The Left-Wing Gatekeepers of the American Anti-Israeli Occupation Movement
by Seth Farber
October 7, 2005
After the invasion of Jenin, while the Left in America debated whether the Israeli Army had committed a "massacre" or just an ordinary war crime, I decided that I wanted to protest against the crimes committed by the "Jewish state." Thus I prepared to begin work on a book of interviews with anti-Zionists and non-Zionist Jews. The book is titled Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel (Common Courage Press, 2005). I was keenly aware that the most well known American Jewish critic of the 1967 Israeli occupation is Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing magazine Tikkun. I was not impressed by Lerner’s effort to separate the decades long occupation, dispossession and persecution of the Palestinian people from the mythic and ostensibly innocent era of Israel’s origins and youth, thus legitimating the Zionist project. I decided to put together a book that would serve as an introduction to the anti-Zionist faction of the Jewish anti-occupation movement, much as Lerner’s book Healing Israel/Palestine made the argument for the Zionist wing of the anti-Occupation movement.
In 2002, I also joined Jews Against the Occupation (JATO), a NY group that supported the Palestinian right of return as guaranteed by UN Resolution 194 — that is, the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to the land they fled or were expelled from in 1947/8. My first two interviews were with the prominent leftist scholar Norman Finkelstein, whose most recent book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, is a searing deconstruction of Alan Dershowitz’s book The Case for Israel (and thus of his case), and Ora Wise, a young spokeswoman for JATO whose father was a Conservative rabbi. After I found a publisher I resumed work on the book. One phone call I made in 2004 lingers in my mind because of my exchange with the Jewish scholar to whom I spoke symbolizes for me the problem with the Jewish left in the US today. He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), and a non-Zionist scholar. I told him of my plan for my book and asked if he would agree to an interview. He raised his voice and stated: "You are dividing Jews. What is your political rationale for doing this book?" His tone put me on the defensive. I mentioned that he sounded angry. He did not modulate his voice but repeated, "I am merely asking you what is your political rationale for dividing Jews. Why are you writing this? Tell me what do you hope to accomplish politically! Otherwise how could I agree to an interview." There were a number of thoughts that were clamoring in the forefront of my mind but I decided not to express them because the tone of his voice was forbidding, not genuinely inquisitive.
I could not predict the political effects of my book — how can one ever do that with any degree of certainty? I wanted to make the anti-Zionist argument (against current Israeli policies) known to a larger public because it is the strongest, most cogent, and the most moral argument for opposing the Israeli occupation — and thus for becoming active in the pro-Palestinian movement. Whether it would succeed in mobilizing opposition to Israel — of that I had no way of knowing. But it was an argument that deserved to be heard. How could there be any adverse effects from telling the truth? The Zionist argument that Israel’s cause was noble and was corrupted in 1967 was a falsehood. Why should my book accommodate those whose advocacy was based on illusions? Why should I not tell the unvarnished truth, as ugly as it was?
Had I made such a statement on the phone I suppose the JVP scholar would have repeated: "You are not taking responsibility for the effects of presenting only one side of the argument against the occupation and you are placing a divide in the middle of the Jewish left." But I had a response to that also: "I do not care. It is irrelevant to me that many left-wing Zionists will feel attacked. I believe that one of the virtues of the anti-Zionist argument is that it will appeal to many Palestinians and many Arabs and Moslems who believe quite rightly that the Zionist argument is disingenuous. It is Palestinians and Moslems who are the victims here, and I care more about making an alliance with them on the basis of an acknowledgment of the wrong-doing committed in our name, the name of Jews, than I do about presenting a united front of Jewish leftists to the world." This went through my mind in the few minutes I was on the phone, and I could imagine his voice crescendoing to a vociferous rage. Thus I beat a polite retreat and managed to terminate the conversation.
