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From Ella Shohat to the founders of IfNotNow, 40 Jews describe their path away from Zionism

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Editor’s Note: “Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation,” is a collection of autobiographical essays from 40 Jewish activists and scholars, including Joel Beinin, Sami Shalom Chetri, Ella Shohat and Alice Rothchild. Other contributions are from organizers who have led an emerging generation that has created Jewish communal life that stands apart from Zionism, from the founders of Jewish Voice for Peace, to IfNotNow, to Open Hillel. 

RECLAIMING JUDAISM FROM ZIONISM
Stories of Personal Transformation
Edited by Carolyn L. Karcher
400 pp., Olive Branch Press Northampton, $20

Carolyn Karcher, editor of “Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation,” has constructed an anthology that addresses the departure from Zionist ideology of a diversity of Jews from both the U.S. and Israel. Each section gives voice to a particular segment of Jews critically considering the impact of Zionism on their lives and choices, and most importantly, the life-threatening consequences of this ideology for Palestinian residents of Israel, and for those who live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The contributors are a variety of individuals who have been transformed through their first-hand experiences in Israel and the occupied territory. Some focus directly on their progressive political consciousness that challenges Zionism, and others have addressed their awareness as a wake-up call to action. The articles contextualize the harm of ethnic exclusivity, colonialism and imperialism, all hallmarks of post-1948 Zionism. I eagerly entered this text with a sense that this book would address some of my concerns, including the ongoing violence towards Palestinians in the occupied territory.

Although the five chapters are organized around the contributors positionality and influences regarding their transformative experience of identifying as anti-Zionist, they share many similarities. The most striking one is the reactions of non-Israeli contributors to their experiences in Israel and the occupied territory. Many were not prepared for the Israeli version of Jim Crow they encountered during their visits. The contributors come from different positions in U.S. society, their reports address their findings of the privileges of white European Jews, and the values and practices that accompany this racial supremacy and preference in Israel. There are also entries from Israelis who address these injustices in their country as well.

Not surprisingly, skin color and race plays a central role in their collective criticisms of Zionism and Israeli practice. In addition to Palestinian oppression, Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jews) and Sephardic (descendants of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula) also experience significant discrimination in Israel. Surprisingly, no contributors mention the racism and discrimination suffered by Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

Throughout the book, we learn about the disconnect for many contributors between their uncritical childhood relationship with Israel and their adult analysis that recognizes Palestinian displacement alongside the Jewish history of persecution. In describing their journeys of self-discovery, many found meaning in political work, by joining or creating progressive political groups including the Palestinian initiated Boycott, Divestment, Sanction campaign, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine.

The final chapter attempts to bring closure to the book through a discussion on community building and the role of activism. Contributors describe their political involvement, especially with Jewish Voice for Peace,  the importance of being visible and the significance of supporting BDS. They address the need for more Americans to refuse to support Israeli policies that are discriminatory, and the role of grass roots organizing to disrupt the structural power that has traditionally supported Israel.

In the afterward, Karcher reports on the work of Ilan Pappe, an Israeli scholar whose research detailed  the destruction of Palestinian villages and the early plans from the 1930’s when Zionists began collecting information on Arab villages. Karcher should have included this information in her introduction, not the Afterword. Pappe’s research confirms that Israel, like Jim Crow America and Apartheid-era South Africa, were and are nations that limited rights and civil liberties to members of a dominant culture based on ethnicity and skin color.

I can relate to several of the narratives of the included authors. Feminist organizing and anti-war activism during the Vietnam era launched my entry into a critique of Zionism. Although my home was not an especially Zionist one, it was one with a strong sense of Jewish identity and both of my parents’ recollections of anti-Jewish assaults that marked their European childhoods. These traumas did not make them Zionists. My Zionist indoctrination came from my Hebrew school education, in both elementary and secondary school. The organized Jewish community promoted and strengthened Zionism in the U.S. It also promoted propaganda that supports the denial of the rights of Palestinians to their homeland. The U.S. has consistently supported the establishment of the state of Israel, to the tune of several million dollars a day. The Obama administration brokered a deal to give Israel $38 billion dollars in aid over a 10 year period. Karcher could have emphasized more clearly this level of support of the U.S. for Israel and how this support maintains the status quo and encourages more discrimination and abuse of the Palestinian population.

