The antidote: In defense of Jewish internationalism

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It is an understatement to say that, during this past summer, tensions have been high. The Israeli carpet-bombing of Gaza exacerbated tensions all around the world. The other day, I overheard a conversation, which went a little bit like this: “You’re Jewish?” The answer was “Yes.” “Well you must be a Zionist then?” was the follow-up.

Jewish communities around the world are affected by the actions of the Jewish state. For instance, during the 1950s and 1960s, because of the continuous tension between Arab nations and the new state of Israel, many Jews were forced out of their countries – countries, which they had inhabited for hundreds, if not for thousands of years.

Israel was supposed to be the refuge for the toiled masses of Eastern European Jews escaping the horrors of the Second World War, but from the outset of its creation, Israel came to be identified as the banner carrier, the symbol, and the sole defender of the entire Jewish culture and creed. Thus Zionism, which in itself was a relatively marginalized ideology within Jewish communities up until the end of WWII, became conflated with Judaism as a whole.

Pseudo-intellectual generalizations of the sort, supposedly “common knowledge”, are very slippery slopes indeed. Today the general knowledge — at least based on my few interactions within the past few months — is that all Jews are Zionists. There is quite a stark parallel to be drawn between this intellectual fallacy and the myths, for example the protocols of the elders of Zion, which were at the forefront of anti-Jewish propaganda at the dawn of the 20th Century. Such generalizations were, and still are, the breeding grounds on which fascist, nationalist and xenophobic groups lay their eggs of hate.

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In France, for example, the Front Nationale is trying to create bridges between themselves and the Muslim youth, who are rightfully revolted by the events in Gaza. This is a recurring event throughout Europe in this day and age. The French comedian and political activist Dieudonné and his highly controversial gesture “La Quenelle” are but part of a cultural trend that manifests the rise of a new anti-Jewish sentiment, whose slogan is “Every Jew is a Zionist” and whose fuel is the civilian casualties in Gaza.

Subsequently, anti-Zionism, as a result of these neo-fascist movements, becomes synonymous with anti-Judaism, thus allowing the Israel hawks or the right-wing Jewish diaspora to categorize any criticism of Israel as anti-Jewish, or anti-Semitic, which is a term I prefer not to use, because not all Semites are Jews.

On the one hand, every thing that is Jewish is seen as Zionist, and on the other everything that is anti-Zionist is seen as anti-Jewish. Even left-wing figures have been caught in this dreadful trap. George Galloway, leader of the British Respect Party, was caught equating all Israeli citizens with Zionists; although he must know very well, that there is a strong anti-Zionist intellectual contingent within Israeli academia and Israeli society at large.

Such intellectual shortcuts are dangerous, and there’s only one way to deal with them: going on a journey down memory lane. In most situations, in order to find solutions for the problems of today, we must dig into a past that has been, more often than not, purposefully omitted.

Before Zionism had the prominence and the global notoriety that it now has, it was a marginal ideal within the Eastern European Jewish community. Its main rival and anti-thesis was embodied by the Bund.

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The General Jewish Labor Bund of Lithuania, Poland and Russia was founded in 1897 in Vilnius, Lithuania. It was a socialist labor organization in the vein of the workers’ organizations sprouting-up throughout Europe at the time. Bundism — as it would be called — ideologically differed from other labor organizations, in the sense that it had the specific objective of uniting all of the Jewish workers within the Russian Empire, but its core principals and ideology were still based on the struggle to create an international workers movement that would uproot capitalist exploitation.

Bundism, was thus the nemesis of Zionism, because no dimension of Bundism appealed to any sense of ethnonationalism. The “Bundist” belief was that Judaism could be an internationalist creed, and thus the combination of international socialism and Judaism was a perfect match.

No wonder why, that, today, the Bund is all but forgotten, swiped under the rug. Zionism is a nationalist movement; a movement for the return of the Jewish people to the holy land. Parallels can be drawn between this ethnocentrism, which is at its foundation, and the ethnocentrism that serves as the foundation for the majority, if not the totality, of contemporary Western nationalist movements.

With the mounting xenophobia throughout the world, we are on the brink of a catastrophic head-on collision. Bundism is needed now, more then ever. A strong, inclusive, and tolerant Jewish alternative movement might be the dearly needed vaccination for our world’s predicament; not only for Jews, but for people of all walks of life. It is certainly needed in the current context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the media is constantly saturated with close-minded Zionist rhetoric.

The antidote to dislodging the nationalist fear mongering, and avoiding a deluge of hatred, is going back to the roots of an internationalist interpretation of Judaism.

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