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O My America: As the Jewish Left Moves Left...

Lawrence Bush
July 7, 2017

DO WE HAVE TO BE ANTI-ZIONIST TO BE PROGRESSIVE THESE DAYS?

by Lawrence Bush

IT SEEMS A RELIABLE political principle that the less broad an influence a movement gains, the more ideologically pure it becomes. The longer the brutal war in Vietnam raged, despite the protests of hundreds of thousands of students and other citizens, the more symbolic bombings and sectarian splits over the correct political line took over from electoral politics and campus strikes in the early '70s. The longer the violent segregationists of the South were winked at by J. Edgar Hoover while coalition-building civil rights leaders were being murdered, the more the macho posturing of the Black Panthers and a black nationalist politics enchanted the New Left. And now, as the state of Israel completes its fiftieth year of occupying Palestinian lands, stubbornly ignoring every domestic and international pressure to proceed to a two-state solution, much of the American left, especially its youthful face, and including many leftwing Jews, has turned Zionism into an unclean identity, unfit to be present at leftwing convocations.

Two weeks back the Chicago Dyke Coalition expelled from its Little Village rally of about 1,500 marchers three women carrying what they described as "Jewish pride flags." Here's what one of the flags looked like:

“I wanted to be in public as a gay Jew of Persian and German heritage," one of the women exiled, Shoshany Anderson, said on Facebook. "Nothing more, nothing less. So I made a shirt that said ‘Proud Jewish Dyke’ and hoisted a big Jewish Pride flag -- a rainbow flag with a Star of David in the center, the centuries-old symbol of the Jewish people. During the picnic in the park, organizers in their official t-shirts began whispering and pointing at me and soon, a delegation came over, announcing they’d been sent by the organizers. They told me my choices were to roll up my Jewish Pride flag or leave. The Star of David makes it look too much like the Israeli flag, they said, and it triggers people and makes them feel unsafe."

Well, I gotta say: This triggers me.

BEFORE I LET myself get all stressed out and shouting, however, here's what the pro-BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) says about the expelled women, who were members of A Wider Bridge, a group described by JVP as "challeng[ing] the inclusion of Palestinian human rights as an issue supported by Chicago Dyke March." According to a JVP statement in Portside,

The A Wider Bridge contingent loudly encouraged fellow participants to erase mentions of Palestine during solidarity chants. When Palestinian attendees approached them, they became hostile while expressing explicit support for Zionism, which was one of the ideologies that march organizers had disavowed because it has led to decades of displacement and violence against Palestinians. After a two hour conversation with organizers and other members, the attendees were asked to leave for not respecting the community norms, including opposition to all forms of racism and violence. One of the people asked to leave was Laurel Grauer, Midwest Manager from A Wider Bridge (AWB), who held a rainbow flag with a blue Star of David identical in color, size and placement to the one on the Israeli flag.

Many other Jews, including members of Jewish Voice for Peace-Chicago, were present at Dyke March wearing Jewish symbols, including Stars of David, t-shirts with Hebrew, kippot, and sashes with Yiddish script, and none of them were asked to leave the event, interrogated about their politics, or were the target of any complaints because of their visible Jewish presence.

Provocation on both sides! Shades of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle! Here is the version of events told by Laurel Grauer:

Just as I did not hide my flag, I did not hide when asked point-blank, that, yes, I care about the State of Israel. Yes, I believe it does exist and that it should continue to exist. I also believe that it should continue to be held accountable and challenged by the amazing Israeli Queer LGBTQ activists I proudly call my colleagues, who struggle every day to make Israel more pluralistic, accepting and accountable not only to Queer Israelis, but everyone, including Queer/non-Queer Palestinians. In many ways, their work mirrors those of the LGBTQ activists I work with here in Chicago, both on a personal level, and within my role at A Wider Bridge.

In the same breath, I stated that I believe there should be a free and independent Palestine. I was shut down. “You cannot be Zionist and believe in a Palestinian state, Zionism is inherently racism.” And so again, because of one belief I have that I shared when asked, because of the one symbol I carried, I was asked to leave.

“Are you asking anyone else to leave?”

“Yes, one other girl who was carrying a similar flag.”

“So you are asking the two people who are carrying Jewish Pride Flags to leave, and no one else?”

“Just you, the other girl, and the religious protestors.”

“So you are asking the two people carrying Pride flags with Jewish stars on them and the “God hates fags” contingent?”

“Yes.”

What to think, whom to believe, whom to support? I dunno. Grauer seemed intent on challenging the Chicago Dyke Coalition's ban on any and all affirmations of Israel; the Coalition leaders seemed intent on enforcing that ban.

WHY SHOULD ISRAEL be a definitive issue at all when it comes to LGBTQ liberation? Or police violence against black people? Or mass incarceration? Three years ago, our magazine became involved with some members of a Mid-Hudson Valley, NY synagogue in launching a Jewish coalition against mass incarceration. The coalition organized book-readings of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow; we facilitated the creation of a Passover hagode supplement about mass incarceration that placed a lock and a key on the seder plate; we published a Jewish study guide to Alexander's book; we organized and published articles by Jewish leaders about contemporary racism; we got things going, in coordination with a local black activist church.

