Sunday, 1 May 2016

Zionism: An Unhelpful Term

A big part of the controversy around Ken Livingstone's remarks is the use of the term ‘Zionism’ in relation to Hitler. The historical record can be looked up, though it may be better to question the use of language here. After all, words matter.

The Zionist movement was a broad church and included everyone from Noam Chomsky to Jackie Mason. However, Professor Chomsky is not a right-wing Jewish nationalist. Yet he was a Zionist youth leader and Alan Dershowitz was apart of the same Hebrew summer camp. But Chomsky’s childhood Zionism would not be recognised by the devotees of the state of Israel. He remembers the foundation of the so-called Jewish state as a “day of mourning”.

Of course, the obvious point cannot be made too often. Not all Zionists are Jews, neither are all Jews Zionists. For instance, Christian Zionism is a huge movement with deep roots and remains strong in the American Bible Belt, while anti-Zionism has a long history among Jews. Note the Christian Right tend to be fanatical supporters of Israeli aggression, but they also yearn for the Rapture and the end of Jewry worldwide.

Zionism is not synonymous with Jewishness, but it’s a highly imprecise term. In many ways, it would be more accurate to talk about Israeli or Jewish nationalism today. Precision of language is vital here. Clear distinctions have to be maintained. Not only because the misuse of the term ‘Zionist’ can be painted as anti-Semitic, but it can be received as such. This means deepening the vocabulary of the Left on Israel-Palestine.

Too often do we hear talk of the Israel lobby, or even the Jewish lobby, and this is not unproblematic. The only reason why lobbyists are welcomed in Washington and London is because there is an underlying interest in the first place. In other words, US policy favours Israel due to its own interests in the Middle East, not because of Israeli interference in American political life. The Left should not presuppose Western innocence in all of this, as if the US is being led astray by foreign interests. It is not necessarily anti-Semitic, but it certainly can be to talk in this way.

As Didi Herman argues, the Left should probably stop using the word ‘Zionism’ and try to grasp the problem in clear terms. By using ‘Zionism’, the Left opens itself up to right-wing offensives and infiltration by genuine anti-Semites. At the same time, there is little engagement with Jewish nationalism as a historic movement and the reasons for its appeal. It was once that the Left was avowedly Zionist, whereas today leftists are eager to pronounce themselves anti-Zionists. Here is a passage of advice from Herman:

The identification of a generic Zionism with nothing but racist practice in Israel entrenches an understanding of zionism not just as a dirty word, but as a pariah form of thinking unrelated to any other (except apartheid thinking). However, as Balibar (2009), Asharwi (2003), and many others have noted, Jewish nationalisms need to be taken seriously. The left’s wholesale intellectual rejection of an assumed monolithic Zionism does not assist such an endeavour. 
I suppose this post is, in part, a plea to the left to stop saying ‘Zionist’. Use ‘Israeli nationalists’ or ‘Israeli fundamentalists’ or better yet ‘Netanyahu’s regime’ or, as a last resort, at least refer to ‘Israel-zionism’ and not ‘Zionism’ per se, as in ‘media outlets that support Netanyahu’s regime’ or ‘the University of Birmingham is a bit of an Israeli nationalist outpost’. These alternatives won’t provide an easy shorthand in the way ‘Zionism’ does, for example, ‘Israeli nationalism = apartheid’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I suppose that is my point — easy options often sacrifice understanding for rhetorical force. The Zionist shorthand is upsetting to many because it is a very old way of talking about ‘Jewish conspiracy’ (used by antisemites long before Israeli statehood), and no doubt more importantly, it harms the cause of Palestinian solidarity because it allows people with all sorts of agendas to attack the solidarity campaign, and with occasional justification. Of course Israel itself likes to messianically represent itself as the embodiment of a monolithic Zionism, but there is no need for the left to reproduce this erasure of all the other forms of zionism.

It’s not surprising that the self-described ‘anti-totalitarian Left’ is leading the witch hunt. Many of these soi-disant leftists and liberals supported the invasion of Iraq on progressive grounds. Israel is seen as a Western liberal democracy encircled by Arab dictatorships and Islamic fascist regimes. Therefore all criticism of Israel is painted as anti-Jewish. The reality is much less convenient for this herd of independent minds.

Localising anti-Jewish prejudice in the Left is a form of externalisation. Much like child sexual abuse, we’re meant to believe it’s always someone else who is guilty of it. The terrible truth is sexual violence is far more common and banal. And the same can be said of Judeophobia. It’s not the preserve of student activists, intellectuals and conspiracists. The global financial crisis set the conditions in place for a resurgence.

As for the Labour Party, there is little to no anti-Semitism among its ranks. The last leader Ed Miliband is of Belgian Jewish heritage - his father, a refugee from Nazism served in WW2 - yet the British press was comfortable mocking him for his inability to enjoy a bacon sandwich. His father Ralph Miliband was a refugee from Nazism served in WW2, and the right-wing press insinuated the man was ‘disloyal’ to Britain. There was no discussion of anti-Jewish undercurrents in the midst of this.

However, Jew-bashing is an old game for the Right. The times haven’t changed so much. As Sam Kriss argues, the contemporary Right is now avowedly philo-Semitic - it is fascinated by Israel and by Jews - but this supposed love is really its opposite. Jews who criticise Israel are deemed insufficiently Jewish. The Norwegian fascist Breivik drew a line between ‘patriotic’ and ‘disloyal’ Jews in his rambling manifesto. Naturally, a Jewish state appeals to anti-Semites who want to rid their countries of a certain minority.

At this point, we could do far worse than to turn to the words of Judith Butler on Jewish politics and the Western fascination with Israel:

In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it.

I rest my case, fellow travellers.

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