Answer to Rosenfeld: Jewish History, Anti-Semitism, and the Challenge of Zionism
Mark Braverman, Ph.D.
Mark Braverman, Ph.D.
Prologue: Memory and History
When I was 8 years old my brother and I would occasionally stay at our grandparents’ house in South Philadelphia. South Philly in 1956 was an immigrant enclave – here lived primarily the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians. It was a bustling, colorful, tightly packed community. There were outdoor markets and synagogues and churches in abundance, all built on the models of the Old Country. The neighborhood smelled of cooking and garbage. Homeless cats and dogs owned the maze of alleys that ran behind the densely packed streets of row houses. My brother and I slept in a tiny back room. You could fall out the window and land in the neighbors’ shoebox of a backyard.
One summer night it was noisy. As we prepared for bed, my grandmother in her soft Yiddish accent called our attention to the scene just outside the window that looked out over the alley: “Goyim,” she said, pointing out the window at a small gathering of people talking loudly, laughing, and holding drinks. “They’re shikker,” she told us, and I knew without her saying that this meant that being drunk was their natural state –and that this apparently convivial, noisy, and collective condition was a shameful thing indeed. Continuing her lesson, my grandmother told us the story of the Jew and the Goy who had gone to work for the same boss. Over the years the Jew advanced to foreman, while the Goy remained a laborer. One day the Goy goes up to the Jew and says, Chaim, why is it that we both started here together, and you’re second in command and I’m still hauling bricks? The Jew looks at him, and, saying not a word, takes him to the Goy’s backyard and shows him the garbage can, which is full of empty liquor bottles. That’s the reason, says the Jew. The Goy’s response to this lesson is unknown. Presumably (and undoubtedly in my Grandmother’s mind) in his goyish condition he remained unreformed.
I remember the moment. The experience of shock for an 8 year old is not a well-delineated emotion. It’s a damp, heavy blanket that settles over the heart -- the colors of the world and the sharp lines of wonder at everyday experience are dulled, suffocating underneath its weight. I asked no questions in response to what she was telling me. But – I know now -- I didn’t buy it.
It is 2006, and I am in a large room in the Carnegie Endowment outside of Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. I am attending a panel entitled: Politics and Diplomacy: Next Steps in Arab-Israeli Peacemaking. There are eight men sitting at the front of the room, four Palestinians and four Israelis. A Palestinian speaks first, calling for – in plaintive tones, this is the only word for it – a resumption of negotiations before it is too late. The economic embargo of the newly elected Palestinian government with its Hamas majority has been in effect for five months. “We don’t have much time left!” he tells us. I am almost brought to tears by the sadness of his presentation, and a bit shocked, truth to tell, at his restraint as he describes the utter humiliation and desperation faced by his people. “I am a member of the Palestinian Authority legislative counsel,” he goes on, “and I haven’t been paid in 4 months. I am one of the privileged, and I don’t know how I’ll make ends meet in the coming year!” I sense the room darkening -- there is a silence. I feel shame, embarrassment, anger. Then it is the Israeli’s turn to speak. I hold my breath: what will he say? How does he follow this? A journalist for a popular Israeli daily and now ensconced at the Brookings Institution nearby, the Israeli sits back, smiles -- and opens with a joke. He is, for all the world, a man delivering an after-dinner speech, interested in providing a measured degree of enlightenment while entertaining us. Clearly, we are in the presence of the conqueror – the man holding all the cards. “We’ll talk to them when the violence stops,” he pontificates: it’s the old story. But it isn’t the words, it is the arrogance. No - it isn’t the arrogance, it is the blindness, the sweeping, crushing insensitivity to the emotional tone of the previous speaker. The Palestinian sitting next to him was invisible -- he simply didn’t count. And on it went. The other Palestinian panelists, leaning forward in their chairs, protested weakly that time was running out, pleading for a resumption of negotiations. The Israelis sat back, opining about how the Hamas victory rendered the prospects for negotiations negligible, talking about unilateral actions, i.e. their intention to simply do what they wanted, take what they wanted. Among them was a former Israeli General who, in this context, on this panel – I am not making this up – spoke about the Jews’ Right to the Land. But, again, it wasn’t the words, it wasn’t the policies, shocking as they were – it was the negation, the utter, shocking, arrogant negation of the Other.
