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August 13, 2020 12:38 pm

Zionism, Zioness and the Fight for a Better Left

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Opinion

Zioness activists march in Chicago, Illinois. Photo: Zioness via Facebook.

Like many Zionist Jews, I have swung between political extremes for years. Growing up, I was vehemently left-wing to the point of anti-Zionism, a product no doubt of the extremely leftist suburb I grew up in and a desire to escape my Jewish upbringing — a tragedy I see with disturbing frequency among young American Jews today.

After discovering Zionism for, in many ways, the first time, and deeply disturbed by the rise of antisemitism on the left, I swung quite sharply to the right, rejecting almost everything the left stood for and coming to see it as a mortal enemy of all that is good and just.

I realize now that — as it is for many right-wing Jews — this was driven by a bitter and quite justified sense of betrayal. The Jews had always been strong supporters of the left, and now it had not only betrayed us, but gone so far as to support those who were — in that era of the Second Intifada — quite literally murdering us.

Since I moved to Israel almost 20 years ago, however, I have slowly swung away from the right to a political position that can only be described as “God knows where.” For example, I have seen great poverty in Israel, largely ignored by Jews in America on both the left and the right, and become a strong supporter of economic justice. I cannot see the point of a Jewish state in which Jews (or Arabs) live in poverty. As such, I dissent from the free-market messianism many right-wing Jews and Israelis embrace with a near-idolatrous passion.

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I cannot say, however, that I have gone back to the left. Besides a strong skepticism toward some left-wing ideas, I know that antisemitism and anti-Zionism on the left are extremely real, and have grown much worse since I decamped to the Jewish state.

But at the same time, I know two things: First, the vast majority of American Jews are liberal or progressive, and this is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. Second, the left exists for a reason. It addresses important issues like economic injustice, racism and the importance of a certain amount of collectivism, all of which the right often ignores or rejects outright.

As such, I part with many of my comrades on the right in their despairing rage at the left. The answer to leftist antisemitism and anti-Zionism is not, I believe, to reject the left, but to work toward a better left. One that rejects antisemitism and anti-Zionism, as according to its own ideology of equality and empowerment of the oppressed it should. As such, there seems to be only one way for liberal and progressive Jews who refuse to give up their Zionism to go: into the fray, to fight for that better left that they believe is possible.

There are signs that a groundswell of this kind is beginning to take shape, with organizations like the Democratic Majority for Israel taking on anti-Israel figures in the Democratic party. But most interesting from my perspective is Zioness, a progressive women’s group formed several years ago in the wake of antisemitic incidents in the feminist and LGBT community. Zioness is particularly interesting because it seeks to defend Zionism on the left on not only a practical level, but also an ideological one. That is, it is engaging in the battle of ideas on the left, and defending Zionism on the basis of leftist principles, in a way that no other organization — that I know of — is doing.

When I spoke to Amanda Berman, Zioness’ founder and executive director, last week, I asked her about the relationship between progressivism and Zionism, and she simply replied, “It’s the original progressive movement. A movement of liberation for one of the world’s most enduring persecuted communities.”

Berman, in other words, does not believe Zionism is an essentially political movement. It is instead a social justice movement, and as such carries with it a moral weight that solely political ideologies do not. One can argue over the efficacy of market incentives, but one cannot argue over the inalienable rights of the Jewish people.

If this is so, Berman posits, then Zionism can and must be part of the larger mosaic of social justice movements in the United States. This brought us to Black Lives Matter, which many Jews on the right consider potentially dangerous due to prominent organizations and figures in the movement extolling anti-Zionism and sometimes outright antisemitism.

For Berman, Jews must take part in the BLM movement because it is greater than the sum of the uglier sentiments held by some of its participants.

