David Landy, Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel

landyDavid Landy seems to have been curious about the construction of Jewish identity for a long time… when I first met him in 2004 he wanted to do a PhD on Ireland’s Jews… I deterred him, as this small and curious minority (‘who has ever heard of an Irish Jew?’) has been researched and written about disproportionately to its number and significance. I invited him to apply to the MPhil in Ethnic and Racial Studies, for which he wrote a dissertation on Zionism and Irish Jews.

Linking his interest in Jewish identities to his passion about Palestinian rights, it was no surprise that when he did research his PhD he focused on diaspora Jews opposed to Israel. I loved working with him as his supervisor on both dissertations; he also worked for me on a research project on Israeli memory networks – I learnt a lot from him and admire his wry sense of humour… I particularly enjoyed his thinking about the complexities of researching something he is part of – being both ethnically Jewish and a central member of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign, a tightrope act which he performs admirably, evincing his commitment to both sociology and the social movement he studied.
His research field is English groups of Jewish people engaged in opposing Israeli policies. In the course of writing this book he expanded his theoretical understanding – as one does – particularly to examining diaspora opposition to Israel in terms of being a social movement – the focus of this well researched book.

This specific social movement is not unlike the anti-Apartheid or Zapatista solidarity movements, but it is also different in that it is concerned with local identity contestation. In contesting local fields – in this case broader diaspora Jewish identities – there is also a degree of co-optation, which blunts the scope and effect of the movement. However, by engaging with distant issues – in this case Israel/Palestine – the movement is also able to change the identity of Jewish communities, some of which, however, as time goes by, become even more entrenched in their support for the state of Israel and its oppressive policies, as accusations of anti-semitism and being ‘self hating Jews’ are hurled against Jewish opponents of Israel.

David argues that in contrast with a unifying Zionist identity, diaspora Jewish identity is always heterogeneous – Jews, in other words, are not all the same. If diasporic Zionism is seen as tribal and narrowly focused on Israel – and David should know this, he has after all studied Irish Jews’ responses to the football match between Ireland and Israel – then diaspora Jewish identity is much more varied (although Zionist identities, of course, are also heterogeneous, from hard right to hard left and everything in between).  The general disintegration of ‘Jewish communities’ within what Bernard Wasserstein calls ‘the vanishing diaspora’, particularly in Europe, provides the background for David’s exploration of this specific Israel-critical Jewish movement and its link with similar groupings outside Britain.

I could go on  about Jewish identities and I loved David’s nuanced examination of what he calls diasporist rather than diasporic Jewish identities.  If the term ‘exile’ is an appropriation from both Jewish history and Palestinian reality, Jews, he argues, are not now in exile and there is no symmetry between forced Palestinian existence and voluntary Jewish exile, even if their exilic lives provide Jews with claims to both universalism and justice, both seen as part of a prophetic tradition and the belief that Jews were assigned by God to act as a light unto the nations. Not surprisingly perhaps, internal debates among Jews as to the construction of their identities, do not lead to the inclusion of Palestinians in this very Jewish story: in these identity narratives the Palestinians are at best an unwanted extra intruding on the really important questions of Jewish identity…

Exploring participation in and support of the boycott movement provides interesting insights into identity construction among movement members – the more rooted in the Jewish field, the less inclined are activists, who define themselves as ‘rooted cosmopolitans’, to support the boycott.

As someone who has written critically about the involvement of Israeli Jews in co-memorating the Palestinian Nakba and who is currently exploring new potentialities of resistance among (young) Israelis, I was particularly interested in the chapters exploring the relationship between these groups and Palestinians. Israelis who do resistance often tend to valorise their actions as moral and progressive, while, as I argued in Co-Memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorialise the Palestinian Nakba (2010), they often shift the object of concern to their own loss and grief in an act of unresolved melancholia.

David does not shirk from the difficult question as to whether movement members’ activism is about constructing a ‘better’ Jewish identity or about genuine solidarity with the Palestinians. His argument is that like other distant issue movements, members are directed by a western discourse that treats Palestinians as victims. However Palestinians, he notes, are only mildly aware of these internal Jewish debates or of the very existence of the Israel-critical groups he analyses. Interestingly, he theorises movement members as ‘translators’ who carry the distant issue of Israel/Palestine to their local communities, and argues that it is this process of translation that enables movement members to not only transform their local Jewish communities but also contribute to Palestinian struggles for justice and liberation. I am not sure that I am completely persuaded by this argument – as David himself emphasises, the object of this movement is not Palestinians as such but  a political solution of the conflict with justice to the Palestinians (though the vagueness of this term indicates the disagreements regarding both the right of return and the boycott).   Ultimately, I wonder whether critiquing Israel ‘as a Jew’ carries a somewhat heavier weight than that of ‘the usual suspects’ who criticise anything that moves… I am not so sure…

Taking the  position of ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’ rather than solidarity, and the cultural obstacles to working with Palestinians not only through Israeli activists, stand in the way of regarding Palestinians as active agents rather than victims of Israeli policies. This leads David to question whether this movement can ultimately be an effective engine for change. This conundrum too is examined empirically, based not only on interviews with activists, which David cites throughout to good effect, but also on his own study of political tourism to Israel/Palestine. These tours, he argues, render participants fit for advocacy work in Europe and the US (in other words, make them good translators). However, constructing Palestine as an object of pity reeks of orientalism and, as David insists, meeting Palestinians is crucial so that their political subjectivity is not forgotten.

I am also not entirely sure that the division between cosmopolitanism (Jewish) and solidarity (attributed to the general Palestinian Solidarity movement) is entirely viable; indeed  the activists he interviewed were aware of the issues involved in both standpoints. It is only conceptualising Palestinians as ‘people like us’ (in the spirit of Alain Badiou’s ‘there is only one world’) that renders solidarity critical, and David’s sophisticated analysis of the issues involved sheds new light on both the problematique of the solidarity gaze and the challenges facing members of this movement, particularly in the context of the local Jewish fields in which they operate and contend.

One thing this book demonstrates is that, Indeed, as the late Irish Jewish writer David Marcus once told me, ‘Jews are like other people, only more so’.  What I particularly admire about this book is not only its theoretical and empirical sophistication, but also David’s commitment to the movement he researches. He meets admirably the challenge of making his book relevant to the movement, enabling it to use his insights as tools for discussion and development. And if movement members critique and debate his insights, so much the better because, as he often tells me, the unique thing about social movement is that they… yes… keep moving…

David Landy. 2011.  Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Isrsael. London: Zed Books.