EVERY one of South Africa’s diverse communities has its rebels who stand outside, or who go against the mainstream on contentious issues – Jews, Greeks, Afrikaners, Chinese and others. Sometimes the mainstream closes ranks and rejects them; at other times an argument ensues, with all sides weighing in. For the Jewish community, the relationship with Israel is an issue which constantly simmers and divides Jews, as Israel’s complex standing internationally swings between positive and negative, and its needs for defense and security factor in, along with the search for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There is a term which mainstream Jews use for Jews on the far left who show up at Israeli-oriented events and protest against Israel with pro-Palestinian supporters, condemning Israel for its ‘oppression’ of the Palestinians – they are called the ‘loony left’. Should one endorse or take exception to this label? Among them are members of the group JVJP (Jewish Voices for a Just Peace) who have waved vitriolic anti-Israel banners at Israeli Independence Day celebrations and elsewhere.
When a speaker at a Limmud seminar (a Jewish group which explores different perspectives on being Jewish in this era) in Johannesburg last weekend used the term ‘loony left’, it evoked a strong response from an audience member: “I take issue with your use of that phrase….” The speaker apologized immediately, showing that the term is not endorsed by all.
The challenge the ‘loony left’ poses to Jews is: what is Israel about, and what is Zionism? Most Jewish South Africans are ardent Zionists. Their rage is palpable – even understandable, given that Zionism is a pillar of their community life – when the ‘loony left’ shows up with negative banners and slogans at their celebrations of Israel and Zionism.
What should one make of these ‘aberrant’ Jews? Dismiss them as self-hating? Or be more sympathetic, believing everyone is entitled to their viewpoint and should be engaged with? Or perhaps be supportive – historically, it has often been the aberrant members of society, blowing their whistles, who were retrospectively identified as bearers of the sanest stance although they were reviled at the time.
Being Zionistic is almost axiomatic for SA Jews; this community has traditionally been one of Israel’s greatest supporters. But Zionism is not axiomatic for Jews everywhere. Among American Jews, for example – the world’s second largest Jewish community – attachment to Israel, once strong, has weakened considerably in recent years, particularly among the youth who say Israel’s values today, such as aggressive nationalism, ongoing occupation of Palestinian land and a failure to seek peace with the Palestinians, conflict with their own values.
Some American Jews were never Zionists. The world’s greatest folk singer, Bob Dylan – recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature – explores in his autobiography, Chronicles, the personal difficulties of being revered by the masses. He didn’t want to be the “toastmaster” of any generation, he says, and as a wry tactic to counteract being seen as a perfect leader by the leftist counterculture of the ‘60s who were unsympathetic toward Israel, “… I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist.”
SA Jews outside the mainstream are also not all Zionists. But studies show that most of those who identify strongly with being Jewish, whether they are professionals in general society, academics, writers and so on, and whether they are politically right or left, support Israel’s right to exist even though they may not explicitly call themselves Zionists. But they are critical of its government’s policies. Current events such the Israel-Gaza conflict disturb them, but also deeper issues such as Israel’s embrace of US President Donald Trump, despite the buffoonery of the man who now heads the world’s most powerful nation.
The same applies to many members of the Jewish ‘loony left’ – they support Israel’s right to exist, but object to its government’s policies, and abhor Trump and what he stands for.
Where does this leave the mainstream community? Could the ‘loony’ label itself be discarded, with a recognition that they have something worth listening to? Or could the mainstream itself change its borders, to incorporate a greater degree of debate and argument about what Israel and Zionism stand for?
For the foreseeable future, the relationship to Israel will roil and boil among Jews as long as the conflict remains unresolved. It may be seen as a poison in their midst; or as part of the important debates about peoplehood, nationalism and community, and how individuals fit into these things.