(re)viewing solidarity activism

by tobybee

A book review I wrote of David Landy’s Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel (London: Zed Books, 2011) has come out in the latest edition of Arena magazine. I’m posting it here because they don’t put magazine stuff online, so here it is if you’re interested. But I highly encourage you to subscribe to arena – it’s important to read and support interesting, lefty, intelligent, political, independent, melbourne-produced, writing. So, go subscribe, and then come back here and read my review. and then go read Landy’s book…

For me, it was, as a young undergraduate, reading Ella Shohat’s breathtaking 1988 article in Social Text, ‘Sephardim in Israel: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims’, that opened up a world of knowledge, history, and thought that would counter my earlier Zionist education and beliefs. For some of the respondents in David Landy’s book, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights, it was a conversation or a trip to Israel or the reading of a newspaper article. For Alma, one of his informants, Landy explains, it was a case of resolving the ‘cognitive dissonance’ with which she lived for years, trying to reconcile her Zionism with her left-wing values. ‘Alma,’ Landy writes, ‘dated her “coming-out” to an intense all-night conversation in Israel with an anti-Zionist British Jew, by the end of which she was transformed—Zionist no longer’.

This book is one in a series of recent works—including PhD theses, articles, and books—from around the world which explore the ways that Jews are undertaking activism against the actions of the Israeli state, or against the idea of the Israeli state. It is also one of several texts which provide their authors with a way of working through their own ambivalent feelings towards Israel and Zionism (indeed, considering the importance which David Landy places on the personal histories of the movement participants he studied, it is curious and somewhat disappointing that we learn next to nothing about Landy’s own history). Landy’s work then plays an important role in helping us to understand this particular political moment, where Jews are engaging with questions of what it means to be Jewish in light of Israel’s actions. The book is, in a sense, a meta-exploration of Jewish activism; one which is approached through a sociological lens.

David Landy explores the ways that Jews in a selection of countries—primarily in Britain, but also in the United States, Australia, Canada, and briefly in a few countries in Western Europe—express, explore and develop their Jewish identities through work that opposes the ways that Israel treats Palestinians, that is in solidarity with Palestinians, and that opposes Zionist framings of Jewish identity.

If you skip through the first few chapters—which provide the important literature review material that sets up the later discussion, but which don’t offer as much to a discussion of Jewish diasporism and Jewish identities as writers such as Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Ella Shohat, Jonathan Boyarin, or more locally Jon Stratton—and move towards Landy’s original research and findings on Jewish activism regarding Israel/Palestine, and Palestinian solidarity work, then you find yourself immersed in some important research. In this second half of the book Landy explores the ways that Jews in these activist groups—some of which include Jews for Justice for Palestine (JfJfP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Independent Jewish Voices (IJV)—explain their Jewish identities and the processes of ‘coming out’ as non- or anti-Zionist; their relationships with Palestinians and ideas of solidarity; their balancing of ideas and ideologies of particularity and universality; and focuses particularly, as a sort-of case study, on their attitudes towards the global Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) movement. This allows a complex understanding of the motivations and practices which make up the activism of Jews in the diaspora who campaign in some way in opposition to Israel. Yet in setting up the book like this, Landy reinforces the idea of a distinction between Israel and the diaspora, a distinction which recently many have been working to remove, as it buttresses the idea that Israel exists as a place of exception for Jews.

One of the most significant contributions that this book makes is to put forward a claim for a cosmopolitan Jewish identity, which is based firmly in particularist ideas of Jewishness and universalist ideas of humanness. This comes to the fore in Landy’s discussion of ‘rooted cosmopolitans’, a term he borrows from Sidney Tarrow, which means ‘transnational activists … “who grow up in and remain closely linked to domestic networks and opportunities”’. Landy expands on this definition to introduce us to an idea of an activist, or ‘movement participant’ who has a ‘self-image … balanced between community and civitas’. That is, ‘while cosmopolitans move outside their origins, they continue to be linked to them’. This, they assert, distinguishes them from the particularism of Zionists and Zionism, and creates a situation wherein ‘their sociality may be emplaced within the national or Jewish field, but is conceived in universal terms’.

For those of us who work, as Jews, in activism which speaks out against Zionism and the actions of the Israeli state, it is no surprise to read that there are Jews elsewhere in the world who do so too: whose activism is informed by their Jewishness, and whose activism develops their Jewishness in a circular movement. It is no surprise too, to read of those Jews in these movements who are marginalised in their communities because of their politics, or who feel like they don’t belong to any formal Jewish community because of their alienation, opposition and disenchantment. Another of the things, then, that is so significant about Landy’s work is that he documents these ideas and practices, and thereby ensures that these movements, and these ideas, are on the historical, political and sociological records.

But, more than that what Landy offers is, particularly in the final chapter—‘Rooted cosmopolitans: participants and Palestinians’—a critique of the Orientialising which at times characterises some of these movements. Landy explores this idea of rooted cosmopolitans, and the ways that it defines the identities and work of the people and groups he studied. Because the activists have a ‘self-conception as rooted cosmopolitans’ there is ‘a lack of contact and denial of political subjectivity to Palestinians’ which hampers the movement. That is, this rooted cosmopolitanism works not just as a way of bridging divides and creating universalist sentiments, but more significantly as a way of grounding people within their own communities and identities. Thus a situation is created where ‘as Westerners we identify with the Israeli—which is no problem—but we sympathise with the Palestinian. And there lies the problem’. What does he mean by this? Landy shows that some of the solidarity work which these Jewish groups undertake silences the Palestinians with whom they claim to work, or constructs Palestinians as voiceless, feminised, uneducated or politically naive. In this work, and particularly in the pamphlets and posters which some of the organisations have published, the point of view of the (Western) Jew comes to the fore, while the Palestinian remains in the background. Palestinians are thereby, at times, presented as the focus of sympathy, but not of political agency. By pointing this out Landy pushes a more complex understanding of our activism, as Jews and as anti-nationalists, and encourages a decolonising of that activism.

This book then provides us with a sociological approach to understanding activism, and in doing so opens up important questions for any activist. Questions of strategy, of the identity of the activists and of the beneficiaries of the activism, of the language and images used to describe and further the goals of the group, are important for all of us to consider. Moreover, the ways in which our own personal biographies influence our political ideologies and tactics is an important question to be opened up.

What then is the purpose behind this Jewish activism, which challenges the practices, ideologies and effects of Zionism? Landy demonstrates through the book that there is no one simple answer to this question. Instead what we are left with is a picture of complexity: of beliefs, tactics and motivations, and of the detailed and multifarious possibilities of Jewish identities. At the centre of all this though, Landy reminds us, we need to remember that there are Palestinians. After all, as Landy quotes Philip Weiss, the influential Jewish anti-Zionist blogger, ‘For me to agonize about my Jewishness when I know about the degree of persecution [of Palestinians] is actually indulgent and a dodge’. And as Landy concludes, ‘Palestine is not simply an empty signifier to be filled up with whatever meaning the social movement activist chooses. In the end, Palestine and the lived experience of Palestinians matter’. Indeed, all activists would do well to remember this, whether we are working in Palestinian solidarity movements or in any other form of political activism: while the working through of our own identities is important—and indeed for some Jews undertaking this work is about an activist struggle over what Jewishness entails—keeping our focus and connections on the people at the centre of our work is what is truly at stake.