Gilad Atzmon – The Politics of Anti-Semitism: Zionism, the Bund and Jewish Identity Politics

(illustration: Zionist recruitment poster “Salvation and Vengeance!”)

Those amongst us who support the Palestinian people, those amongst us who are devastated by the growing scale of Israeli atrocities, those who want to bring justice to Palestine and this includes bringing Palestinians back to their land, will have to make up their minds sooner or later. From now on, everything we do or say about the Jewish state is seen by one Jew or another as anti-Semitism. We have to make up our minds and decide once and for all, is it world Jewry which we are trying to appease, or is it the Palestinians we are fighting for?

I myself made up my mind. For me it is Palestine and the Palestinian people. If this makes me into an anti-Semite in the eyes of some confused Diaspora Jews (left, right and centre), I will have to learn to live with it. At the end of the day, I cannot make everyone happy.

Already in 1973, Abba Eban, then Israeli foreign minister, identified anti-Zionism as ‘the new anti-Semitism’:

“Throughout the 19th century, the revolutionary left literature is full of invidious remarks about the Jewish insistence on self-affirmation and survival. The assumption was that in a free national society there would be no room for the maintenance of Jewish particularism. It was assumed that the destiny and duty of Jews was to disappear in the universal utopia. When Zionism came on the scene as the product not only of specific currents in Judaism but also of European nationalism, the phrase nationalism no longer had about it the fine glow that it possessed in the days of Garibaldi… recently we have witnessed the rise of the new left which identifies Israel with the establishment, with acquisition, with smug satisfaction, with, in fact, all the basic enemies… Let there be no mistake: the new left is the author and the progenitor of the new anti-Semitism. One of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism. The old classic anti-Semitism declared that equal rights belong to all individuals within the society, except the Jews. The new anti-Semitism says that the right to establish and maintain an independent national sovereign state is the prerogative of all nations, so long as they happen not to be Jewish. And when this right is exercised not by the Maldive Islands, not by the state of Gabon, not by Barbados… but by the oldest and most authentic of all nationhoods, then this is said to be exclusivism, particularism, and a flight of the Jewish people from its universal mission.”

(Abba Eban, Congress Bi-Weekly, American Jewish Congress publication 1973)

Sameness and Singularity

Any tendency to establish a coherent Jewish national identity can be realised as a dialectic struggle between two opposing poles. On the one hand, we can notice the clear inclination towards ‘sameness’ in the form of ‘nation amongst nations’. On the other hand, we can detect a definite tendency to celebrate one’s symptoms, a keen leaning towards uniqueness and singularity. The argument would be as follows: as much as we (the Jews) are people like all other people, we are still slightly different and we want to celebrate our uniqueness.

In the late 19th century and the first part of the 20th, two emerging Jewish national political schools were trying to resolve the dialectical duality between ‘sameness’ and ‘singularity’. They were both competing for the hearts and minds of the Jewish masses. One was the Bund, a unique esoteric form of Judeo-centric socialist reading of the Jewish question, Jewish history as well as Jewish destiny. The other was Zionism, a colonial nationalist settlement philosophy. Zionism conveyed an exceptionally harsh reading of the Jewish Diaspora conditions and promised a transformation of the Jewish reality.

The debate between the Bund and the Zionist movement has very little historical significance, yet it enlightens the notion of Jewish tribal politics; it is a glimpse into Jewish marginal philosophy and identity-politics. It throws light over the current apparatus of Jewish political lobbying within the West and even within the left. I want to believe that a brief elaboration on this debate and its implications will elucidate the ever-growing tendency amongst Jewish ethnic activists (left, right and centre) to label every ideological and intellectual criticism as anti-Semitism.

Bund versus Zionism

The Bund was initially an internationalist movement active mainly in Eastern Europe. It posited that Jewish people form a class and therefore should be recognised as an ethnic national minority within the emerging Russian proletarian movement. Zionism, on the other hand, was there to argue that in order to save the Jew of his ‘Diaspora atrocious reality’, a new Jew must be formed, and this could only take place within an accomplishment of a settlement project on a consecrated Jewish Homeland, i.e. Palestine.

Clearly, both political movements aimed towards the transformation of the Jew and his surrounding reality. While the Bund was aiming towards a terminological or even semantic transition grounded on an alternative materialistic reading of Jewish history, Zionism pointed towards a real metaphysical transition of the Jewish subject, his reality and his role in the universe.

While the Bund failed to grasp the obvious meaning of cosmopolitanism and universalism as an opposition to any form of racial or ethnic division within the ‘international’, early Zionists were clever enough to realise that the true meaning of nationalism can only be realised in terms of geographical orientation. For the Zionist, nationalism meant a bond between man and ‘his’ land.

