Challenging an ideology means rupturing with community and family

Middle East
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In October we ran a piece by Avigail Abarbanel titled, “Why I Left the Cult,” that got an overwhelming response. We learned then that the scholar Nadia Naser-Najjab had recently written an assessment of Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists, Abarbanel’s penetrating collection on the role of Jewish community ordination in the support for Israel. The holidays seemed a good time to convey Naser-Najjab’s piece, and remind readers about that book, available here. 

In this hugely personal set of collected essays, Jewish and Israeli peace activists provide a vivid and intimate insight into the formative experiences that shaped their political commitment. For me, this is a particularly important contribution because it switches the emphasis from the ‘macro-level’ (treaties, territory, arcane diplomatic rituals) to instead provide an insight into the different dimensions of personal political experience. Consequently, the reader’s focus is no longer upon states and state entitlements/obligations but rather the life experiences of brave and deeply admirable individuals who came to oppose the stagnant conventions and orthodoxies of their own society. Upon engaging with their rich and unflinching accounts, the reader does not encounter a set of disconnected anecdotes but instead engages an intimate and vivid account of political engagement, a contribution that is of singular importance given the pervasive influence of a wider conflict that dehumanises and objectifies. Upon concluding, the reader is not left with a deeper understanding of the practicalities of peace activism (or the optimal tactics and strategies associated with it) but rather a very different way of thinking about peace and peace activism.

I therefore found that the book challenged me, and forced me to question stagnant assumptions that had become deeply internalised. Beyond Tribal Loyalties therefore challenges and subverts. This is perhaps most clearly shown by its open challenge to separation, which has become established as one of the clearest features of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is evidenced both within the conflict itself (and the associated emergence of mental and physical barriers) and the proposed solution (in the form of the two-state solution). Beyond Tribal Loyalties instead opposes itself to separation and instead seeks the basis for forms of political identity and action that are grounded within a universal humanist commitment. It draws upon the contributions of a range of Jewish and Israeli peace activists, and provides an invaluable insight into their personal and political journey. In the words of Sara Roy (who wrote the book’s foreword), it shines a light onto Jews who consciously decided to ‘see Palestinians as [human beings] seeking an ordinary life for their children in a home of their own’.

Whereas we might intuitively assume that it is entirely normal to view Palestinians in this sense, this is clearly not the case for the contributors, who had to overcome a social and educational inheritance which led them to view Palestinians as hateful, backward and violent. In these contributions there is no sense of the cognitive dissonance and disorientation that so frequently afflicts the Israeli Left: there are no concessions to a culture grounded within militarism and the colonial mindset. There is no trace of the Peace Now demonstrators who protested against the army while serving in it or of the Women in Black protester who asked me, during a protest during the First Intifada, not to chant anti-Zionist slogans.

Beyond Tribal Loyalties, in insisting upon an identification with the ‘other’, is instead premised upon a rejection of these equivocations and self-deceits. I have to confess that the extent of its commitment far surpassed my own. During the First Intifada I had repeatedly stood along Jewish and Israeli activists, who were subject to the same brutal treatment as Palestinians. However, I never sought to engage with them as people or to try to understand the train of events that had led them there. I had always been predisposed to view them as the ‘other’ who supported the Palestinian cause. I never came to see protesting Israelis and Jews as individuals – that is, as people with families and friends. In large part this was because I viewed the Israeli ‘other’ through the lens of their own privilege – this meant that I was predisposed to see their strengths and oversee weaknesses or vulnerabilities. My view was further clouded by the fact that I viewed my Israeli counterparts from an elevated moral and political vantage point – for me their commitment was not commendable, but was merely the bare minimum that could be expected of any reasonable human being.

Jeff Halper’s contribution brought this point home to me with renewed force and intensity. I have known about Jeff’s work for a considerable amount of time. However, it never occurred to me that he only became an activist in 1998; quite the contrary – it seemed natural to assume that he had always been a peace activist. Upon closer reflection, this disconcerted me. Why had I assumed this and why had I not felt the need to further investigate Jeff’s political commitment? My oversight in this regard was all the more inexcusable because of my own background within social psychology, which had provided me with an extensive insight into the interaction between groups and individuals.

