New book explores Jewish opposition to Israel’s occupation

Jewish Identity & Palestinian Rights book cover

David Landy’s illuminating new book, Jewish Identity & Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel, examines how diaspora Jews can articulate solidarity with Palestinian liberation and opposition to Israeli policies as Jews, and how their efforts interact with the broader Palestine solidarity movement and Palestinians.

Admittedly, my first thought when asked to review the book was, “Oh great, more navel-gazing about how Palestinian liberation is a Jewish issue.” After reading the text, my preconceptions were unfounded, but the skepticism is well-warranted.

My own experience as a lecturer and tour guide almost inevitably includes questions along the lines of “How does this affect you as a Jew?” or, “What does this mean for the Jewish community?” This not only displaces Palestine and Palestinians to the periphery of the discussion, it also reaffirms the power of white supremacy and Zionism by giving primacy not to analysis and critique, but to my white and Jewish voice.

This is one of Landy’s key concerns. To what degree is diaspora Jewish opposition to Israel complicit in silencing Palestinian voices, even while fiercely opposing Israeli actions?

Critical eye towards a movement

Landy begins the investigation with one such case, the 2010 Jewish Boat to Gaza. He writes that “it encapsulates so much about this movement” (2) in how it organizes media-friendly activities, promotes an alternative diaspora Jewishness and embraces universal concepts of justice. Moreover, it “also demonstrates the concerns with Jewish identity. This was a Jewish boat first and foremost, one which did not sail with the international flotilla bound for Gaza” (2).

It is thus separate from the general Palestine solidarity movement, even as it acts in concert with and often as part of it. It mirrors significant parts of Palestine solidarity efforts in another, more troubling way. It “can be seen as an example of outsiders doing things for Palestinians, bringing them aid, inscribing them as victims. As a story, it pushes Palestinians to the margins and centers on the struggle for Jewish identity” (3). He adds, “The structural inequalities which motivated these activists in the first place — the inequalities which privilege Jewish voices and Jewish identity over Palestinians rights — work their way through these groups” (3).

It is this critical eye towards a movement Landy both studies and is a part of that makes his work so valuable. He describes the evolution, current state and possible trajectory of a movement “to challenge Zionist hegemony among fellow Jews and to challenge Israel, speaking as Jews” (5). The movement in question can be loosely described as those both secular and to the left of groups that “declare opposition to the occupation and practice opposition to opponents of the occupation” (16).

Diaspora Jewish opposition to Israel, Landy writes, operates “in two fields, the specific Jewish field and the wider political field. It is this dual process of field contention that demarcates them as a discrete movement separate both from the Palestine [distant issue movement] and from purely identitarian Jewish groups” (5). He examines the movement through interviews with organizers and participants, archives of position statements, email and list-serve exchanges, blog posts, flyers and literature critical of the movement. He positions the movement inside fields of identity politics and “distant issue movements” while looking at how Jewish groups interact with non-Jewish Palestine solidarity groups.

Trapped in reactive mode

Landy’s descriptions of social movements and identity construction are useful in their own right, especially for critically engaging our activism. He writes that movements are “actor[s] guided by a plan or call to historicity — the conscious production of society by social actors” (21).

Too often, we activists trap ourselves in cycles of event-react-event-react; whereby we become historical “reactors,” simply holding governments and politicians accountable for actions they instigate instead of actors ourselves producing a better history. This can certainly enable rapid mobilization in response — keeping with the Palestinian example — to Israeli airstrikes and invasions, but it does little to posit an alternative vision.

The book’s highlights, though, are the chapters examining Jewish activists’ universalism, the terrain of Palestine solidarity activism, and what Landy calls “rooted cosmopolitanism.”

He critically engages “how participants ‘deploy’ and ‘use’ human rights language.” He writes, “It is important to recognize the darker side of how human rights and cosmopolitan vantage points affect activists’ perception of Israel/Palestine. There is a danger that the decontextualizing qualities in these discourses, which allow participants to relax their focus on Zionist narratives, also produce a corresponding blindness to Palestinian ones. […] This allows human rights to be used as a way of undercutting the political aims of oppressed peoples and their struggles” (138).

