Alterman describes a future for Israelis as free citizens of a normal democratic country ‘dystopian.’ And why?

Israel/Palestine
on 44 Comments

Eric Alterman has an important piece at the Forward stating the liberal Zionist opposition to any talk of a one-state/binational democracy in Israel/Palestine and, from an American platform, reminding Palestinians who live over there that they must accept their historic dispossession. Jack Ross, author of a new book on anti-Zionism, responds:

I can not help but begin – so let me just get it out of the way now – with a cheap shot at Eric Alterman for his worshipfulness of I.F. Stone, who in 1948 rushed desperately to make it on time to board the ill-fated Irgun-bound ship Altalena to the point of begging at the dock to be allowed on to no avail.  This must color the discussion considerably.  The revelation (in this post) that Alterman went to Israel on a Zionist Organization of America-sponsored trip as a youth tips his hand: he yearns for the restoration of that shining moment when Henry Wallace and the American Labor Party were shouting “it is part of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan to sacrifice Jewish blood for Arab oil.”

(In this connection, it had to be one of the most bizarre moments at the 2009 J Street conference when a Nation editor approvingly quoted rabid neocon Ron Radosh saying that The Nation played such a vital role in the establishment of the State of Israel, particularly through its former editor Freda Kirchwey, arch-apologist for the Stalin show trials ten years earlier.)

With this political pedigree, therefore, it is nothing short of sickening to see Alterman denounce as “naive” or “utopian” the program of the Ihud, to say nothing of Tony Judt, God rest his soul.  On the other hand, I give Alterman credit for recognizing something surprisingly few others have: that UN recognition of a Palestinian state is the best hope out there, however final and desperate, for saving the two-state solution.  Yet his arrogant insistence that this must still somehow be satisfactorily brought about on Israel’s terms seems to indicate that the J Streeters, no less than the neocons, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Most disturbing of all, Alterman describes a future for Israelis as free citizens of a normal democratic country as “dystopian”. And why? Let me here give a plug to my book and quote the answer to the “dual loyalty” question given more than fifty years ago by Elmer Berger and the American Council for Judaism (ACJ). “It is not we who reject Jewish nationalism who raise the specter of dual loyalty, it is the Zionists, in their insistence that we are a part of their mythical ‘Jewish nation.'”

A further point is in order.  The very first commenter on my post of my “stump speech” raised the point that the ACJ was primarily concerned not with the Palestinians but with their own Jewish identity, whereas so much of progressive Jewish identity today is bound up in the Palestinian cause.  This is an important paradox that cannot go unaddressed. 

It has been amazing to me to bear witness to how many of the activists around groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and Young, Jewish,and Proud came to the Palestinian issue through a personal rediscovery of Judaism, and how this has served as an example to other young Jews coming into the movement.  This has not gone unnoticed by the usual suspects, for instance, this Commentary essay which asked “Are Young Rabbis Turning Against Israel?”   (It has also not gone unnoticed by those who disapprove on the left.) The Commentary essay, which descends at times into self-parody, laments that so much of the rising generation of Jewish religious leadership came to Judaism through a personal religious awakening and not a commitment to “peoplehood”.  It was only when I read the essay that I realized this is something very significant they have in common with Elmer Berger, who set out on the path to rabbinic ordination out of a personal sense of calling from a marginal Jewish family, whereas most of his contemporaries at Hebrew Union College came from Orthodox families and tended to see the Reform rabbinate as a means of upward social mobility. 

I can also attest from personal experience that this primacy of personal awakening also applies to those of my generation who have found their way to Orthodoxy, and though they will more often be merely ambivalent about Zionism, this too is no accident.

In seeking to reconcile these grounds for admiration for “the movement” with the support for panaceas like BDS which I still find problematic (though it must be said is also the source of tremendous and admirable courage on display in the recent flotilla drama), my conclusion is that the best way to understand the Jewish anti-Zionist movement of my generation is as a militant religious awakening akin to abolitionism, with both the good and bad implications of this analogy.

