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"It's All Rabbis and No Jews": An Interview with Lenni Brenner PDF E-mail
PSR Interview   

PSR caught up with Lenni Brenner earlier this year. Brenner is a longtime activist and the author of many books, including Zionism In the Age of Dictators and 51 Documents: A History of Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis.

PSR: One of the main tenets of Zionism has been that its movement and later the state of Israel, in collaboration with the imperial states, would paradoxically create autonomy for the Jewish people. Ironically, this only increased Zionist financial and diplomatic reliance on the European and American states and, given colonial dynamics, had quickly transformed them into some of the most public advocates of Western imperialism and racism. Could you speak to this?

Brenner: Zionism has to be seen, along with Marxism and with any number of ideologies, as 19th century products. The whole world was being touched in one way or another by capitalism and imperialism. Not only did you have Marxism and Anarchism but you also had Jewish socialism, Hindu socialism, Arab socialism and every kind of nationalist and religious version. Left Zionism, what today would be identified with the Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, when the Bolsheviks came to power, they actually wanted to join the Third International. The Bolsheviks told them “we don’t recruit on the basis of nationality.” Lenin said, national rights, of course. Nationalism, on the other hand is absolutely incompatible with Marxism because it’s absolutely incompatible with capitalism.

In the late 19th century and into the 20th century you had a very sharp division of the Jewish community based on class. The Jewish middle class would not only send their children to study Judaism after the public school class, but they also sent them to study Hebrew in Yeshivas and in higher education. The Jewish working class had to go to work and never learned Hebrew. Instead, they spoke Yiddish. The middle class learned enough Hebrew then to actually concoct the idea of a Hebrew speaking state. The Left Zionists based themselves on an evaluation of their society around this middle class. The middle class in Poland, for example, was largely composed of Jews and Germans. Here the Jewish middle class said “the rising Polish middle class wants to get rid of us. The socialists want to get rid of us. There’s no future for a Jewish middle class in Poland." So they concocted this idea of going off to Palestine.

Now they believed that the problem with this middle class was that it was "decadent." The Left Zionists said they had to recreate the Jewish middle class as a new working class and farmers. It didn’t work and they ended up becoming trade union bureaucrats and kibbutz bureaucrats and adapted to religion as a form of demagoguery. The difference between the Leninists in Poland in 1921 and 1939, as well as the Bund and the Labor Zionist, was that the former were working class and the latter were middle class.

Zionism obviously had a huge impact in Palestine itself, but in terms of the overall Jewish people it was an off-stage noise. It was popular in the early 1920’s but when they didn’t do anything about anti-semitism it became irrelevant and by 1939 the Bund won 17 out of 20 of the Jewish seats in the city council of Warsaw. The Bund had fighting squads that went out and beat up the fascists.

PSR: So in relating this to Jews in America it seems that they have become assimilated white people and they maintain such a claim by maintaining a loyalty to Israel as a way to ally themselves to the U.S. ruling class and patriotism. Loyalty to Israel becomes a way to say to themselves that they aren’t like other minorities or not a minority at all.

Brenner: In the past Zionism was overwhelmingly secular. Today it’s more ardent supporters are religious. But the typical young American Jewish person doesn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. Zionist organizations recruit rich Jews to set up Jewish organizations like Hillel houses near campuses, but the reality is once you get past the kid staffing the literature table, it’s all Rabbis and no Jews.

PSR: That’s interesting because there is the impression that the Zionists are so overwhelming and organized. Yet often the Zionist students, for example, are mimicking a bankrupt ideology that they don’t even understand themselves. When you challenge them vigorously in public on the basis of anti-racism they often fold because, it’s like you said, it's an artificial and middle class movement that is being sponsored by outsiders. It's not an organic movement.

Brenner: It has lost touch with reality. Natan Sharansky complained that he goes on college campuses here and 90% of the Jews don’t care about Zionism. So the ones that are promoting Zionism are a minority. But the majority of the youth are not coming towards the Palestinians because, number one, their rebellion is against Judaism. Number two: on the other hand, without an ANC or democratic secular movement to win them over, they are out of Zionism and Judaism for negative reasons. But what are they going to join? Hamas? The Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee? Okay, so they go from Jewish-American middle class chauvinism to Arab-American chauvinism? In other words there is nothing there.

PSR: Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), a leader of SNCC, is synonymous in American history with the shift from the civil rights movement, emphasizing non-violent direct action and multi-racialism, to the Black Power movement, where autonomous political organizations seeing their communities as “internal colonies” became more prominent. He was also for many years controversial as an early American advocate of Palestine solidarity clashing with many Zionist Jewish intellectuals who otherwise were imagined as radical or progressive. He was often labeled an anti-Jewish bigot. As a movement friend who worked with him, could you speak on this?

