Dorothy Zellner

individual

Overview

  • Anti-Israel activist
  • Believes that Israel violates the human rights of Palestinians
  • Views America as an irredeemably racist society
  • Contends that capitalism is “a basically flawed economic and social system that sanctions exploitation and needs racism and division to survive”

Born in New York City on January 14, 1938, Dorothy Miller Zellner is a self-described “atheist Jew” and “100 percent atheist” who was raised by what she calls “secular Jewish progressive parents” in a “non-observant” home. After completing her studies at Queens College in 1960, Zellner—inspired by the student sit-ins protesting segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina—became active in the civil rights movement. She herself participated in sit-ins in Miami and New Orleans.[1]

From 1962-67, Zellner was a staffer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She served the organization variously as a fundraiser, a media-relations specialist, and a co-editor (with Julian Bond) of its newsletter, the Student Voice. Many years later, in 2010, Zellner co-edited the retrospective book Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC.[2]

Following her tenure with SNCC, Zellner worked as a nurse for a number of years before taking a job with the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1984. In 1998 she was hired as director of publications and development for the Queens College School of Law.[3]

A pivotal year in Zellner’s life was 2002, when, after listening to a talk by Israeli pacifist Uri Avnery, she became a passionate pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel activist.[4]

Over the years, Zellner has made at least a dozen trips to Israel. The first, she says, was in the winter of 2002-03, “several months after the horrible Israeli invasion in the second intifada.” This was a reference to “Operation Defensive Shield,” Israel’s military response to a massive wave of deadly attacks by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. Reflecting, years later, on that initial visit to the Mideast, Zellner made no mention of the terrorism that had preceded the Israeli incursion. Rather, she recalled how she had been moved to tears by the sight of “the barbed wire on the wall, and the guard tower on top of the wall.” These “images flooded back to me from World War II,” she lamented, implying that modern-day Israelis were now acting like Hitler-era Nazis.[5]

In 2009 Zellner signed a petition imploring members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to stop the “atrocities,” “war crimes,” and “crimes against humanity” that they were perpetrating “against the people of Gaza.” The source of Zellner’s angst, in this case, was “Operation Cast Lead”—another Israeli military response to a relentless barrage of rockets and mortars that Hamas-affiliated terrorists in Gaza had been launching into southern Israel. Turning a blind eye to those provocations, Zellner and her co-signers exhorted IDF soldiers to defy the “flagrantly illegal orders” of their commanders. Also during Operation Cast Lead, Zellner was a founding member of Jews Say No, a group portraying Israel as an oppressor of the Palestinian people.[6]

During 2008-10, Zellner was an avid supporter of the Free Gaza Movement (FGM) flotillas that sought to end the blockade that Israel—in an effort to prevent Hamas from importing weaponry from its allies in Iran and Syria—had imposed on Gaza’s seaport in 2007.[7]

Zellner was particularly distressed by Israel’s response to a six-ship flotilla of activists representing FGM and the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief (IHH)—a Turkish group with longstanding ties to Hamas, al Qaeda, and the Muslim Brotherhood—that embarked for Gaza on May 30, 2010. Among the 600-plus people aboard one of the flotilla’s six ships, the Mavi Marmara, were numerous senior members of the Brotherhood as well as approximately 40 known Turkish jihadis. As the flotilla approached the Gazan port, Israel issued numerous notifications indicating that the ships would not be permitted to dock without first submitting to an inspection of their cargoes. The boat crews repeatedly refused to comply, thus in the early morning hours of May 31, Israeli commandos rappelled from helicopters onto the decks of the vessels and intercepted the flotilla. The IHH-affiliated activists on the Mavi Marmara responded violently, attacking the commandos with knives, clubs, steel pipes, and stun grenades; some of the activists were armed with guns. In the melee that ensued, nine FGM/IHH activists were killed and seven Israeli soldiers were wounded. In the aftermath of the incident, Zellner angrily condemned Israel for “murdering nine people,” an act she characterized as “an outrage.”[8]

In October 2012, Zellner co-authored an article deriding her detractors for employing “the tactics of calling one’s opponents anti-Semitic or claiming that they advocate the ‘elimination of Israel’ when they are simply examining problems that must be addressed to eliminate injustice …”[9]

An avid supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to isolate Israel politically and cripple its economy, Zellner in 2014 happily reported that the movement was “growing by leaps and bounds especially on the economic level, the divestment level,” as “a serious way for people to register their feelings about the occupation.”[10]

When Israel in July 2014 initiated “Operation Protective Edge”—yet another military incursion designed to dismantle Hamas’s stockpiles of armaments and its vast network of secret subterranean tunnels throughout Gaza—Zellner was outraged once more. Dismissing Israel’s assertion that Protective Edge was a necessary response to the many rockets that Hamas terrorists had again been firing into Israel, she said: “We don’t buy it. This is blaming the victim to the extreme.”[11]

