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Denying the Jewish Experience of Oppression: The Jewish Anti-Zionism of John Docker

Philip Mendes,
Australian Journal of Jewish Studies,
Vol. 17, 2003.

John Docker is one of Australia’s best known cultural critics. He is also curiously perhaps Australia’s best known Jewish anti-Zionist. This essay attributes Docker’s anti-Zionism to his denial of the Jewish experience of oppression. Utilising a long-standing Marxist tradition, Docker depicts Jews not as a vulnerable minority group which at times secures some economic and political power, but rather as a powerful collective acting to defend narrow political group interests.

Part One of this essay introduces the historical context of Jewish anti-Zionism, and Marxist attitudes to Jews and Zionism. Part Two examines Docker’s hostility to Zionism and Israel including his recent proposal for an academic boycott of Israel. Part Three explores Docker’s Jewish identity, and his attitude to other Diaspora Jews and their support for Israel. Part Four summarizes the political, ideological and personal factors driving Docker’s anti-Zionist perspective.

Part One: The Historical Context of Jewish Anti-Zionism

Prior to the Holocaust, Zionism existed as a minority movement throughout most of the Jewish world. It has been estimated that even in Poland, for example, only 25 to 30 per cent of Jews supported Zionism during the two inter-war decades (Rubinstein 2001: 14-15).

Many Jews appear to have regarded Zionism as an extremist movement with utopian, if not politically dangerous, objectives. Ideological opposition to Zionism was particularly strong from three sources. Jewish socialists including the numerically significant Bundists opposed Zionism as a reactionary diversion from the task of fighting anti-Semitism and defending Jewish rights in the Diaspora. Many Reform and assimilated Jews defined their Jewishness in solely religious rather than ethnic terms. And many Orthodox Jews believed that the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland must await the coming of the Messiah (Rubinstein 2001: 22-23; Kessler 2001).

However, following the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, Jewish opposition to Zionism largely vanished. Religious Jews gradually came to see Zionism as a fulfillment, rather than contravention, of Jewish religious destiny. Many Bundists and socialists remained critical of Zionism’s negation of the Jewish Diaspora, but in practice offered strong support for the State of Israel. In general, Jews increasingly turned to national, rather than internationalist solutions (Mendes 1999: 499-500).

To be sure, significant organisations were formed in Australia and Britain respectively in the mid-late 1940s to oppose the creation of a Jewish State, but they quickly disappeared (Medding 1968: 130-135; Rubinstein 1987: 303-321; Miller 2001). Over time, only pockets of Jewish ideological resistance to Zionism remained. They included, for example, marginal and eccentric groups such as the American Council for Judaism formed by a group of reform Rabbis in 1942, and the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta movement based in Jerusalem (Menuhin 1969: 325-361 & 542-566; Berger 1978; Menuhin 1984: 222-243; Kolsky 1990). They also included some Jews on the radical Left whose opposition to Zionism arguably reflected a much older and highly malevolent political tradition.

The Radical Left and Anti-Zionism

Historically, some of the most prominent Jewish revolutionaries including Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Victor Adler, and Trotsky were noted for their hostility or at least indifference to Jews. This tendency for Jewish radicals to take sides against the aspirations of their own people reflected a specific denial of the Jewish experience of oppression.

For example, the Jewish-born leaders of the early 20th century Austrian socialist movement, Victor Adler and Otto Bauer, publicly equated anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, insisted that philo-Semitism was identical with the defense of “Jewish capitalism,” allowed anti-Semitism in their publication, and declined to defend individuals who had been victims of anti-Semitic attack. When the Socialist International called for protest meetings against the infamous blood libel trial of Menachem Beilis in 1911, Adler refused, reportedly exclaiming, “Jews and more Jews. As if the entire world revolved around the Jewish question” (Wistrich 1976: 98-114).

However, other leading Jewish socialists did express concern about specifically Jewish issues, and solidarity with Jewish victims of anti-Semitism. They included, for example, Julius Martov, Bernard Lazare, Moses Hess, Paul Axelrod, Leon Blum, and Eduard Bernstein (Mendes 1999: 495-496).

The division between these two viewpoints appeared to reflect the broad spectrum of Left views regarding the Jewish question. On the one hand, the statements of Adler and Bauer reflected a viewpoint that was once widespread in the socialist movement equating Jews with the worst excesses of international capitalist finance and banking. There was, therefore, no reason for the working class to recognise any positive aspects of Jewish identity and culture, or to display any solidarity with persecuted Jews.

However, the alternative viewpoint which gradually gained ascendancy in the socialist movement, recognized that many Jews were workers who experienced oppression on both class and ethnic grounds. This viewpoint implied that workers should defend Jews against anti-Semitic attacks (Mendes 1995).

