Decolonizing Jewishness: On Jewish Liberation in the 21st Century

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

–Aboriginal activist saying, attributed to Lilla Watson

Seven decades on, Israel is geopolitically embattled and the Jewish community is increasingly polarized around the issue of occupation. The occupation – Israeli military control over the Palestinian West Bank and the borders of Gaza Strip – is five decades old. Entire generations of people have grown up without political or civil rights, under the military jurisdiction of a “democratic” state. Some trace the problem to the very existence of the State of Israel. How did the Jewish struggle to free ourselves from antisemitism lead to this point?

Following the trauma of centuries of persecution culminating in the Shoah (Holocaust), many Jews looked to the Political Zionist goal of founding a Jewish State of Israel, then British Palestine, as a guiding star in a time of profound darkness. Defending their new state against Arab Palestinians and neighboring countries in the 1948 “War of Independence,” what Palestinians refer to as the Nakba (Catastrophe), gave the new Israelis a powerful founding myth after millennia of diasporic marginalization. To many Zionists, the State of Israel represented a historic milestone in the effort to combat antisemitism, having carved out territory to defend the Jewish people from a world that had rejected and nearly annihilated them. For many Palestinians and others, Zionism itself represents a new front in the historic expansion of European colonialism, with the 1967 occupation, or the State of Israel itself, representing a crime against humanity. Israel, the Jewish Question, and the occupation continue to play a central role in global political discussions to a degree that is vastly disproportionate to the amount of people directly affected by them, placing these issues, as Hannah Arendt once put it, at the “storm center” of national and geopolitical contention.

Meanwhile, amid the impending rise of fascism with the election of Donald Trump in the US and popular surges of far right parties in Europe and elsewhere, antisemitism has reemerged as a legitimate, if uncomfortable, issue for social movements. This subject has led to renewed discussions and arguments on the left over the scope, nature, and reality of antisemitism, as well as the role Jews play in the dominant identity politics framework of movement communities.

According to anticolonial thinker Frantz Fanon, there are two main characters in the process of global imperialism: colonizer and colonized. Many around the world have resonated with Fanon’s analysis of colonial power dynamics and have drawn from his framework to pursue decolonization, or the process of destroying colonial power structures and remaking oneself in a liberated image. Considering the occupation as it stands, it is not difficult to view the current state of the region through an anti-colonial lens with Israeli Jews playing the part of the (settler) colonizers and Palestinians playing the part of the colonized (e.g., Pappé 2015, Said 1979). In this framework, Jewish activists who oppose the occupation play the part of “ally,” or conscientiously subordinate supporter, to Palestinian activists (and others) who are fighting for their liberation.

However, the Zionist project itself can also be understood as an attempt at Jewish decolonization. Viewing Zionism and its subjects through this lens can potentially clarify a great deal about contemporary Jewish identities, and perhaps open a new path forward in one of the defining conflicts of our time. Ultimately, this approach helps us to understand, as I argue, that the Zionist project creates a social condition in which the liberation of the Jewish people has become fundamentally intertwined with the liberation of the Palestinian people.

The Complex Jewish Position

To Fanon, there is the colonizer and there is the colonized; there is white and Black. While he explores some complexity in the psychology and social positions of the two, to Fanon the colonizer (white) and the colonized (Black) remain the primary categories of analysis. The forms of racism that are attached to this colonialism place the target group at the bottom of a racial hierarchy for the purposes of the social, political, economic, and interpersonal power of those at the top. Considering the influence of Fanon on Black Liberation and other antiracist thinkers in the US, it is no coincidence that the contemporary framework for understanding race and privilege in this country follows the same logic. In the “identity politics” paradigm of today’s social movements, the characters in the dichotomous picture are white people and  “people of color” (POC). This picture can leave out a great deal of nuance, but nevertheless it captures a wide view of the politicized racial hierarchy. Importantly, it focuses on the foundational antagonisms of the racially constructed system by identifying whiteness as applying to the category of people who broadly benefit from the existence of the system itself.

Fanon’s work is foundational for anti-colonial thought, so it is a sensible place to begin an analysis of decolonization for any group. At the same time, Fanon’s position on antisemitism is not without controversy. Notably, afropessimist theorist Frank Wilderson claims that Fanon characterizes the Holocaust as merely one of many “little family quarrels” between groups of white Europeans, using this phrase to explain the incomparability between white-white antisemitism and the white-Black legacy of slavery (2010:37-38). However, Wilderson mischaracterizes Fanon’s view, possibly due to an early English edition’s translation.

Please see below for corrections in the print edition:
-P. 47: image credit: Ren Rathbone and Dani Klein
-P. 58: credit for the author photograph: Ileia Burgos
-P. 53: the quote “right to embrace difference and yet enjoy access to power” should be attributed to Cheryl Greenberg
-P. 51: Endnote 2 should appear after “never really white in the first place.”
-P. 56: Endnote 3 should appear after: “mode of production of the new man.”

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun’s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article or to download the PDF version.

Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 1/2:47-58

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