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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

'Progressive' Jewish thought and anti-Semitism

There's a lengthy article on the American Jewish Committee's web site that has stirred up a storm of controversy for being honest. The article is called Progressive Jewish Thought and Anti-Semitism. The lengthy article was written by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, a professor of English and Jewish Studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts at Indiana University, with a foreword by David A. Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. This is from Harris' foreword:
Perhaps the most surprising—and distressing—feature of this new trend is the very public participation of some Jews in the verbal onslaught against Zionism and the Jewish state. Here, too, the vociferous denunciators are to be found at both ends of the political-religious spectrum, from the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta, who believe that a Jewish state in advance of the messianic era is blasphemy, to the ultra-leftists who find a territory-based Jewish existence to be antithetical to their own self-referential definitions of Judaism. But when it comes to getting noticed by the media and getting “traction” for their views, it is the so-called “progressive” Jewish anti-Zionists who receive the lion’s share of the attention.

These leftist Jewish critics challenge not just Israel’s policies, but “its legitimacy and right to an ongoing future.” Their acerbic criticisms and negative rituals—such as renouncing a Jewish child’s right to Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return at his bris (ritual circumcision)—are documented here by Prof. Rosenfeld. There is the poet Adrienne Rich, who argues that the word Zionism is “so incendiary, so drenched in … ideas of blood and soil, in memories of victimization and pursuant claims of the right to victimized” that it “needs to dissolve before twenty-first century realities.” There is the hyperbolic British academic Jacqueline Rose, who says, “We take Zionism to be a form of collective insanity.” And there is Joel Kovel, a professor, writer, and Green Party politician who believes that “to be a true Jew,” Jews must “annihilate their particularism,” “annihilate or transcend Zionism,” and “annihilate the Jewish state.”
And from Rosenfeld's article:
For an exposure to the full range of such sentiments, one could hardly do better than to consult two recently published collections: Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon (New York: Grove Press, 2003) and Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel, edited by Seth Farber (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2005). [Farber was a teacher at the Modern Orthodox school I attended in Boston (way after my time there) before making aliyah about ten years ago. CiJ]

Liberally sprinkled through the pages of the first of these books are references to Israeli “apartheid,” “racism,” “colonialism,” and “ethnic cleansing.” These descriptors have become part of standard discourse among “progressive” American Jews, who seem to take for granted that the historical record shows Israel to be an aggressor state guilty of sins comparable to those of Hendrik Verwoerd’s South Africa and Hitler’s Germany. As for “Zionism,” gone are the days when it was praised by those on the left as a movement of Jewish national liberation. One contributor, Joel Kovel, a professor at Bard College, who is writing a book on post-Zionist Israel, suggests that Zionism “is equivalent to a form of racism” and is unforgiving that it brought about “the Jewish homeland at the expense of another people” (p. 357).


In more condensed form, Irena Klepfisz, a poet and Holocaust survivor, declares that “you can be a victim and also a victimizer” (p.367)—a simplistic charge routinely made by those who wish to blacken Israel’s image in the worst way by drawing unseemly parallels between Jews as victims and those who victimize them.

Some of Israel’s Jewish critics are irate at the country for still other reasons: In their eyes, Judaism itself has fallen casualty to Israel’s sins, and the cost to their own religious principles is so high as to render questionable the value of the state’s existence. “I’m not against Israel,” writes Douglas Rushkoff, a New York-based author who writes on media and new culture. His objection rather is to the version of Israel which he sees as “this nationalized refugee camp,” which is “a compromise of Jewish ideals, and not their realization.... We get a claim on some land, but we lose our religion in the process” (pp. 181, 182).

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmud at the University of California at Berkeley, joins Rushkoff in this critique but goes him one better. Just as Christianity may have died at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor, laments Boyarin, so “I fear ... that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Deheishe, Beteen (Beth-El), and al-Khalil (Hebron)” (p. 202). As always, the recourse to Holocaust parallels is a sure sign that lucid thinking has been replaced by bias. In this case, as in others, Jewish identity is affirmed in opposition to the Jewish state.
The leftists don't hide their beliefs. In fact, they are quite open in expressing them:
Some Jews devise novel changes in their practice of Judaism to reflect the ways in which, so they claim, Israel has damaged the religion. Jews who are members of JATO (“Jews Against the Occupation”), for instance, build what they call “an anti-occupation sukkah with pictures of destroyed Palestinian buildings” adorning its walls. Marc Ellis, a professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and the author of several anti-Zionist books written from a liberation theology perspective, proposes that the synagogue Torah scrolls be replaced in the Ark of the Covenant by replicas of Israeli helicopter gunships, which he argues are the true symbol of Israeli reality today (p. 155).

