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Op-eds

Labels and epithets: who are you calling ‘loony’?

  • Sifrin Geoff HOME
There is a term which mainstream Jews use for Jews on the far left who show up at Israeli-oriented events and protest against Israel with pro-Palestinian supporters, condemning Israel for its “oppression” of the Palestinians. They are called the “loony left”. Do you endorse or take exception to this label? Among them are members of the group JVJP (Jewish Voices for a Just Peace) who have waved vitriolic anti-Israel banners at Israeli Independence Day celebrations and elsewhere.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Jun 07, 2018

When a speaker at a Limmud seminar in Johannesburg last weekend used the term “loony left”, it evoked a strong response from an audience member, who said, “I take issue with your use of that phrase.” The speaker apologised immediately, showing that the term is not endorsed by all.

The challenge the “loony left” poses to Jews is: What is Israel about, and what is Zionism? Most Jewish South Africans are ardent Zionists. Their rage is palpable – even understandable given that Zionism is a pillar of community life – when the “loony left” shows up with negative banners and slogans at celebrations of Israel and Zionism.

What do you make of these “aberrant” Jews? Do you simply dismiss them as self-hating? Or are you more sympathetic, believing that everyone is entitled to their viewpoint and should be engaged with? Maybe you are supportive. Historically, it is often the aberrant members of society, blowing their whistles, who are retrospectively identified as having the sanest stance. That is in spite of them having been reviled at the time.

Being Zionistic is almost axiomatic for South African Jews. This community has traditionally been one of Israel’s greatest supporters. But Zionism is not axiomatic for Jews everywhere.

Among American Jews – the world’s second largest Jewish community – for example, attachment to Israel, once strong, has weakened considerably in recent years. It has weakened particularly among the youth, who say that Israel’s current values conflict with their own. These are: aggressive nationalism, ongoing occupation of Palestinian land, and a failure to seek peace with the Palestinians.

Some American Jews have never been Zionists. Take the world’s greatest folk singer, Bob Dylan, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He explores in his autobiography, Chronicles, the personal difficulties of being revered by the masses. He didn’t want to be the “toastmaster” of any generation, he says. As a wry tactic to counteract being seen as a perfect leader by the leftist crowds of the ‘60s generation who were unsympathetic toward Israel, he went to Israel. He says, “I went to Jerusalem, got myself photographed at the Western Wall wearing a skullcap. The image was transmitted worldwide instantly and quickly, all the great rags changed me overnight into a Zionist.”

South African Jews outside the mainstream are also not all Zionists. But studies show that most of those who identify strongly with being Jewish do support Israel’s right to exist, even though they may not call themselves Zionists. These are professionals in general society, academics, writers and so on, whether they are politically right or left.

But they are critical of government policies. Current events such the Israel-Gaza conflict disturb them. So too do deeper issues such as Israel’s embrace of US President Donald Trump despite the buffoonery of the man who now heads the world’s most powerful nation.

The same applies to many members of the Jewish “loony left”. They support Israel’s right to exist, but object to its government’s policies, and abhor Trump and what he stands for.

Where does this leave the mainstream community? Could the “loony” label itself be discarded, with a recognition that this sector of society has something worth listening to? Or could the mainstream itself change its borders to incorporate a greater degree of debate and argument about what Israel and Zionism stand for?

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