With the breakdown of the peace process, the umpteenth Gaza slaughter, and the approach of the 50th anniversary of the occupation, liberal Zionism has lost the ability to say that it has the answers to end the conflict. The ideology is in crisis, with pressure on its adherents either to fully join the pro-Israel chorus (ala J Street) or seek out new answers (ala IfNotNow). But some liberal Zionists are still trying to square the circle. A couple of recent items suggest that liberal Zionists are reduced to sloganeering and misrepresentation of the occupation and anti-semitism in order to maintain their worldview.
Susan Talve is a progressive rabbi who supports AIPAC and describes occupied Jerusalem as Israel but is also fervently against the occupation of the West Bank. She has gained a reputation in St. Louis as a supporter of racial justice in the Michael Brown case. At the Huffington Post, in a Yom Kippur piece by Antonia Blumberg, Talve seems to lump Michael Brown with the settler teens abducted and killed in the occupied West Bank in June and the East Jerusalem boy Mohammed Abu Khdeir killed in July as avatars of American Freedom Riders Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman.
Talve was in Israel this summer when three missing Israeli teenagers were found dead in the West Bank and a Palestinian boy was killed in a retribution attack. She returned home to Missouri just as Ferguson erupted following Michael Brown’s death. Talve said she felt that in many ways the recent months have been characterized by the deaths of young men.
2014 also marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of American civil rights’ workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner — three young men working on the “Freedom Summer” campaign, attempting to register African Americans to vote in Mississippi.
“I just wonder if the willingness of a society to sacrifice their sons is what we need to atone for,” Talve said. “I don’t want to see anymore of our young men die.”
I’d remind you that the three teens killed in the West Bank were hitchhiking home from a yeshiva in an illegal settlement in occupied Palestine, where Israel has imposed Jim Crow conditions. Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman gave their lives to end Jim Crow. If Talve was invoking the martyrs’ names, and it would seem from the article that she was, it’s a very hollow service.
Next, here is Todd Gitlin, a former 60s radical, lamenting the way that the left has turned on Israel. At Tablet, he writes that there are now “pogroms” raging against Jews in Europe, fueled by anti-Semitism using the pretext of Gaza.
especially as Jew-hating pogroms and murders rage through Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, fueled by the latest Gaza war, prickly tribalism has no shortage of anecdotes to support its call to circle the wagons. Disgraces and crimes, committed against Jews as such, in the name of a highly selective go-for-broke “solidarity,” are nothing less than disgraces and crimes—damnable, inexcusable, never to be pardoned even as they are understood. They are not simply collateral spillover from Gaza, though they are surely magnified thereby….
Gitlin is extremely defensive about the leftwing calls for democracy in all of Israel and Palestine. He knows these folks, and says they are just “tribalists.”
I want also to address the anti-Israeli BDS supporters I know. I want to tell them: You’re acting like inverted tribalists, singling out one tribe to demonize. You’ve surrendered to the tribalist recoil, the tit-for-tat temptation, to tell “the other” to go fuck him- or herself (not to put too fine a point on it).
But he concedes that Israel is now the touchstone issue, and litmus test for the left:
I would turn it to some of my brethren on campus, the young and the not-so-young, who think the only war crimes committed anywhere worth censuring and punishing are those of Israel and the United States; who think the only nation worth boycotting and divestment and sanctions is Israel; who think that the touchstone issue of our time is the urgent need to dismantle the one nation-state that, in a world of theocracies and semi-theocracies, is officially Jewish. I would ask them to reconsider not only their view, but the angry, fervent assurance with which they hold it. I would ask them how it came to pass that a position on Israel—of all the many issues in the world that cry out for our attention—became a litmus test for the left.
Israel is the touchstone issue of our time because it’s something we in the U.S. have a great deal of agency over. Especially American Jews. I don’t have much agency in Syria.
Liberal Zionist Eric Alterman sounds a similarly defensive tone about the left in a piece on the BDS battleground in Haaretz.
He has never been so personally attacked as he has been for writing about BDS, he adds, and it saps his energy for the fight. “I am writing less about BDS and Israel in The Nation, because I just don’t need the tsuris. My students come up to me and say ‘I hear you’re a racist white supremacist.’ I’ve been in fights my whole life and have never experienced the level of personal abuse that I have from the BDS crowd.”
The reason Alterman is getting this tsuris is because Jewish privilege in Israel and Palestine is finally being acknowledged by the U.S. left as a central question. In the wake of the latest failure of the peace process and the latest massacre in occupied territories, people are being called to take a stand on the ideology of Zionism, which has propagated the discrimination against Palestinians in the occupied territories and Israel itself. (The late Doris Lessing abandoned Communism after the Stalinist crackdowns in the early ’50s.) On this issue, Alterman can justly be characterized a conservative, wishing to preserve an established and unfair order.
Both Gitlin and Alterman say that the BDS movement is anti-semitic. “It’s reawakened liberals like myself to the enduring reality of anti-Semitism. There is anti-Semitism in BDS – quite a lot of it of a nasty variety,” notes Alterman in that Haaretz piece. “I am shocked by its vituperative character and the movement’s unwillingness to even admit it.” I’m not willing to admit the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the BDS movement because I don’t think it’s a current in the movement. Yes it rears its ugly head, and must be attacked; but it’s not the motivation. And meantime Gitlin and Alterman’s appeals re Jewish insecurity are part of the ideology of Zionism. We need a state in the Middle East because we’re not safe in other countries. The answer is liberal democracy, separation of church and state. Here and there.