Jewish Identity & Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel
By David Landy
Zed Books, 2011,
272 pp., $49.95
Just over a year ago, I attended the launch of the radically Zionist “Friends of Israel” (supporters of the state of Israel as an exclusively “Jewish” state) at the charismatic Christian Victory Life church in Perth. I did so openly as a member of Friends of Palestine.
I sat with my Palestinian scarf draped around my Jewish neck and listened nervously to more than two hours of speeches.
The most disturbing aspect of the commentary was not the portrayal of Israel as mere victim in the historical passion play: rather it was the bizarre absence of the Palestinians. Not just their voice, but indeed the word Palestinians was not mentioned once.
It was as though Palestinians did not exist, never mind any attempt to address issues of settlements, occupation, and colonisation.
What existed for the 1000 or so attendees were merely “terrorists”. This was the sole reference to the people that also inhabit the land.
Upon exiting the church, I was asked by a member of state security what I thought. I replied that it was just like being a white civil rights activist in the United States at a Klu Klux Klan rally.
It was an experience both slightly frightening and intensely alienating.
David Landy’s new book, Jewish Identity and Palestinian rights, speaks directly to this experience. The author seeks to examine how Jews critical of Israel construct their growing alienation from a Zionist identity, while struggling with the Palestinian “other”.
From this perspective, Landy’s new book is largely an exploration of the dialectics of identity and struggle among Israeli-critical Jews within the Jewish diaspora (dispersed global communities).
It looks at their efforts to situate themselves within the “Jewish community” while simultaneously delivering an alternative Jewish (but non-Zionist) exploration of “the other”: the Palestinian people.
His book joins a growing body of literature that explores the rise of a constituency of the Palestinian solidarity movement that also identifies as Jewish.
While at times lapsing into overly academic and slightly inaccessible analysis, Landy’s attempts to bring a post-modernist level of critique to the discourse of de-colonialisation within the emerging Israel-critical Jewish community is to be lauded.
He offers a highly approving assessment of the movement’s attempts to decouple Jewish identity from Zionism, while warning against continuing to imagine the Palestinian as the existential “other”.
Landy explores the tension between the identity politics at the heart of the emergent activism in the Jewish diaspora that is critical of Israel and the politics of solidarity that situates the Palestinians at the centre of what is really their struggle.
He exhorts the movement to ensure it recognises the authority of the Palestinian voice, their political analysis and their agenda. This Palestinian voice, he argues, is what must rightly drive the international campaign.
Landy warns that a failure to reconcile these tensions risks marginalising the emerging critical Jewish diaspora voice in the international campaign for Palestinian rights.
Landy’s book tries to explore “identity politics” as applied to non- and anti-Zionist Jewish activists, while offering a caution against the tendency of identity politics to situate the struggle for justice for Palestinians as a secondary concern.
Even more concerning is the tendency to view the Palestinians only as victims, rather than as politically equal actors.
He also cautions against the privileging of Jewish (and other) activists’ position at the expense of the Palestinians.
He uses the story of the Gaza Flotilla, that sent boats with aid to the besieged Gaza Strip, as one dramatic example to illustrate his point. Despite the efforts of the Flotilla activists, the public story became more about the activists than about Palestinians and their struggle for justice.
Much of the text concentrates on the battle increasingly taking place internationally among politically active diaspora Jews over the claim to ownership of the nebulous construct referred to as “Jewish identity”.
This nascent movement is re-imagining Jewishness as non-Zionist and as a diasporic identity, which is hybrid, cosmopolitan, universalist and therefore anti-nationalist. “Identity becomes syncretic, and something which challenges the nation form,” he writes.
In other words, it is a Jewishness that arises out of the centuries of diasporic experience of otherness and alienation from the nationalist projects of the colonial states. Jews found themselves living on the margins of societies in which they needed to negotiate space in which to maintain culture, religion, community and indeed existence.
Zionism reverses this and replaces it with a nationalist agenda.
Many Jewish movements adopting a stance critical of Israel are reclaiming the politics of exile and insisting that the diaspora is the authentic Jewish experience, invested with the nobility of universalism against a Zionism that is monolithic and imperialistic.
Zionist values, Israel’s Jewish critics claim, are contrary to a Jewish identity constructed around tolerance, compassion, equality, and justice.
Landy is quite rightly highly critical of this privileging of universalist ethical concepts as specific to a Jewish experience and identity in the world. But he accepts that it helps Jews critical of Israel negotiate their position within the Jewish community by referencing a shared set of values.
However, he concedes that a universalist human rights discourse has also been useful in challenging the intimidation tactics of the dominant Zionists within the Jewish community.
This set of mutually agreed values is then used by many groups in the movement as a counterpoint to Zionism.
Zionism is then is reconstructed as the surrender of Jewishness to the European values of imperialism and racialism.
Landy argues that much of the language of human rights discourse, adopted enthusiastically by many Jewish groups over the past few centuries, has risen from the tension between the marginalised Jewish communities and the dominant and unwelcoming nation state.
Problematically, however, many Jewish groups critical of Israel also adopt the human-rights framework as the basis of their activism, not just their critique of Zionism.
Correctly in my view, he points out that this is not necessarily the way Palestinians understand their struggle.
Thus, within the Israeli-critical Jewish movements there remains a struggle against the privileging of Jewish voices and identity over Palestinian rights and the Palestinian voice in what is — after all — their struggle.
Landy explores the rise of various Israel-critical Jewish groups across the diaspora internationally, and how they have engaged with the larger struggle.
This struggle is composed of solidarity campaigning and, of course, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) targetting Israel.
These groups (such as Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Against the Occupation and Jews for Justice) are generally constituted of members who have previously been activists in other social justice movements.
They remain ostracised by established groups within the Jewish community by Zionist groups, but they are transforming the discourse.
It is more difficult for Zionist organisations to insist that the Zionist voice is the only Jewish voice, especially with the rise of greater diversity within the Zionist identified groups (such as the liberal Zionist J-street in the US, which opposes settlements and was critical of the Gaza massacre).
The nature of the discourse and what constitutes acceptable criticism of Israel is being transformed by this diversity.
Dissent has been legitimised, although Jewish Zionist organisations continue to try to define the limits of acceptable criticism.
However, they are no longer able to enforce either Jewish silence or complete conflation of Jewish with Zionist.
Landy describes the increasingly difficult terrain within which the Israel-critical movement is operating, and offers up solidarity as the solution for the self-referential arrogance of identity politics (unless used as a tactic).
In other words, he challenges the Jewish critics of Israel to move beyond an internal frame of reference towards recognition of the Palestinian “other” as an equal political actor.
Landy points out that Palestinian civil society has initiated the call for BDS as the strategy for ending the occupation. Therefore Israel-critical Diaspora Jewish groups must inevitably adopt BDS as the tactic to repudiate Zionism and challenge Israeli occupation and colonisation.
He concludes by saying: “They have established a praxis through which diaspora Jews may one day no longer be a barrier to Palestinian freedom, but may instead proceed down the path that these people have begun to model: that of walking WITH Palestinians in their struggle for liberation while fashioning a new future for themselves in the diaspora.”
I know that when I sat with my Palestinian scarf in a church filled with more than 1000 Zionists, my Jewish identity was subordinate to my political identity as an activist and a Friend of Palestine.
[Victoria Martin-Iverson is a member of Friends of Palestine WA, a member of the Jewish diaspora critical of Israel and a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign targeting Israel.]