Reflections After New Orleans: What Makes A Liberal?

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February 27, 2011

“What do you think of this whole extravaganza?” I asked the young Hillel student who was sitting behind me. We were in the plenary where Netanyahu was slated to speak in less than an hour. “I came with a friend because we wanted to volunteer our time here in New Orleans and help in the reconstruction efforts,” she said. “I really don’t know what to think about all this”– she gestured towards the gigantic stage, the jumbo screens, the TV cameras, and the flags. We were about to witness the central event of the General Assembly, as the security screening, the hour-long wait, and the hysterical seat-grabbing indicated. I would love to hear her opinion now, after Netanyahu’s speech, after we unfurled signs and got violently ejected from the venue.

It’s been more than a month since I joined more than a dozen young Jewish activists in New Orleans, where we spent time sharing ideas and experiences, and successfully agitated the American Jewish community into conversation. The Hillel delegate I talked to before Netanyahu’s speech may not have shared our resolve, but her puzzlement when faced with a nationalist spectacle indicates the disconnect between the Jewish establishment and its young constituents.

The other clear sign that American Jews, at least, need a new way of thinking about Israel has come from the overwhelming amount of support those of us who protested against Netanyahu at the GA received for our actions; I have been giddily watching our provocation turn into a discussion. Sometimes it seems as if what we went to New Orleans to say was already on the tip of so many people’s tongues. I was surprised when we looked over my shoulder and saw so many inspired young Jewish and Palestinian allies.

Yet I also noticed that many commentators tried to squeeze our protest into a narrative that did not fit, centered on the myth of the Green Line). The best example came from Ha’aretz columnist Bradley Burston, who wrote a column in the wake of our protest that was republished in the Huffington Post. Describing an ideological split in the Jewish world, Burston writes that “the fault lines dividing Jew from Jew extend directly from the Green Line, the pre-1967 war border that divided Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.” On one side of the fault line are the “Jews of the Gate,” enlightened, secular and reasonable, “liberal in outlook, open in faith.” On the other side are the dark forces of the “Jews of the Wall” who are “pro-occupation, pro-settlement” ideologues who hold the moderate Jewish majority hostage to its religious and ultra-nationalist agenda.

Burston’s division of Jews into two camps is obviously simplistic. However, the ideological dichotomy he describes is a distraction from the more crucial direction of his argument, his use of the Green Line to define the origin of this Jewish schism. By suggesting that the Green Line is the root of current woe, Burson participates in the folklore of a pre-1967 enlightened Israeli socialist utopia. What is elided in this story is Israel’s violent and oppressive history that precedes 1967. By focusing on this nostalgic, imaginary past, liberal Jews have convinced each other that returning to the Green Line would restore Israel’s moral compass and provide a final divorce from all that is Arab.

Beautiful Israel

These days, it is hard to believe, but contemporary liberal Zionism has its roots in Israel’s founding class, who were predominantly socialist. Egalitarianism and workers’solidarity on Kibbutz communities set a worldwide example of a supposed utopia, but the contrast between these ideals and the daily realities in the young state were often stark. Mizrahi Jews were banished from centers of power to the periphery (both socially and geographically); a declared state of emergency kept the remnant Palestinian population under military occupation for the first 18 years of the state, and land expropriation laws that favored Jews over non-Jews, excluded Palestinian citizens entirely from urban and agrarian development. Meanwhile, the military actively persecuted reunited Palestinian families and refugees returning to their homestead through the porous borders and conducted bloody and vengeful cross-border raids. All this is recounted, along with the political repression and co-option of the local Palestinian leadership, in Hillel Cohen’s book Good Arabs. This reality created a cognitive dissonance in the Israeli Left where the prevailing values often contradicted the immoral reality that provided immense material benefit for Israel’s socialist ruling class.

The 1967 war solved the Israeli Left’s dissonance, or at least made it less apparent. The newly acquired territories allowed the occupation to be externalized beyond the Green Line, to be dealt with in purely moral terms without direct consequences to Israeli society’s status quo, specifically the white Ashkenazi ruling class’s material gain. The objection to the new occupation’s injustices became a clean, simple, and convenient issue. The Green Line has since been canonized as the centerpiece of the anti-occupation struggle and has gained mystical and cultural value within liberal Zionism.

Once the occupation moved beyond the border, the dilemmas preceding 1967 were soon forgotten, and in their place grew a collective “new nostalgia,” a term Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav coined in several articles. The Left began yearning for a small Israel, an Israel before 1967, before the settlements, before the military occupation, an Israel that was more just, and less violent. This is a longing for an Israel in its Golden Age - for an Israel that was Jewish, Ashkenazi, and secular, an Israel that was ruled by the Labor movement, before the religious and Mizrahi elements in Israel challenged its institutions, an Israel that was still part of Europe, before it was overwhelmed by “the Orient.” It is a longing for “Beautiful Israel,” an Israel western and normative. As Yossi Beilin said, “all that I am trying to do is to make it so my grandchildren could live in this country like I did, in the most tranquil and beautiful decade it knew, 1957-1967.”

