Class, culture and generation
Daniel Lazare welcomes the Jewish civil war that is being fought out in cancellations, sackings, demonstrations, petitions and boycotts
Lenin’s 1915 call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war is taking on new meaning, now that the US-Israeli assault on Gaza is igniting a civil war among Jews!
The results are most evident in the United States, where Orthodox rabbis are attacking Reform Jews for calling for a “humanitarian pause”,1 while Jewish billionaires demand that Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and other schools crack down on anti-Zionist protestors (many of them Jewish), and threaten to withdraw financial support if they do not.
Columbia University, under heavy pressure from Jewish billionaire donors, has suspended two pro-Palestinian groups - Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, for “threatening rhetoric and intimidation”. The 92nd Street Y - founded 150 years ago as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and long a cultural mainstay on Manhattan’s Upper East Side - is in turmoil after cancelling an appearance by the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen (author of The sympathizer and The refugees) merely because he signed an open letter in support of a ceasefire. But then the Y was forced to cancel the rest of the literary season when top staffers quit in protest and well-known poets declared a boycott.2
The Anti-Defamation League - a pillar of the Jewish liberal establishment - has attacked Jewish Voice for Peace and others as “hate groups, the photo inverse of white supremacists”, because they dare to challenge Zionist aggression. But after issuing the blast the ADL was then hit by an internal revolt by young staffers demanding to know how the league could lump Jewish peace activists in with the Ku Klux Klan. (“Zionism is a liberation movement,” ADL chief Jonathan Greenblatt defiantly replied. “... If you still feel like you can’t square the fact that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, then maybe this isn’t the place for you.”)3
Artforum magazine stumbled into a hornet’s nest for the opposite reason: ie, for running an open letter from nearly 8,000 artists and cultural workers (many of them Jewish) expressing solidarity with Palestinians and “reject[ing] violence against all civilians regardless of their identity”. After a flood of protests from Jewish gallery owners, art collectors and advertisers, the magazine’s solution was to fire its editor-in-chief for publishing the letter in the first place.
“I’m disappointed that a magazine that has always stood for freedom of speech and the voices of artists has bent to outside pressure,” the editor, David Velasco, said. “I have never lived through a more chilling period,” added photographer Nan Goldin, who grew up in a middle class Jewish home in Massachusetts and whose work has dealt extensively with drugs and the Aids epidemic. “People are being blacklisted. People are losing their jobs.” Goldin vowed never to work for Artforum again.4
A Berkeley geneticist named Michael Eisen - a Jew with relatives in Israel - was removed as editor of an open-access research journal called eLife after re-tweeting a satirical article titled ‘Dying Gazans criticized for not using last words to condemn Hamas’.5
“Every sane person on earth is horrified and traumatized by what Hamas did and wants it to never happen again,” Eisen said a week after the October 7 assault. “But I am also horrified by the collective punishment already being meted out on Gazans and the worse that is about to come.”6 Nearly 2,000 scientists, many of them Jewish, signed a protest letter in response complaining that “a culture of fear, intolerance and political repression” is taking hold.7 Palestine Legal, a legal-aid group based in Chicago, says it has received more than 80 inquiries from people who say they have been fired since October 7 due to their pro-Palestinian views.
To be fair, pro-Israelis are getting the boot too. At Washington University in St Louis, a medical researcher was dismissed after tweeting that “Israel is not targeting humans” in Gaza, while a prominent physician was removed as head of New York University’s Perlmutter Cancer Center for retweeting an anti-Hamas political cartoon that The New York Times said featured an “offensive” anti-Arab stereotype.8
While few Weekly Worker readers will be able to work up much sympathy for the oncologist, Dr Benjamin Neel, they should appreciate the danger of allowing powerful bourgeois institutions to determine what is permissible and what is not. (In fact, the cartoon, in this writer’s opinion, is not especially offensive to anyone other than the super-sensitive Times, which gets the vapours whenever the word ‘black’ is uncapitalised.)9
But isn’t it sad that people are quarrelling instead of pulling together for the common good? Why can’t they all just get along?
The answer, of course, is that they should not get along when Zionists are killing thousands of people in the name of fighting anti-Semitism, while at the same time allying themselves with anti-Semitic ‘Christian Zionists’, such as Texas televangelist John Hagee. As I reported last week, he declared at a pro-Israel demonstration that the holocaust was divinely ordained: “Why did it happen? Because God said, ‘My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel’.”10 As a reactionary ideology through and through, Zionism can only engender more anti-Semitism, more Islamophobia and more military aggression, no matter how much it claims to be fighting for the opposite.
As Lenin put it in the midst of World War I, “Whoever wishes a durable and democratic peace must be for civil war against the governments and the bourgeoisie.”11 Instead of war between nations, in other words, socialists must agitate for class war within nations and within ethnic communities as well. Since the last thing socialists want to see is Jews lining up behind Benjamin Netanyahu’s murderous policies out of some misplaced sense of group identity, they can only applaud when a portion of the community rises up in support of an oppressed people that the Jewish state has spent decades vilifying and degrading. Rather than passive acquiescence, Zionism is meeting with active resistance in its own ranks and is reeling as a consequence.
