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.”
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.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.