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

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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.”

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