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Why was I silent about my politics in the Holocaust survivor’s house?

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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A week ago I went to three weekly demonstrations in Israel/Palestine, winding up in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Much of the day was spent discussing anti-Zionism with Israeli Jews.

I found two camps among the Israeli Jews who were demonstrating. One camp was those who are there to try and save the Jewish state. Didi Remez for one. These are people who believe in the necessity of the Jewish state and realize that their greatest opponents are expansionists who have colonized the West Bank and therefore turned a state that was 80 percent Jewish into one that is half Jewish or maybe less, and thereby endangered the whole project "demographically," as they put it.

Another camp are anti-Zionist. They are against the idea of the Jewish state. They are not just for a return to the ’67 borders, but an end to Jewish nationalism within the ’48 borders. One friend of mine guessed that in the three demonstrations I went to that day (beginning with this one and this one in the West Bank) the Israelis were split 50/50 between these camps. But among the Israeli demonstrators at Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, it seemed most are trying to save the Jewish state. And of course if you look at the entirety of Israeli society, including the people who gave us the finger as we walked through West Jerusalem, or threw rotten eggs, 99 percent of them are for the Jewish state.

I said to one of my new Israeli friends: “Herzl came up with the idea of political Zionism as a visionary response to very real conditions for Jews in the Diaspora, anti-semitism. The answer was a Jewish state. Well I am a Jew in the Diaspora 100 years on and I am also having a real response to real conditions, and I tell you that I don’t need a Jewish state, and that Israel’s dependence on the U.S. is corrupting my society. That is why I am an anti-Zionist or non-Zionist, whatever I am. Just as I would have been a Zionist 100 years ago.”

The Israeli got an unhappy expression. “But what about the solidarity you should feel for a state that is providing refuge to Jews in the Soviet Union and now Yemen.”

It felt like the beginning of a bad argument. I said, “You are asking me to defer to the Israeli experience, when I am telling you what my genuine experience is, as a Jew in the Diaspora; and I can’t set my experience aside.” I didn’t say: I refuse to set my experience aside.

Then I had a conversation with an Israeli friend who has put himself in harm’s way against the Israeli army many times during these demonstrations. I said, “It feels like the Israelis are about trying to save Jewish sovereignty in a part of historical Palestine. What if it is too late? What if the future of the Jewish sovereignty has been destroyed by the expansion and by the treatment of Palestinians inside the state of Israel. It feels to me like Zionism is actually over and there is no place in the 21st century for this kind of state that privileges one group over another and creates ethnic cleansing. What if you can’t have a Jewish state?”

He nodded philosophically. “Yes and that would be a kind of tragedy, I think.”

Later I was standing in the yard of the al-Kurd house in Sheikh Jarrah (this is the house that Andrew Kadi has covered on this site). The Jewish settlers have moved into the front room, we sat and stood in the tent at the side. Israeli security moved among us, videoing us, in this silent ugly manner of goon secret police.

I talked to a professor at an Israeli university. He was sucking on a cigarette and I was playing with a dried pomegranate that a friend had gotten me from the old pomegranate tree in the front yard of the house. I gave my rap about Herzl and me, and the professor frowned and said, “This is not something for the Americans to decide for us. We are the parties to the conflict. Not you. It is for us to work out with the Palestinians.”

Then I said something that Avram Burg, former speaker of the Knesset, said in New York: Zionism created two structures. It created the state of Israel and it created the semi-autonomous community of influence in the United States, the Israel lobby. So we are part of your Zionist structure, and we should offer our real ideas about Zionism to the Jews of Israel. 

He shook his head. “I don’t think we should talk about Zionism. It’s not about an ideology, it’s about a political struggle involving two peoples.” But he offered me a Jewish identity lesson. Citing the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, he said: In Europe 100 years ago, gentiles were connected to the land and ideas of nationalism, and Jews represented the universalist impulse in ideas. Now that is reversed, and Jews are tied to a land and Europeans are representing the universalist impulse.

I was annoyed. It seemed like an airy word game to me; when here we were in a place where Jewish nationalism was destroying people’s lives. Who would want to be associated tribally with such an idea? Why would someone want to be claimed as a Jew by this? I felt in his philosophizing the undertow of his personal attachment to the existence of a Jewish state.

It was 4 o’clock and and I had to run. It was Friday and I was going to Sabbath dinner at my mother’s good friend’s house. This is the one personal connection I have to Zionism. She lives in West Jerusalem. I got a cab as the city grew dark and quiet. I walked through the Rehavia section at 6 o’clock, in darkness. I saw men through a synagogue window as in eastern Europe, and saw pious people walking through Ussishkin Street. They were speaking English in American accents. This is part of the weirdness of the Israel experience: here you are, 500 miles east of Istanbul, and it is a decidedly western culture, and therefore it feels colonialist.

I went into my mother’s friend’s house without knocking. I was the second to get there. I sat with her waiting for her family to arrive, one by one. They came in without knocking, ten or eleven of them. There was a book about Nazi Germany on the coffee table and her huge library–she is literary– was filled with Holocaust books. She escaped the Holocaust at eight years old after Kristallnacht and moved to America. Then in her 40s she left America not because of anti-semitism this time, but philo-semitism. She didn’t want her children to marry non-Jews. She wanted them to be Jewish and her grandchildren to be Jewish. She got her way.

Sitting with her, we shared our disappointment that my mother has never visited Israel. She said, "She would really like it here, she would like the Jewish culture, it would remind her of her childhood in Brooklyn." I agreed. Then she said, "I think that all Jews should see this place, and see what the Jews made. Even if you don’t like it, you should see it." I thought that was a gracious reference to my views. My mother has told her about them, and I have hinted at them. But I have never had an open honest discussion about them.

Many times that night members of her family asked me what I was doing in Israel, and I said that I was working on a novel about Jewish identity. It will involve a birthright trip gone bad, I said. This is true and not true. I didn’t tell them the plain truth, about this website, where I express strong views about the politics of their country. I can tell myself it was because I was being polite, or because it was not the time or place. And I guess that’s right. I know that I will write my mother’s friend a letter. Still: I was upset with myself later.

I’m so out on this website. But I was chickenshit. Why am I not honest with the only Zionist relations I might be said to have, about my views? Have they claimed me? As so many other American Jews are claimed by their more-intimate connections with Israelis? Well, I think that at some level I defer to their Jewish experience. The Holocaust truly is the basis of the creation of Israel, it was behind the Partition vote of 1947; and I find I cannot question the validity of the Holocaust as part of their experience. It is sacred to them, and maybe to me as well.

It is not a good guide to the future, the Holocaust. The Holocaust included a genocidal European reaction to Jewish sociological power; but the counter-Holocaust has included a deception about Jewish power, both in the United States and in Israel. It is a deception about our continued life as victims, when we can be influential in the U.S. and oppressors in Israel/Palestine.

Nonetheless, I am upset with myself for my silence. I will write that letter to my mother’s friend. And I think my work is among Jews. They are in the power class in America, they are the ones standing in the road of our foreign policy. If we are to make progress on these issues it is necessary to convert the Jews to the idea of Israel’s non-necessity. But still Jews don’t believe it; by overwhelming majority they do not believe it. They are attached to the idea of the Jewish state out of an ancient Jewish sense of their own isolation in the world community. I feel that one role I have is to engage on this question, within my ethnic community, my original tribe, to try and get them past it. It won’t happen with bludgeoning.

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About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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