Saturday, July 01, 2017

How To Be a Non-Antisemitic Anti-Zionist

I've long maintained that is perfectly possible, in concept, to be anti-Zionist without being antisemitic (under reasonable definitions of both "Zionism" and "antisemitic"). The simplest way of doing this is through a sort of principled anarchism which objects to anybody having a state. In that case, "anti-Zionism" is not really a specific identity so much as it is the application of a general principle objecting to the existence of states to a particular state that happens to be Jewish -- and the principle doesn't operate materially differently with respect to Arab, or Japanese, or Mexican states.

Concept doesn't always (or, in my estimation, even often) translate into practice of course. And it is not a form of "censorship" or "cheating" to insist that if one wants to radically oppose the manner in which most Jews believe in their collective liberation, it might actually require hard work and difficult, nuanced judgments demanding deep knowledge of and attentiveness to Jewish histories and experiences. Saying that there can be non-antisemitic anti-Zionism doesn't compel the conclusion that it should be easy to do it.

That said, if you want a sketch on what non-antisemitic anti-Zionism might look like in the wild, you could do worse than reading this post by Jewdas (a British-based Jewish anarchist organization) commenting on the aftermath of the Chicago Dyke March fiasco.

I put this post forward not because I "endorse" it. I'm not an anti-Zionist nor an anarchist, I don't find the existence of Israel to be an embarrassment (though I certainly find a decent chunk of its actions to be so), and I have my share of objections to the "New Diasporism" model they are promoting -- not the least of which is my skepticism that the model adequately accounts for patterns of antisemitism in practice.

But what I can say is that theirs is a principled position that can be argued against on the basis of principled reasons. It is not a ticket good for the Jewish ride only (that brand of anti-Zionism can jump in a lake). It takes Jewish experience and Jewish communal life seriously, and offers a serious accounting of alternatives to collective living through a state. I might not find their alternative compelling or persuasive, but that's a far tamer and more prosaic objection than I'd level at the standard-issue forms of anti-Zionism that, say, justify expelling Jewish marchers because they have a Star of David on their rainbow flag.


Adar said...

Hi David, big fan of your blog! So naturally, the first time I comment is to contradict you :)

There's a couple of things that I think worth highlighting both about Jewdas in general and about this comment in particular.

The first thing is that the opening of their post - their description of Zionism and Zionist Jews - struck me as almost identical to the arrogant, condescending dismissal some Haredi Jews employ towards secular Jews in Israel. Jewdas not only don't know what (the wide range of) Israeli Zionism looks like, they also don't bother with the "hard work and difficult, nuanced judgments", but simply build a strawman Israeli Zionist. You may disagree, of course, but this is what struck me most when I read their piece - how they reminded me of those Haredi who deny the on-going, living Jewish identity of secular Israeli Jews to assert their own superiority.

The second thing is that this relates directly to things you've - eloquently - said about JVP and setting one group as the Good Jews against all the Bad Jews and how this is an inherently unattainable position. This is what Jewdas strike me as doing, not only because of this article, but also knowing their track record on Labour antisemitism (they're the Good Jews who claim that the whole thing is a smear and there's no systematic antisemitism in the Labour party), and the actions of their student org, Jewdents, who attempted during the NUS conference earlier this year to strike down a motion that said that the definition of antisemitism should be up to Jewish students. In other words, what sets them apart from JVP in this case is not that their anti-Zionism is somehow more coherent or principled nor that they are better equipped to stand up to antisemites, it's that the Chicago Dyke March organisers, who are Americans, are not their allies, since they are a British org, and therefore they don't find themselves pressured by their allies to be a cover for antisemitism - in this case. They have taken that role in the past, and so I'm afraid they simply are more of an example of how anti-Zionists can stand up to antisemitism only when the antisemitism isn't coming from those they are affiliated with.

David Schraub said...

