Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and anti-Zionism

Kareem Rabieby Kareem Rabie, City University of New York

From the beginning of OWS, the issue of Palestine has been contentious, and commentators and occupiers have excluded it preemptively and as it emerged. Although many in the liberal-to-anti-Zionist blogosphere are confident that the American conversation about Zionism is opening up – especially after the publication of Peter Beinart’s widely-read piece in the New York Review of Books – and public critique of the Israeli practices and American ‘Israel firsters’ is increasing (see here and here, for example), open support of justice for Palestinians is in many ways understood as too far left for the ultra-right mainstream position in America. Just recently Thomas Friedman, of all people, was accused of anti-Semitism by various Jewish organizations and a congressman for suggesting that the Israel Lobby has something to do with the nearly unconditional support that Israel and its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enjoys in congress (see here).

The question of Palestine causes heart-palpitations wherever it goes, and Occupy Wall Street has not been immune to this phenomenon for many reasons, a couple of which are relevant here. The first is that, while OWS is being accused of incorporating a multitude of viewpoints, politics, and positions, it is precisely that accusation that enables value judgments and the exclusion of legitimate political views from the conversation. Here is an exemplary exchange – and while there is much nonsense asserted against anti-Zionists, it’s useful to take these positions and politics seriously because they are productive here – where the issue of anti-Zionism is equated with anti-Semitism, and because everyone can make claims about what OWS is, a narrow liberal focus is asserted. As far as the following debate is concerned, my affinity lies with those Jews who reject orthodoxy, embrace dissent as a cultural value, and support justice for the Palestinians, but obviously the inside baseball of American Jewish identity politics is something I can only observe. I do think that this exchange and the many others like it can help elucidate some of the growing pains that OWS will endure as it attempts to coalesce around issues and expand beyond certain urban encampments. It should go without saying but obviously all forms of racism including anti-Semitism must be rejected.

In Commentary, a widely-read neoconservative Zionist publication, Jonathan Neuman discusses the relationship of Jews to OWS in three ways: “First is the extent of the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism at the protests. Second is the role Jews played in the protests. And third is the question of the connection between the protests and Judaism itself.” The piece is typical – Neuman easily moves between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; and the expression of solidarity with Gaza, as well as the mere presence of certain types of clothing, indicate a roughly anti-Zionist orientation while the much greater participation of Jews compared to Muslims as measured by Facebook (“Occupy Judaism enjoyed more than 1,800 ‘likes’ on Facebook and nearly 2,000 followers on Twitter, and its Kol Nidre service attracted hundreds. No other religious group created such a significant constituency. Occupy Islam had a minuscule 14 Facebook fans and fewer Twitter followers, and it drew sparse attendance at a Muslim Friday prayer meeting. Even regarding the rally for Tarek Mehanna at Occupy Boston, religious Muslims appear to have opted not to attend, for fear of dancing and other ‘non-Islamic’ activity. The various Occupy Christianity and Occupy Christians groups mustered fewer than 20 fans and followers”) indicates, well, I’m not entirely sure.

The argument is muddled but I think this piece is trying to do several things: to call only certain forms of protest Jewish; to call anti-Zionism anti-Semitism; and to question the Judaism of leftist Jewish protesters. Neuman writes “[t]he blind quest for ‘social justice’ in its left-wing understanding, despite the onslaught of leftist hatred for the Jewish people and the Jewish state, demonstrates the degree to which too many Jews overlook or excuse the indefensible in pursuit of conformity with the ancient faith of their ever-libeled people.” This is a fight about politics, faith and community, based on the question of politics and whether or not leftists can be adequately Jewish or assert that ‘social justice’ (specifically social justice for Palestinians) can be a Jewish value. It should also be noted that this piece has a really outrageous and leading photograph of a young white man yelling in the direction of a man with a kippah, no clear explanation of the content, and the caption “Setting the tone: Protester Danny Cline contests a Jewish passerby who questioned the politics of Occupy Wall Street.”

Mark Tracy, responding in Tablet, a liberal Jewish publication, states that “Jonathan Neumann has a long, considered essay in the January Commentary about Occupy Wall Street. In one sense, that fact – and its prominent placement on the neoconservative journal’s website – is victory enough for OWS: it has forced itself into just about every imaginable conversation at this point, and even Commentary has to reckon with it. Of course, that doesn’t mean Commentary has to agree with it, and, of course, it doesn’t”. For Tracy, dissent is part of Jewish tradition just as much as textual orthodoxy might be. Commentary, unsurprisingly, disagrees (and holds that “perhaps there is justification in casting this tradition as ‘dialectical’, if one is reaching for the ancient Socratic sense of the word. More likely though in its common usage today it is derivative of the Hegelian tradition popularized by Marx and, especially when coupled with the supposedly sacred values of dissent and heresy, little more than an intellectual club thought to be sufficiently sturdy to batter away all opposing arguments”).

What is clear here is how, for rightwing Zionists, anti-Zionism is easily conflated with anti-Semitism and Zionism is conflated with Judaism. This anti-Semitism smear is used against people who are not sufficiently Zionist, to exclude and delegitimize any opposition to Zionism, even to accuse Jews of not being sufficiently Jewish for not being sufficiently Zionist. This happens all the time. If the issue of anti-Zionism has been used to discredit OWS by conservative Zionists, one question that ought to be raised is why Palestine is seen as somehow out of this world and subject to the same world of issues that Americans face? Are Palestinians a part of the 99% and is their exclusion justifiable? And is it possible to incorporate Palestinians into the same movement as people who are uncomfortable with displays of Palestinian clothing? Who equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism (and in doing so, trivialize the charge of anti-Semitism and the racism and real historical suffering to which Jews have been subject)? Is it possible to enable forms of solidarity without defining the movement so narrowly as to be nearly apolitical?

This is the first in a series of three posts on Occupy and the question of Palestine. Kareem’s Occupy Wall Street and ‘Occupation’ will appear on 13 February, and Occupy Wall Street and ‘Israelification’ will be available 27 February.


  1. qolyehudi

    Well written and interesting. I’m not sure I agree in all points, I have to reread it at another time, when I have more time and focus, but still wanted to say thanks for the thoughts.
    All the best