When Jews agonize about their identity and Israel, is that an elitist tea party?

US Politics
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Last night we had a blowout discussion of Gaza at the Brecht Forum in New York. At the end of the night Mahmoud Bitar, a Palestinian-American, rose and in a passionate tone said "what I'm experiencing now is excitement, I actually feel optimism today," and that the meeting was historic. I don’t know that I would go that far but it was certainly a packed house, over 250 people, and an unusual combination of leftwingers, progressives, Jews and Arabs. Gaza has lit a fuse and the politics are exploding before us.

But I want to do this post about the Jewish identity piece of the evening.

Before the meeting I met my Gaza roommate Sammer Aboelela, an Egyptian-American, in a park on 8th Avenue and we talked about what we were going to say. We continued an argument we’d had in Gaza, how important the Jewish identity part of the issue is. Sammer said that to him it was a sideshow. The heart of the issue is that Americans are signing off on grotesque aggression against the Palestinians and this is all that matters politically. People have to get engaged as Americans. I said I disagreed because Sammer is underestimating Jewish power in this society, from contributions to congress to the media. Jews care about the issue and they have to be taken on. Fine, he said you can do that, but it’s not the heart of the problem. And Jews are just a tiny part of the population involved. They’re paying for this in Louisiana and no one there worries about Jewish identity.

I wasn't planning to say anything about Jewish identity in my little talk, and I didn't. I talked about five Palestinians I had met and how they showed me that Palestinians are “civilized to the core,” as John Ging put it. Here’s my lineup. If I accomplished one thing, it was that the last portrait I used was of Jalal Sagr, an 82-year-old father who is afraid he is going to die without seeing his imprisoned son, and so the picture of this incredibly dignified but half-broken spirit stayed on the wall throughout the conversation, for the next hour and a half.
Jalal

Medea Benjamin spoke after me and she got into the Jewish identity piece. Benjamin is a great speaker. She always knows who she’s talking to, and she knows how to rally them. She said that she had avoided the Israel Palestine issue for years for two reasons. One was that she was told that it was a hornet’s nest organizationally and she would get eaten alive. The second reason was “I come from a Jewish family where it was the one issue we didn’t talk about.” She also said that it was remarkable to her “how welcoming you are to people who are coming way too late to the issue.” After that she asked people to raise their hands who had been on it for two decades. There were a bunch of people, including Michael Smith, Helen Schiff, Rick Congress, and Abdeen Jabara. We applauded those people.

I’m digressing a little but it was an important moment because there has been a lot of murmuring about Where Was Code Pink before Gaza. I think I did some myself (I forget!), but Benjamin swept the ground out from under us with incredible grace.

And because “I am a newcomer,” she said, she recognizes that Now is really the time to take this issue to another level, with a major action in Gaza over the New Year's, this is the “moment to up the ante.” To show that this is a force that is stronger than AIPAC.

Now maybe the identity issue would have laid there but it didn’t. In the Q-and-A, Jabara, a long time activist on the issue, asked me to address the Jewish piece. He said that he recognized that the issue would not get anywhere without Jews changing, and he asked me, What do I think of that? I talked about my running argument with Sammer about whether it was a sideshow. To me it wasn’t a sideshow. I thought it was a vital part because of Jewish influence in politics and liberal movements. But non-Zionist Jews couldn’t do this on their own. If we did, we would be defeated. We needed to make alliances in other communities, that was where we could find power, and then I gave the mike to Sammer. He said what he’d said ahead of time, it was an American issue and Americans had to be mobilized on it regardless of ethnic politics.

Well, Jabara’s question reopened the Jewish identity door, and a number of other people talkd about it. Naomi Allen of Brooklyn for Peace said they specifically try to work with the Jewish community to show the liberal Jews that they are not being represented by AIPAC. A friend handed me a note saying, "The psychosis of Israel is its insistence on its right to an internal debate." Brilliant point.

Then a stooped older guy with a walker or a cane, I forget, cranked up to the mike, and next to me Norman Finkelstein said, “That’s Morton Sobell. He’s over 90.”

Sobell went after the issue hammer and tongs with words I won’t soon forget.

“Throughout history we’ve all been fighting against anti-Semitism. Now all of a sudden we reverse the call, asking people to fight against Semitism. This is a tremendous problem. How do you cope with it? That the Jews, who have been persecuted all their history, have become the persecutor.” This had to be addressed, he said.

The person I thought was most affected by the Jewish identity piece, though, was Norman Finkelstein. He took the microphone and after trying to excuse the fact that he was talking about a Jewish-centric issue, saying dismissively, This is just a New York conversation, he did the New York conversation. He said that young Jews were changing around the issue because Jews are liberal and educated, and no one can avoid getting educated on Israel's "dirty laundry" on college campuses, to the point where being for Israel on a campus, “That’s really dangerous, that’s really taking your life in your hands.”

