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‘I came to explore the wreck of Zionism’: A report from the 2017 JVP meeting

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“I’m learning how my bare body can help the world,” Una Aya Osato said at the conclusion of her workshop, “Self-Loving Anti-Zionist,” moderated by Dan Fishback, at the JVP National Members Meeting this past weekend in Chicago. Osato is a performer, writer, and educator based in New York. She’s a burlesque dancer, too, and her political beliefs are incorporated into her art. “How do politics come into the body?” she asked, putting her clothes back on after her burlesque show–which featured her dancing with an Israeli flag and revealing the letters BDS pasted on her bare body–and was performed in one of the otherwise staid conference rooms at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago’s South Loop.

JVP member Una Osato. (Photo: Jewish Voice for Peace)

“All In” was the theme for this year’s meeting. Over one thousand people from different racial and religious backgrounds came to the JVP meeting that was filled with dozens of amazing speakers and workshops. Much of the weekend was organized so that participants could gain a deeper understanding of the connection between Zionism, white supremacy, and antisemitism. The meeting also encouraged JVP members to envision a future based on justice and compassion beyond Zionism, and was, for participants like me, an opportunity to find camaraderie with other Jews who have been marginalized from Zionist families. I experienced a range of feelings that surprised me during the weekend as I took it all in.

During the Friday night opening plenary, “Ready to Fight: JVP’s Role in This Political Movement,” the renowned cultural theorist Judith Butler said, “So many of us have been called antisemites because we criticize Israel.” Now, the antisemites are Zionists, she continued, referring, namely, to Steve Bannon, explaining that Bannon’s antisemitism doesn’t get in the way of his Zionism. As a former Zionist turned anti-Zionist, I have found it difficult to wrap my head around this emergence of Zionist antisemitism (though many have been writing about this connection–this symbiotic interdependence, really–for a long time). I see Zionists around me, like my family, struggle with this dilemma even though they cannot name it. My parents, for example, scoff at Bannon’s antisemitism, but when I push them and ask how they can be both antisemitic and Zionist, they shrug and say, “It’s a new world, Liz,” as though the current political scene is so far out of our understanding that it’s better not to try to figure it out. When my father says things like this, I remember Woody Allen’s 1989 film, Hannah and Her Sisters, when Allen’s character asks his father why there were Nazis. “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?” his father replies. “I don’t know how the can opener works!”

At the plenary, Butler provided language to better understand this connection. “Bannon’s affinity for white supremacy and anti-Semitism,” she said, “are both in relation to his support for Zionism.” Butler explained that racists love Israel because Israel maintains its own dominance through white supremacy. “It carries out their dream of being racist,” Butler argued. Bannon supports keeping Israeli Ashkenazic structures–i.e. the foundation of the country’s white supremacy–in place. He and Israel share the same goal, according to Butler.

Efrat Yerday, an expert on Ethiopian history in Israel and abroad, also discussed the connections between Zionism and racism during the Saturday plenary, “Let’s Talk About Zionism.” Like Butler, she explained Israel’s efforts to maintain white supremacy at the expense of Jews of Color and Arabs. Yerday referred to UN Resolution 3379, passed in 1975, which declared Zionism a form of racism. Israel offered Ethiopia’s Jews the opportunity for aliyah so “Israel wouldn’t look racist,” Yerday explained. Even so, it still took Israel ten years after the UN Resolution to airlift the Ethiopians in 1984 in Operation Moses. “They weren’t really interested in black people even if they were Jews,” Yerday said. I remember Operation Moses in 1984 and its follow-up, Operation Solomon, six years later in 1991. Both Operations are chronicled and celebrated in the textbook I used when I taught Hebrew several years ago, in chapter seven–the section where I taught past tense verbs. In this textbook’s account, Israel was the benevolent white father who brought the Jews of Color to their spiritual home. As Yerday was talking, I felt ashamed for having taught that story to my Hebrew classes. I was complicit in perpetuating Israel’s myth, and, now, angry at the accolades I received for doing it from so many family members.

