בסיעתא דשמיא

Writing

  • Poetry

Tweets


Wherever I live, that is my ‘Homeland’ — a Response to Zionists on the Jewish and Christian Right

For the last several years I’ve become concerned with a movement on the right, an alliance between Christian Zionists in the U.S. and Israel’s Likud party-flavored right-nationalist Zionism. Something I heard Sarah Palin say back in 2009 in an interview with Barbara Walters raised my eyebrow and Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic was quick to highlight it.

I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand. [Emphasis mine]

Now, like Goldberg, I wondered why exactly Palin might be expecting such an immigration and whether she had American Jews in mind or whether this was more of a worldwide and apocalyptic sort of vision. Perhaps, you might think, she was predicting the emigration of French Jewry already terrorized and lacking confidence in the state of France to protect them. Or you might say, Sarah Palin says a lot of crazy things. But ethnic nationalist separatists make strange bedfellows (and say strange things). Last year (2015) came this bizarre statement of revisionist history by Bibi Netanyahu in which Hitler’s initial motive could be described as more in line with those of common xenophobes and racial separatists. Rather, Netanyahu asserts, it was an alliance with the Arabs and specifically Haj Amin al-Husseini, grand mufti of Jerusalem, which attracted Hitler to genocide over exile.

In a speech before the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu described a meeting between Husseini and Hitler in November, 1941: “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jew. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here (to Palestine).’ According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”

Netanyahu’s normalizing of Hitler may seem shocking coming from the Prime Minister of the State of Israel seventy years after the Holocaust. (Less so, perhaps, in the interest of further demonizing Arab Palestinian political power.) I’m certainly concerned how statements like these further work to entrench mistrust between Israeli Jews and stateless Palestinians. What worries me also is how his revisionist history might be received by political parties on the nationalist right in Europe and the US. Ascendant far-right political parties in eastern Europe, like Jobbik in Hungary, benefit from having the neo-Nazi symapthies and the anti-Semitic prejudices of their supporters reframed as anti-Communist. By emboldening right-wing interests, talk like this can destabilize Jewish communal security threatened by right-wing anti-Semitism. In the U.S., what may serve the realpolitik and increasingly zero-sum goals of right-wing conservatives for liberal/progressive/radical Jews to leave the US? I fear that the white separatist vision of a Jew-free America is given cover by Zionist interests in Jewish emigration. Within the mythical worldview of Christian Zionists, largely philo-Semitic followers of Dominionist theology, I deeply worry on how Netanyahu’s idea of Hitler’s motives might be reinterpreted. For messianic thinkers, both Jewish and Christian, a Divine hand is regularly interpreted in the shaping of world history. For them, maybe American Jews need a little push to “return to their homeland in Israel” to live in settlements gated communities in the West Bank Judea, Samaria, and Benyamin.

Given that 71% of Jews in the last election voted for Hillary Clinton and Jewish progressives have loudly objected to Trump’s win, I can well understand how Christan Zionists would want to bolster the position of the nearly 30% of American Jewish voters sympathetic with their interests. I think Chrisitan Zionists find it challenging to respond to those Jews they find themselves in regular political disagreement while maintaining their philo-Semitic bona fides. Either in frustration or in appeasement to a simmering anti-Semitism barely concealed, it’s not too difficult to yield to the sort of nasty speech that I imagine once led to Leo Frank’s lynching a hundred years ago in Marietta, Georgia.

Just last week, newly tapped US Ambassador to Israel and former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, helped to circulate a story promulgated by the Conservative Tribune, as well as in web forums and social media, identifying two teens that had vandalized a Chicago church as “Jewish liberals.” Although the incident occurred in March 2016, the “news” was circulated without a date and so was recontextualized within the scrum of the demonstrations, marches, and other protests against Donald Trump’s apparent electoral victory on November 9th. Huckabee later apologized.

As a Jewish American on the political left, when I hear Indiana Governor and soon to-be US Vice President speak to ‘Israel Republicans’ and assert that “[Israel] is hated by too many progressives because she is successful and her people are free,”[1]Around the 1 minute, 20 second mark I am reminded that for Christian Zionists in the US there may be good Jews and bad Jews, the former situated as allied proxies in Israel, the latter remaining here as either allied Jewish Republicans or as political inconvenience.

