Two Assumptions on Antisemitism - Rosh haShanah 5779

This derashah was delivered at St. Albans Masorti Synagogue on Day 1 Rosh haShanah 5779

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A week ago on Sunday, I attended the Jewish Labour Movement’s second annual day-long conference. All day there were fascinating and intense discussions and speeches from leaders of the Jewish community, of the Labour party, etc. Some of you may have seen the emotional speech Gordon Brown gave or heard on the news about the programme of the day– and it was truly impressive. To see so many people, of all backgrounds, gathering together to fight anti-semitism in inspiring. Yet, the most transformative encounter I had did not happen in the lecture halls or breakout rooms of the conference- but on bench on Finchley Road, a mile and a half away.

During the break for lunch, I decided to stretch my legs and ended up in St. Johns Wood. Having picked up lunch, I sat down on a bench facing Finchley road to eat it, while listening to music and enjoying the beautiful not-quite-Autumn day. A few minutes later, a man enters my peripheral vision with his hand outstretched- obviously asking for food. Without really looking up, I offered him part of my lunch, although with a moment’s hesitation– as the only bit remaining was the Victoria sponge cake. Regardless, rather than take my proffered food, the man began to talk to me.

Looking up and removing my headphones, I saw he was probably in his mid-60s, and with obvious Muslim dress. He introduced himself as Ahmad and clarified that he was just joking. Evidently, he does this often- walking up to sitting people and seeing if they’ll offer him food. I asked, ‘well, does it usually work?’ He replied, in somewhat broken English: ‘Yeah, almost everyone gives me food. Well, everyone except the Jews- you must not be a Jew.’

Without missing a beat, I removed my hat, showed him my kippah and said, ‘Not only am I a Jew, I’m a rabbi!’ Surprised, he sat down, and we spent a few minutes talking. He still didn’t quite believe my Hebraic credentials. He asked: ‘Okay, so you’re Jewish - but you must not be a Zionist right?’ Once again- ‘Actually, I am quite a Zionist.’ Immediately he retorted, ‘So, you want to kill all the Palestinians?’ I began to try and explain that a) I don’t, and b) it’s because I’m a Zionist that I don’t. Because I’m a Zionist and a Jew I want peace for my people and for the Palestinians. Surprisingly sated by this answer, he went on to tell me how, ‘…we’re actually cousins, you know?’ The children of Yitzẖak and the children of Yishma’él, sitting together on a bench, all those years later.

I excused myself, as I had to head back to Finchley- and he warmly wished me goodbye, and assured me I had changed his perceptions of Jews, and perhaps even of Zionists. He said: ‘I guess I can’t say Jews don’t offer me food anymore!’ and he blessed me in Arabic as I left.

Despite all of the many important conversations going on in Finchley that day– I don’t believe any were as critical to fighting anti-semitism as my chat with Ahmad on a bench a mile and a half away. He demonstrated so well the two assumptions that are at the heart of contemporary left-wing antisemitism, that sort of this ancient hatred that’s been making headlines. There’s two key things which Ahmad believed which undermine the anti-racist claims of the people who share them: 1) A good Jew must not be a Zionist, and 2) A Zionist can’t be in favour of peace.

I’d like to try and address each of these in order to try and find some place from which we can stand and can speak about anti-semitism.

A Good Jew Must Not Be A Zionist

This assumption is absolutely elemental to the world-view of many left-wing thinkers, and it is not a historical novelty for it to be so. Two examples serve to illustrate the history of the ‘good Jew’ myth in left-wing politics;

  • Soviet Union: Yevsekstiya. The Yevsekstiya was the organisation established by Bolshevik leadership in the early days after the revolution to represent Jewish communities. Having rejected the Bund for being insufficiently revolutionary and for being too attached to Jewish culture, the Soviet leadership instead empowered a small group of young radical Jews to form the Yevsekstiya, whose stated mission was: was the "destruction of traditional Jewish life, the Zionist movement, and Hebrew culture". For years they rampaged through Jewish communities, burning synagogues, arresting rabbis, and destroying anything even remotely evocative of Hebrew or Zionism. These young Jews eagerly attacked Jewish communities, and in doing so provided cover to Bolshevik politicians, who could respond to accusations of Antisemitism by pointing out that the Yevsekstiya was made up of Jews themselves. If Jews were fighting Jews about these questions– then surely it couldn’t be Antisemitism to take the side of the ‘good Jews.’ Unsurprisingly, even the ‘good Jews’ of the Yevsekstiya were later purged (that is, executed) under Stalin’s Great Terror for being suspiciously too close to the people they had destroyed, despite their many protestations that they were good and faithful communists.

