Remembering

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I took this picture (around two years ago) of Bedouin toddlers in an unrecognized village not far from the city of Rahat, where the Israeli police opened fire yesterday on mourners at the funeral of Sami al-Ja’ar (who was killed by police last week).

During the clashes at the funeral, Sami Ziadna died, reportedly from a heart attack after inhaling tear gas. He was 45 years old.

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At Princeton you can get paid to lie to campus leaders about Israel

This isn’t news to most people, but it’s important to remember.

The David Project, part of the Israel on Campus Coalition (along with Hillel International), is an Israel advocacy organization with affiliates on a number of major American university campuses. It likens itself to “a consulting agency for Israel clubs.” Its modus operandi is to explain Israel’s behavior to students, especially student leaders, to “change the campus conversation.” The David’s Project best known tactic is its “Latte Initiative,” through which it provides grant money for pro-Israel student organizers to take their peers out to coffee dates and pay for their coffee.

At Princeton, the pro-Israel group Tigers for Israel offers a David Project Fellowship that pays a $200 stipend. The fellows will pay for your coffee, and all you need to do is let them explain why Israel isn’t the increasingly undemocratic, civilian-population subjugating, pariah state in-the-making that the New York Times claims it is, just don’t ask them about the occupation.

Oh, and The David Project was founded by well-known neoconservative Charles Jacobs who had this to say about the idea behind the organization:

unless you expose and humiliate and taunt and legally threaten and politically challenge the use of the podium as propaganda, and unless you fight the cultural relativist paradigm where no one is allowed to say ‘Hey, that’s a lie’…then you have a problem.” (via the Forward)

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back again

I haven’t posted here since the summer, but the depths of winter break have drawn me back.

Since the start of last semester, an anti-occupation divestment campaign was launched at Princeton. All throughout the semester, I wanted to write about what divestment activists were up against and maybe, in doing so, provide a resource for other students looking to run divestment campaigns at their own schools.

The divestment campaign started when a group of tenured professors circulated a letter calling for the University to divest from companies operating in the occupied West Bank. That generated a whole flurry of op-eds and debates, and a lot of activist energy on campus. What, perhaps naively, I didn’t expect, was how the vast apparatus of pro-Israel programming and organizing would jump into action. Divestment activists, working only with what they have, go up against an opponent that is willing to spend millions of dollars to defeat them. The fight isn’t even close to fair. But even with all the money and power that defenders of the occupation have on their side, they are loosing and they know it.

The next couple of posts will most likely be a series of observations about the political terrain at Princeton and how it is stacked against those working to end the occupation. But since it is break, and I’m writing a bunch of papers, there may be a few posts about some other things, too.

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For Young, Progressive Jews, Opposing the Occupation is an Inter-Generational Struggle

How the last best tactic we have to fight the occupation might be the most difficult to put into most practice.

American Jewry is complicit in the occupation. American Jews send millions of dollars and thousands of people across the Green Line. We provide financial backing and political legitimacy, oftentimes without even knowing, to the systematic dispossession and subjugation of Palestinians. The organizations that claim to represent us sanction violence against civilians in Gaza, justify martial law for millions in the West Bank, and support racism and incitement in Israel.

In its insistence on the exceptional justness of Israel, the American Jewish establishment has enabled Israel’s slide into exceptional brutality. The values that these organizations once took pride in are hollow, empty words used for cynical political manipulation. That the Anti-Defamation League, emphasis on the defamation, would not condemn the beating of Tariq Abu Khdeir (the American cousin of the Palestinian boy brutally murdered by Jewish extremists) demonstrates the meaningless of what the American Jewish community claims to stand for. The ADL stated it was withholding judgment because the boy was “arrested for participating in a violent demonstration,” which seems to imply that if it was proven that he was involved in a protest, the bludgeoning that a prone and immobile Tariq Abu Khdeir received at the hands of Israeli police would somehow be justified. We know we’ve reached a dangerous political situation when an organization founded “to secure justice and fair treatment for all” is prepared to accept wanton police brutality and summary beatings.

If there is anything this past year has shown, it is that the major American Jewish organizations and their leaders cannot be convinced by any conventional means. No amount of lobbying, petitions, and letter writing swayed the old Jewish men’s club that runs our communal organizations. Whatever green shoots that seemed to suggest a thaw of the communal prohibition against talking about the occupation as an occupation have been stamped down, perhaps forever. No amount of town halls, not that illusory “constituency for peace,” and no volume of university newspaper op-eds can shake the sturdy pipeline through which money—our money and our families’ money—flows directly to the West Bank.

