When ‘J’ means ‘Jewish’ not ‘Justice’

Israel/Palestine
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This is a companion article to Sandra Tamari’s piece, “The meaning of solidarity in the Palestine movement.” These pieces are part of an ongoing conversation in activist spaces about “Jews identifying as Jews”. We published Elisha Baskin and Donna Nevel on this issue recently. –Ed.

When “J” means “Jewish” Rather than “Justice”: On Zionism, Jewish Exceptionalism, and Jewish Supremacy in U.S. Palestine Solidarity Organizing

Zionism contends that Jewish people have a special connection to the Zionist colonization of Palestine (i.e., Israel).  Unfortunately, this “special connection” is often reproduced in certain Jewish-identified Palestine solidarity work in the U.S.  This happens when the focus of movement work is directed toward the needs, motives, beliefs, or histories of Jewish people, rather than the needs and situation of Palestinians.  In these cases, I shall argue, movement work exchanges its focus on justice for a focus on Judaism, shortchanging Palestinians—and genuine solidarity with them—in the process.

Undoubtedly, Jewish-identified Palestine solidarity activism does important work to undermine this “special connection.”  Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), American Jews for a Just Peace (AJJP), and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) drive a wedge between Zionism and Judaism, demonstrating by their very existence that not all Jews are Zionists (nor are all Zionists Jews).  This is of enormous strategic value, particularly in the U.S. context, wherein the presumption that Zionism and Judaism are co-extensive has a stranglehold on politics and public discourse.  The importance of this work has been affirmed, for example, by the Boycott National Committee in Palestine, which has endorsed the JVP-initiated campaign demanding that TIAA-CREF divest from companies profiting from Israel’s occupation.  Omar Barghouti has named JVP “an important ally in the U.S.” that consistently resists “Jewish privilege.”

However, in the course of my time working in the Palestine solidarity movement in the U.S. (since 2006), I have seen Jewish-identified Palestine solidarity work often reproduce the notion that Jewish people have a “special connection” with the Zionist colonization of Palestine, thereby sidelining the needs and situation of Palestinians in order to focus on Jewish people, identity, or history.  This happens, in my experience, in three prominent ways:   

(1)    Jewish Values

All too often, in venues too numerous to mention, I have heard Jewish people cite the distinctiveness or importance of Jewish Values as their reasons for being involved in Palestine solidarity work.  Jewish Values refers to any number of things:  sometimes it references a specific Jewish ethical tradition or set of teachings, derived perhaps from Biblical or Talmudic sources.  Sometimes it is based on a more culturalist assertion about specifically Jewish commitments to social justice (e.g., tikkun olam).  And sometimes it is based on historical claims about the consistency or disproportionate participation of Jewish people in social justice movements generally (e.g., Civil Rights, labor, feminism, gay liberation, etc.).  Regardless of its content, however, it is all-too-common to hear Jewish-identified people lay claim to Jewish Values as the reason, motive, or purpose for their participation in Palestine solidarity work. 

In my view, this position mistakes personal reasons for joining this movement for the work of the movement itself, exchanging a focus on justice for a focus on Judaism.  Distracted by individual motives or personal beliefs, this activism becomes oriented toward the maintenance or upholding of Jewish Values rather than responding to the situation and needs of Palestinians (as evidenced by the enormous amount of work being done internally within Jewish communities – more on this in the final section).  Worse, Palestinian self-determination is championed because doing so exemplifies or otherwise fulfills Jewish Values.  In other words, being in solidarity with Palestine becomes the new meaning or content of Jewish Values.  This unwittingly instrumentalizes Palestinians or the Palestinian cause as important insofar as they can help to realize (or “heal”) Jewish Values (from Zionism). 

It also suggests that liberation or self-determination are uniquely or distinctly Jewish Values, which of course they are not.  Such advocacy engages in Jewish exceptionalism, reinforcing the idea that Jewish people – because of certain “values” – are exceptional, both in the sense that Jews are exceptions to the rule and exceptional, or a cut above the rest.  However, not only are Jewish Values neither synonymous with liberation nor uniquely related to liberation, but they are certainly unnecessary to claim as the basis for one’s Palestine solidarity work, especially when doing so re-iterates Jewish exceptionalism. 

Moreover, by insisting on Jewish Values as the reason for their solidarity with Palestinians, Jewish people actually re-inscribe Jews as central to this region and the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom when in fact they are not central to it – or, at least, no more or less central to it than any other non-Palestinian people.  (Remember, it is Zionism that requires an essential connection between Israel and Jewish people.)  When Jewish people assert specifically Jewish Values as the basis for their Palestine solidarity work, they re-instate the connection between Jewish people and Israel – even if this time in the form of a critique – that centers Jewish people and Jewish Values as the main pivot of a relationship of resistance to Israel and the Zionist project. 

I fully accept that many people are committed to the liberation of Palestine because of a personal commitment to Jewish Values.  But being critical of Israel and in solidarity with the liberation of Palestine are not distinctly Jewish values, nor should they be if this movement is to be truly liberatory. 

