Black Lives Matter & Socialist Zionism (This Tisha B’Av)

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I wasn’t sure that I was going to post about the Black Lives Matter Platform or the way its use of the term “genocide” to describe the impact of Israel on Palestinian lives offends the historical record or Jewish memory. But there has been a cluster events roiling in particular the liberal Jewish left, including a recent piece by historians Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld in Ha’aretz divorcing themselves from liberal or progressive Zionism. Diner and Feld pick up the cudgel of “colonialism” and “racism” against Zionism. The reason I’m connecting these two statements, the Black Lives Matter platform and the Diner-Feld declaration, is because of the way together they have thrown the liberal Jewish left back on its feet. In response, I am posting two pieces that I found online. One is by Yotam Marom and the other by A. Daniel Roth. Both writers are young Jewish millennials who have not given up the fight for Jewish self-determination and the cause of social justice in America or Israel. It is not coincidental that they both come out of the tradition of socialist Zionism.

About the Black Lives Matter platform, I’m not sure anyone has stepped back to observe that this kind of positioning represents neither a unique event nor a watershed event. The animosity to Zionism and the way anti-Zionism feeds invariably into anti-Semitism is just the latest chapter in a long history between blacks and Jews, and Jews and the New Left. It goes back to 1967 Six Day War and the emergence of Black Power. Socialist Zionists and Progressive Zionists (back “Liberal Zionism” wasn’t even a term) were always stuck in the hard middle between the Jewish establishment and the hard left.

What has since changed is the way so many of us from the New Jewish left (those of us who grew up in  the 1960s and 1970s) have entered into what is now the liberal mainstream of the Jewish community. The progressive rabbinical group Teruah wrote a critique of the Black Lives Matter platform that was as elegant as it was incisive. The response from J Street was just as tactful. Objecting to the genocide language, both responses were careful not to burn political bridges with the black activist community represented by Black Lives Matter. You can read them here and here.

While the tact is commendable, it might be mealy-mouthed. There has been a lot of talk about how Jews must and need to continue to be allies with the movement and the community it represents. But there should be no beating around the bush. As a movement, Black Lives Matters has clearly positioned itself in support of Palestinian resistance to Zionism and against the mainstream Jewish community, whose politics towards Israel tend to track liberal. The use of the term “genocide” was a deliberate swipe, a declaration of disinterest regarding larger Jewish narratives in which the history of Zionism is embedded as a modern liberation movement. As much as the liberal Jewish left wants to ally itself with “the movement,” two questions remain: [1] Do Black Lives Matter leaders want Jewish liberals as allies? Or just the anti-Zionist Jewish left? [2] Are Black Lives Matter leaders allies to the liberal Jewish left? Do they have anything to contribute towards a resolution to Israel-Palestine conflict on basis of self-determination and mutual recognition? Do they have anything significant to say about the roiling catastrophe spreading out across the entire Middle East? The answer to these painful questions is a most likely or most definite “no.” One can talk about the need to ally with the movement, but the example of Rabbi Susan Talve (about which you can read here), condemned as a “real terrorist” by her allies on the left, suggests that liberal-left Jews might no longer be welcome as long as they support Zionism or Jewish life and progressive values in Israel.

Far more to the point was the piece by Yotam Marom, which was republished at Tikkun. You can read it here. The piece was not a direct response to the Black Lives Matter platform. Marom writes that he was working on this for a year or so. It’s publication now is for all that timely. Marom rejects the litmus test to which Jewish progressives are put by the anti-Zionist left, the very notion that Jewish progressives have to prove that “we are Good Jews by taking personal responsibility for everything Israel does, we oblige, and wear our Jewishness full to the brim with shame,” or the way Jewish progressives are expected “to, compare ourselves to the people who murdered our families in Europe.”

As a young Jewish activist, Marom states it outright that his friends in the movement are anti-Semitic, even as he insists that they are “worth convincing, and capable of transforming, and we need each other.” This may or not be true, that his friends are capable of listening. Anti-Zionism, like anti-Semitism, plays an important structural function as much on the left as on the right. How do you “convince” someone that anti-Semitism exists? Can anti-Semitism be “undone”? These are my own skeptical thoughts as an older person outside the movement who understands that what Marom has to say about left anti-Semitism can be said most persuasively only from inside the movement, not from the outside.

Critical of the 1967 occupation and critical of Israel and the Jewish establishment, Marom touches upon the importance of self-determination as a progressive Jewish political interest. In his post he linked to this post, this one by A. Daniel Roth reflecting on socialist Zionism today. You can read it here. Also written by a young movement person doing social justice work in Israel, the nods to socialism, Zionism, self-determination, and solidarity are without a shred of irony.

These are Roth’s words that I think are worth keeping. As an older person, I am reminded that,

“Both of those words, “Socialist” and “Zionist,” have been, for many, drained of positive meaning, after a century full of failed attempts at actualizing them. Yet there is an ideology at the heart of these words that makes them meaningful and worthwhile as we look forward. Our Socialism maintains that our liberation is only found in solidarity with the liberation of others; our Zionism informs how we are a part of that human movement for freedom: as Jews. Socialist Zionism is unwavering in its call for human liberation on economic, social, and environmental fronts, and in its call for Jews to be a part of that struggle as Jews. Socialist Zionism holds solidarity along with a deep sense of group identity to be the fundamental bases for changing the world.

Socialist Zionism’s historical aim has been to oppose the oppression that collective homelessness fosters by creating a society of workers, in which Jews are free to work in all facets of life and take a leadership role in society-building. But there is a major difference between being informed by a culture and being beholden to and limited by it. On many fronts, Israeli culture limits itself by letting identity, religion, ethnicity, and culture become points of exclusion and privilege rather than starting points for connection and growth. Too often here in Israel, difference is protected and guarded in a fortress. Instead, it should be celebrated and cultivated, and solidarity with others should be the bottom line.”

One last word. Academics find it easy to make fun of overt appeals to the term “meaning,” particularly in relation to contemporary Judaism and Jewish observance. But Tisha B’Av is no time for cynicism and sarcasm, not about “meaning” and not about the future of liberal-left Jewish politics, in the United States or Israel. It is, indeed, a day of fear and loathing with an emphasis on the memory of death, destruction, and suffering. Anti-Zionism would be an easy way out, but does nothing to resolve two facts. One is that the State of Israel continues to draw the Jewish community together, as both a sentimental object of attachment and an object of antipathy and animus. The other fact is that the country is changing fundamentally as it hangs over an abyss of our own making. What upset so many people about the Black Lives Matters platform and the Diner and Feld piece in Ha’aretz and what these two pieces by Marom and Roth might remind many of us is the urgent sense that this is no time to give up on the values, norms, and politics that should bind and connect us as Jews with the lives of other people, both here in the United States and in the Middle East.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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One Response to Black Lives Matter & Socialist Zionism (This Tisha B’Av)

  1. dmf says:

    I have much sympathy with what you say here (there is a lot ignorance of details/facts at play) but I think there has yet to be a serious reckoning on the left with the now all too usual laundry lost of: occupation, ongoing settlements, the demographics, the political swerve to the nationalist right, etc and until then their position will be a fraught one if not untenable.

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