Alvin Rosenfeld Is Right About Liberals And the Jewish State

By Lee Adlerstein

Published March 16, 2007, issue of March 16, 2007.
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In speaking with people these days who were brought up in open-minded households, dedicated to progressive causes and educated in liberal schools, I have found considerable unease with the liberal approach in the vital area of security. Seeing the events of September 11, 2001, together with the wagons circling around Israel and violence against Jewish communities, many traditional liberals appear to be in transition toward backing a conservative approach to security issues.

This is an especially tough time to be both liberal and vitally concerned about the future of Israel and Jewish communities. Liberalism, far from being a detracting word, has been great for Jews in placing highest priority on individual expression and activity, respecting diversity and shunning use of force, except to the minimum extent necessary for protecting innocents.

Recent history, however, has confirmed that the liberal approach often falls down in the area of security. Brutal and hate-filled predators are using open societies to commit outrages in many places against innocent people, including Jews. Many in the community, including some of the most generous progressives, are refusing to view the world through rose-colored glasses when they witness bombings and beatings on the streets of Jerusalem and in the Western cities.

This ideological tension facing American Jewish progressives was brought to the fore by the recent controversy surrounding Alvin Rosenfeld’s article “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism.” In the article, which was posted on the American Jewish Committee’s Web site and featured in a New York Times article, Rosenfeld takes to task commentators — most particularly those of Jewish descent — who decry Israel’s status as a Jewish state or who brand Israel as a net liability to Western security.

Rosenfeld lists in this category experienced and talented commentators like Tony Judt, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and Richard Cohen, a regular columnist for The Washington Post. Rosenfeld holds that these highly knowledgeable and thoughtful people, however well motivated by their own lights, perform a fundamental disservice by comforting Israel’s many enemies.

Despite some possible overreaching on Rosenfeld’s part regarding certain particulars, this conclusion is fundamentally on the mark.

Much criticism, some of it quite harsh, has come Rosenfeld’s way from respected quarters — including the Forward. Starting with the unassailable proposition that for democratic debate to be effective it must be robust, these critics hold that Rosenfeld’s piece looks to stifle viewpoints with which he disagrees. They affirm that even harsh criticism of Israel and proposals to dismantle Israel’s official Jewish status deserve to be included in the exchange of ideas, so long as physical harm toward Israel’s citizens is not advocated.

Rosenfeld’s critics are also uncomfortable with his citing the Jewish parentage of writers he finds objectionable. While they draw upon the best of progressive impulses, Rosenfeld’s detractors have got it essentially wrong.

No one can fairly accuse Rosenfeld of advocating suppression of speech. Instead, he is pressing to have the community face a reality, which is that the present risks are real and will get worse unless we are careful.

The current situation is a most critical one combining volatile elements. The White House is being run by a lame-duck president whose maneuvering room in the area of security has been diminished because of the war in Iraq and missteps at home. Europe is teetering toward ever-growing weakness in the areas of counter-terrorism, as well as security for Israel and its own Jewish communities. The idea is growing in circles of opinion makers in Europe and in this country that it is too dangerous to take Israel’s side or even that Israel is a mistake.

Polling out this week from the BBC naming Israel as the least popular country in the world is yet one more piece of evidence reinforcing this reality. And, combined with these disturbing enough trends, Israel’s regional enemies really truly are amassing increasingly lethal missile arsenals — a taste of which was hurled from Lebanon last summer — and may soon possess nuclear weapons. We may not be close to the next holocaust, as Benny Morris and others have recently warned us; then again, perhaps we may be.

It is true that in the face of these developments it is important for community leaders to keep their heads and not allow panic to cloud clear thinking for properly measured responses. It is also important that vital principles and legal protections must not be set aside. People should and do have a constitutional right to criticize Israel, even harshly, including challenging its right to exist. There must be robust debate about the wisdom of Israel’s policies, and there is much to criticize.

However, this is not a normal time and we are not permitted to ignore reality. Searing criticism rightly branded as delegitimization of Israel is truly dangerous, all the more painfully so when it comes from Jews. The community, given its own right of expression, should decry defamations of this kind.

For commentators with a public audience to delegitimize Israel at this time is hurtful, undermines existing needed support and, at least in that manner, encourages Israel’s enemies. We should and must say so — as Alvin Rosenfeld has done.

Lee Adlerstein is a former vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and former chair of the council’s Task Force on Jewish Security and the Bill of Rights.

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