  • Poland: Meanwhile, after WWII, Poland saw the creation of a communist government which promised hope and security for the small Jewish community that survived the mass extermination within Poland’s borders. Yet, by 1967, Jews’ association with Israel meant that they were suspect– it was no longer enough to be a good communist, you now had to prove you weren’t a Zionist to be a good Jew. On 19 June 1967, Polish premier Władysław Gomułka gave a famous speech in which he said: “Since the Israeli aggression on the Arab countries was met with applause in Zionist circles of Jews... I wish to announce the following: ….we maintain that every Polish citizen should have only one fatherland: People's Poland. This view is supported by the overwhelming majority of Polish citizens of Jewish descent, who faithfully serve our country. Every citizen of our country has the same rights, but also the same responsibilities toward People's Poland. But we cannot remain indifferent toward people, who in the face of a threat to world peace, and thus also to the security of Poland and the peaceful work of our nation, come out in favor of the aggressor, the wreckers of peace, and imperialism….We do not want a fifth Column to be created in our country." In the Wake of Gomułka’s speech, 13,000 Jews emigrated from anti-racist, socialist Poland, with those who remained being purged from the party, kept from work and universities, and facing universal discrimination.

These two examples serve to show, hopefully, that the notion that ‘good Jews’ will oppose Zionism (which is clearly bad) is not one new to left-wing thinking. Because the anti-racist left rightly opposes any Imperialism, Zionism is assumed to be one in the same. This is a critical flaw: Zionism is not Imperialism. Imperialism is a foreign people who have no racial or historical connection to a place invading it in order to oppress the local native population and exploit natural resources. Jews are neither foreign to the land of Israel nor are they without many and plentiful historic and racial connections to it.

The assumption that there are the ‘good Jews’ who oppose Zionism (which is bad) is one we’ve seen in our own circumstance now repeatedly. How many times do media sources eagerly pick up on someone who is willing to defame Zionism and defend those accused of antisemitism by writing the seemingly innocuous clause: ‘X, who himself is Jewish…. ‘Jewishness has become an insurance policy, and those on the outside who don’t know any better are eager to display some of us as the ‘good Jews’ despite the apparent absurdity of such a distinction.

Sadly we don’t have to look far for an example of this in our own time: Jewish Voice for Labour is a fringe group set up by a handful primary members, specifically to comment on this current crisis. Meanwhile, the Jewish Labour Movement is a over a hundred years old, was a founding partner of the Labour party itself, and boasts thousands of active and engaged members. Yet, on every interview, every street protest, the media is eager to present that- ‘even within the Jewish community this is a hot debate.’ JVL has gotten as much airtime as JLM, and has been allowed to speak for the ‘good Jews’ far too often.

To counter this assumption we need to deal with what Zionism is in the first place. Let us be really clear about this: Zionism is nothing other than the belief that Jews have a right to national self-determination. That’s it- it’s not complicated. If you believe every nation has a right to decide its own fate, then you’re a Zionist. You don’t have to agree with the Israeli government, you don’t have to defend Israeli history, and you certainly don’t need to advocate for policies like settlements and military intervention- that is not the only way to be a Zionist. There are innumerable ways to be a Zionist, because Zionism is simply the notion that Jews are a nation and deserve the rights of every nation.

Thus, when we recycle the assumption that ‘Good Jews must not be Zionists’ what we are saying is that the ‘good Jews’ are the ones willing to forgo their own national interest, the ones who apologise for their difference rather than assert it. The danger of that should be obvious- and it leads us to our second assumption:

A Zionist Must Not Be in Favour of Peace

Ahmad’s second assumption was that if I say I’m a Zionist, it must mean that I’m in favour of exterminating the Palestinians. I never thought I would have to explain why this isn’t the case, but that is the world we now live in. This should not be a radical idea, but here goes: You can be a Zionist and be in favour of peace. Moreover- if you are truly concerned with the best interest of the Jewish people and their right to a national home you should be in favour of peace.

