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Footprints: “Pro-Israel, Non-Zionist” — and Arguing with the Left

January 28, 2012

by Lawrence Bush

This article is one of a series reflecting on the history of Jewish Currents on the occasion of our 65th anniversary. You can find the other entries here.

ON THE VERY FIRST DAY I came to the Jewish Currents office as the newly hired assistant editor in 1978, the veteran editor Morris U. Schappes handed me a pamphlet reprint of Louis Harap’s 1975 series, The Zionist Movement Revisited [PDF]. Jewish Currents magazine, Schappes explained, was not Zionist because it did not view Israel as the Jewish homeland, nor did it consider Jews living in other lands to be in a state of “exile” or living in a “diaspora.” The magazine had been shaped ideologically, he continued, by a pre-state, Marxist view of Zionism as a “bourgeois nationalism” that ignored issues of class and depended upon European imperialism for its success. Nevertheless, Jewish Currents had always supported Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, viewed the country as a kind of global affirmative action for Jews after the devastations of the Holocaust, and was happy, he said, to express pride in Israel’s achievements. In short, JC was “non-Zionist, pro-Israel.”

The phrase was clunky, a rather classic example of left-wing ideological hairsplitting — yet I soon realized that it accurately described the views of the majority of American Jews. They might commonly identify themselves as as “Zionist” in order not to be identified with anti-Zionism, but most American Jews were not truly Zionists, according to the Zionist movement’s own definition. Louis Harap made this clear in his pamphlet when he quoted Secretary General Itzhak Korn of the World Labor Zionist Movement (writing in Jewish Frontier), who deplored the notion that “99 percent of American Jews are now Zionists” because “they support Israel and are concerned for its welfare.” If this idea were accepted, Korn added, “it will distort the essence of Zionism,” which requires not only “the recognition of the centrality of Israel and Zionist-Jewish education,” but also “a readiness for self-fulfilment — aliya.”

Harap concluded that as long as Zionist leaders like Korn “urge Jews all over the world to emigrate to Israel, as long as relations with the Arabs remain unstable... and as long as anti-Semitism continues to plague Jews outside Israel, Zionism will persist as a nationalist ideology” — and American Jews will continue to experience a “never-ending divergence from Zionist ideas...” Yet “on one issue,” Harap declared, “left non-Zionists unreservedly agree with Zionists: Israel now has an inalienable right to exist.”

In its early years of statehood, Israel attracted warm praise from Jewish Life (the Communist-oriented predecessor to Jewish Currents) for being a labor-led, social democratic country, founded with staunch support from the Soviet Union at the United Nations (and defended in the 1948 war with arms provided by communist Czechoslovakia). By Israel’s second anniversary, however, Jewish Life’s editors believed that the Ben Gurion government, although “proclaiming itself ‘neutral’ in the major struggles for peace” (that is, in the Cold War), was actually subordinating Israel to “Anglo-American imperialist aims” and subjecting “the people of Israel [to]... the continued subordination of their economic and social development to imperialist dictates” (Israel — Second Anniversary [PDF], Jewish Life, May, 1950).

What those “imperialist aims” and “dictates” amounted to were not spelled out — nor were the editors ready to second-guess themselves about the advisability of Israel’s being friendly towards the anti-Semitic, Stalinist post-war USSR. Nevertheless, the editorial was accurate in its perception of Israel’s steady drift into a relationship of stalwart alliance with the U.S. ­­— an alliance that would mark Israel as a target of condemnation by revolutionaries nd leaders of nonaligned or pro-Soviet countries, including in the UN General Assembly, until the collapse of the USSR.

Much of JC’s significant political writing about Israel during those four decades was aimed at defending Israel against leftwing vilification. The magazine, for example, considered the 1967 Six-Day War (in which Israel struck the first, preemptive blows) to be a justifiable, defensive war — a view opposite to that of the Soviet government and much of the international left. JC editorialized that any “one-sided condemnation of Israel as the aggressor” was “incomprehensible, unjust, and disturbing” (“For Israel-Arab Negotiations,” July-August, 1967), and offered, instead, an analysis by Schappes that pointed to four major impediments to a stable Mideast peace (“Obstacles to Arab-Israel Peace,” September, 1967):

  1. “U.S. policy in the Middle East, motivated by oil imperialism and framed within Cold War strategic concepts;
  2. Arab intransigence in refusing to renounce the posture of belligerence and the ‘state of war’ they have maintained since... they invaded Israel May 15, 1948;
  3. Soviet policy in the Middle East and its one-sided approach to Israel’s security needs;
  4. Israel militarist, expansionist or annexationist circles.”