Another group working on the issue, however, the End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN), consistently included in their newsletter reports on and protests against Israel's policies towards the Palestinians. Our coalition kept saying to them: We're trying to organize the Jewish community to be an ally on this issue of mass incarceration. We're trying to organize money and jobs for people getting out of jail. We're trying to revive a Jewish commitment to racial justice in America. We can't be identified with you in some kind of alliance, however, if you insist on bringing Israel into the equation. What purpose will this serve except to drive away your potential allies and maintain some weird ideological purity within your group?

No matter. So large in their consciousness did the Israeli-Palestinian issue loom -- "their" consciousness, by the way, being the mindsets of Jewish activists within ENJAN, in particular! -- that there was no getting them to set it aside for the sake of our common cause. Our coalition-building was derailed, or at least isolated to within the local Jewish community, at an early stage.

TO ME, BDS IN GENERAL seems more of an obsession and a unifying article of faith than a real cause. As a movement allegedly wanting actually to influence Israeli policy, it has put not a dent into Israel's economy, only provoked idiots of the right and the Jewish mainstream to repress free speech, creating a feedback loop that makes having an anti-Israel, anti-Zionist perspective politically cool.

Nor has the BDS movement ever, to my knowledge, formally endorsed a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- although this the only solution that acknowledges both the right of Israel to exist as place for Jewish self-determination (as established by the United Nations — the United Nations! — in 1947) and the right for the Palestinians to self-determine their own destiny in their own state (also set forth by the United Nations in 1947). Push a BDS activist to pose alternatives to this ever-fading two-state solution and you'll hear about the possibilities of one state, or of reconfiguring the entire Middle East, or other solutions that are far, far LESS realistic than two states.

The BDS movement also seems never to acknowledge Palestinian or even Arab participation in the immoral swamp of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle: the reality of five Arab armies invading Israel in 1948; the decades of brutal terrorism against Jews, both in Israel and around the world, in the name of Israel's overthrow; the assassinations of Palestinian peace activists by Palestinian militants; the deep corruption of Palestinian leadership; the use of Palestinian suffering as a rally cry by extremely reactionary Arab governments; the religious fundamentalism and anti-Jewish proclamations of Hamas; the cross-border aggressions of Hezbollah -- none of which legitimizes Israel's half-century of occupation, but all of which makes it quite something other than "genocide."

Instead, we have BDS activists defending the Black Lives Matter's charges of "genocide" and "apartheid" against Israel and, in the words of If Not Now's Ally Little and Michelle Weiser, "proudly and unequivocally support[ing] the Movement for Black Lives Platform and Black Lives Matter. We recognize the call for freedom and dignity of black lives as intricately linked to our call for freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians." And we have the Chicago Dyke Coalition organizer unabashedly describing their group as "anti-Zionist” in the same breath as "intersectional."

THE 72-YEAR-OLD magazine I edit, Jewish Currents, has always described itself as "pro-Israel, non-Zionist," never as "anti-Zionist," because JC was around at the creation of Israel in 1948 and saw it as a necessary affirmative action for Jews worldwide, who had lost fully a third of their people to Nazi genocide in five years. JC saw the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as an advance for the Palestinian people, too, who had always been dominated by either the ruling classes of the Turks or the Hashemites or the Syrians or other outsiders -- and JC proclaimed the rare unity of the U.S. and the USSR on the partition of Palestine as a good thing.

We were "non-Zionist," however, because we saw Jewish internationalism, not nationalism, as the truer calling of Jewish identity, and we viewed the "normalization" of the Jewish people through nation-building and militarization as a tragic loss. Jewish Currents was interested in the creativity of Jewish identity as an identity of struggle within the U.S. and other countries and were not particularly interested in an "ingathering" of Jews in Palestine/Israel. Yet there they were, millions of Jewish refugees from other lands -- MILLIONS of Jews, you hear? -- and we were not going to be "anti-" their right to be safe there.

Post-1967 and the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, we urged a land-for-peace deal and applauded the dogged efforts of the Israeli peace movement to win a two-state solution, including recognition of Israel's legitimate right to exist by the Palestine Liberation Organization. We consistently denounced the Greater Israel movement and settlement expansion as disastrous for Israel's future — and we called upon the PLO to match the Israeli peace movement's advocacy of a two-state solution.

All of this is ancient history now -- and the Israeli government's intention of never allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state is clear and in the open. Still, the abandonment of the two-state solution for a mythical and impossible one-state solution, the abandonment of acknowledging the moral complexity and two-sidedness (at least!) of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, the insistence that "non-Zionist" now become "anti-Zionist" and that "Zionist" is beyond the pale of "intersectionality" -- all of this adds up to polarizing sectarianism, little more.

Does my believing so doom Jewish Currents to lose all of those young Jewish radicals who are committed anti-Zionists? I hope not. Our commitment to issues of racial justice matches theirs. Our commitment to social activism matches theirs. Our socialist aspirations match theirs. As Jewish Currents seeks to grow towards its centennial by finding a new generation of readers, the folks in If Not Now, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Chicago Dyke Coalition seem a natural constituency. And we are glad to publish their viewpoints on BDS and other issues. Jewish Currents believes in pitching a big tent of genuine "intersectionality."

To the extent, however, that we have to embrace an anti-Zionist kashrut in order to participate in their community -- sorry, no can do. Our hope is actually to preserve a progressive sensibility in the American Jewish community, to reach to our right and to our left, not to hunker down into self-righteous rage and radical orthodoxy.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and is the author of BESSIE: A Novel of Love and Revolution, among other books.

​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of BESSIE: A Novel of Love and Revolution, and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication in 2022.