Diversity of Jewish opposition to Israel a 'success story'

August 3, 2011
Sarah Benton

New book investigates the intersection of Jewish identity with the struggle for Palestinian rights
By David Landy, Mondoweiss

I was in London, interviewing a very sharp, very funny elderly lady; one of the leading members of the British group Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Since she’d been critiquing Palestinian solidarity, I asked her mischievously; ‘So what scope is there for critical solidarity’. The answer was decisive, not a trace of hesitation: ‘there’s none’, and to dispel any doubt, ‘there really isn’t any.’

So what scope is there for a book on Jewish opposition to Israel, one that’s critical and yet in solidarity with this movement? Here, I’d very respectfully disagree with my interviewee, wanting my recent book on the topic, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights, to strike such a balance.

The book tracks the development of diaspora Jewish opposition to Israel. With so much bad news about Israel/Palestine, it’s a pleasure to report a success story. Over the last decade this activism has developed from a few isolated individuals and grouplets in a few countries to a fully-fledged and growing movement, active throughout the Western world. It’s still a small movement and stronger in some places than others (for instance, the movement hasn’t yet taken off in Latin America), with the expansion in the diaspora Jewish heartland of North America being probably the most exciting recent development. But even when weak, this movement has enabled the automatic correspondence between Judaism and Zionism to be challenged, both by Jews and non-Jews. These days there’s always a Jewish group able to declare, as the banner of the British group J-BIG has it, ‘It’s kosher to boycott Israeli goods’.

The organization of the movement gives food for thought. In country after country, groups were established as ‘big tent’ or ‘umbrella’ organizations, designed to contain a diversity of opinions. However this diversity has best been achieved by the multiplicity of groups that have sprung up in most countries, organizations which usually exist in friendly co-operation with each other. The big tent is a more patchwork affair than originally envisioned. But it is no less effective for that; and more, as an organizational form it reflects and prefigures the diverse Jewish community that many within these groups are struggling for, alongside working for justice for Palestinians.

During my research, I was fascinated by how activists negotiated their relations with fellow Jews as well as with Jewishness. The movement often creatively draws upon Jewish traditions, with many members seeking a reconstitution of diaspora Jewish identity so it revolves around their interest in justice, human rights and universalism. This then leads to the question about the relationship with Palestinians – is this movement, as some critics have argued, simply about Jews trying to feel good about themselves, with Palestinians being incidental to this identity politics?

The answer is complicated (of course). Some members, seeing themselves as refuges from Zionism, described by one interviewee as ‘the largest mindless solidarity organization in the world’ are reluctant to be drawn back into solidarity again, this time with Palestinians. Others, understanding their work as part of a broader anti-racist movement (especially in North America) or anti-colonial movement (a strong motivation for French activists), have no such qualms with solidarity. But everywhere there is a tension between the identity of the activist and the demands of Palestinians. In order to make themselves heard in their local fields, many groups do engage in a certain muffling of Palestinian subjectivity, a tendency to see Palestinians as victims.

This is not just a feature of Jewish groups – as an active member of the Palestine solidarity movement in Ireland, I’m well aware of this. Viewing the objects of solidarity as no more than objects may well be a tendency of all distant issue activism. But more interesting than the persistence of this tendency, is how groups do manage to challenge it. This is the other way Jewish groups have developed over the last decade – they have not just grown in size, there is also a growing appreciation of the Palestinian point of view and support for their political demands. As a member of the Dutch group, EAJG (A Different Jewish Voice) put it, greater contacts with Palestinians and greater understanding of the situation leads to what he termed ‘a greater consideration of the other’. Critical solidarity, you could possibly call it.

The promise and one of the aims of the movement is that one day this understanding will not be antagonistic to a sense of diaspora Jewishness, but a central part of it.

David Landy is a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, and the former chair of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign. His book, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights has recently been published by Zed Books.

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