In seeking to gain an insight into the experience of the Israeli and Jewish ‘other’, I found Beyond Tribal Loyalties to be an invaluable point of reference. It helped me to understand how my previous perception of Israeli peace activists was insufficiently grounded within the struggles and hardships that they had endured. Previously I had a political awareness of Israeli conscripts who had been jailed for refusing to serve in the occupied territories. However, Avigail’s contribution provides an important complement by underlining the human dimensions of the conflict. As such, it also forced me to reconsider the true extent of my own humanist commitment. A considerable part of this book’s value therefore derives from its strong commitment to universal values that are grounded within a shared humanity. Each contribution therefore engages, to differing degrees and extents, with intensely human emotions, such as anger, fear, guilt and resentment.

Beyond Tribal Loyalties is as much a story of the individual’s struggle in relation to their own society. In engaging with this interaction, social psychologists invariably speak in a turgid and aseptic vernacular of how ‘informational social influence’ comes to oppose the ‘normative social influence’ of wider society. The personal accounts, in contrast, provide a much more vivid and insightful insight: Maya Wind speaks, for example, of how her refusal to serve within the Israeli army shattered the hopes and expectations of her parents, who had viewed it as an important rite of passage. Vivienne Porzsolt was rejected by her friends and Peter Slezak became, in his own words, ‘a pariah in my own community’. Avigail, meanwhile, was rejected by her own mother and received death threats.

The insults that were hurled had a clear vehemence and spiteful intent: contributors were labelled as ‘self-hating Jews’, ‘Nazis’, ‘Israel-haters’ and even ‘anti-Semites’. This is the essential point that I had failed to fully internalise – Israeli peace activists did not merely accept a particular political point; rather, they rejected a whole way of life and consciousness. It slowly dawned upon Ilan Pappé, for example, that it was impossible to pursue peace or reconciliation ‘from within the Zionist mindset or political structures’. From their youth the contributors had been informed that Zionism was grounded within, and embodied, the most elevated of moral principles. This understanding became embedded to the extent that it eventually came to function as an unconscious reflex. The reality, when exposed to sunlight, resulted in a profound catharsis, and the subsequent exorcism of an accumulated political and social inheritance.

Aside from underlining the courage and tenacity of the contributors, the book also serves to underline the pervasiveness of Zionist ideology, and its seepage into almost every aspect of Jewish and Israeli consciousness. In rejecting this ideology, contributors often found that they had to essentially reject their own communities, their families and even themselves. The initial cause often varied – sometimes emerging within the gulf between the idealised representation and the actual reality (as Anna Baltzer observes, ‘the construct of Israel’s virtue, which I had always held dear, crumbled before my eyes’) and in others originating within a first encounter with activists or authors such as Benny Morris, Norman Finkelstein and Avi Shlaim.

As Avigail explains, the influence of Zionism is not confined to Israel. Rather, Jewish communities and synagogues have a clear expectation that Israel will be supported ‘no matter what’ (it is important to note that this expectation weighs equally strongly upon both secular and religious Jews). This means that, in many instances, the dividing line between Judaism and Zionism therefore becomes imperceptible. For contributors such as Anna Baltzer, who sought to ground their work within Judaic principles, this was profoundly disconcerting. In her account Anna described how she visited the flat of her grandmother, who had recently passed away. After finding an appeal from the Jewish National Fund, Anna reflected: ‘I wish my work could have been something she understood, since it is an extension of the belief system in which I was raised, not a departure from it. What I do is not in spite of what my grandmother went through, but in light of it.’ Ariel Vegosen similarly adapts the Torah to argue that it is incumbent upon Jews to stand up against oppression and pursue justice.

Other contributors instead stress the need for breakage or rupture. Jeff Halper, for instance, initially acknowledges that Israel is a ‘political fact’ before stressing that it is necessary to ‘traverse a long and painful trail from decolonialisation through reconciliation, to a new form of political life that is just and inclusive of all’. For Halper, in common with other contributors, this implies a political commitment that is closely aligned with the practices, strategies and goals of the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement.

