Friday, January 27, 2012

You Might Be an Israel Firster If...

The silly argument about left-wing Jews calling right-wing Jews "Israel Firsters" has been going on for quite a while now - Jeffrey Goldberg has been raging about it here and Spencer Ackerman wrote about it in Tablet (my least favorite Jewish publication). I have no interest in weighing in on this except to say that it demonstrates the myriad of problems associated with American Zionism. Here's why.

In the simplest sense of the word, Zionism is a form of nationalism. This presents a challenge for American Jews who insist that their support for Jewish self-determination does not conflict in anyway with their loyalty to the United States. After all, how can you be a nationalist for a country in which you have never lived? Many American Jews, including me, do not speak conversational Hebrew. How can we be Israeli nationalists (Zionists) if we do not even speak the language of the nation we claim to support? It is only natural that proclamations of love for a nation that is not our own lands American Jews in trouble.  For non-Jews, in particular, the idea that Jews can be nationalistic supporters of a country they do not live in does in fact suggest dual loyalty. American Jews do not have any sort of dual loyalty, and it is the implication that they do about which Goldberg and others are understandably upset.  Yet, indignant liberal Jews should understand that the use of the phrase is not motivated by some perverse desire to depict in real life the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. When used by liberal Jewish critics, the phrase is simply designed to challenge American Jews' unthinking support for Israel and the dominance the issue of Israel has in the minds of many Jewish voters. And they certainly have a point. If you are willing to focus on issues regarding Israel, rather than poverty or education in the country in which you live, are you not, in fact, putting Israel first?

Obviously the anti-semitic and conspiratorial connotations of "Israel Firster" should be denounced and people should refrain from using it; it is blunt in lacking in nuance to say the least. Nonetheless, the hullaballoo raised about "Israel Firster" should serve as a warning to the American Jewish community that it will always be difficult to identify as Zionists without being willing to live in "the promised land."

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