Sunday, September 24, 2006

Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism

Some twenty years ago there was a row within the Jewish Socialists Group (JSG), a small organisation to which I have been affiliated from time to time. The row was over whether it was right for the group to publish a book written by one of its members, Steve Cohen, about anti-Semitism within the left. The ‘debate’ was very badly handled, and people were nasty to each other. In the end the Group did not publish the book, but a specially formed Jewish feminist collective, called Shifra, published it.

I parted company with the Group, partly about the book, partly about the way the debate was handled, and partly out of a general dissatisfaction with the way it was going; inevitably, there were some personal issues too. I didn’t write a stinging letter of resignation, I just stopped paying membership fees. Although I had been a high-profile member for a long time, no one ever sent me a renewal re-minder or asked me why I hadn’t renewed.

Recently there has been a new row going on within the JSG, about Anti-Semitism within the Anti-War movement. Some of the protagonists are the same as in the last one. Now it may be that the new row has been resolved in a more comradely way than the last one. I understand that there’s been a civil exchange of apologies between some of the parties. But the new row has persuaded me to put down a few thoughts of my own about the allegations of anti-Semitism on the left. Some of this has been brewing for some time anyway. I haven’t much enjoyed recent demonstrations by the Stop the War campaign, even when I marched with a Jewish contingent who were treated with the utmost courtesy by the organisers.

What do allegations that the left is anti-Semitic amount to? Most of it comes down to how the left treats the Israel-Palestine conflict and the question of Zionism. For some people, any criticism of Israel is either anti-Semitic in content or is motivated by anti-Semitism. It doesn’t even matter if the critics are Jews – such people are either dupes or ‘self-haters’. This is, of course, politically motivated stupidity, which is not susceptible to any rational argument or discussion.And there can be little doubt that some supporters of Israel use the ‘Anti-Zionism equals Anti-Semitism’ allegation to deflect and de-legitimise criticism of Israel and Zionism.

Nevertheless, there is a more substantial case that some of the left’s hostility to Israel and Zionism is anti-Semitic. This deserves serious consideration and reflection, not just a straightforward rejection. It seems to me that there are six main elements, which deserve a proper discussion.

· The use of anti-Semitic imagery in opposition to Israel. The best recent example of this was the New Statesman cover, which bore the headline ‘A Kosher Conspiracy?’ and showed a golden star of David standing on top of a lying-down British flag. But there are plenty of other examples, in pictures and in language. Discussions about the power of the Jewish or Zionist lobby in either the US or the UK are particularly prone to this. The suggestion that what happens in the world is because of behind-the-scenes manipulation by shadowy Jewish figures is an old one that pre-dates Zionism. These discussions usually ignore the fact that many other groups and countries maintain powerful lobbies themselves, and also seem to suggest that the US government supports Israel despite its own geo-political interests rather than because of them. Of course it isn’t anti-Semitic to draw attention to the activities of the pro-Israel lobby; but principled Socialists ought to be very careful not to appear to suggest that there is anything especially sinister about Jews being involved in lobbying activities.

· Disproportionate attention to Israel compared to other oppressive regimes. This is the suggestion that the left either ignores or doesn’t give comparable attention to other conflicts and oppression in the world (especially in Arab or Muslim countries). This is a somewhat tricky allegation – how to decide what is proportionate? Just the number of deaths, or the number of people been oppressed? And there is sometimes a response that attention to Israel comes from the historical relationship of Britain to the conflict – that Britain created the problem, so it’s incumbent on the British left to help sort it out. This doesn’t appear to count with respect to Cyprus, to Sudan (where it is directly true that the British deliberately created a problem), to or to Kashmir. Left involvement in solidarity with anyone involved in these conflicts has been minimal.

· Stricter standards applied to Israel. This is the claim that the Left is critical about negative aspects of Israel and that it is less bothered about other similar or worse breaches of human rights elsewhere. It’s not too hard to find some evidence of this. Without in any way excusing the behaviour of the Israeli military or the structures of discrimination that characterise the Israeli state, it is at least odd that there isn’t much attention given on the left to the breaches of human rights in Arab countries. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran consider eye gouging to be a legitimate judicial punishment, and courts do sentence people to have their eyes gouged out. I haven’t seen this reported in any mainstream or left paper. The answer that is given to this is usually that Israel should be judged by stricter standards because it purports to be a civilised and democratic country; I don’t get this argument at all – does that mean we should go easy on fascist dictatorships, because they’re not claiming to be democracies?

