Wherever we live, that’s where we belong

Two months into the war in Gaza, on 29th November 2023, a group of activists and academics organised an online teach-in on Jewish Solidarity with Palestinians entitled “Anti-Zionism, Activism and Liberation for All”. Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialists’ Group was one of the speakers.

Wherever we live, that’s where we belong

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak at this webinar, I’m honoured to be here alongside such eminent contributors at such a timely event and look forward to the discussion.

I want to start with a small bit of personal history and also a view of Jewish life which underlies both the ideas I’ll be talking about and the longevity of some of the debates happening now.

I grew up in a traditional Jewish home in the heart of the community in north-west London and spent what I considered to be too many hours each week at Hebrew classes. But the Jewish history I learnt stopped in 70CE with the destruction of the Second Temple and started again in the 1940s. I had no real picture of the centuries between those dates when, I was led to believe, Jewish life consisted of relentless persecution, punctuated by the occasional Golden Age. I learnt almost nothing about the 1,000 years of Jewish life in Europe; the millennia of Jewish life in the region that was Babylon; the 2,000 years of Jewish life in India – about Jewish life as a minority among other peoples in innumerable places across the globe.

Since then, I’ve developed a more three-dimensional view of our long and often internally conflicted Jewish history.

It’s true that there were times of bitter oppression, but there have also been long periods when Jewish life expanded and flourished. It wasn’t a bed of roses (not many people’s lives ever have been) but it’s wrong to portray this varied, multifaceted and interactive history as a relentless saga of exile, exclusion and persecution. Instead of seeing ourselves as a beleaguered people, heroically hanging on to our existence – the exception that proves the rule of majoritarianism – we could understand ourselves to be a people for whom diaspora existence, internationalism, being a minority, are normal.

Over the millennia that we have lived across borders and amongst other peoples, we have developed cultures that combine flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness to diverse and changing societies while still recognising ourselves, and being recognised by others, as Jews.

I’m using the word “diaspora”, I hope, in the spirit of Paul Gilroy in his book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. I know that etymologically the word means “dispersion” and has negative connotations, but the reality of diaspora peoples is that we live in a dynamic, interactive, dialectical relationship with other peoples and places. Diaspora is a context in which our identities, cultures and ways of life shift, change, grow and engage with each other, and where, as minorities in majoritarian nation states, we can act in solidarity with each other.

Zionist ideology claims that life in the diaspora is a dead end for Jews, where we face only two alternatives: assimilation or extermination. By this logic, our only hope for the future is to “normalise” ourselves by joining the family of nation states. The fact that most Jews always have, and still do, live as non-territorial minorities in the diaspora, and haven’t been lured by the prospect of being part of a majority in a Jewish state, should be an instant challenge to that. But ideology often trumps reality.

The argument – for and against Jewish nationalism – is not new. It predates the establishment of the state of Israel by a long way and originates in debates that to some extent reflected class differences, about how to respond to the intense pressure on minority peoples in the late 19th-century nationalist world. That was a time when borders were being drawn round territories at a rate of knots, creating nation states out of collapsing empires. It’s no accident that two conflicting responses, nationalism in the form of political Zionism, and anti-nationalism in the form of the Jewish socialist Bund, emerged almost simultaneously in 1897.

The Bund said: “Wherever we live, that’s where we belong.” They didn’t exceptionalise Jews, but invested in the struggle for justice for Jews alongside non-Jewish socialists and in solidarity with others suffering discrimination or persecution. This was not just opposition to nationalism; it was a positive assertion of both internationalism and a concept called doykayt – “here-ness” – an idea that continues to give minorities the confidence to shout the slogan from the 1970s: “We’re here to stay; here to fight.”

Poland between the two world wars was home to around 3.3 million mainly poor and working-class Jews. In that context, the Jewish socialist Bund – a secular movement, not a religious one – grew into a significant social, cultural, linguistic and political force. Drawing on that concept of doykayt, its leader, Henryk Erlich, wrote: “[We] the Jews are not a chosen people, neither in the positive nor the negative sense of the word, but a people like any other nation, and … even though our history and the social-economic circumstances of our lives are unique, the same rules apply to us that regulate the lives of all other nations in the world.”

Bundism was a fundamental challenge to Zionism, and in that period and right up to the Second World War, Zionism was only supported by a minority of Jewish people. The Jewish Socialists’ Group is just one of the inheritors of its legacy of ideas which treasure diversity, collaboration and solidarity. We are seeing that in action in the Jewish Blocs on the Gaza demonstrations, where diverse Jewish groups are finding enough common ground to work together in solidarity with the Palestinians, but which also attract non-Jews especially from other minority communities. This is a bottom-up politics, which facilitates the creativity that emerges from sharing cultures, traditions and languages as resources for a common future.

It’s an optimistic view, drawing on a long history of living as one among other peoples. And it starkly conflicts with the pessimistic Zionist narrative, which portrays Jewish diaspora history almost like a thriller – an exceptional tale of survival against the odds, from which we’ve emerged triumphant as a demographic majority in a territory where we define the borders.

That triumph is embodied in the terrible fate of the Palestinian people, whose land has been colonised and lives destroyed before our eyes, to create and maintain that demographic majority. But that isn’t all. The logic of colonisation which characterises the Zionist insistence on a singular vision of Jewish life – as a majority in the Land of Israel – of course by definition defines the Palestinians as an existential threat; but it also defines Jews who refuse to conform to that vision as a threat, or even expendable, if they get in the way of Israel’s political alliances. One example was in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, when many human rights campaigners were forcibly disappeared. These included disproportionate numbers of progressive Jews who were arrested and disappeared by the Junta, which was being armed by the Israeli government.

There has been a consistent attack on diaspora Jewish cultures and languages. Just one example: in the early days of the Israeli state, when large numbers of survivors of the Nazi Final Solution took refuge in Israel because few other countries would accept them, their mother tongue, Yiddish, was mocked; their Yiddish language newspapers were banned, and kiosks that continued to sell them were set on fire.

Diaspora Jews who value our history, languages and culture have been treated with contempt. Hebrew and Zionist historiography have been imposed on Jewish life and its institutions; diaspora communities have been drained of resources that could nurture their futures, in favour of supporting Israel.

The tradition of debate, the arguments, conflicts and rows that have always characterised Jewish life – embodied in the old joke about the Jew alone on a desert island who builds two synagogues so there’s one he can refuse to go to – are now being so heavily policed that the very words and phrases we use to express ourselves are being proscribed.

But this is how nationalism works, and although Zionism has particular characteristics, it’s no better or worse than other forms of nationalism.

I’ll end by coming back to the Bundist, Henryk Erlich. In 1933, when the Nazis had just come to power in Germany and were eyeing up Poland – a period he described as “a time of nationalistic bacchanalia”, when “nationalism … has been stripped naked” – he warned that, if the appropriate circumstances arose, “Jewish nationalism would show its sharp teeth and nails no less than the nationalisms of other nations.”

He said, presciently, of the movement led by the far right, revisionist Zionist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was making apologias for Hitler then, and whose inheritors are in power in Israel today: “[T]he only thing missing in order for them to become the same beasts is some muscle strength, some territory, and a political opportunity.”

The event was chaired by Hana Morgenstern; the other speakers were Haim Bresheeth, Em Hilton and Barnaby Raine.

Author: julia bard  |   Posted: 7 February 2024
Topics: diasporism, doykayt, history of anti-zionism, history of zionism