“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.
“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.