Saturday, March 8, 2008

Anti-Zionism might not be antisemitism, but Jews are right to be skeptical

I haven't put many posts on this blog about Israel or Zionism. In the wake of the killing of eight students at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, it's hard to ignore the connection between the Jewish people and Israel. The vast majority of Jews, religious or secular, support Israel in some form or another. The reasons are vast.

The original arguments for Zionism, as it emerged in the wake of the Dreyfrus Affair, centered on the situation of Jews as unable to achieve political rights others took for granted. That formulation of Zionism didn't achieve a great deal of support among Jews until the Holocaust. Some Jews opposed Zionism for religious reasons. Some, most notably the Jewish Bund, opposed it as a diversion from what they saw as a more universal struggle.

But the Holocaust provided an emotional resonance and urgency for the idea. Jews who had opposed Zionism, recognizing that only Zionism among the ideologies of Jewish liberation had successfully saved Jews from the camps, became Zionists. For me, the image that burns is that of refugees refused asylum in nation after nation dramatized in Voyage of the Damned and more loosely in Exodus. Fundamentally reliant on the good will of others to realize even their most basic rights, Jews seeking asylum during and following the Holocaust were sent back to Germany. Like it or not, political power flows from the nation-state in this day and age. Although one might support a change to that system in some unspecified future, Zionism is a practical necessity today.

For many, the establishment of Israel is a grand project of affirmative action, restitution for repeated oppressions, genocides, and ethnic cleansings over more than a thousand years. But ultimately, it was the right of self-determination, enshrined in the charter of the UN and subsequent treaties, upon which Isreal was justified. Self-determination for peoples is a tricky philosophical business, but it is undeniable that something of the right is not only enshrined in international law but fundamental to all modern political understanding. And it is undeniable that Jews fit every understanding of a people entitled to a right of self-determination that anyone has devised.

Except one. Jews did not, prior to the establishment of Israel already have a homeland in the form of an existing state. For some, self-determination is dependent upon not being so oppressed. And so I have no problem suggesting that such people, when they argue for the Palestinians' right to self-determination at the same time they argue against the only practical method of Jewish liberation, are advocating Jewish oppression.

The actual arguments of Zionism, including Why there?, are discussed here in significantly more detail. It is enough here to state that I, like most Jews, feel that the liberation of Jews from oppression is dependent on the establishment of a Jewish state.

Often we are told that Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Ignoring the obvious fact that much anti-Zionism, including most which would claim that simplistic slogan, is a thin veil for antisemitism, there's a sense in which it's true. Anti-Zionism is not necessarily antisemitic in and of itself -and there are numerous shades of thinking between Zionism and anti-Zionism- but such a simplistic slogan obfuscates the relationships between the anti-Zionism and the oppression of Jews. The analogy between Zionism and affirmative action is deep. Opposition to affirmative action is not necessarily racist or indicative of racist thinking, but it is by definition an opposition to the pragmatic solution to oppression favored by most ethnic minorities. Anti-Zionism likewise amounts to, regardless of the underlying justification, the only pragmatic solution favored by the vast majority of Jews for liberation from oppression. Affirmative action is not racism, and neither is Zionism.

Affirmative action is often framed in terms of a false colorblindness that denies the oppression of blacks in the here and now and pretends that it is whites who are really oppressed. Anti-Zionism too often draws upon the long history of antisemitic mythology to outdo such an inversion, quickly turning to blatantly antisemitic claims of Jewish control. In order to avoid being antisemitic in a very real sense, anyone opposed to the existence of Israel simply must think quite hard about what that means and be prepared to answer some very hard questions before spouting off.

Starting with At the time of Israel's creation, what would you have argued for? At that point, many people are quick to answer what they would have argued against. That's not enough. What would you have argued for? What policy to enact Jewish liberation? And if you can't answer that, perhaps you can understand Zionism a little better. It isn't that I think one must be a Zionist in order to not be antisemitic, but it isn't anywhere as simple as claiming that anti-Zionism isn't antisemitism.

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