Convenient conflation

Pushback against the association between Zionism and Judaism is strategically selective.

By Hamid Bendaas

Eliora Katz’s article “Stars and Stripes” (1/31/14) is yet another demonstration of the double standard that’s been maintained and has now found disconcerting normalcy among members of the Jewish community.

Katz is correct when she says, “Not every Jew is a Zionist and not every Zionist is a Jew” and that to equate the two is “an equation with dangerous consequences.” What is concerning about her piece is not that this clarification is made, but rather the historical and political context she ignores. Specifically, Katz criticizes a cartoon in The Economist (which was later pulled but can be found here) for its portrayal of the recent U.S.—Iran negotiations. The cartoon depicts President Barack Obama attempting to reach out to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, but held back by chains attached to a seal of Congress that is covered in little Stars of David.

To give the cartoon some historical context, the ongoing negotiations between Obama and Rouhani over Iran’s nuclear program are a diplomatic breakthrough, in terms of both holding Iran accountable to international protocol and bringing economic relief to the people of Iran. Many analysts agree that the proposed negotiation is the greatest show of good faith toward the West by the Islamic Republic in Iran’s history. Last month, however, those talks were nearly dismantled entirely by a bipartisan bill, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, that would have threatened a new round of sanctions against Iran and likely derailed the nascent negotiations.

While I will not debate the existence of a Jewish or pro-Israel lobby in this article, it is enough to point out that, as a matter of historical fact, both Zionist and Jewish organizations with no official connection to Zionism have spent a lot of money and time lobbying Democrats in the Senate to buck Obama’s wishes and pass the bill. The Jewish Federations of North America, Anti-Defamation League, and Jewish Council for Public Affairs, all of which are Jewish but not officially Zionist, have been identified in the Israeli press as organizations lobbying for the bill.

As Katz points out, there are Zionists who are not Jews and Jews who are not Zionists. However, in the historical context of this particular negotiation, both Zionist and non-Zionist Jewish organizations, many with leverage in key Democratic Senate offices, could accurately be described as working to fetter Obama from achieving a deal with Iran. Non-Jewish Zionists, who in American politics almost entirely consist of religious conservatives allied with the Christian Right, also support the bill but have no influence over the Senate Democrats who would have decided the bill’s fate.

I do not question the dual connotation of the Star of David with both Jewish identity and Zionism. Centuries ago, it was used to mark a synagogue; a century ago, Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, chose it be the emblem of his movement. However, since some Jewish non-Zionists and some Jewish Zionists have held up the sanctions bill’s viability, I do not think the use of the Star of David is all that inappropriate a symbol for the cartoon in question. In fact, it would only be interpreted to conflate Judaism and Zionism if one did not know the details of the political lobbying that has gone on over the past two months by separate Jewish non-Zionist and Jewish Zionist organizations.

The wave of scorn for conflating Judaism and Zionism raises an interesting question: If a cartoonist who may have made the conflation is censored, criticized, and asked for a “full-throated apology” by so many members of the Jewish community, where has that scorn been for the endless supply of Zionist propaganda which consistently invokes Jewish heritage, identity, and unity to garner political support? Why is one of the most hawkish and sinister Zionist organizations named the American Jewish Congress, for example, and why aren’t there editorials about how “dangerous” it is for them to name themselves so? We’re told it’s unforgivable anti-Semitism to publish a cartoon which might be interpreted as conflating Judaism and Zionism—again, a conflation only those unaware of the actual political details of the Senate bill would actually perceive as existing—but not a word is said about the many Zionist organizations that, in name and more, present themselves as Jewish.

Not a word, either, about the repeated propaganda invoking a “promised land,” “the beloved temple,” “the land of milk and honey” that Zionists and Israeli state officials consistently use in order to garner support from the broader Jewish base, nor the appeals they make by invoking Jewish religious language and a broader Jewish history. Not a word when Hillel, ostensibly dedicated to Jewish student life, promotes the Zionist-operated Birthright Israel program inside its doors, which happened on campus just last Friday.

The tactic is obvious: When you need to gather support for your Zionist political cause, conflate Zionism and Judaism so you can earn the favor of the broader Jewish population. But if someone else conflates Zionism and Judaism, or at least if you can convince others they made the conflation, simply censor their work, demand an apology, and write editorials about how harmful it is to do such a thing.

Only in the last few days has it become clear that the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act would not pass in the Senate, and that the historic negotiations with Iran would continue. I will not ruminate here on why pro-Israel and non-Zionist Jewish organizations lobbied to prevent a deal that would benefit both American foreign policy interests and the well-being of millions of Iranians. In my opinion, it would benefit the citizens of Israel as well.

Somewhere in Iran there is a 20-year-old man, perhaps with my same complexion, my same name. Perhaps his father or mother is one of the 1,500 Iranians who have died in the past decade from plane crashes because, in violation of international law decided at the 2004 Chicago Convention, the U.S. and Israel have blocked Iran from buying materials to repair commercial jets. Perhaps he has a constant toothache because dentists don’t have access to proper X-ray equipment. But he’s a critical thinker: He doesn’t trust the Iranian newspapers’ account, so he takes the time to find an article in The Times of Israel, perhaps the same one I refer to above. There and elsewhere he’ll learn how the Jewish Federations, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs are spending millions of dollars to keep up the sanctions; they are raising money to say that he has not suffered enough, and he and people like him cannot be trusted if they are not suffering. Well, I assure you the Star of David will mean more to him than synagogues and Herzl.

Hamid Bendaas is a third-year in the College.