Professor Alan Johnson is Editor of Fathom and Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. He is an editorial board member of Dissent Magazine and Senior Research Associate of the Foreign Policy Centre.
First, Sean Matgamna
It was Sean Matgamna – or ‘Rebbe Matgamna’ as some in the Union of Jewish Students affectionately called this brilliant Irish intellectual and former Docker at the time – who woke me from my dogmatic One-State slumber in the mid-1980s. Sean was the leading theoretician of Socialist Organiser, the far-left entryist group I had been a member of since 1980. Out of a clear blue sky he walked in one day with a paper arguing that we should drop the demand for a ‘democratic secular state’ and embrace ‘two states for two peoples.’ After a long internal debate – the sophistication and seriousness of which I was never to find in academia – his arguments prevailed.
‘It seems to me,’ Matgamna wrote, ‘that the terms of the only just solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are clear and unmistakeable. Unless you think the interests of one side should be entirely sacrificed to the other – that is, unless you are either an Arab or an Israeli chauvinist – there is only one acceptable solution. Each nation should have self-determination in the territory where it is the majority. I understand that to mean, essentially, the 1967 border. There should be full equality for members of each nationality in the other’s state. The secular democratic state necessarily involves replacing the Jewish state of Israel with another arrangement in which Jews will not have a state. The goal is not only to secure Palestinian rights by putting an end to Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, but to deprive Israeli Jews of their national rights.’
Well, indeed. Obvious enough, you might think, but those ideas were a heresy on the far left at the time. And so we were heresy hunted.
‘Zionists!’ screamed Chris Harman, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. The Workers Revolutionary Party even wrote that ‘a powerful Zionist connection runs from the so-called left of the Labour Party right into the centre of Thatcher’s government in Downing Street’. Armed with those ideas, and those enemies, we fought alongside UJS to prevent the far left drive to ban student Jewish Societies as ‘Zionist’ so ‘racist’.
We worked closely with UJS inside the NUS and I was impressed by the Jews I met. I recall Adrian Cohen, after he was called an antisemitic name at an NUS conference, squaring up and threatening to bury his ‘Jewish fist’ in the guy’s face. How could a Suedehead from North Shields not be impressed with that? It was our youth leader Jane Ashworth – who later set up the Engage website with another Matgamna boy, David Hirsh – who came up with the phrase ‘cultural Zionists’, to describe ourselves at the time.
Second, Leon Trotsky
I still revere the Old Man and bristle when people attack him in words that should really be reserved for his followers. His final words were read out at my wedding to Debbie, a Matgamna girl, by our children:
‘Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.’
And it was from Trotsky that I learned that the assimilationist approach of classical Marxism to the problem of antisemitism was wrong. A target of both Tsarist and Stalinist antisemitism himself, Trotsky understood antisemitism was no feudal hangover. He grasped the modernity of antisemitism. I read his searing account of the antisemitic pogroms of the 1905 Russian Revolution and his desperate and prescient warnings about Fascism. ‘The next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’ (emphasis in the original) he wrote, before his murder by the Stalinists in 1940.
As Enzo Traverso, an intellectual historian of Marxism and antisemitism, has put it, ‘The rise of Nazism in Germany led the Russian revolutionary to a global revision of his approach to the Jewish Question’ i.e. to the question of antisemitism. Though Trotsky never thought of himself as a Zionist – having faith in a World Socialist Revolution which we cannot, in good faith, still claim – he became convinced of the necessity of a national solution to the problem of radicalising antisemitism.
The Jews, Trotsky came to believe, have every right to live in a ‘compact mass’ as a nation. And nations, he wrote as far back as 1915, ‘constitute an active and permanent factor of human culture. The nation will not only survive the current war, but also capitalism itself.’ ‘The Jewish nation’ he said in 1937, ‘will maintain itself for an entire epoch to come.’
Third, Isaac Deutscher
From Trotsky’s biographer, the Polish socialist Isaac Deutscher, I learned that the Jewish state is not only a right but a necessity, and that to oppose its existence on the basis of abstract left-wing dogma is, literally, a matter of Jewish life and death:
I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.
For the remnants of European Jewry – is it only for them? – the Jewish State has become an historic necessity. It is also a living reality. Whatever their cleavages, grievances, and frustrations, the Jews of Israel are animated by a fresh and strong sense of nationhood and by a dogged determination to consolidate and strengthen their State by every means at their disposal. They also have the feeling – how well justified – that the ‘civilised world’, which in one way or another has the fate of European Jewry on its conscience, has no moral ground to stand on when it tries to sermonise or threaten Israel for any real or imaginary breaches of international commitments.
Fourth, the experience of teaching the Holocaust
A sustained engagement with antisemitism as a university teacher – deep reading in the texts, images, films, memoirs, and histories; sustained discussion with your students; the effort to write about antisemitism, in my case about the work of Primo Levi – produced this insight: our natures are mixed, capable of great good and great evil. In the words of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, we are centaurs, a ‘tangle of flesh and mind, of divine inspiration and dust’.
Then add this in: humanity, for reasons that do not concern us here, for no good reason, again and again, has selected the Jew as the scapegoat. More precisely, and with a smidgeon more hope, let us say that humanity has done so for millennia and is still doing so today, though we can allow ourselves the hope – as we may hope for the return of the Messiah – that humanity will not do so in the future.