This book is valuable in that it describes and gives voice to the challenge to distance one’s self from an ideology that is presented as a liberation movement. These voices must contend with being called anti-Semitic and self-hating Jews by strangers as well as by family members. Jewish nationalism, as in other forms of nationalism spreading across the globe, is by its very nature discriminatory, creating Us and Them polarities that favor the dominant culture over all others. Israel has been able to do this because of American tax-payer money to the tunes of billions of dollars over the decades. This book would have been stronger had the editor provided more information about the role of the U.S. in supporting Israel and its abusive treatment of Palestinians and Israelis of color. However, the book does address its main focus, how Jewish people can become opposed to Zionism and how to get there.

Eleanor Roffman

Eleanor Roffman has been a supporter of Palestinian rights and an activist for peace with justice in the Middle East since the 70’s. She is a retired professor of Counseling Psychology and continues to work in the field.

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  1. Joel Beinin on July 4, 2019, 9:05 pm

    From a historical perspective, until the mass murder of European Jewry, most Jews were not Zionists. In 1927 more Jews left Palestine than arrived.
    Orthodox Jews established Agudat Yisrael in 1912. It is still a political party in Israel, but in practice has made its peace with the State of Israel. Among the ultra-Orthodox, the Satmar Chasidim still maintain active opposition to Zionism.
    At the other end of the Jewish theological spectrum, as Carolyn Karcher’s introduction to the book discusses, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism forthrightly opposed Zionism. Reform opposition to Zionism was moderated somewhat in the 1937 Columbus Platform. But American Reform Judaism did not embrace Zionism ideologically until after the 1967 War, although some prominent rabbis and individuals were active Zionists much earlier. What Orthodox and Reform Judaism have in common is that they understand Jews primarily as a religious community.
    A contrasting view was presented by the General Jewish Labour Bund in Lithuania, Poland and Russia, an anti-Zionist, secular, Yiddishist, revolutionary socialist organization. The Bund was established in 1897, the same year as the World Zionist Organization. The Bund believed that the Jews of Eastern Europe constituted a people (they knew nothing about the Jews of the Middle East and North Africa, India, etc.), that Yiddish was their national language, and that Eastern Europe was their homeland. In the first years of the 20th century the Bund was the largest socialist organization in the Russian Empire. It also had a large following in interwar Poland and was transplanted to the United States over the course of the 20th century.
    Much of what the Bund believed is no longer relevant, and there are few, if any, actual members of the Bund alive today. But its understanding of Jews as a diasporic people (or an ethnic group in contemporary American terms) defined by a common culture which does not necessarily include religion and whose political loyalties should be to the country in which they live has much to recommend it. This formulation leaves open the possibility of a spiritual or emotional connection to the Land of Israel (but not the existing State of Israel) for those who desire it.

    • Keith on July 5, 2019, 6:51 pm

      JOEL BEININ- “This formulation leaves open the possibility of a spiritual or emotional connection to the Land of Israel….”

      Come on Professor, time for a little honest introspection. Both the so-called “Jewish” culture and the spiritual/emotional connection to the “Land of Israel” is religion based. Period. The original Zionists secularized Classical Judaism by merging it with Blood and Soil nationalism. Take away the religious dimension and the nationalist dimension and you are left with the opportunistic dimension of membership in a highly successful and exclusive manufactured ethnic group known for its internal support. A birthright ticket to the professional class.

      • Mooser on July 6, 2019, 1:21 pm

        “you are left with the opportunistic dimension of membership in a highly successful and exclusive manufactured ethnic group known for its internal support.”

        Now why on earth, I ask you, would well over half of Jewish people in the US (and Israel) choose to deny themselves (most of all, deny, oy-yoi-yoi, their childrens!) the benefits of “ethnic group known for its internal support.”