One-sided attacks against Israel were again criticized in the magazine in 1970, when Huey Newton of the Black Panthers called on Pacifica Radio for the transformation of the “Zionist government of Israel” into a “secular people’s state instead of a religious state” — “The Jewish people have a right to exist [as a national entity],” Newton said, “as long as they solely exist to down the reactionary expansionist Israeli government.” Jewish Currents responded by publishing Newton’s remarks with a heartfelt rejoinder by the Nobel laureate biologist and peace activist George Wald:

The Jews in Israel are no conquerors. They’re refugees; the remnant of the biggest massacre in history. About 400,000 of them are refugees from the Arab countries. Since 1948, more than half the immigrants came from underdeveloped Asian and African countries. As of 1968, one quarter of those persons had had no schooling at all, and only 28 percent had got past 8th grade. About 40 percent are unskilled workers.... What those people want is one small place in the world where Jews can manage their own lives.

Morris Schappes then weighed in with more biting criticism of Newton (all quoted from The Black Panthers, Jews, and Israel [PDF], February, 1971):

Israel has many features, and its government has many policies, with which we disagree and about which we have not hesitated to express our criticism. But Israel’s right to exist is inalienable. To call for the destruction of a state... smacks of genocide, not of revolutionary democracy.... The Algerian Liberation Front never called for the destruction of the state of France; the Vietnam Liberation Front does not call for the destruction of the USA as a state, nor do the liberation fronts fighting against... other imperialist states call for their destruction.... Therefore we deny the “revolutionary” character of those who, in any way, call for the destruction of the State of Israel.... Huey Newton’s call that Israel be “transformed into a secular people’s state instead of the religious state” [is] one such call, somewhat disguised.

Nearly a decade later, following Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, two venerable progressive activists wrote an “open letter” in Jewish Currents, To Our Friends Who Support the PLO [PDF], which urged supporters of the Palestinian struggle to help unleash a Palestinian peace movement to parallel Israel’s Peace Now. Morton Stavis, a co-founder of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Annette T. Rubinstein, a Marxist literary critic, observed that Peace Now had made crystal-clear its support for a two-state solution and had undertaken “the responsibility of communicating with the Jewish people” internationally to change their “hitherto uncritical support of the Begin government’s policies.” They continued:

The [challenge] for the Palestinian people... is no different: ... how [to] move their own political leadership so as to bring about acceptance of a two-state solution... Rejection of partition in 1947 prevented a Palestinian state from coming into being. Such rejection still stands in the way.... Peace Now movement is by its actions sending clear signals to the Palestinian people. Were the signals to be reciprocated, not by mere phrases but through PLO action — the visible initiation of open debate within the PLO concerning parallel action with the Peace Now movement and the necessity of a two-state solution — the Peace Now movement... would acquire even greater impact, which... would strengthen similar forces within the PLO.

Stavis and Rubinstein’s implication that the strength of Israel’s peace movement was dependent upon reciprocity within the Palestinian movement would prove to be sadly prophetic in the decades to come.

Criticisms of the left’s vilification of Israel have always been accompanied in Jewish Currents by criticisms of Israel’s policies of occupation, settlement, and military overkill — criticisms motivated by concern that Israel’s survival as a Jewish state and a democracy is incompatible with these policies. “[I]n a condition of peace, Israel can become the happiest country in the world,” wrote retired Major-General Mattityahu Peled, an Israeli war hero who became chair of the Israel Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace and was one of the first Israeli activists to meet with PLO representatives in the late 1970s (Israel’s Missed Opportunities, July-August, 1978). “Yet there is a persistent preference for territorial expansion and for the denial of a solution to the core issue of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the Palestinian problem.... [R]uling an unwilling people by military force... is corrupting us... [and] there is no, absolutely no justification from any one of Israel’s vital interests to continue this occupation. Israel can be very secure and very confident without ruling the Palestinians.”

Peled’s article was a transcript of a talk he gave as guest speaker at a Jewish Currents luncheon to honor the 30th anniversary of Israel’s founding. His approach of criticizing Israeli policies out of concern for the country’s soul and security has been echoed in the magazine for decades. JC has also advocated every imperfect but promising peace plan or peace process, which led the magazine to editorialize wearily about a “Time Warp in the Middle East” (May-June, 2007) after Hamas’ rise to power in Gaza:

Remember the days when the PLO would not acknowledge Israel’s right to exist — and Israel would not dialogue with its enemies without that acknowledgment? ...

Remember the days when Palestinian voices for reconciliation, like Dr. Issam Sartawi, were silenced by Palestinian assassins‚ while all conversation on the Israeli side about ending the occupation and negotiating a two-state solution was considered ‘far left’ and anti-Israel? ...