And to those who will cry foul about my beginning with a negative reference to I.F. Stone and ignoring his later turn against Zionism, in my recent research for a complete history of the Socialist Party of America I came across the unpublished memoirs of a core party activist of the 30s and 40s named Judah Drob.  In this manuscript was reproduced the entirety of a letter he wrote to his aunt, after she sent him an article of Stone’s about the Palestinians. After assuring he would have been better pleased with it had I.F. Stone not been for so many years a Soviet apologist, Drob went on to give his lament for how Zionism had corrupted the Jewish soul, whereas it once meant something special to be Jewish, and that he feared to share these feelings with any but close family.

My heart stood still as I read it.  While it goes without saying that there is no comparison in the human toll, we who are young, Jewish, and proud must cast off the oppressive yoke of Zionism no less than any of its other victims.  The cause of peace and justice in Palestine is thereby, for better or worse, inextricably bound up with the cause of an American Jewish spiritual renewal. 

(Writings of Judah Drob Unpublished Manuscript.  Morris Weisz Papers, Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University , Detroit, MI). Letter to Aunt Dorothy Schaeffer [1970s]

I’d take I.F. Stone more seriously if he hadn’t been for so long a Soviet apologist.  Thus whatever he says is an embarrassment to people who don’t like the Israeli and Zionist attitude toward, and treatment of, Arabs, since he is suspected of saying what he does for Soviet, not humanitarian, democratic, or Jewish concerns.

…I haven’t been a Zionist, but I am naturally concerned with the survival of Jews.  The establishment of the State of Israel has accomplished none of the things claimed for it: instead of being more secure than in the past, Jews who live in Israel are in the gravest danger; instead of being widely respected because they are a State, Israelis are ostracized and hated in international circles; instead of being respected for contributions to arts and sciences, their most notable contribution is as effective soldiers; inept in peaceful pursuits, they seem perfectly adept at war.

Being a Jew used to mean something special, and we were proud not to be like the nations of the earth.  What the establishment of Israel has meant is that the most representative body of Jews is now exactly like all the nations of the earth, behaving in accordance with the reasons of state, me first and the devil take the hindmost.  I don’t know how to reconcile one’s own interests with those of others, but I don’t think it is very politic or safe not to take the other fellow into account.

For a hundred years or so, Jews were seen as sympathetic creatures, victims who deserved help and consideration.  Israel has managed to reverse that, to make Jews seem to be selfish and oppressive, doing to others what had once been done to them, but still demanding the world’s support and sympathy.  It doesn’t impress me, but rather depresses me, to hear arguments about how more Pakistanis and Indians have been displaced than Arabs.  That can’t possibly make it right.

Jews remembered for almost 2000 years the land they came from and their hope that they would be able to return.  What makes us think that Arabs have shorter memories?  There were never very many Jews, so they were never much of a menace to anybody, but there are enough Arabs in the world to be a constant threat and danger to Israel.  Even if more moderate leaders make some kind of peace with Israel (an apparently unlikely eventuality while the present major parties control Israeli policy) it can be expected that there will always be irreconcilables among the Arabs, who will be an ever-present threat and at least a horrible terrorist menace.

Once in Israel there was a movement, led by Buber and Magnes, that advocated a binational State.  The Ichud party got little support then, and it is much too late now to adopt its policy.  Since that solution is interdicted, I don’t know what a solution could be now.  I don’t feel comfortable telling any body of people that in order to maintain my right to self-determination I deny you yours.

A long tirade.  All this is something too sensitive to say to anybody but a beloved aunt.  Please send this back to me, since I didn’t make a copy, and would like to have it around in case I get up the courage some time to say it out loud.

Update: An earlier version of this post said that I.F. Stone was a member of the Communist Party in 1948. According to D.D. Guttenplan’s biography of Stone, American Radical, Stone “never joined the Communist Party, even though his position on a number of issues was so close to the party line as to be indistinguishable.”

