Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights

Reviewed Jim Miles

(Jewish Identity & Palestinian Rights – Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel. David Landy. Z Books, London/New York, 2011.)

The mainstream media does not cover this kind of topic and only hints at it in the form of criticism of those calling for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. David Landy’s academic study of the trends within the Jewish diaspora provides a beginning insight into the social climate within the Jewish community, in particular in Great Britain, Europe and the United States, and the nature of the discussions in opposition to Zionism.

The study is pretty much a current affair, recognizing that while there have always been voices within Judaism that counter the Israeli/Zionist expressions of the religion, the true opposition started after the second intifada.

In short, Landy says that there is a slowly growing number of Jewish diaspora members who are successfully questioning the Israeli/Zionist narrative that is commonly accepted in the mainstream. It is a qualified success, with several problems that rise within the groups.

One of the problems are the differences between Britain, Europe, and the U.S. The former areas have not seen as much success with changing the narrative for two main reasons. First is the smaller size of some of the European Jewish communities and the lingering guilt of war experiences. Secondly is that of gentrification of the Jewish population, as it is part of the more complacent middle class, part of the establishment, not prone to being activist within their community. In the U.S., the Jewish population is more cosmopolitan and younger, more questioning, leading to more success with achieving awareness of the situation of oppression in Palestine.

Even that success has to be tempered within the community. Activists promoting BDS are generally seen as successful by Landy. That stems from an increasing awareness, from actual tours provided to the Jewish diaspora to visit the Palestinians in West Bank, and from the generally accepted trend of accepting Jewish concerns for peace, truth and justice which they find lacking within their own community.

Within that success is the problem of being too successful, in that the groups concerned do not want to alienate their community. It becomes a balance of finding what is effective for the purpose of maintaining the message, of still being able to discuss it, and therefore some softening of the message has been necessary in order to continue. Also, Landy identifies the activists, not as being "self-hating Jews", a convenient phrase thrown to the media, nor as being concerned about their own identity within the group, but as people genuinely looking out for truth and justice, and the most efficient and effective means in which to deliver the message.

Palestinians fit into this movement in an oblique way. Palestinians are recognized as "important on a personal level, but on a group level they aren’t needed to reaffirm the movement’s legitimacy in the same way that Israeli’s are." The participants recognize that the Palestinians are not their target, that the Israeli people are. The tours that visit the West Bank help "fight against the dominant Zionist narratives of Palestine that either render Palestinian’s invisible or represent them as terrorists." Most importantly for Landy is the "importance of the potentially transformative knowledge acquired in Palestine."

There are two main goals for the activist groups, both complementary. First is the recognition of the oppression and occupation under which the Palestinians live, and the desire for that to be done away with. The second goal is "the liberations or diaspora Jews from ethnocentric Zionism." The commonality being the truth, justice, and peace that is seen as being the core of Judaism.

The success of the group is limited but growing, especially in the U.S. It has succeeded in "putting Jewish opposition to Israel on the agenda, encouraging non-Jews to express their doubts about Israel." It allows that "people who are unconnected with activism of any type to feel they can criticise Israel without being against ‘the Jews’." It allows the Jewish people a way to be "both Jewish and Israel-critical." It is also "loosening the automatic correspondence between Jewishness and Zionism."

With much work for the activists yet to do, Landy ends on a hopeful note , that "Jews may one day no longer be a barrier to Palestinian freedom," and have begun a model of "walking with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation while fashioning a new future for themselves in the diaspora."

The insights in this work are an important addition to the library of ideas concerning Israel/Palestine. It is a well researched and academically sound approach to the topic. It is quite heavy on the academic emphasis, with considerable discussion concerning the sociological study methods used and a related high usage of sociological terminology that may detract from the lay readers ease of reading. But the message is well worthwhile and by the end of the work, the sociological terms begin to have some definition for the academic outsider (where I obviously reside).

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.

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