I was 17 the first time I was called an anti-Semite, in Mr. Bransfield’s Intro to Religion class. We had just learned about sitting shiva and, being clever, I sang it to the tune of the classic song “Fever” by Peggy Lee.
♫ you’re sitting shiva
in the morning
shiva all through the night ♫
My friend Rachel, part of the congregation at our local uber-progressive Reform temple, did not take kindly to this. She called it offensive; I called her a baby. I reminded her that she had been making jokes about defecating out the body of Christ the week before, which felt very clever of me then but not so much now. And she said it: anti-Semite. I was young and knew nothing, other than that it had a strange ring to it, a certain antiseptic quality that seemed odd for a term of such dirty association. I vaguely remember calling her a bitch or something equally as eloquent. We made up at crew practice a few hours later.
I would grow to get used to the accusation. Four years later the Iraq war was upon us, and suddenly organizing was the only thought in my head. I had done demos against our invasion of Afghanistan, but in the hothouse days of the immediate post-9/11 world, that effort was small and weird even by the standards of the antiwar movement. The heart-clutching madness of war on Iraq brought out another type of person, or several other types of people, those who under ordinary circumstances would not have associated with the sweaty anarchists and Che-shirt grandmothers who had recently come out and sensibly asked that we not bomb impoverished farmers for the crime of living in the same country as Osama bin Laden. Flights of new converts assembled against Iraq, and with them came fresh battles for credit and control. You might want the movement to grow but that doesn’t mean it will grow into what you want it to.
Connecticut liberals, to their credit, were mostly against the war from the start, breaking with Democratic leaders like our worthless senator Joe Lieberman, a student from the Zell Miller school of being a Democrat and one of the most powerful Jewish politicians in this country’s history. It was commonly assumed that Connecticut’s Jewish population (one of the five highest in the United States, by percentage, I believe) were Lieberman diehards, but I never thought that was true. As has been the case for most Jewish people for most of American history, Connecticut’s Jews in 2003 were passionately progressive, and Lieberman’s base was genteel gentiles, centrists, WASP or WASP-adjacent big money Democrats who lived in Litchfield or Greenwich and wanted to put up a wall against high taxes without that grimy Republican aftertaste. Of course I ran in lefty and academic circles, so my experience was biased, but still the average Jewish person I knew at the time hated George Bush as much as any of the rest of us, and like many in the Nutmeg State were quick to remind whoever would listen that he was Connecticut-born, that the Texan twang was the Cheshire smile of the scion of one of America’s richest families. Jewish voters in Connecticut were not going to be herded into the pro-Iraq tent by Lieberman or anyone else.
But. The issue of anti-Semitism was immediately at hand, in the Iraq war movement, from the beginning. I was one of many in the radical left wing of the antiwar movement who insisted that anti-Iraq demands come packaged with the demand for Palestinian liberation. It was all of a piece, we said, the occupations were both fruit from the same poisoned tree. Would I say that now? I’m not sure. Certainly you could make (I have made, many times) very credible arguments about how these two aspects of America’s ruinous imperial mindset were deeply entwined. And for those of us who had been pro-Palestinian for years, the country’s new wars of choice were an opportunity to bring attention to an issue that was so touchy it was usually avoided, even by many in the left. But I don’t know if it was a sound application of strategy. In time the demands took on a laundry-list quality; I remember feeling dismay, in one of my last anti-Iraq actions before fleeing activism for several years, when I heard an anti-sweatshop chant ringing out. We had enjoyed the numbers, but more people meant more hands at the wheel, and it seemed that as the crowds thinned in 2005 the only people left were those with demands about the demands.
In any event, Israel was engaged then, as now, in a brutal occupation of the Palestinian people, and it was enabled in this by the warmaking capacity of the United States, and we stood on the principle that a movement of conscience could not ignore the connection between these crimes against the greater Muslim world. Others who opposed the Iraq invasion and occupation disagreed. Often enough this was framed in the language of messaging and tactics, but at the end of the day conflict came from a point that could not be negotiated away: many of the liberals whose money and organization had proved essential to the effort were firmly in favor of the Israeli position on the “Palestine question,” and we in the radical left were very much not. And in a dynamic that pretty much ensured ruinously contentious internal debate, the former were disproportionately Jewish. Many of the latter, it happens, were Jewish too, but this fact eluded discussion.
