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Examined Zionism: Mira Sucharov and belonging

In a thoughtful memoir, the author dives deep into her complex relationship with Israel: A chapter on cancel culture takes on the BDS litmus test

Mira Sucharov’s Borders and Belonging: A Memoir chronicles the life of an important North American thinker who has struggled (and still struggles) to understand her relationship with the State of Israel.

Sucharov, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, shares her story in a deeply honest and personal way. Much of the book tells of her childhood — her parent’s divorce, her phobias, and later her cancer. She brings the reader along as she jumps between her adult self and her earlier years, trying to make sense of who she is and what she thinks.

It is refreshing to see a writer wrestling with important contemporary issues and, at the same time, essentially psychoanalyzing herself. What motivates her? What scares her? What are her principles? How has who she is and what she thinks been affected by her experiences and the people around her — both those who have loved her and those who, in whole or part, have abandoned her (some because of different attitudes about Israel)?

Some readers may be startled by the depth of what Sucharov shares — including, as a youngster, suicidal fears, and still as an adult, panic attacks. But these details — examining, or rather excavating her inner self — enrich the telling of her relationship with her Judaism and Israel.

Israel is a hot-button issue for many Jews, and despite our desire to reduce our views about it to the simplest terms — logic, justice, history, religion — if we are honest we know that emotions and fears and our sense of who we are and who we are connected to help shape what we think, and to which political camp we belong. Most people who care about Israel see an “us” and a “them.” If an “us” says something supportive or even empathetic to “them,” that is seen as ignorance at best or betrayal at worst. But the world isn’t that simple, and that is the beauty of Sucharov’s narrative — she never stops examining who she is and why she thinks what she does.

Clearly, growing up in a Jewish family in Canada, going to a Jewish summer camp, and blossoming there into a leader (while her family life was falling apart) influenced who she is at her core. Being Jewish is central for her, as was her time in Israel, including on a kibbutz and in graduate school. She accepts that some of her thoughts about Israel, as a young woman, were influenced by which young man she pined for.

As Sucharov notes towards the end of her book, “In so many ways, Israel has been an instigator of, and a bystander to, the tension that has come to define so many Diaspora Jewish relationships.” What does it mean to be Jewish today? How does one talk to people (including Palestinians) who view Zionism not as a triumph, but a tragedy? What does Israel REALLY mean to us, and why?

Sucharov is never satisfied with her thinking about this dilemma. Rather than cementing herself  into a “camp,” she is at heart an academic who does what academics should do – what we all should do: constantly re-evaluate and test our thinking.

In full disclosure, I first communicated with Sucharov in 2014 around the founding of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, a group of progressive academics opposed to academic boycotts, supportive of the two-state solution, and protecting academic freedom, including the right of pro-boycotters to make their case. And as she noted in her book (and in a review she wrote of mine), she has left the group, her views having slightly changed.

She’s now in the “agnostic” camp around academic boycotts. She’s been beaten up by proponents and opponents of the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions movement, each taking her to task for not fully endorsing or fully rejecting BDS, or more broadly their staunch pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian point of view. Sucharov, in her own words. “embrace[s] open-mindedness [and is] suspicious of dogma.” Yet she also craves community and actively engages in social media, a medium she aptly describes as “a sea filled with stinging fish and sharp coral awaiting any misstep.”

One of the final chapters of Borders and Belonging is called “Cancel Culture.” Sucharov had accepted a university’s Jewish Studies program invitation to speak on Israel/Palestine. Then a right-wing Jewish organization began a pressure campaign on Facebook to have her canceled. In an attempt at “damage control” the director of the Jewish Studies program wrote, “[w]e believe there has been a misunderstanding [as] some community members have fixated on the supposed support for BDS on the part of one panelist, in spite of her having written ‘I have gone on record many times opposing the end game of BDS.’” That only made matters worse. One of her colleagues then wrote “I didn’t know you went on record as opposing BDS.”

BDS has become such a litmus test on both sides of the political debate that scholars, like Sucharov, are being attacked for engaging in complexity where many see only good or evil. She said, correctly, “When a scholar is invited at the behest of a scholarly center . . . nothing more than scholarly credentials should be part of the public conversation as to whether someone should or shouldn’t be part of the panel.”

Where is she on BDS today? She writes, “While I do not currently personally embrace BDS, I’m now more ambivalent about the ethics of academic boycotts, rather than opposing them outright.”

While I disagree with Sucharov’s ambivalence about academic boycotts — as she says scholars should be invited and evaluated based on their scholarship, not their political positions OR their nationality — I admire her capacity to give herself space to rethink her views. That’s what she’s done her entire life, and her memoir — regardless of one’s positions on Israel and its place in Jewish life — is a model of how one engages this important, and difficult, issue.

About the Author
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and an attorney and award-winning author. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee's expert on antisemitism, and he was also the lead drafter of the “Working Definition of Antisemitism." He has argued before the Supreme Court of the United States and testified before Congress, and he is a frequent guest on television and radio. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and The Forward. His newest book is The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate (New Jewish Press, 2020).
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