Gilad Azmon: Hello Sid, I will start with a very brief question. Assuming that you are a secular human being, what makes you into a Jew? And what does it mean to operate politically as a Jew?
Sid Shniad: I come from a long line of irreligious Jews. My great-grandfather was a rabbi in Poland, but since that time there has been very little religion in my family. My father was not bar mitzvahed, but he strongly identified as a Jew.
Part of his identity stemmed from his experience of anti-Semitism. As a young man, he was an excellent student at the City College of New York. He desperately wanted to be a doctor, but was kept from medical school by the existence of stringent quotas on the number of Jews who were admitted.
In addition to that, however, he (and my mother, who was also from an irreligious family) became Communists during the Great Depression. They saw this as a logical step to take in response to what they saw as a fundamentally unjust society. I always felt that they became Communists for the right reason â€” to work for universal social justice â€” and that they quit being Communists for the right reason, when they learned Khruschevâ€™s denunciations of Stalinâ€™s crimes.
For me, being raised during the McCarthy era in the United States, being Jewish and being active in the pursuit of social justice were one and the same thing.
GA: I am still in the dark regarding your Jewish political identity. I am now more familiar with your family background, with your father being persecuted for being a Jew and with your parentsâ€™ decision to become Communists. This is a very familiar story which I can easily empathise with, however, I would expect that the transformation into Communism and â€˜universal social justiceâ€™, should have led your parents to drop their tribal affiliation. Am I on a wrong track here? Iâ€™ll rephrase the initial question: What makes you into a Jew? And what does it mean for you to operate politically as a Jew?
SS: There were many Jewish Communists who continued to see themselves as Jews, Gilad. I gather from your question that you see this as an inconsistency.
GA: You are actually correct. I may as well remind you that Lenin elaborated on the issue when he criticized the Bund in 1903. The inconsistency is obvious, as the gap between the tribal and the universal is unbridgeable.
SS: You are not alone in this view. Both Jews and non-Jews tend to see religiosity as central to Jewishness.
GA: Not at all, I am fully aware of Jewishness being a coherent identity yet it is a racially orientated one. Hence, I do not grasp the pretence of claim for â€˜Jewish progressive activismâ€™ and â€˜humanismâ€™. The question to follow is how do you bridge the gap between the Tribal, secular, racially-orientated identity (i.e., Jewishness) and the universal (e.g., Communism and Humanism)?
SS: As a young man I read Isaac Deutscherâ€™s book, The Non-Jewish Jew, in which he argued that there is a longstanding tradition of Jewish heretics who belong to a particular Jewish tradition. In their ranks Deutscher included Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, and Freud. All of them clearly went beyond the limits of conventional religiosity. (My father was a big fan of Deutscher.)
GA: This is obviously correct, you can add to the list Otto Weininger, Simon Weil and Christ and yet, the fact that some Jews were great Humanists doesnâ€™t resolve the issue. As you probably know, Spinoza, Marx, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky did not operate politically as Jews. They were Humanists who happen to be of Jewish descent. Yet you are different, you operate politically as a Jew. In other words, you leave me no other option but to ask you the same question again: What makes you, Sid, into a Jew? And what does it mean for you, Sid, to operate politically as a Jew?
SS: You point out that Jewish Humanists have not tended to operate politically as Jews but you are curious about my experience because you say that I do operate politically as a Jew.
GA: Letâ€™s us try and be accurate. I made a note that the Humanists that you mentioned did not operate politically as Jews. However, I am interested in your case because you operate politically as a Jew. I want to learn how you bridge the gap between the chosen and the ordinary.
SS: For most of my adult life, I have been active in non-Jewish Palestinian solidarity organisations, antiwar work, and left politics and resisted becoming involved in organisations that were identified as Jewish. But I have come to the conclusion that Jews with good politics on the issue of Israel and Palestine have a uniquely important role to play in combating the influence of the reactionary Zionist organisations that tend to dominate the Jewish community and providing telling criticism of the Israeli government.
GA: Now I am very happy because for the first time you really start to address my question. You also admit that, â€œZionist organizations dominate the Jewish communityâ€.
