On Being a Leftist and a Zionist in America
Jay Michaelson

Politics is as much about lifestyle as ideology. I learned this when I was in law school and was friends with some 'neo-conservative' types. We sat together at meals, and had classes together, but I gradually came to understand that their Tory politics were inseparable from the way they dressed, the things they found funny, the general conservative-with-a-small-c attitudes they had toward life in general - and that the reasons we had nothing in common politically would eventually cause us to have nothing in common at all. These people voted Republican for the same reasons they went to see button-down jazz and not Lou Reed. - Their political opinions were only part of an entire cultural context..

So it's no surprise that the overwhelming majority of my friends are to the left of the Left politically; we just have more in common socially and culturally also. Like my Republican ex-friends, their protests of globalization are of a piece with their eccentric art or design work. My more 'straight' friends, the ones who are married and going to professional school, are good liberal Democrats, and they vote Gore for the same reasons they drink but don't smoke pot. And I'm not friends with people straighter than that anymore, not out of deliberate policy but out of just having nothing in common with them. Politics is culture is lifestyle.

As with any cultural practices, certain political opinions go together and certain others don't. It's not that anyone patrols the boundaries of political correctness, as the right wing likes to complain; it's just that, well, if you have certain beliefs, it suggests that you're kind of an odious person. If you are a liberal or to the left of liberal, your core belief that people should be treated with a maximum of equity and a minimum of cruelty isn't some political principle you happen upon - it's part of who you are. Not just how you think. So when someone mentions at a cocktail party that they think the estate tax repeal was a good idea, or that environmental regulations are a burden on freedom, it puts up a wall. Conditionally, at least. Maybe there's an explanation, but maybe, you begin to suspect, this guy is one of them.

In the last five years or so, Zionism has come to be one of those ideas that puts up the walls. It's just accepted that, on the Left, you are against corporate control of politics, in favor of multiculturalism, against imperialism, in favor of the Palestinians. The logic seems to fit. Israel is the big, powerful member of the United States' empire; Palestine is the occupied country whose citizens are being oppressed by it. It's not that the Left is being brainwashed, exactly; it's that the vocabulary of Israel-Palestine fits so neatly into the overall liberal-Leftist grammar of justice that, of course, the Palestinians are in the right.

Ultimately, my own dissent from this position is probably a result of my upbringing as a Zionist Jew and the subjective connections I feel to the state and land of Israel. But I want to suggest this: that my cultural background has not blinded me to Israel's offenses, but has instead given me the tools to deconstruct Palestinian claims of oppression and nationhood. That is, the only thing I've been blinded to is the blinders of the Left.

I think a Leftist should be supportive of Israel, and supportive of most of Israel's policies toward the Palestinians, for entirely Leftist reasons. Let me try to develop some of them.

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May 2002

jay's head