Several years ago, a student in my Israel-Palestine course approached me after class with a question. Why, he wanted to know, did I care so much about this subject?
The student liked my course, considered it fair-minded and had no complaints about the way I was teaching it. Though he didn’t share many of my critical views about Israel he understood and respected them. But why, he was wondering, did the subject so consume me? Why did my relationship to this history feel so intense, so visceral?
Had I been a staunch defender of Israel the student probably wouldn’t have found my emotional investment surprising. Especially since I was avowedly Jewish it would have seemed to him “normal” for me to be teaching a class extolling Zionism and Israel. But what could be driving a Jew to invest so much critical energy in the subject?
It was an honest question. The student wasn’t preparing the ground to hit me with the ever-popular Zionist talking point about “singling out” (“What about North Korea and Assad’s Syria and China? Why not focus on and criticize them? What have you got against the Jews?”). Rather, he was simply curious about why I was so focused on this particular history, this particular conflict.
I never got back to him with a clear answer. But I’ve never stopped thinking about his question. Here are my current thoughts on the subject:
The most obvious but, in a way, most evasive response to the student’s query would have been simply to say: “I have strong feelings because the Israel-Palestine conflict is of immense contemporary importance to the entire Middle East. And because America’s support for Israeli policies has made it deeply complicit in a long history of unjust actions and designs. And because the Palestinians have been victims of imperial and settler-colonial domination, of exploitation and betrayal by their putative Arab ‘brethren,’ of divided and frequently inept leadership, and of international toleration of Israeli crimes.”
Though I believe all these things to be true, however, they don’t, in themselves, satisfactorily account for the intensity of my intellectual and emotional investment. After all, there are other subjects I am deeply concerned about, many of them more pressing and potentially apocalyptic than the Israel-Palestine conflict, starting with the planetary threat of climate change and the growing menace of fascism in the U.S. and abroad. So why have I been expending so many scarce brain-cells and so much emotional energy in recent years on the subject of Israel-Palestine rather than on these other issues?
A reply to this might be: “It’s true I’ve been especially consumed by the subject of Jews and Palestinians. But so what? Why is it necessary for anyone to account for his/her political preoccupations? It’s one thing to recognize an ethical and intellectual obligation to provide good reasons for one’s political positions. It’s a very different thing to be obliged to explain why one cares so much about any particular subject, e.g., about criminal justice reform or the plight of the Chinese Uighurs or wealth inequalities.
“We all have psychological reasons for paying more attention to one subject than to other deserving ones. So long as the focus of our particular concern is righteous; and so long as we honestly attempt to justify our arguments; what difference does our psychological motivation make?”
Such a response, I think, is entirely adequate. Yet it still feels like an evasion. The student’s question still gnaws.
An answer that many leftish Jews have been known to offer goes something like this: “The Jewish ethical and historical tradition is uniquely or especially committed to social justice and support for underdogs. Empathy for the Palestinians and anger about Zionist depredations is therefore a Jewish imperative. Actually existing Zionism is a betrayal of the essential Jewish tradition. Not only has it been disastrous for the Palestinians, it has been bad for the Jews. It has turned them into oppressors and caused them to abandon their historical ‘calling’ of tikkun olam, repairing the world. As Jews, therefore, we are specially obliged to take up the Palestinian cause.”
For many reasons, however, this line of thought doesn’t resonate with me.
Is it true, I wonder, that Jewish ethics are really all that different from those of other religions? Do so-called Jewish ethics define Jewishness? And have Jews historically in fact been more just than other peoples?
Accounting for my own ethical and emotional engagement in terms of a putative Jewish ethical “tradition” (the reality of which I find dubious) strikes me as historically problematic and extremely parochial.
Moreover, the ways in which I’ve personally understood my “Jewishness” have never had anything to do with Jewish theology or with any transhistorical or metahistorical identification with an imagined Jewish “people.” But if this is the way I feel, is my “Jewishness” at all relevant to my engagement with the subject of Israel/Palestine? And, if it is, how do I understand this “Jewishness” anyhow?
It seems that if I want to honestly grapple with my student’s question a biographical excursus is in order. So, here goes.
My parents were first-generation American-born secular Jews. I never knew them to step foot in a synagogue except to attend other people’s bar mitzvahs and funerals. My own bar mitzvah was very much my mother’s doing and had everything to do with maintaining propriety and nothing at all to do with “observing the commandments” or joining the “Jewish community.” Apart from Hanukah, Passover and Purim, my understanding of Jewish holy days was just about non-existent, and my associations with these three holidays was aptly summed up by Alan King’s aphorism: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
When it came to the subject of Israel, my parents were curiously disengaged, despite their being intensely political in other respects. My father had been an active Socialist during the 1930s and, like most pre-WWII leftists, had been staunchly anti-Zionist. One of my grandfathers had been sympathetic to the Zionist cause and had apparently engaged in heated conversations about the subject with my father. But by the time I was growing up this was all ancient history. Not only was my father no longer a socialist but he had become reconciled to the Zionist enterprise and, as far as I could make out, regarded the State of Israel as a pretty unalloyed Good Thing.
