Exploring issues related to Israel, Israeli society & global Jewry
In this article Prof. Ran Greenstein explores how Isaac Deutscher's concept of 'the non-Jewish Jew' can be used to help better understand the political orientation of Jewish South African & Israeli activists -- both historically & in the present.
"Liberal Zionists are Jews but not ‘non-Jewish’ as they proudly are part of the Jewish-Israeli mainstream. Anti-Zionists are ‘non-Jewish’ (in a political sense) but are not usually motivated by a specific Jewish sensibility."
In a speech delivered sixty years ago, writer and activist Isaac Deutscher coined the phrase ‘the non-Jewish Jew’. This term referred to a group of intellectuals of Jewish background – Baruch Spinoza, Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, and Sigmund Freud – who, according to Deutscher, “found Jewry too narrow, too archaic, and too constricting. They all looked for ideals and fulfilment beyond it, and they represent the sum and substance of much that is greatest in modern thought.”
What was specifically Jewish about them? Deutscher argued that
… as Jews they dwelt on the borderlines of various civilizations, religions, and national cultures. They were born and brought up on the borderlines of various epochs ... They were each in society and yet not in it, of it and yet not of it. It was this that enabled them to rise in thought above their societies, above their nations, above their times and generations.
For every great name above, thousands of ordinary people of Jewish origin, who may not have made much of a contribution to modern thought, put theories and ideas into political practice through participation in struggles for equality, justice and freedom in different contexts. Eastern European Jewish socialists were the most prominent manifestation of the non-Jewish Judaism that Deutscher spoke of, in their countries of origin as well as in various other locations which they reached with the great Jewish migration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both South Africa and Israel/Palestine were among these destinations.
One organisational framework for activists interested in advancing global equality and justice was provided by the Communist International, founded in 1919. Many local left-wing parties in different parts of the world joined its ranks after its formation. Among these was the Communist Party of South Africa, which, over decades, recruited many Jewish members who became prominent in the South African liberation struggle. These included the likes of Ray Alexander, Rusty and Hilda Bernstein, Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Harold Wolpe, Ronnie Kasrils, Ben Turok, and Dennis Goldberg. It is not a coincidence that twelve of the fifteen white activists mentioned in the full indictment of the 1964 Rivonia Trial were of Jewish background.
But were they ‘non-Jewish Jews’ in Deutscher’s sense of the term or did they join the freedom struggle as others did, without displaying any particular Jewish sensibility? It is difficult to answer this question. There may have been specific biographical and social contexts that pushed some of these activists to adopt their course of action, but Jewishness did not seem to play a visible role in their early or subsequent political careers. Like their counterparts in the USA, UK, and Argentina, among others, they joined a broad socialist movement that was, generally, irreligious if not anti-religious, with no explicit Jewish agenda nor imperative defining their involvement. They all shared the condition of being first or second-generation immigrants, members of minority communities that had fled poverty and persecution, but their activism was related much more to the new circumstances of settlement than to their experiences in their or their parents’ countries of origin.
"Israeli radical anti-Zionists remained a small minority that have opposed Israel as a Jewish state for being inherently exclusionary".
If that was the case for radical Jewish activists in general, those who ended up in then Mandatory Palestine may present a somewhat different picture. Their very presence as Jewish immigrants in Palestine before 1948 (and Israel thereafter) was a political statement related to their communal identity as Jews. Regardless of individual views, they were part of a settlement project that was conducted under the auspices of an imperial power, and was regarded by the local population as colonial in nature. They could not merge into a general white settler identity as immigrants to South Africa could; rather, their Jewishness became central to their entire social and political identity and existence in the country. How could such ‘non-Jewish Jews’ function politically in that context, then?
Before 1948, Jewish political dissent in Mandatory Palestine took on one of two primary forms – both with fairly scant support among the Jewish population. These were: liberal humanism that adhered to spiritual Zionism and rejected the quest for an exclusive Jewish state (the bi-nationalist movement), and left-wing radicalism that rejected Zionism altogether and supported majority rule in a non-ethnic democracy. That latter form was expressed primarily by the Palestinian Communist Party which, despite its name, had a Jewish majority throughout its existence.
