December 2, 2004
Fear and Loathing on the Left
It has only been in recent months that I've found the courage to speak to some of my Jewish and non-Jewish friends within the Palestinian solidarity community, and the broader anti-globalization/anti-war movement, about the difficulties I have experienced as a Jew within that movement. And to name that experience: anti-Jewish racism, or Judeophobia.
The first time I joined the struggle for Palestinian rights was at a rally in Trafalgar Square in 2002. Here was a place where I could be anonymous yet stand up in solidarity for what I believed in. I watched in horror, however, as the reactions unfolded to an Israeli Jewish peace activist who took the platform.
"The occupation is terror!" she said. "It breeds despair in the hearts of young Palestinian boys and girls. But the suicide bombings are not helping the Palestinian struggle. Whoever is sending these kids -- Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or Tanzim -- plays into the hands of Sharon."
At this, a group of young Muslim fundamentalists, some of them with empty toilet rolls strapped around their stomachs like dynamite, surged forward throwing bottles at the podium and chanting, "Scud, Scud, Israel! Gas, Gas, Tel Aviv!" -- and in Arabic: "Death to Jews." I was even more horrified to see that woman struggle on with her speech, unsupported. No one sitting on the platform raised a finger to challenge such blatant racism. When she stepped down, the chair took the microphone from her, commenting: "Well not all of us agree with the last speaker."
The overwhelming feeling that I got from the mainstream British left that day was not so much solidarity with the Palestinians as virulent hostility toward Israel, and, by extension, toward anyone who didn't express shame to be Jewish or utterly reject a Jewish state.
The notion of racism against the Jewish people has been so exclusively linked to the Holocaust that its more subtle and everyday manifestations often pass people by. Of course, Jews are not being carted off to the gas chambers and, thankfully, in Britain actual racist attacks on people and buildings are rare. However, there are instances, especially around the Israeli-Palestinian issue, where attitudes and expressions of Judeophobia often surface. Criticism of Israel's policies is not Judeophobic. The way in which it is conducted, however, sometimes is. Judeophobia is present in careless and inflammatory language; in black-and-white attitudes that polarize the debate; in gross insensitivities to Jewish concerns and collective memory; in the level of hatred expressed toward Jews and Israelis; and, on top of it all, in a blanket denial that the problem of anti-Jewish racism exists.
Perhaps, predictably, a lot of the tensions revolve around the Holocaust, and the failure to realize how deep and unresolved a pain it is for my community. My grandfather tells vivid stories of how, as a young Jewish British sailor transporting Holocaust survivors from Odessa to Marseilles, he gave his coat to the starving and penniless Otto Frank, Auschwitz survivor and father of Anne Frank. Her diary was my companion in my own adolescence. This bright young Jewish woman, so enchanted by and prescient about the world around her, died horribly of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at 15. I grew up conscious of the possibility that if I had been born 40 years earlier in Europe, that would have been me. Of course I get emotional when I feel disrespect around this very real pain.
In certain circles on the left, talking about the Holocaust elicits nothing but groans and sighs -- it's called "Holocaust fatigue." There are various stock responses that seem to dismiss the whole experience out of hand: "Yes it was terrible, but it was used by Zionist leaders as an excuse for the foundation of the illegitimate Jewish state of Israel on land stolen from the Palestinians."
Yet, within those same circles, very deliberate comparisons are made between the current situation in the Palestinian areas and the Holocaust: a banner equating a Star of David with a swastika and cartoons of Israeli soldiers in SS uniforms. I have been to the Palestinian areas several times over the last couple of years and seen the appalling situation with my own eyes. It is a massive over-simplification to say that the Israelis are repeating history and have "become the Nazis," yet some Palestine solidarity activists constantly make that comparison. It is as though Jews must be collectively punished for the behavior of the Israeli state by the use of inflammatory symbols and language, and a widespread denial of our experience of persecution. It taps into a profound trauma that immediately and inevitably puts me on the defensive -- which is ironic because I don't support Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.
