As I have a delightful afterlunch coffee near “Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard” West 86th Street, “an upper middleclass Jewish neighborhood whose Jordan and Levantine shores are defined by Central Park West and West End Avenue” (Aaron M. Frankel, 1946, Commentary magazine) I think long thoughts about the New York connection to an imagined Palestine, and the real Israel/Palestine.
Lillian Rosengarten and Remi Kanazi are Americans who view Israel/Palestine, in her new autobiography and his new collection of poems, through their ethnicity and also their American eyes. Both writers are New Yorkers mourning their family’s ejection from a homeland.
Manhattan, always a swirl of identities, is an odd home for the faith of Jewish nationalism, the conviction that the Jewish identity is of such potency that Argentinian, Yemeni, French and Indian Jews all share a kernel of nationality waiting to germinate and of such potency that other peoples in Palestine must submit to its rule.
Kanazi and Rosengarten both discard Jewish essentialism defining the “Jewish and democratic” State of Israel, with its odor of fascist race theory, Kanazi writing:
your system of injustice
is coming to an end
and whether you
recognize it or not yet
it will be liberating
for you too
New Yorkers Kanazi and Rosengarten refuse to be only the particular (Arab, Jew), refusing the scheme of the world as kin versus enemy.
The freedom that Jewish refugees from the Russian empire found, in the Lower East Side, was both the freedom to be a Jew, and the freedom to be more than a Jew.
New York City, with its multidimensionality and mutability of identity, enjoys cosmopolitan bravura and realism. The freedom that Jewish refugees from the Russian empire found, in the Lower East Side, was both the freedom to be a Jew, and the freedom to be more than a Jew.
Peculiar reality and fantasy link New York to Palestine, in the period of Zionist “pioneering” settlement and today. For over 100 years some American Jews have looked to a New Judea built by clear-eyed, strong-limbed, gentle winners—a world apart from their ethnic hodgepodge American reality.
Zionist shekels were given to “redeem the land,” build cities, drain swamps, make the desert bloom, plant forests—later to learn the forests hide ruins of destroyed Arab villages. Drunk on our “national” revival—our “national” music and cuisine so curiously congruent with Arab ways—things seem fictional, should be fictional, would suit I.B. Singer, eulogist of what was already a vanishing world of isolated Yiddishkeit.
But the fiction has meant real violence from the Shomerim, Irgun, Lehi (Stern Gang), Haganah, IDF, security services, in the long century of Jewish nationalist conquest of Palestine, to the most vulgar and chilling instruments of control and surveillance, tested on Arabs to be sold to the world.
In distortion of Time & Space, the fate of villages in Palestine changed because of Zionist clubs in the vast boroughs of New York City. Longings in the 1880s tripped events that brought Remi Kanazi to Brooklyn longing for justice and his family’s lost land and life.
Sunday, October 18, there were two demonstrations at Times Square. At West 48th & Broadway, to “Stand Against Terrorism”—for Israel, American Jews waving or wearing the blue and white Israeli flag, with some Christian Zionist signs promising God will bless those who bless Israel, and curse the opposite.
At West 47th & 7th Avenue a counterdemonstration of Palestinians and their supporters, and a contingent from Jewish Voice for Peace NYC. There was widely reviled, dogged Neturei Karta in their black coats and peyeses—all men—doggedly explaining to the crowd again in Yiddish-accented (not Hebrew-accented) English that Judaism is not Zionism.
New York City—home of refugees from everywhere—is so connected to Palestine that the subway maps should show Tel Aviv and Ramallah stops.
Lillian Rosengarten’s book launch party was on Ludlow Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the basement performance space of a rock bar. The location spoke of the unacceptability of Rosengarten’s stance to the New York Jewish institutions.
In 1888, 127 years and a 12-minute walk away, an immigrant Jewish crowd in a packed hall on East Broadway cheered the “Admirers of Zion” group’s plans for “the idea of Palestinian colonization,” as American Hebrew magazine put it, “creating much enthusiasm among our downtown coreligionists.”
That Zionist meeting was 63 years after the 1825 dedication in Buffalo, NY, of the cornerstone of an intended Jewish homeland of Grand Island, NY, in the Niagara River, organized by the great New York Jew Mordecai Manuel Noah.
Rosengarten describes growing up American after finding refuge in New York with her family in 1937, a toddler in a family driven from Germany by Naziism. The trauma of that ejection colored the family, even in their safety and success. Rosengarten says, “The cycle of paranoia and abuse is playing out its destructive course: this is how I understand Palestinians as the last victims of the Holocaust.”
(Social scientist Irit Keynan has made the same analogy, of Jewish Israel as a trauma victim unable to heal from its psychic damage, lashing out in a victim’s fury whatever the circumstance.)
In the 1990s, visiting at Birzeit University, Lillian saw land grabs and settlements of Israel, and saw parallels between Nazification and Judaization of territory. Rosengarten sought out information of the Nakba, after seeing what was happening to the Palestinians. Rosengarten succinctly summarizes her reaction, the reaction of a Jewish nonZionist:
“Something important changed for me as a result of my visits. The myth of Israel as a ‘beacon of light’ to the world was shattered permanently. It has been a painful awareness for me as a Jew and refugee. The pain is not about a dream of Zionism and a Jewish safe haven, for I was never a Zionist. Instead it is the horrible truth that Jews, once victims of a monstrous ‘Final Solution,’ would reinvent themselves as racist victimizers in order to realize the dream of a safe haven for Jews only.”
She writes that for years, “I still tried to defend Israel…I was not yet ready to explore two separate entities, Judaism and nationalistic Zionism…”
In a poem, she says:
“Imagine what it is like for me
Refugee from Nazi madness,
To see AGAIN proud people
Demonized as evil, driven from their land, ripped from their roots.”
Remi Kanazi draws parallels across time between Palestinians beaten and shot and Americans of African descent beaten and shot, Irish chafing under their occupation, Europeans fighting neoliberal austerity:
bilin. nabih saleh. oakland. athens. #teargas
In a poem about “normalization” with Israel, he writes:
it’s not just the occupation
it’s the right of return
equality for all Palestinians
it’s the transformation
from an exclusivist
to a nation
for all its citizens
we will return
that is not a threat
not a wish
or a dream
but a promise
Rosengarten makes analogies of Jewish experience in Germany, and Palestinians in Israel. She says the Holocaust is used by Zionists to create guilt and fear, with a racist underlying concept in Zionism, keeping Palestinians separate “so racist that children are taught that Arabs are dirty.”
Rosengarten’s opposition to nationalism because of her family’s sufferings from it is similar to that of a significant portion of American Jewry, nonZionist Jews after the Holocaust who felt Jewish nationalism meant fighting poison by making poison.
Both Rosengarten and Kanazi work in words, the gestural. In 2010, Rosengarten set sail in the Mediterranean on the “Jewish Boat to Gaza”: “We were headed for the shores of Gaza in an attempt to break the siege and express solidarity as Jews against the suffering of Palestinians.” On a 36-foot catamaran, the group of 9 was intercepted by Israeli gunboats. She says they had “psychotic and paranoid” treatment from Israeli commandos, she at 75 years old, with her unarmed Jewish boatmates.
German-Jewish Rosengarten and Palestinian Kanazi, raised in America, see the treatment of Palestinian Arabs by Palestinian Jews as analogous to that of African-Americans in the US, or nonwhites in apartheid South Africa.
German-Jewish Rosengarten and Palestinian Kanazi, raised in America, see the treatment of Palestinian Arabs by Palestinian Jews as analogous to that of African-Americans in the US, or nonwhites in apartheid South Africa. They make sense of their struggles by seeing the ideology of ethnic supremacy clearly, brushing away arguments of gradualists and “realists.”
Rosengarten and Kanazi, of one of the oldest diasporas and one of the newest, see Jews in “Aryan” Germany, African-Americans in the US, Arabs in Palestine, in kindred status in the sense they suffer as the Other because of their identities.
A commonplace of Israel defence is that it is blamed for offenses selectively, for things other countries are also guilty—that Israeli Arab status is no worse than that of African Americans in the USA, for instance. The solidarity movement of Palestinians and African Americans accepts the challenge of that reasoning, in an indictment of both countries—“When I see them, I see us.”
(Israeli training of US police in “crowd control” is notable, a crossfertilization of white supremacy, and government as suppression of demographic “undesirables.” As much as the strife in Israel/Palestine is between two peoples, it is between an ideology versus two peoples who have no requirement to be enemies.)
Rosengarten contests Theodor Herzl’s axiom that Jews are never safe among gentiles, never truly safe, with the idea that nonJews are not safe among Jewish nationalists. As she faced the atrocities, she saw the absurdities of Jewish nationalism:
“My own awareness of problems within Israel developed slowly, steadily, and with a heavy heart, for I live with memories that identify with refugees, all refugees made homeless by nationalism…
In my view, a person who is supportive of a heimat, a Jewish state only for Jews, is a Zionist and opposes equal rights for Jews and Palestinians.”
It is a mad concept that the State of Israel embodies the Jewish People (Am Yisrael) and that the Jewish People have nuclear weapons, police batons, “skunk water” and “coercive interrogation” techniques. Sanity means breaking that nexus of absurd beliefs and atrocities.
Abba A. Solomon
Article reviews these books:
Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine, by Remi Kanazi, Haymarket Books
Survival and Conscience: From the Shadows of Nazi Germany to the Jewish Boat to Gaza, by Lillian Rosengarten, Just World Books
Originally published by Mondoweiss.