When Jewish people mistake their individual connections to Jewishness or Jewish Values for politically principled social justice work, they distract from the situation of Palestinians and re-instate Jewish people’s “special connection” to Israel/Palestine, short-circuiting solidarity and fortifying Zionism in the process.

(2)    Jewish Oppression

Paralleling the Jewish Values line is the Jewish Oppression line.  In this case, Jewish people invoke their historical experience of oppression as the reason for their intimate connection to Palestine solidarity work.  Occasionally, this historical experience of oppression takes the form of a broader narrative about Jewish people having been exiled and oppressed throughout their existence, despised and dislocated from everywhere they have lived.  Much more commonly, this argument relies on the Holocaust as the premier example of unthinkable oppression.  Regardless, the claim I most often hear made is that, because of Jewish people’s excruciating experience of oppression during the Holocaust, they are uniquely situated or obligated, as Jews, to undertake Palestine solidarity work.  This is because, for example, they are obliged to universalism by the uniquely post-Holocaust injunction, “Never Again.”  Or simply because their distinct experience of oppression obliges them to say no to Israel’s crimes. 

Connecting solidarity work to the Holocaust in this way unwittingly suggests that it is Jewish people’s unique relationship with exceptional oppression that especially situates them to work on Palestinian liberation.  Again, this mistakes personal connections and motivations for justifications of political principle, shifting the focus from justice to Judaism once again.  It also somehow manages to suggest that addressing the situation of Palestinians is important insofar as it addresses or speaks to Jewish Oppression.  This again re-centers Jewish people in a movement for Palestinian liberation, albeit this time through the lens of Jewish Oppression rather than Jewish Values.  Finally, it borders on a kind of Holocaust exceptionalism, whereby the oppression of the Jews is either exceptionally horrible or else more specifically and uniquely horrible than anything other people(s) have undergone throughout history, since it is precisely on this unique or distinctive horribleness that the claim to the special obligation to Palestine solidarity turns.

I fully accept that many people are committed to the liberation of Palestine because of familial or historical connections with the Holocaust.  I would again insist, however, that this connection remains a personal connection rather than an assertion of political principle.  Many people have many familial and historical connections with many oppressions that may (or may not) bring them to Palestine solidarity work.  From the perspective of the work, however, such connections are interesting but inessential.  Why, after all, is a connection with any oppression necessary to commit one to the liberation of Palestine?  More importantly, asserting specifically Jewish people’s connection to the Holocaust as the basis for Palestine solidarity work re-iterates the Zionist insistence on the essential relationships among the Holocaust, Israel, and Jewish people.  These connections should be disregarded in Palestine solidarity work, for certainly outrage at the Holocaust – much less the injustices of the Israeli state – do not and should not require a particular kinship or historical linkage with either.  Suggesting otherwise sidelines Palestinians once again, undermining solidarity and fortifying Zionism.    

(3)    Jewish Credibility

Finally, it is all too often the case that Jewish people – sometimes unwittingly and with good intentions, sometimes not – position themselves in the United States as uniquely credible reporters about the situation on the ground in Palestine.  This is due to a number of factors, I’m sure, not least of which is the proliferation of opportunities for (sufficiently moneyed) Americans to travel to Palestine on delegations or solidarity tours.  (This phenomenon is so common it is now a research area for academics.)  Upon return to the U.S., participants often wish to convey what they have seen and learned while they were in Palestine. 

The politics of solidarity tours is complex, to be sure.  I make no pretense of judging if they are “good” or “bad,” and could not do so without risking hypocrisy given my own participation in both a Birthright Israel program (in 2000) and a Birthright Unplugged program (in 2006), much less my current position as Outreach and Communications Director for Birthright Unplugged, wherein I have facilitated numerous delegations to Palestine. 

However, it is often the case that delegates’ well-meaning and heartfelt attempts to communicate what they saw in Palestine—especially when those delegates are Jewish—can unwittingly position both American and Jewish people as uniquely credible reporters about Palestine.  To be clear, this is often far from anyone’s intentions.  Nevertheless, in the U.S. context of vitriolic, racialized Islamophobia –itself exacerbated by the imperial frame within which all news about the “Middle East” unfolds and all popular culture takes its cues – some voices are inevitably deemed more “objective” than others.  And as we well know, Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims (and all those taken to be such) are always already de-legitimized in U.S. public discourse.  Biased, irrational, violent, terroristic – even after decades of work on this issue, the possibility of a credible, mainstream Arab or Muslim or Palestinian voice gaining any traction as a public authority on Palestine remains remote.  Moreover, we are all-too-familiar with the insistence that, anytime a Palestinian or Arab or Muslim does speak publicly, and especially about Palestine, it is necessary to wheel in a Jewish and/or Israeli counterpart in order to “balance” the conversation. 

While it is crucial that people speak out about the truth of Israel’s illegal military occupation, indigenous dispossession, apartheid policies, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes, nevertheless if it is only or primarily Jewish people reporting such facts, Jewish people are re-centered as the authorities on Palestine.  This marginalizes Palestinian voices and leadership and reproduces the Jewish supremacy latent in U.S. public discourse that holds that only Jewish people can be objective, credible reporters about Israel/Palestine. 