The Bund leaders naively insisted that sustaining the Yiddish language and Yiddish culture would mature into an organic awareness of national identity that would pull eastern European Jews in but would be recognised by others as a legitimate ethnic minority as well. They were obviously wrong. Already in 1903, following Lenin’s criticism of the Bund’s national agenda, the majority of the delegates at the 2nd RSDLP’s (Russian Social Democratic Labor Party) congress had rejected the agenda the Bund proposed. Consequently, the Bund representatives had left the Congress. Moreover, not only had the Bund failed to make itself ideologically recognized by the Goyim around them, it also failed to develop a general tolerant attitude towards the manifold of ethnicity within the Jewish people around the world. Being Askeno-centric, the Issue of Sephardic and Arabic Jews was totally ignored by the Jewish (national) socialists. I would assume that the Bund expected Moroccan Jews to learn Yiddish, or even become Russian working class before they could be entitled to have a ‘Bund membership card’.

Being obsessed with Yiddish, the Bund stood up firmly against the Zionist Hebrew revival project. They tried to invest some real effort in spreading Yiddish culture. But even there it failed in the long run. As we know, nowadays, Yiddish language and culture are alive only within a very small circuit in the Ashkenazi Orthodox sector. It is almost non-existent amongst secular and assimilated Jews.

While both movements were secular, early Zionists were honest enough to admit that on the eve of the 20th century, there was not much in Jewish secular life to be proud of (either culturally or spiritually). This was only natural, considering the fact that in 1898 (the First Zionist congress) Jewish emancipation was still in its early days (just about 100 years from the emancipation of French Jews). Within the growing process of assimilation, Jews did very little to develop their secular Jewish culture. It is not that they didn’t want to, they simply didn’t have to. The fall of the Ghetto walls allowed the Jew to join European culture and discourse as an equal amongst equals. This meant largely joining the spirit of enlightenment and the belief in the primacy of reason. For many Jews that meant developing a new loyalty to their host nations as well. On the eve of the First World War, the vast majority of German Jews regarded themselves first as German nationals, the Jewish tribal identity was on the verge of disappearance. Assimilated Jews were largely adopting European modern ethical value systems. Literally speaking, Jews have skipped the birth moment of enlightenment and the pain involved with the anthropocentric revolution. For Jews to join their European liberal discourse meant in practice dropping God and assimilating culturally, financially and spiritually.

Consequently, by the end of the 19th century there was very little Jewish secular culture around, there was neither a Jewish secular ethical value system, nor was there a secular Jewish spiritual bond, there was no secular Jewish theatre except some sporadic Yiddish theatre groups, no secular Jewish popular music except a few isolated songs that failed to establish a body of work, no Jewish great symphonies, no secular Jewish poetry or any great Jewish secular work of plastic art. There were already great symphonies, poetry, great works of art, political ideological texts written, painted and composed by assimilated and converted Jews (Heine, Marx and Mendelssohn for instance.) Yet these were accepted as esoteric European cultural assets rather than any form of esoteric Jewish secular culture. Though assimilated and converted Jews found more and more avenues to express their talent and wisdom, most of them preferred to regard themselves as ordinary human beings rather than maintaining their tribal identity that clearly meant less and less to them.

Zionism – a ‘success’ story

As sad as it may be and as much pain as it may take to admit it, the Zionist project was there to make a change and it indeed succeeded in doing so. The first generation of Zionist ideologists was aiming at the formation of Jewish secular life and secular meaning. It is impossible not to admit that the first generations of Hebrew speaking Palestinians had managed to erect a substantial body of literature, poetry, plastic art and music in a very short period of time. Early Zionists, European thinkers such as Echad Ha’am who spoke about the revival of the Jewish culture, saw Zionism primarily as a spiritual project.

He believed that the creation in Eretz-Israel, of a Jewish cultural center would act to reinforce Jewish life in the Diaspora. His hope was that in this center, a new Jewish national identity based on Judaic ethics and values might resolve the crisis of Judaism. Being an ethical being, Echad Ha’am was one of the first to warn his fellow Zionists that Palestine is far from being a free land. He saw the obvious deception in the early Zionist slogan ‘land without people for people without land’. He knew that Palestine was far from being uninhabited.

The revival of the Hebrew language pioneered by the Zionists was there to celebrate the emerging bond between the Jews, Eretz Israel and Jewish heritage. The revival of Hebrew was there to create a continuum between the new Israelites and their ancestors. It was there to turn the Bible into a ‘land registry’ and God into a ‘real estate agent’. Within just a few decades this bond has matured into a new Jewish dynamic identity, namely the ‘Israeli’. However, as much as we despise the crimes committed by the ‘Israeli’ for more than 6 decades, we must confront that which fuels him with such militant and spiritual zeal.

