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Is There Still a Jewish Question? Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist

In this essay, from 2003, the leftist feminist rock critic Ellen Willis discussed her misgivings about Zionism—and about its opponents

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(Photo courtesy University of Minnesota)
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The great Ellen Willis, who died too young in 2006, was The New Yorker’s first rock critic, a founder of the radical feminist group the Redstockings, a longtime writer for The Village Voice, and the founder of New York University’s cultural reporting and criticism program. She left behind a body of work that includes many of the finest American essays of recent decades, including her seminal discussion of Bob Dylan; her report, for Rolling Stone, about visiting her newly Orthodox brother in Jerusalem; and the essay reprinted below, from 2003, which originally appeared in Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon. It’s also included in the new collection The Essential Ellen Willis, edited by her daughter, Tablet contributor Nona Willis Aronowitz. —Mark Oppenheimer


Early ’90s, post-Bosnia conversation with a longtime political friend I’ve met by chance on the street: “I’ve come to see nationalism as regressive, period. I can’t use phrases like ‘national liberation’ and ‘national self-determination’ with a straight face anymore.”

“You know, Ellen, there’s one inconsistency in your politics.”

“What’s that?”


I’m not a Zionist—rather I’m a quintessential Diaspora Jew, a child of Freud, Marx and Spinoza. I hold with rootless cosmopolitanism: from my perspective the nation-state is a profoundly problematic institution, a nation-state defined by ethnic or other particularist criteria all the more so. And yet I count myself an anti-anti-Zionist. This is partly because the logic of anti-Zionism in the present political context entails an unprecedented demand for an existing state—one, moreover, with popular legitimacy and a democratically elected government—not simply to change its policies but to disappear. It’s partly because I can’t figure out what large numbers of displaced Jews could have or should have done after 1945, other than parlay their relationship with Palestine and the (ambivalent) support of the West for a Jewish homeland into a place to be. (Go “home” to Germany or Poland? Knock, en masse, on the doors of unreceptive European countries and a reluctant United States?) And finally it’s because I believe that anti-Jewish genocide cannot be laid to rest as a discrete historical episode, but remains a possibility implicit in the deep structure of Christian and Islamic cultures, East and West.

This last point is particularly difficult to argue on the left, where the conventional wisdom is that raising the issue of anti-Semitism in relation to Israel and Palestine is nothing but a way of stifling criticism of Israel and demonizing the critics. In the context of left politics, the dynamic is actually reversed: accusations of blind loyalty to Israel, intolerance of debate, and exaggeration of Jewish vulnerability at the expense of the real, Palestinian victims are routinely used to stifle discussion of how anti-Semitism influences the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the world’s reaction to it or the public conversation about it. Yet that discussion is crucial, for there is no way to disentangle the politics surrounding Israel from the politics of the Jewish condition. Anti-Semitism remains the wild card of world politics and the lightning rod of political crisis, however constantly it is downplayed or denied. My anti-anti-Zionism does not imply support for Ariel Sharon’s efforts to destroy the Palestinians’ physical, political, and social infrastructure while expanding Jewish settlements in occupied territory; or the disastrous policy of permitting such settlements in the first place; or the right-wing nationalism cum religious irredentism that has come to dominate Israeli politics; or, indeed, any and all acts of successive Israeli governments that have in one way or another impeded negotiations for an end to the occupation and an equitable peace. Nor do I condone the American government’s neutrality on the side of Sharon. But I reject the idea that Israel is a colonial state that should not exist. I reject the villainization of Israel as the sole or main source of the mess in the Middle East. And I contend that Israel needs to maintain its “right of return” for Jews around the world.

My inconsistency, if that’s what it is, comes from struggling to make sense of a situation that has multiple and at times contradictory dimensions. Israel is the product of a nationalist movement, but it owes its existence to a world-historical catastrophe. The bloody standoff between Israelis and Palestinians is on its face a clash of two nationalisms run amok, yet it can’t be understood apart from the larger political forces of the post–1945 world—anti-colonialism, oilpolitik, the Cold War, the American and neoliberal triumph, democracy versus authoritarianism, secularism versus fundamentalism.

Indeed, the mainstream of contemporary political anti-Zionism does not oppose nationalism as such, but rather defines the conflict as bad imperialist nationalism versus the good liberationist kind. Or to put it another way, anti-Zionism is a conspicuous feature of that brand of left politics that reduces all global conflict to Western imperialism versus Third World anti-imperialism, ignoring a considerably more complicated reality. But even those who are anti-Zionist out of a principled opposition to nationalism (including Jews who see the original Jewish embrace of nationalism as a tragic wrong turn) must surely recognize that at present, an end to nationalism in Israel/Palestine is not on either side’s agenda. The question is what course of action, all things considered, will help in some way to further the possibilities for democracy and human rights as opposed to making things worse. I support a two-state solution that in effect ratifies the concept of the original 1948 partition—bracketing fundamental questions about Jewish and Palestinian nationalism—out of the non-utopian yet no less urgent hope that it would end the lunacy of mutual destruction and allow some space, for a new Middle Eastern order to develop.