A Good Thing, but a subject neither he nor my mother talked much about. Indeed, when my parents were financially able to afford to travel abroad, Israel was nowhere near the top of their list of preferred (England, France, Italy, Germany, Holland) destinations. True, some years after my father’s death in 1979, my mother became a member of Peace Now. Yet even then she rarely spoke about Israel and I had only the haziest idea of what her thinking was on the subject. I can never recall her uttering the word “Palestinians.”
In sum: Though sympathetic with Israel and ill-disposed to finding fault with it, my parents never equated their being Jewish with any allegiance to, or special interest in, the “Jewish state.” They certainly never conveyed a sense that it was their or my “homeland.”
So what exactly did my parents regard as their “Jewishness?” They never put it into words and probably couldn’t have. For my mother, I think, it was a matter of filial piety. Her much-revered father, though an atheist who never went to shul in the U.S., had taught in a cheder back in Poland, had come to America to avoid being drafted into the tsar’s army, and was something of a yiddishist.
For my father the issue was a little more complicated. His parents were German (not Yiddish) speakers from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had zero connection with any Jewish “community” in the U.S. and were given to looking down their petit-bourgeois noses at vulgar Eastern European Jews, like my mother’s family. My father, who won the German language medal at City College in the 1930s, strongly identified with German kultur, i.e., with what during the Nazi years, became known in the U.S. as the “Good Germany.” Yet though he was never so crass as to suggest for a moment that Jewish-Germans were in any sense preferable to non-Jewish ones, he also never failed to somehow alert me to the fact that paragons like Heinrich Heine, Albert Einstein and Kurt Weill (among others) were not just Germans, but were German Jews. Which was also apparently a Good Thing.
In general, I think my father considered his own Jewish identity to be inextricably enmeshed with an intellectual-cultural-political Mitteleuropean tradition which was significantly but by no means exclusively Jewish. And whatever pride he derived from considering himself an heir to this tradition was implicitly communicated to me. As I grew up, therefore, I came also to feel a strong identification (bordering on a sense of superiority) with a pan-European Jewish-inflected “tradition” of politically progressive thought and action (think: Marx, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg) and radical cultural and literary brilliance (think: Freud and Kafka).
To which I added my own firm conviction that Jews were funnier than other people (think: Marx Brothers, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen). Though my parents, like most Jews in post-war America, spoke little about the Nazi Final Solution, I became quite transfixed by the subject and thought often about the lucky accidents that had spared me and my immediate family from Auschwitz or Treblinka.
When I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University (established by largely secular, largely Eastern European descended American Jews in 1948, the same year as the creation of the State of Israel), I enrolled in what was probably the very first college course ever offered on the subject, “The Literature of the Holocaust,” taught by Marie Syrkin, a fiery woman who was the daughter of Nachman Syrkin, an early and renowned left-wing Zionist. Though Syrkin had no success in interesting me in Israel, her course readings (“The Wall,””The Last of the Just,” Rudolph Vrba’s “I Cannot Forgive,” Piotr Rawicz’s “Blood from the Sky”) left a powerful impression. As, for that matter, did Hannah Arendt’s New Yorker articles about the Eichmann trial (articles which of course Syrkin deplored), whose analysis of bureaucracy and the “banality” of modern evildoers has stuck with me to this day.
Anyway, by the time I graduated from college, and for many years thereafter, I thought of myself as an utterly irreligious self-identified “Jew,” proud of a Jewish radical and cultural “tradition;” proud to be associated with Groucho, Woody and Mel; acutely aware of the civilization that had been destroyed by the Nazis; and pretty much entirely indifferent to the state of Israel, a place that was infinitely more “foreign” to me than London, Paris or Berlin, and not half so interesting.
So what changed? How did I come to be not just “interested” in Israel, but preoccupied with its appalling treatment of the Palestinians and disgusted by its egregious special-pleading?
Part of the answer, I think, had to do with the changes I began perceiving in the American Jewish community. Starting in the late 1970s the new and distinctively Jewish movement of neo-conservatism openly and vitriolically repudiated the very “progressive” legacy I had reflexively taken to be characteristically Jewish: it was hostile to feminism, hostile to gay rights, hostile to and contemptuous of African-American “special privileges” and cultural assertion, unapologetically hawkish, intensely nationalistic, skeptical (if not repudiating) of the New Deal and Great Society, smugly dismissive of socialism and Marxism . . . and effusively supportive of Israel (this during a decade defined by Begin, Sharon and Shamir, by the proliferation of West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza settlements, by the invasion of Lebanon and by the advent of the First Intifada).
