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. 

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.

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