However, this isn’t just a matter of money—it’s a matter of moral legitimacy and symbolic support. Our communal organizations aren’t just subsiding the occupation, they also make it respectable by showing that we, respectable American Jews, disproportionately well educated and active in American public life, sympathize and support the settlement enterprise. They maintain the occupation in our name.

It isn’t enough to try “to change the conversation.” This theory of politics based on discourse—the idea that if we can change the words people use to speak about a given reality, then we can also change the tangible facts of that reality—is inadequate. And as progressives, our experience fighting other systems of oppression should teach us that power has a near infinite capacity to turn attempts to oppose it into support and reinforcement for itself. For example, forcing Hillel International to accept speakers who are not Zionists cannot end the occupation. It may make us feel better, more included perhaps, and give us hope that the critical theory we learned as liberal arts majors might actually have some practical use, but it cannot end the occupation. If anything—and if Hillel’s leaders are just a little smart they will realize this—the veneer of openness would allow Hillel to avoid changing its policies that directly impact the on-the-ground reality in Israel and the occupied territories. “See, look, we’re inclusive of different perspectives and worldviews,” they’ll say, while advertising for summer programs in West Bank settlements. We need something stronger, more decisive, less likely to be used against our goals.

American Jewish supporters of the occupation are better funded, better connected, and better organized than we young progressives will ever be. But we have one crucial advantage: the major Jewish organizations cannot survive without us. And if we can show them in practice that their greatest fears about our disaffection and disaffiliation—evidenced by the innumerable studies they commission to find out what we think—may come true, only then do we stand a chance of winning.

On this side of the Atlantic, the struggle to end the occupation is more than ideological—it’s generational. The generation in power is aging; it can sense its own demise. Out of its fear of obsolescence it attempts to shape the future—us—by courting us with free trips, concerts, and cheap thrills. The American Jewish establishment’s greatest fear is that one day when the time comes to bequeath power to the younger generation, we will abandon its organizations, denominations, and associations. Today, that is only a nightmare for the current Jewish establishment, a potential future that is not necessarily guaranteed to arrive. But we can demonstrate to them the potential of the threat and show them that it is a real possibility—that if they do not end their support for violence and injustice, we will abandon them.

We must boycott, disassociate, and sever ties to organizations that maintain, support, and fund the occupation. This will entail a personal cost that many progressive, Jewish activists have already experienced. It may deprive us of access to the aspects of Jewish life we desire. But we can hope that the deprivation will be temporary. And there are existing alternatives to the sclerotic organizations of our parents’ generation that we can turn to. If we feel something is missing, we can build it. But we cannot expect any attempt to confront injustice to come for free.

The occupation’s American financial infrastructure needs us—our money and our futures—to remain standing, which means that we can bring it down. We can throw away the JNF’s blue boxes that fund the eviction of Palestinian families. We can stop paying organizational dues that go to support the Israeli political Right. We can protest synagogue and community events at which annexationist views are accepted as mainstream. If groups like the Conference of Major Jewish organizations fear the politics of young progressive Jews so much, let’s give them a reason to be afraid.

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The Limits of Sentimental Zionism

On Friday afternoon, a late-middle-aged woman, who I will call M. sat down across from me at table in a coffee-shop.

“You must be worried about what’s happening with Israel,” she said. M. had probably seen the Hebrew sticker on the front of my laptop, though she clearly could not read the anti-government slogan from Hadash, Israel’s joint Jewish-Arab socialist party. She saw the familiar letters and made an assumption (incorrectly) about my politics. She was right to assume that I was worried about Israel, but not for the reasons that she thought I was.

Without any prompting, she unfurled a copy of the The New York Times and proceeded to denounce the “unbalanced coverage” of the conflict. Isn’t terrible, she told me while gesturing to the headlines. But suddenly her tone changed. She began to speak about the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

“I can’t believe Jews would do such a thing.” She sounded both genuinely contrite and incredulous, as if there had to be another explanation for the Palestinian boy’s death: that Israeli Jews could not be responsible for such a crime, and that this kind of brutality isn’t part of the Jewish DNA. During the eighteen days of searching for the three kidnapped Israeli boys, the Western and Jewish presses published articles on Palestinians who refused to believe the boys had actually been kidnapped and thought it was an Israeli ploy to consolidate control over the West Bank. And yet after the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Jewish and Israeli media demonstrated a similar and sickening kind of denial, even suggesting that the boy’s murder had been an “honor killing” carried out by Palestinians.

