September 14, 2007


Self-haters are proliferating it seems. Tony Karon has celebrated Rosh Hashona (or hashana) by penning an article on the arrival of a kind of Jewish glasnost. He is referring to the growing number of Jews who are speaking out against Israel. The article is about challenging the zionist establishment of the Jewish communities and the way that same establishment purports to represent all of the Jewish people. It starts on the kahanist website, masada2000, but it goes wider and deeper than that:
The Kahanists are a fringe movement, but their self-defeating list may nonetheless be a metaphor for the coming crisis in more mainstream nationalist efforts to police Jewish identity. The Zionist establishment has had remarkable success over the past half-century in convincing others that Israel and its supporters speak for, and represent, "the Jews." The value to their cause of making Israel indistinguishable from Jews at large is that it becomes a lot easier to shield Israel from reproach. It suggests, in the most emphatic terms, that serious criticism of Israel amounts to criticism of Jews. More than a millennium of violent Christian persecution of Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, has made many in the West rightly sensitive towards any claims of anti-Semitism, a sensitivity many Zionists like to exploit to gain a carte blanche exemption from criticism for a state they claim to be the very personification of Jewishness.

So, despite Israel's ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, then-Harvard president Larry Summers evidently had no trouble saying, in 2002, that harsh criticisms of Israel are "anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent."

Robin Shepherd of the usually sensible British think-tank Chatham House has gone even further, arguing that comparing Israel with apartheid South Africa is "objective anti-Semitism." Says Shepherd: "Of course one can criticize Israel, but there is a litmus test, and that is when the critics begin using constant key references to South Africa and the Nazis, using terms such as ‘bantustans.' None of these people, of course, will admit to being racist, but this kind of anti-Semitism is a much more sophisticated form of racism, and the kind of hate-filled rhetoric and imagery are on the same moral level as racism, so gross and distorted that they are defaming an entire people, since Israel is an essentially Jewish project."

I'd agree that the Nazi analogy is specious -- not only wrong but offensive in its intent, although not "racist". But the logic of suggesting it is "racist" to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa is simply bizarre. What if Israel objectively behaves like apartheid South Africa? What then?

Actually, Mr. Shepherd, I'd be more inclined to pin the racist label on anyone who conflates the world's 13 million Jews with a country in which 8.2 million of them -- almost two thirds -- have chosen not to live.

Although you wouldn't know it -- not if you followed Jewish life simply through the activities of such major Jewish communal bodies as the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League -- the extent to which the eight million Jews of the Diaspora identify with Israel is increasingly open to question (much to the horror of the Zionist-oriented Jewish establishment). In a recent study funded by the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies (an important donor to Jewish communal organizations), Professors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman revealed that their survey data had yielded some extraordinary findings: In order to measure the depth of attachment of American Jews to Israel, the researchers asked whether respondents would consider the destruction of the State of Israel a "personal tragedy." Less than half of those aged under 35 answered "yes" and only 54% percent of those aged 35-50 agreed (compared with 78% of those over 65). The study found that only 54% of those under 35 felt comfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state.

As groups such as the Jewish Agency in Israel (which aims to promote Jewish immigration) and the American Jewish committee expressed dismay over the findings, Cohen and Kelman had more bad news: They believed they were seeing a long-term trend that was unlikely to be reversed, as each generation of American Jews becomes even more integrated into the American mainstream than its parents and grandparents had been. The study, said Cohen, reflected "very significant shifts that have been occurring in what it means to be a Jew."

Cohen's and Kelman's startling figures alone underscore the absurdity of Shepherd's suggestion that to challenge Israel is to "defame an entire people." They also help frame the context for what I would call an emerging Jewish glasnost in which Jewish critics of Israel are increasingly willing to make themselves known. When I arrived in the United States 13 years ago, I was often surprised to find that people with whom I seemed to share a progressive, cosmopolitan worldview would suddenly morph into raging ultranationalists when the conversation turned to Israel. Back then, it would have seemed unthinkable for historian Tony Judt to advocate a binational state for Israelis and Palestinians or for Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen to write that "Israel itself is a mistake. It is an honest mistake, a well-intentioned mistake, a mistake for which no one is culpable, but the idea of creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims (and some Christians) has produced a century of warfare and terrorism of the sort we are seeing now." Unthinkable, too, was the angry renunciation of Zionism by Avrum Burg, former speaker of Israel's Knesset.

And, in those days, with the internet still in its infancy, the online Jewish dissident landscape that today ranges from groups in the Zionist peace camp like Tikkun, Americans for Peace Now, and the Israel Policy Forum, among others, to anti-Zionist Jews of the left such as Not in My Name and Jewish Voices for Peace, had not yet taken shape. Indeed, there was no Haaretz online English edition in which the reality of Israel was being candidly reported and debated in terms that would still be deemed heretical in much of the U.S. media.

Thirteen years ago, there certainly was no organization around like "Birthright Unplugged," which aims to subvert the "Taglit-Birthright Program," funded by Zionist groups and the government of Israel, that provides free trips to Israel for young Jewish Americans in order to encourage them to identify with the State. (The "Unplugged" version encourages young Jews from the U.S. to take the Birthright tour and its free air travel, and then stay on for a two-week program of visits to the West Bank, to Israeli human rights organizations, and to peace groups. The goal is to see another side of Israel, the side experienced by its victims -- and by Israelis who oppose the occupation of the West Bank.)

Clearly, much has changed, and the ability of the Zionist establishment -- the America Israel Political Action Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and others -- to impose nationalist boundaries on Jewish identity is being eroded. It's worth remembering in this context that anti-Zionism was originally a Jewish movement -- the majority of European Jews before World War II rejected the Zionist movement and its calls for a mass migration from Europe to build a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. The most popular Jewish political organization in Europe had been the Yiddishe Arbeiter Bund, a Jewish socialist party that was militantly anti-Zionist. Even among the rabbis of Europe, there was considerable opposition to the idea of Jews taking control of Zion before the arrival of the Messiah (and there still is, of course, from a sizable minority of the ultra-Orthodox).

Of course, the Holocaust changed all that. For hundreds of thousands of survivors, a safe haven in Palestine became a historic necessity.

But the world has changed since then, and as the research cited above suggests, the trends clearly don't favor the Zionists.
I got so engrossed I couldn't stop highlighting before hitting "copy" then "paste."

But the times they are a changin' and Jews are changing with them. We're an adaptable lot.

Tony Karon's article appears in full on and Nothing wrong with a bit of rootless cosmopolitanism.


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