Anti-Zionist Jews have introduced other rituals as well, such as taking an oath against exercising their rights under the Law of Return—the privilege of citizenship in Israel that every Jew (except one who has a criminal past and might endanger the public welfare) currently enjoys. “Far from being protected by Israel, I feel exposed to danger by the actions of the Israeli state,” writes Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz. “I am declaring another way to be Jewish.... I renounce my right to return” (p. 256). At the ritual circumcision of their son, Meg Barnett and Brad Lander issued a similar declaration: “We are thrilled to pronounce you a Jew without the Right of Return. Your name contains our deep hope that you will explore and celebrate your Jewish identity without confusing it with nationalism” (p. 293).

As these gestures of Jewish dissent indicate, there is a tendency among American Jews who identify themselves as “progressive” to embrace positions on Zionism and Israel that are as negative, and sometimes even as damning, as any to be found among the most fervent non-Jewish anti-Zionists. One recognizes in their writings
passions of anger and indignation, bitterness and repudiation that transcend those associated with mere politics. Israel in their eyes is guilty of a great betrayal and should be punished. Never mind that more than a thousand of its citizens have been murdered in the last few years and thousands more maimed for life. Never mind as well that Israel is singled out more than any other country on the globe for inaccurate and one-sided condemnations of its alleged human rights abuses and targeted for boycotts and divestment campaigns. And never mind that, alone among the world’s countries, Israel’s very existence is considered an aggression, its legitimacy subjected to doubt, and its right to a future openly questioned.

No historical or political explanations of Israel’s current predicament are acceptable to some of the country’s Jewish critics, nor can the Jewish state be easily redeemed from its perceived wrongdoings. “History is screwing us totally up ... forget the history,” suggests Irena Klepfisz (pp. 358-59). She is for less explanation and more action—and now.

Like other “oppressive” regimes before it, Israel is judged to be guilty of the worst and must be brought to heel. Journalist Esther Kaplan, commenting on the charge by a young Rutgers University activist that “Israel is a racist state, an imperialist state—it is and should be a pariah state,” remarks: “[I]f that’s what it takes to bring
down the occupation..., Israel should absolutely become a pariah state.... The time has come when Israel must be totally isolated by world opinion and forced, simply forced, to concede” (p. 87).

While their numbers are still relatively small, activists in groups like A Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Peace in Palestine and Israel, Students for Justice in Palestine, the Labor Committee for Peace and Justice, the International Solidarity Movement, and other “communities of the principled and disobedient”—the term is Susan Sontag’s (p. 348)–are organizing to bring about their political goals, whatever the costs. With others who condemn Israel as a “racist state, an imperialist state,” some will do whatever they can to make it a pariah. The full effects of their efforts may not be clear to these Jews, for they couch their ambitions in high-sounding terms like “peace,” “justice,” and “reconciliation.” Should they ever succeed in reducing Israel’s already embattled status to that of a rogue state, “totally isolated by world opinion,” the result would not be a fuller measure of peace and justice for either the Israelis or the Palestinians but, almost certainly, the opposite.
And then there is Farber's book, of which I will give you only a taste:
The true end point of these views is not just to force the Israelis out of the territories they have occupied since 1967, but to force an end to the Jewish state itself. This goal is suggested more implicitly than explicitly in some of the contributions to Wrestling with Zion, but it gets spelled out quite openly in Seth Farber’s collection of interviews
with anti-Zionist Jews. The book’s contributors include Noam Chomsky, Steve Quester, Joel Kovel, Norton Mezvinsky, Ora Wise, Norman Finkelstein, Phyllis Bennis, Adam Shapiro, Daniel Boyarin, Rabbi David Weiss, and Marc Ellis, most of whom are identified as “progressive.”

Whatever substantive meaning the term “progressive” may once have had, it appears in Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers as little more than a self-validating honorific—the presumed equivalent of moral and political virtue itself. Like “peace,” “justice,” and much else in the contemporary lexicon of leftist rhetoric at its most dogmatic, “progressive” has worn badly; and in Farber’s overheated book, the term appears either as a pious gesture in the direction of utopian politics or, with reference to Zionism, signals views that can only be called regressive. The Israel that emerges in Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers—a country characterized as “amoral,” “barbaric,” “brutal,” “destructive,” “fascistic,” “oppressive,” “racist,” “sordid,” and “uncivilized”—is indistinguishable from the despised country regularly denounced by the most impassioned anti-Semites.

As pictured by Farber and his colleagues, Israel is guilty of every sin that a modern nation-state is capable of committing—from “apartheid” and “state terrorism” to “ethnic cleansing,” “crimes against humanity,” and “pure genocide.” No convincing evidence is offered to support any of these extreme charges. Rather, as demonstrated by the contributors to this book, it is an unquestioned assumption of their collective thinking that Israel is an inherently racist, oppressive, and singularly brutal country and, ipso facto, stands guilty as charged. For what is alleged to be its racist, systematic cruelty, the Jewish state is likened to the Ku Klux Klan and South Africa during the worst years of apartheid rule. Lest these analogies be considered too tame, Farber quotes the theologian Marc Ellis, who favors references of a still stronger kind: “‘What the Nazis had not succeeded in accomplishing ... we as Jews have embarked upon” (p. 15).

