Is Community Open to Critics of Zionism?

By Ira Youdovin

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There are Jews who smell antisemitism whenever non-Jews criticize Israel, and blame Israel’s Jewish critics for abetting them. The interests aroused by Alvin Rosenfeld’s controversial recent essay, “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” raises the specter that this mindset could become a leitmotif in the way the American Jewish right regards its counterpart on the left and center-left.

The essay’s targets are Jews who condemn Israel in hyperbolic terms, such as by drawing analogies with Nazism and apartheid. Some, but not all, of them also advocate terminating Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

Most of the big names are familiar. Tony Judt, Tony Kushner and poet Adrienne Rich have been known commodities for years. Those whose names are unfamiliar speak mostly to themselves. Considering the groundswell it has generated, it’s curious that Rosenfeld’s essay contains very little that was not previously known.

As Rosenfeld himself notes, Jews have always criticized Israel, even to the point of challenging its legitimacy. More than a half-century ago, the American Council for Judaism lobbied against American support for Israel’s creation, and this past December six Neturei Karta rabbis showed up in Tehran for the recent conference of Holocaust deniers.

These are, however, nervous times for American Jews. The rise of antisemitism is distressing, as is the postmodernist tendency to condemn all nationalisms. Jimmy Carter’s use of the term “apartheid” in his book title is a jarring example of how well-meaning Christians decontextualize facts on the ground, and then make unfair judgments of what they perceive to be Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians.

Alan Dershowitz spoke for many when he voiced his concern that “this decent man has written such an indecent book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” And the $750,000 advance John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt will receive for a book-length version of their essay on Jewish power suggests a new openness to public discussion of an issue long regarded as taboo.

There are also distressing shifts in Washington. The Iraq Study Group’s linkage of progress in Iraq to progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict crossed a line many Jewish leaders have fought to maintain. Moreover, whoever is elected our next president may very well not be as friendly to Israel as is the incumbent.

Furthermore, there is profound concern for Israel’s security in the face of rising Iranian power. Confidence in Israel’s leadership is exceedingly low after last summer’s Lebanese debacle. And for the first time ever, Iran’s nuclear potential confronts Israel with an existential threat it may be powerless to deter.

In short, conditions are ripe for getting the wagons into a circle and squashing dissent. David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, which commissioned Rosenfeld’s essay, is correct in asserting that those who challenge Israel’s right to exist and compare Israel to Hitler’s Germany need to be confronted. [Editor’s note: The AJCommittee’s David Harris and David Harris of the Israel on Campus Coalition bear no relation.]

Rosenfeld and the AJCommittee are to be congratulated for taking up the gauntlet. But the line separating calumny from legitimate dissent is unclear and ever shifting. Indeed, we may already be on a very slippery slope.

The Zionist Organization of America recently tried to expel the Union of Progressive Zionists from the Israel on Campus Coalition for bringing Israeli military veterans to campuses to speak about alleged Israeli abuse of Palestinians. The initiative was supported for a time by the American Jewish Congress, which not long ago was the Jewish community’s most vociferous guardian of free speech. What’s next?

Doni Remba, a leader of Americans for Peace Now, characterizes Carter’s book as being “badly flawed but with a large kernel of truth.” In the future, will an author who condemns Carter’s main thesis nevertheless find himself condemned because he accepts some of Carter’s critique?

Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports divestment and is currently circulating a petition urging Congress to heed Carter’s words, is certainly beyond the pale. But what about Rabbis for Human Rights, an Israeli-based pluralistic organization that rejects divestment and advocates a two-state solution, even as it accuses Israel of violating human rights?

American Jews have gone through periods of attempted suppression of criticism at other times when storm clouds gathered. The enforcers can be surprising.

In the 1970s, when Likud expansionism ignited controversy, Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a leading social activist who had his head busted open on a freedom march in Mississippi, used his bully pulpit as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to warn colleagues against “joining the jackals nipping at Israel’s heel.”

Today we have Alvin Rosenfeld. By implying that progressive thought leads almost inevitably to views that are deleterious to Israel and the Jewish people, he buys into a genre of stereotyping that ignores the overwhelming number of Jewish progressives and liberals who are staunchly pro-Israel.

Take his treatment of a textbook published in the United States by a mainstream publishing house that includes a section titled “Should Israel Exist?” He castigates the book for merely raising the subject, and for including responses in the negative from two Jews, Ahron Cohen of Neturei Karta and Joel Kovel, a Marxist eco-socialist professor at Bard College.

Although neither the title nor its publisher is identified by Rosenfeld, a check of reveals that the book must almost certainly be “Israel: Opposing Viewpoints,” published by the Greenhaven Press as part of its “Opposing Viewpoints Series” for high-school students.

The book is by no means anti-Israel or antisemitic. The responses of Cohen and Kovel, plus one by Tony Judt, are juxtaposed by an equal number of strongly pro-Israel statements written by Jews. While one shares Rosenfeld’s outrage over Israel’s legitimacy being questioned by anyone, it is both unfair and woefully counterproductive to attack a textbook that seeks only to engender reasoned discussion of an issue that is already in the air.

Most disturbing, however, is Rosenfeld’s concluding remark. He anguishes that “young readers will quickly learn the arguments for the elimination of the Jewish state — every antisemite’s cherished dream — are contributed by Jews themselves.” He then adds gratuitously, and dangerously, “Given the drift of ‘progressive’ Jewish thought, that, too — perverse as it is — should come as no surprise.”

Reading this specious allegation, one is frightened by memories of the voice of a late, unlamented senator from Wisconsin muttering somewhere in the background, “Mr. Chairman, I have a list of names….”

Rabbi Ira Youdovin is executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.