Temple University Professor Emerita of English, American Studies and Women’s Studies Carolyn L. Karcher is the author of many articles and books, most notably, Shadow Over the Promised Land: Slavery, Race, and Violence in Melville’s America; The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child; and A Refugee from His Race: Albion W. Tourgée and His Fight Against White Supremacy. Karcher also edited a scholarly reprint of Tourgée’s Bricks Without Straw, a novel about Black Reconstruction in North Carolina.
In this interview, Karcher discusses her latest book, Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation, which is set for release on May 8. Karcher shares the idea behind the book: the history of Zionism, her approach in finding the various contributors who have extricated themselves from Zionism, and her thoughts on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, along with the political ramifications of competing interest groups, electoral politics and birthright Israel.
Daniel Falcone: Can you share with me the idea behind writing the book and where you think we are now with the timing of this book in terms of current affairs?
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Carolyn L. Karcher: My previous work has consisted of scholarly books on issues of race and gender justice and equality. Ever since the D.C. Metro chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace was founded in December of 2010, it’s become my main focus and activity. I wanted to bring my activist life together with my scholarly life, and one way of doing that was to produce a book on this question that is so dear to my heart.
I thought the best means of reaching people who are wavering or uncommitted is through personal stories that offer people somebody with whom they can identify who has changed their mind. It helps move people along a similar path to begin the process of at least opening their hearts and minds on this very fraught issue. I didn’t feel that my own story, which is in the book, was enough to fill up the whole volume or was typical. So, I wanted to collect other people’s stories, which this book includes.
I started with just a few acquaintances whose stories I knew were really interesting. After that, I found other people’s stories through op-eds or editorials, or through listening to speeches at public events, and then tried to get their contact information. I wrote to them, describing my book project, and asked whether they were interested in contributing. Most people came through. A few didn’t answer. And very few people said no, but mostly because they were overcommitted. At first, I had in mind maybe 12 stories and tried to limit it to a very short book. But people kept offering their stories, which were so wonderful and so different from each other and covered such a wide range of territory that it seemed silly not to accept them. I ended up with 40 contributors and 39 narratives, one of which was jointly authored.
That’s really quite a large number of people. Nearly all — I would say, all but two of the contributors — started out as Zionists and then went through this wrenching process of questioning and ultimately changing their mind. Of the other two, one was from a leftist family. She starts out by saying, “I was never a Zionist, but I was never a Palestinian rights advocate either.” For her, the process was really getting to know Palestinians and getting informed on the issue and realizing that this was a very important issue.
The other person also came from a left orientation. Again, for him, it was more a question of getting involved in advocacy, rather than changing his mind on Zionism per se. But the 38 other people, including me, were brought up as Zionists and found it quite difficult to change their minds and to extricate themselves from Zionism.
What is entailed in reclaiming Judaism from Zionism exactly? Could you tell me what it means to “reclaim Judaism from Zionism” as it pertains to this book, in particular?
As I see it, ethical precepts lie at the heart of Judaism: pursue justice, love the stranger, love your neighbor and repair the world. Obviously, all of these ethical precepts are violated by Zionist policy toward Palestinians. And so, what happens when Judaism is married to (or hijacked by) Zionism is that the protection of the Jewish people, the physical survival of the Jewish people, takes precedence over the religion’s ethical teachings.
This point takes us back to your original question about how my book relates to current affairs. As you know, Israel has recently passed a new Basic Law, with the force of a constitutional building block, saying that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and of the Jewish people alone and that Palestinians have no right to self-determination there. That’s really what Zionism is and does — i.e., elevate Jews over non-Jews. Zionism grew up in the late 19th century as a quest for safety. It was first a response to the pogroms — state-sanctioned anti-Jewish riots — that were happening in Russia and Eastern Europe.
The main founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was an assimilated Austrian Jew. Jews in Western Europe had been emancipated and given the rights of other citizens, so that they no longer lived in ghettos, unlike those in Russia and Eastern Europe. But anti-Semitism spread to Western Europe because of the influx of refugees from Eastern Europe, just as in our times Islamophobia has been spreading as a result of the influx of desperate Muslim refugees. It was the same kind of reaction, and in both cases on fertile soil, where there were already traditions of anti-Semitism and now of Islamophobia.
Herzl moved from Austria to Paris because France was then considered to be the most enlightened country in the world and the place in the world where Jews were freest. He arrived there just as France underwent a wave of anti-Semitic riots caused by the Dreyfus case (the wrongful conviction of a Jewish army officer for alleged treason). All through France’s cities, thousands and thousands of French people were in the streets yelling, “Death to the Jews, down with the Jews.” This so deeply shocked Herzl that he felt that the only solution would be for Jews to leave Europe and to found a country of their own. That’s how the idea of Zionism got traction. Through his pamphlet, The Jewish State (1896), Herzl translated Zionism from an idea into a platform and a method for accomplishing it.
From the beginning, Zionism was really another version of a settler colonial movement, as Herzl’s pamphlet clearly shows. Just like our pilgrim fathers came to the U.S. to escape persecution in Britain and to go to a place where they could practice their religion as they wished without ever giving a thought to having to displace, dispossess and kill Native Americans in the process, the same is true of Zionism.
Initially, Herzl thought of Argentina and Uganda as places where a Jewish state could be founded — a fact that reveals the settler-colonial underpinnings of Zionism — but he realized that in order to interest the Jewish masses in the project, it would have to be Palestine. Until the rise of Nazism, however, Zionism remained very much a minority movement, and also very much tied to both colonialist ideology and the imperial powers, in particular Britain, to provide access to Palestine and to help the project along.
Can you discuss the time when Zionism was considered a progressive ideal in that there was a unification in resisting not just anti-Semitism, but a partnership of Arabs and Jews in terms of working-class solidarity? Do you include any information regarding Zionist movements of that nature?
My book only touches on the belief among members of the 1960s-era Jewish New Left that Zionism was a revolutionary movement. However, one of my contributors, Professor Joel Beinin, has written extensively about the Marxist-Zionist left in a book titled Was the Red Flag Flying There? Marxist Politics and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in Egypt and Israel, 1948-1965. He shows that both in Israel and in Egypt, nationalism ultimately won out over Marxism. In the case of Israel, Beinin discusses two small Marxist Zionist parties, the left-wing Po’alei Tzion and Hashomer Hatza’ir, who advocated a partnership of Arabs and Jews and working-class solidarity, but notes that they soon had to give up these principled positions in order to form a unified front with other labor Zionist parties.
I would argue that their capitulation was an inevitable result of an inherently colonialist ideology. No matter how sincere your aspirations toward solidarity between Jewish and Arab workers, if you are seeking safety for Jews by moving to and eventually taking over a land inhabited by Arabs, you are engaged in a colonial project of dispossessing an Indigenous people that can’t be reconciled with progressive ideals of trans-racial solidarity. Beinin’s personal narrative for my book describes how, after making Aliyah and joining a kibbutz, he quickly becomes disillusioned when he sees how racist attitudes and practices contradict socialist ideals.
It seems like it’s becoming more and more prevalent or easier to articulate progressive responses to Israeli policy. What are your thoughts on how the stories in the book answer to the idea that criticizing Israel and criticizing Zionism is anti-Semitic? This is always a troublesome possibility since it can be, at times, dangerously split and doubled by the far-right people. In other words, the goal is to carefully criticize Zionism, to criticize Israeli and U.S. policy and then, at the same time, support Judaism, support Muslims, and then to make sure our conversation with all of these moving parts avoids any language anticipated by Zionists or even intentionally misconstrued. How do you think the book addresses this? Is this pertinent?
One of the strong points of the book is that four of the contributors are rabbis. For them, articulating what Judaism means to them helps avoid the trap that you described. Correct: You don’t want to open yourself up to right-wing anti-Semites and their appropriation of anti-Zionist arguments. The perspectives of rabbis help to avoid this. So do the perspectives of some of my other contributors who, unlike me, grew up in very religious families. Some of them remain observant Jews today, and for them, the issue is that Zionist practice and Zionist ideology contradict the most basic ethical tenets of Judaism. In the book, this is very powerful and very immediate, and they specifically talk about what reclaiming Judaism has meant for them, thus preventing appropriation of the argument.
At the same time, I don’t want to marginalize the perspectives of those contributors who, like me, grew up in completely secular families. Our source of inspiration is progressive ideals drawn from the movements for social justice in which we’ve cut our teeth — in my case, the anti-Vietnam War movement. I believe that we can best fight anti-Semitism and all other forms of bigotry by being true to those ideals.
According to polling, younger Jews are less likely to automatically connect Zionism with Judaism. Are younger people and activists or students included in the book?
I realized from the very beginning that young people were in the forefront of the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine. I wanted to have as many young contributors as I could, although I didn’t want them to be the only contributors. It was actually quite difficult for me to find young contributors, because I had retired from teaching and didn’t have any direct contact with young people, but ultimately, what helped most was the Open Hillel movement. I emailed one of the founders of Open Hillel, Rachel Sandalow-Ash, and she put me in contact with close to 20 young people.
Nine of the 12 most interested ended up staying with the project and some of them are actually the best writers in the book. That was really very exciting. Their stories added a new dimension to the book because they talked about the campus movements that they were involved in.
One of the ways that the right wing and the Anti-Defamation League have been able to smear the campus Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement as anti-Semitic is by totally ignoring the fact that many of the members of Students for Justice in Palestine are Jewish. Some of the young contributors in the book had been in Students for Justice in Palestine, while others had founded [Jewish Voice for Peace] chapters on their campuses. A surprising number of them had actually gone to Jewish day schools. In those schools, they had never heard a word about the Israeli occupation. They had only had a one-sided view of Israel presented to them. When they got to the university and were able to learn the facts in a broader context, they were just outraged by the way they had been lied to.
Many of them went on birthright trips. Some of them, even on their birthright trips, noticed things that didn’t quite jibe with the story they were being given and decided that they wanted to go back and take a non-birthright trip and visit parts of the occupied territories, visit places they hadn’t been to.
Is questioning the birthright trip as a concept alone a dangerous thing to say? To suggest that Jews are using Zionism to manipulate students in order to build concepts of state power and economic security. That could really hit a nerve there, and be called anti-Semitic in itself, could it not?
That is of course what the Jewish establishment groups have been saying and what they’re particularly worried about, because birthright’s whole point is to create this special bond with Israel among young Jews. So, to attack birthright was actually to interfere with the desire to create this special bond with Israel.
Younger Jews who belong to “If Not Now” have been going on birthright trips and asking tough questions and very much annoying the leaders of the trips. The Israeli authorities, in two cases, actually have thrown them out of Israel, but these kids are incredibly savvy. They use media and they livestream some of the encounters. In those live-streamed videos, you really see the ways in which the Israelis are stonewalling the young Jews’ questions, and are just refusing to allow any real discussion because they are trying to control the narrative at every point.
Younger Jews who belong to Jewish Voice for Peace have started a different campaign called “Return the Birthright.” They say that Jews don’t have a birthright to Israel — that it’s Palestinians who have a birthright to the land because they are its Indigenous people. The “Return the Birthright” campaign calls on young Jews to stop taking free trips to Israel.
The fundamental problem is that Israel has been used to create a sense of Jewish identity and to help retain young Jews within the Jewish fold. The fetishization of Israel has substituted for a revitalization of Judaism. So I think that the questioning of birthright and the questioning of Israel should actually lead to (and this gets back to my book’s title, Reclaiming Judaism) a way of revitalizing Judaism and redefining Jewish identity that does not depend on identifying with a Jewish state, and that does not depend on claiming a right to a land that you were not born in and have no real connection to.
If you ask Palestinians or if you ask Gazans, they’ll probably tell you the situation on the ground, regardless of who is the president of the United States, remains the same. They protest peacefully, organize successfully, but every time they do that, it’s a minimal gain, sometimes at a tremendous cost. Meanwhile, in the U.S., there are these positive historical shifts in the discourse, because of peace groups like CODEPINK, but also where we have a left, a center and a right. We have a Jewish Voice for Peace. We have J Street. Then we have the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that seems to be diminishing and the Christian fundamentalists gaining strength. Even with resistance and the peace movements, along with the educational efforts and the groups that you’re mentioning in your book and your work, what’s ultimately going to have to happen to produce a change on the ground? I am optimistic about the transformational shifts in the Democratic Party and the rising progressive politicians, but how can we get these shifts to connect to policy, ultimately?
Well, that is of course a difficult question. We have actually been in touch with Palestinian leaders of the nonviolent resistance movement, like Bassem Tamimi in Nabi Saleh, Iyad Burnat in Bil’in and Issa Amro in Hebron. All of them have been paying a terrible price. Bassem’s wife and daughter Ahed were imprisoned, Iyad’s son was shot and disabled, and Issa is undergoing trials on trumped-up charges, both in Israeli military court and even by the Palestinian Authority. The situation in Palestine is an absolute nightmare, and it’s been getting worse and worse.
There’s no sign of anything getting better there. It’s really frightening and heartbreaking. There’s nothing much that we can do on that front, except to express solidarity and to also publicize as much as possible what’s going on, because of course, the U.S. press bears a great deal of culpability for not covering the reality on the ground there, and therefore leaving the American public totally ignorant. But the ultimate goal has got to be to get the U.S. government to stop military aid to Israel and to push for the Israelis to do what the South African government eventually had to do — to negotiate with Palestinians and try to arrive at a satisfactory peace agreement. It’s very clear to many of us that the two-state solution is totally dead.
So the approach that people are using now is what they call a rights-based approach, to call for human rights for Palestinians, and for them to enjoy the same human rights that people everywhere else enjoy, and to call for the creation of a state that would be in accordance with international law and in accordance with the principles of democracy everywhere. Everybody in the state should have absolutely the same rights and the same access to economic and political rights. That is the goal, and that’s the only thing that is going to work in the long run, but how to get there, I don’t think anybody knows. But then nobody really could have predicted that it would happen in South Africa so quickly either.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.