Thursday, March 19, 2009

In which Zionism is not racism

As an 'out' Zionist, I feel I must disassociate myself from the view, expressed by Withwindle, that the Palestinians are "gleeful butchers." There's enough confusion out there about what it means to be pro-Israel, to be a Zionist, to think Israel should remain a Jewish state, that I think it's important to point out that this is not the view of all (or, I would guess, most) who are on the 'side' I'm on in all this. No, we do not all hate the Palestinians.

But first, a word of (admittedly not-so-nuanced) background:

The following will seem beyond-obvious to some reading this, but perhaps not all, so here goes: Western anti-Semitism was not a blip in 1930s Germany, arising out of nowhere, only to vanish in 1945, Lesson Learned. For one thing, it didn't disappear, but that's irrelevant to this post. What's important here is that for centuries preceding WWII, preceding the coining of the term 'anti-Semitism', Jews were, often, a hated group.

The constant in anti-Jewish writings, more than usury, more than 'you-killed-Jesus', was that the Jews once had their own land but had not for centuries, making them 'guests' at best or 'parasites' at worst on the lands of others. Even anti-Jewish writers who did not literally use the phrase, 'Go back to Palestine!' had as a starting point that the Jews a) were not at home in any of the European countries, and b) that the home they once had was located in Palestine. This, above all, was the complaint against the Jews.

But let's take a turn-of-the-century anti-Jewish European urging his Jewish neighbors to 'go back to Palestine.' Do we hold him guilty primarily a) of bigotry against his Jewish countrymen, or b) of failing to consider the preferences of whoever might be living in Palestine, who would surely be displaced should the anti-Semite's wish come true?

Clearly it's (a). He believes himself to be telling Jews that classic line, 'Go back where you came from.' It doesn't bother him that he's yelling not at immigrants from Palestine, but at people whose families may well have been in, say, France longer than his own. If he stopped to acknowledge this, he might realize that perhaps by now someone else was living in the land he believes his multi-generation-French-Jewish neighbors recently emigrated from.

So, from the perspective of certain European Jews, the message to 'go back to Palestine' seemed the only answer to the 'Jewish question.' Does that mean Zionism was only a reaction to anti-Semitism? No, because the return to Palestine has religious significance for Jews. But, were it not for a new understanding of anti-Semitism's fundamental idea, it's possible Zionism would have never caught on. If the 'return to Zion' were primarily about fulfilling a religious dream, the moral case for Israel would be quite different. Many European Jews came to realize that refusing to work in finance, even converting, these were not enough to prevent Jews from being told to 'go back home.' It seemed, and ultimately proved, the only option.

Oh, and the point of all this rambling? The preexisting non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine (because there were of course also preexisting Jewish residents) were, in effect, not consulted. Did the Palestinians deserve to be punished for European hatred of Jews? No. But that's what happened. Should the Palestinians be angry at European Christians, not Israel? In theory, yes, but it's hard to see how that would play out.

And rambling... done.

**************

As for the Palestinians today, they are at once some of the luckiest and the least lucky people on the planet.

Why lucky? Their enemy - for simple, geographical reasons - happens to be the most-hated people in the West if not beyond. If your enemy is The Jews, you have an immense fan base: among anti-Semites, among those who are indifferent to Jews but sick of being made to feel guilty about the Holocaust, even among xenophobes who'd otherwise hate you for being an Arab. On Canal Street in Chinatown, one store after the next sells, along with fake designer sunglasses, handbags, and the like, a wide array of keffiyehs. Do the Chinese vendors on Canal Street have a particular interest in the Palestinian cause? Anything's possible, but the more likely reason for the scarves is that they are, much like the latest retro-revival sunglasses, a trend. Aside from the odd Che shirts, how many trends with such political significance can be found in the knock-off shops of New York? Along the same lines, how many oppressed groups these days find their conflict among the list of issues taken up by earnest student protesters? There are other, more pressing issues in the world that no one gives a crap about, because The Jews don't enter into it.

