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My Zionism is Personal and Complicated

By Ralph Seliger

This is being posted on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day.  Most of the following was in a piece rejected by Jewish Currents, for which I had been a frequent contributor until the new anti-Zionist editorial direction began last year.  Please forgive some overlap with an earlier piece posted here, but also rejected by Jewish Currents:

Having grown up in New York during the 1950s and ‘60s, in the refugee/immigrant home of Polish Jews who narrowly eluded the Nazis but lost their parents and numerous close kin, I often felt uneasy about being Jewish.  As a young person, I twice endured physical threats from antisemites: once outrunning a bunch of kids yelling “get the Jew” after forgetting to remove my yarmulke upon leaving Hebrew School, and another time escaping assault from a muscular coworker by denying my Jewishness (we were both working nights at a facility of the US Postal Service). 

I came to understand that Jews were and remain a small vulnerable international minority, often scapegoated for social ills and inspiring a host of haters.  At the same time, we usually prosper in countries where we are made welcome, until we are no longer welcome.  Antisemites envision their Jewish targets as inherently more clever and powerful than others, and make a populist appeal to average working people and even some oppressed groups in a phenomenon known as “the socialism of fools.”  

Coded nowadays as “Globalists” and personified by the multi-billionaire philanthropist George Soroswho is demonized for funding liberal causes around the worldJews are central to the contemporary fascist/Alt-Right hit list.  The White Supremacist marchers in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us” were expressing the notion that a Jewish-led leftist conspiracy was bringing in massive waves of non-white immigrants to “replace” the white American majority.  Eric Ward, an eloquent African-American human rights activist, is especially insightful in documenting the hateful ways in which both the antisemitic right and the anti-Zionist left focus on “Jewish power” (check out his 2017 essay, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism“).          

Zionism was an effort to “normalize” Jewish existence by remaking the Jews into a sovereign people, as in ancient times.  It succeeded in creating a remarkable little country that “punches above its weight” scientifically and culturally, and as a regional military power, but not in truly normalizing the Jewish condition.  Even the Jewish state’s success against great odds has worked to reinforce the mythic image of “the Jew” as a sinister “Other.” 

Still, half of my extended family, spanning four generations now, has survived and prospered in Israel.  Back in May and June of 1967, my parents and I sweated out the nearly three weeks that Israel was under siege and then the early hours of the Six Day War, until suddenly astounded by Israel’s massive triumph. By the early 1970s, however, I noticed the unmistakable signs of a country overly taken with its military prowess and oblivious to its need to make every effort to exchange the great bulk of its war gains for peace.  

Addicted to news broadcasts even then, I learned that Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was publicly offering Israel a peace treaty, “total peace” in exchange for “total withdrawal”; Prime Minister Golda Meir disparaged this as “nothing new.”  In the face of Israel’s inaction, Egypt and Syria launched the Yom Kippur War, a costly seesaw struggle that shook Israel to its core, but also eventually led to its first peace agreement with an Arab country. 

Decades later, it was revealed that Meir’s Labor-dominated government had also missed the possibility of a peace treaty with King Hussein’s Jordan, which would have returned most of the West Bank to Jordan, and possibly transferred the Gaza Strip as well.  The government that actually made peace with Egypt was Israel’s first right-leaning Likud-led coalition, simultaneously maneuvering to retain control over the Palestinian territories and promote a new policy of massively settling Jews in the West Bank, known increasingly by its Biblical names of Yehuda and Shomron (Judea and Samaria). 

In the summer of 1982, I participated in a young adult tour of Israel at the nadir of Menachem Begin’s tenure as the first Likud prime minister, during the first Lebanon War.  We were guests of the most leftwing Zionist opponents of the war, the Mapam (socialist) party and its affiliated National Kibbutz Federation, which broke its alliance with the Labor party (known as the “Labor Alignment”) because it had opposed the war from its outset.  Labor had supported the invasion until Ariel Sharon ordered Israel’s army northward to besiege Arafat’s PLO forces in Beirut. 

During the 1990s, Mapam merged with other dovish elements to form the Meretz party, and I worked with other American Jews to promote its efforts within the Zionist movement.  Meretz became the left anchor of the Rabin-Peres coalition government that launched the Oslo peace process. 

I attended the World Zionist Congress several times in the 1990s and early 2000s, elected alongside such notables as the late singer-actor Theodore Bikel and feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, to serve within progressive-Zionist delegations.  But I eventually wearied of the purpose of this institution; I recall forlornly hoping that the 1997 World Zionist Congress, on the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the World Zionist Organization and its legislative body (the Congress) by Theodor Herzl, would declare “victory” and dissolve itself.  But this would not have been typical of bureaucratic structures that emerge from powerful movements with entrenched interests of their own. 

One can’t recount all of this here, but it’s important to consider the avoidable bad turns that doomed the Oslo peace process; for one thing, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination eliminated the leader most likely to have succeeded in bringing peace.  A wave of Palestinian terror attacks in 1996 and the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000 directly led to the electoral defeat of two Israeli governments attempting a negotiated end to the conflict.  Israel’s rightwing has always benefited electorally from the bellicose rhetoric and periodic violence emanating from Hamas and other Palestinians.

