An interesting article from yesterday’s Independent. Although I don’t agree with all his comments, for example his assessment of Gilad Atzmon, the story of his transition from a Zionist to anti-Zionist is fascinating. It is one of an increasing genre, of Jews who having been brought up as Zionists have come to see that it wasn’t the city on a hill, the beacon of justice and a ‘light unto the nations’ that those like Judah Magnes imagined. Instead it is a racist, chauvinist, intolerant society that spawns thugs like Avigdor Lieberman as its representative. It reminds me, in some ways, of a book I’ve just reviewed, Antony Lerman’s ‘The Making & Unmaking of a Zionist’.
In this highly personal guest contribution, a British and Jewish blogger reflects on his youth membership of Zionist movements, the recent conflict in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas, and how his relationship with faith changes as he gets older
I’m a nice Jewish boy from North West London. I was brought up in a family that was never particularly religious – we belonged to a Reform synagogue, not an Orthodox one – but where my Jewish identity was considered extremely important, and where support for Israel was an absolute given. Not blanket, unquestioning support, but support nonetheless.
As a teenager I was heavily involved in RSY-Netzer, the Zionist Jewish youth movement affiliated with the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. In 1987, at the age of 16, I spent a summer in Israel with RSY, and two years later took a gap-year there. Half that year was spent on Kibbutz Lotan, one of the two Reform Synagogue affiliated kibbutzim, and the other half was spent on a course known colloquially as ‘Machon’, at the Institute For Youth Leaders From Abroad in Jerusalem, run by an arm of the Israeli state known as the Jewish Agency.
On Machon, along with dozens of other young Jews of my own age from a range of different Zionist youth movements, I received training in youth leadership skills, Jewish history, and what is known in Hebrew as ‘hasbarah’. Hasbarah literally means ‘explaining’, but it has another meaning, which is essentially ‘propaganda’.
RSY-Netzer was at that point one of the three most left-wing Zionist youth movements – the other two are the explicitly socialist Habonim-Dror and HaShomer HaTzair. We were encouraged – and at the age of 18 or 19 we needed no encouragement – to spend much time discussing and arguing the fine points of Zionist ideology and Israeli politics both among ourselves and with members of the other movements.
The left-wingers among us were highly critical of many of Israel’s actions from the War in Lebanon to the whole of the Occupation, and we all argued strenuously that it was a fundamental necessity for Israel to behave ethically at all times; moreover we left-wingers argued that it was of prime importance that we as Zionists stood up and criticised Israel when it did not do so.
However, none of that criticism was ever allowed to cross the red line of rejecting the idea of the Jewish State itself. We did not go so far as to accept the idea that Zionism was racism or that Israel ought not exist – indeed we had special sessions on Machon where we were explicitly taught strategies for arguing against these ideas. The concept of a democratic secular one-state solution for all inhabitants of the Holy Land, under which Jews and Palestinians would be equal citizens in the eyes of the law, was not at any point on the table.
Unlike most of my colleagues on the Machon course, I made a particular point of learning Hebrew, and while in Jerusalem I met and fell in love with Ayelet, an Israeli girl my own age. She was not long out of basic Army training and had taken up a post as a remedial Hebrew teacher at an Israeli Army school. We spoke only in Hebrew and were for a while very much in love, though she thought I was a complete lunatic not just for being a Zionist – among Israelis the word ‘Zionist’ means something somewhat different to its meaning in the wider Jewish community – but also for being on the Machon course at all and for seriously considering moving to Israel permanently: her ambition at the time was to move to New York.
I remember joking then that the most potent form of Zionism was not Religious Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Political Zionism, or Cultural Zionism, all of which we had been taught about in class at Machon, but was rather Sexual Zionism, which we had not been taught about even once. Looking back, I now understand why hardly anyone, Ayelet included, found my joke funny.
As a Jew, despite being born in London, I had and still have the right at any time to move to Israel and immediately take up Israeli citizenship under the Israeli Law of Return. The only reason that I did not do so straight away was that I had a place at Oxford for which, as a state-school applicant, I had worked very hard, and on which I had no intention of missing out. My plan at the time was to get my degree from Oxford and move to Israel afterwards.