Why unlucky (aside from hello, Gaza)? Basically for the same reason that they're lucky. Knowing how useful as a symbol any group 'oppressed by the Jews' would be for gaining international sympathy, the 'Palestinian cause' (to be distinguished from the cause of actual Palestinians, as individuals or a collectivity) has been embraced by Arab states and Western leftists - not to mention politically-ignorant Western hipsters (not that all hipsters are ignorant of politics, but anyway...) - for all the wrong reasons. They have a legitimate grievance, but it can't get properly addressed as long as the symbolism of their cause holds more power than the cause itself.

So here's what I'd say to Withywindle: someone pro-Israel has far more reason to be angry at those who've embraced the Palestinians as a symbol to serve their own ends/trends than to have it in for the Palestinians themselves.

25 comments:

PG said...

Very good post, except --
On Canal Street in Chinatown, one store after the next sells, along with fake designer sunglasses, handbags, and the like, a wide array of keffiyehs. Do the Chinese vendors on Canal Street have a particular interest in the Palestinian cause? Anything's possible, but the more likely reason for the scarves is that they are, much like the latest retro-revival sunglasses, a trend. Aside from the odd Che shirts, how many trends with such political significance can be found in the knock-off shops of New York?

I'm really skeptical of the idea that keffiyehs are as overtly political as Che shirts. I'm pretty sure Rachel Ray would at least ask someone who this Che guy was before putting on a shirt with his image.

Matt said...

Yes, the keffiyeh thing is nonsense, leaning a bit towards paranoia to worry about or think it's political, I think. I'm fairly sure that Jews are not plausibly the most hated group in the west these days, too. It's surely Muslims. Even in highly anti-semitic Russia, the one thing people can agree on is that they hate the "chornies" (where this mostly means Muslims, though it means other things, too) even more than they hate the Jews. This is something all aspects of Russian life can get behind- even the Jews. It's not a surprise, if you know much about Russia, that the neo-fascist eliminationist elements in Israeli politics, for example, draws heavily, perhaps mostly, on Russian immigrants.

I think your historical story is at least leaving some important aspects out as well. Groups that are insular, have strong in-group loyalties, have religious differences, and are seen as unwilling to assimilate to the mainstream culture, always have trouble. It doesn't matter if they are from another place or not. See the gypsies/Roma in Europe and the Mormons in the mid-west before they were driven to Utah for other examples. This isn't justification- I think these reactions are absurd and awful- but it's necessary for explanation. The fact that the Jews were "from" a particular place was convenient but not a necessary factor, I think.

Anyway, yes, one can be "pro-Israel" in some senses without being a racist, but some of the points in this post don't, I think, quite add up right.

Phoebe said...

PG and Matt,

Agreed, the keffiyeh is ambiguously political. No, not everyone who wears it today thinks of it as anything more symbolic than the knock-off Ray-ban Wayfarers that one purchases to wear with it. But, say, the NYU protesters, wearing keffiyehs and protesting about Gaza? It's not only scholars of Middle Eastern history who know to think of the scarf as political. I do think its popularity stems, if indirectly, from the popularity of aligning one's self with the enemy of the Jews. Does that make the typical hipster an anti-Semite? No, thinking that would be paranoia.

Matt,

I know next to nothing about present-day Russia, except for anecdotes from a friend who did research there. So, I'll have to accept your assessment. In terms of France, who's more hated, Jews or Muslims, it's also a tough call. Either way you call it, someone will be furious, so I'll just let that one be.

Re: Mormons etc., yes, insular minorities face discrimination. But how does that change the fact that discrimination as expressed, in the early 20th C and earlier, against Jews, in Western Europe was quite centrally about how Jews had a country, then, but now, do not? I mean, that's what I've found in at least the French case, even in the early 18th C. I'm not saying anything about Mormons or Roma 'having it easy' relative to Jews. I don't think lack of a country is the central cause of all discrimination against all groups in all of history, just of Jews in modern Europe. It sure isn't the cause of anti-Semitism today, except insofar as Israel is seen by its harshest detractors as not a legitimate country .