· Moral sadism in equating Zionists to Nazis. There is a nasty air that hangs around the claim that Israel fails to live up to its claims of moral superiority. The idea that the Jews set high moral standards and then fail to live up to them is a persistent theme in Christian anti-Semitism. This seems to me to be linked to the frequent association of Israeli abuses with Nazism. These parallels are rarely drawn in the context of other conflicts. The Interahamwe in Rwanda aren’t routinely compared to the Nazis, for example, even though the Rwandan genocide is often compared to the Holocaust. If this is intended as a tactical device to try to shame Jews into withdrawing support for Israel, it hasn’t been very successful. Rather, the perceived unfairness of the claim has made Jewish supporters of Israel much less likely to listen to criticism. I think that for some people, comparing the Israelis to Nazis feels like a liberation – a permission to dismiss the implicit (and sometimes explicit) Israeli claim that the Holocaust entitles the Jews to special treatment.

· Uncritical attitudes towards Arab nationalism and more recently Islamic movements. Neither Hamas, Hizbollah, nor the Muslim Brotherhood are progressive movements. They organise charitable work, care for the poor, and so on – so do plenty of reactionary Catholic, Protestant and indeed Jewish organisations. Some Islamic movements profess to be anti-Capitalist too – well, so does the Pope. But they are out and out reactionaries in their attitude towards woman, sexual minorities, Jews, criminal justice, education and just about anything else that matters. It’s worth saying, too, that the strategy and tactics of opposing the war by mass terror against the civilian populations of the warmongers’ capitals is the tactics of fascism. Opposition to Zionism, or to the war in Iraq, should not make them ‘kosher’ in the eyes of the Left.

· Anti-Semitism as an incorrect tactic. When there is an argument within the left as to whether a particular theme, argument or activity has come too close to anti-semitism, it won’t be long before someone reminds participants that appearing to be hostile to Jews (rather than Zionists) is ‘playing into the hands of the Zionists’. It’s hard to know where to start with this, particularly since the argument is often raised by people who have shown at least some sensitivity to the issue of anti-Semitism. But it‘s nevertheless wrong. Anti-Semitism should be treated as wrong in itself.

Many people on the left don’t see any problem in distinguishing between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Zionism is an ideology, and a set of organisations and institutions, whereas the Jews are an ethno-religious group. Of course you can be opposed to the first without being racist towards the second.

In reality the relationship is more complex and deserves a more serious analysis. For a start, most Zionists are Jews and – though we might wish otherwise, most Jews are Zionists. The distinction between opposing an ideology championed by most members of a group, and opposing the group itself, is conceptually possible, but maintaining it in practice requires the utmost clarity. Sadly, that clarity often hasn’t been there.

What’s more, “Zionist” has often been used as a code word for “Jew” by people who are outright anti-Semites. Much Soviet-sponsored anti-Semitism took this form – consider the loyal Jewish Stalinists who were accused of involvement in “Zionist plots” across East Europe and the USSR in the 1950s, or the vile outpourings of Soviet authors in the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, the far Right in Western Europe, in its more respectable publications, uses Zionist as a euphemism for Jew. If you start to follow the links on 9/11 conspiracy websites, often following a link from an apparently un-impeachable anti-imperialist source, you soon end up in the milieu where The Protocols are cited as a historical source. If diaspora Jews have some sort of moral obligation to say ‘Not In My Name’ regarding Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, then surely a similar imperative requires Anti-Zionists to distance themselves from this.

Perhaps more important, Zionism as an ideology contains a story about Jews, about their history, their current situation and status, and the meaning of Jewish identity; this story is only partly about Israel, the Palestinians, and the politics of the Middle East. The story is contestable, but it’s quite close to the story that most Jews believe. For example, most Jews think of their own Jewishness as an ethnic and national identity, not as a form of religious belief. This is true of most anti-Zionist Jews too – after all, how else can they protest about what is done ‘in my name’?

The commonality between the Zionist story and mainstream Jewish thinking isn’t a co-incidence. Of course it owes something to Zionist domination of Jewish organisations and institutions, particularly since the 1960s. Many Diaspora Jews believe that Israeli culture, much of it made up in the twentieth century, is their traditional culture. But it’s also because Zionism genuinely grew out of the experience and place in the world of European Jews. It wasn’t injected into their heads by some external group of manipulators. Zionism has become the dominant ideology among the Jewish communities of the world because it speaks to their concerns – the sense of insecurity, the feeling of not quite belonging, and ‘assimilation’ -- the inability to preserve a cultural legacy that is valued but not lived.

