The Freedom to Dissent

Playwright Tony Kushner accuses American Jewry of `blindly supporting right-wing politicians in Israel'

As American Jewish activists and intellectuals are scrambling to confront the wave of new anti-Semitism - sometimes disguised as political criticism of Israel - a group of more than 50 progressive Jewish Americans recently published an anthology critical of the way Israel is handling its conflict with the Palestinians.

The book, "Wrestling with Zion," was initiated and co-edited by Tony Kushner, one of America's most prominent, prolific and political playwrights, an outspoken critic of the Zionist enterprise. Kushner, 47, won a Pulitzer Prize, two Tony awards and almost every other American theatrical award for his two-part 1993 play "Angels in America," which explores the moral state of America during the Reagan era and the age of AIDS. His most recent work is "Homebody/Kabul," about an Englishwoman missing in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, whose half-Muslim daughter is searching for her.

"Wrestling with Zion," Kushner, says, was a response to the way in which America's Jewish community - political conservatives and social liberals alike - is "rallying behind Ariel Sharon, who 10 years ago never would have been acceptable anywhere." The point of this book, he said in an interview with Haaretz, "was not to create a community of dissent within the Jewish American community, but to show that this community exists." This community, he argued, should feel free to express such views without fear of being described as self-hating or even anti-Semitic. Fear of anti-Semitism, he argued, should not stifle dissent and public debate about Israel in the community.

Do you agree that there is such a phenomenon as new anti-Semitism? Has anti-Semitism mutated from being ethnically or religiously motivated into being nationally motivated?

Kushner: "I think so. I have been wrestling with it recently as I was thinking about `The Passion' [Mel Gibson's new film "The Passion of the Christ" - O.N.]. It seems there is a new kind of version of anti-Semitism that comes as a result of the crisis in the Middle East, which has at its basis a nationalist struggle and a question of national identity. It joins the modern anti-Semitism, the fascist anti-Semitism, which has its roots in the 19th century as a kind of a race-based anti-Semitism, which is connected to, but distinct from, the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages, when the categories of race were much more vague. It was then more about religious issues. It was based in the Christian gospels.

"But as I make all these distinctions, I think `what am I doing ?' It is like 85 sewers that feed the same poisoned river, so is there really any point in making all these distinctions? I am not sure that there is. There is obviously overlap. It is clear that the new anti-Semitism that has emerged in the Arab world and in Muslim communities and even among the left in Europe, as a result of the crisis in the Middle East, borrowed certain features, sometimes rather shockingly, from the European anti-Semitism of the 19th to mid-20th century. So I don't know what exactly to do with the distinctions."

Well, the distinctions may be relevant now that many people equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. You were recently quoted as saying that "Zionism is an unappealing and problematic heritage." What exactly is your problem with Zionism?

"We really have to define what we mean by Zionism. Zionism aimed at the establishment of a national identity is predicated on a reading of Jewish history and an interpretation of the meaning of Jewish history that I don't share. Insofar as Zionism is an idea that the solution to the suffering of the Jewish people was the establishment of a Jewish nation, I think it is not the right answer. I don't think that a minority group has a lot of hope in surviving entirely on the basis of its own force and power, because by definition a minority is outnumbered substantially. Minorities lead terrible lives of suffering and oppression, and the solution to the suffering of a minority group is constitutional democracy, which gives rights to minorities and protects them against majoritarian tyranny. This is something that I have come to understand both as a gay man and as a Jewish man and also as an American. I believe that it has worked in this country for Jews, and it is starting to work also for gay people."

Now, you know of course that there are people - respectable people - who argue that any negation of the legitimacy of the State of Israel as a Jewish state is anti-Semitism. According to their definition, the positions you have expressed are anti-Semitic.

"Of course they say that, and of course I categorically reject it. There are people who say that any criticism at all of the State of Israel is anti-Semitism. Look, Israel exists and it should continue to exist. I have never, anywhere, said - neither has any of the contributors to the anthology that I have just co-edited - that the State of Israel should be destroyed or abolished or outlawed. I certainly don't believe that. That is not to say that I think that tying the fate of the Jewish people and the history of the Jewish people to nationalism and British colonialism and Western imperialism was a good move. But it happened. It was probably inevitable, an inevitable consequence of European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. And consequently Israel is there and will continue to be there and must be protected and I have always said that and written that. My opposition to the Sharon government is that its policies are killing a lot of Israelis - Jewish Israelis. So to talk about the legitimacy of a state - I mean, is the United States of America legitimate? Of course it is. Did it come about because it dispossessed indigenous people from their land - I am talking about Native Americans - and killed them in genocidal numbers? Absolutely.

"There are a lot of legitimate questions to be asked about the existence of any nation-state. I wrote in the foreword to `Wrestling with Zion' that the foundation of the State of Israel required the dispossession of a large indigenous population, which is something we will say about virtually any state in Europe or anywhere else. Establishing a state means fucking people over. However, I think that people in the late 20th century or early 21st century - having seen the Holocaust, having seen the 20th century and all of its horrors - cannot be complacent in the face of that."

But you are saying that the very creation of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea.

"I think it was a mistake. You can criticize decisions that were made. However, Israel's creation was inevitable or close to inevitable. It was evident for almost 100 years before, and then the Holocaust happened and made it completely unavoidable. We can talk about these issues. The question of whether or not it makes me an anti-Semite, to me, is a non-issue. Of course I am not an anti-Semite. There is nothing in what I am saying that has to do with hatred of Jews. I am Jewish and proud of it. And it's a cheap and ugly tactic used by people to hysterically silence any opposition. And in my opinion the hysteria comes from the fact that these people fundamentally know that their position is indefensible. That they are advocating for something that they know is almost impossible to advocate for. Namely, a Jewish state that does not acknowledge its own crimes, because that's not Jewish. And secondarily, but increasingly importantly, a Jewish state is also supposed to be a democracy, in which the demographics are going against its continued existence as a Jewish state.

"What I absolutely reject is the idea that Israel represents me because I am a Jew, or that my criticism of Israel is a criticism of Jews. I also reject the idea that I can't criticize Jews. I criticize. When has any Jew ever accepted that the idea that he can't criticize other Jews? But certainly, I don't believe that I am represented by the State of Israel."

Are you saying that Israel would never represent you, no matter what, even if it changes its policies?

"Israel is a foreign country. I am no more represented by Israel than I am by Italy. I am an American citizen, not a citizen of Israel. I feel a certain responsibility by virtue of being Jewish - as we said in the book - wrestling with the question of the State of Israel in the Middle East. But I do that as an American citizen. I think that the meddling of American Jewish citizens in the politics of the State of Israel has never been a particularly beneficial thing. We blindly support right-wing politicians in Israel, whose American equivalent for us would be abhorrent. There is this grotesque spectacle of liberal American Jews supporting Likud politicians against Labor politicians because they are being told that left-wing politicians don't exist in Israel, and that there is no peace movement, and that everybody in Israel thinks like Ariel Sharon. We have already put on blinders to pretend that these complexities with which Israelis have to struggle all the time don't really exist. It's a great mistake."

How does your being gay play into all this?

"I have always said that being Jewish had a huge impact on being gay. Because I grew up in a small southern town in a predominantly Christian community, but my parents were enormously proud of being Jewish and gave that to their three children. So when I realized that I had another identity, which was a minority identity in a majority culture that despised who I was, I already had a model at hand of how to reclaim an identity that the rest of the world wasn't crazy about. And I always felt that I used my Jewishness and my Jewish identity as a template of how to be gay in a heterosexual and homophobic world."

Do you believe that the Sharon government's policies are actually agitating anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere?

"No, I don't want to say that because I don't think that one can ever say that Jews are responsible for anti-Semitism. Bigotry is wrong and anti-Semitism is bigotry. It has always been a sign of moral decay and psychological dysfunction and malevolence, and it is not the fault of Jews or Jewish behavior. I believe that the policies of the Sharon government are in many cases immoral and are illegal and are responsible for Palestinian deaths and, in a way, for Jewish deaths, but I don't believe that Ariel Sharon or any Jew is responsible for anti-Semitism."

Is there strong opposition to your anthology within the Jewish community? Are there attempts to silence you?

"Not really. I got the contract to make the anthology within an hour of making a phone call. The Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side gave us space to do a book party instantly and they were lovely about it. I am sure that there are places where we would go and be booed off the stage and yelled at, but that's not unexpected. Certainly there will be people who would say that I am an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew and that I am working for [Yasser] Arafat, but that's just stupid people making stupid statements.

"I do sympathize, however, with people who are opposed to what I am doing and what people like me are trying to do by raising questions, because I know that a part of the anger and the rage at the critics of Israel comes in part from fear that is not unjustified. But by the same token, you don't want people in a minority afraid to express their opinions because of accusations of anti-Semitism and self-hatred. Intimidating people into silence is never a good thing."

The book under discussion is "Wrestling with Zion, Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict," edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, Grove Press.