Was that a beautiful decade for Palestinian Israelis who lived under martial law and curfews? Of course not. In these Israeli Left’s dreams, the inequities and much of the oppression preceding 1967 are never directly addressed. If mentioned at all, these actions are dissolved into the national consensus, regarded as a necessary evil that has passed.

Jews of the Iron Wall

With the shelving of the peace process in 2000, and its promise to return Israel to its “humble” and “just” origins, Israel’s Left lost its pet project and rejoined the Israeli consensus, its socialist origins long abandoned. However, the Green Line mythology did not die with the peace process. It has prevailed, not as a bilateral international border, but as an aspiration for a unilateral ethnic separation, a threshold that separates the West from the Orient. The Green Line persists, not in its contours on a map drawn in the 1949 Rhodes armistice agreement, but as the boundary of every Jewish frontier and community.

The goal of separation is not a departure from any previous “peace camp” dogma. The debate in Israeli politics was never about whether Israel must maintain Jewish demographic superiority: that always has been the consensus. The debate instead has surrounded the means − humanistic, consensual separation or forced emigration of Palestinians? In the last decade this debate has mostly been settled. Israel has found ”no partner” in consensual separation, and forced emigration has met moral abhorrence abroad. And so, a hybrid has been born: forced separation, a plan in which Israel would retain the maximum amount of resources and territory with the minimum non-Jewish population. This is the resolution that allows the heirs of Israel’s Left to be in coalition with the quasi-Fascist Right. Burston’s “Jews of the Wall” and “Jews of the Gate” are coalescing to form the Jews of the iron wall.

In 1923 Ze’ev Jabotinsky published an article titled “The Iron Wall,” in which he argued for the need for an impenetrable iron wall behind which the Jewish state could form, a wall that the local population would “be powerless to break down.” He believed the area’s Arab population would only “begin bargaining with us on practical matters” when they had lost all hope. Thirteen years later, Ben Gurion came to the same conclusion: “A comprehensive agreement is undoubtedly out of the question now. For only after total despair on the part of the Arabs, despair that will come not only from the failure of disturbances and the attempt at rebellion, but also as a consequence of our own growth in the country, may the Arabs possibly acquiesce in a Jewish Eretz Israel.” The iron wall doctrine provides the cornerstone for Israeli foreign and military policy to this day, as Avi Shlaim argues in his book, identically titled The Iron Wall.

The iron wall policy is a means to an end, although the Israeli Right often interprets it as an end in itself. The iron wall policy concludes with a peace agreement between victor and vanquished, where a Jewish state is founded and nurtured, not within its surroundings, but despite its surroundings. The goal of this kind of peace is subjugation, not coexistence. This is where the peace process will take us, led by the “Jews of the Iron Wall.” We will arrive in a reality where we are destined to live in a ghetto of our own making with a “democracy” upheld by race laws and a permanent state of emergency.

The irony of Burston’s analogy is that it depends on idioms of separation: “borders,” “fault lines,” and “division.” Dividing who from whom? Burston is pitting the secular, Western, and enlightened, “liberal in outlook, open in faith,” (Jews of the Gate) against the dark forces of religion and ultra-nationalism led by newcomers, unauthentic Israelis, Soviet emigres - “a Sharansky-driven Jewish Agency and a Lieberman-driven Foreign Ministry” (Jews of the Wall). Burston employs the Green Line as a metaphor for the fault line dividing these two ideologies. This same Green Line is the life and blood of the “peace camp,” the mystic marker and the seductive belief that once we return to its contours (bosom) we will restore history from its tragic derailment back in 1967.

Young Jewish Love

What brought me along with others to protest at the Jewish General Assembly in New Orleans? Burston might call us “Jews of the Gate,” attempting to be “true to their Judaism and their love of Israel.” Our Judaism is something worthy of being true to, but our “love of Israel”?

Some of us love Israel, and some of us don’t. That kind of “love of Israel” is not what defines us as young Jewish Americans and Israelis.

I would like to offer an alternative motivation, one that derives from a love we do all share. We love our families and our fellow Jews. We love Israelis and we love Palestinians. In short, the love that defines us is our love of people, not of a flag, an anthem, or a state. This is the love that brought us to New Orleans. We shouted, we made an ugly scene, we were angry. We are angry.

Our movement does not talk in the language of nationalism. You won’t hear anthems, you rarely see flags. We speak for human rights and social justice: this is the language of young Jewish America. The welfare of Israelis is inviolable; the rights of Palestinians are sacred. But states are mundane. The Jewish Federations of North America could spend more millions re-branding Israel, sending us on free trips and coating it all in chocolate, but we will put our faith in people, not in governments: we believe in Jewish ideals, not in empty symbols of nationalism. Our Judaism does not require us to “love Israel”: it requires us to love our fellow humans, Palestinian or Israeli, Jewish or not. We will remain true to our Judaism, with or without the local Hillel’s support.

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