“Here, look,” M. said, pulling a pen out of her purse to underline several sentences in the Times article that described the backgrounds of the alleged killers: yeshiva drop-outs with behavioral problems. M. found what she was looking for, solace in the fact that Mohammed’s killers came from the neglected margins of Israeli society. The implication of her underlining was clear. These murders were not indicative of trends in Israeli society or Jewish communities, unrepresentative of Israelis’ feelings towards their Arab neighbors. M. looked up at me from her paper, looking for signs of my agreement with her annotations to the daily paper.

For a young leftist, I spend a lot of time talking with older, conservative Jews. And I’ve grown accustomed to sitting silently, or nodding gently as a more senior coreligionist ranted about Israel, Obama, or, most frequently, The New York Times. But this time, I sensed that M. might be receptive to a different perspective. She hadn’t resorted to the usual, preposterous cliches about the Grey Lady as a bastion of anti-semitism.

“You know, I wish I could tell you that racist violence is an anomaly in Israel,” I said to her. “But I can’t.”

I told her that during the year I lived in Israel, I experienced more instances of racist intimidation and witnessed more racist violence than I ever expected to. The people who killed Mohammed Abu Khdeir were exceptions only in that they took their hatred to its most odious conclusion. For years, there have been warning signs, hints at the racism that now is fully on display: hateful gangs shouting “death to Arabs” marching through Jerusalem, assaults on left-wingers and peace activists, and politicians like Miri Regev and Naftali Bennett, who call for all kinds of brutal and inhuman measures to be taken against the Palestinians.

***

Israeli society has a racism problem. For nearly half a century, the Israeli military has occupied the West Bank, keeping a civilian population of nearly two million under martial law. Even before the 1967 war, Palestinians living in Israel lacked basic civil rights. And while defenders of the occupation and the status quo like to call leftists and peace activists naive, those who are truly naive are those who expect the tremendous power imbalance and violence inherent to the occupation to have no visible effect on Israeli society. An army charged with subjugating a civilian population to military rule cannot allow its soldiers to view the people it subjugates as equals. Occupation is dehumanizing–and the systemic dehumanization of Palestinians by Israel (and the diaspora Jewish communities that aid and accept this dehumanization) is largely the product of decades of maintaining a military occupation.

But Israel is not unique among the world’s nations–it is a sad fact that today, many countries are ruled by oppressive governments that sponsor racist policies, subjugate entire populations, and subject millions to brutal human rights violations. The other countries of the Middle East are not models of stability or humanity. Even civilized, enlightened Europe often treats immigrants and Roma with a violent, authoritarian hand. Why then, do American Jews adamantly refuse to acknowledge that Israel, like a great number of other countries, is deeply flawed and downright oppressive? Why, when it comes to U.S. policy, are so many American Jews willing to denounce senseless war and overseas aggression, but when it comes to Israel are they often unwilling to tolerate even the gentlest criticism?

In recent years, this double-standard has weakened a bit, and I sense that certain segment of the American Jewish population is increasingly willing to accept strong criticism of Israel. Still, in well-established and more traditional Jewish communities, there has not been any kind of thaw in recent years. If anything, support for the uncritical party line has become stronger in more observant Jewish communities. It is telling, I think, that M. guessed from my laptop sticker (also incorrectly) that I had attended Ramaz, a modern Orthodox day school in Manhattan.

Part of the American Jewish refusal to criticize Israel has to do with anxiety, residual trauma from the Holocaust generation, a good dose of anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia, and a kind of tribalism that in today’s multi-ethnic and multicultural society feels increasingly threatened. All of these factors by themselves are potent parts of a reactionary ideology. But I think there is an additional, and even more significant, reason for American Jewish inability to deal with criticism of Israel.

If there is one thing that Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land added to the current discussion of Israel, it was a demonstration of American Jewry’s peculiar brand of Zionism. Written in the infuriating perpetual-present tense of high idealism and mostly a book of serious men seriously discussing serious subjects, Shavit’s book was hailed by pretty much all of the American Jewish intelligentsia as the most important contemporary book on Israel. But the book was also divisive. For some, my family members and friends’ parents included, My Promised Land added to their understanding of Israeli and Zionist history the narrative of Palestinian dispossession that had been studiously avoided or excluded from Hebrew school curricula. For others, Shavit’s book was a betrayal. In a small community of people who I generally considerable thoughtful and inquisitive, a group discussion of Shavit’s book ended with a barrage of angry mass emails. Some, including a well-known Jewish writer, accused Shavit of being “dishonorable” for pandering to an overwhelming anti-Israel public. There was something apparently treacherous about Shavit breaking the silence about the Palestinian Nakba to an English-speaking audience. Many Americans didn’t want to hear it.

