Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel, edited by Seth Farber

reviewed by Steve Kowit

In the Jewish-American community one can exhibit complete indifference to Jewish culture and be an outspoken atheist and yet remain a perfectly acceptable member of the tribe. On the other hand, any Jew who openly disapproves of the State of Israel is at risk of being branded a traitor, a dupe of the ubiquitous anti-Semitic enemy, and a self-loathing Jew. Most of the writers and activists represented in Seth Farber’s Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers are unapologetic anti-Zionists, and thus “traitors” in precisely that most honorable sense.

Farber’s book, lively and provocative, reflects not only the author’s commitment to social justice, but, according to a brief biographical note, “his faith in prophetic Judaism as a medium of spiritual/social transformation.” So these conversations serve a dual purpose: on the one hand they explore the Palestinian/Israeli struggle from a progressive Jewish point of view and, on the other, they engage the question of contemporary Judaism itself, a post-Holocaust faith that has largely replaced the love of Yahweh with the worship of Israel.

Noam Chomsky, in his conversation with the author, asserts that the very concept of a state that is not the state of its citizens but of the Jewish people is an illegitimate principle upon which to have founded the nation of Israeli. He clarifies his advocacy of the two-state solution by explaining that he conceives such a political configuration to be no more than a stepping stone toward a binational state, but just how the creation of a tiny Palestinian state can lead to Israel and Palestine becoming a single binational nation Chomsky does not make clear, and it is not impossible that his current position reflects his own ambivalence about that issue. He also hedges his bet on the right of return: the Palestinians must not be forced to give up that right, he declares, “but the expectation that it will be implemented is completely unrealistic. And to advocate that is just to cause pain and disaster to the refugees.” Although this is a common enough position among progressive Zionists, it is much the sort of logic Alice encountered after tumbling down the rabbit hole. In similar fashion, Chomsky admits that the Jews had no more right to establish a state on land that was not theirs than did the American colonists, but then dismisses this most sticky and fundamental of issues with the casual comment that he doesn’t “see a lot of point in these discussions.”

Joel Kovel, author and former psychoanalyst, is less equivocal: “Zionism is a horrible mistake.” Israel is illegitimate in much the way Apartheid South Africa was illegitimate. Because of its privileging of one racial group above others, it is not capable of “joining the community of nation states that are grounded in universal human rights.” Nor does Kovel have a particularly high opinion of ancient Judaism, observing that despite the “transcendent ethical potential” of its beliefs, ancient Judaism had “not just a sense of superiority but a rejection of everybody else.”

Adam Shapiro, one of the founders of the International Solidarity Movement, who became momentarily newsworthy in the United States when his parents were threatened by outraged Brooklyn Zionists, observes that “any anti-Semitism that you find in Muslim countries today is the direct result of the policies of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians.” When Farber suggests how ironic it is that the Jews turned into oppressors, Shapiro replies that he does not find it at all surprising. “Over and over and over in human history those who have been oppressed have turned into the oppressors.” And when Farber suggests that something in Jewish ethical tradition might have kept them moral for all those centuries, Shapiro reminds him that those supposed Jewish values are nowhere in evidence in those colorful biblical stories in which various peoples are exterminated by the pious Hebrews under God’s mandate.

Phyllis Bennis, author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN, reminds us of something that is rarely acknowledged: even if the three-quarters of a million Palestinians had fled in 1948 at the bequest of the Arab invaders, as the Israeli version of history had for so long insisted, “those refugees still would have the right to go home. It doesn’t matter the reason they fled. Their right to return is not conditional on having fled for the right reason.” Bennis also makes the important point that the US Mobilization for Peace and Justice, by making opposition to US support for Israeli occupation a central component at its mass anti-war demonstrations, has helped break through the solid wall of US support for Israeli aggression.

Another conversation is with Steve Quester, an activist with the New York organization Jews Against the Occupation who remarks, in a fascinating aside, that being queer allowed him to figure out that everything he’d been taught about Israel was a lie: “Whereas for straight Jews who’ve never gone through this process of realizing that they’ve been systematically lied to by all aspects of the society, it’s much harder for them to let go of all the lies they’ve been taught about Israel.” Another conversation is with Ora Wise, the passionately outspoken daughter of a “very Zionist” Conservative rabbi, a young woman who worked with Rabbis for Human Rights in the West Bank and was a founding member of the Ohio State Committee for Justice in Palestine. Dealing head on with the criticism that the Palestinians should organize non-violent resistance, she reminds us that terrorist attacks are “the product of a brutal, vicious, controlling, oppressive military occupation that is destroying the lives of millions of Palestinians and is deliberately destroying Palestinians’ ability to organize in non-violent ways….”