But I think both of the responses I did not make would have met with the agreement of the persons I interviewed for the book. When I asked JATOite Ora Wise in 2003 (printed in my book) what kind of solution she supported to end the oppression of Palestinians, she responded: " I will follow the lead of my fellow Palestinian activists and intellectuals and the Palestinians living under occupation. I know right now… [that] so many Palestinians living under occupation … just need to get the boot of the Israeli military off their neck — that they’re simply calling for an end to the Occupation. And so I will follow the lead of Palestinians and their communities. …[H]owever, I believe that a two-state solution will never lead to true justice or equality." This is the essence of JATO’s approach. Some in JATO believe a two state solution is the most practical. Others are committed to one secular state for all. And there are other positions, as well. JATO does not hold an organizational position on this issue. Although virtually all of us believe that a Jewish state cannot be fully equitable we uphold the right of Palestinians to determine their own future. It is the Palestinians who were the victims of Israeli colonialism. It is thus the Palestinians to whom we owe our primary political allegiance, not other Jews. JATO upholds the Palestinians’ right of return as affirmed by international law. The question — what will other Jews say? — is irrelevant for Ora, and for all the persons I interviewed. The yardstick for the rectitude of Ora’s public statement and advocacy concerning a peace settlement is not what do other American Jews think, but what kind of settlement do Palestinians want -? within the parameters of a recognition of human rights for all parties.
As progressive Jews our concern should be entering into an alliance with Palestinians, not with reaching an agreement within Jewish ranks (first) of what Palestinians should be offered, or what face Jews should present to the world. More than any other group on the left, Michael Lerner and Tikkun promulgate this latter approach. One has the impression that Lerner is talking in Tikkun only — or primarily — to other Jews. Since from Lerner’s perspective Jews had the right to set up a state in Palestine in the first place, there can be no question of expressing remorse for the dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. Self-respecting Palestinian and Arabs are not interested in an alliance with Lerner — since he defends the "original sins" by which Israel came into existence. Tikkun represents an interest group for progressive Jews, and it thus sets the standards for most non-Jewish progressives of what is acceptable criticism of Israel. (Although Tikkun does publish writers with more radical perspectives than Lerner’s.) The fly in the ointment is that Jews do not need yet another interest group. We need groups that demonstrate to the world that Jews too can place the exigencies of justice over that of bargaining for our "interests" — however progressively defined.
The problem lies within Zionism. Jacqueline Rose, author of the recent book The Question of Zion, would agree. However she confuses matter by referring to those Jews in the 1930s and ’40s who opposed a Jewish state as "Zionists". They were indeed called Zionists at the time, but to call them Zionist now is misleading. Rabbi Judah Magnes, the renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, and the binationalist "Zionist" labor organization Hashomer HaTzair did not support a Jewish state. Today anyone who opposes a Jewish state is considered anti-Zionist. Bi-nationalists were called Zionists before Israel was founded because they were adherents of cultural Zionism — the idea that a Jewish homeland in Palestine would become a center for Jewish culture and fructify Judaism and Jewish culture among diaspora Jews. This vision has been destroyed by the militarism, racism and consumerism of Israeli society. The only Zionists today are political Zionists and — in Israel — religious Zionists. But political Zionism resulted in the ethnic cleansing of over 3 quarters of a million Palestinians in 1947-8. And all of the people interviewed for my book believed that the expulsion of Palestinians and the consequent refusal of Israel to re-patriate them was a moral evil. (Israel reneged on its agreement to let the refugees return as mandated by UN General Assembly Resolution 194 — which Israel originally accepted as a condition for its admission to the UN.)
The persecution of Palestinians by Israel today and historically is rooted in the theory of political Zionism which posited that the land of Palestine belonged to the Jews, and that every Jew was a member of a race and a nation (constituted by Abraham in the Bible) which had a right to create a Jewish state in Palestine. "The Bible is our Mandate," Ben-Gurion, ironically an atheist, stated. The political Zionists had no moral qualms about ethnically-cleansing the land of Arabs, and thus they had no motive to reach an accord with the Palestinians. After the Arab revolt of 1929 Hans Kohn wrote that the Zionist settlers "have not even once made a serious attempt at seeking through negotiations the consent of the indigenous peoples" (cited in The Question of Zion).