Also at Friday’s opening plenary, Fadi Quran, Palestinian activist and Senior Campaigner for Avaaz in Palestine, gave a realistic and moving portrait of Palestinian life under Israeli occupation. “There is a deep sense of loneliness in Palestine,” Quran said. The Palestinian Authority has become “the governing body of the occupation,” he explained, calling the PA “postmodern Uncle Toms.” Even as he acknowledged the positive energy in the ballroom at the conference, Quran soberly admitted, “Not all liberation movements have been successful. Not all indigenous communities have survived.” Palestinian families “don’t have time to mourn their children,” Quran said, “because of collective punishment.” Quran asked, “What is the future we want together?” He listed three things: dignity, having control over one’s destiny, and being able to achieve one’s dreams. “No one during the first intifada thought occupation and colonialism would last for so long,” he said. “We must transform the agents of power.”

Like Quran, Stefanie Fox, Deputy Director at JVP, also critiqued the power structures that drive Israeli politics in her opening remarks at Saturday’s plenary. Fox talked about her own process of getting “past the layers of denial,” and moving to the place where she could “acknowledge what had been stolen.” Quoting from Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” Fox read, “I came to explore the wreck,” and she beautifully connected Rich’s poem to her own “understanding the wreck of Zionism.”

While Fox was talking, I was making connections in my own life to an increased awareness of “the wreck of Zionism.” I have felt so much shame in having been a Zionist. When I first joined JVP years ago, I went to meetings and actions and feigned a false comfort in pretending that I had always been an anti-Zionist against the occupation. Other Jews seemed so much more comfortable than me talking about Palestine. Now, with language, I’m able to understand that I was simply at the beginning of the process of undoing my Zionism. At the time, I even faked it, yelling, “Free Palestine!” with others as we protested. My face would get red and hot as I mouthed the words “Palestine” around others, as though I had committed some sort of transgression.

It was an offense to use the word Palestine in my family. Now, when I’m with them and I comfortably say “Palestine,” I’m met with the same awkwardness that I used to have. It’s getting harder to remember that it was difficult for me to say it, or even, that I didn’t see it. When I stayed with Palestinians in Jenin years ago, I remember looking out the window of my host’s home. Palestinian homes dotted the landscape with giant olive trees. The apartheid wall was out of vision. I could see, for the first time, finally, in the dusky twilight, the land of Palestine as it was meant to be for Palestinians. This is not Israel, I thought. Israel has colonized this indigenous land. It’s all Palestine. The West Bank, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, all of it, I thought. This understanding has come in stages, in an undoing of the Zionist layers of propaganda that were deep in my unconscious. On Saturday at the JVP meeting, Fox talked about her need to remove her own Zionist layers of denial, to take on “the truth as one whole story–a patching together of what was torn apart.”

Something shifted inside of me as Fox spoke. I think I finally understood what Fox was trying to say. “I moved past the false comfort of mythology,” Fox said. I think what opened inside of me was a permission to stop shaming myself for having believed the mythology of Israel and to acknowledge the importance of my own narrative as I work to untangle my own layers of denial– alongside Palestinians’ stories–that I haven’t fully given myself before. Being part of the oppressing group, I have noticed wanting to silence my embarrassment and shame at having been a Zionist–and my subsequent, privileged epiphany that Israel is actually all Palestine–to move my voice out of the way to make room for the oppressed voices. This is important to do, of course, and has its place, but even as I’m writing this now, I realize that my silence hasn’t done anyone any favors. “The wreck is there whether we notice it or not,” Fox said. Once she began to acknowledge what was really happening in Palestine, she was able to understand it “Not as someone else’s story to feel sorry for, but as my own story.”

Friday night, when I was deciding which workshops to go to, I was intrigued when I saw Osato’s “Self-Loving Anti-Zionist” as one of them. Even then, though, I felt a twinge of shame as I texted my husband, joking, “Maybe I’d go if it was called ‘Self-Loathing Anti-Zionist.’” In her burlesque show, Osato danced–her own complicated and beautiful story–the wreck of Zionism. In the middle of her show, as she chronicled her narrative while changing outfits behind an open suitcase, she exclaimed, “You mean, this place that was mine–that I didn’t really care that was mine–isn’t mine?” At the end of the workshop, Osata pulled out some t-shirts she brought to the JVP meeting. “Self-loving anti-Zionist,” is written in all the colors of the rainbow, dotted with delicate little stars against a cityscape. “I don’t want people to just love a piece of me–it’s my whole self,” she said. Later, when I got home, I re-read a part of Rich’s poem, and lingered on the weekend: “the thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” Before I left the workshop, I bought one of her t-shirts. I doubt I’ll be performing burlesque any time soon, but on Sunday, the last day of the national meeting, I wore the t-shirt home.