44 Responses

  1. Chespirito
    July 10, 2011, 12:57 pm

    TERRIFIC post, many thanks. Look forward to reading your Berger bio.

  2. David Green
    July 10, 2011, 1:13 pm

    There’s more than one legitimate way to be a Jewish anti-Zionist. One is to question its effect on Jewish identity and practice. Another is to question its effect on being a leftist of Jewish background, and responsibilities that that might entail vis a vis the Palestinians, as part of a leftist anti-imperial agenda. I think we need to understand and accept where people are coming from. I don’t think we need to exclude anyone who cares about justice in general and the Palestinians in particular. Beyond that are practical issues about what ways to support the Palestinians will actually work.

    • annie
      July 10, 2011, 3:22 pm

      david, did you know there is a banned poster on dkos by the name of karmafish who came back as a faux palestinian supporter by the name of david green? probably just a coincidence. also, i’ve noticed over the years people from the US who reference the left as ‘leftist’ are generally rightwing. most lefties don’t self identify as ‘leftists’ just like most muslims do not self identify as islamists.

      Beyond that are practical issues about what ways to support the Palestinians will actually work.

      what practical ways of supporting palestinians do you believe will actually work? do you support bds?

      • David Green
        July 10, 2011, 4:56 pm

        Annie, I’m not interested in getting into all that right now, or indulging you. You need to chill out. But just FYI, here’s a letter from me that was published recently in my local newspaper:

        I grew up in a culture that encouraged Jews to see themselves as underdogs, and to support other oppressed groups—especially African Americans. Many Jews are rightfully proud of this heritage, but unfortunately it is just that, a thing of the past. Support of Jewish-American institutions for Israeli policies, including occupation and settlement, has undermined Jewish identification with the oppressed, which inevitably would have to include the Palestinians. Similarly unfashionable is a respect for scholarly integrity that leads to unflattering conclusions.
        This situation cannot be obscured by disingenuous claims of support for women and gays, whether in the Arab world or in Israel. I am bemused by the desperate propaganda of those regarding service by gays in the Israeli military, whose sexual preference makes them no less part of a criminal occupying army. The most courageous Israeli youth are those refusing to serve in the military and accepting harsh consequences; there are women and gays among them.
        I’ll leave aside the sexism and homophobia that are a part of Israeli society, religious and secular, because it’s no more appalling than the mindless conformity with which liberal American Jewish institutions promote support for the outrageous policies of all Israeli governments, and U.S. military funding for those policies.
        Jews who wish to identify with liberation movements have—I guess—difficult choices to make. They are not made any easier by institutional leaders who prefer political dictates and clichés over intellectually honest discussion. I’m no longer asking for a higher standard—just any standard whatsoever.

      • annie
        July 10, 2011, 5:46 pm

        no worries david, i didn’t expect for you to ‘get into all that’.

        what practical ways of supporting palestinians do you believe will actually work? do you have anything in mind? i’m reminded of something i just read .

        “It’s an ongoing struggle. We have our high points, and next week is definitely going to be a high point–a big march of many Palestinians and Israelis together…It is the choice of the Palestinian nonviolent struggle to go down this road, and we in solidarity with them are supporting their decision.

      • lobewyper
        July 10, 2011, 6:26 pm

        Great letter, David! Unfortunately, you wouldn’t have gotten it published in the Chicago papers, I can tell you that much.

      • David Green
        July 10, 2011, 6:56 pm

        “what practical ways of supporting palestinians do you believe will actually work?”

        First of all, ways that don’t foster sectarianism among their alleged supporters. Second, clarity about the reasons why the U.S. supports Israel. Third, education about lots of things, including the manner in which the canard of anti-Semitism is employed. Fourth, organized pressure and publicity tactics, including BDS; etc.

      • annie
        July 10, 2011, 7:13 pm

        sectarianism? do you think the movement is divided?

        clarity about the reasons why the U.S. supports Israel.

        i guess clarity about how the US supports palestine would be meaningless since we don’t.

