(L) Photo by Lilach Daniel on Wikimedia (R) Photo by rajatonvimma on Wikimedia

Our Palestine Question: A Conversation with Geoffrey Levin

Our Palestine Question: Israel and American Jewish Dissent, 1948-1978 is a new history of the American Jewish relationship with Israel focused on its most urgent and sensitive issue: the question of Palestinian rights. In this Q&A, we talk with author Geoffrey Levin about Israel’s sidelining of early Jewish dissenters on Palestine, discourses about anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and recent university protests.

There are many characters in this book that have been, as you note, excised from Jewish communal memory. How does this book fill major gaps in our understanding of the relationship between Israel and American Jews?

Many books have been written about American Jews and Israel, but this is the first that centers the conversation around the most sensitive, core question of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. To write a book like this, I had to focus on the American Jews most deeply involved in Palestinian rights issues, people who, in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s wanted their community to seriously address issues like the Palestinian refugee question, Arab minority rights in Israel, and Israel’s post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. These dissenting voices did not succeed, so in a way the book is about people who failed and whose stories have not been celebrated in American Jewish history. But in telling the story of what one might call marginalized voices, the book weaves a broader narrative about why they failed, revealing the role of Israeli diplomats and anxious American Jewish leaders in sidelining generations of these figures. 

Why did Israel undermine the early Jewish movement for dissent on Palestine? How has this dissent been obfuscated in the period you examine in the book, 1948-1978?

I think Israeli officials simply did not want American Jewish groups to have an independent stance on issues that were core to the state’s security and interests. Some of the figures who Israel sought to counter were outspoken anti-Zionists, but some of the American Jews who called attention to Palestinian rights issues were pretty moderate in their outlook and felt they were doing was in Israel’s long-term interests. The way mild advocacy was construed as threatening is particularly telling and indicates to me that much of this was about control—especially controlling the narrative with regards to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

While some of the dissenters in the book were entirely forgotten after Israeli campaigns against them, others are not unknown but had their stories misrepresented. I write, for example, about the 1970s group Breira, which was made up of many Zionists who supported what we now call the two-state solution. They thought creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel was in Israel’s interests. Contemporary critics painted Breira’s leaders as radicals inspired by the New Left, an image reflected in some of the existing historiography, but as I show Breira members actually came to their conclusions after spending time in Israel and connecting very deeply with Jewish politics there and in the United States.

Did the American Jewish establishment conflate anti-Zionism and antisemitism during the early years of the Jewish state? How did this association develop?

One of the most fascinating side narratives in the book related to this. In the early-to-mid twentieth century, I found that leaders of mainstream American Jewish organizations stated very clearly that anti-Zionism was not inherently antisemitic. By the 1970s, perhaps even the late 1960s, this had changed. It is a pretty complicated story, actually, but much of it has to do with the way that Zionism and Israel slowly became central to American Jewish identity in the 1950s and 1960s. So much so that the grassroots of these major organization felt that even if anti-Zionist critique of Israeli policies were not explicitly antisemitic, it felt threatening to Jews because it made Jews look bad. Another part of the story is the way in which narratives about the Palestinian experience were misconstrued, which warped understanding about what critiques of Israel held truth and what did not.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) was a prominent figure in 1950s politics, in discussions of Jewish statehood and Palestinian rights. How did Israel view Jewish-American critics, such as the AJC?

Today the AJC is just one of many mainstream Jewish political advocacy groups supportive of Israel and Zionism. In the 1950s, however, before the rise of important groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents, the AJC was actually considered the most influential Jewish organization in Washington policymaking circles. Moreover, it considered itself non-Zionist before 1967—meaning opposed to the idea of Jewish nationalism but supportive of Israel in some ways. So it was critical of some of Israeli policies and rhetoric, but generally in a quieter way.

My book reveals many of these mild critiques for the first time. Yet despite their moderation, Israeli officials reacted with alarm, urging the AJC to censor itself and fire its leading Middle East expert. The reason why ties back to Israel’s interest in controlling the narratives regarding Palestinian rights as well as to its vision of American Jewish groups as supporters, rather than respected, equal partners or autonomous thinkers. Today many, if not most, mainstream Jewish groups views Israel’s interests as synonymous with American Jewish interests. In the 1950s, some AJC leaders opined that Israel’s interests were not always in line with American or American Jewish interests, and Israeli diplomats hoped to change that. Especially given the political sway that AJC leaders had during the Eisenhower years, as well as because of the philanthropic potential of AJC members, who were more well-off than the average American Jew of the 1950s.

Our Palestine Question serves as a medium to inform present day conversations and engage them with the voices of the past. How do you see this playing out in the current wave of protests on college campuses across the United States?

The book connects with the challenges of this current tragic moment in so many ways, I don’t even know where to begin. It helps explain why so many Jewish students who affiliate with Zionism feel so upset and alienated by these protests. It also gets into the reasons why some young Jews critical of Israel feel driven to involve themselves in activism. And for other students, like one at my university who felt uncomfortable with both campus pro-Palestine protests and pro-Israel counterprotests, the book, in her words, made her “feel less alone” by showing her how earlier generations of Jews struggled with similar issues.

In a basic way, the book informs readers of key issues surrounding the Palestinians during Israel’s formative decades which is essential to understanding the region’s politics and the protest here. But in a more specific way, the book is a history of American discourse about Israel/Palestine and thus serves as a unique primer to present day debates and controversies including those on campuses. The book even covers the very earliest efforts to shape campus discussions about Israel, which dates back to the 1950s.

Finally, I think the book encourages readers to think more broadly about the relationship between Palestinian rights advocacy and antisemitism because of the way the book historicizes, and thus de-essentializes this conflation. The question shouldn’t simply be if something is antisemitic or not, but why do people feel it is antisemitic? How did certain messages or ideas come to be labeled that way and why? The book offers some of that history.

You write that this book urges people of all backgrounds to reject the tragic consequences of “ethno-national particularism.” What conclusions do you hope younger readers will take away from Our Palestine Question?

I wouldn’t quite say that I urge people to reject ethno-national particularism. I think feelings of national and ethnic connectiveness can be very important and empowering, both within states and across diasporas. Yet no one can deny the ways in which these same feelings of connectedness have in some contexts contributed to ethnic, racial, or national exclusions, violence, and war. The book is a story of individuals who are struggling to reconcile their longing to be part of a broader, historical ethno-national or ethno-religious community with their urge to reject violent consequences of a specific form of ethno-national politics. Though the book is about Jews, the dynamics of these struggles are not unique to Jews and I hope the stories in the book will resonate with readers of all backgrounds, young and old, who grapple with questions of communal belonging in a world filled with great moral challenges.

Geoffrey Levin is assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Jewish studies at Emory University. He specializes in the history of modern Israel and in the politics of international discourse about Israel/Palestine. He lives in Atlanta, GA.

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