

Like most kids growing up Jewish, I loved Israel. I identified with the country and saw my Jewish identity expressed in it.

Maybe it was because I found inspiration in an Israeli culture that seemed to focus on youth. I liked how David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, referred to the “New Israeli Jew” — strong, committed and independent — as opposed to the idea of a “European Jew” — weak, emasculated, and dependent. Or maybe I wanted to identify with something other than tedious family gatherings in Toronto complete with a grandmother who pinched my cheeks.

Either way, as a short, underweight early teen looking to find a form of community and feeling of empowerment, Israel and its image provided me with a feeling of masculinity. The Israeli myth allowed me to reject the stuffiness of North American Jewish culture while keeping a sense of an imagined community that was still accepted, and even encouraged, by my family and community.

As I explored this more, I began to realize that Zionism was synonymous with a violent colonization and occupation of another people.

A Zionist upbringing

I visited my Israeli family in Haifa, in northern Israel, when I was 11. Seeing the highly militarized, but incredibly energetic and fraternal connection between the Israeli Jews, inspired me. (It was only reflecting on my memories of Israel that I began to question the myth I had been presented and the daily acts of racism and colonization I saw.) Meeting my large extended family, I felt an immediate and deep connection with them. Because of their love of Israel and their embodiment of what I saw as the New Jew, I felt tied to the state.

My family was part of the second wave of colonizers that arrived in the British Mandate of Palestine after World War I. They actively participated in the conquest of Palestinian land and the establishment of exclusively Jewish institutions, like the agricultural collectives that barred non-Jews from participating. Talking with my older relatives, I was inspired by their stories of the early Israel and the community it formed.

Those stories — combined with the joy of being in the presence of a family that recounted stories of Israel’s wonders one minute and jumped up to dance energetically the next — mythologized the idea of the young fighting state that expressed what I believed was the epitome of a community that had found its strength.

At the same time, both my parents were committed activists against apartheid in South Africa and my father was a labour historian, so from an early age the important values of anti-racism and socialism were impressed on me.

Despite my ethno-nationalist connection with Israel and a fervent belief in Zionism, the Israeli army, and the policies of the Jewish State, I didn’t feel any contradiction between my Zionist identity and my commitment to social justice

Despite my ethno-nationalist connection with Israel and a fervent belief in Zionism, the Israeli army, and the policies of the Jewish State, I didn’t feel any contradiction between my Zionist identity and my commitment to social justice. I believed that Israel was the state of social justice. The country’s successive labour governments, strong Jewish unions, and a history of kibbutzim seemed to confirm it.

I didn’t see Zionism’s violent colonization and historic displacement of Palestinians as similar to other colonial projects based on white settler domination. Instead, I believed that the Israeli Defense Forces were not only “defending Jews” but also “defending social justice and socialism.” I viewed Israel and its values as similar to the struggles against oppression, and, I have to admit, held a racist view of “the Arabs” as trying to destroy the “equality” that Israel was creating.

This is not to say that on some level I didn’t recognize the oppression that Palestinians were facing at the hands of Israeli occupation. Being committed in a general sense to ideas of social justice and coming from a socialist Zionist perspective, I saw the occupation as a problem. But I thought the main causes of the conflict were the right wing, religiously-driven factions in Israel and the Palestinians’ “use of violence.”

Back then, I would even actively ignore facts that I saw in the news. I remember, in grade eight, discounting a Toronto Star article about Israeli troops opening fire on a Palestinian demonstration because, in my mind, Israeli soldiers protected Palestinians.

My commitment to Zionism even led me to name one of my rabbits “Shimon” after former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Applying history

My abandonment of Zionism began when I was about 15. Perhaps it was because I learned that I was allergic to rabbits and had to give Shimon away, but most likely it had to do with my growing inability to ignore the reality of Israel’s violent repression of Palestinians and a growing interest in Marxist theory.

During the 1996-99 right wing Likud government, I found it impossible to support the Israeli government. It seemed to me that the embodiment of the Israeli right was the barrier to peace. At that time, I still thought that the Labour party was the bearer of peace and strongly believed that socialist Zionism was liberatory. Therefore, I couldn’t understand why the Labour party would act as apologists for the actions of the Likud government and not show more of an affinity with the Palestinians. I wasn’t able to grapple with the way the so-called Israeli left would do little about the increasingly violent attacks on Palestinians that seemed to be destroying the “peace process,” while uniting behind the military.