It is instructive, and more than a little sobering, to reflect that the contributors’ grasp of political realities is far in advance of the Palestinian leadership, who instead appear predisposed to work within, as opposed to against, colonial frameworks and structures. In contrast to the Palestinian Authority, Beyond Tribal Loyalties does not attempt to ground a peace within intellectual dishonesty and political compromise; rather, it instead establishes the basis for a peaceful settlement that is rooted within a humanist political commitment. I am happy to recommend it upon the basis that if offers an alternative path, which traverses communal identity and which roots itself within an unflinching, uncompromising and abiding commitment to human values.

 

About Nadia Naser-Najjab

Nadia Naser-Najjab is a research fellow at the European Centre for Palestine Studies, at the University of Exeter. She formerly taught European civilization at Birzeit University.

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20 Responses

  1. DaBakr
    December 16, 2016, 12:38 pm

    whenever i hear the word “uncompromising” coming from a left wing outlet like MW it gives me pause.. to wonder about what is so different from their pov and anybody else in the spectrum of opinion who believes in “unflinching, uncompromising” plans for change.

    • John O
      December 16, 2016, 2:06 pm

      @DaBakr

      Who mentioned “plans for change” – apart from you?

    • Mooser
      December 16, 2016, 3:31 pm

      “whenever i hear the word “uncompromising” coming from a left wing outlet like MW it gives me pause.. to wonder”

      That’s perfectly OK, “dabakr”! You take all the time you need to “pause..and wonder”.

  2. Michael Lesher
    December 16, 2016, 1:19 pm

    I’m all too familiar with the very personal sort of vituperation aimed at Jews who reject notions of Jewish supremacy or entitlement. As an Orthodox Jew, I’ve often received responses to my published writings about Israel/Palestine that would be hard to believe — that is, if I weren’t so well acquainted with the cultural mindset that sees humanity and egalitarianism as forms of treason. Yet just this mindset is what must be fought.

    • Mooser
      December 16, 2016, 8:47 pm

      “Yet just this mindset is what must be fought.”

      Wouldn’t think of interfering in an intra-denominational discussion. I’m sure you guys can settle among yourselves without any help.

  3. MaxineKL
    December 16, 2016, 3:01 pm

    Interesting article! I’ll be sure to look for this book. Btw, though, Jeff Halper was active in The anti – occupation group 21st Year when I first met him during the first Intifada (1989 or 90) – so his activism didn’t begin in 1997/8 (with the founding of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), although it intensified then.

  4. Citizen
    December 17, 2016, 9:58 pm

    There are still Germans alive who have never buckled under the pressure of the denazification program. And that in the context of their country having been reduced to rubble. What was that adage attributed to the Jesuits about getting the young in their hands while they are young?

  5. yourstruly
    December 18, 2016, 2:04 am

    no matter one’s tribe
    nationality
    religion
    sex
    etc

    one has to decide
    on whose side
    the slave’s
    or the slave owner’s

    such that
    re: palestine/israel
    if one is for the slave
    to be true to one’s convictions
    one must side with the palestinian
    after all
    it’s her/his land that’s being colonized
    colonization being a form of enslavement

    understanding, of course
    that until the last chain is broken
    none of us will be free

  6. Maghlawatan
    December 18, 2016, 5:28 am

    I met Jeff Halper once. He does great work but in a framework that is Zionist. And the situation has already moved beyond Zionism. Zionism is insane as evidenced by Azaria, 2014, the thing at the western wall, Bennett, Shaked etc.

    Kneejerk Jewish support for Zionism is based on the notion that Israel is ok, that it works, that it can be trusted. And none of these apply.

    “Ariel Vegosen similarly adapts the Torah to argue that it is incumbent upon Jews to stand up against oppression and pursue justice.”

    You can use the Torah to justify ANYTHING, good or hateful

    • Avigail Abarbanel
      December 18, 2016, 12:32 pm

      @Maghlawatan,

      When I edited the book, I knew that I would not agree with all the contributors. Many of them are not yet where ‘I would like them to be’.

