American Jewish Historians Shouldn't Succumb to Crude Clichés About Zionism

We don't need Diner and Feld to be Zionists, nor to 'Stand with Israel.' We need them to bring the same humanity and discernment they show writing the history of Jews in other times and places to their analysis of the situation in Israel.

Israeli and Palestinian flags
Israeli and Palestinian flags (illustrative). © Tonygers | Dreamstime.com

Hasia Diner’s and Marjorie Feld’s recent Haaretz opinion piece, “We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind,” left me forlorn. In it, each scholar takes a turn describing how the admiration she felt for Israel when she was younger came, with time, to seem baseless. “The Israel I once loved was a naïve delusion,” writes Diner. “I reeducated myself,” explains Feld, “stopping to look at all of the facts that I had bumped up against for years.”

It matters that Diner and Feld are historians of rare and exquisite talent. Diner, the more senior of the pair, has in her work brought back to life people that history seemingly forgot. Through her, we heard the voices of Jewish women in Colonial America, and push-cart peddlers in the Lower East Side, and teachers seeking in mid-century America to make sense for their students of the horrors of the Holocaust. Feld wrote an award-winning life of Lillian Wald, the nurse who started the Henry Street Settlement house that brought care to thousands of poor Russian immigrants to New York, an account illuminated by Feld’s own decency.

Although they do not claim it for themselves, Diner and Feld have earned, with their work, a sort of moral authority. At least, they hold such authority for me.

Still, I disagree with much of their essay. Diner writes that the “death of vast numbers of Jewish communities as a result of Zionist activity has impoverished the Jewish people, robbing us of these many cultures that have fallen into the maw of Israeli homogenization.” I think I know what Diner means. I spent much of 1983 wandering the remains of Jewish communities in North Africa as a Watson Fellow, and in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco, one could see how the massive exodus of Jews from these countries to Israel in the decades after the State was established had left communities with long centuries of rich tradition essentially abandoned.

But it is a mistake to see this migration, willingly and often joyfully undertaken by Jews of North Africa, coldly “as a result of Zionist activity,” and not as choice taken by individuals, families and communities. What’s more, the often fractious multiculturalism of today’s Israel belies the idea that we are victims here of an “Israeli homogenization,” much less one that has a gaping and voracious “maw.”

Feld writes that “I saw that that Israel fit neatly into my broader understanding of Western colonialism.” It is undeniable that the history of Zionism cannot be fully grasped without understanding its relations, in different times and places, with colonialist ideologies and aspirations. But, for all that, Israel does not “fit neatly” into any “broader understanding of Western colonialism.” While many Zionists viewed themselves as conveyors of Western culture to a primitive Levant, none viewed themselves as representatives of a Motherland back in Europe. None aspired to pillage natural resources of their new-found home for shipment back whence they came. They saw themselves as returning home, to a land that had never been without Jews.

What is more, Feld does not give good weight to the fact that the family trees of most Israelis do not have roots that reach back to Europe, at least not in the last half millennium. My point is not that Feld should believe that Zionism is commendable, or even legitimate. My point is that, by no account does it “fit neatly” into an “understanding of Western colonialism.”

And Feld and Diner should know this. Their histories are alive with discernment.  The power and magic of their research comes, in good measure, from the great talent each woman has for seeing how complicated human lives and human affairs are, and for bringing to life their contradictions and ambivalences.  In the history they write, both women describe how high-minded and venal motivations intertwine in an intricate human lace. But when they describe Israel today, the subtlety that makes their history so beautiful and moving is not in evidence. “Isms” and other big words – colonialism, racism, triumphalism, militarism, imperialism, marginalization, homogenization – become their blunt tools of analysis. These notions have their place, certainly. But alone they are not enough to understand what is happening in this embattled place.

In the end, what discouraged me the most about Diner and Feld’s essay is this. We need them. Not to be Zionists, if they choose not to be. Not to “Stand with Israel,” if they choose not to. Not to sign the “Jerusalem Platform” or any other bit of agitprop. We need them to bring to their analysis of the situation here, the same humanity and discernment that is on display when they write the history of Jews in other times and places.

We need moral authorities like Diner and Feld to be on the side of empathy, on the side that recognizes that solutions to complicated human problems come when people on all sides manage to look through the simplistic formulations and see the humanity in the others. Feld writes how she long saw the moment in 1947 when the UN declared that the Jewish people would have our own state as an act of moral vindication for a people nearly destroyed by Nazi gas chambers.  She describes how, in time, she “interpreted it anew” as “the great catastrophe, for Palestinians.”  The key, though, is to learn to see that electric and fraught moment as both things at once, as it most certainly was. 

This matters because a solution to the problems we face here will arrive not when one side finally admits that their hopes, dreams and aspirations were illegitimate and wrong. A solution will arrive when both sides realize that the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the other side, like their own, have value, beauty and legitimacy. Diner and Feld have demonstrated in their brilliant and humane history books about American Jews that they know this to be true. I only wish they would see that what is true in New York and Philadelphia is true, too, in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Noah Efron chairs the Graduate Program for Science, Technology & Society at Bar Ilan University. He hosts the Promised Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @noahjefron