The Legacy of
In 2006, the American Jewish Committee published "’Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” an essay by Alvin Rosenfeld, Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University. In this essay Rosenfeld attacks a number of Jewish writers who have voiced opposition to the policies of the State of Israel and who have raised questions about the legitimacy of Zionism itself as a political ideology. Rosenfeld’s piece was the latest salvo in the bitterly fought battle currently underway within the Jewish community on the subject of Israel. Since, as the title implies, I have written this piece to take issue with his charge that these Jews are anti-Semitic, why have I opened with these stories, which illustrate Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews? I have done so because the attitudes revealed in these two memories – experiences bracketing 50 years of modern Jewish history -- begin to explain why we as contemporary Jews are confronting the agonizing moral and political dilemma embodied by the State of Israel. The fear, insularity and brittle sense of superiority that my grandmother carried as the legacy of Europe lead directly to the blindness and arrogance of the Israeli statesmen, policy-makers and opinion shapers that I saw on display that day in Washington, and to the rigid attitudes of institutional American Jewry towards Israel represented by Rosenfeld’s essay . And what is the source for this behavior and this attitude if not anti-Semitism itself? For this is the Jewish narrative, the story we tell ourselves: “We have survived through the ages by shielding ourselves from a world that seeks our destruction. We have maintained our dignity in the face of marginalization, disenfranchisement and vilification by maintaining a fierce pride and sense of – yes - superiority over the ignorant, violent forces surrounding us.” Anti-Semitism, like all racist ideologies, is not simply an attack on the physical security or economic viability of a group. Rather, it assaults the dignity, the very humanity of its targets. Zionism was European Jewry’s response to the devastating effects of anti-Semitism and in particular to the despair at the failure of the enlightenment to confer rights and equality to the Jews of Europe. The colonial movement that was Zionism was driven by a fierce need, not so much for physical security, but for dignity and self-determination. Modern Israel is, more than anything, a source of pride for Jews: It is good to have survived, and Israel is the living proof of our survival. As such, Israel embodies an ideal – the desert made to bloom, the land reclaimed, the “new Jew,” tanned, proud, and strong, Jerusalem reclaimed. Challenge this ideal image, and you strike at the very heart of the deeply-rooted Jewish need for security and well being. You mobilize in us a fear so deep, so thoroughly internalized, that we have forgotten how much it drives us.
Rosenfeld’s attack on Jewish criticism of Israel and questioning of Zionism has its source in that fear. The Rosenfeld who takes his fellow Jews to task for their criticism of Israel is not only attacking ideas which he finds unacceptable or threatening to his world view -- for him, it’s personal. The Jews he wants to discredit are threatening to break through a powerful form of denial -- they are challenging the typically Jewish arrogance born of not wanting to see anything, not wanting to feel anything that challenges the powerful symbol of Israel as a source of power and security and -- it must be added -- of goodness and righteousness: Our wars are pure. Our actions are not only necessary but partake of the righteousness of the Zionist project. This is also the reason for the strongly ad hominem nature of his essay. I ask now and I will ask again at the conclusion of this piece: Given our history of persecution, disenfranchisement, displacement and humiliation, given the still pulsating pain in our collective heart of the experience of genocide itself -- where is the sadness, where is the pain, where indeed is the horror at what is being done to another people in our name by the State of Israel? Where is the recognition of our violence?
Rosenfeld opens his paper in full fear-mongering mode by hauling out the specter of anti-Semitism. By his account, Europe is awash in a resurgence of Jew-hating, and world Islam is hawking Arabic translations Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on every street corner from Cairo to Islamabad in order to rouse the masses to exterminate the Zionist intruders. Rosenfeld even serves up the rumors of Jewish responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, the South Asia Tsunami, and the Kennedyassassination to make his point that anti-Semitism is on the rise. We must thus be vigilant, he implies, against any hint of anti-Jewish sentiment, in the present case as expressed in criticism of Israel. Having thus established who the enemy is, Rosenfeld then directs his ire against those fifth-column Jews who dare question Jewish moral superiority and entitlement. To question Israel is to remove the defenses against anti-Semitism, in effect to open the door to the destruction of the Jewish people.
