Proudly presenting, JSN’s Dorothy Zellner, interviewed by Philip Weiss

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This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer, the legendary effort by the civil rights movement to open up the vote in Mississippi to black people. That struggle is the subject of Freedom Summer, a documentary that will air on PBS’s American Experience, tonight. One subject of the film is Dorothy Zellner, a former staff member for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who is today active in the Palestinian solidarity movement as a member of the board of the Friends of Jenin Freedom Theatre, a founding member of Jews Say No, and a volunteer for Jewish Voice for Peace.

A few weeks ago during a commemoration of our visits to Gaza five years ago, Zellner told me “We are winning.” I asked her for an interview. She agreed, and the Q-and-A below reflects two conversations, with some edits. 

Question: You’ve said on a couple of occasions, We’re winning, we’re turning the corner. What is happening, why do you say that?

Dorothy Zellner: Well this is not an original thought. When I express this idea in meetings with other activists, people nod and agree. I’m very well known as a pessimist. That’s why when I said it people actually paid some attention.

OK but why do you believe that?

There are a few reasons. First of all, BDS [Boycott Divestment Sanctions] is turning out to be very very strong, and obviously successful, more successful than we even thought. A couple of years ago Donna Nevel and I wrote a piece in Jewish Currents, responding to an Australian Zionist. He was very dismissive. He said BDS has changed nothing, it hasn’t altered the Israeli economy, no one cares. Now a year and a half later it is so obvious that BDS is growing by leaps and bounds especially on the economic level, the divestment level.  Yesterday you know the Gates Foundation announced that it was divesting from G4S. That’s only the latest development.

It’s not only in dollars and cents, but in the consciousness. The consciousness about BDS is totally different from two years ago. It’s now considered to be a serious way for people to register their feelings about the occupation. No one is dismissing it.

Number two, what’s going on in the campuses is truly amazing to me. I think I realized that we were going to win when the first Open Hillel was created on campus [at Swarthmore last December]. Because this is a sea change: the Israeli government policy is built on relying on the Jews in the Diaspora to be either completely convinced of the efficacy of the Jewish state or else bludgeoned into supporting the Jewish state as it exists now. The Open Hillel means they can’t count on the Diaspora any more.

This seems like a small thing– oh, it’s just three campuses. But I can tell you that having done this work for years now, trying to change the conversation inside the Jewish community, that what these students did this was earthshaking because it means that they want to think. They don’t want anyone else to think for them anymore, and they know about the abuse they will get, and they are willing to take the abuse, it’s not going to come as a shock to them. They were immediately excoriated by the head of the Hillel, but it doesn’t seem to have fazed them. They are not saying they are necessarily becoming anti-Zionist, but that they want to be able to think in a Jewish environment. And I know by now, from being at this for 12 years– by the way a small amount of time, others have been involved much longer—that this is very telling. And if these students want to think and they want to be open to what is really happening there, we have the facts. They will see the facts, they will believe them, they will understand them.

You know, I have yet to meet one single human being who has been to Israel and Palestine, who has not had their entire life changed, and they can call you all kinds of names, anti-Semite and self-hating Jews. But we have actually seen the Israeli policies and in some cases we have been the victims of them. We have seen Palestinians herded like cattle through these institutionalized checkpoints, that are like mini prisons.

I am totally confident that people understanding the facts will change their behavior.

A third factor I think is extremely important: there has been interest on the part of black intellectuals. I know that several trips to the West Bank (you can’t go to Gaza) have taken place with leading black intellectuals who have decided to make common cause with this issue. People like Vincent Harding [a prominent black leader who died recently]. They have seen what is going on there, and they speak with a kind of moral authority that is  unimpeachable. It’s like Archbishop Tutu– when he goes to the West Bank and he looks around at what’s happening and says, This is worse than apartheid, well he speaks with the kind of moral leadership that no one can dispute.

I know in the Zionist circles, they speak of Tutu as an anti-Semite. But it’s getting harder and harder to get away with that. They can call a nebbish like me an anti-Semite. But even trying to call Vincent Harding an anti-Semite– this is not going anywhere, people are not going to accept it.

