American Jews have a right to resist Israel as Jews

CodePink activists Ariel Gold and Ariel Vegosen protest at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Israeli journalist and blogger Yossi Gurvitz has published an article here on Mondoweiss two weeks ago, titled “Sorry, American Jews, you don’t have a birthright”.

Whilst I love a lot of the insights Gurvitz has offered over the years, as well as many on the insights offered in the article, I think the essential message in his mentioned article is somewhat misleading. And it’s not about the title.

In the article, Gurvitz starts out with the Israeli jargon “get out of my veins”, which he addresses at American Jews, sarcastically moderating it to “American Jews, kindly get out of my veins”.

What Gurvitz is saying here, if I should summarize, is as he writes towards the end:

“When you are trying to impact Israel’s policy as a Jew, you are granting legitimacy to this [discrimination of non-Jews]. You are saying: I, who was not born in Israel, should have not just a voice in its affairs – but a much louder voice than its non-Jewish natives. What do they call that popular hasbara trip? I have a birthright. You don’t.”

But is this really what an American Jew is saying, necessarily so?

Does a Jew who tries to impact Israel’s policy, even declaredly so, as a Jew, necessarily claim that they have a “much louder voice” than the non-Jewish natives? Gurvitz continues,

“At least, you can’t claim a birthright here and still claim to be a liberal. If you do, you’re playing Israel’s game: you’re claiming Jews are a nation, you are claiming Israel is the national homeland of the Jews, and that therefore your voice counts more than non-Jews who live here. It shouldn’t.”

But are all Jewish Americans criticizing Israel claiming a ‘birthright’? Gurvitz’s point concerning ‘birthright’ is in itself interesting, in that it goes to the heart of Zionism and its manifestation in Israel as a Jewish State. One of the first laws passed in Israel was the Law of Return (1950) allowing any Jew from anywhere to receive immediate citizenship in Israel. The notion of this law, embedded in its very name, is the mythological Zionist notion that Jews are actually ‘returning’, after millennia of ‘exile’. This mythology relies on the perception of Jews as a ‘nation’ (rather than a mere religion). The ‘birthright’ notion is a euphemism subscribing to this myth. So Gurvitz is completely right to say that subscription to the ‘birthright’ notion is subscription to the Zionist notion of ‘Jewish nation’. But this still doesn’t prove that all Jewish Americans subscribe to it. And Gurvitz’s address is a general one to all Jewish Americans. What Gurvitz is essentially saying is that they should relinquish Zionism root and branch. Relinquishing Zionism root and branch is something that I am completely for. But many American Jews hold anti-Zionist views. And I am not just speaking about the ultra-orthodox who do so from religious Talmudic background (whom Gurvitz also refers to in footnote at the end of his article). I am also speaking about progressive American Jews. Philip Weiss wrote here in April in his article ‘The Jewish revolution’:

“Stefanie Fox [deputy Director, Jewish Voice for Peace] said that JVP was undertaking a review of its position on Zionism, a signal that the organization will adopt a strongly anti-Zionist stance in the months to come.”

Weiss noted about these young people, that

“They are trying to find their own way, Jewishly; and this has so far meant an openness to anti-Zionists, if not a rejection of the idea of a Jewish state.”

Fox said that Zionism is “not about the protection of Jews but the protection of a violent state”.

That’s quite a cutting statement.

So there is a movement in that direction. But regardless, Zionism is not Judaism – and that is exactly what this younger generation is already getting quite strongly. They are not relinquishing their Judaism – they are cutting it from Zionism.

Robert Cohen, in his article here on Mondoweiss from three days ago titled “If you can’t say equal rights, I can’t work with you”, writes:

“The greatest issue, the greatest challenge:

If you’ve read any of my writing over the last six years, you’ll know that I come at all of this from a particular Jewish perspective. I come to this issue out of solidarity with the Palestinian people but I come to it firstly from a concern for the future of Jews and Judaism. I’m in no doubt that as Jews, our relationship with Israel and the Palestinians is the greatest issue, and the greatest challenge, facing us in the 21st century. Everything else either relates to that relationship, or it pales into insignificance against it.”

We can discuss which angle one should or could enter the paradigm of Zionism and “Jewish state” through, but is it not valid to consider it as a paradigm that is deeply connected with Judaism today, even if one believes Zionism to be anathema to Judaism?