Rosenfeld and those who agree with this philosophy are encountering strange but dangerously powerful bedfellows these days. At the recent (March 2007) conference of AIPAC - the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or so-called Israel Lobby -- in Washington, DC, Pastor John Hagee, leading Christian Zionist and founder of Christians United for Israel, received a rousing reception at the opening dinner. To thunderous applause, and according to one witness, “table thumping,” from the over 6,000 attendees, Hagee catered to the huge appetite for validation of this deep-seated Jewish fear. Referring to the newest threat to Jewish survival, Iran, whose leader “promises nothing less than a nuclear Holocaust," Hagee claimed that the situation is like 1938, only "Iran is Germany and [President Mahmoud] Ahmedinejad is the new Hitler." To drive home his point to the AIPAC audience, Hagee concluded that "we must stop Iran's nuclear threat and stop it now and stand boldly [with] Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East."
By publishing this piece, the American Jewish Committee is catering to the same appetite. Rosenfeld sets the stage by presenting a picture of anti-Semitism that will frighten Jewish readers and remind them of the need for vigilance (the specific argument in defense of Israel’s actions comes later). This is blatant, classic fear-mongering – in the USA we have recently learned only too well how effective this is. In this way, Rosenfeld has set up a classic straw man. Is he telling us something we don’t know? Of course anti-Semitism exists. Indeed it can be said that it is deeply rooted in Western civilization, with tragic consequences throughout modern history. But to use the accusation of anti-Semitism as a club to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel is short-sighted, misguided, and dangerous. It also is founded on distortions of history and fact, and on a number of fundamental fallacies. I will touch on several that I feel are the most serious.
Getting it backwards: Islamic Anti-Semitism
In his description of modern-day anti-Semitism in Europe, Rosenfeld presents an exaggerated picture based on isolated incidents. In the case of the Islamic world, he makes unsubstantiated claims, cynically trading on Western fear of Islam and the Arab world, claiming that although some “Muslim anger toward Israel” is due to “its treatment of the Palestinians, much of it predates the violence brought on by the recent intifadas and has roots within Arab Muslim culture.” (p 8) Rosenfeld simply drops this claim into the mix, as if it is established fact, without substantiation or further explanation.
In fact, the question of Islamic anti-Semitism is many-sided and nuanced. The consensus of modern scholarship seems to be that whereas Jews, along with other non-Muslims, were considered inferior to Muslims in some Islamic societies, they were granted a protected status in exchange for a special tax. Except for periodic outbursts of anti-Semitism, to be sure often murderous, Jews enjoyed better treatment overall from Muslims than they received from the Christian world. Indeed, during some periods, Jews flourished in Islamic society. There also is general agreement that the Kur’an contains statements both favorable and unfavorable to Jews. What is further agreed, and is significant for this discussion, is that to the extent that anti-Semitism existed in the Islamic world, it changed radically in the twentieth century, first as the result of post-Ottoman European colonialism in the Arab world, and then as the result of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Arabs experienced British post-WW I political and cultural imperialism as deeply humiliating. The carving up of the Arab world and the broken promises with regard to national self-determination fostered growing mistrust of the West. British support of Zionist aspirations early in the Twentieth Century added fuel to this fire. The 1947 United Nations decision to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, strongly supported by and ultimately pushed through by the powers of the West, and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel were, needless to say, equally unacceptable and a source of great humiliation and frustration. It is thus in the 1920s and 30s that we first see racist Nazi ideology adopted by some Arab leaders. As Jewish immigration increased in the 30s and 40s, Arabs began to increasingly adopt “traditional” Western styles of anti-Semitism. The point is that this change in the nature and degree of Arab anti-Semitism was a response to events that affected Arabs and conditioned their attitudes toward Jews.