Thus the same “language of human rights, justice, anti-nationalism and peace” that is “often deployed to transcend tribalist Zionist discourse among Jews” (135) can be, for Palestinians, “futile demands by outsiders that their illegal occupier [act] legally” (138). This, of course, is not limited to Jewish groups — it is endemic in the Palestine solidarity movement (and is also deployed by some Palestinians, to a similar effect even). For example, amid all the celebration of the report by Richard Goldstone and other UN investigators examining Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, few activists complained that ending the occupation and apartheid were not among the report’s recommendations. 

Less problematically, Landy finds “a pleasant irony that Jewish Israel-critical groups might be performing an analogous service that Zionist groups formerly did by offering Jews a way of being Jewish, understanding Jewishness and being with other Jews” (142). Anti-Zionist (or Israel-critical) organizing, then, plays a crucial role in establishing a new secular Jewish identity, a field dominated by Zionism in Western nations for decades. This conclusion slightly complicates Landy’s statement that complicity between opposed political actors “can be summed up by the idea that a fight presupposes agreement about what is worth fighting about” (32).

Jewish groups and the boycott movement

Landy looks at the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) efforts and how Jewish groups have taken them up. “It is significant,” he writes, “that organizations, both Jewish and other, feel able to dismiss the Palestinian call for a full boycott” (155). Very often we associate selective boycotts (or opposition to boycott) with a specific political analysis of Israel and the Palestinians. Selective boycotts are often associated with more liberal groups and full boycott with more radical groups. Landy’s research questions this assumption.

He writes, “Initially I hypothesised that those who rejected boycott would express greater affinity to Israel than those who didn’t. […] In this, I was wrong. True, some who rejected boycott said they felt more at home in Israel than in Britain, or felt the romance of working in a kibbutz. Yet there were similar sentiments expressed by those who supported boycott. In addition almost all of those who rejected boycott didn’t use affinity with Israel to disagree with the boycott” (161). Instead Landy finds that decision to adopt BDS and to what degree to be based upon a strategic analysis of the fields in which individual groups operate.

Can the Palestinian speak?

The literary theorist Gayatri Spivak’s asked “Can the subaltern speak?” This is a question relevant to why some Jewish groups active in the Palestine solidarity movement have rejected calls for a full boycott of Israel.

Landy notes “that nobody [he] interviewed who rejected boycott appeared concerned with Palestinian political subjectivity” (171). The strategic analysis “that local actors deploy to contend the local terrain of activism and the need to grant themselves political subjectivity both create tension with Palestinian political subjectivity” (180). The result is that while few “would disagree […] that Palestinians have an active role to play in bringing about a solution in Israel/Palestine; the problem is that Palestinians have little role in their activism” (183).

Where then, inside Jewish opposition to Israel (and in the Palestine solidarity movement more broadly) is the Palestinian voice? The fractured Palestinian political leadership has a role to play in this as there is no unified voice behind whom to organize solidarity. Even groups that practice uncritical solidarity have to pick which Palestinian organization or faction to support — Landy writes, “There is, as I heard time and time again, no Palestinian ANC” (183).

Thus Palestinian political subjectivity — a Palestinian voice on Palestinian liberation — can be difficult for solidarity groups. But while there is no ANC, there is a BNC, the Boycott National Committee call for BDS. The BNC call provides a coherent, unified (arguably as representative as the ANC was in South Africa) Palestinian voice. Rejecting this call points towards “the inequalities which privilege Jewish voices and Jewish identity over Palestinians rights” (3).

Landy notes this problem derives not from “specific identitarian concerns” among Jewish groups, but is “common to all distant issue movements” (186). Whether the “issue” is Sudan, Chiapas in Mexico, Afghan women’s rights, or Palestine, Global North activists have difficulty with Global South political subjectivity and most problematically, we often do not know that we have this problem. Landy’s movement critique thus has tremendous comparative value and insight for feminism and anti-racism in all distant issue movements.