The conversation with Norman Finkelstein, perhaps, by now, the most famous Jewish-American critic of Zionist machinations, is peppered with statements by various eyewitnesses to Israeli crimes and with chilling remarks by such luminaries as Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion and is followed by a brief essay by Finkelstein on Israel and Zionism. Finkelstein’s discussion of Israeli “race-nationalism” in particular, and Zionist ideology in general, is sharply focused and forceful, in that incendiary take-no-prisoners polemic style that makes his own  books such a sizzling read. When Farber quotes to Finkelstein a remark by the Jewish theologian Marc Ellis, to the effect that those Jews struggling for Palestinian rights “may ultimately decide the future of the covenant… and the Jewish people,” Finkelstein dismisses the notion saying “I have no interest in covenants. I don’t know who the Jewish people are. These are all metaphysical, extraneous terms for me.”

But they are not extraneous for Farber. Rather, for him, they are absolutely central. To focus on such questions, Farber has chosen to include conversations with Norton Mezvinsky, an advocate of the universalist humanism promoted by early Reform Judaism, and with two orthodox Jewish thinkers: Daniel Boyarin and Rabbi David Weiss, both of whom are anti-Zionists.

Mezvinsky, who was singled out by Daniel Pipes’ Campus Watch for “spewing anti-Semitic calumnies,” is another who believes that Zionism is inherently a racist ideology. On the matter of the two-state solution, he argues that what the Israeli leadership has always meant by a Palestinian state is a small “autonomous region” without any real sovereignty. Considering that 40% of the water for all Israel comes from aquifers the Israelis have built in the West Bank, it is hardly likely, he argues, that they will return the West Bank to the Palestinians. If neither a single state nor two genuine states is currently realistic, why not opt, Mezvinsky suggests, for the better, more democratic and just approach― a binational state.

The two orthodox Jews have a difficult time squaring their hatred of Israel’s military aggression with their biblical literalism. Though Daniel Boyarin believes that Zionism is “out-and-out heresy,” he is clearly uncomfortable when Farber reminds him of Yahweh’s commands that the Israelites commit genocide against various peoples. He insists that such questions are simply “not relevant anymore,” though clearly, if one is a literalist, they are indeed relevant. When Farber poses the same sort of question to David Weiss, a rabbi of the Neturie Karta community, the rabbi can only fumble helplessly in response:

But it’s not my issue to try to answer for G-d why he would want such a thing which is in the bible which is accepted. I could look and try to find, according to the Kabbalah, reasons, you know… that’s secret as far as, you know, there’s a deeper meaning for everything…

For Weiss, the reestablishment of Jewish legitimacy over the holy land is a perfectly legitimate goal ― so long as it occurs after the return of the Messiah.

If Farber’s least favorite Jewish progressive is Rabbi Michael Lerner, who has famously argued that Jews had the right to steal the Palestinian homeland as an act of “affirmative action,” the figure whose position the author most fully seems to respect is the theologian and philosopher Marc Ellis, who apparently refused or was unable to participate in this project. Farber has included a brief essay by Ellis and has made that author the subject of both his introductory and concluding essays. Like Mezvinsky, Ellis advocates a Jewish theology of liberation based on the tradition of the later prophets and is opposed to “Constantinian Judaism,” the notion that the secular power of a national state is the true fulfillment of the Jewish covenant. His is another variation of Reform Judaism’s early but long abandoned commitment to universal brotherhood.

It would have been useful for Common Courage Press to have hired a decent copyeditor to correct the shocking number of distracting typos and help the author organize the material a bit more gracefully. The conversations seem to have been transcribed to the page unedited, interviewer and interviewee constantly - and at times disconcertingly - interrupting one other. A good editing of the individual conversations would have helped. Those caveats aside, for anyone seriously interested in the question of Zionism, Israeli colonialism, and the Palestinian struggle, Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers will be a provocative and absorbing read. The complexity and richness of the discussions are not the least of the book’s virtues. And for those struggling with the issue of how believing Jews can frame their faith and confront the disconcerting issues of Israeli aggression and Zionist supremacism, it will prove doubly provocative and doubly a pleasure.
 

Steve Kowit has won two Pushcart Prizes and an NEA fellowship for his poetry. His latest collection is The Gods of Rapture from City Works Press. His poem Intifada, a poem of Jewish solidarity with the Palestinian people, can be purchased from the publisher, Caernarvon Press in San Diego, or directly from the author, skowit@aabol.com. He teaches at Southwestern College in Chula Vista.