As a text, My Promise Land is forgettable. It gives an American audience little more than a summary of important news stories from Israel over the past couple of decades. It’s not too different from the narrative taught in Israeli high schools schools (at least the good ones). It’s the narrative what I was taught when I enrolled in an Israeli army-preparatory program (a teacher of mine in Israel used the same words to describe Israel’s founding as Shavit used for his book’s subtitle, “the triumph and tragedy of Israel”). But as a sociological phenomenon, the book’s popularity and controversy is informative: it is a representative document of sentimental Zionism, the bizarre amalgam of ideologies and political currents, some of them contradictory, that American Jews embrace.

Sentimental Zionism borrows its spiritual, sometimes messianic tendency from religious Zionism, and its communitarian impulse from the old Labor Zionism. But it lacks both the devout religiosity of contemporary religious Zionism and the sense of justice of liberal Zionism. While uncritical, sentimental Zionism can be thoughtful, except when it comes to Palestinians and their rights. Though not necessarily illiberal, sentimental Zionists are skeptical of the international discourse of human rights and deeply suspicious of the Arab world.

Most importantly, American Jews’ sentimental Zionism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Israel’s founders’ Zionism. The creation of the Jewish state was supposed to normalize Israel, to make it just like all the other nations of the world. Based on that criteria, Zionism was completely successful. Israel is 66 years old and as flawed and troubled as any other OECD member. Like its benefactor, the U.S., Israel has gaping income inequality, racial disparities, corruption, crime, sex-trafficking, and a bellicose military. And yet, this is so painful for most American Jews to admit because their sentimental Zionism insists that Israel is unique: that it is a “light unto the nations,” that somehow the Jewish state and the Jews who live there are more moral, more humane, more righteous than other nations. This kind of latent supremacism is what makes sentimental Zionism so dangerous. Interpreted differently, sentimental Zionism could hold Israel to a higher moral standard, drawing from the Hebrew prophets an exceptional commitment to social justice. But in practice, sentimental Zionism denies the possibility that Israel could be home to violent military occupiers and racist murders who burnt a 16 year-old boy alive.

Well-intentioned sentimental Zionists, like M., who so desperately want to believe in the fundamental goodness of the state of Israel risk allowing the situation in Israel to become even worse. By denying the reality of occupation, by belittling the suffering of Gazans, and by denouncing international criticism of Israel, sentimental Zionists stoke the fires of anti-Zionist and anti-Israel sentiment worldwide. People like M’s persistent need to see Israel as exceptionally good makes them blind to Israel’s slide into exceptional brutality. And even worse, sentimental Zionism’s insistence on the unconditional justness of Israel’s actions has turned sentimental Zionists into the defenders of profound injustice.

This weekend The Jewish Standard, a local Jewish newspaper that serves the county where I grew up, featured calls to “show no restraint in Gaza,” an article titled “Palestinian Terrorism is Genocide,” and op-ed explaining why one should no longer read the New York Times. Violent, offensive, and deeply sad. This is the reality of sentimental Zionism–an ideology unable to confront reality, unwilling to empathize with others, incapable of dealing with criticism. It is an ideology whose adherents continue to withdraw into a fortress of particularism, resentment, and racism from which they can snarl nastily and condescendingly at all who disagree with them. The Jewish Standard was once where pictures of my day school charity events and bar mitzvah announcement were published. Now it has become something I barely recognize.

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On the war of images and words

I promised myself I wasn’t going to write anything about Israel’s assault on Gaza. And I’m not going to–there is no shortage of articles, polemics, and analysis. But I am going to write a little bit about what others are writing and tweeting and posting, if only because I need to process what I’ve read and seen.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, Israel has lost the war of images for good. No amount of hasbara (explanation) can cover up the injustice of the situation. And every attempt to compare, portray Israel as a victim, or draw any kind of equivalence can only backfire. The images coming out of Gaza are so horrific, so stomach churning that when held up next to pictures of Israel there is no question of which side is the aggressor and which side the victim. Israelis and Israeli media do not help their case, either. With every bomb-shelter selfie, racist tweet, and public call for violence, the little sympathy that existed for the people living under rocket fire has vanished. On the digital battlefield, Israelis defeated themselves.