How Rosenfeld presents Islamic anti-Semitism points to a core problem in his argument: he has it backwards. He wants to posit that since anti-Semitism exists, it follows that it is the source of “vicious accusations against the Jewish state.” He goes so far as to state that “anti-Zionism is the form that much of today’s anti-Semitism takes.” (p 8) By setting up this logic, Rosenfeld delegitimizes criticism of Israel by equating it to anti-Semitism, and eliminates the possibility that in fact the reality is the opposite: that Israel’s actions may be creating anti-Jewish feeling where it did not exist before, or feeding and increasing anti-Jewish feeling where it was already festering or lying beneath the surface.
One of the most pernicious aspects of Rosenfeld’s evocation of anti-Semitism is the way that he uses hatred of Jews, which where it exists is as despicable as any form of racism or animus against a single people, as a way to discredit and invalidate the legitimate political and moral positions of some Jews with respect to Israel or the Zionist idea. Rosenfeld’s smearing of those who challenge the policies of Israel with the ugly charge of anti-Semitism is repugnant enough. But in so doing he also tries to show them as minimizing the potential threat of anti-Semitism or even denying that it is the ugly thing that it is. Jewish critics of Israel are not as a group anti-Semitic. Neither are they blind or naïve, no more than they are betrayers of their people, a charge which Rosenfeld levels near the end of his paper (p 25), or “self-hating Jews,” a charge which he does not explicitly voice but that is abundantly implicit in his overall attack.
The Fundamental Fallacies in Rosenfeld’s Argument
Rosenfeld holds that the goal of Israel’s critics is not Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories or a change in state policy toward its own Arab citizens, but “to force an end to the Jewish State itself.” This is the first fallacy. Rosenfeld selects quotes from a number of writers that challenge the state and Zionism on a fundamental level, and from this he reasons that these same writers seek the end of Israel, and thus the annihilation of the Jewish people. There are multiple deductive “leaps” here, too many to consider, but the logical flaws are apparent. The effect is to stifle – indeed to render totally impermissible -- any criticism of Israel on political, philosophical, historical, or ethical levels. It’s a slippery slope, he would seem to argue: anti-Israel equals anti-Semite, leading to the end of the Jewish people. Actually, Rosenfeld has set us on a slippery slope, but not the one he intends. Indeed, we see here, in full flower, the tyranny of the ideologue: the kind of thinking that leads to oppression in the name of God or of the Nation. For example, in his rant against any notion of economic sanctions or conditions that might be imposed on Israel, Rosenfeld lumps those who would hold Israel to human rights standards required by international law with those who call “into question Israel’s legitimacy and moral standing…[and] abets the views of those who demand an end to Jewish national existence altogether.” Again, the thrust is all too clear: We Are in the Right and If You Are Not With Us You Are Against Us. Criticizing Israel is helping the enemy. Criticism of any kind is forbidden. Even certain words are out of bounds: according to Rosenfeld, using words like “brutal, …oppressive, or racist” to describe Israel’s actions equals anti-Semitism and is simply not permitted.
This reasoning is not only logically flawed, it is dangerous. In Rosenfeld’s argument, permission is not granted to hold any views outside of what is commonly, and by the mainstream, termed “pro-Israel.” Indeed, to use his word, “behavior” such as identifying with the suffering of oppressed Palestinian people by wearing a pin of the Palestinian flag, or seeking to find a path to peace through an understanding of the root causes of the horror of suicide bombing, is “bizarre” and “grotesque.” (p 24).
