Young liberal Zionists, if you’re serious about peace, let go and move on

Fear, intimidation, distress and discomfort. That’s the lexicon of life for young liberal Zionists in Britain today.

The pro-peace, anti-occupation, two-state supporting Jews are certainly having a rough time of it.

So why aren’t I more sympathetic?

After all, doesn’t the fact that moderate well-meaning Jewish supporters of Israel are under attack, point to what really lies behind all of this hostility? Old fashioned, straight forward, anti-Semitism. And isn’t it the political left that’s stoking all the trouble this time around?

While I’ve no doubt that anti-Semitism exists in the Labour Party (and across the political spectrum for that matter) there’s a whole lot more to it than that. Something else is at play here.

What we’re witnessing is an uncomfortable reckoning for young diaspora Jews who are unable to see or accept what has happened to Jews, Judaism and Jewish identity over the last 100 years.

Before I say more, let me recap some recent events to give you a flavour of what’s been happening.

Sounding the alarms – 18 January

On 18 January a public meeting organised by the liberal Zionist group Yachad at Kings College London was disrupted by a small group of pro-Palestinian activists. According to Yachad’s account things got ugly, and uncomfortable, pretty quickly.

“The demonstrators banged on the windows and doors shouting ‘Free Free Palestine’ and ran around the building continually setting off fire alarms to try to disrupt the event.”

An LSE student quoted in the Jewish Chronicle said:

 “The room was ambushed: banging on the windows, waving flags, bashing the door. You could hear screaming. It was really quite frightening inside.”

‘Some kind of problem with Jews’ – 15 February

On the 15 February Alex Chalmers, the Jewish Co-chair of the Oxford University Labour Club, announced his resignation on Facebook after his fellow Labour Club members voted to support the forthcoming Israeli Apartheid Week activities on campus.

“…a large proportion of both Oxford University Labour Club and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews.”

He went on:

“Despite its avowed commitment to liberation, the attitude of certain members of the club towards certain disadvantaged groups was becoming poisonous.”

Building Bridges  – 22 February

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) attempted to give young Zionists an alternative narrative to promote on campus in the days leading up to Israeli Apartheid week.

The Building Bridges campaign called for “dialogue and coexistence in order to achieve peace” and described Israeli Apartheid Week as “hostile and intimidating”.

Russell Langer, UJS Campaigns Director, said:

“While some unfortunately choose to spend this week spreading hate and causing division, we will be working with students to encourage dialogue and peace.”

Jewish students in Nottingham 'Building Bridges' Credit: UJS
Jewish students in Nottingham ‘Building Bridges’ Credit: UJS

Uncomfortable on campus – 22 to 28 February

In the following days Israeli Apartheid Week supporters organised film screenings, lectures, debates and set up mock Israeli military check-points on university campuses across Britain.

Ellen Johnson, a second-year student at Leeds University and a member of the Jewish Society, wrote an article for the Huffington Post as the week came to a close:

“The continuous spewing of hate and discrimination across our campuses has brought a level of discomfort and fear amongst Jewish societies that we never suspected in 2016…Jewish students have never felt more alone…”

As for those mock check points, Johnson observed:

“They had the Israeli flag on their armbands. Immediately when I saw that I thought of a swastika, because during the Holocaust German soldiers wore swastikas on their armbands.The Israeli flag is a great symbol for me. So when I see it on an armband it is very upsetting. The Star of David is a Jewish symbol.”

I know why it hurts

So a lot of unhappy and uncomfortable young Jews who think of themselves as progressive activists for Middle East peace.

I can understand their pain. I too was stuck in the mindset of Liberal Zionism for far too long.

When young Yachad supporters at Kings College London wonder why talking peace is so objectionable, I can understand why. When Alex Chalmers thinks his fellow students have a problem with Jews, I’m not surprised he sees it that way. When Ellen Johnson feels upset seeing the Star of David worn as the uniform of the ‘bad guys’, I know why it hurts.

The cultural forces at play here are exceptionally powerful.

Zionism has integrated into modern Jewish identity. So much so that most Jews, young and old, don’t even realise we are living in a politically constructed paradigm. Zionism is just a normal, natural way to understand the world. Why would you oppose it unless ‘you have a problem with Jews’.

And it’s not just Jewish identity. The practice of Judaism itself has undergone a successful merger with the modern State of Israel. We pray for the State of Israel in our Sabbath liturgy, along with its leaders and soldiers.

‘A miracle of liberation’

So the outlook of even the most progressive of Zionists is that we have ‘returned’ to ‘our’ ‘homeland’ in a miracle of ‘renewal’ and ‘liberation’. It’s a childish reading of Jewish history that insists we’re all direct blood descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and that two thousand years of Jewish dispersal was just a temporary aberration. It’s not surprising that Rabbis who criticise Israel don’t get their contracts renewed.