Another way to look at it is, lack of country may not have been the cause of anti-Semitism so much as the reason consistently given by anti-Semites of all stripes. Which would explain why Israel's existence did not, as Herzl predicted, make anti-Semitism disappear.

David Schraub said...

It's interesting how the account you give dove-tails with the anti-Zionist Jewish argument that Zionism means buying into anti-Semitism. You see it today in folks who claim that Zionism reifies the assumption that Jews aren't truly part of their "home" countries, but it has a longer pedigree -- the Bund's anti-Zionist campaigns were centered primarily on their proposed alternative of fighting for socialism where they are now.

Now, I personally find this argument extremely annoying, both because often the same people who make the "Zionism implies Jews aren't really British (or wherevers)" are those who, in fact, demonstrate (in word or deed) that they don't believe Jews aren't actually British. Moreover, in contrast to the Bund, which was trying to convince individual Jews that, given the choice, they should choose to stay and fight for equality in their current location rather than emigrate, contemporary anti-Zionists want to eliminate the choice entirely -- forcing Jews to fight for equality in their home state without any guarantee they'll succeed.

Withywindle said...

I serve a useful social function: I make you look moderate by comparison, and your moderation is further confirmed by the fact that you disassociate yourself from me. As a result, Phoebe Maltz's Birthday will be a national holiday in the Land of Israel, while the boys in the yishuv will wear Withywindle baseball caps over their yarmulkes.

I continue to be less fond of those actually doing the Jew-killing than their enablers. But it is also possible that I am angrier at their enablers than you are, although I have not expressed my anger so often; my dislike of Charles Freeman and his supporters, expressed on my blog, is probably representative of my emotions toward the anti-Semites of the diaspora. It's probably sufficient to say that I regard them as enemies; given that basic act of definition, I'm not sure how much it matters if my passions are less engaged.

Phoebe said...

I disassociate myself from your view of the Palestinians; it's nothing personal. No need to make it such. And my goal here is not to make my take on Zionism appear "moderate", but to define it, period. Obviously it will not look moderate to anti-Zionists.

Anyway, what I wanted to get at in this post, but it was getting too long already, was that, just as it's natural that the Palestinians turn on Israel and Jews rather than European anti-Semites, it's understandable that Israel's supporters see the Palestinians as the enemy. (Whether it's reasonable to call an enemy the things you called the Palestinians... there, again, we disagree. Also, you'd have to admit that an Arab whose family was displaced upon Israel's founding/expansion who kills an Israeli soldier does so with a different motivation than a German did killing a civilian just for being a Jew in 1941.) And indeed the Israelis and the Palestinians are enemies... sort of. But both sides are at this point at least as much symbols as actors, which is my all-encompassing and thus probably useless theory of why things over there are such a mess.

Phoebe said...

OK, that was to Withywindle. Now, David Schraub:

Your comment reveals why I was a fool to grapple with this via off-the-top-of-my-head historical analysis. I don't see Zionism as 'letting the anti-Semites win,' because really, how could they not win, given their numbers? That founding Zionists took anti-Semitism into account made them pragmatists, not cowards. They were making the best of their situation as they understood it.

But, for the record, I think the ideal of Zionism is for Jews to be able to live in peace in the Jewish state or in diaspora states. In this era of hyphenated identities, it's more realistic than at the height of nationalist fervor... but of course where does an age of hyphenated identity leave Israel?

PG said...

I think the ideal of Zionism is for Jews to be able to live in peace in the Jewish state or in diaspora states.

I'm not very informed on Zionism, so apologies if this comes off as offensive as well as ignorant, but what is considered the Jewish State in mainstream Zionist thought? Like, what are its borders and necessary location? Is someone who thinks there should be a Jewish state but perhaps not in the Middle East not a Zionist? What about someone who thinks there should be a Jewish state in the historic land of Israel, but only within the 1947 UN Partition Plan?

