Shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. government released a deck of cards featuring the faces of its most-wanted enemies. Next came the anti-war movement’s edition, topped by President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. These days, it increasingly feels as if Jewish hawks would like to release a deck of their own, with historian Tony Judt and philanthropist George Soros in a tight battle for the Ace of Spades.
Judt ignited a firestorm last month with a 2,800-word essay in The New York Review of Books arguing for the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Soros, for his part, has drawn ire over comments during a charity luncheon that critics describe as an attempt to blame the Israeli and U.S. governments for antisemitism.
Both men are accustomed to stirring controversy, and both provided plenty of fodder this time. More revealing than what either of them actually said, though, is the inability of some outspoken segments of the Jewish community to tell the two men apart.
Judt is a respected historian, head of the Remarque Institute at New York University, who set out to pen an intellectually compelling rejection of Zionism. Soros, on the other hand, is a businessman known for his prodigious charitable work in Eastern Europe; his controversial remark on antisemitism came as an off-the-cuff response to a question in front of what he thought was a private audience.
Soros was suggesting that the Jewish state should change some of its policies. Judt was arguing that there should be no Jewish state. Yet, despite these significant differences, both men have somehow been pegged as self-hating Jews who in some way are guilty of aiding and abetting Israel’s terrorist and Islamic fundamentalist enemies.
In Judt’s case, the criticism is not undeserved. He has injected a degree of truth to the old joke about the hysterical man who argues that just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean the whole world isn’t out to get him. To paraphrase New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, Judt has unwittingly bolstered the claims of Jewish hawks that criticism of Israel is simply a veiled attempt to destroy Israel; his article was the literary equivalent of a suicide bombing on the eve of peace talks. And responses have been furious. Judt himself acknowledged, in a reply to letters in the New York Review, that he was unsettled by the level of vitriol in the response to his article..
More startling than the emergence of a Judt — who in no way could be said to represent the Israeli or Jewish mainstream — is the news that settler leaders and a group of 14 right-wing Knesset members have effectively embraced his argument. In an effort to head off the creation of a Palestinian state, the group is pushing for the formation of a binational state encompassing Israel and all of the territories. They claim to have a gerrymandered legislative system that will preserve the state’s Jewish character without sacrificing democracy. It’s not clear how long the gimmick would hold up.
In the end, then, the problem is not the vitriolic reaction to Judt, but the cognitive dissonance that plagues the Israeli right. Jewish hawks love to claim that Labor’s Oslo policies transformed the West Bank into a new Lebanon, violent and ungovernable. Now Likud lawmakers are proposing to extend the chaos into Israel proper by recreating a failed, Beirut-style model of religious power-sharing.
This intellectual blindness can also been seen in the right’s reaction to Soros, who in a November 5 address to the Jewish Funders Network, claimed that Israeli and American policies “contribute” to the “resurgence of antisemitism.” His remarks, published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency under the headline “Soros Blames Jews for Anti-Semitism” (it was later amended to “Soros Blames Israel for Anti-Semitism”), touched off a flood tide of venomous attacks, many of them ad hominem screeds and frequently misstating what he actually said.
Exhibit A: the November 20 opinion essay on Soros by veteran editor Amotz Asa-El in the hawkish Jerusalem Post. In his zeal to slam Soros, Asa-El produced a column that at times sounded remarkably similar to the screed posted on the conservative Web site GOPUSA.com, which referred to Soros as a “descendant of Shylock.” The main difference was that the pro-Republican Web site quickly removed the offensive article, penned by an Internet scribe known as “Sartre,” while the Post seems to have no second thoughts about keeping Asa-El’s piece displayed prominently on its home page.
Asa-El described Soros as the “man who spent a lifetime laboring to transform Henry Ford’s International Jew from myth to reality.” And in case anyone missed the point, Asa-El added: “Considering his protruding cosmopolitanism … it’s time Soros understood that if there is any overlap between anti-Semitic myth and Jewish reality — he is its epitome.”
In addition to his borderline antisemitic depiction of Soros, Asa-El also misquotes him, transforming Soros’s claim that Israeli and U.S. policies “contribute” to the resurgence of antisemitism into this presumed quote: “Antisemitism is the result of the policies of Israel and the United States.”
Asa-El also slammed Soros for not pointing a finger at himself, when in fact the billionaire financier fretted openly and at length about his own role in fueling anti-Jewish feelings in some parts of the world. He actually spent more time discussing his own role than Sharon’s or Bush’s.
It’s possible to draw too many conclusions from the flaws of one article. But the Post article reflects a trend. And not merely about Soros and the vitriolic response he evokes. In general, it seems, hawks have a hard time holding to a consistent line of argument on Israel-related issues.
Soros’s major sin, in the eyes of his hawkish critics, was to suggest that American or Israeli behavior could impact levels of antisemitism in the world. Never mind that Israel’s chief military officer and four of its top former spooks said as much. In fact, the same sort of argument is constantly being put forth by hawks — when it fits nicely into their overall worldview. They do not hesitate to argue that Israeli concessions or American support for the peace process rewards terrorists. That is, you may say that policy decisions in Jerusalem and Washington are capable of fueling Arab aggression against Jews and Israelis — just make sure you don’t blame the policy decisions of the right.
In the end, there’s plenty of room to debate whether specific policies have helped trigger a spike in antisemitism. What seems indisputable is that the continuing intifada and war on terrorism are taking their toll on the collective psyche — and the civility and self-control — of key swaths of the Jewish community and Israeli political spectrum.