I take both critiques. The opening of the essay left a sour taste in my mouth and nearly poisoned the rest. Clearly, I feel quite comfortable in how I'm "living" my Judaism as a Zionist who doesn't own a gun and (more or less happily) lives in the diaspora. The second is disappointing to hear, and I'm inclined to believe your hypothesis that the distinction most likely comes from who they are "affiliated with" and the critical distance they're able to bring from across the pond. That said, this essay is an example of what they should be doing -- as opposed to their domestic activities which sound generally destructive.

Thanks for delurking!

Adar said...

I absolutely agree with your point - the majority of the essay is exactly how principled anti-Zionism should look like (and is very different from what JVP said during the Alison Weir fiasco) and a lot of my frustration with organisations like Jewdas and JfJfP would not have existed if it reflected a consistent position.

On a personal level, as a person who started my journey assuming that of course anti-Zionism does not equal antisemitism, did not define myself as Zionist (and am still not quite sure where I fall on the scale), and considered joining JfJfP when I moved out of Israel, this is what frustrates me the most: that a principled anti-Zionism that does not contradict Jewish self determination does not seem to consistently exist outside of theory, and that there doesn't seem to be an organised anti-Zionism that Jews can choose without compromising on other values.

Unknown said...

Just to say, as somebody in the Jewdas group, that I don't think it's fair to say we're soft on antisemitism in Britain. We were very open about our opposition to Ken Livingstone - and got far more heat for that than we have done for this. I don't know the details of the Jewdents motion (students are autonomous), but I thought the objection was to classing criticism of Israel as a Jewish state as antisemitism? Letting Jews work ot out on a case-by-case basis doesn't sound like something they'd oppose...

Adar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adar said...

Hi Lev,

I haven't lived in the UK for a number of years so I got this second hand, which of course can lead to mistakes. My impression about Jewdas re: Labour antisemitism was that they don't believe that there's a systematic problem in the Labour party regarding antisemitism, and what I saw as arguing that cases such as Livingstone's were individual in nature and ended with the specific perpetrators, and did not point to a larger institutional problem. My impression came in part from documents such as these, which, while not released by Jewdas, seem to me to be speaking for Jewdas:

My own experience both when I was living in the UK and now in Canada is that this is indeed the dominant attitude of anti-Zionist organisations, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and that this attitude is one of the mechanisms that allow antisemitism to spread in left wing/ progressive circles - you may disagree, of course, but this has been my experience, and one of the reasons I am frustrated with organisations such as Jewdas.

If this is a mischaracterisation of Jewdas' position, I will be thrilled to retract what I said about Jewdas and unreservedly apologise (and of course, I am also aware that there is a variety of opinions within Jewdas, in both directions).

Regarding Jewdents - again, second hand information, if you have different information I'd love to hear it! - my understanding is that students from Jewdents, in addition to the debate around the IHRA definition of antisemitism, also tried to amend the motion regarding fighting antisemitism as to remove clause 12 - "Jewish students have the right to define what they constitute as antisemitism, as per the Macpherson principle which NUS upholds." (p. 68 in this document: )

Anyway, I'll step back now as to not take over David's blog. That's one of the reasons I tend to lurk rather than comment... (previous comment deleted to phrase things in a less partisan way....)

Unknown said...

Hi Adar,

JSG are our friends and allies. We tend to disagree with them on very little. From what I can tell all they're saying in relation to us there is that anti-Zionism need not necessarily be antisemitic and that Jewishness need not necessarily be defined by a relationship to Israel. I think it's safe to say we'd all agree with that.

On the question of whether antisemitism is a systemic or individual issue, I think any Marxist would be absolutely insistent that the issue is systemic. I'd disagree that there is a specific form of antisemitism that's institutional to the left - I see it coming out everywhere in every political stripe. It's everybody's problem and everyone has to deal with it. That's why I'd agree with JSG when they say it's been weaponised - certain people in the Labour right were treating Jews and antisemitism as political footballs, rather than working with people to address the issues. Thankfully a lot of that seems to have calmed down now.