But they have a wonderful social justice tradition

In the last semester (Spring, 2011) I attended at California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), I enjoyed a class taught by Richard Shapiro entitled “Secular/Post-Secular? Emancipatory Jewish Thought.”

Shapiro, that class, and indeed, that department at CIIS are heavily into post-modernism; the reading is heavy and dense. But something I gained an appreciation for is a real Jewish social justice tradition. It is a tradition, as taught by Shapiro, from which I learn a concept of justice as something never finally achieved, but a goal never to be abandoned, that justice comes in the striving for justice, not in any confidence that it has been realized, and that any illusion that one has “done justice” is a conclusion that the goal has been missed.

This fine, fine—and I say it again, Jewish—tradition continues at Tikkun magazine and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, led by Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Beyt Tikkun synagogue. They’re not alone; I have encountered other rabbis who clearly share in this tradition, and they all criticize Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.

So what I’m about to say should not be taken as anti-Semitic: There is a distinction to be drawn between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. I wish to point to what happened in the wake of World War I, which destroyed several empires, including the Ottoman and, really, the British.[1]

The Zionist plan, as outlined by Weizmann to Feisal in 1918, was to avoid encroaching on land being worked by the Arab peasantry and instead to reclaim unused, uncultivated land, and by the use of scientific agricultural methods to restore its fertility. The large Arab landholders, however, turned out to be eager to sell the Jewish settlers their fertile lands, too—at very considerable profits.* Indeed Jewish purchasers bid land prices up so that, not untypically, an Arab family of Beirut sold plots of land in the Jezreel valley to Jewish settlers in 1921 at prices ranging form forty to eighty times the original purchase price. Far from being forced by Jews to sell, Arabs offered so much land to Jews that the only limiting factor on purchases became money: the Jewish settlers did not have enough money to buy all the land that Arabs offered to them. [notes elided][2]

What’s important to understand here is that the Palestinians who rented land from the Arabs were frozen out as Jews arrived;[3] they were screwed coming and going, and the problem with what the Jews did at that time seems to have had more to do with their exclusion of Palestinians from their communities than with any real malice toward them:

[T]here were many men-on-the-spot and in Whitehall who believed that Arab [Palestinian] rights were in danger and needed to be defended. Jewish colonists were well-financed and had the means to buy up large areas of land for their settlements, creating a class of landless labourers who were excluded from work in Jewish areas, where the owners preferred to employ men and women of their own race. . . . The Arabs were resisting what they considered a usurpation of lands they had inhabited and tilled for centuries, and a future in which they might conceivably be an impoverished minority within a Jewish state. The Jewish colonists believed that they were the rightful inheritors of a land long ago bequeathed to them by God [and, in 1917, promised to them by the British with the Balfour Declaration], which they were using to its best advantage, and which offered a safe haven for Jews everywhere.[4]

What’s also important to understand here is that there was an upsurge in Jewish migration to Palestine—then under the control of a badly over-extended British Empire[5]—and the migrants were largely blind to problems of people they were already displacing.

If there is an argument for the dangers of religion, this might be a prime example. I prefer to see this example as demonstrating the hazards of zealotry. Consider, for instance, that even after all these years, Jews manifestly feel anything but safe in Israel, leading them to engage in violent suppression of Palestinians, but they now seem too much to relish the brutality: I have reached a conclusion that it is only in such acts—really of cowardice—that some right-wing Israelis find their masculinity.

Shapiro, the professor at CIIS, pointed out in effect that some Jews had transferred the brutality they suffered at the hands of Nazis into victimizing Palestinians. Avigail Abarbanel, a psychotherapist who left Israel and is described as a “a former citizen of Israel,” highlights “a history of European persecutions, pogroms, discriminatory laws, expulsions, medieval and modern ghettos and a systematic plan of total annihilation in what was considered an enlightened European country,” and argues that the “idea that Israel is the only safe place for Jews is critical to understanding the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Israel’s policies and perspective in the present.”[6]

Experience and cultural narrative have been telling them that since antiquity, rulers and governments as well as populations have become hostile to Jews without warning. This means that no matter how long Jews have lived anywhere, no matter how unobtrusive and well integrated they have been, or how much they contributed to their society, things could turn against them overnight.[7]

Thus, even if Israel really isn’t safe, at least the country is under Jewish control. But also, and for me, this is the chief insight that Abarbanel offers, the Israeli state comes to be equated with the Jewish people; thus, “Zionists have always believed that Jewish fear justifies ethnic cleansing” and any critique of Israeli policy becomes anti-Semitic.[8]

The victim of the Holocaust is now the oppressor of the Palestinian, which is an additional reason (as if Jews needed an additional reason) for a vociferous response to Holocaust-denial: The Holocaust, in a Zionist lens, justifies brutality against Palestinians, and even as they commit that violence, Zionists still claim to be the victims. Criticism of Zionism, again, becomes anti-Semitic.

The case of Israel and Palestine is thus a case of supreme irony. But Jewish grievances are legitimate against Europeans, not against Palestinians. Palestinians do not deserve to be bombed or bulldozed out of their homes. They do not deserve to be shot at when their only weapons are stones. They do not deserve to be colonized and ethnically cleansed.

And history makes clear that by and large, the interlopers are not, as some Zionists claim, the Palestinians, or even Jews who were already present in that bitterly contested land, but Zionists, who were not native to Palestine, but who largely came from Europe and the United States.[9]

And it is very odd to me that this seems to be such a hard thing to understand.

Note, April 27, 2014: This post was lightly edited for clarity after having originally being published on the 26th. The posting date has been changed.

  1. [1]David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (New York: Henry Holt, 1989); Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994).
  2. [2]David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (New York: Henry Holt, 1989), 522.
  3. [3]David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (New York: Henry Holt, 1989).
  4. [4]Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), 407.
  5. [5]David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace (New York: Henry Holt, 1989); Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994).
  6. [6]Avigail Abarbanel, “A change needs to come,” Electronic Intifada, May 25, 2008, http://electronicintifada.net/content/change-needs-come/7529
  7. [7]Avigail Abarbanel, “A change needs to come,” Electronic Intifada, May 25, 2008, http://electronicintifada.net/content/change-needs-come/7529
  8. [8]Avigail Abarbanel, “A change needs to come,” Electronic Intifada, May 25, 2008, http://electronicintifada.net/content/change-needs-come/7529
  9. [9]Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Dictionary of Global Culture (New York: Vintage, 1996).

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