Nevertheless, the first viewpoint tended to reignite when tensions emerged between the Left and the Jews over particular issues such as Soviet anti-Semitism and Israel. On these occasions, the Left would cynically present Jewish party members as the good Jews (some would say “Uncle Toms”) who were willing to publicly criticize their own national group. However, Jews were now denounced as Zionists, rather than as capitalists.

This malevolent practice has become particularly widespread since the Six Day War with prominent anti-Zionists, whose identify is solely political rather than Jewish, highlighting their Jewish background in order to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism (Mendes 1996: 99-100, 106 & 119-120). This practice once again seeks to paint Jews as a powerful rather than oppressed group. It will be argued in a later section that this long-standing modernist political tradition has significantly influenced John Docker’s anti-Zionist perspective.

Part Two: Docker’s Attitude to Zionism and Israel

For over two decades, John Docker has articulated an unremitting hostility to Zionism and Israel. This anti-Zionist perspective has no significance in itself. Many Australians share Docker’s anti-Zionist views, and at least some of them are of Jewish background. What is significant and unique, however, is Docker’s constant coupling of his anti-Zionism with a public Jewish identification.

Docker’s first public statement on the Middle East appears to have been a 1979 letter published in the student newspaper of the NSW Institute of Technology. In this correspondence, Docker denounced what he called “the Israeli occupation of Palestine as an example of a more general European settler-colonialism and racist aggression of Third World peoples” (Docker 1979). But the letter also had a broader political purpose which was to canvass support for the formation of a NSW branch of the Melbourne-based Jews Against Zionism and Anti-Semitism (JAZA).

JAZA had been formed to defend Victorian community radio station 3CR against allegations of anti-Semitism raised by the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies. Its mode of operation clearly reflected the historical tendency (described above) of some Jewish radicals to attack their own people, and deny their experience of oppression (Mendes 2002a). Docker’s praise for JAZA suggested implicitly an endorsement of this practice. His statement also incorporated a theme that was to become prevalent in many of his later denunciations of Zionism: that the actions of Israel presented Jews with a serious moral challenge, and that Jews who opposed Zionism were particularly courageous human beings (Docker 1979).

Docker followed up with major critiques of Zionism in two articles published respectively in 1986 and 1987. The first critique denounced Leon Uris’s novel, Exodus, for its allegedly demeaning portrayal of Arab lifestyle and culture (Docker 1986a). Docker also attacked the Australian Zionist movement for opposing proposals to establish a Jewish state in the Kimberleys (p. 93), and repeated the claim of Arab propagandists that Jews left Arab countries due to Zionist-inspired bombings, rather than due to government and populist anti-Semitism (p. 82).

Docker’s other publication targeted the allegedly pro-Zionist texts of Australian novelist, Blanche D”Alpulget (Docker 1987). As with his earlier writing, Docker again championed the cause of anti-Zionist Jews such as Noam Chomsky, Maxime Rodinson, Israel Shahak, and local Maoist Albert Langer (p. 54). He also highlighted the common Marxist argument that there was no difference between left-wing Zionists and right-wing Zionists. Left Zionists were no less racist and colonialist than their Afrikaner counterparts in South Africa (pp. 62-64).

Further publications pursued similar agendas. For example, Docker accused Israel and other settler-societies of “displacing, killing, and frequently massacring the indigenous peoples” (Docker 1986b: 22). On another occasion, Docker referred to Israel as “a settler-colonizing power that has dispossessed the indigenous Arab inhabitants.” Once again, Jewish anti-Zionists were specifically praised (Docker 1991a: 23).

Docker has also labelled Israel “an ethnically absolutist state accompanied by persecution and mass expulsions of the Palestinians” (Docker 2001a: 211), and has called for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to be tried alongside Osama Bin Laden for crimes against humanity (Docker 2001b: 11).

In a number of publications, Docker noted that a long-time family friend and academic colleague Caroline Graham had stimulated and encouraged his initial interest in Zionism (Docker 1998: 9; Docker 2001: xi). Graham’s influence on Docker’s perspective was arguably not insignificant.

She was a prominent and hardline advocate of the Palestinian cause, acting as President of both the Sydney Palestine Human Rights Campaign, and the pro-Palestinian Australasian Middle East Studies Association (Osmond 1984). Graham is also known for her unique argument that the ALP’s support for Israel reflects a financial conspiracy, rather than genuine concerns about Jewish rights and aspirations (Graham 1991).

Docker’s most recent political intervention has involved his co-sponsorship with Ghassan Hage of a petition calling for an Australian academic boycott of Israel. The petition claims that “whilst the Palestinians are rightly requested to reign in their extremists, the Israelis have elected their extremists to power.”