I was having a harder time seeing liberation in, or even identifying with, the idea of being a New Israeli Jew

I was having a harder time seeing liberation in, or even identifying with, the idea of being a New Israeli Jew. I began to question how I could actively deceive myself about the news and began to notice the unwillingness of my family and Jewish community to address my concerns, as well as their own racism toward Palestinian and Arab people.

I remember family members often combining false dichotomies about “good and bad Arabs” with completely uncritical support for Israel’s actions. There was fierce condemnation from my family and the community for even doubting Israel’s actions. I would often face responses like “Israel can only be criticized by those that live there,” parodying explanations given by white South Africans for apartheid.

I began to feel as though my Jewish affiliation with Israel contradicted the lessons the Jewish people should have learned from a history of oppression.

Add a dash of Marx

During my mid teens, Marxism made a big impression on me. I had joined a small socialist organization in Toronto and was fully involved in the global justice movement. Neo-colonization and neo-liberalism were the buzzwords for me at the time and the idea that The Revolution was just around the corner captivated me.

I began to look into Israeli history and many of my new comrades, themselves Jews opposed to Zionism, would engage in discussions about Zionism and its links to colonization and imperialism. By looking into the process of the Zionist conquest of Palestine and the establishment of militias that would violently defend these conquests, I saw similarities between the creation of Israel and other colonial states. I began to see the similarities in the myths I held about Israeli peace and justice, and the myths that other settler colonies would create about themselves in order to justify their attacks on indigenous populations.

I also began to see the continuing Israeli aggression toward Palestinians and their surrounding neighbours, especially Lebanon, not as isolated incidents of response but as the continuation of a historical process that began with Zionist colonization in the 1890s.

Zionism began to disgust me. I was furious that a Jewish movement could completely neglect the obvious historical lessons of our displacement in Europe, and our experience of internal colonization at the hands of empires to maintain their own power. I was enraged that a Jewish movement could take the tools of our oppression and apply them to another people, in collaboration with European empires.

The misuse of history to make Israel, the obvious colonial power and occupier, seem like a victim of the same oppression we faced in Europe, invoked memories of how elites of European states would present themselves as victims of the Jews to maintain their own power

In response to this realization about Zionist history, I started rejecting my Jewish identity, instead self-identifying as a secular radical. I was further alienated by the constant fusion of Jewish identity with Zionism and the manipulation of Jewish historical experience to justify oppressing Palestinian and Arab people. The misuse of history to make Israel, the obvious colonial power and occupier, seem like a victim of the same oppression we faced in Europe, invoked memories of how elites of European states would present themselves as victims of the Jews to maintain their own power.

My Jewish last name and identity became a weapon I used against the Zionist justification of Israeli legitimacy and the actions of the state of Israel. If Zionists could spin Jewish history, I could use my socially assumed Jewish identity to strike back.

I became an active anti-Zionist and Palestinian solidarity activist, going to weekly demonstrations in front of the Israeli consulate and arguing in my high school classes about the daily violent Israeli repression of Palestinian demands for self-determination.

As the Israeli repression of the Second Intifada intensified, with the Army routinely using live ammunition against Palestinian youths throwing stones, I got involved with a Toronto group called Jewish Youth Against the Occupation. I was determined to stop Zionism from speaking in the name of Jewish liberation, and the only form of Jewish identity I could associate with was one in opposition to Zionism.

I was repeatedly called a self-hating Jew, while being scolded as a traitor to my people and history

The reaction I faced from my family and community was harsh and vitriolic at times. I recall being compared by family members to the Jewish police force in the Warsaw Ghetto that forced Jews onto the trains to Auschwitz. I was repeatedly called a self-hating Jew, while being scolded as a traitor to my people and history. As terrible as this was, it had the opposite effect than the intended one. Instead of keeping me in line, it showed me just how stifling ethno-nationalist identity is and how colonial ethno-nationalism maintains its support by commanding family and community loyalties to the state.

Reclaiming Jewish identity

My rediscovery of a vivid feeling of Jewish identity didn’t come from theoretical exploration as much as it did from an encounter with violently aggressive anti-Semitism. In my last year of high school I was still with a small Marxist organization that focused on local community outreach through petition drives and the sale of our bombastic and poorly written newspaper on street corners. The approach seemed to come directly out of an organizing manual from 1917 Russia that could have been authored by Vlad himself.

