Books Review


Edited By Seth Farber, Common Courage Press, 2005, ISBN: 1-56751-326-3 Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Zionism’s imperialist agenda needs no elaboration. Nor does the close symbiotic relationship that Zionism has consistently enjoyed with the American establishment and, today, with the Christian Right. Much has already been written about this. However, what these writings leave out or else treat only summarily is the vocal, though admittedly small and feeble, minority of Jews, mainly representing various shades of the Left, who are passionately anti-Zionist and are among the most passionate critics of Israel and Israeli policies.

This timely book articulates this little-known dissident American Jewish perspective on Israel, Zionism and Western Imperialism. In his preface, the editor, Seth Farber, an American leftist scholar-activist of Jewish background, berates the vast majority of American Jews and Jewish organisations for confusing Judaism with uncritical support for Israel, and, in this way, supporting the ruthless acts of terror of the Israeli state. The ideology of the ‘Jewish state’ has, he laments, become a surrogate religion, a substitute for Judaism. Consequently, critics of Israel, including Jewish dissidents, are branded as heretics. Yet, from a strictly Jewish religious perspective, Farber argues, the ‘worship’ of Israel that is central to the Zionist imagination is akin to idolatry, the most heinous sin imaginable according to the Jewish faith.

Farber sees his book and the voices of American Jewish critics he captures herein as what he calls an affirmation of the moral and spiritual tradition of Judaism, which, he argues, is threatened with extinction by Israeli and pro-Israeli American policies. Some of the people he interviews are religious, practising Jews. Others are Jewish only in name. All, however, register their dissent in the name of, and at least partly for, their Jewish-ness itself. Almost all of them are unanimously opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, support the Palestinian uprising as a just and moral struggle against oppression and condemn Israel and its American patron, likening their policies to South African apartheid. They are all bitterly critical of the notion that a Jewish state in Palestine is the solution to the “Jewish Problem”, which is essentially a White Christian creation. Some of them call for the annihilation of Israel as a state, while others demand a secular state or a bi-national state in Palestine for all people living there. They fiercely denounce what they decry as the myth of Israel’s eternal innocence, so central to Zionist, Christian fundamentalist and American neo-conservative discourse. Likewise, they critique what they describe as the myth of Israel as being the only ‘democratic’ or ‘progressive’ state in the Middle East, which is supported by the memory of the Holocaust which is routinely mobilised to provide sanction to the Zionist imperialist project.

The more religious among the Jewish dissidents who speak out in the pages of this book dismiss the notion, so basic to Zionist and Christian fundamentalist ideology, of ‘God’s Covenant with Israel’, through which the Zionist project has sought to provide Biblical sanction for the illegal occupation of Palestine. This covenant, these critics contend, is not a promise for privilege, but, rather, a call to serve others, which, they point out, is hardly consistent with robbing others of their lands, which is precisely how the state of Israel came into being. They see their denunciation of Israel and of America’s uncritical support to the Zionist state as an expression of their commitment to the memory of past Jewish suffering by denouncing crimes committed by Israel on the Palestinians. Some of them mince no words in calling Israel a terrorist state, bent on the destruction of the entire Palestinian people. Jews who uncritically support Israel, the majority among the American Jewry, they argue, are actually betraying their own religion by sanctioning oppression.

These critics of Israel and Israeli oppression see their task as a continuation of the prophetic tradition in their own religion, rather than being a betrayal of it. Being true to this tradition requires them to denounce their co-religionists who passionately back the Zionist state. Most American Jews, they argue, have ‘displaced their relation with God’ by substituting Israel in God’s place, and, as Farber aptly puts it in his preface, ‘the vicarious identification of most American Jews with the state of Israel has eclipsed their recognition of their identity and vocation as the people of Israel who are bound by an ancient covenant to the God of all nations’. Their sanction to the oppression of the Palestinians by the American-backed Israeli state, they insist, is ‘a suicidal abnegation of Jewish identity […], a manifestation of Jewish self-hatred, precisely because of the fact that […] it is not possible to consider Judaism without justice’. Hence, they call for Jews to denounce Israeli crimes in order to be true to their own Jewish faith and to the God of justice. Prophetic Judaism, Farber paraphrases them as saying, inspires them ‘to seek God’s justice, not to subordinate the good of humanity to the maintenance of tribal or national allegiances, not to commit the sin of idolatry to worship the state as God and Master’. The ‘cult of Israel’ which, they argue, most American Jews follow in pace of Prophetic Judaism, is, they insist, a crime against God and the Jewish faith and its moral heritage and spiritual ideals.