      • Bumblebye
        July 10, 2011, 7:24 pm

        Annie

        Miko Peled has 3 very sharply pointed new video clips up!
        The most relevant one to this thread would be this one:

        link to mikopeled.wordpress.com

        High school geography books don’t even show the existence of Palestine. No wonder kids from the bubble world of “Israel” think what are these people doing here? This is all Israel!

        Don’t miss the other two – one of them goes into the timing of the Gaza onslaught. Right at the exact time one shift of schoolkids are going home, while the others are on their way to school, so the streets would have been full of children – which the Israelis knew FULLY.

      • annie
        July 10, 2011, 7:49 pm

        Right at the exact time one shift of schoolkids are going home, while the others are on their way to school, so the streets would have been full of children – which the Israelis knew FULLY.

        yes, i was aware of that. i’ll check out the videos, thanks bumble.

      • lobewyper
        July 10, 2011, 7:53 pm

        Annie wrote:

        “sectarianism? do you think the movement is divided?” Annie, the article linked below is a Must Read in response to your questions.

        link to lrb.co.uk

      • annie
        July 10, 2011, 7:53 pm

        is it just me or is the sound prohibitively low on this video?

      • Bumblebye
        July 10, 2011, 8:00 pm

        It’s hard to hear on all of them! I had to stick my ear up close on full volume! (Reminds me of Great Gran’s ear trumpet- she wouldn’t use a hearing aid – many many years ago) Well worth it tho. Miko’s background combined with his deep knowledge should make him far higher profile.

      • tree
        July 10, 2011, 8:29 pm

        No, its not just you. Its too bad because its so worth hearing.

      • MRW
        July 10, 2011, 9:01 pm

        If you have a Mac, get BOOM. Think you can download as a trial.
        link to globaldelight.com

      • MRW
        July 10, 2011, 9:14 pm

        Thanks, Bumblebye. Good videos.

      • Robert
        July 11, 2011, 3:00 am

        Sectarianism is always a problem with left-wing causes. I’ve been looking for a time to introduce the Monty Python’s Life of Brian video clip, “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?”. link to youtube.com

        The sketch is a take-off on left wing groups that perpetually squabble amongst themselves. Often acting as a “circular firing squad”.

        See this link to en.wikipedia.org . Section “Political Satire”.

      • CigarGod
        July 11, 2011, 9:16 am

        Works great with headphones.

        btw, thanks for the site link.
        Mike is a great find.

      • LeaNder
        July 10, 2011, 7:07 pm

        Annie,

        concerning: faux palestinian supporter by the name of david green?

        Two things.
        In a rather crazy surrounding on the web (yahoo list cia-drugs) in the post 911 universe the list owner a paranoid conspiracy theorist with the help of loyal list members tried to blow the cover of a list-member whom he suspected list-take-over, among other things. Strictly he had only challenged him quite effectively. They came up with something they called “research” about the person. The person used a real name, it was the Sean McBride, who occasionally comments here. I suggested a little amused at the time that probably the best web handle must be any frequent name. How many David Green’s do you think exist in the US? There were quite a few Sean McBride’s then.

        This David Green, it feels, is a dinosaur on Mondoweiss, if you understand what I mean, and surely not what the above seems to suggest.

  3. MHughes976
    July 10, 2011, 2:05 pm

    This is a very interesting reminder of the days when Zionism was an apparently progressive, almost THE apparently progressive post-war cause where the far left and the moderate left could cooperate comfortably. Even as one who thinks Zionism is a false philosophy I have to admire its ability to appeal across so many spectra, political and religious.
    A dystopia is something you contemplate with dread, a kind of religious dread perhaps. Alterman doesn’t really explain what he finds so dreadful – is it the very idea of a non-Jewish majority in Palestine ever in any circumstances? Or just of a non-Jewish majority which, in the actual circumstances, would be highly aggrieved? The ‘right to be a majority’ seems remarkably strange and indefensible.
    To give Alterman honour where it’s certainly due, he does go on to say the Likud crowd have no interest and never in the first place had any interest in ‘compromise’. What’s he going to do about this? Perhaps lead a rally among the Jewish intellectual class in support of Fayyad and the Declaration of Statehood. But surely that so few would rally that the whole idea is almost as doomed and insubstantial as Magnes Zionism – no substantial force would back him up in Israel itself or in the American political community, ready as it is to wield the thunderous veto. It’s not just Likud – why can’t he see that?