“There’s a lot of different reasons why we have to carve out a space in the BLM movement,” she told me. “First and foremost, in this moment people are waking up to the extent of the systemic injustice that’s baked into our foundations here and there’s a wake-up opportunity happening here. We don’t have the luxury of not participating in a moment that is a reckoning, that could be a real opportunity to create change. We do not have that luxury as people who care about tikkun olam, about others, about showing up for marginalized people — as marginalized people ourselves.”

Berman also brought up a specifically Jewish aspect to BLM, one that, I’m embarrassed to admit, hadn’t occurred to me — namely, the existence of a great many Jews who are, in fact, non-white.

“There are 15-20% of American Jews who are Jews of color, and there are Black Jews that need our support,” she said. “Black Jews who are doing, I think, very important work of trying to remind the sort of ‘Ashke-normative’ Jewish leadership of this country that they’re part of our community too.”

And there is another reason for Jews to participate in BLM, Berman asserted, which is that “when we are not there, the antisemitism explodes, because there’s no one to check it. So the Jews just disappear from the place where the antisemitism is? We don’t cede our justice movements to bigotry.”

“I personally refuse to cede spaces that I care deeply about,” she said. “The women’s movement is — we launched as a reaction to the antisemitism in the women’s movement — it’s a powerful example for me as a young woman that I really truly felt that I couldn’t participate in the feminist movement in America, which relates directly to my bodily integrity and autonomy.”

“But because I am a Zionist, I was not allowed to fight for reproductive health and equal pay and health care and family leave, and all these things that matter deeply to me as a woman, and affect, literally, my body,” she recounted. “And it hit me as, ‘No one can tell me that I can’t participate in that space, there’s no way that I’m going to cede that movement.’”

The key, she asserted, is to engage in the causes of others without giving up our own. “We show up with our full authentic selves, we push back on the antisemitism, and we do the justice work that is a part of who we are — just as Zionism is a part of my identity as a Jew, so is my commitment to the advancement of social justice,” she said.

Berman admitted that this isn’t easy. “It’s hard to put myself in a space where there’s rampant antisemitism,” she noted, “but I recognize that the most effective way for me to combat that antisemitism is actually to be in the space and to push back on it whenever I hear it.”

To me, the importance of Berman’s work, and that of Zioness as a whole, is not so much that it is fighting for Zionism on the left on a practical level — though that is hugely important — but that in its commitment to “do the justice work” while “pushing back” against anti-Zionism and antisemitism, it is carving out a space for Jews who are in the same position I once was: Jews with left-wing principles and beliefs who feel, at best, marginalized by a movement that extols the rights of all peoples except their own. For many of these Jews, there have been only two options: take vengeance for the betrayal and leave the left; or submit to the anti-Zionists’ demands that they reject their own people and embrace their enemies.

And this, of course, is precisely what the anti-Zionists want — to marginalize and defame Zionism to the point that even the Jews will give up on it. To, in effect, shatter the Jewish spirit and force left-wing Jews into a virtual apartheid where they are for everyone but themselves. But if we are not for ourselves, who are we?

Berman and Zioness are attempting to provide an answer to that question — we must be for ourselves and for others. This is an answer the Jews have often given, but I believe that the dangers of the present moment have made it something more than this: On the left today, in order to be for others, we must also fight for the right to be for ourselves.

This, I think, is perhaps the only path toward a revival of Zionism on the left. Zionism on the right is prepared to fight for itself, but less prepared to fight for others. On the left, Jews are being told — in fact commanded on pain of excommunication — that they have only the right to fight for others. To say no to both of these positions requires a renewal, but Zionism has always been good at renewal, and it is possible that in Zioness and those like it, we are seeing the first signs of one.

But as someone who has, in the end, found himself dissatisfied with both sides of the political spectrum, I can only place my hope and my solidarity on the side of Berman and Zioness’ essential argument: Zionism is, in the end, not political. Zionism is a social justice movement. And this means that the Jews have the right to be for ourselves as well as for others. It is my hope that Zioness will be the first of one, two, many such organizations to fight for this idea. And I hope they win.

Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and Israel correspondent for The Algemeiner.

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