In 1937 Ben-Gurion wrote to his adolescent son: "We must expel the Arabs and take their places … and … if we have to use force — not to dispossess the Arabs … but to guarantee our own right to settle in those places — then we have force at our disposal" (cited in Masahla, Nur, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought, Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestinian Studies, p66) At the same time, 1937, that Ben-Gurion was writing this privately, publicly he denied any intention of creating a Jewish state because he believed, he said "the Palestinians have the right not to be at the mercy of the Jews" (cited in Noam Chomsky, Middle East Illusions, p. 34). Rabbi Judah Magnes genuinely believed in bi-nationalism, as did Buber and others. As Magnes put it, "The slogan Jewish state is equivalent to a declaration of war by the Jews on the Arabs." Thus the bi-nationalist "Zionists" advocated negotiations with the indigenous Arabs for a binational state. The reason the negotiations never occurred, I believe, as Magnes believed, is because Ben-Gurion sabotaged these possibilities. The bi-nationalists believed that the indigenous people of Palestine had equal or greater rights to Palestine and that it was morally incumbent upon the Zionists to negotiate, to reach an accord with the Palestinians. In 1946, Magnes wrote in The New York Times that the political Zionists, notwithstanding Ben-Gurion’s public statements to the contrary, "want a Jewish state, dominated by Jews" (cited in The Jewish State, by Yoram Hazony, p. 248). In the beginning of 1948, Ben-Gurion told an audience of Zionists that the war would in effect allow the Jews to steal the Palestinians’ land: "The war will give us the land … The concept of "ours" and "not ours" are peace concepts only, and in war they lose their whole meaning" (cited in Masalha, 1992, p. 180).
Aharon Cohen (Israel and the Arab World, 1976, NY: Beacon Press) agreed that negotiations did not take place because Ben-Gurion did not want to compromise with the indigenous Arabs — the Palestinians. When the Palestinian Arab Adil Jabr and the Zionist binationalist Haim Kalvarisky drew up a program for bi-nationalism in 1940-1 which they wanted to present to Arab leaders for discussion, Kalvarisky first tried to secure the approval of Ben-Gurion at the end of July 1941. Ben-Gurion got angry and called it "an abomination." A few weeks later, Sharett, Ben-Gurion’s right-hand man and future Prime Minister of Israel, wrote that the draft was not acceptable unless it was revised to include a Jewish state. Cohen concluded that the "bottleneck" to negotiations with Arabs was Ben-Gurion’s refusal to accept a bi-national Palestine based on political parity. Of course this was not known at the time because Ben-Gurion publicly favored binationalism until the early 1940s. The obstacle was not — I quote Cohen who was a participant at the time — "the oft heard complaint that there is no one to talk to in the Arab camp. "(This alibi is a stark reminder that history repeats itself.) Jacqueline Rose is correct: "For a brief moment Zionism [she includes here the bi-nationalists] had the chance of molding a nation that would not be an expanded ego, but something else" (p. 86). That is, it could have been a nation based on the kind of genuine cooperation between Jews and Arabs that was advocated by Buber, Magnes, Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein and others. (See my interview with Chomsky in Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers) Lerner implicitly denies this possibility and ignores the initial internal dissent that attended the victory of political Zionism.
Michael Lerner faults the Palestinians for not accepting the UN 1947 partition plan – about which they were not even consulted — but he fails to mention that Israel did not accept it entirely either: It did not accept its provisions for an independent Palestinian state. Furthermore in his book Lerner ignores the efforts made by binationalists for years to get the Yishuv leadership to sit down and talk with the indigenous Arabs, and glibly and pompously dismisses Buber, Magnes and the binationalists with the comment, "Most Jews felt these idealists were out of touch with reality…"(p. 52) — as if he was rendering history’s verdict. For Lerner, the Palestinian leadership were equally responsible for the Zionists’ ethnic cleansing of 3/4 of a million Palestinian refugees, and the recent exposure by scholars of the Zionist leadership’s long-harbored design to expel the Palestinians from Israel (see Nur Masalha, The Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought) is not acknowledged by Lerner as a validation of Palestinians’ openly expressed fears and resistance to the Zionists.