In Rosenfeld’s stridentcall for a circling of the wagons, we see the tragedy of modern Jewry in its confrontation with the uncomfortable realities of Israel: the refusal to deal with anyone’s suffering but our own. To be sure, and as discussed above, there are historical reasons for this attitude, and we are doubtless not the only group to have been guilty of this willful blindness, this inexcusable sense of entitlement and specialness. But this tendency among many Jews today is so powerful and pervasive that it reaches the level of outright denial. Nowhere – nowhere in Rosenfeld’s piece is to be found even a gratuitous nod to the suffering of the Palestinians – not even the minimizing, grudging, disingenuous acknowledgment of the “unfortunate abuses” suffered by the occupied Palestinians that one sometimes hears from the “pro-Israel” camp. But even more important, and ultimately more disturbing and potentially tragic, is the absence of any consideration of the issue of justice. To be sure, Israel may be threatened – the future is uncertain, geopolitics are fickle. In the global arena, what gives you birth and supports you one day can turn against you the next – and to be sure, anti-Semitism is alive, and where not active it is very likely dormant – but where is Justice, what is the state of your conscience?
Anti-Zionism is not Anti-Semitism
“Anti-Zionism” is another of Rosenfeld’s straw men. For Rosenfeld, to question Zionism is to be anti-Semitic. Indeed, it is not only actual criticism of Israel but almost any discussion that questions Israel’s present course that fails Rosenfeld’s loyalty test. This accusation is the favorite of the “my Israel right or wrong” camp, and its members wield it like a cudgel against Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is important to distinguish “anti-Zionism” from criticism of Israel stemming from horror, shame and outrage at the actions of the Jewish State. Zionism is an ideology – as such it can subscribed to and debated like any other. In contrast, the State of Israel is a political entity -- a nation state, that, like any other, should be held to standards of human rights, international law, fairness, and common decency. Indeed, one could argue that one can be an ardent Zionist and still feel horror at or at least feel grave concern about Israel’s policies and behavior, and be thus moved to voice your opinions or even to political activism. Does this point up the need for an updated definition of Zionism or indeed to address the question of whether the term is even relevant any longer? Do we need to begin a discussion about the need for a “Post-Zionism?”
Indeed, contemporary Jewish historians, social theorists and theologians have begun to weigh in on the implications of statehood for the Jewish religion itself. Benjamin Beit-Halahmi, an Israeli professor of social psychology, holds that for American Jews, Zionism has become a “’religion,’ kept by the class of high priests in Jewish organizations.” But, he writes, it is a “passive” religion, “more of an abstract faith than a plan of action.” Indeed, he continues, the actual actions of Israel are irrelevant to the role played by Israel in providing ideological content to make up for the decline in religious traditions and for the growing hunger among American Jews for spiritual fulfillment. Marc Ellis, the foremost proponent of Jewish Liberation Theology, has written that “mainstream Jewish life has evolved into a new form of Judaism, one that seeks and maintains empire, not unlike Constantinian Christianity.” Ellis also points out in his 2004 Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation that prior to WW II the Reform Movement of Judaism in America was deeply split over the question of the Jewish State, but that following the Holocaust all dissent was effectively silenced. Thus it was that for me, born in 1948, Zionism – meaning unqualified love for and support of the State of Israel -- was inextricably intertwined with my religious education and practice. Once an ideology and a movement among some Jews, Zionism is now curiously inseparable from Judaism itself. What is striking is that the term is subject to use or misuse by extremists on both sides: by the “defenders” of Israel, ever vigilant against a possible threat to Jewish survival and ever watchful for the signs of an approaching holocaust, as well as by outright anti-Semites.