Zionism and the negation of Diaspora

Throughout the book, Landy refers to Zionism’s “negation of Diaspora.” This misconceptualizes Zionism. Landy refers to it as a “semantic issue” (220) and addresses it briefly in a footnote. The difference between shlilat ha-golah (negation of Diaspora) and shlilat ha-galut (negation of exile) is significant.

As Gabriel Piterberg writes in his The Returns of Zionism (2008), “Golah means Diaspora, the actual circumstance in which Jews happen to reside outside of the land of Israel. Galut signifies something that is meaningful both literally and figuratively, as an existential state of being, as consciousness. What Zionism negates is, fundamentally, galut, not golah.” The golah Zionism attempts to negate is the Israeli diaspora, as seen in the ongoing campaign to lure Israeli expatriates back (“The demographic threat: Israel’s politics of reproduction,” JNews blog, 17 December 2011).

A second dilemma is Landy’s general adherence to the borders of Global North and South. While Landy works to keep Palestine and Palestinians in the picture, the diaspora Mizrachi (reductively, Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries) voice is conspicuously absent, as are voices from Argentina, Brazil and South Africa. There are organized Jewish communities in Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Syria, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere whose governments already — to one degree or another — already take political positions that European and North American groups dream of their governments taking (plus Iran whose criticism is at times different in kind). Do these communities play a role in their governments’ criticism (or lack thereof) of Palestinian dispossession? Do their governments’ positions prevent the need for organizing a critical group inside their communities?

This is significant for European and North American groups. To what degree do the groups in this distant issue movement attempt to apply “distant” pressure, that is to say, pressure on the Israeli government itself versus “local pressure” on their own governments and communities?

Landy examines groups’ positioning vis-a-vis the local Jewish community, the Palestine solidarity movement, Israel and Palestinians, but by and large not vis-a-vis their own governments. This surely plays a role in Jewish engagement in local fields of contention. While the obvious answer to “Why are these communities absent from the book?” is, “there are no significant opposition groups in these nations.” The question “Why are there no significant opposition groups?” is unaddressed and has implications for Landy’s thesis.

Landy excluded the Jewish orthodox anti-Zionist groups Neturei Karta and Satmar from his study “mainly due to the limited, often non-existent contacts between such anti-secular groups and the worldly social movement [he is] studying” (16). Given various Satmar sects’ long-standing support for the Palestine Liberation Organization and Neturei Karta’s active presence in events and protests organized by Muslim, especially Shiite, groups, this may indicate a problem in defining this “worldly social movement.”

There are other criticisms to make, especially the general lack of the international context in which this takes place, but Jewish Identity & Palestinian Rights is an impressive work and is highly recommended. While Landy reminds us that “effort spent on discussing Jewishness is effort not spent trying to affect the situation in Israel/Palestine” (25), he provides fresh thinking on how both activists and academics should look at movement building and the construction of identity in social change. He does so while challenging activists to address the systemic power dynamics in distant issue movements. In this, his goal of creating “movement-relevant research” (15) is a great success.

Jimmy Johnson is the founder of Neged Neshek, a website focused on Israel’s weapons industry, and can be reached at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.




Why is a book called Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights reviewed here?
Why would someone who comes to ei to keep informed about the struggle for Palestinian rights want to see it listed second to Jewish identity?
Why would one want to read about the whitewashing of zionism by what Gilad Atzmon accurately calls the " 'anti-zionist' zionists" and the never-ending Jewish self-absorption?
And if ei publishes it, why without a critical review of this book review?
I increasingly find Gilad Atzmon more trustworthy than any other site.
Sorry, ei!


I can't tell you how incredibly pleased I am that you don't find both my review and Gilad Atzmon's bigoted ramblings persuasive!