I have trouble determining whether I would fit within mainstream Zionist thought, because I think that in 1945 I would have seen an absolute necessity of creating a Jewish state, and in 2009 I support the status quo of a Jewish state in the Middle East, but I am not sure I have sufficient empathy with the religious aspects of Zionism to be considered a Zionist.

Withywindle said...

Phoebe: Nothing personal intended; merely a careless shorthand. I didn't say it was your goal to appear moderate; merely that this was the effect. I wouldn't necessarily distinguish sharply between Palestinian and German motivations, since the Germans believed the Jews presented an existential threat to Germany.

PG: My understanding is that the various streams of Zionist thought agree on the need for a Jewish state in the land of Israel, and disagree on whether it need include all the land of Israel. This fuzziness in the definition of Zionism allows Israel's opponents to pretend they oppose Zionism=a state encompassing all the land of Israel, when in fact they oppose Zionism=any state in the land of Israel. While Zionists thus bear some responsibility for providing their enemies a rhetorical weapon, it should also be noted that the Israeli political elite has committed itself since 1947/48, broadly if not universally--the settlement policy does indicate some distinct ambivalence on the issue--to the less ambitious definition of Zionism; Israel's enemies are thus being somewhat tendentious, if not entirely so, in opposing a variety of Zionism that the state of Israel has largely (if not entirely) forsworn. And of course Zionism was originally a secular movement with a very strained relationship with Judaism, and to a considerable extent remains so. There is some overlap, to be sure, but "religious aspects of Zionism" is a peculiar phrase that requires some exegesis.

PG said...

And of course Zionism was originally a secular movement with a very strained relationship with Judaism, and to a considerable extent remains so. There is some overlap, to be sure, but "religious aspects of Zionism" is a peculiar phrase that requires some exegesis.

If Zionism is primarily secular, why does it matter where the Jewish state is? Why does it need to be in the Middle East if not for religious reasons?

Phoebe said...

"If Zionism is primarily secular, why does it matter where the Jewish state is? Why does it need to be in the Middle East if not for religious reasons?"

There's a question that can't be answered in a blog comment. (For starters, the idea of Judaism as 'only' a religion and not also a political entity was itself only a century old by the time Zionists started demanding a Jewish nation. Plus, the split never fully happened in the first place.)

But if you're looking for non-religious reasons why Israel is where it is, one would be that Palestine was generally understood to be 'where the Jews came from' by Jews and non-Jews in the West. The belief came from religious texts and tradition, but took on a life of its own. Also, even purely secular Zionists understood that they had to appeal to their observant fellow Jews; Palestine would work for the secular and religious, whereas another locale might only inspire the secular.

lgm said...

The million residents of Gaza haven't had much "luck" in a while. Their ancestors lived in what now is Israel until a bunch of foreigners arrived and forced them off their land at gunpoint. Since then they've been confined to decrepit refugee camps. It doesn't do them much good if teenagers from New Jersey buy Arab looking scarves in Chinatown. Neither does it do them any good to blame French anti-Semites of yesteryear.

Phoebe said...

lgm,

You're pro-Palestinian, which is clear enough from your comments. What are you looking for at this blog, if you're not even going to reach the point in the post where I acknowledge the self-evident unluckiness of Palestinian Gazans? I am a Zionist and I acknowledge this. What more do you want from a blog with "Zionism" in the title?

And yes, the scarves matter. No, not everyone buying one knows what it means, but the fact of the matter is that millions of Westerners know about and sympathize with the Palestinians, while others suffering at least as much elsewhere in the world suffer in virtual silence.

European anti-Semites of yesteryear matter plenty in terms of how one understands why "foreigners" arrived in Palestine in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century. But, as you are an anti-Zionist, you don't think so, and you know what? I'm not about to convince you, because people tend to be quite set on their ways on this issue.

Matt said...