Who are these hateful progressives? Pence doesn’t need to be very specific. He can leave that to the imaginations of his “Israel Republican” listeners. Perhaps they’ll think of Quakers, Rachel Corrie, the Gaza flotilla, or the BSD movement. Perhaps they’ll think of JStreet or Breaking the Silence. Who knows? Ambiguity works for widely casting aspersions. This sort of baiting really disturbs me since, for both outspoken Israeli and Diaspora Jews, those who are openly critical of Israeli state policies and actions risk having their Jewish identity questioned. These purity tests for establishing authentic identity used to be only the obnoxious habit of Jews being nasty to each other, but I fear now that non-Jewish Republicans like Pence are onto our social wedge issue, they will readily enter the fray of intra-communal Jewish politics.

In such an atmosphere of distrust, there seems to me to be some need for Jews on the left to band together and assert their right to be Jews wherever they live, without needing to move to the State of Israel or conform to Zionist orthodoxies.[2]If the State of Israel did not also identify as a “Jewish state,” I wouldn’t feel as obligated in defending my Jewish identity and values from being over-written by the State that claims to represent them. Thus, I feel the need to proclaim and loudly, that Wherever I live, that is my homeland!, a declaration directed towards Christian and Jewish Zionists, secular, religious, and messianic. My great-grandparents emigrated here a century ago from Romania, Hungary, and Italy and struggled greatly to find a more comfortable and less dangerous life here for their children and grandchildren. The multi-cultural and pluralistic civil society that my family has contributed to is one that I believe is worthy to continue building, correcting, and celebrating. I am under no delusion of the forces at work that would undermine this society, but I will work for progress here to the degree that my privilege affords me such effort.

I first found this rallying cry pronounced on a Bundist poster circulated in Kiev, Ukraine in 1918, דאָרטען, װאוּ מיר לעבען, דארט איז אונזער לאנד (Wherever we live, that is our ‘homeland’!) — a bold and important statement against land-based ethnic nationalism, especially in the revolutionary context of Ukraine in 1918 where universalist and socialist Bundism was competing with particularist Zionism.

Wherever we live is our homeland (Yiddish) - from a Bundist poster (Kiev, 1918). The image was revived by the band Black Ox Orkestar around 2003/4. The image was posterized with an English translation added by Aharon Varady.

Wherever we live is our homeland (Yiddish) – from a Bundist poster (Kiev, 1918). The image was revived by the band Black Ox Orkestar around 2003/4. The image was posterized with an English translation added by Aharon Varady.

“To understand the Bundist idea of “homeland,” [one must be familiar with] the Bundist concept of “here-ness” (doykayt) contra an ascendant Zionism,” explains Ari who introduced me to the image. In “Jewish Alternatives to Zionism,” Bernett Muraskin provides some background:

The Jewish Labor Bund, founded in Vilna in 1897, reached its prime in Poland between WWI and WWII as the representative of the Jewish working class, supported by other elements of the Jewish community as well, because it was seen as a champion of Jewish rights. The Bund advocated for socialist revolution — not in the Bolshevik authoritarian manner — but still a radical transformation of society. As such, they saw their task as uniting with non-Jewish socialists in struggling to achieve this objective. Their principle was doykayt — here-ness. “Here” being the Diaspora. For the Bund, Jews were primarily a people whose roots were in Eastern Europe, with Yiddish as their language and Yiddish as the basis of their culture. They should preserve their language and culture by struggling for cultural autonomy within Eastern Europe. What this autonomy would consist of, I will discuss later, because their cousins, the Diaspora Nationalists led by Simon Dubnow, more fully developed this idea.

The Bund was much more than a labor union or political party. It excelled in creating a myriad of cultural, educational, social institutions to serve their constituency—from youth and student groups, to women’s groups, to Yiddish schools, newspapers, sports teams, theaters, choruses, orchestras etc. The Workmen’s Circle is still alive as an organization dedicated to Yiddish culture and social justice.