The fourth factor is the collapse of the negotiations, and the US uttering a word of criticism of the Israelis for their role.

Things are happening that we couldn’t possibly have predicted. And we are now in a phase where the momentum is on our side. And it all makes me feel that we have turned the corner.

When you say we are winning, define those words.

By we, I mean the movement to end the occupation, although sometimes I mean the Jewish community. Winning means that we will get the occupation ended, but what form or shape that’s going to take I don’t know.

So will things go more easily now?

No. The caveat is that turning the corner doesn’t meant this is going to be easy. The next few years are going to be harder for us, because we are winning. The attacks on us are going to be worse. This is like a cornered animal: its fangs are out now. You can see this happening already. I am told that big institutions in Israel are now bringing African Americans over there by the busload. I’m assuming that’s because of the important African-American intellectuals, they want to counter it.

Or did you hear about the New York city council having a secret panel discussion about strengthening economic ties with Israel ? I take that to mean BDS is hurting the Israeli powers that be, and they are looking for new and other ways to overcome the economic loss.

Does this mean you thought we weren’t going to win a few years back?

No. But I was thinking of it in terms of decades. And when you have a win that’s so far in the future, you don’t dwell on that because it will just make you depressed. Now something qualitatively different has happened. And if I as a lowly person on the ground can feel it, the right wing can feel it too. I don’t know what forms of backlash it will take. I expect public abuse in the Jewish community. Though it’s already at a hysterical high. I have rarely seen people who are supposedly normal go from 0 to 60 in a second and become hysterical maniacs. That’s what happens with this issue and it’s going to increase.

Have you experienced that abuse in other political activism?

I’ve been in two big struggles in my life. The civil rights movement, and this. The women’s movement, the antiwar movement, of course I was involved. But these have been my big engagements. When I was in the south in the 60s, the white people didn’t really curse you out, they just tried to kill you. And this abuse is nothing compared to that.

On the other hand, I have not seen this level of hysteria before. I haven’t. Ever since I got involved 12 years ago, it has been increasing. And it hasn’t leveled off. Even some of the attack dogs are being attacked. Did you see them going after Dershowitz? It’s very unusual for him, to get some of his medicine back. He was bitten and he was kind of shocked.

Who will the backlash target?

I’m guessing there may be more social pressure put on people who are vulnerable. You’re not vulnerable, I’m not. But there are people who are wending their way through the Jewish institutional community who are vulnerable to pressure.

I want to tell you about exceptions to this. Howard Horowitz—he’s organizing in synagogues in Westchester, he’s bringing amazing Palestinian people to speak. That’s something we haven’t achieved here in the city. Or Kathleen Peratis, she was on the board of J Street, she wrote an article reconsidering BDS. This goes to my theory that we’re turning the corner. These things were not happening a couple of years ago. I think they are going to happen at the same time as the counterattack. And it’s good to know about the backlash, because if you’re prepared for it, you can get through it.

Remember, it’s not because of our failure that we’re being attacked, but because of our success. And we can work through this period. We are going to keep going because we understand what the ultimate goal will be.

You know that I have often said, Let’s write off the Jewish community, they’re reactionary. Have you had that response, emotionally—let’s wash our hands of the Jewish community?

I can’t say I haven’t had my moments of being discouraged. But no, I haven’t written them off. If I had written them off, why would I be standing out there on 96th St. with Jews Say No?

So why did you hang in there?

I think this goes back to my history. I was a past staff member of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] for five years, 1962 to 1967, and I was in Mississippi for the Freedom Summer of 1964.

And you’re in a film that’s going to be aired on American Experience, June 24?

Yes. “Freedom Summer,” by Stanley Nelson. We were in SNCC, we were in a black-led organization, a black-led movement. But this is my point: What SNCC needed– what they wanted– was for the whites to go and work in the white community. And the reason for this was, one, of course they would get allies. Even though people were very realistic about this; these allies weren’t apples hanging off the tree, ready to be plucked. It was hard work in the south. But the second reason was to neutralize the white community, if we failed to get allies. And there were many hardy souls who attempted to do this with little or no success. The reason for this was the extreme danger in the white community and the extreme hostility. White people who opposed segregation publicly were shut down or arrested or threatened and so forth.

