Philo/Anti/Semitism/Zionism
March 20, 2012

The official logo of Taglit-Birthright Israel

The official logo of Taglit-Birthright Israel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Max Ajl at Jacobin Magazine circulates an open letter from the US Palestinian Community Network asking Palestinian solidarity activists to disavow the anti-Semitic ideas of one Gilad Atzmon. I was struck by this passage, describing Atzmon’s offenses [emphasis mine]:

Atzmon’s politics rest on one main overriding assertion that serves as springboard for vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with his obsession with “Jewishness”. He claims that all Jewish politics is “tribal,” and essentially, Zionist. Zionism, to Atzmon, is not a settler-colonial project, but a trans-historical “Jewish” one, part and parcel of defining one’s self as a Jew. Therefore, he claims, one cannot self-describe as a Jew and also do work in solidarity with Palestine, because to identify as a Jew is to be a Zionist. We could not disagree more. Indeed, we believe Atzmon’s argument is itself Zionist because it agrees with the ideology of Zionism and Israel that the only way to be a Jew is to be a Zionist.

That’s exactly right and tracks with my experience on Birthright. The message of every Birthright representative I encountered in Israel (and quite a few Israelis who weren’t Birthright representatives) was that Israel was my home, whether I knew it or not, and that I basically had no choice in the matter. But what really drove home the basic proposition of Birthright Zionism — the Judaism is Zionism and vice versa — was an afternoon spent at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where our tour guide explained to us how Theodore Herzl become the first modern Zionist.

Herzl had originally been a journalist, and it was in that capacity that he covered the century-old French Jew-burning we know as the Dreyfus Affair. Watching Dreyfus be wrongfully convicted simply for being a Jew, our tour guide explained, was what taught Herzl that “the experiment in being both French and Jewish was over.”

That’s a pretty remarkable statement if taken to its logical conclusion. If the experiment of being French and Jewish is over, what does that say for the experiment of being American and Jewish? English and Jewish? Brazilian and Jewish? Are these all doomed to failure, or are they already pretty much over as well?

Forget “dual loyalty.” If I’m not really an American — if I’m just a Jew pretending to be an American — then why have any loyalty to the United States at all? What the tour guide seemed to be advocating was not dual loyalty but singular loyalty to the Jewish nation and the state of Israel.

I almost hesitate to relate that anecdote, because it so easily plays into some of the ugliest anti-Semitic stereotypes alive today. I have no doubt that Atzmon, for example, would take it as confirmation of his analysis. But that’s the point: right-wing Zionist attempts to define Jewish authenticity are the curious flipside of modern anti-Semitism. Not only does it give support to those who would equate Judaism with support for militarism and oppression — it also creates a class of Jews who can be despised for their “inauthenticity,” both by conservative Zionist Jews and and their Christian philo-Semitic allies. (Oh hai, Glenn Beck.)

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Back in the Diaspora
February 6, 2012

Tel Aviv

At around 6 AM this morning my plane touched down at JFK, and I resumed life in the real world. It will take some time before my thoughts are organized enough — and I’ve caught up on sleep enough — to make sense of the ten days I spent Birthrighting through Israel, but I thought I’d jot down some preliminary thoughts and assure you all that I hadn’t gone native.

For the last couple of weeks before I took off for the Holy Land, my mantra was: “Even if it’s terrible, it’s gonna be awesome.” Turns out I was being uncharacteristically prescient. The last ten days have been both sababa (Hebrew for awesome) and very much a balagan (loosely translated: a total clusterfuck). Never before I have felt so exhausted, exhilarated, inspired, dispirited, connected, and alone in such a compressed span of time. You might say it was a rich experience. Certainly an educational one.

Which is not to say that it was educational in the way I believe Birthright’s administration intended it to be. I have no interest in moving to Israel, nor in financially supporting the Israeli state, nor in becoming a mouthpiece for the Likkud Party. I stand by my pre-Birthright conviction that my Jewish heritage gives me no right or claim on the land of Israel, and that I would reject such a claim were it offered to me. My sentiments regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (which are — surprise! — significantly to the left of Birthright’s) remain more or less what they were, though I’ve managed to add just a little bit more nuance.

So my relationship with Israel remains more or less unchanged. But the personal relationships I formed in that week and a half have affected me deeply, and my relationship to Judaism writ large has altered in ways I’m still trying to parse. That’s not to say I’ve found God — far from it. But I may have found a suitable (which is to say, humanistic and godless) entry point back into the Jewish philosophy and theology I abandoned nearly a decade ago.

The tricky part is untangling all these separate threads — the personal, political, and (for lack of a better word) spiritual — and weaving something coherent out of them. Once I can do that, I’ll have a lot — a lot – more to write, either here or elsewhere, about what a Birthright trip can do to your brain. Or mostly my brain, I suppose.

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