We thought those days ended with a handshake on the White House lawn on September 13th, 1993. Instead, the leaders of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples have fallen into a time warp....

Which leaves Jewish Currents to reiterate, ad nauseam: Palestinian terrorism is immoral and politically suicidal. Israeli retribution is immoral and politically counterproductive. The occupation, and especially settlement expansion, undermines Israel’s moral standing and self-defense. Negotiations are the only path to a future, for both peoples.

Amid this advocacy, however, Israel has too often seemed to be more of an abstract policy issue than an actual, living country for the magazine’s editors. There have been few Israeli voices like Mattiyahu Peled’s in JC’s pages over the years, and even the long-standing “It Happened in Israel” column was conducted by Americans based on Israeli news clips. Perhaps this sense of distance from Israel has mostly been a product of the magazine’s very limited editorial resources — but it also seems to me to be the product of the continuing “non-Zionist” perspective of Jewish Currents and much of its readership.

The “Zionist project,” after all, has been a source of great ambivalence for many progressive, “non-Zionist” American Jews. We have been offended by Israel’s historical disdain for the Yiddish language and for “diaspora” history and culture in general. We have disapproved of the obnoxious influence that Orthodox rabbis and their political parties have on Israel’s civil law, immigration law, and educational policies — and on defining Jewish identity internationally. We have disapproved of Israel’s kowtowing to U.S. foreign policy at the United Nations and in military collaborations with rightwing dictatorships in Latin America and with the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Progressive non-Zionists have also been distressed by how “support for Israel” ­— translated to mean support for the Israeli right — has empowered conservative American Jews in the halls of Congress and led much of the country to underestimate the tenacity of American Jewish liberalism. We have been disappointed by the predominance of a Zionist sensibility in the education of young American Jews — how Israel and Jewish nationalism have become the center of focus, allure, and Jewish consciousness-raising while a universalist sense of social responsibility, based on Jewish history and values, has fallen to a distant second place.

Zionism, in other words, has been our fierce competitor, and with all the advantages, for American Jewish hearts and minds.

As editor of the magazine for more than forty years, Morris U. Schappes never once visited Israel — making him typical among American Jews, only 25 to 35 percent of whom have been there. I’ve been only once myself, for a four-week stay, at the end of 2005. As the editor of JC since 2003, however, I’ve sought to bring a more full-bodied sense of the society, apart from the Israeli-Palestinian situation, into the pages of the magazine.

Two American-born women who have lived in Israel for many years, Susan Susser and Rabbi Amy Klein, rendered our readers a particularly valuable service by conducting our column, “A Viewpoint from Israel,” from 2004-2007 and 2007-2009, respectively, with topics that included “Being a Mommy in Israel,” the troubled status of foreign workers there, political identity among Arab-Israeli college students, the Ethiopian Jewish community, Israel’s backpacker youth culture, and much more. This effort to “humanize” Israel, as I see it, keeps our politics honest, less ideological, more rooted in the geography and real-life culture of Israel.

A more intimate understanding of Israeli society does not necessarily feed a Zionist sensibility, however, or resolve ambivalence about Israel. To the contrary, it can lead to the realization of how very different a culture and Jewish sensibility Israel has from the American Jewish community, and how unreal the sense of “nationalism” may be for such a ethnically and religiously diverse, international people as the Jews. As I wrote in the magazine after my month there (“Making Friends with Israel,” 2006), my experience in Israel served to confirm for me that my Jewish identity is most alive not in the “normalized” circumstances of a Jewish State, but in America,

where I experience... my Jewishness [as] countercultural, an identity of dissidence, subversive humor, self-examination, and humanistic passion. Here, it is the biblical meaning of the name ‘Israel,’ ‘God wrestler,’ that counts, more than an identification with Jewish nationalism or an attachment to the Land of Israel. Israel... did not fill me with feelings of ‘homecoming.’ I do not need that, however, to appreciate the Israeli people’s right to their land, their nation, and a secure future of self-determination. I find sufficient imperative for that in the Holocaust, and I feel sufficient anxiety about their destiny to give the country my solidarity and my special concern.

JC persists in its “non-Zionist, pro-Israel” perspective and its commitment to Jewishly motivated social activism in the so-called “diaspora.” This is our alternative to an Israel-centered Jewish identity, an alternative that we present to the American Jewish community (and our readers abroad), while continuing the twin struggle of supporting the peace forces in Israel and disabusing the left of its anti-Israel, anti-Zionist mishegos.

Lawrence Bush is the editor of Jewish Currents.