You can probably write the rest yourself. The left accused the liberals of being occupation-loving centrist sellouts, while the liberals accused the left of being too-pure-to-live radicals who trafficked in anti-Semitism at best and were raging Jew-haters at worst, polluting the antiwar movement. This was a tiny world with no more than a few hundred people in it, but it felt like it was my whole life, and in Iraq real people were really dying by the hundreds thanks to American recklessness and disregard for human life, and it was all so exhausting. It didn’t help that, by some bizarre quirk of history, an obscure Maoist group called ANSWER had become the most influential player in anti-Iraq organizing, bringing loony left shit with it and in so doing convincing many of the more moderate groups and individuals to make showy denunciations of the left position. Nor did it help that the cries of anti-Semitism so often stemmed from such a nakedly cynical place… even as, more and more often, I was forced to conclude they were occasionally correct. I found myself in the disquieting position of knowing that the pro-Palestinian position was not inherently anti-Semitic while slowly coming to understand that some within the pro-Palestinian faction of the antiwar movement plainly were.
The divisions seemed tailormade to prompt sloppy thinking and sloppy talk that could verge on bigotry. I never said “West Hartford liberals” in a way meant to indict Jews - but when I said that, I was, whether I meant to or not. I don’t think this was anti-Semitic, exactly. Well-moneyed Jewish liberals from West Hartford had an outsized effect on Connecticut left-wing politics; that was an objective reality. But still, it inevitably stepped right up to the edge of playing with the notion of a shadowy and rich Jewish elite who controlled the system to serve their own ends. I felt and feel that it was appropriate to refer to a set of people who are having a political influence that I found contrary to justice and the best interests of the movement. I have, in a related sense, been dismayed that some people, for example, forbid references to “bankers” under the theory that the term is a code for Jews. Bankers (the profession) are real, and usually pernicious, and must be discussable. But anti-Semitic codes are real too, and “West Hartford liberals” seemed to become one over time. That became a lesson to me.
I don’t think that my conduct or my utterances in the anti-Iraq war movement were anti-Semitic. I would never say that the stance that the Palestinian cause was an appropriate part of our Iraq demands was anti-Semitic. A large majority of my comrades in that effort were not anti-Semitic. But a large majority leaves a significant minority. And I came to see, in the throes of passion and factionalism, how my anger could have congealed into precisely the kind of toxic conspiracism that has cost the Jewish people so much. I also recognized, though only with time, that it was possible for fellow travelers in a righteous cause to harbor such bigotry. This is not an easy thing to accept. How do you fight against those who allege prejudice in your movement in a self-interested and calculated way, and at the same time know that there are those among you whose beliefs and conduct really are guilty of that prejudice? How do you admit to the exception while insisting on the rule? I don’t know. Sometimes navigating between the weaponized false allegation of anti-Semitism and the embrace of anti-Semitic tropes feels like piloting a canoe down a canyon that grows narrower and narrower the farther you paddle.
After an entire adult life publicly advocating for Palestinian liberation, I have become inured to anti-Semitism allegations. These allegations can liquidate careers in a moment, even stemming from legitimate political speech in fields that prize intellectual freedom - ask Steven Salaita - but emotionally it starts washing off you, in time. Which is a dangerous condition: now, with the accusation no longer so much as raising my pulse rate, the only one who can police myself of the bigotry that I acknowledge exists within my political world is me.
And so we come to today and the scourging of the al-Aqsa mosque, another in a long line of events that, were the Palestinians not a dispossessed people, would be commemorated with moments of silence every year by all thinking people. The Jews were a nation when they had no state, and their treatment of the Palestinians is, to some Jews, the shame of that nation. Today and yesterday and tomorrow, denied basic safety and dignity, even at their most holy spaces.
