I know your children. I do. After they’ve gone off to college and decided to seek out some Jewish connection, they find their way to my Hebrew literature courses. When they’re trying to understand Israel’s national narrative, they sit expectantly in my classroom and read about Zionist ideology. Most of my students aren’t Jewish, and I know them, too. The evangelical Christians and the devout Catholics come to learn more about the People of the Book through the books they wrote. I see them reach up with manicured hands to stroke their slender gold crosses when we talk about a Holocaust poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg. I’ve even had Muslim students. They’ve been surprised to see sensitive portrayals of Arabs in works by Savyon Liebrecht. A few years ago, campus leaders of Students for Justice in Palestine had to confront their own preconceptions of Israel in my class when they read a novel by Sayed Kashua. But now my job is much, much harder.
Now I’ll have to explain to my Jewish students how the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which invited Steve Bannon to its gala last week, does not represent the Zionism I know and respect: the humanitarian and utopian Zionism of Theodor Herzl, the defiant, militant Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or the lofty Zionism of David Grossman. I have to clarify for my earnest Christian students why giving a platform to anti-Semitism—as Bannon’s Breitbart News has consistently done—endangers Jews, even though Alan Dershowitz and David Horowitz continue to defend him. And I’ll have to convince my Muslim students that the Jewish State is not simply an anti-Islamic land grab, even though AIPAC has remained silent about Bannon’s Islamophobia and ZOA executive Mort Klein has rallied to his support. At some point, I’ll also need to reassure my African American students, my female students, my LGBTQIA+ students, and my Latino students that Zionism is not on the side of the white nationalist, misogynistic, homophobic, and xenophobic thugs emboldened by Breitbart’s Bannon, darling of the ZOA. Zionism is surely not racism, but some Zionists surely give the slur credence.
These same defenders of the faith—Dershowitz, Horowitz, Klein—throw predictable tantrums whenever a peep of Arab anti-Semitism or leftist anti-Zionism emerges in American discourse. Yet they are strangely silent when it comes to rampant anti-Semitism on the part of “alt-white” Republicans. Miraculously, these so-called Jewish leaders become historical revisionists or forensic linguists in order to unhear what has been said. I’ve witnessed enough politics to expect hypocrisy, just not quite so much of it. These men have made a deal with the devil, collaborating with pro-Israel anti-Semites, racists, Islamophobes, nativists, and Seig-Heiling thugs. This isn’t Zionism; this is shtadlanut—the discredited practice of using well-paid communal spokesmen as intermediaries between Jews and those who rule over them. Herzl would treat their disingenuous contortions with disdain. Jabotinsky would sneer at these men who bow and scrape for access to Gentile power.
Israel promised Jews the world over the opportunity to stand uncowed. America’s Zionist rear guard, conversely, retreats even further into a Diaspora mentality. These shtadlanim wear their dual loyalties proudly: selling out American Jews and their allies in order to promote what they believe is best for Israel, and never mind what Israelis themselves think. The Israel these shtadlanim hope for is not one in which immigrants, homosexuals, Jews of color—Ethiopian Jews, Arab Jews—will feel welcome, to say nothing of Muslims. Dershowitz, Horowitz, and Klein claim that Bannon can’t really be an anti-Semite because he’s a Zionist. I can’t help but recall another figure who made that claim in his own preposterous defense: Eichmann.
But one can be an anti-Zionist and still not be anti-Semitic. I’ve met many such people, in Israel and the Diaspora: religious Jews, secular Jews, ideological opponents of nationalism. I think they are naïve, but they are not anti-Semitic. It’s true that some individuals and groups—mostly on the left—have crossed the line into anti-Semitism. When they do, I call them on it. And I expect those organizations who claim to represent Jews and Zionism to do the same when anti-Semitism comes from the rightwing. But when I asked my local Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) whether they were going to issue a statement, as several other JCRCs across the US have done, about the hatred the president-elect intends to install in the White House, I was told they didn’t want to make Bannon a “partisan” issue. Suddenly, Jewish organizations taking a stand against anti-Semitism is too “divisive.” If this is how the Jewish establishment responds to those who promote anti-Semitism, imagine the precious little they’ll do for other minorities when the crosses burn.
So the next time I have Students for Justice in Palestine activists in one of my classes, I know what I’ll say when they criticize Israel for oppressing Arabs. I’ll tell them their criticism may well be valid, but that as students living in the age of Trump, they should look closer to home: many American Jewish communities are so paralyzed they won’t even decry their own oppressors. I know your children, and I wonder if they’ll forgive so many in the Jewish establishment for their cowardice.