Jeremy Benstein
Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes

An open letter to Naomi Klein from a progressive Israeli

Zionism is not monolithic – and our blood-soaked conflict is a war between extremists and those who call for compromise
A country ripped apart (by Goldin / Pixabay CC4)

Although American born, I am an Israeli, having been here for over 40 years. You and I have similar values – anti-globalism, anti-consumerism, progressive climate and justice activism. I helped found the Heschel Center, Israel’s leading sustainability NGO. Your books – No Logo, Shock Doctrine, This Changes Everything – have been foundational for me. I even wrote a review (very glowing) of the Hebrew version of No Logo when it came out here in 2002, which was the cover story of the literature supplement of Haaretz that week.

I’m writing to say we – Israelis and Palestinians – need you, your voice, your energy, your clear-sighted critical perspective – as an ally in our joint struggle for justice and peace. I and others like me here are fighting to create an Israel/Palestine that I think you could identify with and support. And we need your help in that fight. I listened to and read the speech you gave at the Seder in the Streets last month, where you called for an exodus from Zionism. Where you labeled Zionism a false idol – that apparently needs to be smashed. And I’m writing to say that I think you’ve got it wrong. Or at least, that your eminently justified critique is mis-directed.

I say that we, Israelis and Palestinians, are in a struggle for justice and peace. Many on the left, the voices heard on North American campuses, would understand that to mean that we are struggling against one another. There are plenty on all sides that believe that justice will be had when one side wins, and the other loses. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is a war here, a savage, blood-soaked, devastating conflict. And it is between two sides. But it is not between Israelis and Palestinians. It is between Israeli and Palestinian peace-seeking, coexistence-promoting moderates on one side, and Israeli and Palestinian exclusionary ethnocentric extremists on the other.

How can it be that the ones who seemingly hate each other the most – ideological and violent Jewish settlers and jihadi Hamas terrorists – are on the same side? In their shared opposition to a just and peaceful solution, in their shared desire to eradicate the other, in their joint belief that the conflict is a zero-sum game, they feed off each other and desperately need the other as the ultimate enemy that will always allow them to rally their own troops, since each represents the specter of the other’s own annihilation.

Each extremist camp needs the other extremist camp opposite in order to shut down the moderate voices from their own side, those calling for negotiation and compromise. For if there were reasonable voices on the other side, how could we justify our own intransigence? So it’s no wonder that Netanyahu propped up Hamas rule, since they represented the rejectionist alternative to the Palestinian Authority, and thus enabled his own entrenched rejectionism.

Calling to eliminate one side – whether through physical or political elimination – is part of the problem, not a solution. To be pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli is the same as being pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian: they are on the same team of exclusionary extremism, that discourages pragmatic moderation and actual, real-world solutions. It is the sort of thinking that doomed Oslo and all attempts at a peace process, whether anti-Israeli Palestinian terrorism, or violent anti-Palestinian Jewish settlements.

You focus your critique on Zionism, claiming that it was rotten from the get-go. Yet, as any student of modern Jewish history knows, Zionism is not one thing. It is far from a monolithic ideology. From the get-go, there have been, and are, diverse schools of thought, wildly different and contentious visions of what Jewish national liberation should look like. Zionism is Marxian and neo-liberal, messianic and democratic, maximalist and minimalist, ethnocentric and Canaanite. There are even Zionisms that reject absolute political sovereignty in favor of a robust cultural autonomy. Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people and Palestinian nationalism are like weird Siamese twins, since they developed in tandem, each formulated to some degree in response to the other. One perhaps could imagine a planet without nation-states, but we still live in a world that is structured as a family of nations based on statehood, and in that world, just as there needs to be a place for Palestinians, for their language and culture and heritage and self-determination, Jews need no less. The malevolent idea that it is impossible for those to co-exist, either shared together, or side-by-side, or in some confederation to make it more geographically and economically viable – choose your preferred vision of co-existence! –  is a recipe for despair and mutual destruction.  That is Hamas versus the current Israeli government, again, partners in the war they are waging together against peace and reconciliation.

Grave injustices happened in the Jewish struggle for a life-saving state, the main one being that the Palestinians have remained a stateless people. There absolutely need to be forward-looking mechanisms for reparations and restorative justice. But justice will not be restored by injustice, by returning the Jews to being a stateless people.

There is currently a battle for the soul of this country, of Israel: will we be the oppressive exclusionary settler colonialist ethno-state that many see us as, and some in Israel support as part of their twisted messianic vision? Or will we be an inclusive, liberal democracy that can provide a still much-needed home for Jews and Jewish collective identity, language and culture – but while still honoring and enabling the Palestinian need for exactly the same thing? The attempted judicial overhaul of last year, and now, October 7th and the subsequent war have shown us how urgent this battle for the soul of the country is, and also that we actually have a chance of winning, since more and more Israelis are fed up with the radical right wing and where it has led us. It is time to rally the Israeli and Palestinian troops and fight the real enemy: the eliminationist, other-denying, peace-hating extremists on both sides.

And for that, we need more allies around the world to help triumph over violence, hatred, oppression and despair. Naomi, isn’t that a battle you can join?

About the Author
Dr. Jeremy Benstein is a linguist, author and teacher. He is the author of "Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World" (Behrman House, 2019), and was the English editor of 929 ( Jeremy is also one of the founders and part of the senior staff of the Heschel Center for Sustainability in Tel Aviv, and the author of The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights, 2006).
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