And since then, in the back of my mind, I have always felt that this was something we needed to do that we didn’t do…. White students in the Southern Student Organizing Committee worked alongside SNCC, trying to establish a beachhead in the white community and build these kinds of coalitions. Because a lot of us felt that were it not for racism, there would have been natural coalitions between black and white working class people. But most of these efforts in U.S. history have failed– from populism on. That doesn’t mean they will always fail, but racism has been used very effectively. That’s a shibboleth of American political science.

But politically speaking, we couldn’t do what a lot of black people thought was a mandate: to go work where people really needed to be talked to.

Well along comes 2002, and for various reasons I got involved with this movement, and I realized, This is my moment. This is what SNCC told me to do 50 years ago. And now I have the chance.

Wow. That’s a great story.

But to answer your question: I’ve never given up on the Jewish community. Even though I don’t like being abused. Some people, actually the really great people—Donna Nevel, she’s not fazed. But I don’t like it.

What do you say when you’re trying to explain the situation to people? Is there an anecdote, a particular incident, or an observation you relate?

The incident that to me typifies my emotional reaction occurred on my first trip in the winter of 2002-2003 several months after the horrible Israeli invasion in the second intifada. I was in the Deheisheh refugee camp in front of the Ibda’a House and I was talking to people and right across the way I could see the wall, the barbed wire on the wall, and the guard tower on top of the wall, and all these images flooded back to me from World War II, and I thought of my father, how relieved I was that he was dead and didn’t have to see this because flying over the guard tower was the flag with the Jewish star on it, and I completely broke down. I just sobbed, and during that trip I cried every day. My traveling companions were so annoyed with me, I was over the top. But I don’t have to explain to you the significance of those images.

You were on the left. How come you didn’t know about the occupation?

First of all the wall was just being built when I was there. Second of all I had spent many years in denial, avoiding this issue, but there I was and I was seeing it for myself. That was one of those life moments.

How many times have you been there?

Ten times since 2002.

Oh my god.

What can I say? One year I went three times. The last time was a year and a half ago, in March 2013. So I do feel like I speak with some experience. I have been all over Israel as well as the West Bank, and Gaza twice.

Tell me about the abuse.

Standing there on 96th St with Jews Say No is a really interesting experience. We stand there with signs, and this is a neighborhood that is heavily Jewish, and we give out leaflets, but we usually try not to engage with opponents, because there’s no point in the screaming matches. What happens– and here I’m trying not to cater to my native pessimism– is that for every person who has a thumbs up going by there are two thumbs down. The thumbs up are interesting. This is what they say. ‘How great that you’re out here, how brave you are.’ This gets on my nerves. I say, ‘We’re not so brave, we’re standing here on the street, come and join us.’ ‘Oh no, I can’t, but it’s really great that you’re doing this.’ And other people say,  ‘You’re absolutely right. You’re right.’ These are people who wouldn’t have said that five years ago. We get a surprising amount of support.

But the abuse is really ugly. Most of the time it’s not reasoned. ‘I’m horrified you’re here, you ugly bitch.’ Or it’s that two-word sentence that substitutes for a political conversation: fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you. Or, ‘you’re an anti-Semite. So it has now boiled down to personal epithets or “You’re an anti-semite.” Pure hysteria, people who are screaming and turning red.

Do you keep your cool or do you get into fights?

Well actually personally speaking, I don’t think I am very effective. I am there all the time. But do I like being there? As I told you, I don’t think I like being there. I tend to get very snappy and lose my temper. I don’t know how effective I am. That’s why I’ve learned it’s better for me not to respond at all. I will stand there and be stoic as people scream and froth at the mouth.

Well you know that about yourself, that’s good.

I’m 76, after all! I am a more effective speaker in a regular format, because I am relating everything to what I experienced in the civil rights movement. To me when people ask about the future, to me, it’s a no brainer. I can tell them that ethnic superiority doesn’t work.

I don’t know how long I could stand out there.

