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Thursday, March 01, 2007

'Progressive' Jewish thought and anti-Semitism - Part 2

About a month ago, I wrote a post entitled 'Progressive' Jewish thought and anti-Semitism, that dealt with an essay written by Alvin Rosenfeld of the American Jewish Committee.

In the essay, Rosenfeld argued that by the vehemence of their opposition to the State of Israel, many Jewish leftists progressives were actually causing anti-Semitism.

The essay has stirred up quite a reaction in the Jewish community, especially in the United States.

Rosenfeld has written a follow-up piece that appeared in The New Republic. Unfortunately, The New Republic is behind a firewall, so most of us cannot access it. But Judith at Kesher Talk has been kind enough to put the entire essay on her web site for us. Here's part of it:

In part, the debate was triggered by the Times' erroneous reference to "liberal Jews" (a term I never used) and to the AJC as a "conservative advocacy group" (it is not). Owing to these mischaracterizations, some readers were prepared to see my essay as just the latest salvo in the already overheated culture wars between right-wing and left-wing opinion in this country. Before reading what I actually wrote, for instance, Gershom Gorenberg, commenting in The American Prospect, groaned: "Here we go again, I thought: Another right-wing American Jew ... is trashing liberal Jews for voicing criticisms milder than what an Israeli ex-paratroop officer might express over lunch with old army friends." On closer look, though, he found something quite different: a critical review of the words of "those Jews who reject the very existence of a Jewish state and who express their opposition in shrieks that rise to equating Israel with the Nazis."

These "shrieks" were my subject; and I had no trouble locating them in the work of certain Jewish authors, many of whom identify as "progressives" and are prominently represented in Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon's Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Adopting their own self-chosen moniker, I took "progressive," not "liberal," as my term of choice.

No commonly agreed-upon taxonomy of terms--"liberal," "leftist," "radical"--exists to define "progressive" today with any precision, but the word generally is taken to designate a political position to the left of "liberal," the latter term becoming a casualty of the culture wars and no longer enjoying the currency it once had. The slide from "liberal" to "progressive," however, involves more than just a semantic switch. As the political scientist Andrei Markovits explains in Uncouth Nation, "an uncompromising anti-Zionism, which occasionally borders on the anti-Semitic," has become requisite for membership in good standing in the progressive left. Together with anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism "has become a kind of litmus test for progressive thinking and identity. ... Just as any self-respecting progressive and leftist in Europe or America, regardless of which political shade, simply had to be on the side of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism have become the requisite proof of possessing a progressive conviction today."

There are people within the progressive left who strongly oppose these tendencies--the British-based authors of the Euston Manifesto and writers featured in Dissent and Democratiya come immediately to mind. They make clear their concern with growing anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, noting (I quote from the Euston Manifesto website) their stand against "organizations of the left that are willing to entertain openly anti-Semitic speakers and to form alliances with anti-Semitic groups."

Among others on the left, though, an often strident anti-Zionism is part of the ideological package that gives them their political identity. Their inclination to liken Israel to Nazi Germany and white-ruled South Africa--and their frequent excoriations of the Jewish state as guilty of "racism," "apartheid," "ethnic cleansing," "war crimes," and "genocide" draw from a common lexicon of hyperbolically corrosive speech and have helped to fashion an intellectual and political climate that encourages the demonization of Israel and its supporters. Jacqueline Rose's reduction of Zionism to a form of collective lunacy and her attempt to link Theodor Herzl with Adolph Hitler; Joel Kovel's call for "true Jews" to "annihilate their particularism," "annihilate or transcend Zionism," and "annihilate the Jewish state"; Norman Finkelstein's claim that Israeli Jews are a "parasitic class" and that their "apologists" are comparable to the Gestapo; and Michael Neumann's equation of "Jewish complicity" in Israel's policies with German complicity in the Holocaust illustrate the extremity of such views. Citing innumerable examples of such tendentious thinking, I closed my essay by noting that, "at a time when the delegitimization and, ultimately, the eradication of Israel is a goal being voiced with mounting fervor by the enemies of the Jewish state, it is more than disheartening to see Jews themselves adding to the vilification."

Many readers agreed with these conclusions. But some were clearly discombobulated. "I am almost in a state of shock," Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College and TNR contributing editor, told The New York Times. Confronting me on NPR's "On Point," Wolfe dropped the "almost"; he also accused me of employing "Stalinist tactics" to stifle free speech and suppress open debate. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, told the International Herald Tribune's Roger Cohen, "The atmosphere is hysterical, verging on McCarthyism. You can't raise questions about Israel without being told you're an anti-Semite or a self-hating and disloyal Jew." The Boston Globe ran a story by Stanley Kutler under the absurd heading, "All Critics of Israel Aren't Anti-Semites," which carried the fantastic charge that my "real targets" are "Democrats and opponents of George W. Bush's dubious adventure into Iraq." And the Forward lost its editorial wits altogether with a piece called "Infamy," claiming that my intent was to "turn Jews against liberalism and silence critics" and, for these alleged sins, placing me in their secular version of cherem.


What is at stake in the present debate, though, is serious and calls for thoughtful minds to move beyond the regnant clich├ęs and recognize that Jews and the Jewish state are once again embattled. The most violent enemies--Iran and Syria, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda--are undisguised. On another level, but causing its own damaging effects, is the hostility embedded in language. One libel after the other, today's anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric erodes Israel's moral standing and marginalizes those who are devoted to the Jewish state and speak out on its behalf. In Europe, slanted media coverage has already reduced Israel and its supporters to something close to pariah status while creating a sense of unease within the local Jewish communities that has not been felt for decades. Some Jews fear that it is now open hunting season on them and their children and are giving thought to leaving. Many have, in fact, already left.

This is not the situation of American Jews at the moment, but, with words like "apartheid" and "dual loyalty" in the air and intimations of powerful "Jewish lobbies" controlling the national press and exerting undue influence over foreign policy, a quiver of nervousness is now detectable among Jews in this country, too. Language matters, and its contamination by thoughtless or malicious people can be invidious. That was the thrust of my reflections on anti-Zionist ideas and anti-Semitic utterances in my AJC essay. Some of the responses to it prove my point.

Read it all.


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