An Easy Target
Rosenfeld never directly discloses his right-wing leanings and how and why they condition his position on Israel. However, he repeatedly exposes his ideological bias, which in his case is expressed as an animus toward and indeed an outright vilification of any views or persons associated with the political Left. He discounts what he terms anti-Israel “hysteria” as “politically motivated” -- clearly code for “left-wing.” In other words, he reduces criticism of Israel as secondary to a political philosophy which requires opposition to the State of Israel as a litmus test. In one passage, using Jacqueline Rose as his poster child for the leftist anti-Zionist camp, he submits that “there are many like Rose today. Some are probably no more than ideological fellow travelers…” (p 25, emphasis mine). Having thus dismissed any such writers who may fall into this class, Rosenfeld argues that anti-Zionism is simply one more way for these people to “establish their leftist credentials.” Then, without missing a beat and in another characteristic thousand-league leap of logic, Rosenfeld alleges that “anti-Zionism…shares common features with anti-Jewish ideologies of the past…” What these ideologies are, or what are the “common features” shared with anti-Zionism are never made clear. The fact that these benighted ideologues do not see this connection, and the mortal danger it poses to the Jewish people, is, cries Rosenfeld, “more than just a pity – it is a betrayal.” (p25)
Rose is only one of the high-profile critics of Israel identified with the political Left singled out by Rosenfeld, but she is one of his favorites. A British academic, Rose is best known for her work on the relationship between psychoanalysis, feminism and literature. To be sure, Rose’s leftist credentials alone are enough to discount her entirely in Rosenfeld’s view, but, again, he uses her simply to set up his argument. In her writing about Zionism Rose has attempted, in her words, to “steer a clear path between an elated identification with the state’s own discourse and a string of insults.” (Nation as trauma, Zionism as question: Jacqueline Rose interviewed, Open Democracy, 2005 interview with Rosemary Bechler, 8/18/2005). But Rosenfeld will have nothing to do with nuance. He advances a shallow critique, taking aim at concepts like “messianism” which Rose introduces as part of a careful analysis but which Rosenfeld, incredibly and cynically, takes literally, charging that Rose believes the Zionists to have been inspired directly by Jewish Messianic madmen from medieval times. In like fashion, Rosenfeld seizes upon Rose’s use of the word “catastrophe” to describe the current state of affairs in Israel and Occupied Palestine. He, however, links it with the Arabic “Al Nakba” the Palestinian term for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine between 1947 and 1949. He thus charges her with being “aligned… with this reading of history…[that] the creation of Israel led to a historic injustice against the Palestinians.” This is the damning charge? That she acknowledges that injustice has been done to the Palestinians? Here Rosenfeld again shows his true colors: flat-out denial of the injustices perpetrated by Israel. In other words, if you acknowledge this fact, you are his enemy and an enemy of the Jewish people, and as well a person who has abandoned all rational discourse. Jews do not have the right to criticize Israel, indeed to even entertain the notion that Israel is not perfect – or perfectly entitled to do as it wishes. Further on in his attack on Rose, Rosenfeld, in another fallacy-ridden argument, challenges her question, “How did one of the most persecuted peoples of the world come to embody some of the worst cruelties of the modern nation-state?” To this he responds: “Compared to the truly horrendous crimes of…Sudan, Cambodia…Serbia…or Chile – Israel’s record actually looks relatively good.” (p 11). By any standards of logical discourse and human decency, this is a despicable argument. It merits no further comment.
The Jewish Discussion
The problem is that we Jews are setting this up as a debate – each “camp” answering the other point for point. But, as I noted above, this discussion is not really about the facts -- for Rosenfeld, it’s clearly personal. And so it is for me. I am an American-born Jew with strong family ties to Israel - my grandfather was born in Palestine and the bulk of my family lives in modern-day Israel. I have lived in Israel and I love the land. I feel at a cellular level the unrelenting, throbbing pain of the Nazi Holocaust. I am realistic about the existence of anti-Semitism. For all these reasons, my recent first-hand experience of the reality of the Occupation and my encounter Palestinians living under its tyranny provoked not only horror and outrage. It was more than that: it broke my heart. Like me, all Jews who write and speak out about what they have seen and what they feel about this express themselves emotionally. It is personal: we were raised on a dream – a dream of freedom from oppression, a dream of self-determination – a dream that, when it became a (apparent) reality assumed the quality of the miraculous. But now, over the orange groves and white cities of our dream hangs the storm cloud of a disaster, a disaster that is in process for both peoples. To my fellow Jews I say: look under the covers. Cross the Green Line. Deal with the pain, feel the horror, confront the contradictions, grapple with the dilemmas. You betray nothing, you betray no one by your willingness to do this. Join the ranks of those who refuse to be represented, and indeed intellectually and emotionally bullied, by the “Jewish establishment:” the synagogues, Jewish Federations, lobbying organizations and the rest of the apparatus devoted to maintaining the mighty stream of financial and policy support for Israel from the US government and from private sources. We are growing in number, we represent many, many shades of opinion and conviction. What unites us is our willingness to question and our unwillingness to be driven by fear.