But what we can’t not know is that from time to time, in the words of Levi’s favourite writer Dante, western civilisation takes leave of its senses and ‘descends into hell with trumpets and drums’. And when it does, the Jews – not only, but above all, the Jews – need a state with ramparts and an IDF standing on those ramparts. At one level, my Zionism comes down to that brute fact.
Fifth, boys and girls in Jerusalem
Walking in Jerusalem one day I came upon Jewish children playing in a narrow street, the early evening sun warming the stone flags and lending their ringlets a glow. They were playing a game I could not understand, white shirts flapping, Kippahs in danger of falling off, one shriek chasing another. I had two thoughts. My first, as ever, was about Primo Levi. I was reminded that in play we adults can find again ‘the savour of childhood, delicate and forgotten,’ and that to enjoy play is rather ‘like receiving, free of charge or almost, a rare and beautiful object.’ A second thought then shadowed my first, a typical experience for anyone who has spent a lot of time reading about the Holocaust, let alone those who have a familial connection to the Shoah: other images and other shrieks from another time arrived unbidden.
In some indefinable way, my own Zionism was expressed at that moment, by that juxtaposition.
“Gay Days (Hazman Havarod) chronicles the evolution of the GLBT rights movement in Israel, from 1985 until the current day. It’s a personal story told through the eyes of the director Yair Qedar, the editor of the GLBT paper, The Pink Times. The film begins in 1985 when there are only a handful of openly gay people within Israeli society. But by 1998 this number has increased to over 3000. Using archive materials from television, film and home videos alongside photographs and extracts from Yair’s own diary, the film tells intimate, moving and humorous stories of the fight for equality through the movement’s key players, shedding light on their personal struggles as well those of the movement in general.” – Lucy Kaye & Marc Isaacs
The online version of this article is abbreviated. To see the full text, hover the cursor over the lines in bold, and a text box will appear.
We need to talk about Israel.
Too often it seems that our conversations about Israel are either too cerebral to be meaningful, or too passionate to be intelligent. We need to be able to bring both our heads and our hearts to bear. This is no easy task, as we face at least three challenges.
Tent or Tank?How can we easily delineate the parameters of the tent, making it a Middle Eastern kind of tent – that has defined edges, but that is open to all sides?
The Labor/Tnuah combo has chosen to call itself the Zionist Camp.
Contrary to popular belief, this is not a boutique clothes shop in Tel Aviv, but a political party with serious intentions. Their first introduction to the Israeli public is in this short video that begins with Herzog challenging: “Zionism? Let’s talk about Zionism!”
Soon thereafter this very video was “altered” by the opponents of the Zionist Camp.
We present both videos for you, parsing them through the filter of 4HQ, the Four Hatikvah Questions –
I must emphasize before beginning that these are my personal readings of the videos, hence this blog is under my name not Makom in general. We’ll all be having a go at this game in the coming few weeks – and you are also invited to add your reading to the comments below!
First appeared at www.cartoonkippah.com
Something strange is happening. There is definitely something in the air. Perhaps the water has been contaminated. I feel unusual – not different as such; just a little disorientated. I think I remember these feelings but they are a distant memory that I thought belonged to another time, another place, perhaps even another person.
I feel British! And I don’t think it is just me… To Full Post
Mo Farah has become the ultimate proof that lefties are right, that liberal immigration and asylum policy is great, and that David Cameron is an idiot for saying that multi-culturalism in Europe has failed.
Poor Mo. All he did was work astonishingly hard to win a fantastic 5,000 and 10,000 meters’ double. But the Olympics are all about the symbolism, so why should Mo be exempt?
In a culture where “hoodies“, young (mainly) black men who cover their faces from police cameras so as not to be caught for their anti-social and un-British behavior, are at once condemned and courted, this meme was a cracker.
These are the four case studies we worked on at GJFIII. The pdfs are downloadable here, and we list links to further information regarding these topics.
The Silent Judge
Thinking towards the Global Jewish Forum on Liberalism and Zionism.
One song and two clips has got me thinking.
Here Ella Fitzgerald sings Don’t Fence Me In. It’s a jaunty declarative and celebratory song, loving the open spaces, remembering the pioneering days of being able to walk freely in one’s own land. On the one hand it extols freedom, and on the other hand it extols sovereignty – the ability, right, and power to do as one wishes on a huge swathe of land.
A few years back I had a bad experience at my bank in Carmiel. There were about 9 people milling around the teller’s desk. No line. No queue. I was familiar with the requirement. You ask “Who’s last?” and then assume that you are the next in ‘line’. It’s a mad system. At some predictable point it disintegrated into chaos. Someone had asked “who’s last” and then gone out shopping. When she returned, she expected to be able to reclaim her place, but no one remembered who she was. Much shouting ensued.
Everyone in the crowd/line was annoyed with someone else in the crowd/line. But really we should all have been annoyed with the bank. For not laying on more tellers, and for not arranging a more efficient and transparent method of waiting. (Since then the bank had a face-lift, and you take a number…)
I was reminded of this incident last night, when I picked up news of the anti-immigrant riots in South Tel Aviv. I was horrified, but not entirely surprised. To Full Post
Okay, so first of all I have to admit that I have read Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism.
I’m not talking about the reviews of it (though I’ve read a lot of them, too) I read the actual book.