Does claiming to be a Jew, whilst not being Israeli, necessarily buy into the ‘Jewish nation’ orthodoxy of Zionism? Does criticizing Israel whilst noting one’s Jewishness openly (as for example Jewish Voice for Peace supporting BDS), necessarily grant legitimacy to Israel’s discrimination?

I find the logic here somewhat disingenuous. It suggests a blanket definition of Jews all over the world, wherein they either put away their Jewish identity completely when they criticize Israel, or they are being hypocritical.

Indeed, Gurvitz suggests that the only valid and applicable notion wherein Jews oppose Israeli policy, is by them completely dismissing the fact that they are Jews, and acting simply as ‘liberals’. As Gurvitz writes in his final paragraphs:

“Does it mean I don’t want to hear from you? Not at all. You are important to me as liberals. Liberalism everywhere is under attack. You might have noticed that Israel is walking hand in hand with Russia and the eastern European anti-liberal governments. We are facing an international ultra-national movement. We need to link hands against it if we are to survive. So, as liberals, you are my allies; but, as Jews, kindly get out my veins. By speaking as Jews, you are lending force to the illiberal forces here. Speak to us in the voice of humanity you earned by standing by the civil rights movement, by the martyrs of the Freedom Riders; but don’t speak to as Jews. My country only sees you as Jews when it needs to exclude others. Don’t legitimize it.”

Gurvitz’s argument seems to suggest this is really, essentially, an Israeli matter. When he says ‘get out of my veins’, he is posing himself as the ‘Israeli’, who is asking the ‘non-Israelis’, in this case particularly American Jews, to keep away from the discussion about Israeli oppression, unless they can completely put away their Jewishness.

On one level, there’s a logic here, which is supposedly based upon the geographical aspect of Israel, as opposed to its Jewish ‘character’ as a state. Gurvitz seems to want to accentuate this – that it’s an Israeli matter, not a Jewish matter really.

But Gurvitz surely knows that an Israeli nationality doesn’t exist. And that he thus does not exist as an Israeli national, because Israeli nationality is not recognized by Israel. Bluntly put – Israelis don’t exist in the national sense. What really exists in the national sense, what Israel really is in the national sense, is a Jewish State, and the only ones who actually enjoy national rights (rather than merely citizenship rights), are the Jews – all over the world, whether they or their ancestors have ever stepped foot there or not. This is a novel concept.

Hence, Israel is an exceptionally Jewish issue (whether one agrees with the notions of a Jewish nation, Jewish state, Zionism etc. or completely rejects them). It is not illogical that Jews all over the world, indeed, as Jews, rise up even in the name of Judaism, and oppose Israeli policy as well as its national construct (which its policies vis-à-vis non-Jews are unquestionably an integral resultant of).

It would, in my view, be sterile and rather illogical to address Israel as a state divorced from Judaism, when it claims so loudly and so unequivocally to be married in with Judaism. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regularly exploits terror to promote the Jewish State, announcing to all Jews that “Israel is your home”, as he did in the wake of the Paris attacks and Copenhagen attacks in 2015 (and he’s not the only Israeli leader doing that, see for example centrist Yair Lapid). This is indirectly saying to Jews all over the world, that where they happen to be living is not their home, not nationally so – because Israel is their ultimate, and hence only, national home.

Jews have a right to resist this attempt to speak on their behalf, and to resist such insidious and cynical attempts (supposedly for their own good) to drive a wedge between them and the societies and nations of which they are an integrated part. It makes very much sense that they do this as Jews, and this does not automatically legitimise the ‘Jewish nation’ notion as Gurvitz warns. In the mentioned example of Netanyahu, they are precisely opposing the blanket ‘Jewish nation’ notion by protesting the ‘Israel is your home’ advocacy, as many of them did.

Personally, I consider my concern for Palestinians as one that is closer to the ‘liberal’ one which Gurvitz describes, and I do not come out from the same prime concern for the “future of Jews and Judaism”, as Robert Cohen puts it. But this to me is not the most central issue – people can reach Rome from many directions. What is important for me is that opposition to Israeli policy and ideology, not be alienated if it has a valid logical basis, also when that basis is declaredly ‘Jewish’. Otherwise, I feel we are getting way too far into people’s heads, and between them and their God. I feel this could easily become a matter of ‘getting into people’s veins’. What I’m saying is, you can both be Jewish and liberal.