I have never seen the American Jewish community this bitterly divided. The right accuses the left of treachery and idiocy with such acrimony and the spittle-spewing vitriol that the rift between the two sides may be irreparable. For so long, the Jewish community refused to confront reality in Israel. It refused to acknowledge that Israeli society had become deeply racist and militaristic. It refused to recognize Palestinian pain and suffering. But the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir changed that. This was the first time, at least that I can recall, that American Jews knew the name of Palestinian who had been killed. And it was the first time that American Jews took responsibility, as Jews, for the death of a Palestinian. Since Mohammed’s death, part of the American Jewish community has been going through a paroxysm of guilt and introspection, coming to terms with the ramifications of its stubborn blindness to the violence and oppression inherent to the occupation. There are more op-eds and newsletter than one can possibly count circulating around the community, innumerable attempts to grapple with our role in what has happened.

However, there is a part of the American Jewish community, a part that I suspect is small but that is loud and influential, that has only become more withdrawn, paranoid, and defensive than before. For them, every mention of Palestinian suffering is an attempt to delegitimize Israel, every criticism of Israel’s policies a sign of latent anti-Zionism or worse–anti-Semitism. They retreat into what I once called Fortress Judaism, where Israel can do no wrong and anyone who thinks otherwise wants to wipe the country off the map. This part of the community, already more religious and conservative, will only grow more insular and oppositional, suspicious of liberal ideas and hostile to Arabs.

I am not a media theorist, nor do I know very much about technology. But I think its safe to say that communities of different kinds of discourse exist on social media, and in particular on Twitter. There’s Jewish Twitter, loosely connected to but different from Hebrew Twitter. There’s social justice twitter, Arabic Twitter, etc. What’s been fascinating about the responses on social media to the escalating conflict is the spillover between different communities of discourse. All it takes is a few dedicated tweeters to break the barriers between communities–a strategic retweet and and a tweeter gains a whole new audience. These interactions between otherwise separate communities is a good thing, it broadens a horizons and exposes people to views and voices they would not ordinarily encounter. And while it can also be frightening and overwhelming, say, for a member of Jewish Twitter to suddenly confront social justice Twitter or vice-versa, it is an important lesson on how knowledge is culturally and societally conditioned. This kind of exposure, I think, has also changed how the American Jewish community relates to Israel.

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Was the Jewish Left ever really alive?

Writing in The Forward this past monday, Jay Michaelson announced the “Death of the Jewish Left.” Moriel Rothman-Zecher, a friend and comrade, responded to Michaelson’s article saying, to paraphrase somewhat barbarically, that rumors of the Jewish Left’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. I agree—there are plenty of individuals and organizations that I can think of that do the kind of activism and social justice work that Michaelson seems anxious to eulogize. And working this summer at a left-wing publication, I can attest to the fact that there is no shortage of youthful yidden still fighting the good fight.

Michaelson’s article makes me ask not, “is the Jewish Left really dead,” but instead: “was the Jewish Left ever really alive?” By this I don’t mean to question the existence of many Jews in America who identified with and practiced a distinct brand of left-wing politics. But I do question the connection between prior generations’ Judaism and leftism. Michaelson’s romantic view of what he terms the Jewish Left ignores some important Jewish and left-wing history that I think complicates the story he sketches in The Forward.

One assumption that underlies Michaelson’s argument is that the old “Jewish Left” engaged in leftist politics because it was Jewish, or rather, because of Judaism’s particular philosophical and political tendencies. And that is far from universally true. Particularly in the early waves of immigration to the U.S. (in the late 1800s and early 1900s), the various left-wing ideologies that many Jews adopted were at odds, and often in open conflict, with the traditional Judaism in which they were raised. Many of the streams of Yiddish socialism were adamantly secular, as was Jewish communism. And the anarchists, whose ranks a great number of Jews populated, were expressly hostile to organized religion. Paul Avrich, who was scholar of anarchism and Russian radicalism, includes in his Anarchist Portraits a charming—and slightly frightening—description of the “Yom Kippur Ball”: a musical, sacrilegious, romp intended to offend the stuffy religious authorities. Many of the biggest names in the pantheon of the “Jewish Left” fiercely rejected any connection between Judaism and their politics: Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Emma Goldman, the list goes on. For much of American Jews’ history, to join left-wing political movements was to break with Jewish religious tradition, not to bolster it.

The best articulated repudiation of the view that connects the philosophical/religious content of Judaism to leftism comes from an unlikely source: Michael Walzer, the author of Exodus and Revolution, among many other books. In a fantastic lecture called “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism” that he gave at YIVO’s conference on Jews and the Left in 2012, Walzer (who is responsible for the massive, multi-volume The Jewish Political Tradition) argued that there is nothing in the Jewish tradition that predisposes its adherents to left-wing politics. Jewish participation in leftist movements was the result, mainly, of demographics and societal conditions that made the struggles for human rights, labor, and social justice coincide with the interests of Jewish communities. As Jews in the U.S. are more prosperous and integrated than ever before, it makes sense that the sociological basis for leftism with a Jewish tint is fading, too.

