Am I a Zionist?

In the mind of many, a mix of positions renders people like me ineligible to participate in Left politics.

By CARY NELSON
October 25, 2014 22:23
4 minute read.
Boycott Israel sign

Boycott Israel sign. (photo credit: REUTERS)

I have always resisted the Zionist label, because it pigeonholed and typecast me. My colleagues often assume that Zionism means a prepackaged, preordained politics, including that you never criticize Israeli government policy. Declaring yourself a Zionist all too often gave people license not to discuss the Arab/Israeli conflict with you at all because they expected they knew everything you wanted to say.

The war in Gaza has now thoroughly criminalized Zionist identity for some, most painfully for Jewish educators who seem consumed with anger at Israel.

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And it intensified fear of speaking out. I know many secret Zionists who avoid expressing public support for Israel. They worry that to do so might torpedo their jobs.

They worry it might limit their chance at presenting a conference paper or being appointed to a committee.

Several Jewish faculty members declined to endorse a statement urging mutual respect in debates about the Middle East. Another wrote an op-ed supportive of Israel then thought better of publishing it.

Part of my refusal to entertain similar fears grows out of a long commitment to Israel that began in my childhood in the 1950s. My father founded two Reform synagogues By the time I was in High School, progressive politics had a central place in my life, although I attended Gratz College of Jewish Studies in the evening, taught introductory Hebrew on the weekend, and remained close to our rabbi.

When I left for college I left the temple behind and never returned. My Hebrew has disappeared after 50 years. I cannot comfortably sit through services that celebrate a God in whom I do not believe. But I retain a strong sense of cultural and historical identification with Judaism. I teach a Holocaust poetry course. I believe the world owed the Jews a state of their own in their ancient homeland.

For nearly a decade I have opposed the movement to boycott Israeli universities. As the movement gained visibility over the past year, my efforts moved beyond the higher education press into mainstream media. Things steadily escalated from there, going viral this August after my campus informed Steven Salaita that it would not be recommending his appointment. I supported that decision because I felt Salaita’s tweets were consistent with anti-Semitic sentiments in his books.

No one could have expected the storm that raged on campus after the Salaita announcement. I published a dialogue with my colleague Feisal Mohammed so to show that a civil and productive dialogue about the case was possible, but faculty members with an addiction to personal invective were not encouraged to adopt our style of debate.

In the course of the tsunami of adverse opinion I public took on a Zionist identity. A colleague warned me I had lost much of my credibility by embracing the name.

The head of a local faculty organization went around campus saying I was of no use to the unionization drive because I was a right-wing Zionist. I had pointed out to him earlier that I was in print urging Israel to abandon its West Bank settlements unilaterally so as to create a Palestinian state. I pointed out that I urged ian end to discrimination against Arab Israeli citizensn print . No matter.

Central to everything I have written about Israel is an unshakeable conviction that a Jewish state has a right to exist in Palestine within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. I have urged financial compensation to those who fled or were forced out in 1948, but I reject the right of 1948’s Palestinians and their descendants to return to Israel, since it would eliminate the Jewish majority and bring an end to the Jewish state.

In the mind of many, this mix of positions renders people like me ineligible to participate in Left politics.

The space left for what once counted as a progressive take on Israel, for a stand recognizing the rights of both peoples, has nearly disappeared. Ari Shavit has written a book to sustain it, but it will take more of us to reclaim the territory.

My colleagues assume that being a Zionist means you have no sympathy for Palestinians. Of course some Zionist traditions have always embraced empathy for Palestine’s Arabs. Nevertheless, such complications are just an inconvenience for those in today’s academy who don’t want their anti-Zionism challenged.

The Jews have a rich historical connection with the land, and they have created a remarkable country.

Whatever the Palestinians were in 1917 or 1946, they are acknowledged to be a people now. These two principles are incontrovertible facts on the ground. Overheated expressions of sympathy for either people, however, can get in the way of practical steps that might otherwise advance a two-state solution, which is the only way both peoples will see some version of justice.

Yet only virulent hostility toward Israel wins broad approval among American humanities faculty. The humanities are suffering from a Manichean view that divides the world between unqualified good and absolute evil. The STEM fields are holdouts, moderating certainty with doubt, but time is growing short if we are going to recapture an American academic space grounded in empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians.

But if believing that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state means you are a Zionist, I claim the name.

The contemporary demonizing of Israel and Zionism requires more of us to stand up and be counted. Yes, I am a Zionist.

The author is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He served as president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006- 2012, and is presently co-chair of the Academic Advisory Council of the Third Narrative. He is co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.


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