Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Zionism(s)

Readers of this blog might notice that I label myself both a Francophile and a Zionist. This is about the latter. I consider myself a Zionist in the same way as I consider myself a feminist: defensively, dare I say conservatively, as in, I think there should continue to be a Jewish state in Palestine (which is not to say there shouldn't also be a Palestinian one - there should. Don't get all excited, everyone.), and I think that women should continue to have rights (an imprecise word I realize, but bear with me) where this is the case, or should be able to acquire them where it is not. I'm not, therefore, a Zionist in the sense in which the word is sometimes used, as in, I do not believe in a Greater Israel or in signing up 100% with U.S. conservative doctrine - contraception bans and all - because Israel Israel Israel, friends of my enemies are my friends, blah blah. Nor am I a feminist in the clichéd sense of rejecting cooking, eyeliner, heterosexuality, etc.

This is all relevant because as I've recently learned (or maybe it's relearned, but this time more definitively), in Jewish Studies, there's such a thing as Zionist historiography. In the context of this field, from what I understand, a "Zionist" is someone who, among other things, blames 19th and early-20th century Diaspora Jews for being so "assimilated", that is, for "fooling themselves" into thinking they were really French, German, etc. Had they only known they were and always would be Jews above all else in the eyes of others, and had perhaps gotten moving on setting up a state of their own, they could have - and it all comes down to this, doesn't it? - avoided the Holocaust.

Simply put, this is not at all how I understand modern French-Jewish history. French Jews were not under the mistaken impression that they were both Jewish and French, they were both of these things. "Assimilation" was not so much an ideology adopted at will, but a long-established reality. French Jews in 1940 were not "assimilated", as though having of their own accord, in their own lifetimes, abandoned some primordial Jewish state in order to get ahead or whatever. They just were French, plain and simple. The idea that assimilation was a path among others only emerged - and then barely - following the Dreyfus Affair. Prior to that, "assimilation" just meant that one was both Jewish and French.

That the Nazi and Vichy regimes decided to define as "the Jews" an arbitrarily-chosen set of people including those with a positive Jewish identity, those who didn't care either way, and even Christians of or presumed to be of Jewish heritage was in fact a part of these regimes' violence. How could anyone blame those with some Jewish grandparents, or with nothing but a vague sense of not being Christian, but no connection to Judaism, for not having preemptively abandoned their French identities for a Jewish one? The other-sense-of-the-word Zionist in me certainly sees how this would have been beneficial, but the part of me that's neck-deep in French-Jewish history cannot see how this would have been the case, and sees any expectations that it might have as anachronistic.

This is a problem for me because I identify as a Zionist, but, apparently, not as a Zionist, depending on the context. I'm definitely not an anti-Zionist, and given how unfashionable even my own not-exactly-Likudnik version of Zionism is these days, I would never want to give that impression. Nor, however, would I want anyone to think I embrace an understanding of history that's anachronistic. Help!

12 comments:

Petey said...

"This is a problem for me because I identify as a Zionist, but, apparently, not as a Zionist, depending on the context. I'm definitely not an anti-Zionist, and given how unfashionable even my own not-exactly-Likudnik version of Zionism is these days, I would never want to give that impression. Nor, however, would I want anyone to think I embrace an understanding of history that's anachronistic. Help!"

The historical issue becomes quite complex.

But the present day issue is extremely simple.

Being a diaspora Zionist requires taking active responsibility for Israel, so in the post-'67 era, being an intellectually honesty diaspora Zionist requires being actively anti-occupation.

This really isn't a situation where one can remain neutral. It hasn't been for quite a while.

-----

The problem with your blog of late isn't with your Zionist bona-fides, instead the problem is with your anti-Francophile tone of snark.

Phoebe said...

Before the angstiness continues, reread the part of the post where I say there should be a Palestinian state. No one should look to this blog to define the exact terms according to which this should happen, to draw the border, etc. For the sake of the Israelis and the Palestinians (and where exactly did I deny they're in a bad situation?), I think a two-state solution of some kind is best.

Anyway, I see no point in discussing whether, if you think Israel's more to blame for its troubles than I think it is (which I suspect is the case), and if you think the Palestinian's troubles are 100% Israel's fault and I'd put that percentage lower (not at zero, but lower), that makes you "intellectually honest" and me a credulous follower of everything spoken on Fox News, because such discussions go nowhere. My (not so radical) views on this topic are in the archives here, and I don't care to rehash them now.

Petey said...

"Anyway, I see no point in discussing whether, if you think Israel's more to blame for its troubles than I think it is (which I suspect is the case), and if you think the Palestinian's troubles are 100% Israel's fault and I'd put that percentage lower (not at zero, but lower), that makes you "intellectually honest" and me a credulous follower of everything spoken on Fox News, because such discussions go nowhere. My (not so radical) views on this topic are in the archives here, and I don't care to rehash them now."

I'm not calling you a Likud-nik.

However, I do think you a neutral on the specifics of the occupation, and I don't think neutrality is an appropriate response, given the realities of the situation.

At the risk of repeating myself, being a diaspora Zionist requires taking responsibility for Israel. And that makes a more actively anti-occupation stance the only intellectually honest position.

Merely saying one is in favor of a two-state solution isn't actually taking a position on the matter at hand. It's a bit of a Vichy formulation.

Phoebe said...