After 1948, and in particular after the 1967 war, the liberal-humanist current within Zionism was transformed into a position of support for an Israeli state that grants equality to all its citizens but retains a Jewish majority within its original pre-1967 boundaries. Israeli radical anti-Zionists remained a small minority that have opposed Israel as a Jewish state for being inherently exclusionary – or, as Oren Yiftachel and other scholars have termed, an ethnocracy, a system of ethnic domination. This is the case especially with regard to the military domination over territories and populations occupied in 1967, which has deprived the local Palestinian population of basic civil and political rights for over fifty years, and has become permanent in all but name.
"South African Jews benefited from white domination like all white people did. But, the system was not constructed at their behest or on their behalf specifically as Jews...".
Neither trend is quite what Deutscher had in mind. Liberal Zionists are Jews but not ‘non-Jewish’ as they proudly are part of the Jewish-Israeli mainstream. Anti-Zionists are ‘non-Jewish’ (in a political sense) but are not usually motivated by a specific Jewish sensibility. Rather, they tend to see themselves as part of a broader global movement of progressive and radical political activism that is working towards creating a just society that does away with the legacies of dispossession associated with the Zionist project.
Complicating the picture is the Jewish-majority context within which Israeli anti-Zionist activists operate. Radical Jews elsewhere are usually part of minority communities. Their activism is oriented towards challenging privileges that are denied to other minority groups. Defending the rights of Jews as a minority is consistent with defending the rights of all minorities. In Israel/Palestine, in contrast, radical Jews are perceived by the mainstream as working against Jewish-specific interests. Their position is the same everywhere – equality for all – and is a position of principle. But under the specific circumstances of Jewish political domination they are accused of undermining their ‘own’ people, of suffering from ‘self-hate’, of siding with ‘the enemy’.
Of course, these are familiar accusations which were directed by mainstream white South Africans against white activists under apartheid. But, with an added component. South African Jews benefited from white domination like all white people did. But, the system was not constructed at their behest or on their behalf specifically as Jews, whereas in Israel/Palestine the system of domination was built by the Zionist movement on behalf of all Jews, including those opposed to it. Thus, coming out against the system is more difficult for radical Jews in Israel than it was for their South African Jewish counterparts who opposed the apartheid system. And, the level of hostility towards them from within their own community is far greater.
"... to identify as anti-Zionists would all but ruin their chances of working effectively within the community. To identify as Zionists would all but ruin their chances of working effectively with other justice-oriented activists of different backgrounds. To avoid Zionism altogether is not tenable."
In the case of anti-Zionist Jews in South Africa, the prevalent sense in the community of being under siege places an additional burden on activists, though not to the same extent as in Israel. Many white people share a feeling of exclusion in general, as a result of being a minority in a political system dominated by black South Africans. Jews may feel this more intensely than other white South Africans due to the perceived hostility of the ruling party and the government to Israeli policies. Although such hostility is directed at the State of Israel rather than at the local Jewish community, the intense identification of mainstream Jews with Israel and Zionism inevitably leads them to conflate anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish statements and actions.
What this has meant for Jewish radicalism in South Africa is that it has had to distance itself politically from the organised community. It seems impossible to be a ‘non-Jewish Jew’ today without taking a stand on Israel/Palestine and Zionism. The centrality of these issues within the context of global identity politics and local solidarity campaigns does not allow a space for neutrality.
This poses a critical dilemma for activists who want to adopt a radical stance from within a distinct Jewish perspective: to identify as anti-Zionists would all but ruin their chances of working effectively within the community. To identify as Zionists would all but ruin their chances of working effectively with other justice-oriented activists of different backgrounds. To avoid Zionism altogether is not tenable. How to handle this dilemma and build a new approach that would maintain the political traditions Deutscher identified and celebrated remains a crucial challenge.
Ran Greenstein is an Associate Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He has written on South Africa and Israel/Palestine from comparative perspectives. Among his publications are Zionism and its Discontents: A Century of Radical Dissent in Israel/Palestine (Pluto Press, 2018), and "Colonialism, Apartheid and the Native Question: The Case of Israel/Palestine", in Marxism against Racism (Wits University Press, forthcoming).