Jews argue whether Zionism is racism — in the Forward!

Philip Weiss writes:

Charlottesville has been a depth charge. The Israeli right was loath to condemn the white nationalists at the fringe of Trump’s base, and this has sent a shock through the American Jewish community. There is open argument about Israel; and it’s not going to end.

The best news is that the Forward, America’s leading liberal Jewish publication, published a piece by Naomi Dann of Jewish Voice for Peace last week equating Zionism with racism. That’s revolutionary. Time was when that argument was made by Arabs at the United Nations and then stifled as supposed anti-Semitism. Now it’s in the Forward, from the mouth of a Jew!

Dann says that white nationalist Richard Spencer was right when he expressed common cause with Israel, saying it’s an ethnocracy that discriminates in favor of a privileged group.

Richard Spencer, whose racist views are rightfully abhorred by the majority of the Jewish community, is holding a mirror up to Zionism and the reflection isn’t pretty.

Looking at Israel today, we can see a state premised on the privileging of one group, and all too often perpetuating the erasure and displacement of another. We also see an obsession with demographics and the maintenance of an ethnic majority.

Jane Eisner, from Jewish Boston

It’s a marvel that this piece even ran. Forward editor Jane Eisner then responded angrily to Naomi Dann, denouncing her as a member of “the radical group Jewish Voice for Peace” spreading untruths about Israel. Ouch! Hat’s off to Eisner for allowing the debate to happen. Even if she says it’s all lies.

We work hard to reflect a range of American Jewish opinion, which is why the piece and reaction to it was published. The free flow of ideas is to be cherished. But when a Jew even hints at comparing Israel to Nazis, it must be denounced.

The argument that Zionism is akin to Nazism is not new, and it’s never been correct. Its related equation – that Zionism is racism – was codified by the United Nations when it passed Resolution 3379 in 1975. Though hardly Israel’s best friend, the international body later came to its senses and overwhelmingly rescinded the resolution in 1991.

Eisner is an ardent Zionist. She believes that ideology is necessary to Jewish survival and that the current Israeli government is undoing Zionism (not expressing it) with its discriminatory policies and the occupation and “denial of Palestinian sovereignty.”

That such policies are done in the name of Zionism is painful, a perversion of the Zionist ideal. It is something that all Jews must reckon with. But the imperfections of reality do not negate the underlying fact that Zionism is not inherently racist and can — and, in fact, does — exist side-by-side with democracy.

It’s great that the Forward is hosting this conversation, because people can argue openly about whether Zionism is necessary. That’s all I’ve asked for; I believe the answer (No it’s an anachronism) will change US Jewry and crumble the Israel lobby. Norman Finkelstein once mocked the idea that Americans could or should argue about Zionism because Zionism might as well be “the name of a hairspray” to Americans. Good joke; but he was always wrong about this. People can argue about any idea that’s important, once it’s identified. And this toothpaste is not going back in the tube.

Eisner clearly believes that Jews are unsafe in America, and that’s why we need Zionism:

For Dann to write that Spencer is “holding a mirror up to Zionism and the reflection isn’t pretty” is especially perilous in the current political climate. The intimidating display of Nazi slogans and symbols in Charlottesville, Virginia, legitimized by the shocking statements of President Trump, are a chilling reminder that even in America, Jews are at risk simply because we are Jews.

We need to “recognize our shared vulnerability” and “strengthen our sense of solidarity,” Eisner says. Back to the monolith! Palestinian vulnerability just gets passing mention.

Also addressing the idea of Jewish vulnerability are writers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. Last week they published an “open letter to our fellow Jews, in the U.S., Israel, and around the world” declaring that Trump is an anti-Semite who is endangering Jews and it’s time for all Jews to denounce him.

Now he’s coming after you. The question is: what are you going to do about it? If you don’t feel, or can’t show, any concern, pain or understanding for the persecution and demonization of others, at least show a little self-interest. At least show a little sechel. At the very least, show a little self-respect.

To Steven Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, and our other fellow Jews currently serving under this odious regime: We call upon you to resign; and to the President’s lawyer, Michael D. Cohen: Fire your client.

To Sheldon Adelson and our other fellow Jews still engaged in making the repugnant calculation that a hater of Arabs must be a lover of Jews, or that money trumps hate, or that a million dollars’ worth of access can protect you from one boot heel at the door: Wise up.

“Boot heel at the door” is a Gestapo reference. In another traditional phrasing, the writers warn Trump’s Jewish family members Ivanka and Jared Kushner that if they don’t act, You’re dead to us.

To Jared Kushner: You have one minute to do whatever it takes to keep the history of your people from looking back on you as among its greatest traitors, and greatest fools; that minute is nearly past. To Ivanka Trump: Allow us to teach you an ancient and venerable phrase, long employed by Jewish parents and children to one another at such moments of family crisis: I’ll sit shiva for you. Try it out on your father; see how it goes.

Among all the bleak and violent truths that found confirmation or came slouching into view amid the torchlight of Charlottesville is this: Any Jew, anywhere, who does not act to oppose President Donald Trump and his administration acts in favor of anti-Semitism; any Jew who does not condemn the President, directly and by name, for his racism, white supremacism, intolerance and Jew hatred, condones all of those things.

Waldman and Chabon deserve a lot of respect because of their anti-occupation book Kingdom of Olives and Ashes, which contains anti- and non-Zionist voices. I disagree with them about the vulnerability of Jews in the United States. I don’t think history repeats itself; I think that chapter in the west is over and the belief in its endurance is atavistic. But I’m glad to have the debate; especially because that question is at the heart of Zionism.

Finally, here is Chemi Shalev in Haaretz, who is more in the Jane Eisner camp, warning that the Israeli right has shattered American Jewish solidarity with Israel by siding with the enemies of American Jews.

“Rash Embrace of Trump Accelerates the Jewish Schism” is the headline. Shalev says Netanyahu’s animosity toward “liberal, cosmopolitan, universalist Jews” is reminiscent of “the kind of anti-Jewish bile spouted by Jew-haters around the world, from David Duke to Viktor Orban.”

The delineation between the two opposing Jewish camps has never seemed clearer. On one side we have Netanyahu, many of his colleagues, the pro-settler lobby, an unfortunate proportion of Orthodox Jews, supporters of Jewish settlements, Obama-and/or Muslim-hating Israelis along with hyper-hawks and ultranationalists such as Sheldon Adelson. On the other side there are Israeli doves along with American Jewish liberals, Reform and Conservative Jews and other Trump-haters. And increasingly it seems that never the twain shall meet.

Israel’s willingness to embrace Trump above and beyond the call of duty is alienating large chunks of the American Jewish community. Those that supported Israel wholeheartedly are beginning to question themselves, those who had been harboring doubts all along have reached a guilty verdict and those who are sitting on the wall certainly won’t come down in Israel’s favor now or anytime in the future.

Emotions run high in times of conflict. When people fear for their country or for their wellbeing or for the safety of their love ones, there is scant room for moderation and nuance. In the era of Trump, the main question on the minds of his critics is the one Joshua asked when he met God’s emissary: Are you with us or with our enemies? By standing so firmly and so recklessly with Trump, Israel is telling American Jews exactly where it stands: With their enemy.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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