By Barry Dredze
It is a widely held presumption that the goal of Zionism was the reestablishment of Jewish national self-determination in Israel. In fact, the ultimate goal of Zionism is the political, cultural and economic reintegration of the Jewish people in its native region with all the national dignity it deserves. The ultimate goal of Zionism often enough seems so close and yet so far.
And it often feels as if we desire failure. In my lifetime, for example, I have seen the Arab League approach to Israel go from “The Three No’s of Khartoum” (ie, no recognition, no negotiation, no peace) following the so-called Six-Day War in 1967 to the Beirut Peace Initiative of 2002. Similarly, my own experience has taken me from the ranks of a Chicago chapter of Betar, the youth movement of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist faction, to the Middle East Peace Network and a Chicago chapter of American Friends of Peace Now.
As Bar Mitzvah age came and went, my America was immersed in changing dynamics of identity and its relation to society and public policy. The year of my Bar Mitzvah included the confrontation between the American Indian Movement and Federal Agents at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and ongoing, boycotts, demonstrations and civil disobedience for the freedom of movement of the Jewish community in the Soviet Union. As I chanted my Haftorah, a fragile ceasefire was hanging on at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur War. A Rabbi in New York City was making a name for himself, preaching the wisdom of Jewish self-defense. Sometime later, much of the leadership for our Betar chapter came from the remnants of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League.
Before Skokie, Illinois, would become a late-Seventies icon for being targeted by a small and noisy group of American Nazis from the Marquette Park neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, Betar opened its Chicago chapter headquarters near the station of the Chicago Transit Authority’s Skokie Swift (now the Yellow Line). There was a restaurant in Skokie called Mediterranean House several blocks down the street. The restaurant sponsored a show on a 10-watt college radio station serving a small listening area from the north side of Chicago, called “The Voice of Palestine.”
The Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was still nearly twenty years in the future. The memory of the Munich Olympics was still fresh and Betar was going to make sure that Skokie’s epicurean fans of falafel, hummus and shish kabob would understand that “Mediterranean House food in your mouth is like Jewish blood on your hands,” as one of the signs pasted to the wall of the restaurant late one night read. The Betarim had vandalized the Mediterranean House with other, similar signs, along with blood collected from a sympathetic kosher butcher shop, while word was sent to local Jewish and mainstream news media.
Not long afterward, Betar and the Village of Skokie would have their respective hands full with prolonged street actions and court battles, as the Village passed deliberately unconstitutional ordinances to wear down the brownshirts from Marquette Park with legal fees and crowds of Jewish activists and socialists from the Sparticist Youth League battled at court imposed deadlines.
We cannot remain adolescents forever. As many of the Betarim went off to college, the chapter headquarters was sold to an Army-Navy Surplus store. I earned a couple of degrees, traveled to Israel and, on one sunny autumn Sunday, celebrated many diverse hopes upon the signing of the Oslo Accords over coffee and date cookies at an Islamic Center over the border… in Indiana.
My own Jewish identity evolved into a secular appreciation of a history yearning for equal rights and social justice and an achievement of that ultimate goal of Zionism, where my Israeli family and the friends I have made over the years on either side of that hopeful green line may do productive business, make beautiful poetry and create exciting fusions of music together one fine day. I support Palestinian national self-determination, not in spite of my Zionism but because of it.
These days it is difficult to navigate the outpouring of rigid and hateful friction against any attempts toward progress and normalcy. I remain proud of our efforts together and determined to oppose the rigidity that serves only to divide human beings from joyful cultural exchange and productive civilized commerce. I only wish I had the means and talents to do more.