    • American
      July 10, 2011, 3:23 pm

      “Even as one who thinks Zionism is a false philosophy I have to admire its ability to appeal across so many spectra, political and religious.”

      Humm…..I don’t think I would admire a philosophy that appeals to the religiously fanatical, the illogical, corruptable and simple minded .
      I think I would instead bemoan the fact that that there are people whose mental deficiency and emotional problems make them susceptible to it.

      • MHughes976
        July 10, 2011, 5:59 pm

        I see what you mean!

      • CigarGod
        July 11, 2011, 9:20 am

        Wow, rough comment.
        I happen to agree, but I think it is better to view these folks from an anthropological perspective (instead of as zoo exhibits), since we all do live here together and there are commonalities we can have constructive________with.

  4. chet
    July 10, 2011, 2:38 pm

    “…to hear arguments about how more Pakistanis and Indians have been displaced than Arabs. That can’t possibly make it right.”

    It’s interesting to note that the hasbara diversionary tactic of “whataboutery” goes back to Israel’s beginnings.

    • MRW
      July 10, 2011, 9:16 pm

      That’s what I’m going to call it from now on because I can never remember propaganda nomenclature: whataboutery. Good name.

  5. annie
    July 10, 2011, 4:29 pm

    thank you very much jack ross. the end of drob’s letter was both terribly saddening while at the same time hopeful. i’m sure he would be very pleased to know there’s a generation speaking those words now, the ones he wanted to have to courage to speak out loud. thanks for uncovering such a significant letter.

  6. LeaNder
    July 10, 2011, 7:19 pm

    Jack, first congratulations, it seems my jokes about the planned “a complete history of the Socialist Party of America ” years ago where premature. I will never, ever make such a joke again, if you write about your plans. But at the time you seemed to have so many plans at the same time.

    But what is the date of this letter?

  7. mudder
    July 10, 2011, 10:15 pm

    When the Iraq war was debated in 2003, with Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan daily disparaging the patriotism of dissenters, Eric Alterman stood as the voice of reason. His was with first blog I read in the morning. It is now sad that he stands in opposition to a democratic, inclusive solution for Palestine that believes that diversity is an asset.

  8. Richard Witty
    July 10, 2011, 11:22 pm

    I was disappointed with this Ross article. His comments are usually more erudite, and far less partisan.

    He and Jerry Haber in the next article, seem to primarily have taken offense that Alterman described their heroes as naive or utopian or dystopian.

    The common theme of the a-Zionists, seems to be that Arabs will never accept Jews as a self-governing state, so better find something that they will accept.

    But, THAT is exactly the likud thesis, that the Arabs will never accept Jews as a self-governing state, so better that they fight.

    In contrast, the liberal Zionist perspective is that mutual acceptance is possible, and more humanely than currently.

    I find it very very disappointing to here Phil and others speak for the continued resentment basis of political organizing, rather than the rational.

    Instead of urging the acceptance of Israel at 67 borders (a DIFFERENT statement than the acceptance of Palestine at 67 borders), they encourage the militant view, the same old, the warring.

    • Citizen
      July 11, 2011, 7:16 am

      Witty, if Israel stops at 67 borders, what would you call the land beyond that green line, if not Palestine?

      • eljay
        July 11, 2011, 7:52 am

        From Alterman’s article:
        >> Now that this Palestinian willingness to compromise on so fundamental a goal has been made public … Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and millions of right-wing Zionists are demonstrating that they never really had any interest in compromise in the first place. It’s the land they want, pure and simple, democracy and human rights be dammed.

