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Answering the Finkler Question

June 12, 2012 – 7:41 pm141 Comments

The following is a summation of Philip Mendes‘ comments delivered at yesterday’s Finkler Panel at Limmud Oz.

The great strength of the Finkler Question is that its depiction of what are called “ashamed Jews” so closely matches the reality we all know: There are in Australia and elsewhere a small group of anti-Zionist Jews, who hate Israel, who hate the vast majority of Jews who support Israel, and who often reserve a special venom for the many other Jews on the Left who are not ashamed of Israel. Personally, I have experienced defamatory letters sent to my University and numerous other public misrepresentations of my views and opinions – nearly all emanating from anti-Zionist Jews (sometimes backed up by “useful idiots” in local non-Zionist organizations such as AJDS) who wish to censor and silence left-wing Jews who think Israel has a right to exist.

This group of anti-Zionist Jews seem to have increased in numbers in the last decade. The question is why? Some of the obvious factors include the advent of the Internet which has made it far easier for minority groups to promote their views independent of mainstream media, the increased acceptability on the Left of expressions of ethnic and other forms of minority group identity, and the massive shift within mainstream Jewish organizations to support for a two-state perspective which has opened up major new spaces for Jews of diverse opinions to articulate a range of strategies to promote that outcome.

But most significantly it seems to me that everyone wants to be part of a community. Anti-Zionist Jews are generally excluded from the mainstream Jewish community because the views they hold are considered offensive by the majority who mostly regard them as Uncle Toms. It is, however, perhaps a grey question as to whether they are overtly excluded because the majority are intolerant of their views, or rather they exclude themselves because they are intolerant of any views on Israel other than anti-Zionism.

Many find an alternative home in the Left community. Some are happy with this because their political views have little or nothing to do with their Jewish background. But others still feel a need to express their Jewish identity even if only on political issues. Hence the formation of alternative groups or communities with titles such as Independent Jewish Voices or Jews for Justice for Palestinians. These communities appear to give them a sense of belonging and mutual support that was denied to them in the mainstream Jewish community.

None of this means that a degree of opportunism or expediency is not involved. Some as noted in the Finkler Question only claim a Jewish identity as a convenient means of bashing Israel, and deflecting allegations of anti-Semitism. The most offensive use of a pseudo Jewish identity arguably occurs when Jewish anti-Zionists (including some of the most extreme BDS advocates) highlight and exploit the Holocaust survivor background of their parents or family in order to justify their attacks on Israel (see, for example, the flier promoting Avigail Abarbanel’s book). Yet any serious survey of Holocaust survivors and their families would almost certainly find that the vast majority furiously reject these statements, and offer strong support for the State of Israel.

But others to varying degrees genuinely seem to believe that Jewish values or teachings underpin their political beliefs as is evident from the two recent sympathetic (and mostly uncritical) books on Jewish anti-Zionism from Avigail Abarbanel and David Landy.

This attempt to develop a Jewish (as opposed to solely political) anti-Zionist identity poses a number of questions which remain largely unanswered:

1)     What if anything distinguishes their anti-Zionist beliefs from the views of anti-Zionists who aren’t Jewish?

2)     What it is about their Jewish experiences that has lead them to express views diametrically opposed to most Jews on Israel?

3)     How can they apply Jewish social justice teachings exclusively to the Palestinians, and completely ignore the national and human rights of the approximately six million Jews who live in Israel?

4)     Did their anti-Zionism only develop after they joined far Left groups? This is an important question as we know that many Left groups today and historically have compelled Jewish members to conform to an anti-Zionist position.

Can anti-Zionist Jews be viewed in any way whatsoever as promoting Jewish concerns and interests? Do they campaign against forms of anti-Semitism that are not related to the Middle East conflict? What events if any would lead them to show their solidarity with other Jews?

Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at Monash University, and also holds an adjunct appointment with the Monash Centre for Jewish Civilisation. He is the author or co-author of seven books including Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004, and is currently preparing Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a Political Alliance for publication in late 2013.

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