Brenner: When Stokely returned to the United States, he was dying of cancer, he was going to Columbia Presbyterian and the New York Times gave him a very nice write-up. Abe Foxman sent in a letter saying he was anti-semitic. So I sent in a letter and article in which Stokely made it very clear he was against Israel and Zionism not Judaism. Stokely was a pro-Palestine advocate before me. He broke with many in SNCC over Palestine. Up until that time SNCC was getting a lot of funding by these left liberal Jewish types who the minute he started talking against Zionism the bank clerk’s window slammed shut.

PSR: It is clear from your work that the ruling class of Europe and the United States have both found the Zionist movement useful. However, what about ordinary folks? What is the meaning of Israel/Palestine for everyday Americans who have no particular opinions on Jewish people, yet who often have invested opinions in the issue?

Brenner: I would say that basically as far as the average white in the United States today is concerned you have to remember that the U.S. is 83% Protestant, which is hard to remember if you grew up in the northeast where the Catholic immigrants are. It is the “River Jordan” my friend. It’s all that “and the Lord gave unto Israel…" --that’s where they come from, white and black. I disagree with you. They do not see Arabs as people of color. That’s a projection of our domestic Bandung-ists.

PSR: But why is there a general consensus among everyday people to support Israel?

Brenner: It's a product of the Left not doing much, other than writing articles in their newspapers about Palestine until the two intifadas. Now what you find on the college campuses is that the Zionists find themselves beleaguered. They find themselves a minority among the Jews let alone the gentiles. Terrorism was not popular even before 9/11. The PLO and Hamas stopped all terrorist actions outside of Palestine years ago because they figured out they weren’t making themselves popular with anyone. Certainly since 9/11 there were all kinds of people who never thought of the Middle East. All of sudden the Mid-East came home in a smashing way. But when I got involved in the pro-Palestinian movement in a serious way in the late 1970’s and early 80’s when my book came out we were a minority, even on the Left. It is astonishing that today, after 9/11, there’s a pro-Palestinian movement.

PSR: A movement, in general, that ironically sees itself as weak and defeated, with no prospects. And this when, as you have already pointed out, the Zionists are wasting away from the inside.

Brenner: Right. They are new to the game and you have to patiently explain. The bible says, “precept by precept”; or as Lenin said, “patiently explain.” There is no other way. To think strategically you have to study these things and then all of a sudden things fall into place, and not only fall into place, but they lose that exaggerated quality; that mystical quality.

PSR: As an activist for many years, you have an unique position in the history of American radicalism. Along with Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein you have been in the forefront of criticizing Zionism. Unlike the former you have a reputation as a militant orator, polemicist, and cantankerous personality. Can you speak a bit about personality and politics and how that is important in the struggle for ideas and community organizing?

Brenner: I tell people that I’ve been a historian since I was seven years old. An uncle gave my brother a bar mitzvah gift, a book called The Story of Mankind, which no one ever reads anymore for good reason since its boring, and I read it and became passionately interested in history ever since. I became a socialist because I was interested in history. My first job was working at a bookstore warehouse, so that by the time I was 15 I knew more about the American Civil War than the immense majority of Americans now know about the American Civil War. I did join the socialist movement and I did run into all of these people. I ran into Huey Newton in jail. I was going to the state penitentiary and he was going to the county farm and we met in the Oakland lockup. I have the good luck that even when they send me to prison the first person I meet is a historical figure. By not going to college I avoided the occupational illness of going to college, which is that pedantic dry sense. Our ideas compete with every other idea in society.

PSR: What do you think of Alan Dershowitz’s recent writing on “terrorism” as well as Israel? He raises important questions for today’s Left in the U.S., particularly on the question of armed self-defense. The trouble seems to be that with the retreat of the Left on the question of anti-imperialism, being focused on the policies of states or the major bureaucracies, Dershowitz comes off as a rationale policy person who is taking up the question of revolutionary violence from the perspective of how the state should deal with it. He almost dares someone to say that there is a philosophical and ethical basis for armed self-defense. In his book Why Terrorism Works he seems to be clearing the way for the idea that all armed struggle outside of state sanction is to be labeled “terrorism.” Yet it seems important to raise the question of armed self-defense and struggle as valid and necessary.