With all this cultural conditioning the best analysis of Israel/Palestine that today’s young Zionists like Johnson, Chalmers, UJS and Yachad supporters can come up with is as follows:

It’s a conflict between two legitimate but competing national claims to the same piece of land. It will be solved when both sides sit down, start talking nicely to each other and agree on how to carve up the real estate. All that’s needed is more ‘bridge building’ to get this started.

'Peace badges' Credit UJS
‘Peace badges’ Credit UJS

You can see it in Alex Chalmer’s Facebook resignation announcement.

When Chalmers uses the words  ‘uneven’ and ‘insincere’ to describe his fellow students’ attitude towards ‘Jewish liberation’, you can hear the Zionist paradigm at work. While Jewish liberation, in the form of Zionism, is dismissed, Chalmers argues, Palestinian liberation is championed. How can that be fair he wants to know. It’s the same paradigm that makes Israeli Apartheid Week so unacceptable. How can our liberation movement be described as the epitome of discrimination?

You ‘returned’, I was ‘colonised’

Now I’m aware that as soon as I start using the language of ‘colonisation’ rather than ‘Jewish return’ a great many Jewish readers and non-Jewish Israel supporters are going bail out of this blog. But please stick around for just a little bit longer.

It’s true that Jews have had an unbroken historical presence in the Holy Land for the last three thousand years.

It’s true that a relationship to the Land has been central in the development of Judaism itself.

The Land of Israel has without doubt been a part of Jewish religious understanding and cultural experience.

None of this is in dispute in my view.

But none of it justifies what’s happened to the Palestinian people either.

Zionism from its earliest 19th century European origins was a colonial project with a unique Jewish twist. A twist that gave to a secular endeavor a biblical blessing and the illusion of Jewish continuity.

The vast majority of Jews have bought into a Zionist view of Jewish history so thoroughly that we honestly believe that two thousand years after the last Jewish Kingdom of Israel existed we had the right to just “pick up where we left off”.

A different conversation 

The historical reality is that the indigenous people, the Palestinians, who were by far the majority in the land before 1948, were pushed out and disenfranchised using classic European colonial justification and techniques. But none of this computes for Chalmers, Johnson, UJS or Yachad. If it did they would see things very differently.

Once you let go of Zionism (however moderate your reading of it) and see the colonialism it has attempted to disguise, the entire conflict starts to looks very different.

It stops being a dispute between competing nationalisms. It stops being a land dispute to be negotiated between one side and the other.

Instead, it starts being a conversation about power and powerlessness, oppressor and oppressed, occupation and resistance, those that have rights and those that don’t.

Rather than seeing Ellen Johnson’s “continuous spewing of hate” you begin to recognise that ‘the other side’ is simply telling it like it is.  The discrimination against Palestinians on the West Bank (land rights, house demolitions, water, law enforcement, the judicial process) is undeniable.  If you don’t like the international definition of ‘apartheid’ then find another word as long as it’s an honest description.  I wouldn’t describe the situation for Palestinians on the Israeli side of the Wall as ‘apartheid’ but they are certainly not equal in status or law.  None of this gets addressed by ‘building bridges’.

I’m under no illusion how difficult it is for liberal minded Jews, committed to their Jewish identity to see Israel in a different way. Remember, I’ve been there myself. I was stopped by a mock Jewish check point once and I didn’t like it. But my discomfort became irrelevant once I witnessed the humiliation brought daily to Palestinians by the real thing. The Jewish colonial project is still alive and well on both sides of the Separation Wall. Johnson is right, the Star of David has become a symbol of oppression.

Decide where you stand

So to young British Zionists I say this: I understand your pain but if you are serious about peace and a Judaism that honours the best of our tradition, then you need to let go and move on. As the boycott movement grows and the history of the conflict becomes better understood, you face a moment of truth, a moment of Zionist reckoning that’s been a long time coming.

I’m aware that anti-Semitism is real and exists across the political spectrum and it mustn’t  be tolerated. And boycott supporters can sometimes be in your face and out of order and cack-handed in their language and tactics. But none of this should be allowed to distract from the fundamentals of Israel/Palestine.

Casting off the denials and misrepresentations of Zionism will need to come before the “dialogue and  coexistence” of UJS or Yachad if any kind of true justice is to be achieved.

In the years to come, both Jews and Palestinians will need their rights protecting. But right now we Jews have the rights and the Palestinians don’t – because we took them away.

Start from there and decide where you should stand.

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