The possibility that the Zionist leaders may not have genuinely represented the interests of Israelis is not even considered by Lerner. In Lerner’s mind the conflict is between "the Jews" and the Palestinians. It is this vestigial notion that governs the gatekeepers of the movement today. Thus Lerner depicts the Zionist leadership as the legitimate representative of the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, despite the fact that no one elected them to such a position, despite the fact that the historical record shows that throughout WWII they consistently subordinated the goal of rescuing European Jewry to that of creating a Jewish state (see Boas Evron, Jewish State or Israeli Nation, and the works of Lenni Brenner) — even though at many points, these goals were in conflict. Michael Lerner provides his own specious answer to the question of what the Palestinians could have been done to prevent the Zionists from expelling them from their country — which they were determined to do to make room for the ingathering of hundreds of thousands of Jews who the Zionists expected (unrealistically) would all move to Israel with the support of American and Soviet imperialism. The Palestinians should have turned to "the Jewish people" (Lerner obscures the fact that the decisions were not made by "the Jewish people" but by the Zionist leaders — and that furthermore most of the Jews who escaped to Israel would have emigrated to the US had the Zionists not prevented them from being given a choice) with a "simple plea": "Give us an opportunity to prove we can live as loyal citizens and a minority within a Jewish state and that we can show you that we can do so and acknowledge the validity of your having created such a state" ( Lerner in Healing Israel/Palestine, p. 69).
Despite the fact that Israel had not accepted the United Nations provision for a Palestinian state, despite the fact that Ben-Gurion was welcoming a war as an opportunity to steal the land owned by the Palestinians (Lerner knows this) and to ethnically cleanse the large minority of Palestinian who inhabited the land that was the basis for the new Jewish state that the UN created by fiat, Lerner assures readers that if the Palestinians had meekly submitted to the theft of their own land, "it would have certainly changed the politics of Israel" (p. 69). He does not add "to the Palestinians’ further detriment." Presumably he means this passivity would have prevented Palestinians’ expropriation from the new Israel although obviously not from their own homes and land. But there is no reason to believe that contention, considering the massacre of the villagers of Deir Yassin (to pick one of many examples) who had made a peace agreement with their Israeli neighbors –much to the indifference of the Irgun (the Israeli terrorist group that played a major role in the 1947-8 war) and the Israeli Army, the Haganah. Regardless, thus do colonizers preach sanctimoniously to their victims, reassuring them that if only they submissively accept the yoke of colonialism everything will be best for all concerned.
This view — that Palestinians share responsibility for their expropriation — is common on the Jewish left. Perhaps this is why the Jewish Left has failed to establish fraternal relationships with the "enemy," why little effort is made by larger Jewish anti-Occupation groups to ally with our Arab/Moslem brothers and sisters. To put it another way, why does the largest Jewish left-wing magazine publish very few articles by Palestinians? Why do certain Jews insist that because my book is anti-Zionist it undermines the Jewish left? And why is it that my book is being ignored by large left-wing publications, most of which have a significant editorial representation by Jews — despite the fact that it is the only recent anti-Zionist book intended to be intellectually accessible to persons unfamiliar with these issues and that the book was endorsed not only by leading scholars like Tanya Reinhart and Naseer Aruri, but by Rev. Daniel Berrigan who called it "a ray of light amid the darkness that lays claim to our world, from Tel Aviv to Washington"? In fact the only groups or individuals who responded to me and said they would review my book are two Moslems (one an editor of a magazine), one Palestinian Christian (Mazin Qumsiyeh, author of Sharing the Land of Canaan) and one anti-Zionist Jewish conservative Allan Brownfeld. The left-liberals prefer to ignore my book and, I predict, many of them will ignore Norman Finkelstein’s important dissection of Dershowitz and of Israeli propaganda.
Most importantly should not the priority of the Jewish Left be to resume the dialogue with Arabs begun by binationalists during the 1930s — which Magnes and Buber stated in the 1930s and 40s was a precondition for a moral Jewish polity in Palestine? And if, as the binationalists argued, unilaterally establishing a Jewish state was wrong in 1948, if establishing any kind of Jewish polity without first negotiating with the indigenous Arabs was wrong in the 1940s — and was declared as such by significant voices within the movement defined then as Zionism — by what act of moral gymnastics can this deed, the establishment of Israel by military conquest, be declared justifiable today in hindsight? And what can justify many left-wing Jews’ insistence on giving priority to creating a united front of Jewish critics of Israeli policies, rather than to reaching out without calculation to our Palestinian comrades to support them in their battle against Israeli colonialism and state-terrorism?
Seth Farber, Ph.D is an anti-establishment psychologist who believes mental illness is a myth. A radical since he became an anti Vietnam War activist in high school, his first book Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels contains a foreword by Thomas Szasz. His current book Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers (Common Courage, 2005) is mentioned above. His memoirs will be published next year; they are entitled Lunching With Lunatics: Adventures of a Maverick Psychologist.