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Why American Jewish Historians Aren’t Giving Up On Israel

Ysoscher Katz, in his Aug 3 article “We Won’t Give Up On Israel, Even If American Historians Do,” bemoans that American Jewish historians are jumping ship in regards to Israel as a Zionist and democratic entity. He is referring to Hasia Diner’s and Marjorie Feld’s Aug 1 opinion article in Haaretz, “We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind.” In their article, Diner and Feld describe their once loyal support of Israel that was nurtured through their own personal Jewish upbringing and then was dashed through their sensibility as American historians. They can no longer look at the Law of Return as anything other than racism. They feel repelled that “Stand With Israel” is the litmus test for being a Jew.

Katz, who certainly knows that Diner and Feld don’t represent all American Jewish historians, implicitly blames American historians, and ad hominem those in academia, for leaving Israel’s side after all these years. He calls upon all Jews, both Israeli and those in the Diaspora, to play their role in “the army of supporting Israel.”

Scholars of American history must be aware of the destruction and oppression of North America’s first peoples by European settlers/invaders, a moral failure that echoes through and belies the purported American narrative of freedom and democracy. And clearly, as historians and cultural critics, we must be careful in drawing analogies to Israeli Jews’ settlement narrative. But then, do we believe that Americans should reject America as a nation? America has committed at least as many atrocities in building its nation. No hands are clean.

The job of historians includes looking at the past to see how movements, ideologies, ethnicities and nationalities target those deemed as outsiders in order to appropriate their land and their culture; to oppress and suppress; to dehumanize and to de-legitimate in order to fit the narratives of those in power. And historians take all of this seriously, especially when they are part of the group that they see as perpetrating appropriation and de-legitimization.

So it should come as no surprise that in applying the tools of American historians to Israel, scholars might very well might come to the conclusions of Diner and Feld. And as American Jewish scholars, they may find that they are both professionally and personally in conflict with supporting Israel and its claim to be both a Jewish state as well as democratic.

Therefore, knowing that Diner and Feld don’t represent all American Jewish historians, we assume Ysoscher Katz must have another agenda, which is to be dismissive of academics that are critical of Israel. This falls into the “Trump school” of criticizing thought and labeling it as politically correct. Today, with intellectuals at universities under fire for being proponents of free speech and critical thinking, Katz’s article is both patronizing and reductive.

Katz romantically portrays Israelis as “…courageous warriors who are willing to fight the political and religious establishment.” His Pollyanna-ish statement doesn’t take into account the real anguish that Diner, Feld and others feel who care deeply about being Jews and how they must justify to themselves that, in the name of Jewish nationalism, the Palestinians have been subjugated for over half a century.

We agree that the Israel narrative that many Jews grew up with is a mythical one, and that there are nuances and complexities to the real challenges and dangers that Israel faces. We also agree with Diner and Feld that there is an intransigence from within Israel that, over time, has become another kind of fantasy and that fantasy has deadly consequences. It purports that the current status quo can weather wars, children being killed and kidnapped, buses being exploded, land being appropriated, houses being demolished and people being stabbed.

We don’t accept Katz’ condescending tone in his depiction of Israel’s religious infighting and racist statements by ministers of the government while he also ignores the continued apartheid life that the Palestinians have been subjected to for over fifty years. Katz relegates it to hocus-pocus, and staving off theological opponents, writes that “Only a dedicated warrior corps can ensure that the boundary that separates legitimate self-definition from discriminatory essentialism stays intact. The dedicated brigade Diner left behind will valiantly fight to help make this state the Promised Land it is destined to be.”

On the other hand, whether we agree with them or not, Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld are throwing us a challenge to live up to our Jewish ideals. As American Jewish historians, they are looking at Israel through the lenses that detect power imbalance, demagoguery, racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. Is it time to call it quits on Israel? We don’t think so. But we must be clear-headed to see the challenge Diner and Feld present to us as Jews and as a people of critical thinking and not respond with more clichés and fanciful myths.

Modern Israel, just like America, is flawed in execution. In America, slavery had to be eradicated (through violence and destruction) to redress a fundamental injustice, an injustice that persists, as a toxic legacy in other forms, to this day. Israel must address its fundamental injustices too if it is to come near any kind of reconciliation. It has reformation and reparations to make in the name of justice, and it has not done so yet. That is distressing to those of us who are in opposition to those policies of continued status quo. But we also believe that withdrawing from Israel by American Jews is a declaration that change can never happen, that justice can’t ever be done. We still hope, work for, and believe in better – from Israel and from America.


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