Once back in the UK, my obsession with Zionism continued. At Oxford I changed my degree from Maths and Philosophy to Oriental Studies (Hebrew), a course comprising Hebrew literature and Jewish history; on the history side I made a special study of Zionism up to 1948. It astonished me at the time that my parents were implacably against the idea of me becoming an Israeli, but I was 19 and – like all 19 year olds – knew deeply that I was as right about everything as my parents were wrong about everything.
Life at university was something of a shock for two reasons. The first was that as a state-schooler at Oxford, surrounded by the products of public and private school educations, the trappings of extreme privilege to which most of my contemporaries were so effortlessly accustomed seemed enormously strange and discomforting to me. Despite this I largely fit in well at my college, Balliol, which had a reputation for being very left-wing. The second shock was that for the first time in my life I was meeting both Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Zionists.
All my Hasbarah training came out.
I became involved with both the Oxford Jewish Society and the Oxford Israel Society, and ended up spending a lot of time arguing with people about Israel on all sides. With those on my right, I was arguing that Israel was not and had not for some time been behaving ethically, and that it was the absolute duty of anyone who called themselves a Zionist or a supporter of Israel to stand up and call Israel out on these ethical transgressions. With those on my left I was arguing that while Israel might indeed be as ethically dubious a state as any other state on the planet, nothing that it did in any way impinged on its right to exist as a Jewish State.
Many of my left-wing friends at Balliol were utterly shocked to find that I was a Zionist, but I continued to argue passionately for a position on the extreme left of Zionism; I was critical of Israel’s moral transgressions, critical of the Occupation, supportive of the putative Palestinian state, supportive of the idea that Jerusalem should be again partitioned de jure (as it already is de facto) so it could be both the capital of that Palestinian state as well as the capital of Israel, but at no point did I dare to cross the red line that questioned the legitimacy of the Jewish State itself.
While I was at Balliol, Ariel Sharon was invited to speak at the Oxford Union; this resulted in an extremely busy time for me. I was involved in organising the pro-Zionist counter-demonstration to the anti-Zionist demonstration outside the Union; as a Zionist critical of Israel, I was also involved in ensuring that strong criticisms of Israel in general and Sharon in particular were made during the debate. Later that evening, as a guest of the L’Chaim Society, an alternative Jewish student organisation then run by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, I ended up having dinner with Sharon, along with thirty or forty other people, and was astonished at how charming he seemed in person, for all that I strongly disagreed with all aspects of his politics.
I was also pleasantly shocked by Sharon’s stories of how his closest friends were not other Israelis at all but were rather Palestinians living in the West Bank for whom – he explained – hospitality and personal relationships trumped any notion of tribal hostility.
By 1993, when I left Oxford, things in my personal life had changed. Ayelet, quite reasonably unwilling to spend three years of her early twenties in a long-distance relationship with a complete lunatic, had left me, and I was now romantically involved with Abigail, a rather posh Jewish girl from one of the old established Anglo-Jewish families from before the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century that had brought my own great-grandparents to London. Abigail was about as likely to move to Israel as she was to grow feathers and a beak, and I found myself strongly reconsidering my decision to move there myself.
My political position, however, did not change. As a Zionist I felt passionately that it was of prime importance that Israel’s moral transgressions – especially those in the Lebanon war of 1982 and the ongoing indefensible occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – be censured. I felt that the Occupation had to end, and end now, and that the Two State Solution was the only way forward. Since the idea of the right of national self-determination was at the core of my support for Zionism, I found it hard to understand how any Zionist could be against the two state solution.
If the Jews should have self-determination in Israel, I argued, surely it is only logical that the Palestinians should also have self-determination in Palestine. I simply could not understand how those Zionists to my right – which was basically all of them – could not see this.
On Jerusalem, I also could not understand the mainstream Zionist position. Having lived there for some time, and being well aware that the city was effectively divided into Jewish West Jerusalem, where you could safely go, and Palestinian East Jerusalem, which was dangerous and to be avoided at all costs, I simply could not grasp any of the stuff about the ‘unification’ of Jerusalem that I had been taught.
