Norman Finkelstein and Elizabeth Baltzer on Young American Jews Rejecting Zionism: Part 1

This is as another video, which has some indirect relevance to the accusations of anti-Semitism against leading members of the Labour party – Ken Livingstone, Naz Shah and Jackie Walker. None of these are anti-Semites, and all of them have taken a strong part in anti-racist activism. Jackie Walker’s mother was a Black civil rights activist, who was deported from America for her protests against the official maltreatment of Black Americans. Her father was a Russian Jew, and her partner is Jewish. These allegations have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. They are about the Israel lobby attempting to deflect criticism of its oppression of the Palestinians by attacking its critics as anti-Semites, even when they most obviously are not. Coupled with this is the attempt by the Blairite faction in the Labour party, Progress, to hang on to power by smearing their opponents.

Yesterday I put up a post and a video by the Israeli critic of his country’s abuse and massacre of the Palestinians, Ilan Pappe. Dr Pappe is certainly not along amongst Jewish critics of Zionism and its persecution of the indigenous Arabs. A number of people , who were either Jews or of Jewish heritage, commented on an earlier piece in this blog, that they did not support Israel’s horrendous policies. This video is of a talk given by two more of the leading American Jewish critics of Zionism, Norman Finkelstein and Elizabeth Baltzer, introduced and moderated by Adam Shatz, of the London Review of Books. I think its from a literary festival in New York, and both Finkelstein and Baltzer have written a number of books about Israel and the Palestinians. They’re both activists, and Baltzer has spoken at various social, religious and political gatherings, including synagogues and churches. In this video, they talk about the growing abandonment of Zionism by young American Jews. The event consists of first a talk by Dr Finkelstein, followed by Madam Baltzer, and then a longer session where they respond to written questions from the audience.

Finkelstein in his talk describes how for a very long time Jewish identity was not automatically bound up with Zionism, and many Jews were either hostile or indifferent to the idea. The initial Jewish settlers were few. Most Jews wished to stay in their homelands in Europe. Many were opposed to the foundation of a Jewish state, as they feared that this would revive the suspicion that they had dual loyalties. Dr Finkelstein doesn’t mention it, but this was very much the case when Balfour’s Cabinet announced that it would support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The ‘Balfour Declaration’ was opposed by Samuel Montague, the only Jewish member of the Cabinet, because he feared that British Jews would be seen as less than British, with their loyalties ultimately more towards the new Jewish state. Montague was backed in his campaign against the decision by 75 of the leading British Jewish families.

Finkelstein continues, and states that even after the foundation of Israel, many Jews remained sceptical and hostile. He notes that Commentary, the main Jewish magazine in America, frequently ran articles by some of the now most zealous supporters of Israel, criticising it for the maltreatment of the Palestinians. This opposition changed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and the defeat of the Arab armies. Israel then became imbued with the same sense of spiritual election and special destiny that informs the American self-image – ‘a shining city on a hill’, ‘a light to guide the Nations’. However, support for Israel by American Jews is by no means unconditional, especially amongst the young. Jewish American politicians, when given a choice between what will benefit Israel as against America, have consistently chosen America. And Israel increasingly plays little part in the self-identity of the younger generation, who increasingly see themselves as American with little connection to Israel.

Baltzer provides more information on young Jewish Americans rejection of Zionism, and their opposition to the continued abuse and maltreatment of the Palestinians. She discusses the dwindling membership of the Zionist organisations. The chapter in her home in Sonoma in California claims to be thriving, but won’t give the number of synagogues that are affiliated to it. On the other side, she lists a plethora of Jewish groups and organisations devoted to defending the Palestinians. These include such groups of as Young, Jewish and Proud. Baltzer, however, makes the point that ultimately it isn’t about Jews speaking on behalf of the Palestinians. They have their own voice, and it is they who truly deserve to be heard. She notes that some people feel that they somehow need Jewish permission before they support the Palestinians. She makes the excellent point that nobody should need permission, of Jews or anyone else, to listen to the Palestinian people and support them.

I am actually very glad she made this point, as I’ve refrained from blogging about this issue previously as I don’t want to appear anti-Semitic, nor give any succour to the genuine anti-Semites, who are trying to ride on the coat-tails of principled anti-racist opposition to persecution of the Palestinians. It is, paradoxically, good to hear a Jewish voice stating that you shouldn’t need Jewish permission to support the Palestinians, from the perspective that it is understood that the people she’s addressing aren’t anti-Semites.

Despite having the same ultimate gaols, Finkelstein and Baltzer have differences over tactics, and the form the emancipation of the Palestinians could take. One of these differences is over language. Finkelstein does not think that opponents of Israeli policy should use the term Zionism. Most people don’t understand it, and the gaols of the pro-Palestinian movement can be better expressed simply using plain language. These means just stating that you’re opposed to the occupation of the West Bank, or the inferior status of the Palestinians in Israel, the seizure and destruction of their farms, homes and property by the Israeli state.

He also makes the point that if the term ‘Zionism’ is used, their opponents will seize on it to make the worst claim they can about the person using it – that he or she is actively seeking the destruction of Israel, because of the ambiguity about the term’s meaning. They will also use it to try to divert the argument into one about Jewish identity – whether the Jews are a race, religion or people, or perhaps all three. The argument isn’t about Jewish identity. It’s about the appalling way Israel treats the Palestinians.

Baltzer, on the other hand takes the view that there is some good in a limited use of the term within certain contexts.

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