I have not given up, and I actually want to do more things we haven’t been able to do. There are 24 hour Jewish cable networks. Well, I want to get on there. I want to challenge them: if you’re so convinced you’re right, why don’t you have us on, and we’ll talk. Jews Say No has worked to have panel discussions in various places. We have had people from the liberal Jewish community engage us. Because that’s our self appointed mandate: we want to work in the Jewish community.

And it’s changing?

Yes, I think so. I say it’s worth it to get the abuse, because somewhere in Pennsylvania some kid on campus is saying, ‘I want to read this book. What is Zionism? What is going on in Israel? I don’t want to say I love Israel, I want to know what’s going on.’ And as far as the established Jewish organizations are concerned, this is the beginning of the end of the hand on our throats preventing us from talking or thinking.

You’ve seen the change personally?

Years ago, I was on a panel in a synagogue, and the attacks were so severe that I thought they were going to have to call the police. Today, there would be incredible hysteria and screaming, but you’d also have more people listening.

Why did you think they should bring the police?

A woman in the audience came up after it was over and she said in the synagogue—look, I am 100 percent atheist, but I respect a religious building—well this woman said to my debate partner, a young Israeli, “You’re a piece of shit.” Inside a synagogue!  I’m not proud of myself, but I lost it. I instantly became a 12 year old. And she started screaming, and the security people were hovering there. I thought she was going to attack my Israeli partner.

Do you say in the synagogue, I’m an anti-Zionist?

I didn’t define myself then and I often don’t now as an anti-Zionist or a non-Zionist. I define myself as a person who has spent her life working with civil rights and human rights, and I was being told by the government of Israel that they spoke for me, and I had actually seen with my own eyes the oppression of the Palestinians. And relying on Jewish tradition, I felt that I could not stand idly by. From that day to this, I have acted in that way.

I must tell you, I was seven years old when World War II ended. My father followed the war with a map, and pushpins in it. And you won’t know this name, but hearing Gabriel Heatter, a broadcaster, talking about where was the US army and more important, where was the Red Army.

What was the lesson?

The lesson was horrible things happen when people stand around watching and no one does anything. That is what impelled me into the civil rights movement. And later I realized it came out of a very important part of a Jewish social justice tradition, which I had obviously imbibed in my leftwing family,  even though they were not religious. I didn’t understand this for years, but for me, it all comes down to that saying about Hillel, who was asked to summarize Jewish teaching when standing on one leg?. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you. All the rest is commentary.”  That’s it to me. Thou shall not stand idly by.

I spent years in the South. I was shot at once, I was arrested. And now it was much closer to home. Israel claims it is speaking and acting for me. I say, Oh no no no, this is not tolerable.

What do you mean, you didn’t know for years this was your tradition?

I didn’t understand for many years, that this was part of my motivation. I grew up in a nonobservant home. Then later on as I did some reading about this– it is to me an inescapable fact that this is part of Jewish culture. It’s in the Jewish religion too. But in the Jewish culture, there was– whether it’s there today I really can’t say– but up until I was in high school and as an adult, that tradition was there. There is really no way of accounting for the overrepresented numbers of Jews in some of these fights. I understand it not to mean that we’re better, but because it is our tradition: we were slaves in Egypt, we were victims, we learned the hard way what happens when you stand around doing nothing. At least half of the lawyers who went south during the civil rights movement were Jewish. At least half of the Americans who went to Spain to fight were Jewish. That comes out of a deeply held social justice movement.

What do you say to those who would say, Ok, that was one Jewish tradition, but it’s been replaced by another, Zionism and American neoliberalism?

I would explain what has happened as nationalism. And that nationalism is killing us. When you have a national state that is really an ethnic state, it’s not really surprising that you have a Jewish community that is so retrogressive on the question. But I can turn that around: Look at the large number of Jews in the anti occupation movement. These are people who have been told since babyhood, that Israel is everything. I’ve seen synagogues where five-year old children just learning to write make signs saying “I love Israel” and these signs are all over on the walls.