SS: This realisation has led me to become active in creating Independent Jewish Voices in Canada in the last two years, where we have found that the organized presence of Jews who militantly oppose Zionist organisations and the Israeli government provides breathing space and a degree of comfort for both Jews and non-Jews who are uncomfortable with what Israel and its allies are doing, but who have been reluctant to come out of the closet on these issues.
GA: I fully respect your answer and I appreciate the honesty. Moreover, I understand the need of Jews to stand up and say, â€˜we are differentâ€™, â€˜we do not accept the Zionist Hegemony within the Jewish worldâ€™.
However, I must share with you some of my concerns and would I like to learn from you how you address these issues.
Chaim Weizmann said once: â€˜there are no American Jews or French Jews but rather Jews who live in America and Jews who live in Franceâ€™. In other words, the early Zionist leader suggested that Jewishness is a primary political quality. Wouldnâ€™t you agree that acting politically as a Jew affirms Weizmannâ€™s suggestion? How can you counter Weizmannâ€™s argument while being a member of a primarily Jewish political group?
SS: I would not interpret Weizmannâ€™s statement to mean that Jewishness is a primarily political quality. Rather, I interpret this to mean that Jewishness is not akin to nationality.
GA: You may be right to say it when referring to the pre 20th century Jewish reality, however, Zionism was very successful in transforming Jewishness into a national identity, and as you already admitted, a very successful one. As painful and devastating as it may be, Zionism is the dominant voice within the contemporary Jewish discourse.
SS: Frankly, I am surprised that Weizmann made this statement, since mainstream Zionism took it upon itself to create a Jewish nation-state. But I donâ€™t feel the need to rebut it.
GA: I respect your decision not to rebut it. However, I wonder why it takes you by surprise. In fact, to a certain extent, once operating politically as a Jew within the Canadian IJV, you yourself act as a Jew who lives in Canada rather than a Canadian who happens to be a Jew. I hope you can see it. Anyway, letâ€™s move on.
More than once I came across people who told me, â€˜Gilad you can say it because you are a Jewâ€™. My reaction has been rather radical. I dropped any form of Jewish entitlement. Consequently, I categorically refuse to operate as a Jew. I insist that everyone should be able to say what he or she feels regardless of his or her ethnic origin. One should be able to criticise the Holocaust industry or the official Zionist Holocaust narrative despite oneâ€™s mother not being a â€˜holocaust survivorâ€™. Similarly, one must be entitled to criticise Jewish power despite one not being physically or mentally circumcised. I am obviously concerned with the fact that Jewish progressive political activism actually suppresses the discourse. It elevates the chosen and silences the ordinary. I would like to learn from you what you think about it.
SS: I heartily agree with you. That is the reason that for my entire life, until the last couple of years, my social-political activism has taken place outside of organisations that are identified as Jewish.
GA: I am very happy to hear it coming from you, as you may know my bitterest enemies here in the UK are actually two to four self-proclaimed â€˜progressive Jewsâ€™. As far as I am aware, they must be cross with me because I have managed to pull the rug from under their feet exposing the severe incoherence in any Jewish progressive political activism.
SS: Yet, we better acknowledge the unfortunate fact that powerful Zionist forces have capitalised on their Jewishness and used it as a club to neutralise and punish both Jews and non-Jews who are offside the Zionist project or who criticise Israeli crimes.
GA: We do agree here as well, and yet the question is how to confront the Zionist beast. And the place to start is, maybe, to ask where exactly Zionism ends and Jewishness starts. I believe that since Zionism and Jewishness are both dynamic notions, Zionism and Jewishness create a versatile amalgam that shifts rapidly and moulds into very many things. For that matter, I believe that there is no real demarcation between Zionism and Jewishness. However, this is my take, but what is yours?
SS: I have come to the conclusion that there is an important role â€” not an exclusivist one â€” for Jews to play in combating Zionist organisations and criticising the behavior of Israel. At the same time, however, I continue to be active in non-Jewish organizations dedicated to Palestinian solidarity and antiwar work.
GA: It is very interesting and genuine the way you express it and I understand pretty well where you come from. In fact I wish you luck.