Michaelson neglects to take into account another factor: the particular quality of Jewish identity during the years of mass Jewish participation in left-wing movements. What united Jewish leftists, both in the U.S. and in Europe, during the late 1880s and early 1900s was a shared culture and language that no longer exists. Jewish socialists, communists, and anarchists didn’t worry about finding “Jewish values” that could fit their politics because they didn’t need to. Their leftism was Jewish because it was expressed in Yiddish. They lived in close-knit Jewish communities, they organized predominantly with other Jewish political groups. The phrase “Jewish values” would have been meaningless to them. Judaism was not a value system for them as much as it was an ethnic affiliation—a peoplehood or, according to some Yiddish socialists like my bubbie, even a race.

But the days when anti-clerical and revolutionary sentiment could be inherently Jewish because of the language in which it was expressed are long gone (this is not the case in Israel, where anti-religious screeds are written in the same language as the Bible). Judaism today is typically characterized, particularly by left- and liberal-leaning Jews, as a religion, as a value-system. This makes Judaism more inclusive and sensitive to the dramatic demographic changes that American Jewry has undergone. But it shifts the core of Jewish identity away from common history and heritage. “Jewish values” are also notoriously difficult to define, and even harder to define without a solid background in tradition and texts. It just so happens, too, that the people most likely to embrace left-wing politics today are those least likely to engage with Judaism’s traditional sources.

Walzer’s 2012 lecture caused a bit of stir for suggesting that there was nothing intrinsically leftist or egalitarian or democratic about Judaism. But that shouldn’t be surprising. The many prosperous communities practicing non-leftist and even illiberal brands of Judaism (the ultra-orthodox, religious nationalists, to name just two) aren’t guilty of a flawed misreading of Jewish texts. Like most civilizations or cultures (however you want to define it), Judaism can contain multiple political and ethical strands—the decisions to emphasize specific strands are the results of choices based on prior political convictions.

At the end of the lecture that Walzer gave, he called on left-wing Jews to re-engage with the Jewish tradition, to find the places where Judaism can support and add meaning to left-wing politics. At first this might feel like picking what fits and discarding what is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. And I think there are encouraging organizations, collectives, and initiatives that are re-envisioning left-wing politics with a distinctly Jewish lens and grappling with the aspects of the tradition that do not and cannot be reconciled with leftist political priors. History does not suggest that the great number of Jews involved in left-wing politics did so because of what they believed about Judaism, religion, or Torah. Other than its culture, which has largely been lost on the younger generations, there was nothing particularly Jewish about the “Jewish Left.” But today, contrary to what Michaelson claims, there is a Jewish Left in a way that there never really was before. There are intentional communities, learning-groups, and individuals working to merge serious commitments to both social justice and Torah. It’s just that sometimes, they’re a little difficult to find.


Addendum:

The small but incredibly influential group of the New York Intellectuals is an important exception to my claim that there was nothing necessarily Jewish about the old “Jewish Left” other than it was comprised of Jews who were also leftists. But I don’t think it is possible to claim that views of the New York Intellectuals represented those of the majority of Jewish leftists, let alone those of the majority of Jews. The example of The New York Intellectuals does suggest, though, that the dwindling numbers of Jewish leftists that Michaelson worries about might not reflect the strength or vivacity of the contemporary Jewish Left. A vocal minority can sometimes be more powerful than an apathetic majority.

Also:

Isaac Deutscher’s concept of the “non-Jewish Jew” provides an important explanation of the apparent overrepresentation (relative to the number of Jews in a given population) of Jews in left-wing and avant-garde intellectual movements.

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The blog returns, possibly

When I first started writing this blog more than two years ago, it was mostly to record my thoughts on the books I was reading during the last months of high school. This blog has changed a lot since then. But, this summer, now that I have time to read, I might go back to posting about books. I ended up with more free time than I expected. And while that means I’m living at home again, having more time to think and write might not necessarily be a bad thing.

I’m reluctant to start posting again about politics, current affairs, and, especially, Israel/Palestine partly because I have opportunities to write that I did not have during my year in Israel. It also takes a certain degree of hubris to maintain a blog. A blogger needs to believe that his particular take on what’s happening in the world is worth sharing with the rest of the world. And I don’t think I have anything to say about politics, philosophy, or current events that other, smarter people haven’t already said in more interesting and more articulate ways. That I’m going to start posting about books doesn’t mean I think I have anything special to say about literature, either. I do, however, like the idea of keeping a record, a kind of archive that I can scroll though, of quotations from books and essays and my thoughts about those quotations.

