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Is Brookline Ready to Rethink Israel-Palestine?

Joel Kovel Comes to Town

Dennis Fox

January 17, 2008

Guest Column
Brookline TAB

Here in Brookline we love controversy. From Town Meeting to the weekly TAB to school classrooms, we disagree publicly, and usually respectfully enough, about issues large and small -- parking rules and sidewalk snow, high-stakes testing and racial profiling, presidential power and the war in Iraq. Next Tuesday, though, the town's tolerance will be tested when Joel Kovel challenges conventional thinking about Brookline's one undebatable topic: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kovel, a former psychiatrist, is both an academic and an activist. A Bard College professor of social studies, he was the New York Green Party's senatorial candidate in 1998 and lost his bid to be the Greens' 2000 presidential candidate to Ralph Nader. He writes frequently in journals that Brookline's liberal and left-of-liberal residents are likely to read. During his Boston visit he'll speak elsewhere about topics such as ecosocialism.

It's Kovel's new book, however, that's aroused the pro-Israel forces' ire. In Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine, Kovel explores in dizzying detail a broad array of themes certain to discomfort Israel's supporters. His appearance will likely raise the same tired objections facing Mazin Qumsiyeh, who spoke at Brookline High School last September despite frantic efforts to pressure school officials to ban him.

Kovel's critics did briefly persuade the University of Michigan Press to stop distributing his book, which is published by Pluto Press, a small publisher in the United Kingdom. Michigan soon backed down and resumed distribution, but Kovel's critics have not given up. One of the things I learned during the years I wrote a regular TAB column was the lengths to which some of Israel's supporters will go to keep the public ignorant about Middle East realities.

I like to think I was a bit more open-minded when I was a teenage Zionist myself. According to the left-humanist Zionism I had internalized, Israel's manifestly unjust policies toward its own Arab citizens, obvious even before the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, would someday give way to a humanist, socialist society in which Jews and Arabs would live as equals. At least that's what I thought when I moved to Israel for what I intended to be the rest of my life.

When I returned to the US in 1973 I was no longer a Zionist. Some combination of growing political awareness, nagging logical questions, and personal transformation had turned me away from what had been the primary focus of my life. But actively rejecting the very rationale for a Jewish state was just too big a leap.

In 2002, my TAB column addressed the questionable arrest a year earlier of Amer Jubran during a Coolidge Corner protest against Israel Independence Day. For a while I tread cautiously and somewhat inconsistently. I tried to spark discussion in Brookline while catching up on the political landscape and then, in two visits to Israel and the West Bank, the physical and personal landscape. My explorations, which included re-connecting with old friends and meeting Israeli and Palestinian students, professors, activists, and others, confirmed my long-time suspicion that Israel's identity as a Jewish state -- at Palestinian expense -- fails the test of justice.

Despite its sharp clarity, Joel Kovel's book was not an easy read. His careful critique of just about everything the Zionist movement taught me four decades ago was painfully direct. Although neither Brookline Booksmith nor the Brookline Public Library carries the book despite the attention it's received, several essays on his website provide a good sense of Kovel's position. Kovel will talk about the book on January 22 at 7 pm, unless his critics pressure the Coolidge Corner Theatre to cancel.

Kovel addresses the dilemma of liberal and left Zionists who still imagine, as I no longer can, that a Jewish-but-democratic state is possible. Along the way he enumerates universal principles of justice to support his thesis that Zionism's logic could only lead to a state built on inequality and expulsion. Dropping my own Zionist identity meant rejecting the posi that what matters most is what's good for the Jews. Along with Kovel and a growing number of other Jewish Americans willing to rethink long-held assumptions, it seems clear to me today that justice is the appropriate bottom line.

Dennis Fox, a former TAB columnist, is professor emeritus of legal studies and psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield. In 2006 he taught in both Israeli and Palestinian universities. His essays, blog, and photos are available at

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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