By Wendy Sanford. She Writes Press, 2021. 328 pages. $16.95/paperback; $9.95/eBook.
By Omri Boehm. New York Review of Books, 2021. 200 pages. $14.95/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
In his now famous letter to the followers of Jesus living in ancient Rome, the traveling minister Paul wrote: “And do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2 NKJV). He was not urging the faithful to reject God’s gift of the natural world or the promise of loving human community. He was warning the faithful to avoid conforming to the ways of the empire, which are marked by the sins of domination, exploitation, greed, and indifference to others. Quakers who have read Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice, by Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, know how easily the “faithful” can conform to the oppressive ways of the wider society around them. Such is the sinful poison in which we all often live and breathe—and then strengthen with unwary complicity.
Thankfully, there have always been the prophetic few among us who have shown the path toward a beloved community of justice, peace, and equality. These people are to be treasured as important patterns and examples of wisdom, enlightenment, and compassion. I therefore want to lift up two recent books that reflect their authors’ journeys to becoming, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “creatively maladjusted” to social evil.
The first book, These Walls Between Us, is written by Quaker author Wendy Sanford, who offers fiercely honest stories about her own decades-long struggle to leave behind a conformist outlook that left her “with a large dose of internalized superiority and a habit of dominance.” It helps that Sanford, one of the coauthors of the feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves, grew into a deepening awareness of her own oppression as a woman and lesbian. Yet the ultimate power of her book is her remarkable ability to interrogate her own experience and upbringing as a person shaped by both class and White privilege.
There Sanford highlights the story of her repeated Nantucket encounters with her parents’ summer domestic servant Mary Norman—a poor, working-class African American woman about Sanford’s age from the Jim Crow South. Slowly and fitfully, she explores her years of perpetuating small, medium, and large aggressions and indignities against Norman, while also sharing their long journey to break through the social walls between them to become true friends across the boundaries of race and class. Sanford’s story is filled with telling examples of her journey—often made up of moving two steps forward and one step back—on the road to gaining insight into the social power dynamics that harmed and limited these two women who were from very different backgrounds, making real friendship between them almost impossible.
Yet that is not the end of the story. Through reading dangerously; becoming active in social justice movements; engaging with the best of her Quaker spirituality; learning about her own oppression; listening carefully to her supposed “inferior”; hearing Norman’s challenges; and reflecting deeply on their intertwined histories, differing social worlds, and complex experiences together, Sanford ultimately becomes capable of being a supportive and caring friend with Norman. Their early, warped relationship as “skilled, attentive server and sometimes conflicted beneficiary” ultimately heals and moves toward a more just and beneficial relationship over time. It is a moving journey.
The second book, Haifa Republic, is by Omri Boehm, an Israeli Jew and associate professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His break with contemporary Zionism is remarkable in light of Israel’s intensive propaganda efforts to demonize anyone who does not look the other way or justify Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing, military occupation, and legal discrimination against the Palestinian people. The primary focus of Boehm’s critique, however, is not the brutal, ethno-nationalist Zionist leaders long in power in Israel but with the so-called “liberal Zionist” opposition.
According to Boehm, contemporary liberal Zionists, who now make up only a small minority of Israeli Jewish citizens, simply refuse to admit that it’s impossible to have a “Jewish democracy” in a multi-ethnic homeland from the river to the sea. He also exposes the hollow “two-state” rhetoric common among liberal Zionists that has long ago been rendered impossible by Israeli government policies of land grabs, illegal settlements, segregated roads, de facto annexation, and never-ending home demolitions. As Boehm puts it, contemporary liberal Zionists today can offer only a weak vision of “apartheid with a human face.” Such a view may be Zionist, but it is not liberal, democratic, or just. It is, as Boehm argues, a violation of the universal moral commitments of prophetic Judaism.
Boehm goes on to argue that the contemporary degradation of any meaningful liberal Zionism today has its roots in erroneous lessons derived from the Holocaust, as well as in Israel’s refusal to pay any attention to, or care about, the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) that began in 1948 and continues today. He therefore offers two important chapters looking critically and carefully at both the Holocaust and the Nakba. These chapters are eye-opening and help us see our way toward a new, single-state, binational vision that “opens a path to securing human rights and the rights of citizenship on the whole territory, without denying the historical aspirations of both Jews and Palestinians to exercise self-determination and national rights.”
His last chapter focuses on this proposed democratic, binational, single-state alternative, which is widely seen as “anti-Zionist” by most observers today or—at the very least—a mere echo of the early fringe Zionist view of “the sanctimonious, far-fetched Brit Shalom, of intellectuals such as Martin Buber, Arthur Ruppin, and Judah Magnes.” In an apparent bid to avoid being lumped with these Jewish intellectuals or the long tradition of anti-Zionist Jews, Boehm argues instead that up until the 1930s such a vision used to be the common vision of Zionists of all stripes (left, right, and center), even including fascist Zionists such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky!
To make his case, Boehm offers some quotes from a wide range of early Zionists, but this is the least insightful part of his book. The quotes are not contextualized, are only public statements without the principled commitment of a Martin Buber, and usually made for the purpose of “strategic ambiguity” and “realpolitik,” frequently belied by the actual sentiments of these leaders as stated in their private letters, diaries, and internal statements. It would have been less a step back from “creative maladjustment” had Boehm done two things: courageously explored the principled binational vision advocated by Buber et al., and described in detail the single democratic state viewpoint of a wide variety of Jewish anti-Zionists from around the world, all of whom get short shrift here.
Still one finds in this book a powerful yearning for freedom, justice, and equality for all in Israel–Palestine as well as a vision that does not conform to the oppressive “liberal Zionism” of today. This ethical achievement should not be obscured by Boehm’s lingering limitations of soft-pedaling his vision as if it were the common outlook of the early Zionist movement, when it actually has much more in common with spiritual visionaries like Buber and Jewish anti-Zionists like today’s members of Jewish Voice for Peace. As Sanford says in her book, “even an imperfect effort matters.”
Steve Chase is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and the author of the Friends General Conference book Letters to a Fellow Seeker: A Short Introduction to the Quaker Way.