My Grandmother, Redux
I loved my grandmother. She was a sweet woman with a big heart. She brought her large family through the Great Depression and struggled her whole life with the personal legacy of a tyrannical father and an equally tyrannical husband. And, as illustrated by my opening story, she was very much a product of her time and our collective history. Among my many memories of her is a framed group portrait that hung in her house, a black and white photograph dating from the early 1950s. In it, my grandmother sits, with perhaps 60 other women in neat rows, drab dresses and sensible shoes, behind a banner proclaiming the local chapter of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America founded in 1912 by Henrietta Szold, the American Jewish scholar and activist. She looks out at us from the front row, clearly proud of her affiliation and steadfast in her commitment to the survival and health of the young Jewish State. Of course, for her there were no Palestinians and there was no Nakba. There was only this precious reality of Israel, this wondrous repository of Jewish culture, this bulwark against the Nations Who Seek to Destroy Us. She was a product of her upbringing and of her times -- and for the Jews of America these were simpler times. But the times have changed -- can we change with them?
Noted historian and author Tony Judt is a British Jew who has recently come under attack for his criticism of Israel’s policies and in particular of the destructive effects of aspects of Zionism on Jewish life in the Diaspora. Rosenfeld does not miss the opportunity to excoriate Judt for raising the question of whether the Jewish State as it now exists is the best solution to anti-Semitism, and whether, in fact, Israel’s actions may be contributing to anti-Semitism around the world. In a recent Washington Post/Newsweek Blog, Judt courageously placed the issue of Israel and American Jewish attitudes in the larger context of world affairs. He wrote: “I see the hysteria surrounding the ‘Israel issue’ in American life -- and the shameful silence about what actually happens in the territories Israel occupies – as one more symptom of the provincial ignorance and isolation of the U.S. in world affairs. We can continue assuring ourselves that the whole of the rest of the world is awash in inexplicable, atavistic, exterminationist anti-Semitism. Or – in this as in other matters – we can re-enter an international conversation and ask ourselves why (together with an Israeli political class recklessly embarked on the road to self-destruction) we alone see the world this way and whether we might be mistaken.” (
I agree with Judt
that the need for American Jews to emerge from our historical attitudes of
insularity and self-protection is all the more urgent because of the
implications of these attitudes for our world at large. As Jews, we can no longer afford to think
only of ourselves -- seeing ourselves as victims, as a beleaguered minority. Indeed, this attitude and the behavior it
engenders has not only put us at great risk --
it adds significantly to the peril of the entire world. If we are indeed to be a “light to the
nations,” we must make common cause with the forces of progressivism and the
advancement of human rights. As Jews, we
must be part of the solution. Sadly –
and Rosenfeld’s essay is but one indication of this fact – we are still
learning how not to be part of the problem.
I agree with Judt that the need for American Jews to emerge from our historical attitudes of insularity and self-protection is all the more urgent because of the implications of these attitudes for our world at large. As Jews, we can no longer afford to think only of ourselves -- seeing ourselves as victims, as a beleaguered minority. Indeed, this attitude and the behavior it engenders has not only put us at great risk -- it adds significantly to the peril of the entire world. If we are indeed to be a “light to the nations,” we must make common cause with the forces of progressivism and the advancement of human rights. As Jews, we must be part of the solution. Sadly – and Rosenfeld’s essay is but one indication of this fact – we are still learning how not to be part of the problem.