Brenner: As far as the dividing line between armed struggle and terrorism, it has never been set. It seems that any indiscriminate bombing of civilians is terrorism. Further, similar to the experience of the Narodnik Party in Russia, which for a time was more popular than the Bolsheviks, advocated and carried out terrorist acts. The problem with it is that it is vanguardist; that it substitutes heroic individuals for the masses. In terms of, say, Hamas it is worse than that because they put it this way, it’s victory or martyrdom. The minute they start talking that way what it really means is martyrdom. The Zionists call it terrorism, and that aspect is there, but what it really is is martyrdom. They are blowing up themselves. They are killing their own people. It’s a losing thing. They talk about it as evening the score; in other words why should so many Palestinians die and Israelis live, but there is no winning political strategy. Other Palestinians say we need international support and this is not maximizing that support. It provides the Israelis with all kinds of talking points.

Now in general terms, say, looking at foci theory, I was underwhelmed when Che Guevara went off to the hills. Latin America is full of cities and at the time people were leaving the countryside and going to the cities. In the case of Ireland I didn’t support terrorism there. In the case of many of the Catholic militants they were really attacking the Protestants as Protestants. They were saying they wanted a united secular Ireland. If this section has raised this slogan it would have more effectively split the Ulsterites and decimated their intelligentsia, whatever of it they had left. I remember I was in Northern Ireland on a bus and I was hiding a Republican newspaper I was reading and sure enough a young protestant woman behind me asked if she could read the paper when she was done . She told me "Look, I got no problem with the Republic as long as there is no airy fairy (religion) involved." They had drifted off from being a nationalist movement to a religious one. Now they have gotten nowhere with that and have entered parliamentary politics.

PSR: Now that you mentioned the Irish struggle there seems to be a disparity between the crackdown on Arab and Muslim American support for Palestine solidarity, particularly for implying any sympathy for armed struggle, and yet for years the police and Irish Americans have been gun running to Ireland and they were not rounding up Irish American people and jailing them.

Brenner: They did have a guy here, in New York in jail, and mayor Dinkins changed the name of the street in front of the jail after the guy.

PSR: Yeah and it is that type of thing that we would like to talk more about in the PSR project so that we can come to a comparative understanding of what Palestine has and continues to mean in the American political context. With that in mind it should be possible to have a discussion and debate about ethical armed struggle in Palestine as an anti-colonial movement. We don’t see how the state can repress you, especially when you consider the Irish case.

Brenner: Up until a few years ago they used to have what they called the "three I clubs:" Irish, Italian and Israel – in New York and other places. I remember mayor Alioto in San Francisco talking about how popular he was among the Irish because he would get up and defend what was going on in Northern Ireland. In the movement here I ran into Brian Heron, who is James Connelly’s grandson, in San Francisco in 1968 when the civil rights movement started over in Ireland. We set up a support group, headquartered in New York and when Bernadette Devlin came here—talk about Irish police—the police were flying her from meeting to meeting in a helicopter. One of these captains said, “You got these deadlines so we will fly you to different meetings and that’s our contribution to the struggle.”

The difference is exactly that the Irish are a mass vote and in the case of the Jews it is campaign contributions. The American political system is as crooked as a dog’s hind leg; it has no hesitations to pander to anybody and everybody if they have something to offer them. It’s not a question of the capitalist class. In other words there is a considerable degree of autonomy for the politicians. For example, why do left liberals defend Israel? One guy explained it to me, a Liberal Party representative from Manhattan on the New York City council. We originally met in the Socialist Party; he went into the Liberal Party. One day they called him up and asked him if he wanted to run for City Council in Manhattan. I was explaining to him one of the reasons I don’t like liberals is that they are ready to shoot any passing Arab. He says, “Oh no, you have me wrong.” He says, “I’m an atheist of Christian descent and when I think of all the terrible things Christians have done to Jews over the centuries I say I cannot do enough for the Jews.”

“Ok,” I tell him, “I’m Jewish. The next time you send some of the ‘enough’ to Israel, write a check to Lenni Brenner with ‘enough’ on it.” So he says, “Alright, I’ll tell you the way it is. In order to get elected as a liberal in New York City you have to have the Black vote, the Puerto Rican vote and the Jewish vote, because you cannot get the Irish or Italian vote. They are locked away with the right wing. But the Blacks and the Puerto Ricans do not give us any money. So please don’t tell me the terrible things the Zionist are doing to the Palestinians because it will only upset me, but I’m not going to break with my meal ticket.” That was from the horse’s mouth.

The Zionists are, to a considerable degree, what they call a single issue lobby. In other words they say this guy is a left winger in Democratic Party terms and this guy is a right winger in Republican Party terms, as long as they are going to vote our way in Congress we don’t care. But overall, Jews are the only white ethnic group that overwhelming votes for the Democratic Party. So they pander to them. They don’t get as much money from business in general, so they get it from rich Zionist Jews.