Talking about Jews, Finkelstein spoke with more anguish and passion than he had all night. How can you possibly be liberal and read the Human Rights Watch report saying that Israel had dropped white phosphorus on a hospital? He itemized Israeli abuses and the Jewish view of them.

“Anti-Zionism is not my cup of tea, I have a bigger vision. It’s become a satanic state….”

He spoke in an incantatory manner about visiting Lebanon and Gaza.

“Devastation devastation devastation devastation.” And later, “Rubble rubble rubble rubble rubble rubble rubble– wherever you turn.” Finkelstein as Dylan.

“How can anyone who’s liberal and Jewish support that.”

Finkelstein closed by saying that we could win the issue because we have the truth and the facts and post-Gaza, enlightened opinion (and by implication Medea Benjamin). “With those weapons and just a tiny little bit of backbone, we can win.”

The place exploded in applause and I leaned over to Sammer in I-told-you-so fashion and said, “Well the Jewish identity piece certainly got Finkelstein going.”

Afterward a couple of people came up to me and said that you could never do anything on the issue without winning the Jews, then I walked up Eighth Avenue with Sammer and Max Blumenthal arguing the point a little longer.

I tried a number of tacks with Sammer. Sammer is a strong, controlled person (he grew up Arab and Muslim in America) and I harangued him a little. He said he believed his view that the Jewish piece was a sideshow 90 percent and the 10 percent in him that doubts that is why he was listening.

I said his doorway into the issue was an identity piece: he’s an Arab-American and when he insists that it’s a moral American issue, I don’t see where you go politically on that. You have to go with the people who care. I said there was a brief moment when the Cuba lobby got flipped by Steve Largent the Republican Oklahoma congressman who said that Elian Gonzalez had a right to go back to his father, and Clinton said so too, but that was just a moment. Sammer said that the South African argument wasn’t won because Americans of South African heritage got involved. No, I said; but blacks got involved, they had an identity reason to get involved; and the money, 3 billion and even white phosphorus weren’t going to be enough for the people in Louisiana.

I said that Sammer was underestimating the Jewish power effect in politics and he said that just wasn’t where he was going to plant his charge.

He went into the subway at 40th Street and at the steps there I told him that Adam Horowitz agrees with him: that when Jews stand around at these events and wring their hands about their parents or their history or the Torah, in the end he says, Well go ahead and have that conversation, but the bigger issue is the human rights of Palestinians.

I walked on to my train station past Golda Meir Square. I recalled that Michael Smith had risen at the event to say he had gotten involved in the issue decades ago as a 26-year-old lawyer who though he came from Golda Meir’s town, Milwaukee, had visited Israel and knew that religious nationalism was the wrong path. I thought of Norman Finkelstein coming incredibly alive at the event, and I realized that Jewish stuff has always engaged him. His work began in some ways as a long argument with Michael Walzer and love affair with Noam Chomsky, and later in life it became a long argument with Alan Dershowitz. Morton Sobell was a Communist because of his Jewish identity.

It struck me that Sammer was suggesting a self-indulgent aspect to the Jewish identity piece, and he was right but I didn't know if I was going to change. I feel engaged by Jewish history, by Jewish learning, and by intellectual and political battles in the United States. As a friend who was in the room—another Jewish friend who must go nameless lest his own family learn of his engagement and flay him—the number of people killed in Israel/Palestine during the second intifada is just “a bad day in the Congo,” which is to say that human rights is not the alpha and omega of our engagement, we are engaged by the crucible of three big religions, and in the latest working out of the issue of the Jewish Problem in western society. The last resolution of that problem, which perplexed Bismarck, Herzl, Einstein, Wilson, and so on, a number of good political minds, has not worked out that well– Israel– and we are engaged by another Jewish tradition, Arendtian non-Zionism, to try and figure out a better answer.

Medea Benjamin also has a Jewish reason to be engaged, but that's not the energy for her; she's been working at Third World issues forever. Maybe Sammer is the same way, we'll see. He has a view of democratic politics in which the people are engaged on a moral question. I don’t see it. I think elites matter. And, yes, fighting about Israel, its raison d’etre, legitimacy, and the future of the Jews– is elite tea-drinking.

I wrote that last night and this morning I'm already feeling different. Yes you can say that Sobell, Finkelstein and I are all engaged because we think that Jews matter. But at least, at last: there is a true effort to engage Jews with our non-elitist shadow.

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