It's clear enough we mostly agree what the problems are, but disagree on how much to place which blame where, and what priorities should be. That my stance and yours on what's best for Israel are not identical does not make me "neutral" towards anything. (And "intellectually dishonest" sounds fancy but means - what - that you think I'm wrong?) That I think Israel comes under unfair attack doesn't mean I think all Israeli actions are blameless. The Vichy play-on-words, btw, comes near Godwin territory. Being an inch to the right of you on the I-P debate does not, I'm quite confident, make me a Nazi collaborationist.

PG said...

I thought being in favor of a two-state solution was a specific position for a diaspora Zionist to take, just as being in favor of the continued legality of abortion is a specific position for a feminist to take. Both the Zionist and the feminist may not be 100% committed to a particular detail (should Jerusalem be divided? should federal Medicaid funds cover abortion?), but that's hardly the same as failing to take a position, or as having a "Vichy formulation."

As for the actual point of the post, I thought this other meaning for Zionist was part of that YA book "The Chosen," but it's been almost 20 years since I read it, so I may misremember.

Anonymous said...

What on earth are you three talking about?

I am fairly anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and fiercely Jewish, but I don't want to get caught in that shitstorm. There are many different Zionisms, but I think it's fair to say that "mainstream" Zionism has its own attendant myths and history. As it turns out, they don't always jive with reality. This post is an example. Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, and many other historians have made careers out of deconstructing Israel's founding myths. Does that mean Zionism is discredited?

Is it really that hard to find people in NYC to understand your nuanced Zionism?

Matt said...

Perhaps I was wrong, but I always thought the Zionists' problem with assimilation was that it was assimilation into antisemitic societies dominated by the power of the Christian majority which put demands on Jews that prevented a coherent response to antisemitism. Except for being phrased in the schema of the day (including a great deal of sexism), without reference to Colonial and Post-Colonial Theory, pretty much the same reasons most Leftists today reject assimilationism. But then, you'd know far better than I, Phoebe. So?

Phoebe said...

Anonymous,

I can tell you've given this much thought, but your comment, like Petey's, confuses me: "I think it's fair to say that "mainstream" Zionism has its own attendant myths and history. As it turns out, they don't always jive with reality. This post is an example." I don't know which aspect of the post fails to "jive with reality." It's about an internal conflict in my own head, and about the fact that there ends up not being a mainstream Zionism anymore than there's mainstream feminism - opponents always assume these isms refer to extremes. Also, while I understand that people consider themselves critics of Israel's policies or even its existence as a Jewish state, I don't see how being "anti-Israel" could be anything but offensive. One could have been, say, "anti-Soviet" as in against the Soviet Union without being anti-Russian, etc. But "Israel" refers both to the politics/policies to which one can have any opinion, and to the only nation and home many Israelis have ever known.

Matt,

I think we're in agreement on this. Much early Zionist thought sounds far more like anti-colonialism than like colonialism - a movement of national awakening and liberation. (Interesting note: Vichy referred to Jewish prisoners from Eastern Europe who'd never been to the Middle East as "Palestinians")

My point, though, is that one can, in 2009, knowing what we know about European Jewish history, reject the "assimilation is evil - they should have known better" paradigm and still be a Zionist in the sense of thinking that while one couldn't have expected otherwise of bourgeois Frenchmen in 1898, it is a good thing that a Jewish state was established in Palestine in 1948, and that if policies and borders need change, the fundamental idea of having some Jewish state in that location should not change.

Anonymous said...

It's a little precious to complain that opponents of Zionism only see it in extremes, and then read into the phrase "anti-Israel" in the most outrageous way. Stay classy.

All I was trying to say about your post, which I obviously misunderstood, was that one "myth" of Zionism—or "Zionist historiography"—is that Jews can never escape their Jewishness and, without a homeland of their own, live under the threat of annihilation. (That's a caricature, of course.) It's not true, but Zionism isn't contingent upon it any more than the discredited notion that Palestine was empty before the Jews arrived. That these are myths is old news.

Phoebe said...

What an odd use of "stay classy" - all I meant was that terminology is such that one cannot use "Israel" to mean just the political aspects the way one can the name of states that do not also refer to the only possible nationality of the people living in that spot. As in, one could disapprove of the French 5th Republic, but not of "France." If that makes sense. I don't know where classiness enters into it. Or preciousness. Or that opponents of Zionism all see it in extremes (I never said this!) Anyway.

The point of my post, to be clear, was that there's a specific school of thought in part of academia called "Zionist", and that one can consider one's self a Zionist for other reasons (a left-wing anti-occupation Zionist, a greater-Israel Zionist, a boring moderate like myself, whatever) without necessarily as a scholar being a Zionist scholar.

Matt said...

For what it's worth, the "Matt" above isn't me, the one who sometimes comments on this blog. I didn't have anything special to say about this post other than that it's unreasonable to expect people to have fully worked-out ideas about very complex situations that require specialized knowledge (such as, say, what the final status of Jerusalem should be.) When people claim to have worked out views on such things we should expect the views are in fact half-baked. This is just to say that the fact that Phoebe doesn't claim to have fully worked out views as to what a final state for the middle east should be is to her credit, not detriment.

Phoebe said...

Matt #2,

Thanks for the clarification - in fact both of you have commented here before, and no doubt I've confused you before. But... yeah. I suppose I feel somewhere between the "this one's my team - I hate the other side" level the debate often plays out on and the specialized-knowledge end of things, because I have specialized knowledge but it's of the history of Zionism and European Judaism more generally, and not the current facts on the ground, which I know about from some books but primarily newspapers, like everyone else.