Webinar Review: Three Perspectives On Anti-Zionism And “The Conversion Of The Jews”
When I was boarding at a missionary school in Jerusalem before Israel’s ’67 annexation of that city, the system of education was still largely colonial — we followed a British curriculum and private schools prepared students to sit for the British General Certificate of Education; the language of instruction was English. Today, this same school in Jerusalem (Schmidt’s Girls College by Damascus Gate — Bab al ‘Amoud) is still under colonial pressure to teach a colonial curriculum — this time an Israeli one.
I bring this up because a memory surfaced from my school days in Jerusalem, as I was listening yesterday to a webinar on anti-Zionism. It was a memory of studying a poem by Andrew Marvell— specifically the line, “And you should, if you please, refuse / Till the conversion of the Jews.”
In “To his Coy Mistress,” the persona of the poet addresses a woman whom he perceives as being coy, holding herself back from him physically and emotionally and playing with his ardor. He launches into a big “let’s seize the day” argument, using Biblical imagery to envision the extreme length of time she could spend wastefully being coy or the needless length of time he could love her (ten years before the Flood) before getting to third base— hence, the image of the “conversion of the Jews,” meaning, an impossibly long time.
As a young Muslim girl in Jerusalem, the many allusions to Judaism and Christianity slipped past me, and our whole Palestinian class, Muslim and Christian, got an education about Christian relations with the Jews in seventeenth century England — the same foreign European Jews who, we understood, dispossessed us and were living in my grandfather’s home just a few kilometers away.
Yesterday, while listening to an American rabbi and an orthodox Jew talk about anti-Zionism, that phrase from my school days leapt into my mind, unbidden, as an apt metaphor for the unconscionably long time it is taking before anti-Zionism goes mainstream and becomes a force against injustice the way anti-antisemitism is a force today on behalf of Jews.
The webinar is titled: Three Perspectives on Anti-Zionism: A Conversation Between Miko Peled, Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro, and Prof. Norton Mezvinsky. I was familiar with Miko Peled’s perspective as an Israeli in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, but not with that of the other two who spoke from an orthodox-Jewish-centric perspective.
The effect on me of this webinar contrasted greatly with the effect of another webinar I watched recently on the same subject of anti-Zonism, The End of Zionism: Thoughts and Next Steps with Ali Abunimah, Nada Elia and Philip Weiss. Ali Abunimah and the other participants, as I describe here, gave me a jolt of hope. This one, in contrast, made me feel despondent.
It’s not that I learned anything new in a factual sense from the discussion— I have all the books from Jabotinsky to Elmer Berger to Judith Butler. It’s just the way they were talking, dwelling on the consequences of what both agreed is a hateful ideology turned into an invented religion. In listing the reasons that drove him to be antagonistic to Zionism, for example, Prof. Mezvinsky lists the dispossession of Palestinians last! The righteous passion I was looking for surfaced only when they were discussing the warping of their religion.
Rabbi Shapiro makes a passionate and convincing case that National Judaism is a “fake religion,” posing his orthodox Judaism as the real thing. He takes the Zionist assault personally as an assault against his faith: “I never came to oppose Zionism; they came to oppose me.” He had horribly nasty things to say about early Zionists, especially Hertzl and Jabotinsky, as self-hating Jews: “They figured out a way to be Jews but non-Jews at the same time.”
I wasn’t so much interested in that perspective and wished the conversation would veer to an exploration of the supremacist/segregationist components of Zionism, because it is the consequences of those particular beliefs that matter to me. But Rabbi Shapiro continued to focus on the outrage of what he perceived as a theft of the identity of Jews: “Murder it, kill it, it’s all political propaganda, the whole history of Jews taught in [Israeli] schools is mythology … false names [changing their Polish names to Hebrew-sounding names] and false history.”
Hardly any words from the speakers (other than Peled) about how the Zionist project had falsified and literally erased our heritage, at the same time it was falsifying Jewish history. I understand that Rabbi Shapiro knows these facts and does not condone them. But his focus appeared to marginalize our plight in his consciousness. In his remarks, he emphasized his identity as an American orthodox Jew with a Polish background to whom the politics of Israel is as remote as the politics of any conflict would be in other areas of the globe (he mentioned China). When he touched on American aid to Israel, he quickly dismissed the question by saying that, as an American, he believes America should do what is in its best interests and, unfortunately, aligning itself strategically with Israel is in its best interest.
