Far From Zion by Charles London

41ZaYzx1VhLNonfiction — print. Harper Collins, 2009. 310 pgs. Library copy.

London’s book chronicles his search for “a global Jewish community”, one that does not feel the need to emigrate to Israel or follow Zionist ideology. The author sees being Jewish as being Zionist; that the two are inheritanytly intertwined.

“Even though Zionism was born as a nineteenth-century nationalist movement, it had tied itself to Judaism, and I couldn’t relate to one without relation to the other. This contradiction kept me from both of them”. (pg. 14)

When reading and talking about Judaism with people from my university’s Hillel group I’m often confounded by the idea that all good Jews should want to perform aliyah (immigration to Israel by Jews) rather than live in the places where they are born, live in diaspora. For me, this idea forces Jews to choose one side in the Israeli-Arab conflict, choose to be a good Jew by politically, socially, and religiously support Israel’s quest to expand and oppress Palestinians. And this is why I picked this book up; I wanted to learn about Jews living in diaspora that don’t feel the need to perform aliyah to Israel. It just happened that the book was written by a Jew who struggled to be a Jew in the face of intertwined religion and national thought.

“I rarely associated with Israel or with those Jews who argued so vehemently in its defense whenever they felt the smallest criticism directed toward the Jewish state. Alan Dershowitz, arguing in defense of Israel, defended torture. I didn’t want any part of a Jewish people that felt the need for such arguements”. (pg. 12)

In this search London travels to Burma; Bentonville, Arkansas (home of Wal-Mart); New Orleans; Bosnia; Uganda; Iran; Cuba; and the land London calls Zion. An interesting distinction for sure and one that captured my attention.

“I was saddened to think that, aside from being the name of the Jewish state, Israel was the name of all the Jewish people. Why had they chosen this name for their state? Thanks to that choice, we were all deeply tied to this country, no matter how we felt about its policies, which too often kowtowed to right-wring leaders like Itamar Ben-G’vir or those who sympathized with him. We were all tired in some way to whatever violence this place would endure — or inflict — in the future”. (pg. 283)

In his journey he finds communities disappearing and ones thriving far from Israel; communities were people do not feel the need to move to Israel in order to be a good Jew. In fact, according to London, many Israelis are suspicious if Africans who convert to Judaism because they believe it is a way to access to Israeli wealth and social services (pg. 187) and there’s a struggle to recognize black Africans as Jews.

Many of London’s hosts have visited Israel but maintain that Iran or Bosnia or Cuba is their home and although they feel an affinity to Jerusalem and their fellow Jews, they don’t feel a need to complete aliyah. Interesting from the standpoint that it does follow the “party line”, but I had a hard time remaining interested in London’s journey. His stops in Bosnia, Uganda, Iran, and “Zion” were very informative, but there was just something missing from this journey.


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