In the past I published some harsh criticism of the â€˜not in my nameâ€™ political argument. I argued that those who shout â€˜not in my nameâ€™ actually throw the blame on everyone else. Considering Jewish Independent Voice being a miniature body, you actually affirm the strength of Zionism by a approving its total dominance within the Jewish community. I wonder how would you counter this argument?
SS: First, I donâ€™t understand how saying â€œnot in my nameâ€ blames everyone else. The logic of that escapes me.
GA: It is actually pretty simple, once you stand up and shout â€œNot in my nameâ€ you imply that everyone else who failed to join your choir his implicated with guilt. For instance, the two million Brits who marched in London shouting â€˜not in my nameâ€™ a week before violence broke out in Iraq, affirmed that the 60 million who stayed at home approved Blairâ€™s criminal policy. They actually foolishly admitted that a crime was about to be committed in the name of the vast majority of the British people. This is actually a very foolish tactic because in fact the majority of British people didnâ€™t support the war. Following a similar logic, once Moishe, Chaim, Yatzek and another dozen Jews shout â€˜not in my nameâ€™ as Jews, they basically affirm the devastating fact that Zionist crimes are committed in the name of the totality of the Jewish people who fail to shout.
Sid, you may note here that I do not blame the Jewish people as people for two main reasons:
a. I do not know all Jewish people;
b. I know enough Jews who do not care at all about Israel and Zionism.
Yet, I am exposing some fundamental fault in the â€˜not in my nameâ€™ call. The Jazz legend Charlie Haden has managed to come up with a very clever solution. He decided to call his antiwar jazz project â€˜Not in OUR nameâ€™. This obviously made a lot of sense within the discourse of the British and American antiwar movement. The Majority of Brits and Americans indeed oppose the neocon wars. However, it makes no sense within the context of Jewish political activism because the fact that 55-500 Jews around the world shout not in â€˜ourâ€™ names while other millions participate actively in the Zionist murderous scheme makes the progressive Jewish project looks pathetic. It affirms the Zionist call.
SS: Somehow, I donâ€™t think that â€˜affirmâ€™ is the right term here. Instead, I would say that the strength of Zionism within the Jewish community (and beyond) cannot be denied.
GA: I am very happy to hear that you admit it because as it seems the so-called Jewish progressive ethnic campaigners and activists on this side of the pool refuse to admit it yet.
SS: So an organisation that is predominantly Jewish (we have non-Jewish allies involved in IJV) has a distinct role to play in the struggle against Zionism.
GA: Again, I can see where you come from, yet I hope that you can see also that the â€˜not in my nameâ€™ is not necessarily the right tactic. All those lists of several hundreds of Jewish names look a bit sad in comparison to the many millions of Jews who are affiliated with Zionist activism in one way or another.
In short, the fact that two hundred Jews protest against the institutional Zionist crime is not going to vindicate the Jewish tribal collective.
SS: Can you elaborate?
GA: Golda Meir said in the 1970s that mixed marriage is the greatest threat to Jewish existence. She was actually expressing a genuine fear of true assimilation. I would follow her line of thought and argue that the biggest threat to Zionist institutional crime is a true political assimilation of Jewish Humanists.
Rather than having Jews operating as a fifth column and gatekeepers within the solidarity movement, what we really need are Jewish Humanists like yourself and others to join the struggle for Humanism as equals amongst equals.
Sid, I hope that you wouldnâ€™t mind me asking just one more question before we conclude this interview.
Is there such a thing as Jewish secular values or Jewish secular ethics? Zionism insisted upon portraying an image of a Jewish secular value system. It failed, but is there any other Jewish secular alternative?
SS: My entire acquaintance with Jewishness has been secular. Some religious and Zionist Jews insist, therefore, that Iâ€™m not Jewish.
I find this view to be both ridiculous and a testimony to the degree to which secular political and social engagement, which was dominant in Jewish society in the modern world as recently as forty years ago, has been supplanted as a defining characteristic of the community by a revival of religiosity and the ascent of tribalism.
I would like to think that my activism â€” in Jewish as well as non-Jewish organisations â€” is the embodiment of a great Jewish tradition that is worthy of emulation.