      • Keith on July 6, 2019, 2:16 pm

        MOOSER- “Now why on earth, I ask you, would well over half of Jewish people in the US (and Israel) choose to deny themselves (most of all, deny, oy-yoi-yoi, their childrens!) the benefits of “ethnic group known for its internal support.”

        Have they? Have they lost status or has the spouse acquired conditional status? Conditional kinship?

      • Keith on July 6, 2019, 2:43 pm

        MOOSER- Got a question for you. Why would a non-religious, non-nationalistic “Jew” feel “… a spiritual or emotional connection to the Land of Israel….?” If the social status of Jews was roughly comparable to that of Blacks, would a non-religious, non-nationalistic “Jew” indistinguishable from other whites still identify as a “Jew” and feel “… a spiritual or emotional connection to the Land of Israel….?” Pure speculation, of course, however, do you feel that Jewish success has anything to do with Jewish self-identification?

        As an aside, I link to an interesting video of Norman Finkelstein discussing what it was like growing up in a Holocaust survivor family in a lower middle class Jewish neighborhood in New York. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bvTOL79BmE

  2. Misterioso on July 5, 2019, 9:53 am

    A reminder:

    Prophetic statements by eminent Jews:

    Then Secretary of State for India and the British cabinet’s only Jewish member, Lord Edwin Montagu’s response to Prime Minister Lloyd George following issuance of the illegal 1917 Balfour Declaration: “All my life I have been trying to get out of the ghetto. You want to force me back there.”

    Henry Morgenthau Sr., former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, 1919: “Zionism is the most stupendous fallacy in Jewish history…. The very fervour of my feeling for the oppressed of every race and every land, especially for the Jews, those of my own blood and faith, to whom I am bound by every tender tie, impels me to fight with all the greater force against this scheme, which my intelligence tells me can only lead them deeper into the mire of the past, while it professes to be leading them to the heights. Zionism is… a retrogression into the blackest error, and not progress toward the light.” (Quoted by Frank Epp, Whose Land is Palestine? p. 261)

    Asked to sign a petition supporting settlement of Jews in Palestine, Sigmund Freud declined: “I cannot…I do not think that Palestine could ever become a Jewish state….It would have seemed more sensible to me to establish a Jewish homeland on a less historically-burdened land….I can raise no sympathy at all for the misdirected piety which transforms a piece of a Herodian wall into a national relic, thereby offending the feelings of the natives.” (Letter to Dr. Chaim Koffler Keren HaYassod, Vienna: 2/26/30)

    In 1939, Albert Einstein wrote: “There could be no greater calamity than a permanent discord between us and the Arab people. Despite the great wrong that has been done us [in Europe], we must strive for a just and lasting compromise with the Arab people…. Let us recall that in former times no people lived in greater friendship with us than the ancestors of these Arabs.” (Einstein and Zionism by Banesh Hoffmann, in General Relativity and Gravitation, eds G. Shaviv and J. Rosen, Wiley, 1975, p. 242)

    Lessing J. Rosenwald, president of the American Council for Judaism, 1944: “The concept of a racial state – the Hitlerian concept- is repugnant to the civilized world, as witness the fearful global war in which we are involved. . . , I urge that we do nothing to set us back on the road to the past. To project at this time the creation of a Jewish state or commonwealth is to launch a singular innovation in world affairs which might well have incalculable consequences.”

    • Joel Beinin on July 5, 2019, 1:17 pm

      Except for Einstein, those quoted by Misterioso are bourgeois Jews who understood Jewish identity as a purely religious affiliation – just as Agudat Yisrael, the Satmar Chasidim, and American Reform Jews, including the American Council for Judaism.

      It’s obvious why such Jews, at least before 1948, or perhaps the rise of Hitler, might oppose Zionism. It threatened their assimilation into existing Euro-American states.

      My point was that there was a socialist, anti-Zionist, secular alternative that viewed the Jews as a people or ethnic group irrespective of their religious practice.

      • LiberatePalestine on July 5, 2019, 3:31 pm

        → It’s obvious why such Jews, at least before 1948, or perhaps the rise of Hitler, might oppose Zionism. It threatened their assimilation into existing Euro-American states.