But even the arch-hardliner Ariel Sharon, when prime minister in the early 2000s, came to realize that a permanent military occupation over millions of non-Jews was untenable for the Jewish state.  He eventually broke with his Likud party and embarked upon a program of unilateral withdrawals, beginning with the forced removal of settlers in the Gaza Strip and a part of the northern West Bank in the summer of 2005.  Yet in refusing to negotiate or even to coordinate with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, he handed a political victory to Hamas; Sharon’s “Disengagement” strategy seemed to vindicate the Hamas “armed struggle” and helped it narrowly defeat Fatah in the Palestinian legislative elections of Jan. 2006.

The Hamas seizure of power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007, violently expelling Fatah, established a bastion for rocket attacks and armed incursions into Green-Line Israel.  Israel has responded with a stringent (albeit less than total) blockade, effectively destroying Gaza’s economy; and Israel has met frequent attacks with devastating military force.  A sad deadlock has ensued, with Gazans facing a humanitarian catastrophe and nearby Israelis still facing a security threat.

Sharon’s successors as leaders of his new centrist Kadima party, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, pursued negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in earnest for two years until Olmert was forced to resign by corruption charges from his time as mayor of Jerusalem.  In the 2009 election, Livni’s Kadima received more votes than Netanyahu’s Likud but could not form a majority coalition, because of the right’s strong alliance with ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties, largely unrelated to the occupation.  Israel’s been stuck with Bibi Netanyahu’s leadership ever since, as he’s moved stridently rightward.

Today’s an increasingly exasperating time for progressives who care about Israel’s future.  Netanyahu empowers annexationist currents that resist a negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority and full equality for Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel (e.g., the Jewish Nation-State Law).  This undermines Israel’s case for respect internationally and isolates Jews abroad who see themselves as progressive and pro-Israel.  Israel is still the most liberal and democratic state in the Middle East, but this is not a high bar in a region beset by authoritarian governments and bloody sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

When people engage as militant anti-Zionists today, they are against the existence of a sovereign nation, established to safeguard a persecuted population, and widely supported as such by leftists at the time.  Given that Jews were slated for total slaughter under the Nazis, it should be appreciated on humanitarian grounds that the Jewish-Zionist community in the Mandate of Palestine—nurtured somewhat reluctantly by the British under the Balfour Declaration (until they reversed course with the White Paper of 1938)—provided a haven for nearly a half-million Jews who would otherwise have perished. 

Being a Zionist used to mean being active in an explicitly Zionist organization and/or intending to make Aliyah.  Nowadays, it seems to mean anyone who supports Israel’s existence.  Yet just being a low-octane Zionist of this sort has become problematic for Jews in the radical left today — who flunk a pro-Palestinian litmus test even if they support full equality for non-Jewish citizens of Israel and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.  (Recall Linda Sarsour denouncing feminists who regard themselves as Zionists.)

It’s unmistakeable that Israel is militarily powerful; it’s also an exceedingly small country with real security challenges.  Globally, Jews remain a tiny minority, still vulnerable to prejudices and hatreds, old and new.  Accepting such complicated truths seems difficult for ideologues, whether of the right or left.

While it’s not accurate to label leftwing anti-Zionism as antisemitic in its intent, it is morally shortsighted for leftists to either deny or denigrate the basic need and right of Israeli Jews to be secure in their everyday lives.  A truly progressive analysis would be concerned with the security of both Israelis and Palestinians. 

I am attracted in principle to the pre-state vision of Zionists who favored a bi-national state or federation (e.g., Einstein, Arendt, Buber and Hashomer Hatzair); but this would require a profound and unlikely evolution, with long-warring peoples learning to fully trust each other.  With the important exception of Palestinians who live in Israel as citizens, it is not realistic—given their history of mutual antagonism and violence—to expect most Jews to support Israeli citizenship for all Palestinians (including over five million currently accorded official refugee status), relegating themselves to minority status.  This is what necessitates the two-state solution that both ultra-nationalist Zionists and anti-Zionist leftists disparage.

4 Responses to “My Zionism is Personal and Complicated”

  1. Jeff Segall
    May 9, 2019 at 2:16 pm #

    Well thought out and nuanced, Ralph. We always seem to be coming back to the two-state solution. Yet, the stark opponents of one another, Hamas and Bibi, both seem intent at pushing the other into the sea. Perhaps if Bibi is found guilty of the corruption charges with which he is charged, there will arise a new Prime Minister who knows not ultimatums. Yesh tamid Tikva.

  2. Ralph Seliger
    May 9, 2019 at 7:39 pm #

    Thanks Jeff. I agree that it’s important to keep hope alive, even as things continue to look bleak.

  3. May 10, 2019 at 12:58 pm #

    The original two state solution Is not viable anymore. Neither Is a binational federación. The most desireable plan Is a confederation between Israel and Palestina, a new version of the two state as proposed by Dahlia Schiendlin. Checo out also the A Land for All site.

    • Ralph Seliger
      May 10, 2019 at 5:27 pm #

      Thanks Mr. Greenstein. Although the “Two States, One Homeland” approach is imaginative and seems to resolve important issues, it’s not without problems and obstacles of its own. We discussed this matter in a TTN post this past February: https://thirdnarrative.org/israel-palestine-articles/two-states-one-homeland-is-about-two-states/. What also came across in the webinar we referenced is that Two States/One Homeland is meant to be an implementation of a two-state solution and not an alternative!

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