The Hard and Soft Jewish Left

             This week I went to two different meetings of American Jews against the occupation. One was called to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, and the other was a public conversation between Jeremy Ben-Ami, director of J-Street, and the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. Both these meetings were large—the BDS meeting, held in the vestry of a church, was standing room only with people lining the walls and sitting on the floor. The J Street meeting, in a much larger hall, must have drawn at least six hundred people. [Later correction: According to organizers, there were 350 there.] Not only were the meetings large, they were civilized, with no heckling or picketers—where were all the right wingers who usually scream abuse? (Maybe at the World Zionist Congress; see below.)  

 
             These were not the first meetings I’ve gone to on Israel-Palestine. I have been active, on and off, for over twenty years in efforts by American Jews to support the Israeli peace movement. During the First Intifada, I wrote, made speeches, and was part of a group of Jewish women who protested every week in front of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, until my husband got sick and I had to drop out. When the Second Intifada began, I went to the Junity conference in Chicago; helped organize speaking tours for Uri Avnery and a young draft resister, Haggai Mater; wrote; and stood at Union Square with Women in Black. I eventually became part of the process that built Brit Tzedek va’Shalom, which was organized to overcome the isolation of the Jewish left and reach mainstream Jews with a message that was both anti-occupation and pro-Israel (meaning, not wanting Israel either to be destroyed or to destroy itself). In January 2010, Brit Tzedek merged with J Street, a pro-peace lobbying organization.
 
            Over the years I have seen the emergence of two basic strands of activism among American Jews opposed to the occupation. I will call these tendencies the hard and soft Jewish Left.  
 
             The hard Jewish Left is largely made up of people who embrace the Jewish values of universalism and social justice without feeling any connection to mainstream American Jewish institutions or religion. Many are red diaper babies. They are appalled by Israeli racism and treatment of the Palestinians, and determined to show solidarity with those who are oppressed. Some cite human rights principles to say that Israel must become a state of all its people, with no differences among nationalities—in other words, Israel must cease to be a Jewish state. The hard Jewish Left allies closely with Palestinian civil society and takes leadership from Palestinian organizations.
           
            People on the soft Jewish Left are equally appalled by the occupation and the racism of the Israeli right but, because they identify with the American Jewish community, they have a painful sense of Jewish vulnerability and want to win other Jews over rather than get in their faces. They do not feel comfortable marching in demonstrations with people who carry signs that say “Zionism = Nazism” or call for the unlimited right of return, which would mean an end to a Jewish state. They feel that US policy will not change until the majority of American Jews, who are against the settlements but are too disempowered to publicly oppose Israeli policy, can be mobilized to speak up.
 
             For most of the last twenty years, these two tendencies have regarded one another with hatred and contempt. But the meetings I went to this week were not business as usual. 
 
            First, the BDS meeting. The international movement for BDS was initiated by Palestinian civil society and is modeled on the sanctions that isolated South Africa during the apartheid era. It calls for boycotting products made in Israel and the settlements, including a cultural and academic boycott of Israeli institutions; campaigns to get universities to divest from Israeli companies and US companies like Caterpillar that are involved in the occupation; and hopes eventually to result in government sanctions, which will be a stretch in the US but is possible in other parts of the world. 
 
            Surprisingly, the meeting was framed as a panel discussion debating this strategy. The BDS proponents were Hannah Mermelstein of Adalah and Yonathan Schapira, an Israeli vet and initiator of the Pilots’ Letter of 2003, in which Blackhawk pilots refused to fly missions over the occupied territories. Critics of BDS were represented by J.J. Goldberg of the Forward and Kathleen Peratis, a board member of J Street and Human Rights Watch. Mermelstein laid out the basis of unity of the BDS movement: an end to the occupation; equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the right of return. Peratis said it was great that the Palestinian movement was putting its energy into a nonviolent campaign but she thought the boycott needed more focus and disagreed with the campaign’s final aim, which appeared to be one state. Schapira said he didn’t understand how Americans, who stood for the separation of church and state in their own country, could support a state in Israel based on the rule of one religion. Goldberg said Israel was founded not as a religious state but as a national homeland for the Jewish people. While their underlying differences were very clear, the panelists were at pains to remain polite—no name-calling, invocations of the Holocaust, or explosions of undifferentiated rage.
 
            This is so unusual in meetings about Israel it made me think, what if these two groups of people could actually work in tandem to put different kinds of pressure on US policy? Would a coalition be possible, when they have such fundamental differences about the need for a Jewish state? Before World War II, people who had equally fundamental differences worked together to try to rescue European Jews, though their meetings sometimes ended in fistfights. Since today’s hard and soft Jewish Left do not agree on a two-state solution, any coalition between them would have to be purely tactical. But I have been part of coalitions for reproductive rights that combined this kind of tactical unity with deep strategic differences. As long as everyone sticks to her principles, it can be done.
 
            If the hard and soft Jewish Left could possibly work together, what would be their points of unity? The first would obviously be an end to the occupation. The second could be equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. A third possible point of unity could be opposition to political fundamentalism—at least, I would like it to be.
 