        Perhaps it’s time for those Zio-supremacists who want to fix the real “hole in the hull of the ship of peace” to stop blaming Hamas (Damn you, Hamas!!!) and, instead, to start focusing on:
        – halting Israel’s ON-GOING campaign of aggression, oppression, theft, colonization, destruction and murder; and
        – demanding that Israel enter into sincere negotiations for a just and mutually-beneficial peace.

      • Richard Witty
        July 11, 2011, 8:56 am

        BOTH need to happen Eljay.

        A conditional statement is not the same as giving in. An unconditional statement (“never”) is the same status as war though.

      • eljay
        July 11, 2011, 10:18 am

        >> BOTH need to happen Eljay.

        Yes, both need to happen. But what MUST happen first is that the aggressor MUST stop aggressing. The rapist and his victim may be able to reach a peace once the ON-GOING assault is halted, but not while the rapist continues to rape his victim.

      • Richard Witty
        July 11, 2011, 10:39 am

        Anyone that aggresses is an aggressor.

        Hamas is one of them. If you think that shelling civilians has any reference at all to proportionality, then you are lost.

        Civilians!!!!

        Hamas’ views and actions, imprint the same old.

        When a change in the relationship is needed.

      • eljay
        July 11, 2011, 1:01 pm

        >> Anyone that aggresses is an aggressor.

        Ah, yes, I forgot that the victim who slaps and punches the rapist is also an aggressor, and that as long as she keeps slapping and punching, the rapist can continue raping because “a change in the relationship is needed”.

        No surprise, coming from you.

      • Richard Witty
        July 11, 2011, 4:17 pm

        Shooting at civilians is disproportionate.

        Or, is that too oblique to you?

      • eljay
        July 11, 2011, 5:16 pm

        >> Shooting at civilians is disproportionate.

        An ON-GOING campaign of aggression, oppression, theft, colonization, destruction and murder is disproportionate, too. Is that too much for you to handle?

      • Richard Witty
        July 11, 2011, 8:30 pm

        But still no comment on the disproportion of rockets against civilians.

        No criticism of Hamas ever from you.

      • Richard Witty
        July 12, 2011, 9:37 am

        So, you think that there is some shelling of civilian targets that is justifiable, to your moral sensibilities, by Hamas?

        I don’t know if you’ve ever been held up at gunpoint. It is disproportionate.

        If you are in opposition to disproportion, then you have to comment on it where you see it, and not for partisan political purposes.

        I believe that states do have a right to disproportionate power over individuals, and over militias.

        The criticism of Israel prospectively targeting civilians is a relevant criticism. The criticism of Israel targeting Hamas militia is not a relevant one.

      • eljay
        July 12, 2011, 12:22 pm

        >> So, you think that there is some shelling of civilian targets that is justifiable, to your moral sensibilities, by Hamas?

        I think it is justifiable for the victim to slap and punch the rapist while he continues to rape her. You, on the other hand, believe that the victim must lie perfectly still until “enough rape” has been achieved. You are a truly hateful and immoral person.

      • annie
        July 12, 2011, 12:34 pm

        You, on the other hand, believe that the victim must lie perfectly still until “enough rape” has been achieved.

        here’s richard: ‘ if rape is inevitable relax and enjoy it.’

  9. RoHa
    July 11, 2011, 7:24 am

    “The common theme of the a-Zionists, seems to be that Arabs will never accept Jews as a self-governing state, so better find something that they will accept.
    But, THAT is exactly the likud thesis, that the Arabs will never accept Jews as a self-governing state, so better that they fight.”

    When the “self-governing state” is a state built on ethnic supremacy, it will not be accepted.

    And since it will never be accepted, Likud will have to fight forever. Can they do that?

    “the liberal Zionist perspective is that mutual acceptance is possible”

    If the liberal Zionist insists on anything other than equality for all citizens of his state, there will be no acceptance.

  10. clairseoir
    July 11, 2011, 10:38 am

    Alterman’s sleaziness was amusingly critiqued by Alexander Cockburn way back in 2002: link to counterpunch.org

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