Dissent review: ‘Zionism and Its Discontents’

Dissent review: ‘Zionism and Its Discontents’

Susie Linfield

Susie Linfield heads the cultural journalism program at New York University, and joined our Israel Symposium this year.  She is on the editorial board of Dissent magazine and wrote a very thoughtful and heartfelt review essay on four books about Israel, for the current (Fall 2012) issue:

  • The Crisis of Zionism by Peter Beinart, Times Books, 2012, 289 pp.
  • The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg, HarperCollins, 2011, 325 pp.
  • Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar and JT Waldman, Hill and Wang, 2012, 172 pp. 
  • Underground to Palestine and Reflections Thirty Years Later by I.F. Stone, Hutchinson & Co., 1979, 260 pp. (First published, 1946.)

Prof. Linfield begins by discussing a personal incident that sounds familiar, when she finds herself awkwardly alone at a party in her modestly-expressed pro-Zionist sentiments (“I believe in a state for the Jewish people”).  Since I probably socialize with a more explicitly “Jewish” crowd than Linfield, I’m more often lonely in my views from the opposite direction, where I’m the one who is the most critical of Israeli actions.  But I’ve also experienced friendly interactions that suddenly soured when my fundamentally pro-Israel perspective became known.   

Such events relate directly to the books Linfield examines. Both Peter Beinart and Gershom Gorenberg are religious Jews who identify as Zionists (Gorenberg is an American Israeli) and write with passion on how Israel’s policies are undermining the widespread respect and support the Zionist enterprise once had. I agree with Linfield that Beinart’s book is good but not without flaws; I haven’t read Gorenberg’s book, but knowing some of his work, I’m sure that it’s very good. 

Like Linfield, I too found Beinart’s suggestion disconcerting (and off-topic) that Jewish day school education be made more affordable and available via government aid. But I’m not sure that I’d agree that it’s “illegal.” Legal authorities would certainly debate this, but it’s possible that public subsidies for the teaching of secular subjects in religious schools can be packaged in a way that is not unconstitutional. Whether this is good public policy, however, is also debatable. This modicum of difference between us may reflect that Linfield is more of a secularist than I am.

I was pleased to learn that Harvey Pekar’s posthumously published musings on Israel are apparently more questioning and imbued with Jewish fellow-feeling than condemnatory:

“For centuries Jews endured horrible suffering and like other people deserve the right to self-determination, but the current trajectory of Israel frightens me,” Pekar writes. The book’s title is far more polemical than its content; Pekar poses wistful, difficult questions rather than launching complaints or attacks.

Finally, Linfield discusses I.F. Stone’s Underground to Palestine, recounting the left-liberal journalist’s adventure running the post-WW 2 British blockade of Palestine: 

… not because a revisiting of post-Holocaust emigration to Israel somehow justifies the Occupation…. But Stone’s account of his illegal boat trip with a group of (mainly young) Holocaust survivors, from an unnamed port in Europe to Haifa, is a rich reminder of why the establishment of Israel was not an imperialist project, why much of the Left at the time supported it, and why Israel would win its war of independence two years later.

In her concluding section, she asks (and then answers) the following:

… why should we on the left disown the founding principles of Zionism, and its great achievements, because of what post-’67 Israeli governments have done—any more than we have disowned socialism because of what the Soviet Union became? The “actually existing Zionism” of Sharon and Netanyahu is not the only possible kind, regardless of what Adam Shatz or Philip Weiss or Jacqueline Rose [doctrinaire anti-Zionists] might say. 

If Beinart’s book—and those that preceded it—do any good, it will be by helping to reframe the discussion over Israel. And so, to make clear: Ending the Occupation is pro-Israel. Disbanding the settlements is pro-Israel. (Indeed, Gorenberg calls this “the authentic Zionist task of the moment.”)….

By | 2012-12-18T12:40:00-05:00 December 18th, 2012|Blog|0 Comments

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