We would have as well to accept the fact that Zionism, at least in its early days, had more than just one face. German Jewish philosophers and thinkers who immigrated to Israel in the mid 1930’s such as Gershon Scholem, Martin Buber and Hugo Bergman felt an urge to establish a Zionist ethical value system. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibovitch, a Zionist Orthodox Jew dedicated much of his intellectual life to criticising Zionist expansionism. In fact it was Leibovitch who was the first to label the Israeli military as ‘Judeo Nazis’. Naively, these morally orientated Zionist thinkers believed that that an ethically enlightened Jewish nationalist project was within reach. This school of thought was so naïve that one of its last followers, the Israeli so-called philosopher Asa Kasher even spent some time writing the “IDF ethical code”. Clearly Kasher failed to understand Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Ethics could never be set into codes. Ethical judgment is rather a fluid dynamic process the must be revised continuously. However, for early Zionist thinkers and especially the humanists amongst them, the emerging Jewish state would be respectful towards the indigenous population of Palestine i.e. the Palestinians. The gloomy historical tale of Israel and the emerging of the current starvation in Gaza alongside a sinister apartheid Israeli legislation proves how wrong they were.

As far as the Jewish National project is concerned, the Bund had failed completely. In fact, by the end of WWII, there were hardly any Bundists left to sustain the Jewish (national) Socialist philosophy. Indeed, the Bund was involved with some fierce fighting against the Nazis during the war. Probably the most notable battle the Bund should be credited for was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. However, the majority of the Bundists who survived the Nazi Judeocide immigrated to Palestine, they settled in a few Kibbutzim and joined the Zionist left parties. The rest settled in Britain and the USA. Their followers still insist upon claiming that they know how to save the Diaspora Jews from their misery. The half a dozen contemporary Bundists operate mainly within Jewish segregated political cells from which they try to monitor the Palestinian solidarity discourse. They insist that as far as Palestinian solidarity discourse is concerned, ‘fighting anti-Semitism is a primary issue’. Clearly, no one within the Palestinian solidarity movement can take such a stand seriously. The Bundists spread their message to the world via some minor sectarian, predominantly Jewish cyber cells that attract very little intellectual, political and ideological attention. The Yiddish that was supposed to be their cultural flag is rather non-existent amongst Jewish seculars. It has zero cultural impact on Jews or anyone else. As the Marxist Jewish thinker Abraham Leon predicted already in the 1930’s, Yiddish is now officially a dead language as far as secular Jews are concerned.

Interestingly enough, Hebrew has replaced Yiddish as a secular symbolic identifier of Jewish brotherhood and a representation of Jewish ethnicity as well as tribalism. Even when Jews do not speak Hebrew, they know enough to say ‘Shalom’, or ‘Toda Raba’ (Thank you). The usage of the reincarnated biblical language is there to assert their ethnic belonging. And this should not take us by surprise. Though modern Yiddish journalism and publication is literally non-existent, you can find more than a few Hebrew daily papers and not only in Israel, you can also find films in Hebrew, pop music in Hebrew and even porn in Hebrew (I am not aware of any porn in Yiddish unless the last Bundists, Roland Rance, Tony Greenstein, Michael Rosen and Lenni Brenner have something in the pipeline). Hebrew and Israeliness.

Israel versus Diaspora

The debate between the Bund and Zionism lost its political relevance six decades ago. The Bund died and Zionism won. Yet, as much as Zionism is meaningful within the Diaspora Jewish context, it is totally meaningless within the Israeli reality. As much as the Diaspora Jew may struggle to synthesize the initial dialectic polarity between ‘sameness’ and ‘singularity’, that very duality is totally irrelevant within the contemporary Israeli discourse. From the very dialectical perspective at stake, the Israeli Jew is an authentic genuine character, he regards Israeliness as a genuine national identifier, but he lives as well in peace with his singularity: with his unique traits, with his Hebrew language, with his culture and even with the crime his Jewish state is involved with. For the Israeli-born Jew, the Zionist aspiration is rather meaningless, he is born in the Jewish homeland into a Hebraic civilization. Unlike the Diaspora Jew who is awaiting transformation to come, the Israeli Jew is born into an already transformed reality.

The new Israeli, the one who is born in a Jewish state, is not concerned at all with the Diaspora Judeo-centric query “who am I?”. The Israeli subject regards himself as an ordinary citizen within a normal national society. Some Israeli Jews tend to agree with other s’ criticism of their Jewish state. Some Israelis are outraged by the very criticism, yet they accept its legitimacy. More than just a few Israelis would argue that any criticism of Israel is just unacceptable. And this is probably the biggest success of Zionism. Unlike Max Nordau http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/nordau1.html who argued that the “The emancipated Jew is insecure in his relations with his fellow-beings, timid with strangers,” the Israeli isn’t timid or insecure, he is proud and to many people’s taste, he may even be ‘far too proud’.