It might have been unified legally as far as a Zionist was concerned but it certainly wasn’t unified in any way in practice, and it seemed to me only right that a repartitioned East Jerusalem should be the capital of the forthcoming Palestinian state just as much as West Jerusalem should remain the capital of the Israeli state. I was sure that Palestinians felt just as passionately about Jerusalem as I did myself, and repartition seemed to me to be the just and reasonable answer to this question.
In 1994/5 I spent a further year in Jerusalem on the One Year Graduate Program at the Hebrew University. This was supposed to be my year to ‘check out’ whether or not I really wanted to go and live in Israel, before I made a final decision. Jerusalem is and was a miserable and tedious place for a young secular man in his early twenties; it soon became clear to me that I did not wish to live there after all, and I began drinking heavily.
Mostly this went on at a bar called ‘Mike’s Place’ run by a burned out Canadian ex-photo-journalist called Mike, and populated almost exclusively by Israeli leftists and members of the international press corps who were old friends of Mike’s. Abigail came to visit, and hated it all even more than I did. I began to make arrangements to go home early.
Before I left, however, I was befriended at Mike’s Place by a member of the press corps, an American called Stefan Ellis, who considered his time in Jerusalem to be basically R&R away from the really hideous places in the world he had worked before, like Cambodia. Stefan was horrified by my youthful ideological support of Israel. Life as a photo-journalist specialising in war-zones had inoculated him against all forms of ideology. As far as he was concerned, all sides committing atrocities, everywhere, were all as bad as each other.
It was his job as a journalist to get close to those atrocities in order to document them so that the rest of the world could see. Of course they wouldn’t – he was all too aware of this – but it was his job nonetheless.
I did not, at the time, remotely understand him.
Fast-forward to 2008.
I’d long split up with Abigail. I was still in London. I’d had two failed careers, first as a freelance journalist, and then as a computer programmer. Both had gone wrong as I’d also been trying to pursue music in a serious way; there are only so many hours in a day and as a result of pursuing multiple career goals I’d made myself seriously ill twice and (just) survived a complete nervous breakdown. I was at last pursuing music full-time and, as part of this, had finally received my London Underground busking licence. I’d finally recorded and released an album of original music, not that anyone had noticed. At least, I felt, I was now on the right path.
My position on Israel had not changed.
I had by this time met Daphna Baram, an Israeli journalist and Guardian contributor effectively in exile in London for her anti-Zionist views. Despite our differences of opinion over Israel we had become close friends, and spent many nights staying up late arguing in a mixture of English and Hebrew over the fine points of whether or not Achad Ha-am, the founder of Cultural Zionism, would have supported the actions of the current Israeli state, or whether the 1947 position of the Zionist youth movement Hashomer HaTzair, that British Mandate Palestine should be formed into a bi-national state for both Jews and Palestinians, had any relevance today.
Daphna was the first to put to me directly the astonishing proposition that the best solution for the Israel-Palestine problem was a single genuinely democratic state in which all citizens were treated equally regardless of ethnic origin. Currently, that is not the case. While the state of Israel makes just as reasonable a claim to be a democracy as, say, Belarus or Russia, the fact is that Jewish and non-Jewish citizens are not treated equally.
It is true that there are Israeli Arab Knesset members and that Israeli Arabs can vote, but it is also true that there are huge differences in the way that Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews are treated by the state, ranging from whether or not they are required to join the army at the age of 18 to whether or not their home town or village gets a reasonable annual budget to cover municipal requirements. It is painfully obvious from available statistics that Israeli Arab areas get substantially less support from the Israeli state than equivalent size Jewish settlements, and that in general, while Israeli Arabs may not offically be second-class citizens of Israel, that is certainly what they are in practice.
Then, in late 2008, Operation Cast Lead began. Having previously largely withdrawn from Gaza in 2005 (though still keeping it surrounded and effectively cut off from the West Bank), Israel began in December 2008 to bombard it indiscriminately, in the name of ending rocket fire into Israel from within the Strip. For the life of me, I could not see how this was supposed to work. I could not see any way of defending this action. As the number of Palestinian casualties grew – far out of proportion to the number of casualties on the Israeli side – it just got worse and worse.
For the first time in my adult life I began wondering whether the Jewish State was actually worth defending at all on any level if this was the price. I was watching a blatant and brutal massacre of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, utterly disproportionate to the attacks that had provoked it, which had in turn been provoked by earlier Israeli incursions, in an endless back-and-forth cycle, in order to defend what?