For many Jews, then, anti-Zionism means more than identification with the Palestinian side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – it also means a rejection of their story about themselves. This isn’t helped by the way that the Left from time to time engages in a direct polemic against it – arguing that the Jews are not a nation, just a religious group; Stalin’s 1913 definition often surfaces here, quoted by people who would be deeply ashamed to quote Stalin on anything else. Elsewhere there are discussions about whether Jews are really oppressed – or at least how low down on the official hierarchy of oppressions anti-Semitism ought to be placed.

But why does any of this matter? So what if honest, non-racist anti-Zionism is misconstrued as anti-Semitism? Life is complicated, shit happens, it’s not only Jews who have feelings, and it’s more important to be on the side of the oppressed than it is to be absolute correct in our formulations of support.

Well, I think it does matter.

Firstly, it matters to us – Jewish Socialists who want to be active in the Left, and to develop and argue for our own narrative of Jewishness. We need the confidence and security that comes from believing our comrades on the Left really are with us.

Secondly, it ought to matter to the Palestinians and their supporters. Of course it’s not surprising that the victims of Israel and Zionism are not terribly interested in the nuances of Jewish history. But practically and politically, it’s critical for them to be able to break up the monolith of support for Israel – to divide the liberals from the outright reactionaries, not to drive them closer together.

Finally, it ought to matter to the Left. Socialists owe it to themselves to face up to their own history, and to be truthful about it. This was the subject of Steve Cohen’s book, That’s Funny You Don’t Look Anti-Semitic. Before there was ever an issue of Zionism, there was much hostility on the Left and in the Labour Movement towards Jews – just as there was racism, homophobia and support for eugenics. There is much dirty linen that requires a good public washing. The Left is never going to be any good at multi-culturalism and ethic plurality unless it can deal properly with the Jews, the first minority immigrant culture it ever encountered.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Transmitting Torah: is this something you really want to do?

On 1st June I was invited by the North London Progressive Jewish Community to take part in a panel on ‘The Trouble with Transmitting Torah’. This is more or less what I said.

I’m the secretary of an organisation called ‘The Red Herring Club and Alternative Cheder’. I’m also one of the teachers in our little ‘cheder’, where we teach – among other things – a bit of Hebrew, some Yiddish, some folklore, and the stories of the Torah.

We describe ourselves as a secular Jewish Community based in London, oriented towards activities for children and families. We run activities and celebrate Jewish festivals and occasions in a non-religious way. We aim to preserve Jewish identity in a secular context and to foster the development and application of progressive and humanistic values.

We are a secular group, in that we are interested in those aspects of Jewish culture which form part of our identity but are not explicitly religious in form or content. I know that lots of members of Jewish communities, and synagogues as well, are actually secular Jews too, who have joined their schules as a form of cultural identification.

It’s not a condition of membership of our group that you are an atheist, but I am. I’m confident enough to say that the so-called “philosopher’s God”, the one who is necessary as a first cause in the universe or whose existence is entailed by his definition, and so on, is a logical nonsense. As it happens I don’t believe that the much more limited God in which the ancient Israelites believed, and who they wrote about in their Torah, is a logical nonsense – I just don’t think that he is a real entity.

So it ought to be straightforward to say that I don’t accept the traditional Jewish account of what the Torah is or how it came about – that is, that it was dictated in its entirety by God to Moses, all at once, on Mount Sinai (or was in on Mount Horeb?).

Very few serious biblical scholars believe this either, and those that do tend to be fundamentalists and creationists and so on. In fact, even among the orthodox, there is an internal tradition of questioning and criticising the received version of the Torah’s origins. As early as the 11th Century Abraham Ibn Ezra noticed that Deuteronomy was in a different style, and used different language, to the rest of the Torah.

These days most scholars believe that the Torah is a compilation of multiple texts, composed at different times and edited together in several stages. There are legitimate, genuine differences as to when and how this happened (If anyone wants a good introduction to the subject matter, I suggest Richard Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”), but it is possible to distinguish between several authors, each with their own particular linguistic styles and their own specific concerns. It’s possible too, to make hypotheses about what motivated these authors – among other ways, by looking at the ways in which they tell different versions of the same story.

And we can compare the narratives of the Torah with what we know from other sources – from archaeology, and from the study of other civilisations from the same time and regions – particularly Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Now there are lots of debates going on here too, but it soon becomes clear that the Torah is not a reliable historical record. To cite just one example, the story that the Israelites were descended from people who escaped from Egypt and then conquered the Land of Canaan is probably just a story. There is some strong evidence that this story was made up relatively late in the First Temple period, to serve as a justification for the foreign policies of King Josiah. (Again, if anyone wants to follow up this argument, I recommend Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman’s “The Bible Unearthed”).