History and Memory
Conclusion: History and Memory
This has been one Jew’s “Answer to Rosenfeld.” But we must all – growing numbers of people of conscience, Jew and non-Jew alike – let our voices be heard in response to him and the attitudes he exemplifies. To remain silent – even silently contemptuous of ideas like his – is to be complicit in one of the most dangerous acts of madness of our time. The voices of outrage and resistance are growing stronger. Jewish organizations here and in Israel continue to bring the evils of the Occupation to the attention of the world, as well as to uncover the heretofore denied reality of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine carried out between 1947 and 1949. Interfaith organizations in the US, Israel and Palestine devoted to nonviolent resistance and reconciliation continue their courageous work of activism and education in the face of an intransigent Israeli government and an incompetent, cowardly US administration that is financing the illegal continuation of this ethnic cleansing. Forces within American churches continue to consider campaigns of divestment despite organized opposition from the Jewish establishment. Meanwhile, our best thinkers and writers keep producing. In spite of himself, Alvin Rosenfeld has made an important contribution to the cause: his “enemies list” provides those of us hungry for these courageous voices with a superb Recommended Reading List. One only wishes he had given more attention to the work of Sara Roy, daughter of Holocaust survivors and a Harvard Research Scholar, who we must count as one of our finest and most courageous thinkers and spokespersons. Rosenfeld dispatches Roy in two short sentences, citing a passage in which she comments on the “heresy” within the Jewish community of comparing the actions and policies of Israel with those of the Nazis (In the next paragraph, he effectively demonstrates her point by characterizing any comparison between today’s Jews and their former victimizers as “unseemly.”). Rosenfeld’s use of Roy as another of his straw men for daring to address the similarities between the actions of Nazi Germany and those of Israel in its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is perhaps the ultimate symbol of the frightening blindness and madness of his perspective with respect to Jewish history and the current crisis faced by Jews. Roy’s powerful evocation of the central meaning of the Holocaust in her personal history is a cornerstone of her human rights work. Along with the work of other Jewish writers such as Norman Finklestein, who have chronicled the distortion and misuse of the tragedy of the Holocaust, Roy calls on us to honestly confront our current predicament in the light of the incalculable significance of this chapter in our history, and, indeed, of two millennia of anti-Semitism. Indeed, she calls on us to draw from it the very moral clarity required to see our way forward.
I close with this
passage from the preface to Roy’s recent book, Failing Peace: Gaza and the
I close with this passage from the preface to Roy’s recent book, Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.
is it so difficult, even impossible to accommodate Palestinians into the Jewish
understanding of history? Why is there
so little perceived need to question our own narrative (for want of a better
word) and the one we have given others, preferring instead to embrace beliefs
and sentiments that remain inert? Why is
it virtually mandatory among Jewish intellectuals to oppose racism, repression
and injustice almost anywhere in the world and unacceptable, indeed, for some,
an act of heresy – to oppose it when Israel is the oppressor? For many among us history and memory adhere
to preclude reflection and tolerance, where “the enemy become, not people to be
defeated, but embodiments of an idea to be exterminated.”
Why is it so difficult, even impossible to accommodate Palestinians into the Jewish understanding of history? Why is there so little perceived need to question our own narrative (for want of a better word) and the one we have given others, preferring instead to embrace beliefs and sentiments that remain inert? Why is it virtually mandatory among Jewish intellectuals to oppose racism, repression and injustice almost anywhere in the world and unacceptable, indeed, for some, an act of heresy – to oppose it when Israel is the oppressor? For many among us history and memory adhere to preclude reflection and tolerance, where “the enemy become, not people to be defeated, but embodiments of an idea to be exterminated.”
For us as Jews, and indeed for all Americans contemplating our relationship to the world at large and to the urgent human rights issues of our day, there can be no more important questions than the ones Roy asks here, and no more chilling conclusion that the one she articulates. Her quote from Northrop Frye is telling, the choice of the word “exterminated” pointed. As long as we allow our minds to be closed, our voices silenced, and our eyes shut before the injustices and horrors in plain view, there will be more conflict, more dispossession, and the deaths of countless more innocents. And there will be no peace – not in the Middle East, not in our own midst, and not in our hearts.
Mark Braverman is a
member of the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East
Peace and Jewish Voice for Peace. He serves on the Board of ICAHD-USA. Mark lives in Bethesda,
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