An Israeli State that would allow me – born in London – to become a citizen at a moment’s notice, while Palestinian friends of friends actually born in the Holy Land itself could never become citizens of anything anywhere? Exactly what convoluted justification would stand that up?
I couldn’t do it any more. On Machon, I’d had training in how to argue against the proposition that Zionism was racism, but no training in how to argue in defence of the indiscriminate massacre of civilian children. That one hadn’t come up.
I began to consider the possibility that I’d been misled.
It looked terribly plausible. It was horribly embarrassing and deeply painful, but it began to seem to me an awful lot as if Achad Ha-am, founder of Cultural Zionism, and a somewhat flawed but deeply ethical character, would have himself been implacably against anything calling itself a Jewish State that behaved like this.
Around the same time, I took up the saxophone, as part of an effort to give up smoking, and had a one-off lesson with the best local saxophonist I could find, who happened to be another Israeli exile by the name of Gilad Atzmon. This was an incredible stroke of luck, as without exaggeration I can promise you that Gilad is one of the best saxophonists alive anywhere in the world; he is also a lovely guy in person and a fantastic music teacher. Additionally, he is highly politically active as an anti-Zionist, and is considered so extreme that most other anti-Zionists consider him totally beyond the pale; he is widely accused by both anti-Zionists and Zionists alike of actual anti-semitism.
This is of course utter rubbish. It was clear to Gilad from the second he met me that I was Jewish – we even discussed the fact during my first pre-lesson meeting – and had he been a real anti-semite he would never have agreed to teach a Jew to play the saxophone.
His views are, nonetheless, extreme; for example he is against the concept of secular Jewish anti-Zionist organisations, and believes them all, along with any concept of secular Jewish identity, to be a stalking horse for Zionism itself. This stems from his deeply philosophical approach to the whole Israel-Palestine question, and his view that any secular expression of Jewish identity is inherently somehow supremacist; this has led him – as I understand it – to hold that any kind of Jewish identity itself is deeply flawed outside of the religious context.
Secular and positive
I do not agree with Gilad on that. I do believe that it is possible to be a secular Jew with a positive Jewish identity that does not in any way believe in Jewish supremacy. I do not even agree with his view that Zionism is inherently racist. For example, the pre-1948 position of the Zionist youth movement Hashomer HaTzair, which argued, as Zionists, for a secular binational state to be shared equally between Jews and Palestinians, puts paid to that.
In the 1920s Martin Buber, a humanist philosopher who had absolutely no truck with racism, developed a branch of Zionism centered politically around the concept of a binational state, and sadly, like Hashomer HaTzair, got nowhere. Today it is clear that the racist branches of Zionism have prevailed. But it does not take much more than a cursory view of the history to see that those were not the only branches.
Nevertheless, post 1948, it is very hard to argue that Zionism has not behaved, since Independence, in a de facto racist way. On that at least, Gilad, Daphna and I can all agree. Right now in 2012 we are watching aghast at yet another massacre of Palestinian civilians in Gaza. Yet again this comes just before the Israeli elections; this time we are hearing Israeli ministers such as Eli Yishai assert that “the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.”
Not only can I no longer defend any of this, I can no longer defend Zionism at all, not even in an abstract philosophical sense outside of any context involving the actions of the Israeli state. The Law of Return, under which I – an occasional tourist who just happens to be Jewish – can claim Israeli citizenship at a moment’s notice, while a Palestinian actually born in, say, Haifa, but subsequently exiled cannot – that is a racist law. The notion of a Jewish state? That is – as far as it has been put into practice since 1948 – a racist notion.
Is Zionism racism? It didn’t have to be. There were historical strands within Zionism that were not racist. Martin Buber – Zionist founder, in 1925, of the Brit Shalom organisation advocating a binational state, was not a racist, and nor were the pre-1948 Hashomer Hatzair.
But right now?
It’s really very hard indeed to argue otherwise.
And it’s such a blessed relief to feel that I am no longer obligated to attempt to do so.
That relief does not, however, in any way reduce the anger I feel at the current massacre of civilians in Gaza.