Still, I’m not going to rule out the possibility of posting like I used to on this blog. If I find myself with enough time, motivation, and indignation to write the longer, polemical essays that I used to (somewhat embarrassingly) post, I probably will. Sometimes, I just need to write. And I like the idea of having an outlet to exercise that need. It’s more likely, though, that if I begin to post more than the occasional comment on an essay or book, the posts will be more fragmentary chunks of brainstorming for larger essays or articles.

More to come. Maybe.

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The New Partisan Says Farewell (at least for now)

It has been a little more than a year since a friend and I started The New Partisan. What was intended as a blog written from a left-liberal, critical perspective about current affairs and political theory transformed into an extended meditation on Jewish identity, Israel, Zionism, and philosophy. The blog became my personal platform for discussing what I experienced during my year living in Israel. Neither of these transformations is bad. But as the new year begins, it is strange to look at all of the changes, mistakes, and discoveries I made. I never quite got the hang of blogging. I was unable to find the balance between longer, essay-like posts and short, wittier quips. I struggled to achieve a tone that was at once self-aware and self-confident. I failed to match indignation and outrage with measured critique and good prose.

I started college this week. And while it is impossible to predict what the next four years will be like, I know I am about to enter a period of intense reading, learning, and intellectual exploration. The time, I feel, has come to turn off the polemical engine and turn on the more contemplative one. After twelve months and ten thousand views, The New Partisan is going on indefinite hiatus.

There are, however, a ton of topics I never got a chance to write about. I’m listing them here so that anyone who has any interest in continuing some of the debates and conversations here can take and explore them as he or she wishes.

• God, Labor, and Marx: An exploration of surplus value and wage-theft in the Bible and the Talmud

• Praxis and Belief: Ideological Commitment and Practical Actualization through the eyes of Georg Lukacs and Yeshayahu Leibovitz

• Occupied Minds: How Israel’s Policies in the West Bank and the Experience of Occupying Informs the Israeli Political Psyche

• Sitting Shiva for the Two-state Solution: Assessing the End of Zionism’s Last Hope

• The Left’s Obsession with Palestine as a Symptom of the International Left in Crisis

• Social Justice or Social Revolution: The Danger of the Entrepreneurial Turn

• The Joy of Diaspora: Complex and Multiple Identities are Incomprehensible to Israelis and Suppressed by Israel Society

• The Prospects for Peace in a Post-Ideological Era: How does the devaluation of national identity and the rise of the human rights discourse impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

• Can there be a Diaspora Judaism without Israel at its center? What holds non-Orthodox American Judaism together?

• The Soldier/Civilian Disconnect: Palestinians experience Israelis only as occupiers, Israelis experience Palestinians only as colonial subjects

• Uncomfortable Zionism: Dealing with the Religious-Nationalist influence on Contemporary Judaism

• The Spirit of the Radical: Messianism and the Politics of Disappointment

• Does the preservation of a culture and people require geographical contiguity and state-like structures?

• Israel’s Forgotten Jews: The Dark History of Israel’s Immigration Policies

• The Grand Old Party in Zion: The Republican Turn in Israeli Political Rhetoric

• Where does Diaspora end and Israel begin?

• Questions of Identity as Questions of Consciousness

• Moral Failure, Political Myopia: The Flawed Case of the Pregnant Woman at a Checkpoint

• The Illusion of Jewish Social Justice: How the marriage between philanthropists and non-profits has turned social justice into a slogan and a strategy of the ruling class

• Towards a Post-Zionist, Jewish Socialism

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The Crisis of Zionists’ Crises (or, Peter Beinart, meet Shlomo Avineri)

Since 2012 Peter Beinart’s declaration that, “for several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead” has been the most debated sentence in the American Jewish community. In that now-famous article (to which he has just published a sequel) Beinart explains “why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young.” The answer, Beinart writes, is that “It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s.” Having “imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish political culture: a belief in open debate, a skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights,” young Jews distance themselves from Israel, or simply decide not to think about it, because Israel is too different, too violent, too difficult to relate to. The problem with this part of Beinart’s argument is that it isn’t true.

These young Jews are not disillusioned with Israel because it’s brand of Zionism is politically alien to the values inculcated in them by their American cultural milieu. The similarity, not the difference, between the United States and Israel is the source of the disillusionment of American Jews coming of age today.