We have fallen into this trap of childish self-assignment to ‘sides’ like in a schoolyard football match. We are told we must be either on ‘Team Israel’ or ‘Team Palestine.’ We are told they are mutually exclusive, that there are no options which bridge this absurd divide of interests. We are told it is a zero-sum game, if the Palestinians gain the Israelis lose, and if the Israelis gain the Palestinians lose. This is utter bullshit.

When I consider the conflict in Israel/Palestine, my criterion for what is ‘good’ is pretty simple, I just ask myself: ‘Does this action advance the cause of peace?’ If so, I’m for it. If not, then not. It’s that easy. I believe that the settlement project, left unchecked, is a barrier to peace not a vanguard of it, thus I am against settlement expansion. I believe Hamas is unable to actually move towards non-violent resistance and a peaceful resolution of the conflict, thus I am against them because they do not further peace. That is all we must evaluate: will this further peace? That is all we must ask ourselves.

Thus the true binary in this conflict is not pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, there is no Team Israel and no Team Palestine- there is Team Peace and there’s Team Strife. There are people and policies on both sides of the conflict who actively seek to encourage strife and conflict, or at their most benign, accept a status quo which itself furthers conflict. Similarly, there are people and ideas on both sides whose primary goal is to reach a peaceful settlement of it. I am with those people- regardless of what their identity card says or where they live. They can be settlers, like the late R’ Menachem Froman or Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, Jews or not, Zionists or not- what matters is whether they are working towards a just and final peace between two equal partners.

So, you can be a Zionist and for peace- arguably, in order to be a Zionist you may need to be on Team Peace- and you can be a ‘good Jew’ and also be a Zionist, because Zionism is only the idea that Jews are people too.

How can you tell if a policy or person is an antisemite? The test is easier than you might think- it’s a single yes or no question: Do you believe that Jews have a right to national self-determination just as other nations do? If yes, then you are a Zionist, because Zionism only means that. You may be a Zionist opposed to the Likud, you may be a Zionist who wants a two-state solution or a one-state solution. If you answered no to that question, then you are an anti-semite. It’s that simple.

Well, you might say, what if I’m someone that doesn’t believe in ‘nations’ or ‘nationalism’ and opposes Jewish self-determination equally with all other nations? In which case, you really can’t have much stake in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict at all, as the Palestinian cause is an exclusively national one. Assuming you are not as radical as that- you may find that you are a pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-Peace person, as I think is right to be. All 3 of those are required. You cannot be 1) Pro-Israel and 2) Pro-Peace without being Pro-Palestinian, because there can be no just peace that doesn’t recognise the rights of Palestinians. Similarly- and this is the lesson that our comrades may need to hear- you cannot be 1) Pro-Palestinian and 2) Pro-Peace without being Pro-Israel because there is no just peace which erases the national self-determination of Jews.

So, is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? Yes. That does not mean that being opposed to Israeli policy or actions or history or ideology is anti-Semitism. But, if you find yourself denying the right of national self-determination to Jews while granting it to others, you are an anti-semite. To hope that Israel and Palestine both move towards a peaceful resolution is essential. To describe the founding of Israel as an ‘inherently racist endeavour,’ as some may want to do- is anti-semitic, and perhaps even more critically, it is not helping to further peace. Team Peace is the place to be and it involves being pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, and most importantly, pro-Peace. That is the only team which can win.

I don’t know if I changed Ahmad’s mind for good, but I certainly was able to challenge his ideas about Jews, Zionism, and peace. Who knows, maybe our brief encounter on a London bench may have won him over to Team Peace- but there are many more to win over, Israelis, Palestinians, and British alike. Go out and recruit, go out and change minds, go out and challenge the assumptions which lead us all further away from the resolution of conflict which we all desire. Join me on Team Peace– here’s to victory in 5779.

Shanah Tovah.