      But my point in the book was to highlight one, the insidious and all-pervasive cult-like nature of Zionism, and two, the complex journey of opposing it. It shouldn’t be a big deal to follow universal human values, and oppose settler colonialism. It should be a given that everyone should be against it and no one deserves a medal for it. It shouldn’t need to take courage to stand up against something that is fundamentally a crime against humanity. However, due to the cult-like nature of Zionism it’s not that simple.

      In my introduction I mention the PEPs — Progressives Except on Palestine. These are Zionist Jews who are blind to the selective way in which they choose to apply their humanistic values. They essentially place their loyalty to the ‘tribe’ ahead of their own values and ahead of intellectual honesty. They would do anything for anyone, but when it comes to the Palestinians, the shutters come down. I personally think that if the person’s values are real, it should be a given that they wouldn’t discriminate between ‘causes’ or ‘victim groups’. If you are against oppression, then you should be against oppression, however and wherever it manifests itself. But that isn’t the case with Zionism. So the books is about that and about those who are choosing to engage in a journey out of the cult and the obstacles, psychological and external, that they encounter along the way.

      But no, I don’t agree with everyone in the book. I didn’t just want to include people who were identical to me, as it would have made for a very boring book. I wanted to show different expressions of different stages of the journey. For instance, I think that Jewish values are in fact responsible for Israel and not the opposite. I don’t think Judaism is a nice religion or a religion that fundamentally critiques or opposes settler-colonialism. One of the foundational myths in the Torah is about the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, a brutal settler-colonialism story from beginning to end. It’s never been questioned or critiqued as such to the best of my knowledge.

      The book wants to show how insidious it all is and I think it might help people understand the violent reaction that so many Jews have to criticism of Israel.

      • Maghlawatan
        December 18, 2016, 1:28 pm

        Avigail

        I don’t think Judaism was strong enough to stand up to Zionism. Judaism is an outsider thing. Never had power really. Sort of like homosexuality. Different to the mainstream and developed accordingly. With its own logic.
        Then Israel got power. And nobody knew how to use it.

        Hartman identifies the problem within Judaism , the thing the butchers hide behind

        https://hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=657&Cat_Id=273&Cat_Type=
        “When one calls, however, for the boycotting or international sanctioning of Israel or the forcing of its government to adopt policies which are counter to the expressed will of its democratically elected government, even if one believes that one is doing so for the good of Israel, one is locating oneself on the side of our foes, a side that friends need to be wary of.
        If our community will be wise enough to expand the inner tent to make room for a wide spectrum of opinions, debate, criticism, and acts of protest and condemnation, there will be no need for members of our community to find their allies elsewhere, and ones who do so, will be therefore declaring where their allegiance truly lies.
        We are a people who believe that criticism is an act of love and loyalty. We are also a people who believe that there is a criticism out of love, and a criticism which is not.”

        Israel is basically a moral collapse . Leibowitz knew that years ago.

        http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/jerusalem-babylon/.premium-1.600000

        Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote in his seminal essay “After Kibiyeh” (collected in “Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State,” edited by Eliezer Goldman, Harvard University Press 1995) of “the fear of losing religous-moral supremacy, which is easy to hold on to when there is no risk to it and difficult under other circumstances.” Less than six years after the creation of a sovereign state with a powerful army, Leibowitz wrote that the “real religious and moral meaning of our political rebirth and the return to our hands of the use of force” would be a severe test for Jews who were too accustomed to being victims. “Can we prove capable not only of suffering for these values we exalted, but also acting upon them?” he asked. “It’s easy to suffer, physically and materially for values, even to sacrifice our lives: that necessitates only physical courage which exists in surprising quantities among all human gatherings. It’s difficult to suffer for values, when this suffering means also giving up things which are also seen as values.” In the decades after 1967, Leibowitz would be excoriated by the right wing for his fierce criticism of the occupation which he, perhaps inexcusably, described as “Judeo-Nazi.” But he was speaking as a fervent Zionist who was one of the first to see how the success of Zionism meant we had to realize we were no longer victims and that victory came with a moral price. It was “the great test we are faced with by national liberation, political independence and sovereign power — as a nation, a society and a culture which for generations had the privilege of mental and spiritual enjoyment in exile, foreign-rule and self-impotence ”

        As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed to econoffs on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge

        http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2011/0630/breaking44.html
        However, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Dublin the Israelis had no information about what happened to the boat. “We further wish to repeat what the United Nations data clearly shows: there has never been hunger in Gaza, there is no humanitarian crisis there

      • Mooser
        December 18, 2016, 1:32 pm

        Hello, Abigail! I was just thinking about the sentence: “One of the foundational myths in the Torah is about the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, a brutal settler-colonialism story from beginning to end.”