        Before the 1940s, Jews overwhelmingly opposed Zionism. Proletarian Jews were more likely than bourgeois Jews to oppose it.

        → My point was that there was a socialist, anti-Zionist, secular alternative that viewed the Jews as a people or ethnic group irrespective of their religious practice.

        The Bund correctly held that the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe constituted a nation with a legitimate claim to self-determination. It did not hold the same about «the Jews» generally.

        You are also right about the existence of religious Jews who oppose Zionism both because they perceive it as sinful defiance of god and because it constitutes a monstrous crime against the Palestinians.

      • Mooser on July 6, 2019, 1:01 pm

        “Except for Einstein…”

        Who, when asked for his opinion on the subject, said…

      • echinococcus on July 8, 2019, 8:43 am

        Liberate Palestine,

        “The Bund correctly held that the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe constituted a nation with a legitimate claim to self-determination. It did not hold the same about «the Jews» generally.”

        Thank you for this, essential, correction to Beinin’s peculiar interpretation of the Bundist scope of action. It makes all the difference between Zionist mytho-nationalism with its aggressive invader propaganda on one hand and, on the other, the Bundist use of an ethnic culture to promote socialist internationalism.
        ———
        Otherwise, seeing the Yiddish-speaking Eskenazi populations as constituting “a nation with a legitimate claim to self-determination” is far from correct. An ethny in the usual sense would be an accurate description, while the fact that this population was spread over a vast territory shared with multiple other ethnic groups (among whom it was very much a minority) meant that any right to auto-determination was as an integral part of the respective nations the Yiddish speakers were territorially part of. Surely you aren’t suggesting that the Yiddish speakers had the right to exclusively determine the fate of territories like Galicia, Russia, Bielorussia, Bessarabia, Lithuania etc.

      • LiberatePalestine on July 8, 2019, 12:25 pm

        No, the Yiddish-speaking Jews certainly did not have the right to call the shots in all of Russia. That doesn’t mean that they had no national claims at all, however. Twenty years before the criminal creation of the Zionist entity, the Soviet Union set up Birobidzhan as a national territory for the Yiddish-speaking Jews. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast’ still exists.

        Self-determination can be exercised in different ways. Exclusive control of a territory is not necessary or even desirable. The Bundists knew that as well as anyone else.

      • Mooser on July 8, 2019, 3:35 pm

        ” the Soviet Union set up Birobidzhan as a national territory for the Yiddish-speaking Jews. The Jewish Autonomous Oblast’ still exists.”

        Well, wasn’t that nice of the Soviet Union. Responding to Jewish self-determination like that.

      • LiberatePalestine on July 8, 2019, 5:44 pm

        I don’t see the point that you are trying to make sarcastically. The Soviet Union did recognise the Yiddish-speaking Jews as a nation at a time when no other state did so. (For that matter, no other state today does so, except perhaps Russia.) It even provided a territory—what Zionists might call a «homeland»—to foster the development of Yiddish culture. No other state did that either. (I don’t count the criminal British establishment of the Zionist entity, since the territory in question—Palestine—was not British.)

      • echinococcus on July 9, 2019, 2:09 am

        Liberate,

        Birobidjan was not a territory traditionally and overwhelmingly inhabited by the Ashkenaze ethnicity. Au contraire. Its attribution as the Ashkenaze **nationality** (not “nation” for any translator worth herhis salt) was not an act of territorial self-determination. Rather a failed act of Soviet-style social engineering.

        A sizable presence of any other nationalities on a given territory of course means that self-determination of that territory cannot be on a nationality or ethny basis.

      • Mooser on July 9, 2019, 11:01 am

        “It even provided a territory—what Zionists might call a «homeland»—to foster the development of Yiddish culture.”

        Carry me back to old Birobidzhan.

      • LiberatePalestine on July 9, 2019, 8:32 pm

        Echinococcus, Birobidzhan was indeed a sort of project in social engineering. That was the whole point. There was no acceptable way to create an area with a concentrated Jewish population in those parts of the Soviet Union traditionally inhabited by Jews, but an area for the autonomous cultivation of Yiddish culture was deemed important, and Birobidzhan was selected.