Five million Jews live in Israel today; many have a deep emotional connection to the place they were born in and call home. This connection to the Land of Israel has been a profound part of our consciousness throughout history; a connection that I too have felt through my upbringing as a Reform Jew. I remember, as a 16-year-old, feeling the weight of what it means to be Jewish, and my responsibility for the continuity of the Jewish people, when for the first time I put my palm on the cool stones of the Western Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Does this mean I'm a Zionist? Many Jews who disagree with Sharon's policies are Zionists. They disagree with the occupation and believe in a workable and just two-state solution. The term "Zionist" has become so confused and contested on the left, that it's sometimes hard to know what others mean when they use it. For me, Zionism has always meant Jewish nationalism -- the belief that the only way in which Jews can ensure their survival in a hostile world is through a Jewish homeland, essentially a Jewish state. In this sense, I am not a Zionist. While I feel a historical and emotional connection to the land where the Israeli state exists, I want to see a world in which Jews and all peoples can live securely anywhere and be celebrated for their culture without recourse to states. In a world full of states, however, Jews surely have as much right to self-determination as any other people.
That's why I find it extraordinary that for many on the left the term "Zionism" drips from their lips like venom while they embrace the Palestinian flag. It seems that Zionism has become synonymous with arch-imperialism. If you are a Zionist (and "all Jews are Zionists"), it is implied that you are clearly a supporter of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair and have some global imperialist agenda to control the world on behalf of the Jews. Not only is this untrue, but it implies that Zionists are worse than any other nationalist. Surely, if you believe that nationalism is problematic because it must be inherently racist, then we should be challenging all forms of nationalism and all colonial projects, not just singling out Zionism for special attention.
British Jews don't look like a typical oppressed minority, so it is easy to miss the genuine fear that we feel about our safety and security as Jews in this country. I grew up with parents standing guard whenever our synagogue was in use and today many Jewish institutions are guarded by police, barbed wire, closed-circuit television and intercoms. I know also that I am not the only Jew to have walked through the predominantly Jewish London neighborhood of Golders Green and suddenly felt that flash of fear -- "We are so vulnerable here to a hate attack." I know that the racism experienced by asylum-seekers and Muslims in this country is much more acute. But does this mean that my feelings and experiences of racism should be belittled or ignored?
Yet for some groups on the left, any talk of anti-Semitism is automatically dismissed as a convenient and manipulative strategy to deflect criticism away from Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Other times, when Jews claim they have experienced anti-Semitism, there follows the predictable semantic debate about the term "anti-Semitism"' excluding Arabs (which is why I prefer to talk about "Judeophobia" to begin with), or a lecture about how the Jews are not the only victims of war and oppression. The only time I challenged someone directly for an anti-Jewish comment, she looked at me incredulously and said: "What are you talking about? You're the racist here!'"
Being stuck in the middle of this complex debate is not an easy place to be, yet you begin to see that both "sides," the pro-occupation Jews and the anti-Zionists operate in exactly the same way: not listening to each other; using emotive language; belittling each other's pain; dehumanizing each other; learning stock responses; being highly selective in the use of facts; and making huge generalizations about "the Jews" or "the Palestinians."
I hear that at one point in Belfast, Catholic neighborhoods sported Palestinian flags, and Protestant ones hung up Israeli flags. Some people use the imagery of a conflict that they know so little about in order to polarize their own. Somewhere in there you forget you are talking about real people and that calling into question a people's religion, history or identity is bound to cause deep pain, liable to result in a closing off and defensiveness rather than an openness to your ideas.
As Jews we have been left with deep patterns of behavior as a result of centuries of oppression including its most recent terrible manifestation in the Shoah. These patterns include fear, defensiveness, anger and a determination not to be victims again. If we feel attacked for having these patterns, we will just retreat into them. If the left fails to take Judeophobia seriously then the opportunity for countless potential allies in the fight for justice for the Palestinian people will be lost. What's more, it will push us into the arms of false friends such as the Christian Zionists.
On the other hand, it's surprising how far a small act of solidarity can go. I felt immense trust and relief on the anti-war march of Feb. 15, 2003, when a non-Jew took down a Judeophobic banner. Suddenly fighting anti-Jewish racism wasn't just my struggle anymore.
There is so much more to being Jewish than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When I hear people celebrating Jewish culture, my heart sings. For me, and for many other Jews, campaigning for a just peace in the Middle East has reawakened our Jewishness and our pride in our religion and the diversity of the Jewish identity: our music, food, art, literature, symbols and language. I look forward to the time when the society I live in also celebrates my Jewishness and doesn't merely consider me a "good" Jew for challenging the occupation.