To me, speaking as an atheist Jew, they have hijacked our Jewishness, and they have made it into a place, a country—so our Jewishness became a place. And the miracle of this is that so many people who were brought up like that, began to see with their own eyes. Who would have thought that Jewish Voice for Peace would have 140,000 people on their list. That’s a fifth factor in terms of turning the corner. I remember in the 1980s after Lebanon there was a group called the New Jewish Agenda. I wasn’t really involved with that. But I know they could be critical of Israel.

Well then the first gulf war started and SCUDS were fired at Tel Aviv, that’s when the New Jewish Agenda organization collapsed. That’s my version; that’s how I remember it.

But what it tells me is there are 140,000 people on the JVP list who are not going to be taken by surprise. They have gone there and seen this. They are willing to fight it. They will take the bumps and bruises that go along with that.

But I could say from your story that if there was violent Palestinian resistance to occupation, the JVP list would collapse.

No. I think a lot of people are on board now who understand the situation much better than they did then. They would not go under. They would not go under. Thousands of us have been there. You walk away saying what if I lived here and I would have to go thru that? Is it such a big reach to say, I would want to kill someone? Of course not. We oppose that but it’s not a reach. We are much more sophisticated now.

What if I said to you that your attitude about Jewish cultural tradition of social justice, one I agree with — that we’re romantics about Jewish life?

In one of the books I was interviewed in, that question came up. I said, maybe I was a romantic, but what’s wrong with that?

What was the book?

Going South:  Jewish Women in the Civil Rights Movement by Debra Schultz.  When I grew up, the great heroes of my teenage life were the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, and I used to– as a young teenager, I imagined what would happen if the Nazis were marching up Second Avenue? Would I go on the roof and be a sniper? Well that’s romantic. But I thought, What’s wrong with that?

But if you’re challenging me on this social justice tradition, and saying that’s just romanticism, you’re exaggerating it, I say no, I’m not exaggerating it. It was real. I don’t feel that’s romantic.

Isn’t it a form of Jewish exceptionalism?

No. I’m not saying we’re so special. Other people are too. If the Irish told me about their tradition, I’d be interested. I’m saying this was part of us. And this country that claims to be speaking for all of us in the world– they have abandoned that part of the tradition. I know you have felt funny about this; I don’t know how to convince you. But that tradition in Jewish life is there, and it is being violated. And this is why people are so hysterical. Because they know on some level, this is a big No No! You’re not supposed to oppress people, you’re not supposed to remove them from where they live. That happened to us.

But again, what if I say that Jewish life has been captured by Zionism?

That’s not the Jewishness I know. The Jewish establishment of course was captured decades ago. But there is this struggle on the ground. If you said, JVP has 2000 people, then maybe it would be hopeless, and you could say the community is totally corrupted. But there are 140,000. We’re winning, and I’m a pessimist!

I want to tell you something. I went to a social justice conference at the University of Illinois this spring. I told the story about SNCC, sitting up there with other SNCC people. We (white people) couldn’t do it, I said. We couldn’t organize in the white community. But now 40 years later it’s all coming together for me, I’m a Jewish activist organizing against the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Much to my surprise the whole audience burst into applause. It was a very nice moment. I can’t tell you how much support I got from old SNCC people.

That’s a beautiful story. When you said that you don’t identify as anti-Zionist or non Zionist, does that mean you try to honor the meaning that Zionism had in the Jewish community once?

I am an anti-Zionist. But I don’t define myself that way because I think it makes people unable to think. And if I was trying to have a real conversation with some of these passersby, sooner or later I would say that. But only when I was sure that they could hear what I say. But I am a critic of Zionism. The more I read about it the more critical I am of it.

Should Israel exist—does it have a right to exist as Jewish state?

My answer is I do not think that states that privilege one group over another are viable states. And this comes from my intensive schooling as a civil rights activist. I could not– 50 years ago, I could not work to make sure that black people in Mississippi had the right to vote and then turn around and be supportive of a state where every citizen does not have equal rights before the law.

Can you imagine a situation in which you are cheering a 2 state solution?

