Media Analysis

‘Jewish ethno-nationalism is a poison’ — Crabapple and Goldman clobber Zionism in intellectual journals

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Two essays in highminded journals underline a simple new fact of American intellectual life: Zionism is no longer in good odor. The ideology of Jewish nationalism may still have a home in the New York Times, at NPR, and on CNN and MSNBC, and in countless thinktanks, too. But increasingly any young thinker on the left understands that Zionism is not defensible on liberal grounds and feels a need to distance him/herself from it in the age of Trump.

My evidence for this optimistic assertion is Nathan Goldman’s review of an Amos Oz book in the Baffler and Molly Crabapple’s frankly anti-Zionist inquiry, “My Great-Grandfather, the Bundist,” in the New York Review of Books. In both pieces, Zionism is simply a dead letter. Both these writers are young, appealing, and have a following; and they’re done with all the ideological hermeneutics of arguing about Zionism’s upside.

Goldman’s piece is actually more significant, because it is so dismissive of a liberal Zionist icon; but Crabapple’s is more searching, deep.

Nathan Goldman
Nathan Goldman

You must understand that Amos Oz is a god for liberal Zionists. They trot him out at Peace Now and J Street with garlands, and his relentlessly-repeated metaphor of We need a divorce between Israelis and Palestinians has become a mantra among liberal Zionists. People hush out of respect for him (I do myself, because I love Oz’s early novels).

Goldman couldn’t care less about all that hoopla, reviewing Oz’s book Dear Zealots: Letters from a Divided Land (which seems to be a broken-record/sequel to his How to cure a fanatic of 16 years ago):

The fact is that Oz the humanist, Oz the liberal Zionist, Oz the democrat, is also Oz the ethnonationalist, because liberal Zionism—though to some it is anathema to say so—is ethnonationalism. He identifies himself as part of “the Zionist left, which opposes the occupation and refuses to rule over another nation, yet still believes that the Jewish people have a natural, historical, legal right to sovereign existence as a majority, if only in a very small democratic state.” But no state can control the demographics within it—that is, guarantee a Jewish majority—and still be “democratic” in any meaningful sense. Demographic control means restricting who can enter the state, who can procreate, and who can remain. It means policing the very notion of who is and is not Jewish. The humanistic, democratic Judaism Oz claims to espouse is fundamentally incompatible with the desire for a Jewish-majority state.

In the age of Trump and Netanyahu, the incoherence of this ideology has never been clearer. But there is a danger that—just as certain pundits have rushed to write off Trump as an aberration rather than an expression of the American idea in full, noxious bloom—liberal Zionists can write off Netanyahu as a departure from the redeemable values of Israel.

“Demographic control means restricting who can enter the state, who can procreate, and who can remain.” Zionism, as it has worked out anyway, has a racist core. (And as Scott Roth likes to say, liberal Zionists need Netanyahu, and he needs liberal Zionists).

Goldman’s ending steps off from parochial to the grand and stirring:

The obvious injustice of the occupation and the travesty of continued mainstream American Jewish support for it have led many younger Jews, often motivated by Jewish values, to question not only Israel’s actions, but the state itself. The movement that’s needed to realize a truly democratic vision, in which Israelis and Palestinians alike are free and equal, may seem, to Oz and other moderate middle-path seekers, overzealous. It might even seem fanatical. In a broken world, movements seeking justice usually do.

Now the Crabapple. Last month, the New York Review of Books published her article about rediscovering the Bundism of her great-grandfather, artist Sam Rothbort, who was born in 1882 in the Russian empire (a part that became interwar Poland) and emigrated as a young man to New York, where he died in 1971.

Molly Crabapple
Molly Crabapple (Photo: Comic Book Legal Defense Fund)

Crabapple is a young artist of some celebrity, and though the Bund is news to her, the New York Review of Books honors her epiphany about the “poison” of Zionism– surely because Trump’s nationalism has made anti-Zionism urgent business on the center-left. She writes, “Jewish ethno-nationalism is a poison like all ethno-nationalisms and, as they all do, it has continued to reap a harvest of repression and death.”

So our leading intellectual journal picks up a strain that it allowed to drop in 2003, after Tony Judt’s landmark piece calling for one state with equal rights because Zionism was an “anachronism” in an era of multiculturalism and multiple identities so upset establishment thinking.

Crabapple’s anti-Zionism is based in observations of Palestinian conditions. “Jews could never escape their problems by the dispossession of others.”