In both these speakers’ perspective of anti-Zionism, there was nothing that could lead us to “the end of Zionism,” nothing that would give Palestinian listeners a sense of their solidarity against anti-Zionists as a common endeavor for justice and liberation from oppression. Indeed, for Shapiro, a more immediate struggle that seemed to gnaw at him was between his religion and the derogatory “perceptions of a group of liberal Jews” towards it.
So, what I want to say, in conclusion, is that these two American Jewish speakers blisteringly fixed blame on Zionism as iniquitous, but distanced themselves from its consequences to Palestinians. It is as if we, as Palestinians in America, and they, as Jews in America, are living in parallel universes that overlap only tangentially. Theirs is a Jewish-centered perspective that essentially pulls apart from us. At the center, for us, is ethnic cleansing, apartheid, dispossession, racism, supremacy, and injustice, perpetrated at the hands of settler Jews — it is irrelevant what kind of Jewishness they possess.
Their focus, inadvertently, seemed to condemn us to suffering and death — the forces of National Judaism are diabolical, pervasive and seemingly immovable, they said, but that religion is not their religion.
For me, this attempt to explain or contextualize the grotesque nature of Zionism only added to its insult. It made me feel demoralized and I had trouble sleeping last night, thinking about how long it will take until the “conversion of the Jews” — Zionist Jews.
In a comment to this post that I am now incorporating here, Terri Ginsberg, assistant professor of film at The American University in Cairo, expresses a reaction to the webinar informed by what she describes as “Judaic supremacy.” It is the kind of insight I would like to understand better:
I was saddened by the intellectual limitations of the webinar — a nostalgia for the ostensible ideals of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy, which ignores the chauvinism, racism and (hetero)sexism, not to mention the conservative class politics, that are so central to that sect of Judaism and that render its ostensible anti-Zionism but the ironic flipside of the orthodox Jewish settler mentality of which Mezvinsky has previously been so critical, for example in his co-authored book on the subject with Israel Shahak, entitled Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. In this nostalgic context, the horrific effects of the implementation of Zionism on Palestinians is secondary to its role in having tarnished the “true” Judaism, for which the “return” to “Zion” is understood as a messianic rather than political phenomenon, to take place in some god-given future that can only be realized if all Jews, defined biopolitically, by maternal birthright, return to the religious “fold.” Yet to separate the mystical from the material is sheer ideological pretense. In fact, what Yaakov Shapiro upholds as anti-Zionism should really be understood as a less explicit, more abstract form of Zionism — Judaic supremacy — just waiting to enter the fray through the back door. If Judaism really wants to “redeem” itself — and the world — from the deleterious effects of Zionism, it needs — as does any religion for which an ideology of divine promise is central — to rid itself of this essential narcissism, and all of its hermeneutic registers. That means, first and foremost, recognizing itself in the humanity of Palestinians rather than within the bygone walls of medieval European ghettos. Only then will it be able to claim a genuine anti-Zionist position, one for which the struggle of displaced and dispossessed Palestinian victims of Zionism holds critical priority. And only then, in turn, will it be justified in claiming to uphold Judaism’s purported mandate: the passionate intellectual pursuit of what is right and just.
It is fair to state that the question for each speaker in this webinar was how they became anti-Zionist. They began, as Americans, from their Jewish circumstances. I am not concluding that they aren’t concerned with Palestine, only that I felt the focus on the warping of Judaism as an impetus to anti-Zionism did not speak to me much.
Elmer Berger, Prof. Norton Mezvinsky’s influence, was very concerned about Palestine. In 1946, The American Council for Judaism (ACJ) testified to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in DC arguing that only a single democratic state would work, that the Jewish population could only be considered Palestinians of Jewish religion. Berger opposed US support for Israel and promoted Arab views his entire life. He received a hero’s welcome when he visited the region in 1955. He co-authored the 1975 UN resolution on Zionism as a form of racism. Mezvinsky was at his side throughout and did similar work.
Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank