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Daniel Burston: An Open Letter to Steve Kowit on his poem “Intifada”

Dear Mr. Kowit,

I cannot really comment on the merits of your poem “Intifada” as a poem. That is not my area of expertise. But as a personal statement, I think it is extremely blinkered and one sided. The way things stand at present, future historians will have to choose between two competing narratives about the Middle East conflict. One narrative will present the fledgling state of Israel as a flawed, vulnerable but nonetheless vibrant democracy at its inception; one that enjoyed robust and unwavering support from progressives like Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin, political figures like Robert F. Kennedy and socialist leader Michael Harrington, poet W.H.Auden, and so on, and so on. But sadly, after 1967, as it rose to become a regional super-power, historians will say, Israel trampled too often on the legitimate rights and aspirations of Palestinians under the Occupation, robbing them of their freedom, their dignity and hope for the future, as well as their homes and livelihoods.

Did Israelis do this without reason or provocation, or simply because they could? No, many of their policies and practices were motivated by very practical concerns over the safety and security of its citizens, who were constantly under threat from suicide bombs and terrorist attacks, despite Israel’s military advantage over its adversaries. But other policies and practices were motivated by greed and arrogance, and designed with the (conscious or unconscious) intention of humiliating and excluding Palestinians from political life; policies and practices that deepened, rather than mitigated the mistrust and hatred between Palestinians and Israelis, diminishing the chances for peace.

By contrast with this perspective, the other narrative will say that, from the moment of its inception, and long before it achieved statehood, the Zionist movement was never anything but a racist, colonialist-settler enterprise designed to subjugate people of color. It was never a genuine democracy. This is your view, apparently. What you does not acknowledge is that this narrative echoes Soviet era anti-Zionist propaganda, which was used to justify a dreadful campaign of anti-Semitic persecution throughout the Soviet empire in the late 60s, 70s and 80s . Despite the ideological uses to which it was put at the time, which are now well-documented, this narrative began to gain currency among African American radicals in the 60s – Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Stockley Carmichael, Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm and others. At this moment in time, it is this narrative which is in the ascendant, and seems to be prevailing in the popular imagination, especially among the young, in part because it has been embraced, by and large, by Black Lives matter. One problem with this narrative is that it confounds the categories of “race” and “faith”. While several features of Israeli society today do indeed conform to the legal definition of apartheid, the use of the term “apartheid” with reference to Israel is apt to be misleading.

After all, Zionism was largely an Ashkenazi affair to begin with, but it created a safe haven for more than 850,000 brown skinned Mizrahi Jews who fled from persecution in the Middle East and North African, over 25,000 black skinned Ethiopian Jews and from Jews from many parts of central Asia – Armenia, Kurds, Afghans, Tajiks – and from India as well. In fact, almost 20% of Israel’s present day Jewish population are people of color. And according to recent demographic studies, the number of Jews of color is growing steadily relative to the rest of the population. This fact nullifies the claim that anti-Semitism is merely a “white on white” problem, as many anti-racist activists still apparently believe. The truth is that black and brown skinned people have persecuted other black and brown skinned people for their Jewish faith for centuries.

Meanwhile, if you visit a city like Lod, which has an equal number of Palestinian and Israeli inhabitants, you will not be able to tell the Arabs from the Jews on the basis of skin color or any other physical characteristics. On the contrary, they look remarkably alike, and the only way to tell them apart is by the languages they speak, the clothing they wear and by the places that they pray. So while anti-racist activists love to compare the situation in Israel and Palestine to apartheid South Africa, a closer analogy might be the troubles in Northern Ireland – though that analogy fails on a number of levels, too.

Whereas many condemn Israel for practicing apartheid, I prefer to describe the status of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation as a new form of “dhimmitude”, because it is a caste structure based on faith, not “race” or skin color. Anyone who has spent much time in Israel knows this. In effect, Israelis have turned the tables on their former oppressors, who are now subject to the same degrading treatment Jews endured in Muslim lands for centuries. The problem is that two wrongs don’t make a right; that a dramatic role reversal, where oppressor and oppressed trade places, doesn’t yield justice, and finally, on a very pragmatic level, that Jews never comprised more than a small minority in most Muslim lands. By contrast, the numbers of Jewish and Muslim and Christian Arabs living in Israel/Palestine is about equal today, and the Arab population is growing rapidly. So while it may be sustainable in the short term, from a military and economic standpoint, Israel today is a complete disgrace from a human rights perspective, and is totally unsustainable in the long run.