And yes, the scarves matter. No, not everyone buying one knows what it means...

Actually, I think the scarfs are only similar to Palestinian ones, not the same. And even if they were the same, it wouldn't matter. It seems a general good principle to me that when you have the same position on something (anything, really) as Michelle Malkin, you should re-think your psotion on it. She's worse than a broken clock, not even right on accident. This is just silly and not something you should worry about. That Malkin agrees with your position on it should be enough reason to know this position must be wrong.

Phoebe said...

I only vaguely know who Malkin is, so I'm not about to change my views on account of her having or not having them.

PG said...

But, say, the NYU protesters, wearing keffiyehs and protesting about Gaza?

But this is a combination of actions, not fashion alone. If someone is protesting about Gaza, then obviously they are sympathetic to Palestinians and what they are wearing is irrelevant. It seems useless to use the popularity of a scarf pattern to estimate the popularity of the Palestinian cause, when there are much more accurate markers of Palestinian-sympathy than wearing a scarf. I never took the brief late '90s trend for bindis as an indication that Americans were going to give a damn about sanctions on India for its nuclear testing, even though the nukes had a strong Hindu nationalist association and bindis are Hindu. Some people wear a symbol of another culture to express sympathy with or allegiance to that culture, but such people generally will express that sympathy more explicitly. Most people wearing the symbol will just think it looks cool, and vendors of it are motivated by profit, not politics.

Phoebe said...

I'm not sure why people are so set on arguing this point. All I'm getting at is that there's a reason the keffiyeh came to be cool, and that this reason has to do with the coolness of the cause it's seen as symbolizing. (Does it 'really' symbolize the Palestinian cause? I mean, what's 'really'? Many who wear it and who oppose wearing it think so - what more do you need?) I never said each and every person wearing one is doing so after careful consideration of the I-P conflict, to show the choice they came up with.

PG said...

All I'm getting at is that there's a reason the keffiyeh came to be cool, and that this reason has to do with the coolness of the cause it's seen as symbolizing.

I'm not even sure this is true, but I acknowledge that I'm way less knowledgeable about fashion, particularly among the NYC hipster contingent, than Phoebe is. When did the keffiyeh become popular? Was it popularized by celebrities who identify with the Palestinian cause? Or did it become available in the U.S. because there's now a significant and visible Arab population for whom this is part of their cultural (not just political) heritage, and got picked up by whitefolks who were looking for the next "exotic" thing?

I raised the bindi comparison because that was an instance of a couple celebrities' picking up on a traditional part of Hindu culture, simultaneous with a significant and visible Hindu population in more parts of the U.S. and the import of Bollywood culture, with pretty much no political or even religious import to the fashion.

PG said...

And that was a terrible last sentence for using the word "import" in two completely different meanings... the first was meant to be in the sense of international trade, the second in the sense of importance.

Phoebe said...

My impression is that the trend started more on the European Left than among hipsters, but that it, much like narrow pants and shaggy hair, made its way across the Atlantic. And, that among pro-Israel Jews in the US, it's quite universally seen as a pro-Palestinian statement. Since pro-Israel Jews in the US have made their (our) views about this (and other matters) known, my sense is that those who wear the scarf either don't know its meaning or want to distinguish themselves from neoconservatism, Jews, or all other entities that do not smack of rebellion against The Man. (I once got a scarf at H&M that was black with some silver - no houndstooth pattern, definitively not a keffiyeh - and a friend who shares my politics on this issue suggested that even that scarf could send the wrong message.)

Regardless, I don't think this is my bias as a Jew speaking when I say that the very mention of "India" does not, for better or worse, inspire a thousand American college sophomores to write op-eds, whereas "Israel" and "Palestine" do just that.

lgm said...

Deconstructing:

You're pro-Palestinian, which is clear enough from your comments.

What are you looking for at this blog, if you're not even going to reach the point in the post where I acknowledge the self-evident unluckiness of Palestinian Gazans? I am a Zionist and I acknowledge this. What more do you want from a blog with "Zionism" in the title?