Aside from distinguishing Judaism from Zionism, the other primary justification I hear of both Jewish-identified solidarity work and the three positionings identified above is the importance of moving the U.S. Jewish community and/or the mainstream Jewish establishment’s hard-line position on Israel.  Undoubtedly, fighting AIPAC and the Zionist lobby is important work.  However, in my experience, this is typically not the “Jewish establishment” people mean when they make this claim, but rather groups like Hillel or their own congregations and temple Boards. This narrower target makes sense, given that the Zionist lobby consists not simply of Zionist Jewish organizations, but also Zionist Christian Evangelical organizations and Zionist neocons.  Indeed, we would do well to remember that the Zionist lobby may not best be characterized as definitively Jewish.  Its more defining characteristic may rather be neo-imperialism, a quality that Zionist Jews share with non-Jewish Zionists.

For my own part, I’m skeptical that U.S. Jewish opinion has much sway over the machinations of the Zionist lobby.  Their opinions may matter more to the so-called “Jewish establishment,” but even presuming a major shift on Israel on their part leaves me unconvinced that this would significantly affect either the Zionist lobby or U.S. policy on Israel.  After all, neither actually cares about Jewish people, their welfare, or what they really think—this is far from their raison d’être.  To presume otherwise is again to presume that Zionism has something to do with Judaism or Jewish people, when in fact Judaism and Jewish people are instead used as ideological leverage to advance the Zionist lobby’s colonial and imperial policies.

At its best, Jewish people’s addressing the U.S. Jewish community’s position on Israel is a form of unlearning racism, a way in which Jewish people educate other Jewish people about Israel’s status as a settler colonial state rather than an emancipatory polity for Jewish people. 

However, this kind of work is also about personal commitments which, like Jewish Values or Jewish Oppression, may be important to individuals but are not productive bases or justifications for solidarity work.  Some people wish to make synagogues more welcoming spaces for dissenting views on Israel.  Young folks want to alert their elders that their generation is not committed to Zionism, even as they embrace Judaism (this is one animus behind the JVP project Young, Jewish, and Proud).  Others are interested in building new religious institutions and practices of worship that are spiritually meaningful but no longer complicit with Zionism.

All of these are admirable goals.  But they are not solidarity work.  Making internal change within the U.S. Jewish community may make U.S. Jews less racist, synagogues more open, families more communicative, and religious institutions and practices less Zionist.  But in order for solidarity work to be solidarity work, it must be responsive and accountable to the demands and situation of the oppressed.  And it really must be said that Jews are not oppressed in the U.S. (much less anywhere else).  They are certainly not the oppressed in this movement.  The oppressed here are the Palestinians, and our work for Palestinian liberation must be accountable to the demands and situation of Palestinians – in Palestine and throughout the world.  Working to change families, synagogues, and Jewish communities may make more room for individual Jewish people to live, work, worship, and play.  But changing the Jewish community is work that is addressed to Jewish people, by Jewish people, for Jewish people.  It should not be confused with work that aims at the liberation of Palestine.

I, too, came to this work with the belief that, as someone raised Jewish in a staunchly Zionist home, I had a “special connection” to the Zionist colonization of Palestine.  In particular, I felt I had an obligation to do Palestine solidarity work because everything Israel did was undertaken and justified “in my name.”  However, as I have spent more time in this movement and also begun to learn from the work of other activists, particularly those in the prison abolition and immigrants’ rights movements as well as participants in indigenous struggles for self-determination in the Americas and beyond, I have begun to understand the ways in which my belief in my “special connection” to Palestine is self-serving and itself a by-product of Zionist propaganda.  It is in the interest of Zionism that Jews everywhere understand themselves to be uniquely or distinctly connected to Israel – even if that connection is a critical one. 

While it is necessary and important to distinguish Zionism and Judaism, the role of Jewish people in Palestine solidarity work (if indeed any such “role” actually exists) is to confirm that Palestinian liberation is not a Jewish issue.  Jewish people must recognize that commitment to justice turns not on an exceptionalist Jewish connection to this region, country, or colonial project, but rather on the principled belief in the freedom, equality, and self-determination of all people(s).  Indeed, such commitment may help us to remember that we ourselves are settlers in North America, complicit with the colonization of indigenous peoples here, residing upon stolen land from which we launch our otherwise heroic critiques of Israel. 

The fight for Palestinian liberation is anti-racist work and a form of anti-colonialism.  It is part of an indigenous people’s struggle.  To suggest that Jewish people have a special connection to Israel/Palestine is to re-iterate a central Zionist contention that the settler colonization of Palestine is by, for, or about Jewish people.  Insofar as it is Zionism which we are fighting, we surely do not want to agree to that.   

           

About Heike Schotten

Heike Schotten is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is the author of, among others, “Reading Nietzsche in the Wake of the 2008-09 War on Gaza.

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