        I don’t agree that Birobidzhan failed. Although it never became a major centre for Yiddish culture (because it just didn’t attract a large population of Jews), it did produce quite a lot in that respect. Even now, after thirty years of opportunistic emigration of so-called Jews to settler-occupied Palestine, there are real efforts to keep Yiddish culture alive—far beyond anything that one finds in, say, Poland or Germany.

        As for translation, I wasn’t trying to translate the Russian word национальность, if that’s what you have in mind. Nation as I use it (what you seem to call «nationality») is well established, though I freely admit that the word is used in other ways (often to mean ‘state’). I’m in favour of reasonable reforms to the vocabulary relating to ethnicity, citizenship, and other group-related affiliations, but you can’t say that your term is uncontroversially right, nor mine uncontroversially wrong.

      • echinococcus on July 10, 2019, 1:28 am

        Liberate Palestine,

        Success for this kind of social engineering would be measured by huge numbers of Ashkenazi Jews flocking to Birobidjan. The Zionists would all have applied for immigration in the USSR, now that they had their national home.

        “There was no acceptable way to create an area with a concentrated Jewish population in those parts of the Soviet Union traditionally inhabited by Jews…” Of course. The point is that of the many different attempts to pass off different devices as “self-determination”, only the territorial, not ethnicity-based one gets a general consensus and is fully recognized by international law. Also, “nationality”, to describe different ethnicities within the mixed populations of the pre-nation-state empires, is generally understood thanks to a similar consensus, while “nation” may mean everything and its contrary, too.

      • LiberatePalestine on July 10, 2019, 5:47 pm

        → Success for this kind of social engineering would be measured by huge numbers of Ashkenazi Jews flocking to Birobidjan.

        Massive settlement of Ashkenazi Jews in Birobidzhan never was anticipated or desired.

        → The point is that of the many different attempts to pass off different devices as “self-determination”, only the territorial, not ethnicity-based one gets a general consensus and is fully recognized by international law.

        When Birobidzhan was established, self-determination was a new and ill-defined concept. (It still is poorly defined.)

        → Also, “nationality”, to describe different ethnicities within the mixed populations of the pre-nation-state empires, is generally understood thanks to a similar consensus, while “nation” may mean everything and its contrary, too.

        Nationality is also problematic: it often refers to citizenship or even to ancestral origins.

      • Keith on July 10, 2019, 7:22 pm

        LIBERATE PALESTINE- “(It still is poorly defined.)”

        More seriously, it is shamelessly misrepresented. The UN concept of self-determination was established after WWII as a euphemistic way of supporting Third World liberation movements fighting European colonialism. The US was behind the idea of disbanding the British and other European empires for geostrategic reasons. That the concept should be mangled as a justification for Israeli ethnic cleansing is pure intellectual debauchery.

      • echinococcus on July 11, 2019, 9:08 am

        Liberate Palestine,

        Of course self-determination is poorly defined, or rather defined according to one’s interests. The only form of it, however, that is recognized by all seems to be the one based on territorial / residential status.

      • LiberatePalestine on July 11, 2019, 3:30 pm

        Yes, self-determination is mainly for national groups that live more or less in the same place. A diffuse group may have no practical means to exercise self-determination.

        Keith is quite right: self-determination in no way justifies the Zionist project, which is nothing but a new First World settler-colonial movement.

  3. Vera Gottlieb on July 6, 2019, 2:14 pm

    I am sick and tired of hearing this “self hating Jews”…All those Germans who were against Hitler…should they be labelled “self hating Germans”???

    • Talkback on July 8, 2019, 7:56 pm

      Opinion fascists don’t allow dissent. And if they are infantile they accuse the dissenters of being “haters”. Unfortunately the Zionist’s failure to argue like intelligent grown up individuals has been adapted by like minded Americans. (They shout “USA, USA …” like imbeciles).

      • LiberatePalestine on July 8, 2019, 8:46 pm

        Yanks can easily see themselves in Zionists. Both the US and the Zionist entity were established through genocidal settler-colonial occupation. Both maintain an ideology of exceptionalism.

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