To immigrate to Palestine was to betray the cause of socialist revolution and Jewish cultural autonomy. It was to surrender to anti-Semites who wanted to rid Europe of Jews. Bundists and Zionists were like oil and water because Zionists considered the Diaspora experience to be a disaster and Diaspora Jews to be pathetic, if not suicidal. Bundists and Zionists also clashed on the language issue. The Bund were partisans of Yiddish, the Zionists of Hebrew — and the Zionists took their fervor for Hebrew so far that they sought to stamp out Yiddish in Palestine and in the early years of Israel.

Taken outside this historical context, the phrase “Wherever we live, that is our homeland!” is not unproblematic. A friend asked, “Isn’t this kind of insulting to the memory of the millions of dead native americans whose homeland this is? Isn’t there a difference between rejecting Zionism (I would never object to someone declaring “I have no homeland”) and misappropriating someone else’s ancestral homeland? I mean, I love America and I’m proud to be American but I couldn’t look a Lenape or Lakota person in the eyes and claim it’s my homeland.” Another friend responds, “I think you can simultaneously acknowledge privilege and also affirm the principle that one should be able to live where one lives…just as in Israel/Palestine or Algeria or any settler-colonial situation.”

The concerns of indigenous people and the land use practice of new settlers (refugees, immigrants, etc.) must be weighed when applied to new settlement contexts. I’ve struggled to wrap my mind and heart around this problem, even composing a supplement for the Jewish prayer of thanksgiving to be read on secular/nationalist commemorations of independence and thanksgiving. In my prayer, I’ve tried to find a way of thinking about this that sets the needs of the land, how its ecosystems and wildlife are sustained, over any human claims (especially speciesist ones). Being a Jewish prayer, it is composed with the environmental perspectives of Torah and Jewish eco-theology with which I’m familiar. (To note: the application of any universalist morals is always a dangerous one that should be met with critique but hopefully not knee-jerk opposition on the basis of anti-colonial orthodoxies.)

I don’t think it’s necessarily privileged or racist for refugees or immigrants to feel like wherever safe place they’ve landed is their new homeland. In the shadow of the Holocaust, I will always be suspicious of land-based ethnic nationalist movements. Support for open-borders for immigrants and the resettlement of refugees does conflict with ethnic nationalist and indigenous claims on controlling borders, immigration, and land use. We need to think about this deeply. The German land-based 19th century proto-Nazi nationalist volkische movement was motivated to preserve the romantic character of their land that they felt was threatened by the settlement of non-Germans. Ethnic based self-reliance movements seeking to cultivate power for their communities will seek to validate their authority in all sorts of ways whether or not there are democratic institutions to vet and authorize political representation. Traditional markers of group identity: blood lineage, language, religion, land, folklore, archaeology — these were and remain the popular markers of 19th century Romantic nationalist used in land claims and the assertion of political authority.

A friend of a friend writes, “the U.S. is without a shred of doubt my homeland, for better or worse, if there is necessarily such a thing [as a homeland]. The idea of the old country (and which one exactly?) tells no one anything about me, and it also doesn’t do anything for indigenous Americans who “my” ancestors (but really the former inhabitants of what is now “our” country) displaced or killed. And if you’re looking for a poster that undermines the idea that everyone necessarily has such a thing as a homeland, this would seem to be the poster for you.” These are sentiments that I’d like to share, albeit with the caveat that we should not feel pressured ever to relinquish our cultural identity, our language, knowledge, religion, or even our affinity to an area of land on earth. Our identities must ultimately be validated by our values and our actions, rather than vice versa. To validate our actions by virtue of our identity is always a dangerous proposition. Such thinking leads to self-righteous violence, crusades, all the worst excesses of patriotism, all the horrors that we must leave behind.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Around the 1 minute, 20 second mark
2. If the State of Israel did not also identify as a “Jewish state,” I wouldn’t feel as obligated in defending my Jewish identity and values from being over-written by the State that claims to represent them.

Leave a Reply

בסיעתא דארעא