Is Community Open to Critics of Zionism?

By Ira Youdovin

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
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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 Amazon.com 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.


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