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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2 Responses

  1. “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?”

    The questions cannot be answered, if ever, until you have carefully defined the key terms, especially since the main question returns to the “what does it mean to be Jewish?” If you don’t know what you mean by “Jewish” or “American,” how can you possibly know whether or not it is or ever was or might someday be possible to be both American and Jewish, both Brazilian and Jewish, etc.? Another layer of confusion is added if you consider that “being American” isn’t quite the same thing as “being English” either. Put differently, if I could “be” English in the same way that I could “be” American, then there wouldn’t “be” any “essential” difference between being English and being American: They would not be two different modes of “being” at all. They would be utterly, definitionally meaningless distinctions – like random vestigial mutations.

    Instead, people live and die for those differences, and attribute meaning to their lives and deaths according to them. The element of paradox and self-contradiction arises when you consider the underlying trans-nationalist aspirations of monotheism and its heir, secular modernism. It is, in a sense, impossible to be “fully” Jewish (or Muslim, or Christian, or for that matter Buddhist) and also to be fully English or Brazilian, because the “eternal” is for all peoples. The Jews according to messianic Judaism (possibly a redundancy) are the keepers of a transnational message and promise – but the same is true for ideological Americanism as well as Christianity. They may even be the same transnational message, with contemporary Christian Zionism being the bonsai version of something actually quite essential about the historical and philosophical commonalities and deeper coherence of messianic Judaism, its daughter faiths Christianity, Islam, and their successor Secular Modernism.

    Atzmon and Beck actually have a lot in common: They break the surface of conventional discourse and stumble into the gaps between it and its subtext, releasing some of the energy whose suppression was the half-forgotten purpose of the conventions they violate.

  2. The interesting thing is that Ajl kind of gets Atzmon precisely backwards. Atzmon says less that to be a Jew is to be a Zionist than to be a Zionist is to be a Jew — and it’s the latter term that’s (to Atzmon) the primary sin. Atzmon makes quite clear that it’s Jewishness, not “Zionism” per se, that is the target of his ire — and he defines Jewishness effectively as illiberal tribalism. The wrongful act is “acting Jewishly under a political banner” — that is, Jews identifying and talking as Jews or from a Jewish vantage point; the political existence of Jews as a community, regardless of ideology. Zionism is one particular manifestation of this ailment (it is a case of Jews acting together under a political banner), but it isn’t the only one — Atzmon is just as contemptuous of Jewish anti-Zionist groups, which also are Jews-qua-Jews acting politically. So it really doesn’t matter to Atzmon whether you are Jewishly Zionist or Jewishly anti-Zionist, so long as you think of yourself as acting Jewishly in your political identity.

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