Over the years, Zellner has deprecated the Israeli government for its “apparent belief that Jews are better off if Arab or Muslim countries are devastated one after another.” She laments that Palestinians are routinely “herded like cattle through … institutionalized checkpoints that are like mini prisons.” And she contends that the “root cause” of “all the death and destruction” in Israel and the Palestinian territories “isn’t Hamas,” but rather, “the injustice of one group controlling the lives and future of another group.” “As long as Israel occupies Palestine,” Zellner elaborates, “and as long as Palestinians resist (which, according to International human rights law, they have the right to do), confrontations and death will result. The root cause is the occupation, which itself flows from the previous dispossession of Palestinians from the land they inhabited for generations.”[12]

Impugning Jews for their “blind loyalty to Israel,” which “is really an ethnic state” wherein the “nationalism” of the people “is killing us,” Zellner proudly describes herself as an “anti-Zionist.” Zionists, she claims, “have hijacked our Jewishness, and they have made it into a place, a country—so our Jewishness became a place.” When asked in a 2014 interview whether Israel has “a right to exist as a Jewish state,” Zellner replied: “My answer is I do not think that states that privilege one group over another are viable states.”[13]

In modern-day Israeli-Palestinian relations, Zellner perceives “a lot of echoes of what I went through in the South” during the 1960s—i.e., when she encountered white racists who were insensitive to the needs and struggles of black people. “A lot of the [Israeli] Jews are living in a bubble,” a March 2015 Times of Israel article quoted Zellner as saying. “They don’t care, don’t want to know” about the abuses that their country allegedly heaps upon the Palestinans. “If you take seriously your Jewish heritage,” Zellner emphasized, “you do have to say something—you shall not stand idly by! What we see is wrong, so we’re going to stand up and speak until we’re hoarse.” At a Harvard interfaith panel in February 2015, she likewise affirmed: “As a Jew, I feel a Jewish obligation to stand up for the oppressed. I view Palestinians as being the oppressed.”[14]

Praising “black intellectuals who have decided to make common cause with this [Israeli-Palestinian] issue,” Zellner avers that “no one can dispute” Archbishop Desmond Tutu‘s assertion that the living conditions of Palestinians in the West Bank today are worse than those endured by blacks under South African apartheid years ago.[15]

Zellner’s anti-Israel activism today is energized, as were her efforts during her days with SNCC, by her fervent belief that ultimately “it’s the struggle that counts … You have to be willing to struggle.”[16]

Zellner’s contempt for Israel is mirrored by her equally low regard for the United States, which she views as an irredeemably “racist society.” In 2014, for instance, she charged that “voter ID laws and other impediments were invented” specifically to prevent blacks from casting their ballots on Election Day.[17]

When a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot and killed an 18-year-old black male named Michael Brown in a highly publicized August 2014 incident that set off a massive wave of anti-police demonstrations nationwide, Zellner did not hesitate to speak out before all the evidence was in — evidence which would prove that Brown in fact had physically assaulted the officer just prior to the fatal shooting. Rather, Zellner quickly declared that the Ferguson killing was just “another incident of violent racism [by police] in our country”; that it was “one more example of the basic inequality that still exists in the U.S., where communities of color are still unrepresented in their police departments or their city governments and live amidst poverty and neglect”; and that America’s intransigent bigotry had bred “an unequal criminal-justice system that retains more than two million people, mostly Black and Brown, in prison.” The “root cause” of what occurred in Ferguson, Zellner concluded, was “a basically flawed economic and social system that sanctions exploitation and needs racism and division to survive.” To buttress her claim, she cited a 1969 quote by her onetime SNCC mentor Ella Baker—an avowed socialist with ties to the Communist Party USA and the Weather Underground—who had once said: “In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become a part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed.”[18]

In a January 2016 interview, Zellner characterized the United States as “such a deeply racist country,” and Israel as a nation whose Arab inhabitants are treated as “second class citizens.” She also referred to Israel’s 1948 creation as “the Nakba,” an Arabic word for “Catastrophe.”[19]

In addition, Zellner made the following remarks:

  • “I don’t believe that the Palestinian movement is a terrorist movement. I don’t care how many 12-year-olds pull knives, that doesn’t make it terrorism. Terrorism is not just the technique; it’s the purpose, it’s the reason. So we have to be very straight in our heads about what’s a terrorist. If we’re not, then everybody becomes a terrorist. And if everybody becomes a terrorist, then nobody is a terrorist…. I don’t know how many white people were scalped by Native Americans, you could portray Native Americans as terrorists, but they were fighting for their liberation. And Palestinians are fighting for their liberation. But Dylann Roof is a terrorist. When he kills 9 black people, he has a political purpose. He thinks he’s organizing white people to oppose the advances of black people by scaring black people. We have to get this straight in our minds. Otherwise we become vulnerable when people say that Palestinians are terrorists– and they’re not. Even when they’re firing the rockets. Politically I don’t think this is a feasible tactic, but I don’t think that’s a case of terrorism. Because they are fighting for their liberation. And that’s different from trying to scare people into doing what you want.”
  • “I am still of the belief, that what we are seeing is like the slow motion demolition of a building, it comes down very slowly. The Israel we know and have come to love [chuckle] is coming down. Now they could have had a Jewish state if they had agreed to a two-state solution maybe 25 years ago. I don’t see that it’s possible now. I just don’t see any way that it’s possible. The issue is going to be, and has been already– that it’s one state, and what kind of a state it’s going to be. That’s where the struggle is going to go. What kind of state will this be? I am very much in favor of people being safe. I want Jews to be safe in Israel/Palestine, whatever you call it. I want Palestinians to be safe. I want everyone to be safe. But it’s going to be hard to be a nonviolent change.”
  • “The Palestinians have been using nonviolent techniques at least since the ’80s. The first intifada was largely nonviolent. Because it failed, the second intifada was much more violent. But we can see over the years the protesters—in Budrus, in Bil’in– how they are treated when they are nonviolent. I have seen that with my own eyes. The world generally has not generated the support for this Palestinian nonviolent movement. And if the world doesn’t support nonviolence, I don’t see what their recourse is. If people here are really serious about nonviolence, they better start supporting people there who are nonviolent, who are out there every week being perfectly nonviolent and getting shot at and tear-gassed by the IDF.”[20]

Zellner has ideological and activist ties to Partners for Peace and has done volunteer work for Physicians for Human Rights. She currently serves as a volunteer for the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, and is a board member of the Friends Of The Jenin Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian entity in the West Bank that aims to generate cultural resistance against Israel.[21]

Footnotes

  1. From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014); “What Ella Baker Taught Us About Ferguson And Gaza” (by Dorothy Zellner, JewsSayNo.org, 8-26-2014); “Dorothy Miller Zellner” (JWA.org).
  2. From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014); “What Ella Baker Taught Us About Ferguson And Gaza” (by Dorothy Zellner, JewsSayNo.org, 8-26-2014); “Dorothy Miller Zellner” (JWA.org); “Jewish Civil Rights Activists Use Legacy to Promote BDS” (The Times of Israel, 3-12-2015); “Who Is Dorothy M. Zellner?” (South African Jewish Report, 11-24-2014); Hands on the Freedom Plow (co-edited by Dorothy Zellner, University of Illinois Press, 2014).
  3. Dorothy Miller Zellner” (JWA.org); “Dorothy Zellner” (Brooklyn Public Library Speakers).
  4. From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014); “Jewish Civil Rights Activists Use Legacy to Promote BDS” (The Times of Israel, 3-12-2015).
  5. Jewish Civil Rights Activists Use Legacy to Promote BDS” (The Times of Israel, 3-12-2015); “From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014).
  6. Who Is Dorothy M. Zellner?” (South African Jewish Report, 11-24-2014); “Jewish Voices: Jews Say No!” (PromisedLandMuseum.org).
  7. Who Is Dorothy M. Zellner?” (South African Jewish Report, 11-24-2014).
  8. For details of the Mavi Marmara incident, see DiscoverTheNetworks’ FGM profile. Zellner’s quote appeared in “Gaza Flotilla Fallout: From The Sea To The Streets” (New York Jewish Week, 6-2-2010).
  9. Why the BDS Movement Is Effective and Right” (by Donna Nevel and Dorothy M. Zellner, Jewish Currents, 10-3-2012).
  10. From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014).
  11. Jews March in New York Rally Against Israel War in Gaza” (Forward.com, 7-24-2014).
  12. Who Is Dorothy M. Zellner?” (South African Jewish Report, 11-24-2014); “From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014); “What Ella Baker Taught Us About Ferguson And Gaza” (by Dorothy Zellner, JewsSayNo.org, 8-26-2014).
  13. Jewish Civil Rights Activists Use Legacy to Promote BDS” (The Times of Israel, 3-12-2015); “From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014).
  14. Jewish Civil Rights Activists Use Legacy to Promote BDS” (The Times of Israel, 3-12-2015).
  15. From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014).
  16. From Mississippi to Gaza — Dorothy Zellner Reflects on 50 Years of Struggle” (Mondoweiss.net, 6-24-2014).
  17. What Ella Baker Taught Us About Ferguson And Gaza” (by Dorothy Zellner, JewsSayNo.org, 8-26-2014).
  18. What Ella Baker Taught Us About Ferguson And Gaza” (by Dorothy Zellner, JewsSayNo.org, 8-26-2014); “Ella J. Baker” (KeyWiki.org).
  19. Conversation – Phil Weiss and Dorothy Zellner” (JewsSayNo.org, 1-6-2016).
  20. Conversation – Phil Weiss and Dorothy Zellner” (JewsSayNo.org, 1-6-2016).
  21. Who Is Dorothy M. Zellner?” (South African Jewish Report, 11-24-2014); “Jewish Civil Rights Activists Use Legacy to Promote BDS” (The Times of Israel, 3-12-2015); “Dorothy Zellner” (Brooklyn Public Library Speakers).

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