Well, perhaps the Torah is not great history, but maybe it’s a source of moral inspiration. Hardly. The morality of the Torah is complex and contradictory – how could it be otherwise, with all those different authors and editors? Lots of it was never intended for moral edification, of course. The ancestor-tales of the patriarchs were meant to explain where our tribe came from and how it was different from and related to the surrounding tribes, but they weren’t meant as moral lessons – maybe a bit of celebration as to how we put one over the other lot, but that’s all. It’s later commentators who have to engage in intellectual acrobatics to try to uncover some sort of consistent morality where none was intended.

The bits where moral lessons are intended are much worse. The Torah prescribes capital punishment for a wide variety of offences, including Sabbath-breaking and disrespect of parents. It’s very keen on hierarchy and unquestioning obedience, hereditary castes and privileges. There is a lot about purity and cleanliness, and even more about the dangers of mixing things – stuff, animals, and especially people. It’s big on animal sacrifices (with really lots and lots of detail on how these should be carried out). And finally, there is a very proscriptive sexual morality, no doubt aimed at maximising reproductive performance – which has the effect of anathematising many sexual practices and relationships that most civilised people regard as matters of personal choice.

So what possible place can this have in a group that aims “to preserve Jewish identity in a secular context and to foster the development and application of progressive and humanistic values”? Why do we bother trying to teach Torah to our kids? I think that there are four arguments for doing this.

Firstly, there are some really great stories in it, and not enjoying them would be a pointless act of self-denial – like not studying the Greek or Norse myths because they weren’t historically true or morally useful. And the individual stories are more interesting and more enjoyable if you understand where they fit in the overall narrative – for example, the story of Joseph and his brothers is better for knowing that these twelve are going to be the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Knowing how these stories dovetail with other people’s – the connections between the story of Samson and those of other heroes like Herakles, for example – enhances rather than detracts from the enjoyment.

Secondly, for the sake of our overall project – preserving Jewish identity in a secular context – the Torah is important too. Now the culture and the identity that we aim to pass on to our children is not the culture of traditional Judaism, with its ritual observances. What we are trying to pass on is the critical, questioning, cosmopolitan aspects of being Jewish – not the rejection of mixing and hybridisation that we find in the Torah, but the sense of sitting across the boundary between two worlds that is, for us, at the heart of the modern Jewish experience, the identification with the alien and the outcast. Now we are aware that the culture that we are seeking to preserve is a much newer one – maybe two to three hundred years old at most. And it’s a culture that developed both in opposition to and engagement with the mainstream Jewish tradition. Our radical and revolutionary Jewish ancestors didn’t just fall from the sky, they grew out of the specific context of traditional communities, and if we want our kids to understand what that was like, they have to know about the context too – the shtetls and the shtiebels and the wonder-rabbis and all the rest of it.

Third, knowing what’s in the Torah – and the rest of the Tanakh too – is fundamental to participating in Western culture. Take Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” for example – how can you make sense of that without knowing the story of Abraham? Or the song “Go Down Moses”, which we sang at our communal seder a few weeks ago? You can’t understand how the Exodus from Egypt has become a powerful symbol of liberation for many people around the world if you don’t know what the story is. Nor can you understand half of the pictures on the walls of art galleries. Of course, for the same reason it’s necessary to know something about the made-up stories of the Christian Bible too, and the Greek and Roman classics, but hey, we’re a secular Jewish group and we can only do so much.

Fourth and finally, there is what I think is the most important of all. Learning about what is in the Torah, and how and why it came to be there, is inoculation against a dogmatic way of thinking. Right now secularists, and secular Jews, need to know the Torah at least as well as the fundamentalists.

For a long time it was commonly held on the left that religion would just die out, as the relentless advance of technology demonstrated the superiority of scientific rationalism over superstition. Well, it hasn’t worked out that way, at least not so far.

It would be nice if we lived in a secular world, where the Bible was a historical curiosity, like the epic of Gilgamesh; but we don’t. Our kids are going to grow up among people who believe that the Bible is literally true, or that it contains important moral and spiritual truths, or – particularly in our own community, and even more in Israel, that it is an important contribution to political geography. Right now, they are growing up governed by people who sometimes appear to believe that the idea that the Biblical creation is true is a legitimate point of view that should be taught in schools. Some of these people are quite clever, and persuasive too.

For the moment, then, it’s important for secularists to know what is really in the Bible – to know the stories in all their magnificently contradictory details, and if possible to know how they got to be there too. Studying Torah – from a secular perspective – is one way to deal with fundamentalism. It’s not the only way – we could just say “it’s a load of superstitious rubbish, just ignore it” – but I’d rather put my trust in understanding and education.