That sound you hear is a hundred emailers and commenters, cracking their knuckles to let me have it. It’s a complex situation. They’re just protecting their homes. Hamas fired the rockets. Only democracy in the Middle East. You can be openly gay there. Does the world need that many olive trees? Those children threw rocks. They shouldn’t have built a house where a bulldozer might someday pass by. Arafat wasn’t a good guy. America needs a bulwark against Muslim extremism. Would you send them back to the desert to wander for another thousand years? And on and on it goes: whatever comes, they had it coming.
This is what the Zionists never understand: even if all of that bullshit was true, it doesn’t matter.
If every word that they have said about the perfidy and self-destruction of the Palestinians was correct, it would make no difference. The moral obligation falls on the dominant party, and Israel is beyond dominant. The mythmaking about all of the opportunities they squandered does not make a lick of moral difference. I don’t think, for a second, that the PLO was offered some amazing deal at Taba. This mythical amazing deal that, for some reason, the Palestinians declined and that the Israelis offered once and then decided they could never offer again, despite the fact that it has so often been represented as mutually beneficial. Let’s say that actually happened. So what? Is that supposed to comfort an 11-year-old from Aqabah watching her home get bulldozed so that some ultra-orthodox racist can put up a vinyl siding nightmare of a house? Do you think a 4-year-old Palestinian whose family has just been exterminated in another ceaseless and barbaric assault on Gaza should say, “ah, but we had our chance at Taba….”? No. This is all that matters: between them, Israel is the drunken dad, coming up the stairs with his belt in his hand. It doesn’t matter if Palestinians were actually asking for it or not. You are the bully and it falls on you alone to stop. That is how the moral universe works. I’m sorry if you find it uncomfortable to be in that position.
“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg. Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg.” I have expressed this position, or echoed it really, every few years for the past twelve, and the response is always the same: this is moral error, this is juvenalia, this is an embarrassment, this is a joke. Surely adults don’t fall into these childish caricatures of political belief. And yet as I grow older it just seems more and more wise, more and more a statement of the basic status of the moral universe. You choose the wall or the egg, and in Palestine, no one could mistake one for the other.
But it is incumbent on those of us who argue for Palestinian liberation to remember that, though Israel is now the highest and hardest of high solid walls, the Jews have been the egg for thousands of years. We are, after all, the ones who insist that Israel is not the Jewish people and the Jewish people not Israel. So you would think we might bear that in mind as we make our case. But, I’m sorry to say, many do not. Zionists have used allegations of anti-Semitism cynically and opportunistically my entire life, dismissing the most responsible and anodyne criticisms of Israel as Jew hatred and sheltering Tel Aviv under a layer of protection so impenetrable that missile defense shields glow green with envy. And, also, there are branches of the radical left that are grimy with anti-Semitism, absolutely filthy with the stuff, and I have known some whose alleged sympathy for Palestine extends only so far as they can denounce the scheming and selfish Jew. So you run yourself ragged trying to rebut the bullshit accusations even as you despair at purging the real thing from your ranks. It’s like some cynical charlatan claiming that an imaginary tiger walks among you as a real jaguar stalks the jungle.
I know people, good people, some of them Jewish, who think those are pointless concessions to make. They will never give us credit for making them, the thinking goes, and so you trade more vulnerability to the accusation for nothing in return. And it’s true that all of the denunciation in the world won’t stop this line of attack; it’s too useful to the right people. The accusations against Jeremy Corbyn were very weak tea indeed, a stew of bad faith and guilt by association, and they fell so heavily upon him because he is on the far left. He would have gained nothing in the British media or Labour by renouncing his old comrades, and the British left would gain nothing from renouncing him. From that perspective there is indeed little sense in this kind of admission. The problem is that I have never been able to bring myself to see my apprehension of bigotry as an actuarial science, and I would hope we could be a proud pro-Palestine movement without that level of nihilism too.
