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Rethinking Zionism

By Philip Weiss

January 11, 2009 "
Huffington Post" -- -Dana Goldstein, whose thoughtful condemnation of the Gaza slaughter after years of reserve I welcome, is a little uncomfortable with the embrace. She points out that I have identified myself as a non- or anti-Zionist, and says that anti-Zionism is redolent of antisemitism. She's a post-Zionist, she says. Goldstein's comments deserve a response, especially at this moment in intellectual life, when so many people are crowding the doorways of this conversation.

I also used to say post- or non-Zionist to avoid being negative. The playwright David Zellnik told me that anti-Zionist felt to him like a denial of Israel's considerable achievements and I respected David's view. Now I've come to say that I'm an anti-Zionist for several reasons.

First: My feelings are not neutral about Zionism; I don't like it. As a Jew, I think about it a lot and there is nothing I can really feel positive about outside of the Jewish pride and its historical significance of it and its visionary component. All these elements have lost their value: Zionism privileges Jews and justifies oppression, and this appalls me. Saying I'm anti-Zionist is a sincere expression of my minority-respecting worldview.

Second, Post-Zionist strikes me as an evasion. At this moment, Zionism reigns in historical Palestine and in American Jewish leadership. To say you're a post-Zionist is like saying you're a post-Communist during the Stalin purges. You are tastefully separating yourself from the world, dainty as an English person drinking tea with their little finger in the air. Zionism remains a very powerful force in Middle East affairs and American society. It's not helpful to those who are trying to understand these matters to evade this fact or suggest that post-Zionism is actually a real factor in, say, the life of Gaza City. I urge people to take a stand if they find Zionist beliefs that privilege 6 million Jews over 5-6 million non-Jews and that have entailed apartheid on the West Bank and ethnic cleansing a supportable ideology, especially in the age of our mutt president-to-be.

Third, anti-Zionism is an idealistic Jewish tradition. In fact, it draws on the same visionary and If-you-dream-it feeling that Zionism did 100 years ago, before the militants ruined it, and engages the same young restless sensibilities and liberationist feeling as Zionism did by imagining Israel as a state of its citizens, not a Jewish state. We anti-Zionists can say with honor that anti-Zionists like Rabbi Elmer Berger identified the problems with Zionism 60 years ago, accurately when he said that Zionism meant contempt for the Arab population, dependence on a backroom lobby in the United States, and the introduction of dual loyalty into American Jewish life. All true. Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin and Norman Mailer all opposed Zionism to one degree or another out of concerns with ethnocentrism--didn't like its Is-it-good-for-the-Jews backbeat. These problems are larger today than ever, especially post-Iraq-war and the Iraq war's idiot stepson, Gaza.

Finally, declaring I'm anti-Zionist is a way of trying to make room in American life for this view. Right now being critical of Israel means that you can hurt your business, as a Bay Area professional told the San Francisco Chronicle. True and disgusting. As Jimi Hendrix said when he was changing attitudes: I'm going to wave my freak flag high!

As to the antisemitism point, the American Jewish Committee has said the same thing: anti-Zionism is antisemitism. It thus conflates Jewishness with Zionism, and this conflation is damaging the Jewish experience around the world. When Dana says she worries about the antisemitic suggestion of anti-Zionism, I feel a shadow of censoriousness. There are things you can and can't say. Well, I am an empowered Jew who has never experienced functional antisemitism ever in my life, and my empowerment is also part of this conversation: I insist on speaking about Jewish cultural/financial power in the U.S. as a component of my Zionist critique. Do I think that Jews should be denied power? No! Do I think that there should be quotas on Jewish inclusion in elite institutions? No! Well: I would like Jewish participation in mainstream media roundtables on the Middle East held to 50 percent. That is my quota. These ideas have made some of my readers uncomfortable. They've made me uncomfortable. I grew up in fear of lurking antisemitism. But I have decided in my 50s that these are things I think about all the time as a mature person, however flawed I am, and I think they're important--so I am going to talk about them.

And I would add that shutting down debate in the name of "antisemitism" strikes me as selfish. Our phantom worries about a second Holocaust take precedence over the real evidence that surrounds us of man's inhumanity to man, not just man's inhumanity to Jews. And our phantom worries mean that we cannot address the incredible, everyday, real suffering of Palestinians that has been perpetrated politically in large part by empowered American Jews who are all over the media and political establishment, some of whom limit debate of the issue by citing a possible infraction of our tremendous freedoms. Believe me, when our freedoms are encroached upon, I will howl. Today and tomorrow I howl for the Jewish leadership's actual crushing of the Palestinian right of self-determination.

 

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