BY ROGER HARRIS
When I told my grandmother that I was going to visit Europe for the first time, she exploded, “Oy vey!” Raising her voice, she exclaimed: “There’s nothing there! NOTHING! Just poverty and filth.” Collecting herself, she added: “You like foreign food? There’s better in New York.”
For her generation of Jews, there was little nostalgia for the old country…and for good reason. She had been an involuntary participant in pogroms, violent riots massacring Jews. Fast forward to the present, the perpetrators are being rehabilitated. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, disregarding his religious heritage, honors the murderous Stepan Bandera as one of his “indisputable heroes.”
My dear grandmother, like so many other immigrants from eastern Europe, had endured the oppression of the shtetl. She then came to these shores and became a Fancy American Lady. Her friends came to call her Fanny, a sophisticated name rather than her given one of Felicia. There was no going back for them.
Of the diverse mélange of ethnic groups that comprise the so-called American melting pot, the Jews – to the extent that one can generalize about anyone – are unique in having no affection for whence they came. The old folks would say in their more cynical moments that they “came from hunger” rather than a particular country.
In the case of my family, I don’t even know from where specifically they came. As a child, I intuitively learned that there were some subjects that were out of bounds. Our family’s past was an implicitly verboten topic. Now they are gone, and I wish that I had asked about their early life.
Although my relatives had no intention of returning to Europe, they still retained the culture they brought with them.
The old folks did not have a particular interest in Zionism. However, for many of my co-religionists today, the tradition of European Jewish culture is being replaced by the Disneyesque synthetic of political Zionism. The shame and pain of the past is buried in the Zionist conceit.
The ideal of the Jewish scholar has been discarded for the veneration of the warrior. No longer identifying as the “people of the book,” the Zionist is proud to be the gun bearer. Grace and mercy have made way for a vengeance of biblical proportions. The Zionist state is unapologetically nuclear armed and a leading world purveyor of cluster bombs, surveillance equipment, and policing technology.
Our warm Yiddish language with its the rich literature, theatre, and song has been cast off. Also tellingly vanishing is its humor and humanity; its sometimes self-deprecating humility. In its place is a former liturgical language, Hebrew. Unearthed from the cold catacombs, the new tongue is a deliberate part of a break from tradition in a project to build a new national identity that escapes from its past.
Zionism rests on a mythos of a supreme being who chose a particular people to establish a nation on the eastern Mediterranean coast. More political than religious, Zionism posits a basic antagonism between Jews and others, necessitating an exclusive state to defend the former against the rest.
Long one of many currents in the Jewish diaspora, even before World War II, Zionism got legs in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Though still disputed in some circles, it is today the dominant ideology of the diaspora and the Israeli state.
“Making aliyah” is to return to what is described as our motherland, the land of our origins per the Zionists. Aliyah is one of the most basic tenets of Zionism.
What do you take me for, a schlemiel? Genetic evidence shows that the European Jews never occupied the occupied territories. We can’t “go back” to a place that was never ours. The European settlers, who immigrated as part of the Zionist project to the territory now claimed by Israel, were not descended from the Jewish people depicted in the Bible. Rather, they were in all likelihood the descendants of converts to Judaism.
Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Congress, explained back in 1914: “There is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?”
Of course there was the inconvenient existence of the indigenous people who lived there and had done so for millennia. But to the settler colonialists that now head the Zionist state, these indigenous are literally “animals.” As I write this, those untermenschen are being cleansed out.
The narrow nationalist and xenophobic tribalism of Zionism contrasts with the universal humanism of “welcoming the stranger” at the Passover table. In traditional Jewish culture, a seat was added to the family table for a stranger on the religious feast day. This beautiful ritual was explicitly designed to engender empathy for others.
The Torah reminds those who have not renounced their past: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23:9).” That is why many anti-Zionist Jews in today’s political context resonate with the slogan, “we are ALL Palestinians.”
Over time, the Zionists have achieved a horrific conversion of an oppressed people becoming the oppressor. But they could not have done that transformation alone. The political ideology of Zionism had to be inseparably joined in a seamless union with US imperialism. As US President Biden emphasized, “making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security.”
Endless war is the prescription for the US imperial/Zionist joint project. A ceasefire let alone a peace with justice is off the table. Perversely, political Zionism has instrumentalized Jewish identity into a tool of empire.
Paradoxically the biggest fans of modern Zionism outside of the Jewish community are anti-Semitic autocrats. They love the self-proclaimed Apartheid state because of its institutionalized racism, not in spite of it. Name an international bully and you can bet they’re bullish about the so-called Promised Land.
Yet growing numbers of us still embrace our ancestral identity and, especially in light of current events, wholly renounce its self-loathing antithesis of Zionism. What the Nazis failed to achieve – the obliteration of European Jewish culture – the Zionists are carrying forward. We have a word for that in Yiddish. It’s a shanda, a scandalous embarrassment and shame.
Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.