            The right wing coalition now leading the Israeli government is controlled by fundamentalists and their settler allies, some of whom are so racist their discourse sounds like after hours in the KKK parking lot. They are murderous to Palestinian villagers, vicious to secular and reform Israelis, and horrible about women. In fact, they are the Jewish equivalent of Hamas, which poses the same problem for Palestinians as the ultra-Orthodox and settlers do for Israelis—both groups of fundamentalists are violent; both reject compromise; both want to control the everyday lives of their people. So I would like to see the Jewish anti-occupation movement condemn all forms of fundamentalism and I hope that women, in particular, will begin to raise this issue.
 
            The destructive effects of Jewish fundamentalism were discussed, though not in detail, by Jeffrey Goldberg and Jeremy Ben-Ami at the J Street event, which was really an interview designed to explore the complexities of the political situation. Since this discussion has been posted online, I will not recap it save to say that both speakers stressed diplomacy and the need for a strong US role. J Street has been cutting quite a swathe in Washington this year, and may be capable of putting significant pressure on the Obama administration, on the basis that it represents the large number of American Jews who are critical of the current Israeli government and do not follow established “Jewish leaders.” (To find out how we got stuck with such leaders, wait for my next blog.)
 
            In the days following these two meetings, both groups have made new breakthroughs. European Jews allied with the BDS efforts are organizing a Jewish flotilla to bring aid to Gaza and are already so oversubscribed they are looking for a second boat. And representatives of J Street who went to the World Zionist Congress (which is usually controlled by the right) found themselves unexpectedly in a position to get the delegates to pass a resolution advocating a settlement freeze and a two state solution. Considering that WZO people in New York normally scream insults at anyone advocating such a position, this is a pretty remarkable turn of events. Immediately after the resolution was passed, right-wingers stormed the stage and prevented any more business from getting done.
 
            All these events, following the horrors of the flotilla, show more energy around Israel and Palestine than I have seen in a long time—even if it is energy born of desperation.
           
             I should end with a word about my own position: I support J Street’s approach and respond to its calls to pressure US elected officials. (If I were drafting its letters, I might word them more strongly, but in that case the elected officials might not read them.) I also support a targeted boycott of settlement goods and some other possible economic boycotts. But I do not support cultural and academic boycotts because I believe they do more harm than good. Paul Simon’s trip to South Africa to work with Ladysmith Black Mambaza, which was harshly criticized by those supporting the cultural boycott, led to a world tour by black South African musicians that reached a very wide public and played a part in reshaping opinion. Countries that need to change do not benefit from being cut off; all too many Israelis are in a bubble already. We should be looking for ways to break down their bunker mentality rather than reinforce it.
 
            In addition, while I share the alienation of the hard Jewish Left from Israel’s right wing policies and reliance on force, and worry that Israel has no credible political class, I do not believe that Zionism is inherently evil—I have studied enough history to know that the Zionist movement was always a battleground between universalists and racists. (I wrote about some of this history in my novel Union Square, now, alas, out of print again.) The sins of Europe dumped refugees from the Holocaust into Palestine and Palestinians suffered unjustly as a result. Past wrongs must be admitted and restitution made—and the blockade of Gaza and the occupation must end—if Israel and Palestine are ever to be two countries that can live in peace.
           
 
 

 

Comments

error

Hi there,

Just a correction - I work with Adalah-NY, not Adalah. It's a completely different organization ("Adalah" just means "justice" in Arabic). Please correct the link to adalahny.org.

Thanks,
Hannah

I fixed it, thanks.

I fixed it, thanks.

BDS Panel

Dear Meredith,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful post and comment at the event. I wanted to respond to a couple of things in your post. You say that: "The hard Jewish Left is largely made up of people who embrace the Jewish values of universalism and social justice without feeling any connection to mainstream American Jewish institutions or religion." And: "People on the soft Jewish Left are equally appalled by the occupation and the racism of the Israeli right but, because they identify with the American Jewish community, they have a painful sense of Jewish vulnerability and want to win other Jews over rather than get in their faces. They do not feel comfortable marching in demonstrations with people who carry signs that say “Zionism = Nazism” or call for the unlimited right of return, which would mean an end to a Jewish state."

Those characterizations don't seem fair or accurate to me (they certainly don't describe me). For example, in terms of politics, I am sure I am part of what you call the "hard left"--I support BDS; I am not a Zionist (I was a Marxist Zionist for many years); I would not be part of J-Street for a number of reasons; and I don't love Israel, etc. etc. However, I am deeply connected as a Jew and rooted in the American Jewish community (of course, there are many communities within the Jewish community) and spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how to most meaningfully speak to Jews as honestly as possible--and as sensitively as possible. I went to a Yeshiva for part of my schooling and know more about Zionism than I know about almost any other subject.

I do not like signs that say "Zionism = Nazism." In fact, I have never been part of planning a demonstration (and I organize together with people you define as the hard left) where that was one of the signs someone suggested.

I do support the right of return (I don't see how I could not given the history) and and would definitely march with signs that express that sentiment. EVEN when I called myself a Zionist, I liked the idea of a bi-national state (which I learned about from reading Martin Buber) and thought the issue of the right of return had to be taken seriously.

There are more and more groups, each with their own identities and areas of focus, that are organizing together as the Israeli government becomes increasingly brutal. I stand, as a Jew, with these groups because they/we speak out in ways I believe we are obligated to do.

Again, I appreciate much of what you wrote, but feel your descriptions did not reflect or capture the complexity and nuances of the different political perspectives.

Best,
Donna

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