The statement proceeds to accuse Israel of colonialism, murder, and crimes of war. The “vast majority of Israeli academics” are alleged to “have either supported the Israeli army onslaught on the Palestinians, or failed to voice any significant protest against it.” The petition ends with a call for “urgent international action to stop the massacres perpetrated against the Palestinian people” (Docker & Hage 2002).

As with Docker’s earlier anti-Zionist statements, there is nothing particularly original or significant about the contents of the petition. The petition is similar both in tone and argument to an earlier academic petition initiated by British scientist, Steven Rose. In addition, many of its signatories including some Jewish academics are long-time critics of Israel. And as with similar petitions overseas, the petition has provoked counter-statements by academics supportive of Israel (Borowski et al 2002; Mendes 2002b).

The unique aspect, however, is the emphasis placed once again by Docker on the specifically Jewish motivations behind his involvement. For example, an article by The Australian on the proposed academic boycott refers twice to Docker’s Jewish background and identity (Lawnham 2002). A later report by The Age cited Docker’s Jewishness on three occasions, noting that Docker was “as a Jew... often appalled by what Israel does” (Strong 2002).

In summary, Docker has continually argued that his Jewish background and identity complement his anti-Zionist beliefs. However, the overwhelming majority of Australian Jews would reject such an association. Any explanation for Docker’s articulation of this Jewish anti-Zionist identity would necessarily seem to require an analysis of his attitudes to other Jews and their support for Israel.

Part Three: Docker’s Jewish Identity and His Attitude to Jews and Their Support For Israel

Docker grew up in the Sydney suburb of Bondi. His parents were both active in the Communist Party, his father Irish and his mother of East End Jewish background. His Jewish uncles Lew and Jock Levy were also active in the Communist Party.

Docker was brought up without any religious beliefs, and didn”t think of himself as Jewish during his childhood. Although his best friend was of Russian Jewish background, he notes that he felt uncomfortable with other Jews he met at school both because they seemed “really Jewish,” and also because his family were “obviously poor” compared to most Jews. But as a young adult, he consciously sought out information about Jewish traditions, and his own Jewish ancestry (Docker 1992).

Docker notes that he grew up with what postmodernists positively call a “multiple, fragmented, and contradictory identity” (Docker 1992). Elsewhere, he relates with relish a colleague’s statement describing him as “neither Jewish nor non-Jewish” (Docker 2001: xi). But it seems here that Docker is probably rationalising what appears to have been a difficult and perhaps even painful experience of feeling left out or isolated from the Jewish group or collective.

In terms of his upbringing, Docker’s lack of a secure Jewish identity is hardly unique. Many of the Jewish Left activists I interviewed for a study on the Australian anti-Vietnam War movement had similarly grown up in socialist or communist homes in the 1950s and 60s that were ambivalent about Jewish identification (Mendes 1993: 43-100). Nevertheless, what does seem unique is Docker’s overt anger towards what he sees as an ideologically uniform, intolerant, and socially exclusive Australian Jewish community.

Docker’s hostility towards other Jews is expressed in two major contexts. Firstly, there is his reflection on Australian Jewish history where he takes early Jewish settlers to task for duplicating the racist and colonialist attitudes of non-Jewish settlers (Docker 1991b: 146; Docker 2001a: 172). At no time, however, does Docker explain why he would have expected nineteenth century Jews to hold different values and attitudes to most Western settlers. Docker’s specific critique of Jews is not only discriminatory, but lacking in historical context. He seems unaware that these attitudes were so universal that they extended even to Karl Marx and the early socialist movement.

Docker’s attack on the proposal to settle European Jewish refugees in the Kimberleys in the 1930s also lacks historical and political sensitivity (Docker 1991b: 146; 2001a: 172). Docker seems to have little understanding of why Jews were desperately fleeing oppression in Europe, and seeking refuge anywhere they could find it. A contemporary analogy would be labelling Afghan asylum seekers as settler colonialists intent on displacing Aborigines.

But Docker’s real anger is with Jewish support for Israel. For example, he has accused Diaspora Jews of condoning war crimes and mass murder (Docker 2001b: 11). He argues that Australian Jewry has “disgraced itself because it has followed Israel and lost its independence. It is facing shame and dishonour in the world” (quoted in Rosenbaum 2001). Elsewhere, he depicts Israel’s actions as “endangering the moral reputation of Jewry” (Docker 2001: 186).

Docker specifically attacks Australian Jewish roof bodies, accusing them of authoritarianism and attempting to suppress alternative Jewish views on the Middle East (Docker 1991b: 151 & 156; Docker 1998). He has referred to “Zionist control of the Australian media” (Docker 1998).

Despite identifying as a postmodernist (1991b: 156), Docker continually uses the Marxist tradition described earlier to manufacture binary opposites: the good Jews such as himself and Rodinson et al. who are willing to criticise their own oppressed national group, and the bad Jews who place national solidarity ahead of the broader class or political struggle.

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