The New York Times touched off a lively little debate Wednesday morning, probably unwittingly, with an article from its Jerusalem bureau that was headlined “Jewish Nationalists Clash With Palestinians.” You don’t see the term “Jewish nationalist” very often these days, except in historical discussions of Zionism and its attempt to rebuild the Jewish nation. Suddenly, here it is in the newspaper of record, describing a group of people who probably wouldn’t get much sympathy from most Times readers. It seems that more than a few New Yorkers woke up Wednesday morning, scanned the paper over a cup of coffee, came to Page A-12 and suddenly found themselves wondering if the Grey Lady was now using Zionism as a term of abuse, equating the movement for Jewish liberation with its most extreme wing.
I heard about the buzz before I checked the paper that morning when I found an email from my friend Andy Silow-Carroll, the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News. He had heard from an anxious reader who was wondering what to make of that headline. Then I heard about other people talking and emailing each other, trying to figure out what sort of insult was intended. The debate hit the media when the Huffington Post covered the clash in question, generating a thread of readers’ comments arguing the meaning and moral valence of the Times’ phrasing. Why would a distinguished newspaper with a large Jewish readership even think of using such charged language?
The answer is to be found, I think, in the ever-growing gap of incomprehension that divides Israelis and American Jews.
To begin with, the Hebrew word for “nationalist” is le’umi, from the word le’om meaning “nation.” (Le’umi also means simply “national,” as in Bank Leumi Le-Yisrael, or Israel National Bank.) It doesn’t particularly carry the emotional charge to Israeli ears that “nationalist” carries to Americans.
But there’s also a more subtle cultural message at work here.
At least since the 1970s, the Israeli right wing has styled itself hamachaneh hale’umi, the National or Nationalist Camp, to distinguish itself from the left which, the right means to imply, doesn’t care about the welfare and destiny of the nation. It’s a popular political pastime, the name-game as blame-game: You choose a name not so much for its efficiency in self-description but rather to make the other side look bad. Think of “pro-life,” or “pro-choice.”
We don’t much see this Israeli use of the word “nationalist” because it doesn’t readily occur to the Jerusalem correspondents who provide America with most of its Middle East coverage. But it comes naturally to Israelis. The Times correspondent who wrote that article, Isabel Kershner, immigrated to Israel from her native England as a young woman and spent a couple of decades in Israeli journalism and Jewish education before joining the Times a few years ago. By now she’s thoroughly Israeli (and, for full disclosure, a friend).
I did a Web search for “Jewish nationalist” and “New York Times,” and the only other place where I found the Times using the term in recent years was in this article from a year ago — also by Isabel Kershner.
But wait. We’re not done. There is another message packed into that phrase. Why “Jewish nationalist” rather than the more obvious “Israeli nationalist”? Well, for starters, “Israeli nationalist” implies little more than a patriotic citizen of Israel who cares for the country’s welfare, and these come in a variety of colors, wardrobes and religions. A patriot looks around, sees many nations, and takes pride in his or her own. By the same token, Jewish nationalists are aware of many ethnicities and religions and devote themselves to their own group. But where Israeli nationalists distinguish themselves from other nations near or far, Jewish nationalists distinguish themselves from their neighbors across the street. Right now that’s playing itself out in a bitter, zero-sum, house-to-house struggle between (some) Israeli Jews and (some) Palestinian Arabs for (total) control of the real estate in their common homeland.
“Jewish nationalism” is just the right term for the Israeli side of that zero-sum struggle, and if it makes American Jewish readers feel a bit queasy — well, it’s about time.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).