Some don’t want to talk about these campaign contributions because they think it will give rise to a fascist movement or something like that. It’s grotesque. First of all, don’t deny what everyone knows. Second, every poll says that anti-semitism is dropping like a shot. Anti-semitism is a flat earth ideology. The average American believes that 18% of the population is Jewish. They are surrounded everywhere in the cultural world by Jewish figures. A lot of leftists project the experience of German history onto America. The problem with American anti-semitism is that it has its roots in Germany. Here the Nazis are the bad guys.

PSR: This throws light on the fact that American Nazi strategy is inevitably flawed because they are going on about Jews when in fact they could make some ground if they went on more about Arabs. Obviously, Nazis trying to hold “pro-Palestinian” rallies in Washington D.C. and elsewhere has been a ridiculous product of this strategy and a resounding failure.

Brenner: Everyone in the Palestinian movement knows you don’t want to have nothing to do with them. Arafat has gone to Warsaw to lay wreaths at the monument for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But understand something. In the Arab and Muslim world things are not always consistent. I have here a pirated translation of my book, The Iron Wall, in Farsi, in which they decided 6 million Jews was too much so they cut it to 1 million. This is a product of not wanting to study Zionism.

One of the authors of the two-state theory, an Israeli Arab guy, who I met in Lebanon, said to me, “You got to understand that, when the Palestinians got driven out and fled to the rest of the Arab world, the average Arab said, ‘you got driven out by the Jews?’ They said, ‘the Jews are nothing here, it’s the Christians we worry about because they are allied with imperialism. Here’s some guns, now go get your land back.’ There was never any thought that you had to sit down and study Zionism.”

When I spoke in Libya I told the audience you have to study Zionism exactly like you have to study anything else. You can’t talk about anything you don’t know and you’re not going to beat them unless you study them because you are either going to exaggerate their strength or minimize their strength. You have to have a realistic assessment.

PSR: An impression can be taken from your work that you are influenced by a Marxist-Leninist tradition of party building and movement culture where social oppressions framed as particular “questions" were taken up (for example “the Negro Question,” “the Woman Question,” “the Jewish Question.”). What is your relationship to this tradition? Further, what do you think are the strengths and limitations of the literature on “the Jewish Question?” An example of that kind of work was Abraham Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation.

Brenner: Leon’s book, when it deals with Zionism at the end, is nothing significant. But his stuff on Jewish history is some of the most important work ever written because he follows that history in its economic development very closely. However, I don’t come from that tradition. In fact one of the things I would say is most noticeable when I was doing research for Zionism in the Age of the Dictators in the early 1980’s I realized there was once a huge leftwing Jewish intelligentsia that wrote in Yiddish and that specialized in Jewish issues. It made me realize that I was pretty much alone in my generation. But I wasn’t interested in anything Jewish until around 1973. I think it was 1969 that I wrote a letter to the Militant in response to something they had written, but I hadn’t thought it through, but also I didn’t come from that tradition of being invested in Jewish issues or Israel. I came from the tradition that slammed the door on the synagogue after bar mitzvah time and walked off into America.

I certainly thought when I was writing Zionism in the Age of the Dictators that it would have an impact on Jews. But I also said to myself I was writing too much about the Middle East. So I wrote my fourth book, The Lesser Evil, about American party politics. Now I’m doing a thing on Jefferson and Madison. I see myself as a specialist in nationalisms. I was involved in the Black, Irish and Palestinian struggles and I’ve seen the commonalities and dissimilarities.

I don’t see myself as talking to Jews as much as talking about Jews to an American audience. I think what I’m doing now with talking about the collapse of Zionism within the Jewish community is to reinforce the strength of American opposition to Zionism, as well as fighting the idea that if you're talking against Zionism you are against Jews.

PSR: What do you think about the issue of Palestine in American labor circles?

Brenner: You understand there is a statue of Golda Meir in the AFL-CIO headquarters?

PSR: We know that they straight up support Israel all the time.

Brenner: I tell people put it right to the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. Tell them you get that statue out of there and you cut union funds from Israel or we will have a sit-in in the headquarters. There is enough of a pro-Palestinian movement in the U.S. that this is a real threat. You could put three or four thousand people there. One way to educate workers who don’t know anything about Palestine is to create this media event.

Here is another thing to look at. The library shelves in America groan with the weight of documentation of the AFL-CIO’s collaboration with the CIA. But the average American worker doesn’t know about it.

PSR: Thank you for your time.

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