Sunlit Water

June 8, 2007


Filed under: Culture,Personal,Politics — by teofilo @ 2:07 am

I’ve always had a complicated attitude toward Judaism. I consider myself Jewish in the traditional matrilineal sense, and would be so considered by all but the most hard-line orthodox (the crucial issue being the circumstances of my grandmother’s conversion, about which I know nothing), and my Jewishness in practice is indistinguishable from that of numerous other educated, secular young Jews, but I often get the feeling when I’m around such people that my inner thinking about the religion and what it means to me is very different from theirs. This was particularly true during my college years, and as a result I avoided Hillel events and pretty much all activities of Jewish organizations except High Holy Day services. Even though my marginal level of religious observation, basically limited to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the Seder, was similar to that of many other people on campus, those others tended to have a highly developed sense of cultural Judaism as an important part of their identity, and they spent a lot of time at things like Shabbat dinner at the kosher dining hall and other Hillel events that were much more social than religious in nature and often oriented toward finding a nice Jewish boy or girl that their parents would approve of. I got the impression that this was basically a continuation of the way these people had lived their lives before college; they came from areas with large Jewish populations and the circles they ran in were even more heavily Jewish, so a college social life that revolved around Hillel and the Jewish frats (which were numerous) made perfect sense for them.

It didn’t make much sense for me, though. I grew up mainly in New Mexico, which is not a state known for Judaism. I was heavily involved in my synagogue and youth group in high school and enjoyed interacting with the other members of the small, tight-knit Albuquerque Jewish community, but there was something about being a tiny minority in an obscure corner of the country that fostered a kind of camaraderie and common acceptance of the fact that accommodation to the dominant society was an unavoidable necessity that led to a casual, easy-going attitude toward relations between Jews and Gentiles that I found quite congenial. When I got to college, there was none of that. Jews were Jews, and they mostly kept to themselves socially, the way they always had. I was uncomfortable with that, and didn’t see much need to deal with the Jewish community more than was absolutely necessary to keep up my minimal level of ritual practice. I had friends of my own, few of whom were Jewish.

The more pressing problems I had with the campus Jewish community, however, were political. My time at college happened to coincide with a major turning point in American Judaism, due to events in the Middle East reaching a boiling point after the long, slow simmer of the nineties. The second intifada and 9/11 made the major American Jewish institutions, as well as many American Jews who had not paid much attention before, fall into lockstep behind the policies of the Israeli government under Sharon and then Olmert (and, to a lesser degree, the policies of the Bush administration as well). I had the misfortune to arrive in a much more heavily Jewish environment than I’d seen before at just the moment when American Jews were circling the wagons, so my growing alienation from organized Judaism was only reinforced by my increasing disenchantment with Zionism.

Growing up, I had always been a fairly staunch though not entirely unreflective Zionist; support for Israel was so thoroughly entrenched as an essential component of American Jewish life even at that point that there was no real alternative. I remember once, when trouble was starting to brew in the Middle East in the late nineties, starting to become dismayed enough at the stridently pro-Israel Jewish press that I decided, as a radical act of adolescent rebellion, to take the Palestinian side, purely as a reductio ad absurdem in reaction to the excesses of the pro-Israel side. It never even occurred to me that this was something someone (other than the silly hippie types we looked down on and who I still believe were doing it mainly to have a cause to champion) might sincerely do.

That teenage decision didn’t take, but over time my doubts about the Zionist project only deepened.  When my rabbi claimed in his sermon right after 9/11 that the attacks were precipitated by American support for Israel against the attempt by Arab nations at a recent UN summit to declare Zionism a type of racism, I was furious.  The Jewish community, which I loved and had played an active role in, seemed to be rapidly spiraling into a black hole of ugly nationalism, and I wanted no part in it.  I began to wonder if Zionism itself, which was, after all, a type of nationalism, could really be separated from the current nastiness or even supported in good conscience at all.  Was there anything to it, really, other than the feeling that we had to support Israel because we were Jews and it was our land?  It had never felt like my land; I had (and have) never been there and didn’t have any family or close friends there, and I felt a much stronger attachment to the US, the place where I was born and had lived all my life, and where the non-Jewish side of my family had roots going back centuries.  Was there any reason for me to support Israel besides my religion?  That no longer seemed like enough.