Being 2001, we were resisting the racist back-lash against Muslim Arabs and generally non-white people in the post 9/11 environment. At the same time, a group of neo-Nazis had begun organizing in the community.

We decided to tie the two together by highlight the climate of racism sweeping across Canada and the U.S. to make the group know they were unwelcome in the community. As we heard more reports of their tactics of beating up homeless and non-white people for intimidation purposes, we stepped up our campaign to organize a broad community coalition to resist their presence.

One Saturday morning when we were having our weekly paper sale, several neo-Nazis kids in their late teens and early twenties attacked us. One guy with a swastika on his leather jacket, shouted: “how can you support these terrorists living in our community, you’re destroying our country.” After a short scuffle they ran off as police sirens could be heard in the distance. When the cops showed up they were unconcerned about the recent attack and chose to yell at us for using a megaphone and taking up part of the sidewalk.

It was at this point that I became acutely aware of my Jewish identity and the neo-Nazi’s recognition of me as a Jew (I don’t look very goy). I realized that, as a Jew, I was a target of white supremacy. In light of the police’s coercion against our resistance to racism, I saw that the state was no defence to racism (anti-Semitism included).

I began to revisit Jewish history and radical Jewish thought as well, reading anti-colonial theorists like Frantz Fanon. At this time I was moving away from Marxism and into anarchist thought, growing increasingly critical of the state as an institution. I found inspiration in Jewish anarchists like Emma Goldman, as well as movements for Jewish liberation against imperialism, especially in the Tsarist context.

Kicking it with the Bund

When I arrived at McGill, I became enthralled with the Bund, a radical socialist Jewish movement that, instead of arguing for Zionism, urged Jews to fight for self-determination where they lived and struggle against imperialism. The Bund was one of the main resistance forces to the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto uprising and had actively fought Tsarist imperialism. From the anarchists I learned that the state as an institution was based on coercion and violence, and relied heavily on the use of anti-Semitism in Europe to maintain its legitimacy.

I could not see any possibility for liberation in Zionism as it relied on the full use of the same institutions and ideologies of our past oppression to give us our freedom

This strengthened my commitment to anti-Zionism and allowed me to do it from a Jewish perspective. I could not see any possibility for liberation in Zionism as it relied on the full use of the same institutions and ideologies of our past oppression to give us our freedom. Learning of Israel’s strong connection to apartheid in South Africa only made this more repugnant. I was further disgusted by the alliance between the evangelical Christian right in America, the backbone of white supremacy in the South, and leading Zionist organizations.

As I wondered how it was that a so-called Jewish liberation movement could express liberation through the tools of our oppressors and make allies out of them, Fanon became very important to me. In reading his book Black Skin, White Masks and his essay “Algeria Unveiled,” I was captivated by his discussion about how the colonizer forces an identity on the colonized and attempts to set the terms and context in which resistance happens. Fanon argues that the colonized internalizes that identity and plays the colonizer’s game. He says that liberation cannot be found in this type of struggle.

I immediately saw the connection between the Jewish experience of oppression and domination and Zionist theory. Opting out of oppression through the use of colonization, thus aiding European imperialism, Zionist Jews were able to assume a colonizer’s identity and experience increased privilege. By allying themselves with imperialism and engaging in the colonial conquest of land, the Zionists played on the colonizer’s terms by advocating that Jews leave Europe for colonial conquest elsewhere.

My Jewish identity comes from understanding that this is not the path to our liberation and that the tools of anti-Semitism are wrapped up in the tools that we are using to “liberate” ourselves. My Jewish identity comes from recognizing my people’s historic oppression and their natural affinity with those who now face similar exploitation and denigration. My Jewish identity comes from an understanding that freedom is not an ethno-nationalist state in my name but a destruction of the forces that are responsible for our historic oppression and the continued oppression of people around the world.

What our history, the radical Jewish theorists, and Fanon showed me was that we cannot find liberation in the allies of our oppressors. We must embrace our history in the context of global history and not forget its lessons. To be Jewish is to embrace our culture, embrace our history, and resist.

Jesse Rosenfeld is the Quebec Bureau Chief for the Canadian University Press and a News editor at the McGill Daily, where this article was originally published. Rosenfeld is based in Montreal where he is in his final year of a joint degree in International Development Studies and Women’s Studies.