Last Shabbat, as my husband and I were walking home from a long, lovely lunch with friends, I noticed scribbling on the sidewalk. Since the letters were written in white chalk and were upside down from where I stood, it took a moment to decipher their meaning, and another moment to get over the shock.
This was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the epicenter of the liberal American shtetl, a place so ubiquitously Jewish that even the smallest grocery store posts Friday night candle-lighting times each week. So to see even this mildly anti-Israel graffiti was a surprise. For the first time since we moved to the neighborhood a couple of years ago, we felt uncomfortable, targeted, as people who care about Israel and as Jews.
Though we share serious misgivings about the way the military conflict in Gaza began and is being prosecuted, and we grieve for the horrendous loss of life, we also believe that Israel does have a right to defend itself against a terrorizing organization that seeks its obliteration. If Israel’s actions warranted the end of its sizable financial support from the United States, what about neighboring Egypt — also a recipient of billions in aid — whose government has killed peaceful protesters, imprisoned journalists and put a democratically elected leader in jail?
As we continued our walk, we asked ourselves whether the comparison was unfair because Israel should be held to a higher standard, and whether that scrawled sidewalk sentiment was a legitimate criticism of American policy or rank anti-Zionism. And when does anti-Zionism bleed into simple hatred of Jews?
To borrow Irving Kristol’s line about neoconservatives, was I acting like a liberal Jew who gets mugged?
Like many liberal American Jews, I have long insisted that anti-Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitism, that one can be critical of Zionist political ideology and not hate Jews as Jews. The argument is partly an intellectual one, and partly a response to the embarrassing ease with which some Jews make the link, equating every criticism of Israel with “the oldest hatred” — an accusation that can unfairly label dissenters and shuts down the conversation.
Plus, I’m American. America loves its Jews, and loves Israel. I can show you the polls, and the votes in Congress, and the intermarriage rate, and all the other indicators of public sentiment. To equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism somehow turns us into victims, part of a global victimhood, but we are not victims here, and even a few uncomfortable words scrawled on the sidewalk cannot really make a dent in our secure standing.
The virulent reaction around the world to Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza is making me rethink that argument, and I know that I am not alone. “I’ve never been as concerned, frightened, worried and confused as this,” the historian Deborah Lipstadt told me. “Maybe it’s not 1939, but it may be 1934.”
We liberals simply cannot ignore the pernicious way the Israeli invasion of Gaza and the horrible civilian death toll there has given an anti-Zionist cover to attacks against Jews as Jews. In France, England, Belgium, India, etc., etc., Jews are being held responsible for Israeli actions they may not even support. In Turkey, the prime minister tells CNN that what Israel did to Palestine “has surpassed what Hitler did to them” and then confirms that he said it. Unfortunately, I could go on.
“Liberals need to recognize that there is no comfort in their position,” said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum, himself a liberal. Arguing that these anti-Zionist actions are not also anti-Semitic is “making a distinction that goes against the reality of what we are experiencing today.”