PG said...

There's some variance in the extent to which pro-Israel Jews are upset by kaffiyehs -- or garments that could be seen as such -- when the fashion is not substantiated by actual political speech or action. And as I commented to that post, I'd much rather see capitalism subvert the political content of a black and white scarf than have the black and white scarf permitted only for the pro-Palestinian and/or ignorant.

lgm said...

Clicked the wrong button. Here's the second try.

Deconstructing:

You're pro-Palestinian, which is clear enough from your comments.

This seems like a straw man and ad hominem in one sentence -- good writing but poor debating. There is no secret agenda behind my posts to be uncovered by textual analysis. The fact (ask anyone in Middle Eastern Studies at NYU or elsewhere) is that Jews have inflicted enormous suffering on Palestinians and continue to do so. Despite supposedly Palestinian scarves, America has enabled Israel far more than Palestinians, through Billions per year in aid.

What are you looking for at this blog, if you're not even going to reach the point in the post where I acknowledge the self-evident unluckiness of Palestinian Gazans?

Why do you solicit comments if they annoy you so much? I thought it was to sample the clean air outside that stuffy AIPAC echo chamber. Calling Palestinians "unlucky" indeed puts you on the fringe of what AIPAC tolerates. Might you want to explore that thought a little further?

Does the luckiness of having Americans wear their scarves balance the unluckiness of having been driven off their land and forced to live in camps for generations?

I am a Zionist and I acknowledge this. What more do you want from a blog with "Zionism" in the title?

Does being a Zionist entitle you to ignore history? Is it a birth defect that prevents people from being able to process certain kinds of information?

Finally (I promise to go away after this): I'm a Zionist too, in the sense that I support a Jewish country within the 1967 borders. I see Likud/Shas axis as a cancer, both for Israel as a country and for the Jewish religion. The orthodox community of New York City has gone from opposing the creation of the State of Israel (as in The Chosen) to believing the Diaspora is G-d's punishment for failing to complete genocidal ethnic cleansing as in Joshua, and wanting to complete Joshua's mission. Rabbis distributed leaflets to Israeli soldiers in Gaza urging them to kill with abandon.

It seems to me that a free and prosperous Palestinian state is the only hope for peace in Israel. It's a small price to pay if Israel has to give back a little, having taken so much.

PG said...

lgm,

Speaking of strawmen, fyi:

http://www.aipac.org/Publications/SourceMaterialsCongressionalAction/SenateRes.pdf

This AIPAC-supported Congressional resolution refers several times to the suffering of Gazans. Admittedly, it puts the blame on Hamas for using civilians as human shields, but it does refer to "a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people in Gaza" and says that "the humanitarian situation in Gaza, including shortages of food, water, electricity, and adequate medical
care, is becoming more acute." It also encourages the president to support a cease-fire that "allows for the long term improvement of daily living conditions for the ordinary people of Gaza;" and syas Congress "believes strongly that the lives of innocent civilians must be protected and all appropriate measures should be taken to diminish civilian casualties and that all involved should continue to work to address humanitarian needs in Gaza" and concludes with support for a two-state solution.

But yeah, Calling Palestinians 'unlucky' indeed puts you on the fringe of what AIPAC tolerates.

AIPAC attributes a lot of the unluckiness to Hamas, but it certainly doesn't claim that the Palestinians are fortunate people.

Phoebe said...

Two points:

1) Forget the scarves. The point I was trying to make - that it's both a blessing and a curse for the Palestinians that their cause is trendy in the West, when other, arguably more pressing causes are ignored - does not require the keffiyeh as an example.

2) lgm: "Does being a Zionist entitle you to ignore history?"

OK, let's get this straight: you go to a self-proclaimed Zionist's blog, you get a statement acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinians, and you make this accusation why? Where exactly did I claim my Zionism was for a Greater Israel (for the record, it is not), or for pretending the Palestinian people does not exist?