Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My troubles with the word "anti-Zionist"

A few days ago, scanning around on the facebook wall of a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, I came across the following: something to the effect of, "a journey from liberal zionism" to Palestine Solidarity.

Its always a pleasure to see fellow Jews coming to grips with the circumstances of the Palestinian struggle (and not from a "pro-Israeli" perspective). But the author's framing of Palestinian solidarity as being in an oppositional dichotomy with Zionism, troubles me just as much as does Phil Weiss's (of Palestinian-activist news website, Mondoweiss) emphatic confession that he is an "anti-Zionist." or the frequent derision of Zionism that I encounter on online forums and Facebook pages of Palestinian solidarity groups.

It is totally understandable that those aware of how the state of Israel was founded (and itsdependence upon a certain degree of ethnic population transfer through expulsion and stymieing any attempts at repatriation of refugees) and the parallels to this Nakba evident in the post-1967 Occupied Territories, wish to place themselves in opposition to the ideology on which the state of Israel (and indeed the Jewish colonization project in Palestine) was predicated.

However the anti-Zionist label comes across to me not merely as problematic but self-defeating for genuine supporters of Palestinian Liberation for two reasons:

Firstly, regardless what many Israelis (and their American supporters) may claim, Zionism-as an abstract ideology (or group of ideologies) advocating Jewish resettlement in the land of Palestine-should by no means be regarded as coterminus with support for a Jewish state in Palestine, much less the one that was established in 1948.

In Zionism's early days, state-oriented "political Zionism," anchored by Theodore Herzl (which only gained true ascendancy following the Biltmore Conference), clashed with the "cultural Zionism" of figures such as Aha Ha'am, who-acknowledging the Arab opposition to state-based colonization efforts in Palestine-supported a more vague ideal of "cultural" renewal. Rabbi Judah Magnes, one of the first Zionists in the American Reform Movement, was the first to propose a "binational state" in the (then-) Palestine Mandate and went so far as to oppose the 1948 partition plan.

As Jerry Haber, in a 2007 blog post entitled "Zionism without a Jewish state" put it, " I don't see what is wrong about trying to preserve what is good about zionism, and, for that matter, the state of Israel, while pushing towards a more liberal and equitable regime," e.g. one that renounces its military occupation and accords equal citizenship rights for its arab citizens while continuing to serve as a center for Jewish culture.

Indeed, equating one's critiques of the apartheid situation evident in the occupied territories and Israel state with opposition to "Zionism" turns a social justice struggle into an ideological one whose message detracts from the substantive goal of equality. 

Secondly, the very term "anti-zionist" will always invoke connotations of anti-semitism due to its historical use (particularly in countries of the former Soviet Union) as a cover for legitimately anti-semitic acts. The most notorious example of this was Poland's "anti-Zionist campaign" of 1968, in which the accusation of treachery by "Zionist" (i.e. Jewish) elements in the population-masked in elements of traditional Eastern European anti-semitic conspiracy theories-was used to purge Jewish members of the Communist Party, resulting in the swift exodus of most of Poland's remaining Jewish population.

Indeed, I speculate that "anti-Zionism" touches such a raw nerve amongst members of the American Jewish Establishment (the controversy surounding Swarthmore Hillel providing the latest proof of this) because of their memory of the anti-antisemitism once carried out in its name.

I mention these points not to draw dishonest comparisons between Palestine solidarity activists and Polish anti-semites nor to accuse the former of ignorance but to inform those who (like myself) are critical of the governing ethnocracy in Israel-Palestine to tread carefully in their use of a heated and not necessarily accurate term.

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