These are not positions taken by any organization I’m in but personally I don’t think the two state solution is possible any longer. But I want to follow what the people who live there want to do. That’s why I think it’s pointless to end up in these conversations, because many solutions have been floated and we can’t sort them all out. But our job is to get the US government to promote a decent policy and, believe me, that’s going to take everything we’ve got.

Is that a lesson from the civil rights movement?   

Well one big thing I learned is, you can’t predict what will happen. The week before the sit-ins started on February 1, 1960, if you had asked people whether in a week, a huge movement was about to start, people would have looked at you like you were nuts. These things had been brewing a long time, but nobody predicted it, and even when it happened, no one predicted it would spread like wildfire. Within weeks there were 100s and 100s of students in every southern state sitting in and demonstrating, and thousands and thousands of local people participating. All over the south.

White people too?

In the south there were very few white people. But in the north, yes. This is what boosted SDS. And when I speak about the civil rights movement, I say, you can’t replicate these things, but if it happened once it can happen again. In the US we have had big big mass movements, and what’s going to happen in the future one cannot predict. We have to keep plugging along, and realize that it’s the struggle that counts. You have to be willing to struggle.

In the anti-occupation movement I think we have turned a corner, despite the kidnappings and what’s happening in Iraq. The opposition will get much worse but we are going to win. And we have to have the kind of understanding that there will be no instant gratification but whatever you do now will have an effect on the future. That’s the lesson of the civil rights movement. All the earlier struggles, the Montgomery bus movement, the Brown v Board of Education decision led up to it. And what we see in the history books is a pallid imitation of what it was really like.

Palestinians are demonized as terrorists. Mandela was deemed a terrorist for a while. Was there similar demonization of black people in the south?

You can see in the movie on Tuesday, Freedom Summer, when three of our guys were kidnapped and killed in Mississippi, they interviewed white people in the community, who said it’s a fraud, it’s a fake, they’ve done this for sympathy, I don’t believe it.  It was total demonization. Total. And in those days, and right up to the present, white people are never called terrorists. Never. So black people were totally demonized.

Do you have an elevator speech, 15-30 seconds, on the conflict?

I always identify myself as a Jewish person and I say I’ve been there and I’ve seen it. I try to get through the hysteria, that this is nothing that someone told me, I’ve actually seen it. It often doesn’t work. As I said, in a longer scenario, I’m much better. Few of us is able to say anything coherent in these onslaughts people put us through. You’re standing there and someone is screaming in your face.

Make it concrete for me.

We had a sign up saying, End the occupation, and someone came up and said, “I don’t respect you, I don’t respect you.’ I said, ‘Let’s have a conversation, stop screaming and we’ll talk.’ She said, ‘You should be out there talking about our boys.’ All you have to say is “our boys,” and that’s the end of any argument. My response was “bye bye.” That infuriated her.

But I believe people go home and no matter what we say or what they say, they have a picture in their minds of some Jews who don’t agree with Israel. Somewhere along the line, someone will remember, we were out there, and we refused to go along.  Maybe we will have planted a seed and someone will realize we are right.  That gives me intense satisfaction. I look in the mirror and say you did a mitzvah today.

You were good Jews in this horrible moment in history?

We acted like mensches. We were human beings, and we refused to be stampeded by so-called group loyalty or blindness to Israel. We acted the way people should have acted toward us.

But is this about congratulating ourselves or about changing the conflict?

It is politically effective. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think it was. But I feel that we’re acting the way Jews are supposed to act.

How does your family feel about your work?

I’m from a non-Zionist family. I haven’t had to go through what a lot of people have had to go through. Nobody in my family is out there with me, but there’s some sympathy for what I’m doing, there’s no hostility.

So it’s not like you don’t talk to someone in your family over this issue?

I talk to everyone in my family. We have different points of view about it. I was lucky when I went to the civil rights movement, my family didn’t hold me back. My father supported me emotionally. There were many people whose parents were completely frantic and opposed to what we did, and tried to interfere physically with their own children’s work—and a lot of times for understandable reasons, the parents were afraid their kids were going to be killed. I’m fortunate, I didn’t have that problem. And now I hear all kinds of terrible stories, about people not talking to each other at seders; I don’t have that problem.

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