Yet the Western Diaspora Jew, the one who insists upon maintaining a tribal identity within an opening multi-cultural society, is still searching for an identity. He is looking for a recipe to bridge the abyss between ‘sameness’ and ‘singularity’ and as it seems, Israel and Zionism has become the only viable model to identify with. As sad as it may sound, Israel and Zionism has managed to hijack the notion of Jewish secularism. The Diaspora Jewish youngster who has to choose a between a pale, bearded Rabbi who calls him to join a Yeshiva and a young athletic Israeli Marine who offers him a gun, a red beret and war to fight, may find the latter slightly more appealing. The young Jewish Diaspora female who has to choose between a wig to cover her head and the Israeli rather liberated interpretation of femininity will probably find the Israeli lifestyle far more attractive.

The Diaspora Jews at large identify with Israel, some are hardcore Zionists, others just borrow light folkloric and even meaningless verbal manifestations. However as it stands, every Jewish Simchas (Bar Mitzvah, Wedding etc’) is now a celebration of Israeli Hebraic folklore. To a certain extent, due to the extremely deep penetration of Israeli folklore and the new Hebraic culture, every Bar Mitzvah and Jewish wedding asserts a symbolic identification of the Jewish state. Every Jewish festive occasion can be seen as a mini Zionist rally. The cultural slot that just four decades ago was occupied by Yiddishkeit is now overwhelmingly invaded by Israeli and Hebrew culture. As tragic as it may sound, Israeli culture and folklore has become the new Jewish cement. Hebrew has become the tribal bond and Israeliness is the new Jewish cultural symbolic identifier.

This brings us back to Abba Eban who was probably the first to identify anti-Zionism as the “new anti-Semitism”. From the point of view of the Jewish secular Diaspora subject, Israel is the vivid unification of the dialectical polarity between ‘equality’ and ‘particularity’. From a Jewish Diaspora perspective Israel has managed to resolve the so-called “Jewish problem” it bonded the ethnicity, the tribal and even the religion into one unified notion. It offers the Diaspora Jew a destiny as well as something solid to identify with in day-to-day life.

Consequently, any criticism of Israel is realised by the Diaspora Jew as an assault against the legitimacy of any possible Jewish identity. If this is not enough, any criticism of Israel is regarded as an assault against the possibility of Jewish secular existence or even fate. As Eban had eloquently articulated already in the 1970’s, “The new anti-Semitism says that the right to establish and maintain an independent national sovereign state is the prerogative of all nations, so long as they happen not to be Jewish.”

Eban manipulatively identifies Israel with ‘Jewishness’ and vice versa. Israel, according to Eban, is the “Jewish people’s universal mission”, accordingly any attempt to criticize Israel robs the Jew of his ‘universal right’, an act that must be realized as sheer anti-Semitism.

As we all know, the accusations of anti-Semitism are tossed in the air by almost every Jewish activist: Jewish ethnic campaigners, Israeli officials and even elder contemporary Bundists. I hope that by now it should all be clear. In the light of the total failure of the Bund and the lack of any alternative authentic lucid Jewish Diaspora identity, Zionism and Zionism alone has become the one and only symbol of Jewish secular identity. Bearing this in mind, any criticism of the Jewish state is perceived by many Diaspora Jews as a clear attempt against the possibility of Jewish secular identity. Mistakenly, many Diaspora Jews interpret any criticism of Israel as an attempt to expel them from an equal share within the emerging Western ‘multi-cultural’ discourse.

Those amongst us who support the Palestinian people, those amongst us who are devastated by the growing scale of Israeli atrocities, those who want to bring justice to Palestine and this includes bringing Palestinians back to their land, will have to make up their minds sooner or later. From now on, everything we do or say about the Jewish state is seen by one Jew or another as anti-Semitism. We have to make up our minds and decide once and for all, is it world Jewry which we are trying to appease, or is it the Palestinians we are fighting for?
I myself made up my mind a long time ago. For me it is Palestine and the Palestinian people. If this makes me into an anti-Semite in the eyes of some confused Diaspora Jews (left, right and centre), I will have to learn to live with it. At the end of the day, I cannot make everyone happy.

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3 responses to “Gilad Atzmon – The Politics of Anti-Semitism: Zionism, the Bund and Jewish Identity Politics

  1. great post!!

    always nice to see support for the palestinian people online.

  2. Pingback: Gilad Atzmon - Lexicon of Resistance | Palestine Think Tank

  3. Pingback: LEXICON OF RESISTANCE « Desertpeace

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