In the summer of 2004 I took a trip with some of my dad’s cousins.  We went to a family reunion in northeastern Colorado, then drove up to Yellowstone.  It was a very nice vacation, and I got to see some parts of the country I’d never seen before even though they weren’t very far from where I grew up.  We ended up in Jackson, Wyoming, which is a very pleasant, walkable little resort town with some good bookstores.  In one of them I bought a book called The Fate of Zionism, by Arthur Hertzberg.  It was largely an account of the history of the Zionist movement by one of the leading liberal Zionist intellectuals of today, and as a history it was quite good, the most evenhanded telling of the story I’ve ever seen.  It shaped my thinking about Israel and its options a great deal, and I still retain a certain fondness for Hertzberg’s conclusion (shared by Tony Judt, among others) that ultimately the only way to solve the mess is to create a single secular state out of what is now Israel and the occupied territories, though I concede that there is a lot of merit to the objections to this plan on practical grounds.

There was one way, however, that Hertzberg’s book disappointed me, and that was in its justification for Zionism in the first place (an issue that concerned me a lot at the time, and one of the main things I bought the book for).  He basically argued that if you say Israel is illegitimate you would have to say the United States is illegitimate on the same grounds, and you wouldn’t want to do that, would you?  Needless to say, I found this unconvincing; I knew enough about Native American history to find the idea that the US is fundamentally illegitimate not at all shocking, and I therefore concluded that Zionism was insupportable and stopped considering myself a Zionist.

There was a time, still just barely within living memory, when anti-Zionism was a strong force within Judaism, and indeed in the early twentieth century it was the dominant position and Zionism was a strange fringe movement of visionaries and intellectuals.  Now, of course, the positions are reversed, and even most of the harshest critics of current Israeli policies still consider themselves supporters of the basic idea of a Jewish state.  Among the more strident pro-Israel voices there is a tendency to condemn any criticism of Israel as evidence of anti-Semitism, even among fellow Jews (they used to use “self-hating” for this, but they seem to have upped the ante), and a related tendency to conflate Judaism and Zionism and cast the Israeli-Palestinian issue as a binary choice between full-throated support for Israel and support for Muslim hordes pushing Jews into the sea.  This is a false dichotomy, of course; it’s fully possible to object to Israeli policy and still support the continued existence of the State of Israel as it exists now, and I would even argue that it’s possible to believe, as I do, that the creation of Israel was a tragic mistake for the Jewish people without wanting to somehow undo it.  Indeed, Israel, like the US, isn’t going anywhere, and declaring that the foundation of either of those countries was ethically murky needn’t conflict with sympathy and compassion for their current inhabitants.

I’ve kept quiet about my feelings on this issue so far, except for a few posts here and there, but I was inspired to speak out by some very interesting recent articles on similar issues by Tony Karon (via Unfogged) and Philip Weiss (via Gawker).  Karon’s post, like Hertzberg’s book, points to the Six-Day War as the turning point when Israel’s behavior became insupportable and the previously secular Zionist project became dangerously entangled with messianic religious ideas, though Karon seems less enchanted with Zionism as a whole than Hertzberg.  This is a common idea in liberal Zionist circles, and it makes a great deal of sense from that perspective.  From my non-Zionist (I won’t quite go so far as to say anti-Zionist due to possible confusion between Israel the ideal and Israel the actual country) perspective, 1967 marks an important juncture as well, when Israel added a whole new set of ethical dilemmas to those raised by its dubious origins and gained a whole new and broader set of enemies, and may have caused some previous supporters, like me, to begin to question the whole idea of having a Jewish state in the first place.  If the worldwide Jewish community made a huge mistake in 1948 by casting their lot with the Zionists, Israel made at least as big a mistake in 1967 by squandering much of the good will that had accrued to it in the previous twenty years and dredging up the same old conflicts between Jew and Gentile that had been going on for centuries, only this time with the Jew in the role of unjust oppressor.

As for me, well, I still don’t know what to think about the whole mess.  Mostly I try to avoid it.


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