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What does Jewish self-determination actually mean?

Many Jewish people reject the idea of a fortress state, favouring alternative ways to build equal lives for Jews, as a minority, wherever they live, says DAVID ROSENBERG

IN 2013 the remarkable Polin museum opened in a location that 80 years ago formed part of the Warsaw Ghetto. 

It showcases 1,000 years of Jewish culture, interaction with non-Jews, intellectual creativity, periods of terror and hardship but also “Golden Ages.” 

Many Jews are taught that Poland is just a Jewish graveyard: centuries of life are collapsed into six years of utter destruction, when the Nazis exterminated 90 per cent of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews. And yet, Jewish life is reviving today in 15 Polish cities.  

One compelling display marks the late 19th century when most Polish Jews suffered under tsarism, but radical ideas promising liberation and self-determination were spreading.

Jewish territorial self-determination in Palestine was merely one idea. It was rejected by many in favour of alternative ways to build equal lives for Jews, as a minority, wherever they lived. 

So when you are next hear someone say “anti-zionism is anti-semitism,” remind them that anti-zionism was invented by Jews (though we don’t own the copyright).

Debates about Jewish self-determination today, especially those centred on the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, are so impoverished. 

They refer only to territorial self–determination in a fortress state, built on dispossessing and expelling many Palestinians and then denying self-determination to Palestinians who remained.

Twenty-one per cent of Israelis today are Palestinians enduring daily discrimination. A further 2.2 million Palestinians live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank. Palestinian refugees, whether from 1948 or 1967, cannot return.

Under Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law, only Jews are entitled to national self-determination in Israel: not indigenous Palestinians or migrant workers. 

Ironically, that law was passed during a state visit by Benjamin Netanyahu’s good friend, Victor Orban, who used anti-semitic propaganda to help win the Hungarian election that year. 

If Israel doesn’t wish to be labelled an “apartheid state,” it can repeal the Nation State Law and Law of Return, dismantle discrimination, confiscate arms from illegal settlers and make Jewish-only roads available to all. It could legislate to make Israel/Palestine a state for all its citizens equally.

Growing numbers of left-wing Israelis and human-rights organisations are working for that goal by protesting, publishing, refusing army service and making illegal solidarity visits. 

As well as exposing brutality towards Palestinians, we need to amplify activities by progressive Israeli Jews. 

Zionism proclaimed the ingathering of Jews in one nation state. Yet 72 years after independence, the majority of Jews (including many Israelis) choose to practise Jewish self-determination elsewhere — in London, Berlin, New York, Melbourne, Kiev, Warsaw…

Those who shout loudest about defending Jewish self-determination do little to enhance creative, diasporic Jewish self-determination around the world, but focus instead on defending an ethnocracy in Israel. 

The Israeli ruling class and supporters abroad despise Jews who use their self-determined voice to denounce Israeli racism.

Emanuel Scherer, a Polish-born member of the Bund, formed by secular, socialist, anti-zionist Jews, demanded: “Rights and Justice for Jews everywhere without wrongs and injustice to other people anywhere.”

Zionism and Bundism were both born in 1897, the first at a plush conference in Basle, the other in an illegal house-gathering in Vilnius. 

The Bund linked the struggles of Jews for socialism with those of workers throughout the Russian empire.

Bundism and zionism had opposite values: optimism versus pessimism; internationalism versus nationalism; integration versus isolation and evacuation. 

Bundists accused zionists of worshipping the same nationalist values as regimes that oppressed Jews and other minorities. 

Its heyday as a mass workers’ party was in 1930s Poland, where it built a world of cultural and political institutions: a daily Yiddish newspaper, Polish publications too, as well as a women’s movement, sports organisations, a youth movement and children’s organisation.  

As Poland slid towards fascism, the Bund and Polish Socialist Party leftists jointly led the physical and political struggle against anti-semitism. Most zionists and religious Jews abstained from that fight.

In Poland’s last municipal elections before the Nazi invasion, the anti-zionist Bund won massive victories among Jewish voters in major Polish cities where Jews comprised one third of the population. 

Inside the ghettoes, Bundists, communists and left zionists united in armed anti-Nazi resistance. 

But the Holocaust decimated the Bund. Its post-war presence has been marginal, although its philosophy of diasporic self-determination and its fundamental critique of zionism have remained pertinent.

In late 1970s Argentina, thousands of political opponents disappeared. Jews were 1 per cent of the population but 12 per cent of those who disappeared, under a junta armed to the teeth by Israel. 

In apartheid South Africa, the most progressive Jews joined the ANC. One Jewish member of its armed wing told me that Jewish establishment bodies passed names and addresses of Jewish activists to the apartheid authorities.

By insisting on the “centrality of Israel” to Jews, zionism undermines diaspora Jewish lives, dividing us from our natural allies, sometimes with very grave consequences. 

The battle to liberate Jews, as well as Palestinians, from zionism continues.

David Rosenberg is on the editorial collective of Jewish Socialist magazine:


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