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Learning From Zionism’s Jewish Critics

A reading list from the author of a new — and newly timely — book.

In 2014, I ended my second book, Nations Divided: American Jews and the Struggle Over Apartheid, with a discussion of how most American Jewish leaders powerfully resisted applying the label of apartheid to what was happening in Israel and Palestine. Objection to any criticism of Israel among communal leaders had long stood in the way of full American Jewish support for the global anti-South African apartheid movement. The texts below provided the foundation for me to undertake my research on this dynamic, and helped me understand the domestic and international implications of unqualified American Jewish support for Israel.

They also helped lay the groundwork for my newest book, Threshold of Dissent: A History of American Jewish Critics of Zionism, in which I chronicle the surprisingly unbroken continuum of criticism of Jewish nationalism, American Zionism, and Israel from the 1880s to the 1980s. The book analyzes lively debates over the role of Jewish nationalism in American Jewish life, how American Jews might relate to Israel, and whether a Jewish state made the world safer for Jews across the world. Linking Jewish unity on Israel to Jewish safety, Jewish leaders marginalized critics of American Zionism, lowering the threshold of dissent from Zionism across the 20th and 21st century. 

I began writing this book eight years ago, and I could not have anticipated the relevance that this debate within American Judaism would come to have in our current moment of tragedy. Threshold documents that debates over Jewish nationalism and Israel began within the American Jewish community, and that today’s protestors draw from this history of dissent. The book also helps to explain why so many American Jews, including myself, grew up with no knowledge of Palestinian history — a fact that explains my reliance on some of the texts I note below. By opening up conversations about how we got to this fractured, painful moment, we might find lessons in the past to guide us through it. 

Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada 
Journalist Ali Abunimah co-founded The Electronic Intifada in 2001 as an “independent online news publication” that focuses on Palestine, its people, culture, and politics. His writings, in EI and beyond, have been essential to the education of so many, including myself, on Palestinian life and the politics of Israel/Palestine. 

Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

During the Second Intifada in 2003, Tony Kushner, the author and playwright, and Alisa Solomon, a writer and professor of journalism at Columbia, collected the voices of Jewish poets, artists, academics, essayists, playwrights, and journalists who spoke out on Israel and Palestine. I read with special interest the essay of my colleague Michael Staub, a scholar who courageously documented political debates among American Jews in his historical essay — “If We Really Care About Israel: Breira and the Limits of Dissent” — and later in his superb, much-cited 2004 book, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar AmericaAll of the contributors to Kushner and Solomon’s collection boldly challenged the idea that American Jews spoke with one voice, with unqualified support for Israel’s policies. The book’s editors and contributors faced perhaps predictable responses: some found it a welcome break from unqualified support for Israel’s leadership, while others dismissed it as inflammatory and unrepresentative of American Jewry.

Hasia Diner and Tony Michels, “Considering American Jewish History,” in the November 2007 issue of Organization of American Historians
This article came out just as my first book — a biography of Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement — went to press in 2008. It was, first, a call for U.S. historians to pay attention to, and make room for, work in American Jewish history. It was also a call for American Jewish historians to heed the “paradigmatic shifts within the larger field of American history,” engaging especially with the histories of American race and antisemitism to look at “how Jews balanced their American loyalties with global responsibilities.” Michels and Diner’s call created a space — and even an inspiration — for my own subsequent intellectual work in that realm. Diner’s social history scholarship, especially, has been essential to my Jewish Studies education and she has remained a leading light for me. 

Naomi Klein, “Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks, and the Post-Racial Presidency,” in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s
Michael Staub recommended this article as I began writing Nations Divided. In it, journalist Naomi Klein analyzed how nations in the Global North had recently invoked antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in choosing not to attend Durban II, the follow-up convention to the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. 

By abstaining from participation at Durban II in 2009, the U.S., along with other wealthy countries including Canada and Israel, refused to earnestly engage in conversations about what they owed to the populations they had exploited. With great clarity, Klein illustrated how the equation of antisemitism with any criticism of Israel prevented these nations from signing the Durban Declaration, the “first document with international legal standing” to categorize the international slave trade as a “crime against humanity.” She documented the vast funds Israel dedicated to challenge criticism of its oppression of Palestinians at the conference — and ultimately to undermine Durban. 

Though the rivalry between African Americans and Jews “predates the conference,” Klein wrote, civil rights leaders modeled their slavery reparations campaigns on “Jewish organizations’ winning Holocaust-reparations lawsuits” and hoped Jews might become their “natural allies in the reparations call” and the other work at Durban. This article, along with Klein’s subsequent writings and activism, have helped me to understand how disagreements about Israel obstructed this alliance.

Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, Five Broken Cameras
Palestinian Emad Burnat, who lives in a village on the West Bank, bought a camera in 2005 to record the birth of his son. Soon after, Israel began to bulldoze the neighboring farmland to build a barrier between his family’s village and neighboring Jewish settlements. Burnat recorded his son’s growing up alongside the destruction wrought by Israeli occupation. This film brought the brutal realities of Israel’s occupation to light for many people who had no previous knowledge about it.

Geoffrey Levin, Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948-1978
I met Geoffrey Levin, a Middle Eastern and Jewish Studies scholar at Emory University, as he was finishing up the brilliant dissertation that became this smart and courageous book. He and I shared sources and ideas, although his book focuses exclusively on Palestinian rights, while my book zeroes in on dissent from Zionism. The global research that serves as the foundation to this book, on organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and individuals such as Don Peretz, is as vast as it is impressive. “From 1948 to the present day,” Levin writes, “some American Jews, with various stances on Zionism, followed discussions taking place in Israel about the state’s Arab policy,” taking seriously the “moral and political plight of the Palestinians.” His findings are urgently needed in our current moment.







Buy This Book

Read the other reading list in this series, from Lauren Markham, author of A Map of Future Ruins.