        That’s where the Israelites absorbed a lot of religious ideas, too. Yahweh even played Baal for the National Hebrews.

      • Sibiriak
        December 18, 2016, 10:34 pm

        Avigail Abarbanel I don’t think Judaism is a nice religion or a religion that fundamentally critiques or opposes settler-colonialism. One of the foundational myths in the Torah is about the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, a brutal settler-colonialism story from beginning to end.
        ————–

        The “conquest of Canaan” is also a foundational Christian myth; the Old Testament is sacred Christian scripture, the Word of God, Father of Christ.

        Strange, since Christianity is quite a “nice religion” with a long history of opposition to settler colonialism.

      • YoniFalic
        December 19, 2016, 5:45 am

        Avigail, Reverend Michael Prior may have written the critique you have sought. His book is The Bible and Colonialism.

        Modern religious people, whether Christian or Jews, rarely have a clue to understand the meaning of ancient texts like Joshua or the Gospels. These are texts written in the Persian Imperial or the Hellenistic period. People thought about morality and history with a mentality quite different from our thinking.

        The Vilna Gaon was probably the last eminent European Jewish scholar who had a fully traditional mindset, and even he had very little understanding of the texts that he was reading.

        Scholars like Moshe Feinstein or Joseph Soloveitchik are completely clueless.

        European scholars began to understand how to read ancient texts back in the 1400s, and we are still learning.

        I refer Mondoweiss readers to Anthony Grafton’s Defenders of the Text, “Renaissance Readers and Ancient Texts”.

        Joshua is a legitimization text for those Mesopotamians dispatched by the Persian Empire to rule in Palestine. In those days a history of conquest with eradication of former inhabitants was a pedigree that legitimized authority. The Mesopotamians probably had no connection to Palestine whatsoever. To maintain stability, the imperial government considered it important for the Persian-backed elite to avoid establishing strong connections with the local populations. Hence there is a ban on marrying Canaanites, and the Biblical text makes an effort to encourage disdain for the local population.

        During the Hellenistic periods these texts were reworked and reinterpreted.

      • Keith
        December 19, 2016, 10:24 am

        SIBIRIAK- “Strange, since Christianity is quite a “nice religion” with a long history of opposition to settler colonialism.”

        Indeed, if we were to evaluate religions based upon the behavior of its followers, how would any honest person evaluate Christianity as a force for death and destruction? More proof of our exceptionalism.

      • MHughes976
        December 20, 2016, 9:16 am

        I usually think that Zionists don’t know their Bible very well or that their Bible consists of Joshua in letters of fiery red four inches high with Esther appended. To my mind the story that reflects the self-image of the Persian Empire and its sympathisers is that of Abraham, the benevolent Iraqi who goes round finding ways to put things right, though to us it might seem that he has sometimes helped put things wrong in the first place. The standard claim of the King seems to have been to election by the local manifestation of God, implying that the local people would welcome the King’s representatives and agents. The ideology of Joshua maybe derives from the circles around the exiled Judahite royal family in Babylon further edited in Hellenistic times when the Jews were being seen as the new Spartans. Its claim that both practical and moral limits fade away when one is on a mission to bend the arc of history the right way is powerfully made. The book is certainly of Jewish origin but the disturbing question, I think, is whether any optimistic view of history and its arc can avoid the drastic idea that when the arc needs to be drawn the right way everything is permitted.