GA: Sid, sorry to raise the question again, what is this â€˜Jewish traditionâ€™? As far as I can see the greatest humanists of Jewish origin actually stood against the so-called â€˜Jewish traditionâ€™ whether it was Christ, Marx or Spinoza. So please enlighten me briefly, what exactly is the â€˜Jewish secular value systemâ€™? Can I read about it in any textbook? I ask you because I really tried to look into it, I indeed found many Humanists who happened to be Jews but none of them were referring to their universal ethics as the outcome of any â€˜Jewish traditionâ€™ or at least not a secular one.3
SS: As I mentioned before, Isaac Deutscher wrote a book about this, called The Non-Jewish Jew, in which he described people like Spinoza and Marx and situated them in a tradition of Jewish opposition to the dominant mindsets of the Jewish community. In addition, I think that itâ€™s essential to appreciate the disproportionate numbers of Jews who were involved in labour, civil rights, Socialist and Communist movements from the late 19th century through the late 1960s.
GA: Again we come back to the same point: some Jews had been great Humanists. But surely you can see that both Marx and Spinoza fought the Jewish tradition rather than continued it. They were aiming at universalism rather than tribalism.
SS: Given my personal background, I always saw this involvement as the essence of Jewishness. It has been a rude awakening for me to see what has happened over the past 40 years, a period when Jewish paranoia, self-centredness and tribalism has come to dominate the Jewish community, thanks largely to the influence of Israel and Zionism.
GA: You know Sid, I have a slight problem with your last comment. If Humanist â€˜involvementâ€™ is indeed the â€˜essence of Jewishnessâ€™, how come Zionism rather than Humanism is the dominant voice within the contemporary Jewish discourse? Unlike you, I do not think that Jewishness has anything to do with humanism. In fact I regard Jewishness, or at least its modern embodiment, i.e. Zionism, as categorically and institutionally inhuman. Like you though, I agree that some Jews are Humanists and even great Humanists. My interpretation of this wonderful phenomenon is very simple. Their greatness is the outcome of their protest and reaction against their own tribal upbringing.
SS: This is exactly where Jewish activism comes into practice. I would like to see the Jewish community shake off this influence and re-join the ranks of those who side with the oppressed everywhere. Hopefully the efforts of organizations like IJV will contribute to that happening.
GA: Sid, I wish you luck again, Inshallah youâ€™ll get there soon. Thanks for your time and effort. It was an enlightening experience talking to you. Since it was me who launched this interview, I would like to welcome you to say the final word.
SS: I think Iâ€™ve said it! Cheers!
1. Sid Shniad (Pronounced â€œShnideâ€) is an American expatriate who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is active in the labour, antiwar and social solidarity movements, including StopWar.ca, the Vancouver-based antiwar coalition, the Canada-Palestine Support Network (CanPalNet), and a new national organisation, Independent Jewish Voices (Canada).
He was raised in Los Angeles during the McCarthy era. During the late 1960s, Sid attended the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied politics and political philosophy. To stay out of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, he taught school in the inner city of Los Angeles for five years.
Sid has lived and worked in Vancouver since 1974, where he has been employed as the Research Director at the Vancouver-based Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) since 1980. Sidâ€™s activist inspiration comes from members of his family, who were trade unionists, socialists and communists active in the labour, civil rights and social justice movements.2. Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) represents Canadian Jews from diverse backgrounds, occupations and affiliations who have in common a commitment to social justice and universal human rights. IJV promotes the expression of alternative Jewish voices, particularly in respect of the grave situation in the Middle East, which threatens the future of Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the stability of the whole region.We believe that human rights are universal and indivisible and should be upheld without exception, including Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Canadian IJV sustains that there is no justification for any form of racism, be it anti-Semitism, anti-Arab racism or Islamophobia, under any circumstance.The IJV insists also that the battle against anti-Semitism is vitally important and that it is threatened by the reflexive practice of branding opposition to Israeli government policies as anti-Semitic. We are attempting to reclaim the Jewish tradition support for universal freedoms, human rights and social justice.
3. Emmanuel Levinas who tried to preach Jewish ethics to the world insisting that the birth of ethics was in Jerusalem was actually referring to the Talmud rather than any Jewish secular school.