So a sense of outrage and dismay is entirely appropriate here, and you do not lack a certain eloquence in expressing them. Where I part company with you –  like me, an Ashkenazi Jew of Polish ancestry, and of roughly the same age – is that your narrative lays all the blame for the current state of affairs on Zionists, and none on the Palestinian and Arab leadership, despite the fact that the first leader of the Palestinian resistance to the (hitherto peaceful) Zionist project was Hajj Amin Al Husseini, who launched the bloody anti-Jewish riots in 1920-21, 1927-1929 and 1936-1939. He also joined Eichmann and Hitler in planning a genocidal  campaign against all the Jew living in Palestine, including those who were not Zionists. Had Montgomery failed to halt Rommel at El Alamain in Nov, 1942, that murderous fantasy would have become reality, and we would not be having this about Israel conversation today. Moreover, in your reference to “Ben Gurion’s bloodthirsty armies of conquest and plunder” you neglect to point out that these “armies” were mostly a rag-tag bunch of poorly equipped Jewish WWII veterans engaged in a war of self-defense against the massed armies from Egypt, Jordan,Syria and Iraq, which were intent on eliminating Jews from Palestine altogether, in open defiance of the 1947 UN resolution to create a majority-Jewish homeland in British mandated Palestine. Finally, you neglect to mention that it was Ben Gurion who counseled Golda Meir and her defense minister, Moshe Dayan to withdraw immediately and unilaterally from Gaza, the West Bank and Sinai so that the Palestinians could found their own state. (I could go on, but . . .)

Right now, civil conversation on these subjects is difficult to impossible to sustain because both the ZIonist and the Palestinian narratives have been carefully curated to highlight the harms that each side inflicted on the other, and to minimize or ignore the harms that they inflicted on their adversaries. This combination of selective inattention breeds a kind of social amnesia on both sides that renders critical-historical reflection on the messy, complicated and ethically ambiguous situation in Israel/Palestine all but impossible anymore. Your poem, for all its passion and poetic grandeur, does not really promote the cause of peace. It merely adds fuel to the fire.

Copyright 2021 Daniel Burston

Daniel Burston‘s many books include Anti-Semitism and Analytical Psychology: Jung, Politics and Culture (Routledge 2021).

5 comments on “Daniel Burston: An Open Letter to Steve Kowit on his poem “Intifada”

  1. Emily De Ferrari
    June 16, 2021

    Dear Daniel, You and I would likely need to agree to disagree on the characterization of the birth of the state of Israel as a “flawed, vulnerable, but nonetheless vibrant democracy at its inception.” It put me in mind of the birth of this country of the Americas, this “flawed, vulnerable but nonetheless vibrant democracy.” Our founding fathers owned slaves, our growth vanquished the indigenous people, we sustained Jim Crow and the continued erosion of indigenous lands, and we are engaging in a belated and wobbly acknowledgement of those truths. When I crossed from east into west Jerusalem, I was confronted with how familiar it all felt. A hoary mirror, when cleaned, can be revealing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Daniel Burston
      June 16, 2021

      Yes, Emily, we must agree to disagree. I don’t dispute your take on American history, because I share it for the most part . But let’s be candid, shall we? The first Zionist settlers – who were indeed of Ashkenazi heritage, like Mr. Kowit and myself – did not own slaves or murder indigenous people. In fact, all the lands they acquired before 1947 were purchased legally, and the bloody riots and skirmishes of 1920-21, 1927-1929 and 1936-1939 were all started by the Mufti and his minions. The lands the Zionists acquired subsequently, during the Nakbah, as Palestinians call it, were the outcome of a conflict that the Palestinians and their allies started in open defiance of UN resolution 181. These facts are routinely ignored or glossed over in discussions about Middle East history on the Left. But they render the comparisons you are drawing moot at best.

      Moreover, and more to the point, really, soon after statehood was declared, Israel became home to tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who were still languishing in Displaced Persons (“DP camps”, which were formerly concentration camps), and 850,000 dispossesed Mizrahi Jews, whose lineal descendants now comprise 50% of the Israeli population. And they are people of color. This is why the claim that Zionism is nothing more than a version of White Supremacy or a settler-colonial mentality strikes me as contrived and irrelevant, at the end of the day. The main issue here is not race, but faith, and majority of the Jews who flocked to Israel after 1948, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim were people whose backs were to the wall. They had no place else to go. No other countries welcomed or accepted them in numbers. Besides, do you really think that people like Reinhold Neibuhr, Martin Luther King Junior, Rosa Parks, Robert Kennedy, Michael Harrington and W.H.Auden were shills for a racist regime? If so, I beg to differ. That is one chapter of American history were our perceptions do not align at all.

      And yet, with all that said, I share your anger and dismay at the plight of Palestinians today, and believe Israel could (and should) do much, much more to restore their rights and freedoms, and return the lands stolen from them by the settler movement after 1967 – all of it. And despite appearances over here, I am not the only Israeli who thinks so, either. There are dozens of NGOs and volunteer organizations in Israel that monitor and protest vigorously against these abuses.

      Bibi Netanyahu’s 12 years-long reign brought a completely unprecedented degree of coarseness, corruption and bigotry in the mainstream of Israeli politicians. With him gone – God willing – and Biden in office here, some semblance of sanity and basic human decency may return.

      I am still holding out for a 2 state solution.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Bosselaar Laure-Anne
    June 16, 2021

    brilliant piece — thanks for that!


  3. Mike Mirarchi
    June 16, 2021

    What a thoughtful piece! Thank you for this, Daniel. You may not be aware of this, but the poet, Steve Kowit, passed away in 2015, so sadly he won’t be able to read your letter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Daniel Burston
      June 16, 2021

      Thank you, Michael. I learned that Mr. Kowit passed away earlier today. But thanks for bringing this to my attention.

      Liked by 1 person

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