  7. YoniFalic
    December 18, 2016, 3:57 pm

    Whereas we might intuitively assume that it is entirely normal to view Palestinians in this sense, this is clearly not the case for the contributors, who had to overcome a social and educational inheritance which led them to view Palestinians as hateful, backward and violent. In these contributions there is no sense of the cognitive dissonance and disorientation that so frequently afflicts the Israeli Left: there are no concessions to a culture grounded within militarism and the colonial mindset. There is no trace of the Peace Now demonstrators who protested against the army while serving in it or of the Women in Black protester who asked me, during a protest during the First Intifada, not to chant anti-Zionist slogans.

    As an historian of modern Jews, I ask first how Judaism, Jewishness, and Jewish identity could have been consumed by such an omphaloskeptic racist genocidal essentialist primordialist idea as Zionism when so much of the world seemed to be moving in an opposite direction.

    Then I ask whether there are similarities between radical Jewish Bolsheviks and radical Jewish Zionists.

    Then finally I ask whether we are seeing something common or something unique in Eastern Europe.

    • Maghlawatan
      December 18, 2016, 4:53 pm

      I often wonder what the Mizrahi Jews were like and what kind of Weltanschauung they had pre 1948. It couldn’t have been the trauma driven dystopia that is Zionism

  8. gamal
    December 18, 2016, 4:26 pm

    “I think that Jewish values are in fact responsible for Israel and not the opposite.”

    while I am not sure what this means “values” is vague, might i be permitted a little dissent,

    ” don’t think Judaism is a nice religion or a religion that fundamentally critiques or opposes settler-colonialism”

    “nice religion’: not being erudite like yourself permit to speak my “values” simply and directly, it is the purpose of all religion to bust and utterly destroy the ego, that precious sense of self cherishing seperateness which makes life misery, and thus no religion cool as they all are is nice, i rely on my own reading it being the only one that i get.

    “that fundamentally critiques or opposes settler-colonialism” ”

    well thats a huge assumption that relies on a spiritually illiterate, simplistic and materialistic reading of Judaism, it may be that many Jews now talk in this way so what, that does not delimit it’s scope, while i labour within the vortex of my own limbic nebula and am even a tribal man however life (and Judaism inter alia) has taught me enough that i am unerring in my actions not having an ego to torment me as gentle as it is possible to be with out utterly disappearing, as the Jews recommend. It is the combination of Judaism and modern materialism that leads to

    “One of the foundational myths in the Torah is about the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, a brutal settler-colonialism story from beginning to end”

    I read it i don’t see any of that, thats just the story, Animal Farm is not about animals or farming, but then i know how to read scripture and if i want to be bad i don’t need gods or anyone’s support, religiously speaking you have a duty to be yourself and take the consequences.

    “It’s never been questioned or critiqued as such to the best of my knowledge”

    I don’t see Jews around me stealing any more than anyone else, I know an Israeli girl who married an Irish farmer out by Ardgroom who had to sign a prenup that removed all his land from his estate in the event that he pre-deceases her, she has conquered no land in the adjacent townlands.

    You know the very way you talk about a good or bad culture, religion etc the way you seem to be implying, in your other writings here, that those of us who share this array with you are just less evolved versions of yourself, that are but encultured dupes with an attenuated breadth of awareness this is the single most widespread and destructive aspect of modern progressive western ideology currently burning my world on the basis of humanitarianism and things good

    Zionism is not Judaism but seems to be eating it you wait till the sicarii play the ikwan, my view is people don’t know how to read scripture and so what, well i am no materialist and crap you can grab in the donya is less than worthless anyway despite the Walmart propaganda, I start from there

    so
    and as a result i have very positive feelings for Judaism nice or otherwise, i think someone should try it but you have to carry the self as it is to this encounter, no mean task for polite idealistic westerners, embrace inhibition, Solomon sings about it in Judaism.

    i have something that might help ( i am a ghetto boy and so have vast amplification but you may not get all the goodness out of this i play it till my 8ft thick walls shake in conformity to Banu Isra’il’s mores)

    i am serious All My Life meet Judaism, in essence, you have instincts? then hear, what else is there, as has been said you have eyes but won’t look you have ears then hear.

    Solomon still sings through Sheba’s sons,

    https://youtu.be/O3cPx6TZFSo

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