Some clever leftists are in the habit of saying that, when we confront the status of Jews in modern society, we must pay attention to “the material conditions.” By this they mean that we must acknowledge that Jews are, as an American demographic, wealthy, educated, disproportionately represented in places of power, and by essentially every metric we have flourishing while others suffer. And, well, yes - we must pay attention to these material conditions. What I’ve never understood is why these clever leftists believe that this is some sort of ace pulled from their sleeves. I do not hear a lot of Jewish advocates claiming that too many Jews sleep under bridges. I do hear them say that Jews have for centuries been the victims of the kinds of violence and discrimination that status cannot stop and money cannot prevent. While we are being materialists we might take a moment to acknowledge that nothing could be more material than all the boots that have stomped on Jewish faces. Does that mean that we most grit our teeth and support the modern state of Israel? No. It means that we must stand for a solution that provides the essential human security for Jews that Israel was meant to provide. That must be one of our sacred commitments.
There is and has always been only one conclusion that could bring this tilted world into balance: a shared state in the land between the river and the sea, with absolute legal, political, and social equality for all people, Jew, Arab, or other, a secular democracy that welcomes and protects worldwide Jewry and helps them live productive lives in an integrated and mutually-beneficial society, a functioning polity where representation in government is proportional to representation in the population. This would not be a Jewish state: states should not have an ethnic or religious character, as this is contrary to basic principles of liberal democracy. But it would be and would forever remain a Jewish home. We do not have to imagine little Jewish and Palestinian children walking arm in arm to gather flowers together. We need only understand the communal need for equality and for peace and the painfully obvious mutual benefit for both of them in building a shared home.
The number of people on either side who want what I want must be quite small, and anyway today this looks like an impossible dream. But I have other dreams.
In the fever dreams that I sometimes wake from I believe without evidence that in the long run the two peoples will be joined in their destruction. Sooner or later the latent anti-Semitism in the world finally congeals together again and the horde comes and smashes the Jewish state, once seemingly so perpetual and indifferent, into a thousand broken cantons, that famous tenacity and all that krav maga overwhelmed by sheer numbers, thousands of imperious and bigoted Israeli soldiers incinerated by the ordnance of, I don’t know, Russia or China or some combination of lesser powers as yet unnamed. And then that boiling wave will come and wash over Tel Aviv and East Jerusalem alike, and the world will be reminded that the Jews are an oppressed people, and in the most bitter twist this invading army will do to the Palestinians what even Yigal Amir wouldn’t dare to dream, and throw them out, all of them, and for good. At last the land of Canaan will be ethnically cleansed of settler and rock thrower alike, of temple and of mosque. And then, finally, they will find each other in the waiting room of history, two refugee peoples, casting about for a place to live at last in peace and freedom and, my romantic dreams of unity aside, far far away from each other. This is not a good dream; it is the worst dream. I dream it, all the same.
The likely future will not be so dramatic. In the likely future Israel will go on as an occupying force, brutish and cruel, the country’s moral integrity bleeding out into the dirt with every day spent occupying Palestinian land. And the likely future for the Palestinians is more oppression, assault, dispossession, exile, brutality, loss. Their likely future is more dead boys on a Gaza beach.
Israel could end the conflict tomorrow; Israel could free them all, Arab and Jew, from this perpetual moral car crash, and it is on Israel that the burden falls, and that is what I think of the inevitable leftist accusation that I have been engaging in “false equivalence” today. But the reality is that they are both trapped by a world in which progress seems impossible, in which hate has so congealed that a mob of boys could chant in celebration of a fire in a mosque compound. And again my dream haunts me. The two of them wrestle on, Jacob and the angel, until that old testament god comes and breaks their little tussle apart, and my dark dreamt future comes to pass, and Jew and Palestinian find themselves united in the only experience that is truly universal in the human condition, dispossession and despair, and the rest of us will watch and wonder why we never cared enough to save them both, and in time we will sit shiva for this whole fallen world.