Jewish allies cannot dismantle Israel’s racism by benefitting from it

Nada Elia – December 4, 2018
Can leftist Jews really be part of the struggle for justice for Palestinians—a justice that hinges on an end to the violation of our basic human rights, including the Right of Return of refugees—by making Aliyah to the country that privileges them, simply because they are Jewish?

In her groundbreaking essay, which remains relevant decades after she first wrote it, as an address to white liberal feminists, Audre Lorde asserted that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Yet a handful of American Jews—and in all likelihood Jews in other countries, even though I am not aware of specific cases—persist in their endeavor to somehow dismantle Israel’s formative racism by benefitting from it. The latest case that made the news is that of Julie Weinberg Connors who, upon being questioned at Ben Gurion Airport last year over her anti-occupation activism, initiated the process to become Israeli, so as to avoid such hassles in the future. Weinberg Connors, who is originally from Boston, had moved all possessions to Israel over a year ago, and initiated the process of making Aliyah after being interrogated at the airport. “Part of my decision was based on concerns about my ability to stay here without deportation, and that exact fear was confirmed so I feel it’s even more important now,” she told Haaretz in an interview one month before she was approved for Israeli citizenship. “It also reinvigorated my commitment to pursuing a life of justice and understanding.”
The case of Weinberg Connors, who claim that she is motivated by “justice and understanding,” rather than Zionism, rekindled a conversation between pro-Palestine activists that many of us have been having for years, as we keep hearing of supposed “allies” who persist in making the most of their privileged status, even as Israel’s denial of the basic rights of the Palestinian people takes on ever more egregious forms: the weekly attacks on refugees on Gaza marching for return and an end to the siege, the demolitions of private residences and businesses in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, settlement expansion, and the recent official enshrinement of apartheid, with its further disenfranchisement of Palestinians in 1948 Israel. When the entire Israeli state structure hinges on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, how does a supposed leftist ally justify joining that state as one of its privileged members? How does one reconcile a commitment to justice and understanding, with availing oneself of benefits denied those whose plight one allegedly supports? How does one presume to go about dismantling the master’s house, from within, when one is only allowed into that house based on privilege?
Earlier this year, another Jewish-American leftist activist, Code Pink organizer Ariel Gold, had also declared she would consider making Aliyah when she was denied entry into Israel. At the time, I wrote an OpEd critical of that decision (which, to the best of my knowledge, Gold has not followed through on), and Gold’s utterly disingenuous response completely ignored the fact that I was not calling her out on her activism, but on the purpose of her visit: enrolling at Hebrew University for a summer course in Jewish Studies. I specifically mentioned that in so doing, she was crossing a picket line, violating the guidelines of the BDS movement, for self-enrichment. Such cavalier use of one’s privilege is particularly painful to Palestinians who are denied entry to participate in a conference, visit with relatives, or even attend a parent’s funeral. Additionally, Gold’s love of an Israel that hovers above its ugly reality, untainted by its horrific crimes and human rights violations, reveals her willingness to benefit from Zionism. “The land of Israel and Palestine is incredibly meaningful and sacred to me. It’s hard to believe I might not be allowed into a place that is so important to me,” Gold wrote, thus acknowledging, albeit without intending to, that her motivation is self-centered, rooted in Zionism, rather than altruistic, an impulse to act in solidarity with the oppressed, whatever the cost. And her claim, in an OpEd where she directly addresses my criticism, that “activists on the ground in Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nabi Saleh are clear that they appreciate and want international activists to visit and join in protesting, filming, and building joint campaigns,” totally fails to take into consideration that I, like most Palestinians, am not critical of Americans “visiting” and joining in protests, but of Jewish Americans making Aliyah.
Like the privileged white feminists Audre Lorde, a black lesbian feminist, was taking to task, Jewish American “leftists” who avail themselves of their privilege for self-serving purposes are reluctant to genuinely engage with the Palestinians they claim to support. They may, and most do, pay lip service to the oppression of the Palestinian people in the homeland and the global Diaspora, but they continue to center their own “inconvenience,” even when they do not acknowledge that. They can be critical of Israeli actions, while holding on to the idea that Israel is not a country for its citizens, but for all Jews, wherever they may be. Why else would US citizen from Boston feel she should be welcome with arms open, and no questions asked, as if she were merely entering her own country, upon arriving at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport? And they selectively focus on what serves their desires: “Palestinians want Americans to join in protests,” while ignoring what would hinder their satisfaction: “but don’t cross a picket line, don’t enroll at Hebrew University, and don’t make Aliyah.”
Indeed, as Palestinians continue to be considered a “demographic threat,” and with Israel deploring the fact that it is no longer attractive to young Jews globally, making Aliyah sends the wrong message. Where will the new Israelis live? What example are they setting? Do they grasp that their tax money will be used even more directly to shore up an unjust system? Will they have children who would not even question their belonging, because Israel is where they were born, the country their parents loved enough to immigrate to? And will they, having made Aliyah, have any grounds for challenging the racist Law of Return?
Circling back to Lorde’s essay, she asks: “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.” Similarly, Jewish Americans leftists should understand that making Aliyah–availing themselves of the tools of a racist system—cannot bring about the necessary change: justice for all. Because the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.