Liz Rose

Liz Rose is a Chicago teacher.

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19 Responses

  1. Ira Glunts on April 5, 2017, 11:00 am

    Bravo. Well done.

  2. pabelmont on April 5, 2017, 12:05 pm

    The wreck of Zionism. Great phrase. But the “wreck” s going strong.

    “Israel is actually all Palestine”: I think implicit in this is that both Zionists and anti-Zionists can say the same thing; but Zionists mean to add or imply, “and a good thing too”, and anti-Zionists mean to add or to imply, “and that was so awful, never should have happened.”

    I had some very Zionist friends in the 1980s who subscribed to the then-popular school of thought that creating Israel was necessary, so Palestinians had no real complaint: “A man was high up in a burning building. To save his own life he jumped out and landed on another man, breaking the latter’s back. You’re telling me he shouldn’t have jumped?”

    And I answered then as now: But Israel (if necessary at all) was not necessarily so large. The necessity, if any, was for a small place, especially if it had to be purely “Jewish”. The bigness part sprang from desire, not from necessity, and was produced not by necessity but by barbaric settler colonialism.

    • echinococcus on April 5, 2017, 2:11 pm

      Pabelmont, I would add that Nazism was stamped to the ground in 1945. Much more was done then to eradicate fascist aggression than is done today (we reward richly all major war criminals and criminals against peace nowadays.)

      The pirate Zionist entity attacked in 1947 and declared itself a state in 1948. So how in hell or heaven should “Israel” be “necessary”?

      It’s not a question of size. The very presence of any Zionists there in 1945 after the defeat of Nazi Germany, except for legitimate war refugees waiting to be repatriated, remains illegal.

      • Stephen Shenfield on April 5, 2017, 7:48 pm

        After 1945 the Zionists staged a melodrama to make people believe that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust had nowhere else to go besides Palestine. This belief played a crucial role in gaining the approval of most of world opinion for the creation of Israel. However, it was false. Many other countries were or might have been willing to accept the survivors — France, Britain, Australia, even Jordan among them — but the Zionists worked quite successfully behind the scenes to block or suppress awareness of such initiatives. One country that did take in refugees despite Zionist pressure was Sweden, loyal to its own humanitarian tradition. And some did manage quietly to settle here in the US.

        “Repatriation” was not in all cases a reasonable option. In particular, Poland was not an acceptable destination because it was the graveyard of survivors’ families (the main death camps were there) and because the return of some Jews after the war led to pogroms.

      • echinococcus on April 5, 2017, 11:57 pm


        In the absence of the Nazi racist dictatorship, repatriation is an eminently appropriate solution for all refugees. It’s not as if having the same rights as everybody else, in one’s own country, is a bed of roses, of course, especially in Eastern Europe. But how is it that what was good enough for other Poles, Czechs, Germans, etc. was not good enough for the Jewish ones? The fact that the Americans and the other colonial powers used the DP camps for anticommunist propaganda and made a big fuss to avoid repatriating many thousands people is not reason enough for accepting the Zionist scam, paid with the blood of Palestinians, as “necessary”. As if Poland was not the graveyard of millions of non-Jewish Poles’ family graveyard, too, in 1945. This exceptionalism is more than ridiculous and an insult to logic.

      • Jon66 on April 6, 2017, 8:37 am

        Returning to Poland was a great option.

      • Mooser on April 6, 2017, 4:36 pm

        “After 1945 the Zionists staged a melodrama to make people believe that Jewish survivors of the Holocaust had nowhere else to go besides Palestine”

        “Stephen”, am I correct in thinking that there may have been as many as 300,000 Jews in Displaced Persons camps in Europe after WW2?
        It’s a low number for some very horrible reasons, of course. Commonly given as closer to 250,000.

