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This is not something new so much as it is a new inflection point in a long, uneven development. The historian Robert Wistrich argued in the Jewish Political Studies Review that “anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two distinct ideologies that over time (especially since 1948) have tended to converge.” That was written a decade ago, when various United Nations actions made the convergence seem more troubling. I think we are at another one of those moments today.
Now, there are some who argue that we Jews bear a share of responsibility for this convergence. More than six decades after the birth of the modern State of Israel, we have made attachment to that state a central aspect of Jewish identity. Throughout the Diaspora and especially in the United States, support for Israel has taken on theological dimensions: We talk about it more openly, passionately and sometimes antagonistically than we do about belief in God or any other tenet of our faith.
A free trip to Israel is every young adult’s Birthright. A donation to an Israeli cause is every Jew’s tithe. It is the barometer by which we judge each other and judge our “friends.”
This public form of diasporic Zionism is enhanced by the rhetoric and actions of the Israeli government, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who characterizes himself as a leader of all the Jews and introduced a demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
I can see how this line of thinking is appealing, because to hold ourselves partly responsible for this convergence is also to hold the tools of a response: We could amend our language, perhaps, or redirect our activism. But do we really think the rage directed at Jews in a Parisian synagogue was fueled by a few words at a Netanyahu press conference, or by talking points from the Jewish Agency? The growing centrality of Israel to Jewish life in the Diaspora is a complicated communal challenge to us Jews, but it’s simply an excuse for those who choose to hate us.
I can hear the sneers from those conservatives eager to show they were right all along: Liberals fooled themselves into thinking that anti-Semitism was not behind the violent agitation and political machinations against Israel that have left it isolated and vulnerable. Hating Israel and hating Jews are one and the same, they might say. Welcome to the real world.
What I reject about that argument, in the past and still now, is that it views the world as an unredeemably hostile place for Jews, forcing us into a universally defensive position and expecting no real change for the better in human behavior. And it rejects any responsibility for our own actions, and the terrible consequences they may cause.
I’m a liberal because I believe that human beings can progress, sometimes with the help of government, to a place of more tolerance, equality, justice and compassion. And that includes Israel. And that includes other Jews.
Yes, there have been awful riots in France. But there also have been forthright statements condemning such riots from French leaders. It’s not 1939. It’s not 1934, even. It’s 2014.
The challenge for liberals is not to deny or diminish the frightening convergence of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or to dismiss some of its root causes. The challenge is to own it, to recognize the world for what it is right now and not lose sight of our obligation to repair it.