It looked for a while as if this might actually happen, and during that period, not coincidentally, there was a surge of discussion among Jews inside and outside Israel on the limits of nationalism and its possible “post-Zionist” transcendence. Now it’s almost as if those years were a hallucination. Until recently, when a few fragile tendrils of sanity have surfaced in the form of the “road map” talks, the irredentists on both sides have been firmly in control, engaged in a deadly Kabuki dance whose fundamental purpose is to make a peace agreement impossible. Whatever the shortcomings of Ehud Barak’s ill-fated Camp David proposal, it did move Israel onto previously non-negotiable territory, especially in its offer to share Jerusalem. In my view, the negotiations collapsed not because they had reached an impasse but, on the contrary, because they had finally become serious in a way that threatened Yasir Arafat’s ability to walk the line between peacemaking and appeasing his rejectionist flank. Sharon set out to provoke violence by visiting the Temple Mount; the Palestinians gave him exactly what he wanted. The intifada, the suicide bombings, and Arafat’s complicity in them basically destroyed the Israeli left, while aside from a few intellectuals there seemed to be no serious Palestinian peace party. Meanwhile Sharon has used the need to defend against terror as an excuse to brutalize the Palestinian population. Any peace initiative must withstand this formidable collusion of enemies.

Nonetheless, leftists tend to single out Israel as The Problem that must be solved. That tropism is most pronounced among those for whom the project of a Jewish state is inherently imperialist, or an offense to universalist humanism, or both. (A young professor of brilliant intellect and anarchist inclinations, whose development I’ve followed since graduate school: “Why don’t the Israelis just leave? Walk away from the state?” and in the same conversation, “Israel is the biggest problem I have as a Jew.”) But it is also widespread, if often unconscious, among people who have no ideological objection to the Jewish state as such, including Jews who care deeply about the fate of Israel and are appalled by government policies they deem not only inhumane but suicidal. I’ve received countless impassioned e-mails emphasizing how imperative it is to show there are Jews who disagree with the Jewish establishment, who oppose Sharon. There is no comparable urgency to show that Jews on the left as well as the right condemn suicide bombing as a war crime, a horrifying product of totalitarian religious brainwashing, and a way to ensure there is no peace. At most I hear, “Suicide bombing is a terrible thing, but . . .” But: if Israel would just shape up and do the right thing, there would be peace. Would that it were so.

Along with this one-sided view of the conflict, the left has focused on Israeli acts of domination and human rights violations with an intense and consistent outrage that it fails to direct toward comparable or worse abuses elsewhere, certainly toward the unvarnished tyrannies in the Middle East (where, for instance, is the divestment campaign against Saudi Arabia?). No, I’m not saying it’s reasonable to demand that critics of Israel simultaneously oppose all the violence, misery, and despotism in the world, or that complaints against Israel are invalid because Arab regimes are worse. Inevitably, at any given time some countries, some conflicts will capture people’s imagination and indignation more than others—not because they are worse but because they somehow hit a nerve, become larger than themselves, take on a symbolic dimension. But that is exactly my point: left animus toward Israel is not a simple, self-evident product of the facts. What is the nerve that Israel hits?

Underlining this question are the hyperbolic comparisons that animate the anti-Israel brief, beginning with the now standard South Africa comparison—the accusation that Israel is a “settler state” and an “apartheid state”—which has inspired the calls for divestment and for a boycott against Israeli academics. The South African regime, of course, was one whose essence was a proudly white racist ideology, a draconian system of legal segregation, and the denial of all political rights to the huge majority of people. To see Israel through this grid is to ignore a great many things: that Israel was settled primarily by refugees from genocide in Europe and oppression in Arab countries; that while Palestinian Israelis suffer from discrimination they are nevertheless citizens who vote, organize political parties, and participate in the government; that the occupation, while egregious, came about as a result not of aggressive settlement but of defensive war; that it continues because of rejectionism on both sides; that there is a difference between the nationalist and ultra-Orthodox militants who dream of a greater Israel and the majority of Israelis who once supported peace but turned to Sharon out of fear and cynicism. As for Israeli academics, they are independent and disproportionately active in opposing government policy, which leaves the boycott movement with no plausible rationale.

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Is There Still a Jewish Question? Why I’m an Anti-Anti-Zionist

In this essay, from 2003, the leftist feminist rock critic Ellen Willis discussed her misgivings about Zionism—and about its opponents