No question about it. The Gaza war has deeply roiled the public debate here in the US, opening a Pandora’s Box about the broader context of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Moreover, this war has unleashed unprecedented passions by people who feel morally obligated to take a stand on — for their side and by definition against the other. On Monday morning, for example, pro-Palestinian demonstrators, holding aloft Palestinian flags and banners that read “Ceasefire Now”, “Lift the Siege” and “End the Occupation”, blocked off entrances to the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, as well as the Holland Tunnel, disrupting traffic in New York. And these protests are now an almost daily feature of life in the city.
The debate has exploded everywhere across the board in American society, from university campuses to Hollywood actors’ guilds, from the art world to the op-ed page, and from the UN General Assembly to the US Congress.
Oh, yes. The US Congress too. On Dec. 5, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that, in earnest and with a straight face, equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, effectively conflating free speech with hate speech — in short, if you’re a Gentile who opposes the Zionist experiment in Palestine and objects to Israel’s policies as an occupying power, then you’re a racist.
Disingenuous and dishonest
The resolution, which was drafted by Republicans, passed by a vote of 311 to 14, drawing the support of all but one Republican members, while 92 Democrats voted “present” — a vote neither for nor against the measure — and ninety five supported it.
Jerry Naddler, a Democrat from New York, who is Jewish, urged three other fellow-Jewish congressmen to vote “present”. Representative Jerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, who voted no, told the Chamber: “What I refuse to do is support a resolution that suppresses free speech and labels all anti-Zionism, including the anti-Zionism expressed by members of the Jewish community, as anti-Semitism. That is wrong, disingenuous and dishonest, and I will not support it”.
It was a wacky resolution if there ever was one., true, but we need also consider the silliness inherent in the claim that anti-Zionism so facilely translates into a form of animus directed at Jews. As Jewish historians of the Zionist movement have shown us in their writings over the years, the claim is not only false but represents an irony of ironies, for the first — and, in the movement’s early years, the only — critics to step forward with their opposition to Zionism (to its ambitions and practices in Palestine) were themselves Jewish.
This is a fact about modern Jewish history that the distinguished literary (Jewish) critic Benjamin Moser, author of several notable books, including the definitive biography of the late doyenne of “New York intellectuals” Susan Sontag, “Sontag: Her Life and Work”, which won the Pulitzer Prize, highlighted in an opinion piece in the Washington Post last week called “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as anti-Semitism, Here’s the History’’, which he penned as commentary on the Zionism-is- anti-Semitism House resolution.
The Palestinian eclipse
“When learning of this vote”, he wrote, “many people familiar with Jewish history might have suppressed a sardonic laugh: Anti-Zionism, after all, was a creation of Jews, not their enemies”.
To be sure, there were many versions of Zionism knocking around in Jewish fin de siecle Europe. These could be book ended by the benign “cultural Zionism” of Ahad Ha’am (d. 1927), a Hebrew thinker, essayist and journalist from Kiev, in modern-day Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), who saw Palestine merely as a “spiritual centre” for Jews; and the hard-core “nationalist Zionism” of Theodore Herzl (d. 1904), a Viennese newspaper reporter who saw in Palestine, as we read in his book, “A Jewish State” (1896), a land where “We shall there form a rampart of Europe against Asia” and where “We shall spirit the penniless population across the border ... [but] both the process of expropriation and the removal must be carried out discreetly”.
It was, of course, Herzl’s brand of the movement that, in 1948, had its day — and the Palestinians, as a consequence, had their eclipse.
And, truth be told, that brand of Zionism did not sit well with a great many Jewish folks in those days, including Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein, and with people like I.F. Stone and Noam Chomsky in ours.
This is a war has left 23,000 Gazans dead over the last three months, or one out of 100 residents of the enclave, which is equivalent to 3 million Americans dying violent deaths in conflict in the same period
A supercilious bill
The drama of modern Jewish history has been rich and varied, woven as it was into the very fabric of European history itself. And without the contribution of the Jewish intelligentsia to the Western intellectual tradition between, say, 1830 and 1930, that tradition would’ve been different, not to mention diminished. And, in like manner, in our time, from the 1930s to the present, the contribution of American Jews to the life of the mind in the United States has been equally profound.
A jejune attempt to subvert that tradition by conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is an outrage.
It’s no less than absurd (and, yes “absurd” is the only word that will do here) for someone, whether that someone is my congressman Joe Blow or my aunt Khadijeh, to call a person antisemitic because he or she is critical of Israel’s practices as an occupying power that has had its boot on the collective neck of Palestinians for the last 57 years, or chooses to express their opposition to the dreadful war that Israel is waging against, mostly, the people of Gaza.
And, darn it, this is a war has left 23,000 Gazans dead over the last three months, or one out of 100 residents of the enclave, which is equivalent to 3 million Americans dying violent deaths in conflict in the same period.
Look, Palestinians don’t fight against Israelis because Israelis are Jews. They do so because they’re occupiers. Palestinians would’ve fought against Israelis in the same way and with the same vehemence if they had been, say, Dutch Catholic.
Tell that to the 311 lawmakers who voted to have that supercilious bill passed in Congress last month.
— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile