Public Comment

Is Progressive Zionism Possible?: a Response to Wendy Kenin

By Joanna Graham
Tuesday February 28, 2012 - 01:02:00 PM

In her article, “People with Potential” (Daily Planet and ACCESS blog of the American Jewish Committee, Friday, Feb 17), Wendy Kenin provides brief reports on the activities of four people, two Palestinians and two Israeli Jews, who, she avers, “speak sanely about how to move forward” with respect to what she describes as “Palestine-Israel peace.” I have been trying to think deeply and respectfully about Kenin’s piece, since I believe her underlying assumptions to be far more serious in their implications than her cheerful, bouncy tone suggests.

Kenin is not careful with language. The “meaning” range of many of her words tends to be broad and blurry and thus open to multiple interpretations. Therefore, I will start by deconstructing the title of her piece, which, in full, on both websites (and, therefore, I will assume, provided by her) is “People with Potential: Providing Sanity to the US’ Struggle for Israel’s Peace” (note the parallel with “speak sanely,” above).

Just in passing, “sanity” is a word that rings bells for me; we all, I’m sure, remember John Gertz in the pages of the Daily Planet promising to restore “sanity” to the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission (a commission on which by what I am sure is total coincidence Kenin now serves.) “Sanity,” one comes to realize, is reserved to those who support Israel. Critics are medicalized as “insane” or sociopathologized as “anti-Semites” or, as the case may be, “self-hating Jews.” In either case, obviously, no considered response is required from any sane or nonsociopathic person.

Anyway, what exactly does Kenin mean by “the US’ [sic] struggle” or, for that matter, “Israel’s peace”? She is not addressing potential actions by the U.S. government or even by any organized nongovernmental bodies nor, with one partial exception to which I will return, is she addressing possibilities for peace in Israel—not, I might mention, that Israel really needs any help on the issue, let alone “struggle,” since the country is at peace and has been so (with the multiple exceptions of its many wars of choice) since 1973, the one and only time in its existence Israel has ever been attacked. As for internal terrorist attacks, for what are probably multiple reasons they stopped years ago; recent Israeli polls show security concerns to rank far below other issues, such as housing or the ultraorthodox, which are far more pressing for ordinary Israelis. 

Kenin’s real agenda is spelled out in her first sentence, although obliquely. She announces, “For Americans who are burnt out by the negative and aggressive public dynamic between opposing political factions on Palestine-Israel peace, hope lives!” Of course most “Americans,” far from being burnt out on the “dynamic,” are probably surprised to learn it exists. What Kenin is referencing is the ongoing war for the hearts and minds of American Jews, the war Peter Beinart described in his much-discussed article in the New York Review of Books thus: Jews can be liberals or Zionists but not both. Therefore, Beinart argued, if the Jewish establishment does not rethink its unquestioning support for Israel, young Jews, overwhelmingly liberal/progressive in their politics, will, as they are already doing, simply walk away, both from Israel and from the American-Jewish “community.” 

Enter Wendy Kenin, orthodox mother of four, überliberal (Green Party! Oakland Occupy!), and proud Zionist, to demonstrate that merging leftiness and Zionism is not only possible but actually easy and pleasant. Here are four lovely people to show us the way. 

But what exactly are we being shown? I will start with the second and third of Kenin’s models—two midwives, one Israeli Jew and one Palestinian, who work together on a project to promote more skin-to-skin contact between mothers and their newborns. The project is admirable although the impact on the difficult lives of Palestinians probably infinitesimal. I would never argue, however, that any worthwhile project should not be undertaken because “too small” nor make guesses as to what will prove to be important in the longer term. I wish here only to point out an assumption that I will address more fully later: that co-operation between Jews and Palestinians will bring “peace,” whatever “peace” is. But this, in turn, implies a still deeper assumption that the obstacle to “peace” is lack of mutual understanding and therefore co-operation. This belief is very deeply rooted in liberal Zionism. It underlies all the dialogue groups, peace camps, cooperative projects, etc. I will return to this belief when I argue that the actual problem is lack of justice

Kenin’s fourth “person with potential” is Israeli environmentalist Alon Tal. Kenin, an activist in Green Party politics, hopes that Tal, currently on tour in the United States, will convince the National Green Party to drop their “one-state” position and end their near-decade-long boycott of Israel. Kenin refers in particular to Tal’s “constructive” response to Amnesty International’s “biased” report on water access for Palestinians. In his article, available online, Tal objects to Amnesty’s lack of hard data and their “anti-Israel” language, he points out that the whole region must adjust to global climate change, and he suggests that the Palestinian Authority should bear some blame for bad water management (with which I have no reason to disagree)—but he does not deny the main charge: that Israelis have plenty of water while Palestinians have little, and that this situation is directly controlled by Israel. In fact, although he comes up with excuses and explanations, he specifically confirms it. 

Tal’s institute, Arava, which Kenin references, is connected, by the way, with Ben Gurion University of the Negev, a university founded in 1969, according to Wikipedia, “with the aim to bring development to the Negev.” This actually means to bring Jewish development to the Negev, to “Judaize” this large desert southern section of Israel. In a process that should be not unfamiliar to U.S. citizens, the Negev’s non-Jewish inhabitants, the Bedouin, tent-dwelling nomadic herders, have been and are still being subjected to massive ethnic cleansing to make way for the Jewish settlers. (Some activists in Israel are attempting to address this disgraceful process.) Since my husband, for some reason, is now on the mailing list of the Jewish National Fund, month after month we receive their thick, big format, full-color newsletter extolling the building of housing, hospitals, businesses, etc. in the Negev, helping brave Jewish “pioneers” move into Israel’s last frontier. This makes clear that keeping American Jews on board is not just a matter of spiritual feel-good togetherness; it’s a cold hard matter of money—the American-Jewish money which since the beginning of the Zionist project has provided the primary funding for expansion and settlement.  

I wish to make clear that I have no reason to doubt that Alon Tal does important and admirable work in a region where sustainability has always been difficult and will become more so in the coming decades. My intention in pointing out that the very paper Kenin cites in support of her thesis actually contradicts it and that the institute she admires is, and is intended to be, part of a process of conquest and displacement is to state what may be thought of as a corollary of Beinart’s axiom: in a situation of overarching injustice everything, even the best, gets contaminated. 

And so I arrive at Kenin’s hardest case, her first “person with potential.” Since I know something of his history, and have already done some thinking about who he is, what he’s done, and what it means, I will focus my discussion on the “Gaza doctor,” Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish. 

There are some strong commonalities between Kenin and Abuelaish. Both work in women’s health, with a focus on birthing. Kenin is a doula (birth helper) in the Bay Area and Abuelaish is an ob/gyn. Kenin describes herself as a feminist, and Abuelaish, who remembers his own mother as a “hero,” has established a foundation to support education for girls and women in the Middle East. He believes that “it’s time for women to take the lead and to practice their full potential and their role.” Kenin interprets orthodox Judaism, which she adopted after her marriage, as an ecological/feminist/ spiritual faith and practice, while Abuelaish, a Muslim, believes that spiritual and emotional health are as important as physical. Clearly, these two well-meaning people, who want to make the world a better, more supportive, more peaceful place, especially for women, have many shared interests, concerns, and beliefs. 

For those who do not remember who Dr. Abuelaish is, his fifteen minutes of world fame came to him suddenly on the afternoon of January 16, 2009, in the most dreadful way imaginable. He is a Gazan who, very unusually, worked in Israel. Thus he speaks Hebrew and has Israeli colleagues and friends. During Operation Cast Lead, the invasion of Gaza carried out by Israel with extraordinary ferocity during that most lame-duck of times, the last three weeks of George W. Bush’s second term, two Israeli shells fired in quick succession from a tank penetrated a room in Dr. Abuelaish’s home, blasting to pieces three of his teenage daughters and a niece. A fourth daughter’s eye “was on her cheek.” Hoping to save his wounded child, Dr. Abuelaish called an Israeli friend, a television reporter who happened to be in a TV studio at the time. Thus, the Israeli audience and ultimately the entire world got to hear the live voice of a man who was getting his first look at the gruesome remains of his children, body parts and pieces of splattered flesh which only a moment before had been living young women, “building,” as Dr. Abuelaish says, “their dreams and their hopes.” 

Despite this tragedy, Dr. Abuelaish stated his refusal to “hate,” and so he was brought almost immediately on a whirlwind tour through the United States, as a kind of hostage in a Roman triumph, speaking in many venues to liberal Zionist Jews (like Wendy Kenin) who want to believe that something called “peace” is possible if only there is “dialogue” and good will on “both sides.” 

When Dr. Abuelaish spoke in the Bay Area, I chose not to go. I felt that, as a stranger, I had no right, nor did I wish, to intrude on this man’s pain. But also, I didn’t understand—nor could I, under the circumstances, ask—why he was displaying his wounds in a show about “peace” and “reconciliation” staged by the very people whose primary identification was with those who had caused his suffering in the first place. It was as if in 1943, say, a Jew who’d helplessly watched while all his family was forced into a gas chamber was touring Germany to tell grateful Nazi audiences he didn’t hate them. And this was the crux for me. I could not understand Dr. Abuelaish’s point of view. I had and still have no doubt that my heart would be filled with absolute hatred and passionate desire for revenge against anyone who did to me what was done to him. So I put the puzzling “Gaza Doctor” out of my mind. 

Until I read Kenin’s article. Then, this evening, wishing to respond to what I know to be wrongheaded, I trolled the Internet in search of some comprehension and I think I’m closer than I was. The best source, which I commend to Kenin if she is not familiar with it, is the hour-long interview Amy Goodman conducted with Dr. Abuelaish in January of last year on “Democracy Now.” It was the two-year anniversary of his catastrophic loss (which occurred just four months after his wife died of leukemia); also his book, I Shall Not Hate, had just been published. 

What I think I hear Dr. Abuelaish saying is that, since everything that can be taken away from him has been taken except one, he must at all costs protect what remains: his soul. And the only way he can do that is by abjuring hatred. If he chooses hate, the victimizer makes his final conquest—the conquest of the rest of Dr. Abuelaish’s life. Of course, all people who have suffered the injustice of deliberate injury, whether to themselves or to their loved ones, must struggle with this terrible paradox and make their choice. In the Goodman interview Dr. Abuelaish says, “Those daughters, when I want to bring them justice, I must be healthy. And hate, as every one of us knows, it’s a poison. We don’t want to be injected with it. If you want to achieve a noble goal and cause, you must be healthy mentally, spiritually and physically, to defend your goals.” 

Kenin should note that there is nothing about “peace” or, for that matter, forgiveness, in Dr. Abuelaish’s words. Rather, this is the statement of someone girding himself for a certain kind of warfare or struggle—one who prepares himself to “achieve the noble goal” of “bringing justice.” 

What would that justice consist of? At the end of the “Democracy Now” interview, Amy Goodman asked, “What needs to happen now?” Dr. Abuelaish replied, “To admit the rights of the Palestinians and to take active steps, and that there will never be a just and good peace just for one. Must be good and just for all, for Palestinians and Israelis. And I think it’s time for the Israeli government and the Israeli people to stand up. We need to translate the resolutions into actions. There is a Palestinian nation and an Israeli nation, and they have to live sharing the land with respect, and that the dignity of the Palestinians equals the dignity of the Israelis. And the freedom of the Palestinians is linked to the freedom of the Israelis from their fears. The security of the Israelis and safety is linked to the safety and the security of the Palestinians, not dependent on the suffering of the Palestinians.” 

People who have been damaged, wounded, and traumatized by the actions of others are compelled to deal with what has happened to them in one way or another. Dr. Abuelaish, whose life began in a crowded refugee camp in Gaza after his parents were forced from their family home by the victorious Jews in 1948, after a long struggle out of poverty through education, made the unusual choice to work in Israel, based, I am only guessing, on a conviction that his oppressors were rational persons who could be convinced by his competence, his friendliness, and his compassion—by, in other words, his simple being as himself—that he, a Palestinian, and with him all other Palestinians are human beings entitled to freedom and dignity. This is a man who bent over backwards to understand the concerns of his oppressors. And the oppression was ordinary and constant: hours every day getting to work in Tel Aviv from Gaza through the twenty gates of the Eretz checkpoint; fourteen hours to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan to get to his dying wife. And Dr. Abuelaish endured it and forgave it, I believe, in the hopes that eventually Jews would understand how much he had given up for them and would, in turn, be willing to give up something of what they had for him. The upshot of his efforts? His children were brutally and carelessly murdered in a massacre perpetrated by the very people with whom he had tried so hard to find—literally—common ground. 

I still don’t know what caused Dr. Abuelaish to lend himself to the tour of 2009, especially at a time when he must have been still deeply in shock. I have learned that he spent two years trying to convince the government of Israel to admit responsibility for its action and to pay reparations into the foundation he’s created in his daughters’ memory. In vain. No admission, no apology, no compensation. Finally, just before the statute of limitations ran out in January 2011, he brought suit in the Israeli courts. I have been unable to find online what the current status of his lawsuit is, but I do know that at present Dr. Abuelaish and the remaining members of his family live in Canada where he teaches public health at the University of Toronto. 

How does anyone extract “hope lives!” from this horrifying story? Where is the hope? What is the hope? 

I said I would return to all those liberal Zionist exercises in “reaching out,” to building “cooperation” and “understanding.” In her excellent and revelatory book, The Other Side of Israel, Susan Nathan argues that the purpose of Jewish-Palestinian dialogue groups is to give Jews an opportunity to explain themselves and the Palestinians to understand them—and to forgive. The Zionist right does not bother with this exercise; from their point of view, God gave the Land of Israel to the Jews and since Arabs are cockroaches, how they feel about their loss is immaterial. But the Zionist left, even the best of the left, wants not only conquest but a clear conscience with respect to it. From their point of view, to provide this clear conscience was the function that Dr. Abuelaish served, both before the murder, when he was worked in a Tel Aviv hospital as a “model” Palestinian, and after it, when he went on his tour. As Kenin writes (rather insanely in my view), “In Greenwich, Connecticut last year, two Zionist Jews wrote heartfelt appreciation and praises for Dr. Abuelaish.” What does this mean? I wonder if those Zionist Jews would consider, if even for a moment, Dr. Abuelaish’s demand to “share the land.”  

One more comment in this very long essay. Without knowing Kenin at all, I know a great deal about her, including activities, memberships, day job, religious and spiritual beliefs, marital status, number of children, e-mail and twitter addresses. I even found a picture of her, watching three of her beautiful children splashing in the Dead Sea. This did not take a great deal of searching. Kenin made this information available to all because, obviously, she is a person who feels safe and secure. As all people should feel. I suggest to her, therefore, that she imagine for one minute what her world might be like if she didn’t feel safe. Here is a thought experiment. Wendy Kenin, look at that wonderful picture, and, while looking, really looking, imagine that—God forbid!—what happened to Dr. Abuelaish’s children has happened to yours. That you were there. That you saw it. That you were helpless to prevent it. And then put out of your mind all thoughts about Israel, Jews, Judaism, Zionism, Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims—all political questions. Forget even peace. And just ask yourself this: after such an evil deed, who must show remorse? Who must make an act of contrition? Who must beg forgiveness? Who must take the first step towards repairing the broken world? The victim or the perpetrator?