A brilliant critique of the Zionist project argued from a Jewish religious perspective is provided by Joel Kovel, a noted American Jewish political scientist. He takes on the hollow notion of Jewish ‘exceptionalism’ (reflected in the belief in the Jews as God’s chosen people, possessors of a particularly high moral, ethical and religious standard), which Zionism builds on but which he dismisses as primitive tribal logic and as ‘Zionist perversion’. He goes so far as to call for the annihilation of the Israeli state and what he calls the Israeli ‘settler-colonial society’, equating it with apartheid South Africa and the Warsaw ghetto. He insists that the state of Israel is illegal, built on the robbery of other people’s lands, a product of the machinations of Europeans, including European Jews, for whose crimes Arabs were forced to pay for no fault of their own. Hence, he stresses, Israel is essentially a racist construct and a product of white racism. He pleads with his fellow Jews to realise that Zionism is a ‘horrible mistake’ tantamount to ‘ethnocracy’ and to acknowledge ‘how stifling Zionism is to the notion of Judaism’. He also condemns the notion of Greater Israel, so dear to Christian fundamentalists and Zionists, seeing it as akin to a call for extermination of Palestinians and others opposed to the Christian fundamentalist and Zionist agenda.

A similar critique of Zionism from within the Jewish religious framework is offered by Daniel Boyarin, an Orthodox Jew and professor of Talmudic Culture. He denounces the Zionists’ literalist interpretation of the Torah that is used to justify Israeli crimes, including expansionism, invasion of other countries and widespread killing and torture of non-Jews, stressing that this has led to racism, xenophobia and militarism. Likewise, another Orthodox Jew, Rabbi David Weiss speaks about his own group of practising Jews, Neturei Karta, who have consistently been opposed to the state of Israel. Arguing from a religious perspective, he claims that God gave the Children of Israel the land of Palestine many centuries ago but on the condition that they should live up to the covenant they established with Him—to establish justice and love throughout the world. However, since they failed to do so, God sent them into exile. Hence, the Rabbi says, the notion of the Return and of the state of Israel are clearly opposed to the Will of God. Instead, he argues, the Jews must reconcile themselves to being in ‘exile’, without a country of their own, because exile, he says, is for them a ‘time of mission’, ‘an opportunity for Jews to fulfil the mission to the nations’, providing ‘light’ to all, in contrast to the terror and violence that, he says, the state of Israel has for decades been relentlessly promoting and engaging in. In fact, the Rabbi argues, Zionism is aimed at transforming the Jews into a ‘Godless people’, with the state of Israel taking the place in the hearts and minds of Jews that is rightly God’s. Zionism is, he minces no words in saying, the ‘diametric opposite of Judaism’. Accordingly, he exhorts faithful Jews to ‘pray to G-d for the speedy and peaceful dismantling of the state of Israel’.

Other American Jewish voices contained in this book do not argue from a strictly Jewish religious perspective but, nonetheless, provide valuable perspectives on the Zionist project. Noam Chomsky offers a brilliant critique of the American-Israeli nexus and suggests a political set-up similar to the Ottoman millet system as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Stever Quester of ‘Jews Against Occupation’ expresses his solidarity with the Palestinian resistance movement, seeing it as an anti-imperialist struggle. Norton Mezvinsky, professor of History, speaks out against American media reporting on Israel and Palestine, which he sees as totally uncritical of the former. He boldly denounces the powerful influence of the Zionist lobby in American politics, including neo-conservative Jews in the present Bush administration as well as the enormously powerful Christian Zionists. He rightly sees them as major forces behind American imperialist aggression, directed particularly against Muslim countries.

Ora Wissa, founder member of the Ohio State Committee for Justice in Palestine, decries US policy and what he calls Israeli colonialism and the ‘unconditional loyalty’ of the overwhelming majority of American Jews to Israel. He sees Zionism as a ‘fascistic definition of Jewish identity and Jewish community’, based on the fallacious notion of the Jewish community being inseparable from the state of Israel. In this way, Zionism is, he insists, leading to the destruction of the diversity and continuity of Jewish critical thought. Like several other scholar-activists who speak out in this book, he sees Zionism as a racist project and as wrongly equating the oppressive conditions under which European Jews had to live for centuries in white European Christian lands with the experience of Jews in non-white countries, such as the Arab world or India, where Jewish minorities were always much better treated. Hence, non-white Jews, who are the majority among the worldwide Jewish community, are wrongly taught that the Holocaust or European Jewish history is their history.

Repeating many of the points that Wissa makes but amplifying some of them further, Normah Finkelstein, son of a Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, debunks the Zionist myth that Palestine was an empty, barren land, devoid of people, before the Jews came to populate and ‘civilise’ it. He denounces what he sees as the repellent chauvinism of Zionism, the belief in the uniqueness of Israel and of the suffering of the Jews, the hatred inherent in Zionism for non-Jews (‘Gentiles’), particularly Muslims or Arabs as well as the violent crimes committed by the Israeli state and civilians against the Palestinians ever since the illegal founding of the state of Israel.

This remarkable book is a real eye-opener, and no one interested in Middle Eastern affairs, international relations more generally as well as inter-faith relations can afford to miss it. Besides forcefully denouncing Zionism and American imperialism it also indirectly critiques radical Islamist demagogues, many of whom see all Jews as necessarily anti-Muslim and even as evil and Satanic. The power, passion and sincerity with which the people interviewed in this book speak are enough to debunk that fallacious theory. Collectively, they point to what Marc Ellis, professor of Jewish Studies, who is also interviewed in this book, says is the urgent need for ‘revolutionary’ Jews, Muslims, Christians and others committed to a more just world to struggle together, each inspired by their own prophetic traditions.

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