In a recent article by Ali Abunimah, Richard Spencer is quoted as saying he turns to Israel “for guidance”. Spencer advocates for an Aryan homeland in the U.S., which he describes as a “sort of white Zionism”.
In this article, Abunimah takes the opportunity to review a telling moment that occurred at a Spencer event in Texas last December. At this event, a rabbi in the audience challenges Spencer’s “message of radical exclusion”. He explains that his “tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love,” and invites Spencer to study Torah with him.
Spencer challenges the rabbi’s claim by asking if he really wants radical inclusion into the state of Israel, such that “maybe all of the middle east could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem”. Self-congratulatory that the rabbi doesn’t have a retort, he shares his rationale: The Jewish people are a people “precisely because they did not engage in radical inclusion. Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate to the gentiles. It’s axiomatic.”
Spencer considers it axiomatic that survival of the Jewish people as a people relies on the (conveniently anti-Semitic) premise that we will only ever be safe if we are alone, separate, and isolated from our fellow human beings. Yet, such an argument can only be posited if Jewish identity is conflated with, or mistaken for, the political ideology of Zionism as it has manifested in the Israeli state and its ongoing expansion.
The crimes committed against the Palestinian people cannot be justified by ignoring thousands of years Jewish cultural survival, in far corners of the planet. Sure, some of that resilience has been a cause and consequence of the insularity of Jewish communities. Some of it has been imbued with spiritual longings for “Zion”. None of it is explained by the nationalistic aspirations for state power of the last 100 years.
A sound reply to Spencer’s challenge, and what the rabbi did not say, is that Jewish identity exists precisely to the extent that we have been able to access, participate in and help realize inclusion – of both individuals and communities – in the places where we reside and sometimes come to call home. Jews who publicly denounce and disassociate themselves from Israeli policies of exclusion, and therefore repression and state violence, don’t want a homeland for this people without a home. We, I, want to live in the world with our fellow human beings in dignity and respect.
The State of Israel, however, is built through ongoing displacement, siege, repression of media, and myriad other forms of violent exclusion. Defending, justifying or assuming the intrinsic need for this (exclusive) Jewish state hinders the ability to challenge white nationalism effectively.
Zionism and European/U.S. forms of white nationalism are birds of a feather. Their exclusive concerns for survival have the religious zeal of people who believe themselves to be chosen, wrapped tidily in the “scientific” racism of social Darwinism.
Outside of the Zionist narrative, one of the historical and cultural aspects of European Jewish identity is our rootlessness. This is less the case for Arab Jewish identities because coexistence in that region had been much more stable until Zionist state building. The identities of cultural groups are not handed down or stable; they are constructed, and constantly redefined. They need not be guarded behind lock and key to remain ours; the contours and character of cultural identities emerge in relation to other communities, not despite them.
In today’s world of more displacement of people and communities since World War Two, the history of preserving and evolving Jewish identity in coexistence with others is indeed specific, but not rare. The specific, Jewish history of rootlessness that is mine is part of a deep and collective human history we are still in the process of writing – and is to be neither exceptionalized nor erased. It is to be honored and valued – as a way to make sense of the past in the present, and shed light on possibilities for a shared future.