The reasons for the revolt are not hard to discern. American Jews live thousands of miles away from the battlefield and therefore, as Zionists like to claim, have the luxury of being peace-loving and democratic, when frontline Israeli Jews do not. But this merely stands Zionism on its head, since the old argument that Jews need a state of their own in order to be safe and secure turns out to be false.
But it is also clear that the two biggest Jewish communities in the world have been following opposite paths since the 1940s. Where Israeli Jews isolated themselves in a besieged ethno-state - or rather found themselves herded into a Jewish state by a Zionist cabal intent on closing off all other escape routes from the Nazis - their American co-religionists plunged headlong into a multi-ethnic society filled with conflicts of every conceivable sort, yet one nominally dedicated to certain over-arching democratic principles. While supporting Jewish supremacy in Israel, Jewish leaders have therefore long preached the opposite in the United States, which is that the only way to ensure Jewish equality is by fighting for equal rights for all.
It is a question of racial supremacy versus racial equality, and the result is a powerful contradiction that is finally beginning to explode. The conflict is class-based, since it pits wealthy and conservative Wall Streeters against those who are less firmly established. It is also generational, in that it pits older Jews against young people who feel thoroughly at home in America’s freewheeling society. Young US Jews are more liberal according to a recent poll, more culturally detached, more likely to intermarry, and more inclined to atheism or agnosticism. Those in the 18-29 age bracket are less attached to the Jewish state and less likely to believe that Jews occupy the land of Israel by divine right. Among American Jews in general, only 33% think Netanyahu is sincerely trying to make peace with the Palestinians, while 25% characterise Israel as an apartheid state and 22% say it is guilty of genocide.12
That is quite an indictment of a state that claims to have been created on the Jews’ behalf. To the degree young American Jews feel a residual loyalty to Judaism, it is not because of the Talmud, Torah or anything like that, but rather because of a vague sense of Jewish ethics - the belief, to quote first century sage Simeon ben Gamaliel, that “the world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace”, and that the Jewish mission is to see to it that all are firmly established.
There is much for Marxists to quarrel with here: eg, how to reconcile such high-minded sentiments with the gory massacres that the Hebrew Bible otherwise celebrates; or whether ethics can be considered ethics at all when seen as ‘handed down by god’ rather than fashioned by human beings on their own. (Humanism, of which Marxism is a part, holds firmly to the latter.)
Regardless, the upshot is a growing split among Jews in terms of religion, morality and culture. It is a civil war in the making that Israel’s war on Gaza is now turning into the real thing. Ethnic solidarity is shattering, as a significant sector of American Jewry rises in rebellion - which is all to the good.
What will replace it, however, is unknown. Marxists believe the answer to endless fratricide is a Hebrew-Arab workers’ state in a socialist Middle East. But, given the liberal nature of American protest politics, they may as well be speaking a foreign language. While protestors are united in calling for a ceasefire, few seem to have any sense of what lies beyond.
How to provide peace and security on both sides of the divide, how to respond to homicidal tendencies on the part of Likud and Hamas, what to do about a region ravaged by militarism and war - such supremely difficult questions are put off for another day, while everyone concentrates on a ceasefire in the here and now. Almost no-one celebrates the murderous October 7 assault, other than a few idiots in the Socialist Workers Party in the UK or the played-out Northites who put out the World Socialist Web Site in the US.13 But Hamas is still the great unmentionable - something that protestors dare allude to in only the most roundabout terms.
Then there is the dual problem of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. With anti-immigrant riots in Dublin, Geert Wilders’ astounding election victory in the Netherlands, and Donald Trump’s vows to re-impose a ban on Muslims entering the US, the former is plainly growing by leaps and bounds. Anti-war activists must fight it as hard as they can. But how can they do so without allying themselves with the same liberal politicians backing Israel to the hilt?
The same goes for the Jews. So far, anti-Semitism has been remarkably restrained. While some protestors no doubt blame Jews in general for the horrors in Gaza, they are holding their tongue in order to appeal to as broad a population as possible. But, the uglier the war, the less likely such sentiment will remain under wraps. Will peace activists hold their tongues, once they finally emerge? Or will they try to counter them with an aggressive programme of socialist internationalism?
The latter is the only course, and yet it requires more than just calls for compromise and peace. While resistance is welcome, anti-war forces must confront Zionism head on - along with the US imperialism behind it and the dead-end jihadism of Hamas.
The growing horror in the Middle East is a multi-dimensional problem that demands a multi-dimensional response that only an international workers’ movement can provide.
See ‘Zionism needs anti-Semitism’ Weekly Worker November 23: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1468/zionism-needs-anti-semitism.↩︎
www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/jewish-americans-in-2020; see also: forward.com/news/473044/what-if-a-quarter-of-jews-really-do-think-israel-is-a-genocidal-apartheid.↩︎
socialistworker.co.uk/international/rejoice-as-palestinian-resistance-humiliates-racist-israel; and: www.wsws.org/en/articles/2023/10/08/wkem-o08.html.↩︎