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Scholars acknowledge political left has 'a Zionism problem'
May 1st, 2012
For a long time, Tony Michels, associate professor of history and a faculty member of the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been “feeling frustration.”
He had heard pro-Israel activists assert that university faculties and liberal scholars have become totally and ferociously anti-Israel — and he knew that this generalization is a false stereotype.
“I felt there was a perspective on the subject that was not being heard widely,” he told The Chronicle on April 19. In fact, there are scholars, intellectuals, activists on the political left “who don’t hate Israel,” but rather have “a sophisticated understanding of Israel and Zionism and other related issues that fall between the polar opposite positions,” he said.
Therefore, Michels conceived the idea of an open-to-the-public symposium, titled “The Question of Zionism: A Symposium on the Left and Its Relationship to Israel.” It would feature scholars on the left who not only do not “hate Israel,” but would be willing to probe such questions as:
• Does the political left have a Zionism problem?
• Can anti-Zionism at least sometimes be anti-Semitism?
• Is siding with the Palestinians and the Arab world against Israel really and always the “progressive” thing to do?
That daylong event took place at UW-Madison’s Union South on April 19. An audience of students and interested community members that at its height numbered more than 70 people heard three scholars address these and many other topics.
The panel discussion at the symposium “The Question of Zionism” on April 19. From left: Chad Allen Goldberg, Moishe Postone, Barbara Epstein, Mitchell Cohen. Photo by Leon Cohen.
The featured speakers were (in the order in which they spoke): political scientist Mitchell Cohen (no relation to this writer) of the City University of New York; historian Moishe Postone of the University of Chicago; and historian Barbara Epstein of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
All three are scholars and activists on the political left. They disapprove of the current Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud Party.
They oppose the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. They believe that it is possible to criticize Israel and Zionism constructively and in good faith without being anti-Semitic.
But they also all believe in a two-state solution. They believe Israel is not the kind of apartheid state South Africa was, as some on the left allege. They believe it is possible for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic.
They accuse the “boycott-divestment-sanctions” effort against Israel of seeking Israel’s destruction instead of the two-state solution. And they acknowledge that much current “anti-Zionism” makes use of classically anti-Semitic themes and allegations.
Cohen titled his presentation “Does the Left have a Zionist Problem?” and answered that it does.
Just as the political left is diverse – including liberals, social democrats, socialists, Marxists, anarchists, Greens, and others — Cohen accused some leftists of ignoring that Zionism also is not monolithic. “There are Zionisms,” he said. “Some are defendable and admirable, some are not.”
He pointed to statements by some left activists that “should leave us deeply troubled,” like one claiming that the Muslim fundamentalist and anti-Semitic terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah “are parts of the world progressive social movement.”
While “one can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic,” Cohen said there is a “disturbing overlap” between “motifs of classical anti-Semitism” and many current anti-Zionist and anti-Israel statements — that Israel is “an alien implant,” that Zionism is “exclusivist,” that “Zionists are claiming to be victims when they really have power,” and the like.
And he concluded by declaring, “It is time for left intellectuals to declare independence from herd anti-Zionism.”
Postone in his presentation on “Israel, the Left, and the Crisis of the Late 1960s” tried to set the phenomenon in a larger “theory of capital” and 20th century history context.
He also contended that much leftist “critique of Zionism goes beyond Israeli policies” and “attributes a unique malevolence” to Israel and Zionism, treating them as “powerful purveyors of evil” and an “invisible international conspiracy.”
In fact, as anti-Semitism was once characterized as “the socialism of fools” (attributed to 19th century German social democrat August Bebel), Postone declared some anti-Zionism to be “the anti-imperialism of fools.”
In response to a question about whether a Jewish state can be a democracy, Postone contended that an “ethnic dimension” exists in the very concept of a nation state, and that other countries have laws similar to Israel’s Law of Return that allows any Jew to claim Israeli citizenship.
Anyone of Italian ancestry, for example, can claim Italian citizenship, and any Arab can claim Syrian citizenship, he said. Yet critics of Israel claim there is “something uniquely weird” when Jews do this, he said.
Epstein started her presentation on “Left Hostility to Israel: Sources, Consequences, and Alternatives” with an account of the long-time “explosive debate over Israel-Palestine” at her university.
She said the situation has become polarized between “a group of supporters of the Israeli right” who regard criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism and the “BDS/one-state movement.” The result has been “very shrill” and “has discouraged others from participating,” she said.
Epstein asserted that if a poll were taken of her university’s social science and humanities faculties on the matter, “the majority would not agree with either side.” Yet these faculty members have declined to get involved in the issue, she said.
She also responded to a question from the audience about why people beyond the left should care what the left thinks about Israel or anything else “given how weak the left is” in the United States.
Epstein contended that “the left is more influential than we often think” in helping shape “the way people think” about many issues “in left-liberal arenas” and upon politically active young people in the United States.
The symposium concluded with a discussion by the three speakers moderated by sociologist Chad Allen Goldberg of UW-Madison. Michels said podcasts of the symposium will be made available at the website of the UW-Madison Center for Jewish Studies.
The symposium was sponsored by the Jewish studies center with additional support from the university’s Harvey Goldberg Center for the Study of Contemporary History.