The United States has invaded, occupied, or bombed countries in the Middle East continually for the past twelve years. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the occupation of Iraq, and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have claimed more lives than the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The PATRIOT Act, Bush era wiretaps, and the NSA’s PRISM program have demonstrated bipartisan disregard for civil liberties and human rights on a scale greater than that of Israel’s vast spy networks and security apparatus in the West Bank. The current political climate in the U.S. is far from hospitable to open debate. To the contrary, instances like Chris Hayes’ public apology after suggesting the word “hero” might be overused show that there are very clear limits to what can and cannot be said in public. Hayes’ apology, in particular, brings to mind the Israeli obsession with the military and the centrality of the armed forces in national mythology.  Since Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term, Israel looks more and more like a mirror image of U.S. politics and culture. Perhaps more accurate, Israel resembles a miniature model of America – fully capitalist, McDonalds-friendly, and fearful of the Arab world.

Israeli scholar and statesman Shlomo Avineri writes, “the state of Israel will constitute, for years to come, as the heart for Jewish people, living in other countries, only if it can find a way to be radically deferent from those countries.” The withering condition of American Zionism is caused neither by the inability of young Jews to relate to Israel nor by the failure of the American Jewish establishment to make room for the liberal-minded younger generation. Young Jews cannot connect to Israel because it looks so much like the flawed, jingoistic, unequal society they live in.

It is for that reason trips like Birthright seek to connect young Jews to Israel by showing them what makes it unique – and different from the U.S. Every aspect of that kind of packaged experience is tailored to show only the dissimilar and ignore the similar. The Israelis who accompany young American Jews on their Birthright trips are not university students, like the trips’ participants,  but soldiers on leave from their bases. The tour buses do not take Birthright participants to see the strip malls of Herziliya, the suburban prosperity of Ra’anana, or the urban squalor of South Tel Aviv. They take them to the Kotel, Masada, the Carmel Market, and bedouin tents. These American Jews already see glaring wealth inequality, pastoral suburbia, and all-black ghettos at home.  But they do not usually see thousand year-old streets, sites of mass suicide, the shuk, and nomadic herders patiently waiting to serve them tea. “If Israel becomes only a mirror-image of Diaspora life,” warns Avineri, “if it becomes, for example, just another Western consumer society, then it will lose its unique identification for world Jewry.”

However, young American Jews are liberals and not leftists. They are unlikely to agree with Avineri’s thesis – that “a liberal market economy, which means the unloading of responsibility by the individual toward the group, equals bringing the Diaspora back to the land of Israel.” American Jewry has profited nicely from the liberal market economy. Jews are better educated, better employed, and better off than many of their fellow Americans. That prosperity makes them blind to the notion that “if an American or French Jew discovers in Israel only those qualities which he already possesses (and cherishes) in his own society, then he will not be able to raise Israel to the normative pedestal with which he would identify.” Both the American Jewish establishment and its detractors like Beinart fret over the weakening bond between young American Jews and Israel. But they fail to recognize that bond “can continue to exist only if Diaspora Jewry is able to discover in Israel such qualities as it lacks in itself.” Paradoxically, the right-wing celebrators of start-up nation’s capitalist accomplishments give young American Jews less of a reason to engage with it – not because these Jews are anti-capitalists but because they can celebrate capitalism without leaving the U.S.

The American Jewish establishment often parodies the detachment of young American Jew from Israel, cynically diagnosing them with “not the Israel my parents promised me” syndrome. The pathology of this particular condition is that these Jews, raised on stories of victimhood, moral purity, and miraculous self-preservation are unable to come to terms with Israel’s military dominance, the moral ambiguity of Jewish power, and the political demands of a living in a tumultuous region.

The difference between this view and Beinart’s own is subtle but important. Young American Jews, Beinart insists, “have grown up viewing Israel as a regional hegemon and an occupying power. As a result, they are more conscious than their parents of the degree to which Israeli behavior violates liberal ideals, and less willing to grant Israel an exemption because its survival seems in peril.” But Beinart’s view assumes far more critical engagement with Israel at a young age than actually occurs. For the most part, even young secular Jews are taught to consider Israel special and fundamentally different from the U.S. and other “normal” countries.

Disassociation and disengagement occur not as a result of the clash between young Jews’ liberalism and Israel’s behavior but as a result of the gap between what Israel is and what they thought it was supposed to be. In this sense the Zionist Right, despite its condescension, is correct. Israel today is not the Israel promised to young Jews by their parents. The problem, for Zionists, is not that Israel is so foreign and despotic that young American Jews can no longer relate to it; it is that Israel has become so similar to what they are used to at home that they no longer see a reason to.

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