      • Mooser on April 6, 2017, 7:11 pm

        And from a comment on another thread:

        “As late as 1948 there were “between 100,000 and 114,000 displaced Jews in the American Zone of Germany.”

      • Maghlawatan on April 6, 2017, 11:01 pm

        The Americans didn’t want European Jews either in the 1930s or straight after the war. Shunting these by now traumatised people to Palestine was typical short termism.

        Other examples of US political short termism can be seen with US healthcare, for example. Always take the easy option.

        Israel has US Judaism by the balls because of this history.

        Failure has many fathers.

        Zionism got lucky in the late 40s. The western guilt over the Shoah opened up opportunities that hadn’t existed up to then. In a way it was like Brexit. A political solution was imposed without any preparation.

        Zionism’s key weakness has always been the Palestinians. Because of the rushed nature of the foundation of Israel nobody gave much thought to what to do. When there was a blockage, the Zionists always resorted to violence.

        The culture that developed was sloppy and impulsive, partly because of the fear of the Palestinians. Just build and worry about problems later.

        Smoch alai. Trust me.

    • RoHa on April 6, 2017, 1:10 am

      ““A man was high up in a burning building. To save his own life he jumped out and landed on another man, breaking the latter’s back. You’re telling me he shouldn’t have jumped?”

      If he knew that he would kill the other man, the answer is “He should not have jumped.”

      • Citizen on April 6, 2017, 3:28 pm

        Too, the lifeboat analogy…Thou Shalt Not Kill….

    • eljay on April 6, 2017, 8:45 am

      || pabelmont: … I had some very Zionist friends in the 1980s who subscribed to the then-popular school of thought that creating Israel was necessary, so Palestinians had no real complaint: “A man was high up in a burning building. To save his own life he jumped out and landed on another man, breaking the latter’s back. You’re telling me he shouldn’t have jumped?” … ||

      Zionists believe that Jews are entitled to do unto others acts of injustice and immorality they would not have others do unto them. Zionists are hateful and immoral hypocrites.

      • Citizen on April 6, 2017, 3:29 pm

        Hillel The Elder is only one strand of Judaism, yes?

      • Mooser on April 6, 2017, 5:04 pm

        “Hillel The Elder is only one strand of Judaism, yes?”

        Take care. Think of what happened to the woman who insisted on repeatedly asking the Guru of K’ang: “Oh, great K’angGuru, of what is the world and the universe made, warp and woof?”

    • Keith on April 6, 2017, 12:44 pm

      PABELMONT- (Quoting)- “A man was high up in a burning building. To save his own life he jumped out and landed on another man, breaking the latter’s back. You’re telling me he shouldn’t have jumped?”

      This is a rather famous false analogy. If we stick with the form but correct the facts, we discover that long before the fire the Zionists were jumping on the Palestinians’ backs. Further, the Zionists accommodated the arsonist who set the fire. And finally, once the fire was out, the Zionists blocked the exits leading to the Western Democracies forcing the survivors to jump. The fire was out. There was no need to jump except that created by the Zionists. Zionism is all about negating assimilation and reestablishing Jewish tribalism which benefits the Jewish elites, frequently at the expense of individual Jews. Why else would Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson be such supporters of Israel? Oligarchs as nice guys? What is in it for them? Zionism serves a purpose, and refugeeism isn’t it.

  3. echinococcus on April 5, 2017, 2:03 pm

    Talking about a wreck waaay before it’s destroyed would have been seen as pep talk in the chickens-before-hatching category if it were the only problem. This declaration comes before her organization has clearly declared war to Zionism. It has not made amends for its despicable witchhunt against Weir, Berlin, Atzmon and other steadfast enemies of Zionism.

  4. Maghlawatan on April 6, 2017, 4:26 pm

    Every year Israel goes deeper into nihilism. The Nazis are still winning

    • WH on April 6, 2017, 6:38 pm

      Gotta love all these ‘former’ guys who become outspoken critics of the system they lived off once they’re no longer in a position to do anything about it.
      (BTW, why the change of name Seafoid?)

  5. yourstruly on April 6, 2017, 8:43 pm

    Fadi Quaran – In “The future we want together there will be dignity, control of one’s destiny and being able to achieve one’s dreams.”

    Yes, in Palestine and everywhere else in the world

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