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True Confessions of a Non-Zionist Jew

Embarrassment. Revulsion. Outrage. Righteous defensiveness. Impatience. Visceral reactions of one Jew toward the Jewish State.

Todd Gitlin
March 27, 2015
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; images: Shutterstock
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; images: Shutterstock

Reader, please indulge me: When I think about Israel, I’m a churning sea of emotions. My emotions are neither simple nor pure, nor impervious to other emotions, or arguments, or evidence. I don’t think with my viscera, but I don’t think without them, nor does anyone else.

I’ll start with embarrassment. I’m embarrassed that the leadership of a Jewish State (whatever exactly that means) should conduct itself with haughtiness and cruelty. Shall we count a few ways, just for openers?

• Quasi-colonial Occupation of the West Bank in violation of international law, in particular U. N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.

• Extreme, disproportionate violence against civilians in Gaza.

• The humiliation of non-Jewish (in particular, Arab) as well as Jewish minorities in ways amply documented all over and too numerous to itemize in this space.

Readers of my columns for Tablet magazine will know I am well aware that this haughtiness, contempt, and cruelty are not a monopoly of the Jewish State, and in this spirit I suppose I need to repeat that I have no illusions about, or extenuations for, say, Hamas’s cynical use of civilian places and people as covers for their Gaza quasi-state’s wholly illegitimate aggression against Israeli civilians. Who says State says arrogance; says deception; says tainted origins; says abuses of power; says myopia. Whoever says State with Manichaean religious (or other) foundations has all the more motive for exclusionary myopia. Who says State in a directly anti-Semitic voice (if any reader has missed the Hamas Charter, here’s another chance) cultivates poison.

Still. Aside from the State of which I am a citizen, the United States of America, only one State in the world presumes—here come the emotions: has the gall—to speak for me. I’ve been implicated. I also have strong feelings about other governments—lots of them—but neither Vladimir Putin nor the House of Saud nor the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China claims to speak for me. When the duly elected leader of Israel presents himself as spokesman for Jews everywhere, I object vociferously. It’s bad enough to be represented by a rotten political leadership that one has participated (however meagerly, however unsuccessfully) in choosing. The principle here is simple: no loyalty without representation.

My second emotion, coupled with the first, is a compound of revulsion and outrage. Racism is out of bounds. Period. I don’t particularly care whether it comes from the weak or the strong, or from a cozy or a dangerous neighborhood. I don’t need to be reminded, thank you, that my people have been crucified by Jew-hatred and that this horrific history is far from over. And (and, not but): When a prime minister invokes race-based hysteria in a last-ditch appeal to Herrenvolk sentiments, I’m revolted. I don’t care what neighborhood this prime minister lives in.

My third emotion is righteous defensiveness. The cause of the Israeli State makes a claim on me, though not because I identify viscerally as a Zionist. My heart never beat for Zionism. I do not love the State of Israel. I do not love any State. I grew up in a Zionist household, went to a Hebrew school that took Zionism for granted, thought it was quaint that trees would be planted there in my name by a doting grandmother (who had a portrait of Chaim Weizmann on her wall, and whose husband fought in the Jewish Legion against the Ottoman Empire). I cheerfully took for granted the Zionist narrative and never heard it countered. But history rolls in one and only one direction. There it is, the State of Israel, which is, among other things, a homeland for the long-suffering Jews.

I’m reasonably well acquainted with the lengthy arguments about the founding of a Jewish State—Liel Leibovitz and I wrote extensively about them in our 2010 book, The Chosen Peoples. What I would have thought about that founding had I been more than 4 years old at the time, I don’t—can’t—know, but whatever the rights and wrongs of that founding, the Jewish State is not an idea, it is a fact, a whole tangle of facts. It has a history, and history is not pretty.

So, it’s a matter of historical fact, not a declaration from the mount of an eternally sanctioned moral imperative, that the State exists. Achieving it was monumental and essential for the Jews, and for human rights, even as the founding infringed upon the rights of others (who, in turn, not being saints, did a good deal of infringing themselves, and so on and so on). Rolling back history was not even a project Albert Camus’ beloved Sisyphus signed up for. The rock would have crushed him.

In other words, my attachment to the existence of the State of Israel, and my impatience with attempts to roll back almost seven decades, stem from my universalism—which is, by the way, in no small measure a historic achievement of the Jews and later-arising monotheists. Claiming their warrant from a designation by the One God, the God of Gods, the Jewish people, willy-nilly, for all their sins, failures, and crimes, went some distance toward affirming the unity of humankind. They unrolled a dialectic that now claims them even as their leadership renounces the claims of others for whom the State was not founded. Though I am not a monotheist in any sense that would make sense to a religious believer, I do think that in the history of humanity the monotheist movement made possible the elaboration of a single standard of justice. However much that standard is honored in the breach, it’s indispensable.

So, as I’ve written before in this space, when anyone suggests that there is one particular State whose crimes and deceptions are so grievous and foundational as to disqualify it for existence, I’m speechless. (Well, not quite.) Hence, it’s my universalism that arouses my vehement opposition to the BDS movement. It’s my universalism that guides my attachment, in recent months, to the Third Narrative project (in a phrase, pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace). This same universalism leads me to support its most recent resolution opposing all efforts, in Arab countries and others, to oppose “normalization,” their code-word for the rejection of person-to-person relations between Israelis, or their supporters, however defined, and the nationals, or supporters, however defined, of any other states. The statement says:

In North American colleges and universities there are efforts to prevent a wide range of educational and scholarly activities aimed at promoting dialogue, respectful debate, intellectual cooperation, and mutual engagement—not only between Israelis and others, but more generally between people with differing views about the intertwined Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts. On some campuses, Jewish students who fail to meet BDS litmus tests have been effectively shunned by pro-Palestinian groups and told that even to meet for discussion is “normalizing.” It is unacceptable for one group of students to stigmatize another group of students and disqualify them as legitimate participants in conversation in this way. And an ideological ban like this prevents much-needed discussion of controversial political issues, violates the principles of open intellectual exchange, and undermines the common learning enterprise for which educational institutions exist.

How appalling it is that, a year ago, a Palestinian-Muslim professor, Mohammed S. Dajani, at Al-Quds University, was punished for leading a group of Palestinian students to visit Auschwitz! How equally appalling that the courageously anti-Occupation Haaretz reporter Amira Hass was banned last fall from participating in a conference at Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, simply on the ground that she is Israeli.

Between whom, then, is peace supposed to take place one day, insh’allah? Between people who up to time t were forbidden any contact with one another but at time t+1 are supposed to suddenly sing the praises of coexistence? Between two stiff-necked, sequestered, treason-seeking, blinded, hate-infested peoples stumbling around in somebody’s fantasy of “a one-state solution”? If there are to be ever to be two secure, respectful, coexisting states on the blood-soaked ground between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, they will be built, endorsed, and inhabited by people who normalize relations. They will have to learn to live alongside what they don’t love, or even like. Otherwise, their nationalist love—their tribal affections—will swell, I must even say metastasize, beyond all proportion, and continue to curdle into hate.

I say this with emotion as well—an emotion, call it naïve, call it desperate, that loves existence in all its imperfection, that asks for a whole lot of growing up from every corner, and that would rather be called naïve than give up hope.

Todd Gitlin (1943-2022), was a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia University, and the author of among other books The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage; Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street; and, with Liel Leibovitz, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election.