I visited Israel and its Occupied Territories once, as a reporter. I marveled at the beauty of Jerusalem, saw settlers hurling rocks in Hebron, and in Gaza listened to the shells landing around us. Despite Israel’s achievements, Jewish ethno-nationalism is a poison like all ethno-nationalisms and, as they all do, it has continued to reap a harvest of repression and death. The only way out is a solidarity that cuts across religion and race.

She explores the history of the Bund. Founded in 1897 in Vilna (Lithuania/Poland), it was by 1939 the most popular party in Poland, dedicated to doykait, the idea of here-ness. We will build our ideal society where we live.

Israel wants to bury that idea:

In Israel, the Bund has been either ignored or belittled. “[They] are perceived as individuals who stubbornly clung to an unrealistic solution for Jews’ persecution in Europe, with the ‘right’ solution being the one offered by the Zionists—immigration to Palestine,” Israeli human rights activist Elizabeth Tsurkov told me. Zionist ideologues have a self-serving motive for framing it this way. For Jews, there could be only two choices: march like a sheep to the gas chamber, or become a brave Israeli, bravely suppressing Arabs. Diasporic weakness is the necessary foil for sabra strength.

She recovers the Bund’s anti-Zionism, even after the Holocaust:

[W]hile Bundists and Communists battled in the streets [in the 1930s], the group’s main intellectual adversaries were the Zionists who saw their Eastern European home as exile from the promised land. Knowing that new nation-states were always created atop the blood of others, the Bund foresaw the fatal conflict involved in establishing Israel, which would lead to perpetual war with its neighbors and those it had dispossessed. “Zionism means a fight against the Arab masses,” wrote the Bundist intellectual Moishe Olgin in 1929. “They are to be deprived of their land, and the Arab working masses enslaved.”…

The Bund reconstituted itself as an international organization in 1947, with its base then in New York. That year, it called for an independent Palestine that would provide equality and self-government for both Jews and Arabs, for the resettlement of Jewish refugees in all free countries, and for Zionists to “renounce the goal of an independent Jewish state.” Immediately after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Bund demanded the right of return for Palestinian refugees that had been expelled by the IDF.

Such universalist humanism found fewer adherents after the Shoah. “Deeply grieved and shaken by the murder of six million of their brethren, the masses of the Jewish people became enveloped by strong nationalist tendencies, which… fanned by skillful Zionist propaganda, caused among the Jews a psychosis of Zionist and Messianistic illusions,” the Bund’s coordinating committee wrote in 1948. After all, had the civilized West not spent the preceding fifteen years slamming its doors shut to Jewish refugees on the pretext that they were not real Europeans? Would not Iraq, a few years later, force out more than 100,000 Jewish citizens on the pretext that they were Zionists?

I differ with some of Crabapple’s history; she downplays the role of Zionists as leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The uprising was not ideological; heroes Marek Edelman, a Bundist, and Yitzhak Zuckerman, a center-Zionist, worked side by side, and rescued a great number of Jews.

Crabapple’s overall point is consistent with what the noted historian Samuel Kassow said last week at a Yivo/Fordham lecture: in 1939 the Bund had achieved great cultural power and was poised to change Jewish relations with non-Jews in Poland. Then the Nazis occupied Poland, of course, and Bundism in Poland was meaningless. Today that spirit has lives in America, where anti-Zionists and assimilationist/integrationalist Jews are actually forging new relations between Jews and non-Jews. Crabapple represents that spirit here eloquently:

I return to do’ikayt, Hereness: a doctrine created by the godless Jews of the diaspora, written with mongrel words in Hebrew letters, then spread by itinerant troublemakers carrying forged passports, whose fundamental demand was the right to stay. What does Hereness mean in our age of mass migration? An attempt, I believe, to find the self in exile, to square homeland with the freedom to leave.

These pieces represent a trend that will transform the liberal discourse, including in the end Bari Weiss and Eliot Engel. OK, these are Jewish writers, apparently, and the problems with Zionism were evident to Palestinians a long time ago. We’re catching up slow. But as a catcher of straws in the wind, I say these are beams.

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i love the way you think and write phil.

Joel’s article on Ben White is a good antidote to this characteristically optimistic Phil Weiss piece about how things are about to get better. You were using the term “the age of Obama” about ten years ago, meaning that somehow his Obamaness symbolized a new era where liberal humanitarian nonracist… Read more »

Brilliant, Phil!

Always funny when Americans, who dispossessed Native Americans, talk about standing in solidarity with other beneficiaries of the dispossession of Native Americans to oppose dispossession in a small country of refugee halfway around the world. Very amusing, very silly, and very privileged.