Others portray Israeli actions in similarly exaggerated and defamatory terms. Adopting the Palestinian nomenclature, Joel Kovel calls Israel’s still incomplete security fence an “Apartheid Wall” and compares the lives of Palestinians on the other side of it to Jews in “the Warsaw Ghetto” (p. 67). Anyone who knows anything about life and death in the Warsaw ghetto will find the comparison as bogus as Rose’s attempt to tie Herzl to Hitler. But Kovel is undeterred by the transparent falsity of his analogy and, determined to smear the Israelis, goes on to make his obscene point all the same.

In much the same spirit, Steve Quester wonders if Israelis are “going to build gas chambers and kill them all” (p. 41), but then backs off from that idea and imagines that the Israeli plan for the Palestinians is merely to “terrorize” and “starve” them out. Seth Farber himself holds to the harsher view and insists on conflating Israeli “racism” with “Nazi anti-Semitism” (p. 137). And Rabbi David Weiss goes him one better by claiming that the Zionists have actually been “worse than Hitler” (p. 206).


To advance this aim, the contributors to Farber’s Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers at times invoke Judaism’s own teachings, denounce Zionism as “a perversion” of Judaism,” and call the state it created a “horrible mistake” (p. 224). Taking up a position long favored by the extreme right-wing rabbis of Neturei Karta, Farber finds the Jewish state heretical from a religious standpoint and condemns it for “driving a dagger through the heart of our identity as Jews” (p. 15). None of his contributors demurs from that line. Rather, a given of their collective thinking seems to be that Israel betrays the prophetic tradition, is “stifling ... to the notion of Judaism” (p. 63), and is simply unredeemable.
Rosenfeld's article is thirty pages long, but those of you who can may want to read the whole thing.

All of which brings us to this morning's New York Times:
The essay comes at a time of high anxiety among many Jews, who are seeing not only a surge in attacks from familiar antagonists, but also gloves-off condemnations of Israel from onetime allies and respected figures, like former President Jimmy Carter, who titled his new book on the Mideast “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.” By spotlighting the touchy issue of whether Jews are contributing to anti-Semitism, both admirers and detractors of the essay agree that it aggravates an already heated dispute over where legitimate criticism of Israel and its defenders ends and anti-Semitic statements begin.


Over the telephone, the dinner table and the Internet, people who follow Jewish issues have been buzzing over Mr. Rosenfeld’s article. Alan Wolfe, a political scientist and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said, “I’m almost in a state of shock” at the verbal assaults directed at liberal Jews.

On H-Antisemitism (h-net.org), an Internet forum for scholarly discussions of the subject, Michael Posluns, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, wrote, “Sad and misbegotten missives of the sort below make me wonder if it is not the purpose of mainstream Jewish organizations to foster anti-Jewishness by calling down all who take from their Jewish experience and Jewish thought a different ethos and different ways of being as feeding anti-Semitism.”

Others have praised Mr. Rosenfeld’s indictment and joined the fray. Shulamit Reinharz, a sociologist who is also the wife of Jehuda Reinharz, the president of Brandeis University, wrote in a column for The Jewish Advocate in Boston: “Most would say that they are simply anti-Zionists, not anti-Semites. But I disagree, because in a world where there is only one Jewish state, to oppose it vehemently is to endanger Jews.”

Although many of the responses to the essay have referred to its subject as “Jewish anti-Semitism,” Mr. Rosenfeld said in a telephone interview that he was very careful not to use that phrase. But whatever it is called, he said, “I wanted to show that in an age when anti-Semitism is resurgent, Jews thinking the way they’re thinking is feeding into a very nasty cause.”
I agree with Alvin Rosenfeld and Shulamit Reinharz. It's one thing to criticize Israeli policies, to call for 'compromises' with the 'Palestinians,' and to claim that Israel treats them too harshly. It is quite another to call for Israel's dissolution, to accuse it of Nazism, and to compare its actions with those of the Nazis. There is no question that these sorts of attitudes by Jews give comfort to the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinadinnerjacket and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Anyone who believes that Iran, Syria and the 'Palestinians' would not murder every Jew in Israel if they ever - God forbid - get the opportunity is simply fooling himself.

The 'progressives' are a clear and present danger to the Jews of Israel and are a danger to all Jews worldwide. They must be fought at every opportunity.


At 9:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the article, which is brilliant, and I agree with it 100%.

This is a problem. I have Jewish friends who are anti-zionist, and it kills me to listen to them. Jews are so tiny in number, and to see antiizionist Jews is simply heartbreaking.

At 5:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great Rabbi once said that "If the Jew does not make Kidush, then the goy will make Havdalah".
If we do not keep separate then Hashem sends antisemitism to keep us separate.


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