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Why I Support the New Zionist Left

August 26, 2010 – 6:25 pm156 Comments

By Mark Baker

Since writing an article supporting the new Zionist Left, I’ve been asked what I believe about Israel and other matters. I’m not sure if the question that has come from numerous people is an accusation or an expression of interest, but I suspect it has something to do with a culture of delegitimisation that has spread from attacks against Israel to attacks against liberal Zionists. The problem is that I can’t easily answer the question about what I believe because my beliefs aren’t dogmas that can be reduced to a catechism. I have likes and dislikes that aid me in navigating my actions but like most people, my principles, attachments and ideas are part of my interior, familiar signposts that signal how to cross from one thought to another. But the question has set me thinking, and apart from my obvious attachments to family, fun and friendship, I’ve come up with the following short list of seminal ideas that make me recognisable to myself.

I start with humanism; to me, the word flows from the religious idea that we are all, each of us in our diversity, created in the divine image. All the rest is commentary, which includes a belief in democracy as the best political system to safeguard human dignity, and thinking twice and then several more times before we press the trigger and breach the human rights of an individual, a collective, or a people. The Talmudic verse that best captures this ideal is the one that regards the redemption or destruction of a single human life as a world created or destroyed. Each of us, in our singularity, is infinite, yet we so easily fall into the temptations of dehumanisation for the sake of self-affirmation.  Of late I have been trying to extend these feelings towards all creatures by limiting what I eat. This has been influenced by the ethical eating demanded of me through kashrut, the sudden death of my dog, and an encounter in Rwanda with a gorilla.

Holocaust memory; it’s a strange notion to include but it’s not out of choice. Born to Holocaust survivor parents, our generations have been witnesses to the antithesis of creation – a world of cremation where the human ideal, as embodied in the Jew, was ground to dust and ash. The moral legacies of the Holocaust command me (in the biblical sense) to uphold the very principles that were transgressed in Auschwitz. This means not being silent, standing up, speaking out.  It also means defending Jewish life when it is threatened. My questions about the Holocaust – about perpetrators, bystanders and victims; about ideologies of race and supremacy, totalitarianism and demagoguery, power and powerlessness, refugees and indifference, tolerance and exclusion, guilt and forgiveness, virtue and evil – extend to everything that has happened and not happened in the world after Auschwitz. Never Again can and has been manipulated as a slogan to justify Jewish racism and violence; for me, it evokes the activation of the principles of humanism which summons us to speak out on transgressions of human dignity and threats to life wherever and whenever.

Jewish life: I’m for chucking the fiddler off the roof and replacing sentimentality and ancestral worship with meaningful, deep Judaism. I respect pluralism and the thin or non-existent connections of Jews to their Judaism because in this age our identities are a matter of choice. The reward for being Jewish is being Jewish; there is no punishment for refusing to stand at Sinai. I revere and fear religion. Every religion is born in violence – a covenant of blood – while simultaneously empowering us to transcend and mend this world that is metaphorically and truly broken. When we surrender ourselves to a religion, we do not relinquish our free will and the difficulty of choosing between right and wrong. I believe in an interpretation of religion that affirms rather than diminishes or extinguishes the human dignity of men and women, and of peoples of other faiths or of no faith.

In my religious practice I seek sanctity, the holiness of the everyday things that we create through religious rituals of time and space, human deeds, and our mythical and real journeys. Sanctity is the opposite of sanctimony – it requires humility rather than moral certainty or claims to absolute truth. I love Jewish ritual, the Jewish Sabbath, the Jewish way. I appreciate the sanctity that all religious systems create – the kindling of light and scent, of food devoured in ritualistic ways, of sharing our offerings with family and friends, and building community through prayer and song.  The parts of scripture that most inspire me are the prophetic ideals of justice, peace and chesed (givingness), even as I know that reality will always leave these out of our grasp. I try to adhere to the extra word that distinguishes between love of peace and justice, and the relentless pursuit of it; as in, ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue’, and ‘Love peace and pursue it’. I also like the word, ‘Thou’ – its grandness, and Martin Buber’s philosophy of I and Thou, which speaks of the connectedness of all things animate and inanimate – us to our environment.

And Zionism; the legitimacy, morality, justness, enduring nature of Jewish national self-determination as expressed in Israel; not just as an idea, but as a place of vitality and creativity, division and dissent, ancient and renewed, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, majority and minority. I have always been a Zionist, and cannot escape its narrative and personal connections to the re-creation of Jewish life out of the ashes of the Holocaust. I have spent more than three separate years living in Israel, contemplated Aliyah, given birth there with my wife to our firstborn and encouraged each of our children to experience multiple programs in Israel so that they can become enchanted enough with the Zionist dream to develop a mature relationship with the responsibilities of power and sovereignty. I fear for Israel’s future, the consequences of a nuclear Iran run by an apocalyptic madman, the effects of the growing radicalisation of Israel’s enemies. I despise the orchestrated campaign that has turned the Jewish state into a pariah, thereby recasting elements of the nineteenth century Jewish Question into a contemporary Israel Question.

Yet it also follows from my principles that I don’t like the kind of Zionism that is narcissistic, that refuses to see the multiple narratives and complexity of the conflict, that does not accept responsibility for the consequences of Jewish statehood on its victims, that makes excuses for the occupation and minimises its devastating effects, that worships land over people, that generates a cult of the state and of the military, that treats humans as demographic ammunition, that believes peace is impossible simply because we say it is, that thinks that a Palestinian state is a generous concession rather than a moral obligation, that positions Jews as eternal victims of antisemitism while fuelling Islamophobia, that expects a partnership with the Diaspora but infantilises its supporters, that thinks a patriot can’t see through a lie, that measures loyalty by conformity and confuses love with complicity, that does not fight against the conditions that breed war and violence and then tells us we had no choice, that resorts to military daring in place of political daring, that has replaced the credo of Never Again with the pessimism of Never.

I believe, finally, that we must align our beliefs with our deeds as best we can; that is why I have dedicated my life to Jewish education; why I love the challenge of challenging a student, or travelling with them to landscapes of conflict and memory; why I have founded an Orthodox, feminist synagogue, a journal of critical Jewish thought, and a Jewish organisation dedicated to universalist social action; it is why I have consistently refuted in my writings those who demonise Zionism and treat Israel as a pariah amongst the nations, and why I will continue to speak out against the brutality of the forty year occupation and the moral imperative of ending it now; and why I believe that in the name of living up to our inner truths we must be prepared to surrender, if necessary, our scalp for the sake of preserving our mind and what it drives us to think, say, and do.

Mark Baker is Director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation and Associate Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Monash University.

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