Liberal Citizenship, not ‘Jewish Identity’

An abiding feature of the Palestine question in the United States since 1967 has been a “Jewish left,” which combines Jewish affirmation with criticism of Israel’s occupation of the territories it conquered in that war. A 1973 anthology of writings from the “Jewish radicalism” movement stated: “in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967, an upsurge of Jewish consciousness hit the campuses, and a new voice—what we call the ‘Jewish Left’—appeared. Young Jews began to make demands for ‘Jewish studies’ programs, to publish Jewish underground newspapers, to criticize Israeli policies while defending Zionism against Arab and pro-Arab attacks, and to confront the Jewish Establishment for ‘selling out’ to the ‘American dream’ while ignoring the needs of the Jewish community.”

Thirty years later, journalist Esther Kaplan described “the old school of Jewish activism on Palestine…organizations from Breira in the 1970s to New Jewish Agenda, International Jewish Peace Union, the Road to Peace and Women in Black in the 1980s and early ’90s.” These activists followed “the star of identity politics;” they felt personally implicated by Israel’s deeds, saw a strategic role for themselves, and felt that changing the views of the US Jewish community was possible and necessary. After the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) began in 2000, Kaplan found all this “anachronistic.” She described new organizations such as the International Solidarity Movement, and the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement (BDS). and concluded: “We Jews can join in—many of us will—but we don’t own this movement any more.”

Yet the Jewish left has thrived. It is not uniform, and exists in more and less sophisticated forms, but it is noticeable. It is the subject of a new book by David Landy, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights. Landy is the former head of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and earned his PhD at Trinity College, Dublin. Landy’s main focus is the British “Israel-critical diaspora Jewish movement,” in his careful phrase. He notes that the UK movement became important only after the second Intifada, while elsewhere in Europe and Australia, movements arose only after Israel’s assaults on Lebanon in 2006, and especially on Gaza in 2008-9. Obviously that is not true in the US, whose movements’ “size and dynamism” make them the most important case.

In his introduction, Landy states that this movement seeks “to challenge Zionist hegemony among fellow Jews and to challenge Israel, speaking as Jews…who oppose Israel” so that we “do not conflate the two.” This formulation at once raises questions, beginning with the meaning of “Jew.” A religious definition is clear, as one who practices Judaism, but a secular definition is not, in fact, secular Jewish nationality is precisely what Zionism claims, and what many in Landy’s movement claim.

Landy’s background is Jewish, but he states that being a “movement activist is more important than shared Jewishness.” He also notes that many people of Jewish background are “active in society-wide groups…rather than specifically Jewish ones,” so that his study understates diaspora Jewish opposition to Israel. More important, the choice to work in “society-wide groups” sets a universalist benchmark to judge the choice to work in Jewish groups. The book is a sustained critique of identity politics, yet Landy does not fully comprehend his subject, in part because the UK movement, his main focus, is not the most illustrative example, which is in the US. Still, Landy’s rigor and honesty inevitably raise wider questions, and his book is a welcome contribution.

Entire article (PDF, 21 p + notes) at
Liberal Citizenship, not ‘Jewish Identity’

The entire piece appeared on DissidentVoice on February 14, 2012.
Liberal Citizenship, not ‘Jewish Identity’

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