The rightward shift of a vocal portion of the American Jewish community, and especially the influence of neoconservatism on the so-called “New York (Jewish) Intellectuals,” led me to start wondering about the depth, strength and temporal scope of that Jewish progressive “tradition” which had formed such an important part of my own Jewish “identity.” It began to dawn on me that what I had taken to be a long and glorious legacy had been something of an illusion, that insofar as such a progressive legacy had existed at all, it was of very recent vintage (dating from the mid-to-late 19th century), was of very limited geographic provenance (central and eastern Europe) and was exclusively an Ashkenazi phenomenon (having nothing whatever to do with North African or Middle Eastern Jews).
What I had naively taken to be a long-standing Jewish progressivism was in fact a modern and rather ephemeral historical outcropping, shaped by the socio-cultural experience of a few generations of European Jews and with little bearing on any sort of essential “Jewishness” (whatever that might mean). This realization didn’t, of course, make me think any the less of Luxemburg, Kafka or Groucho. But it did induce me to reconsider the nature of my Jewish identification.
There were other cultural developments transforming the American Jewish community which affected me as well. In the later years of the 20th century American Jews seemed increasingly to define their Jewish “identity” in terms of the Holocaust and of Israel. The former was understood as the culmination of a long and relentlessly lachrymose history of victimization which set the Jews apart from all other people and represented a kind of negative “exceptionalism.” The latter was understood as the miraculous redemption of a singular people whose providential purpose was to be a “light unto the nations,” recapture the glory of Joshua, David and Solomon, and produce an endless stream of doctors, scientists and tech-savvy start-up entrepreneurs.
Needless to say, none of this corresponded with my own understanding of being Jewish and, to the contrary, impressed me as being unhistorical, chauvinistic and downright dangerous.
As indeed it was. And is.
The changes in American politics and culture induced me to stop valorizing my Jewish “identity” and to consider my “Jewishness” as simply a morally neutral sociological and historical fact. But these changes didn’t of themselves transform me into a critic of Israel. For that to happen, I had also to call into question the Zionist/Israeli myths that had long been internalized as self-evident truths by American Jews, myself included.
This final step in my personal evolution began to take shape in the late 1990s and then especially after 9/11. As a student and long-time teacher of history I began, for the first time, to read systematically (and then obsessively) about Zionist/Israeli/Palestinian history. Fortuitously, my burgeoning interest in these subjects corresponded with a remarkable efflorescence of new history writing (largely, but by no means exclusively, produced by Jewish-Israeli scholars) which scrupulously and devastatingly undermined one after another pillar of the hitherto sanctified Zionist narrative.
In addition to academic works, I also began to read some of the enormously compelling autobiographical accounts produced by Palestinians themselves, especially the remarkable diaries, recollections and reconstructions of Raja Shehadeh ( Samud: Journal of a West Bank Palestinian; The Sealed Room; Strangers in the House; When the Birds Stopped Singing: Ramallah Under Siege; Palestinian Walks; A Rift in Time; Occupation Diaries; etc.); and the powerful memoirs by Ghada Karmi (In Search of Fatima, Return).
It wasn’t only that these readings punctured myths and opened my eyes to a history that had hitherto been unknown to me. Their effect involved something more, something visceral. They made me feel as I had during the 1960s when I’d been similarly compelled by my studies and conversations to jettison another celebratory myth-laden narrative: an American fairy tale of freedom-loving settlers and democracy-promoting expansionism. In both instances I came to realize that people I trusted and respected had been promulgating a one-dimensional chauvinist history and burying or muting beyond recognition important narratives of injustice.
For all I knew the promoters of these self-serving and moralistic narratives genuinely believed them. It didn’t matter. The whole thing felt like a swindle, a gigantic exercise of disavowal and triumphalist obfuscation. And, worst of all, the primary perpetrators of the swindle weren’t the obvious Bad Guys (the Dr. Strangeloves and smarmy Nixons, the crazy fascist West Bank settlers and the Likudnik captains of the Israel Lobby) but instead were American liberals and Israeli “socialists.”
The feeling of having been deceived by the supposed Good Guys has been at the wellspring of my personal investment in, and anger about, the Israel-Palestine conflict. The emotions evoked by the shattering of Zionist mythologies, together with the feelings generated by the rethinking of my Jewish “identity,” combined to produce the obsessive investment in the way I thought and taught about the Israel-Palestine conflict. And, of course, the drive by American Zionists to ruthlessly shut down any-and-all criticism of Israel with McCarthyite accusations of “delegitimization” and anti-Semitism; and the mealy-mouthed temporizing of American liberals, endlessly invoking a fraudulent “peace process;” has only deepened this investment.
Is this personal history generalizable? Is it edifying? Probably not. If I was a Palestinian I would probably regard a biographical narrative like this one as besides the point and unhelpfully Judeocentric. For what it’s worth, though, this is how I might have answered my student’s question.