It is no secret that far left Gentile despisers of Israel use Jews as cover. Check the web sites of organizations such as the mainline church-supported U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, or the PCUSA’s Israel Palestine Mission Network, and you will find lots of articles quoted and linked to written by the likes of Jeff Halper, Gilad Atzmon, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappe, Gideon Levy, and the like. The thought is, “If there are Jews who hate Israel and everything it does and stands for, then it’s OK for a Gentile to feel the same way.” Supposedly it muzzles the charge of anti-Semitism: Jews can’t be anti-Semitic, after all, can they?
Alan Dershowitz examines the phenomenon of the Israel-hating Jew in a column in the Jerusalem Post (sadly, behind a paid-subscription wall) that is available at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He looks at the matter through the lens of a recently published novel called The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, but first he lays out the issue:
The question I’m most often asked is why so many people, especially Jews, are so obsessed with Israel’s imperfections and so sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. I’m not referring to critics of some Israeli policies – such as the building of civilian settlements in the West Bank. I myself share some of those criticisms. I’m focusing on Jews who compare Israel to Nazi Germany and analogize the situation of the Palestinians to the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. No rational person could seriously believe such absurd exaggerations. So something beyond rationality and truth must be at work.
Any objective assessment of Israel’s actions over the 62 years of its existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people would rank it near the top in compliance with human rights, civil liberties and efforts to minimize civilian casualties. The Israeli government has repeatedly offered statehood to the Palestinians: in 1948, in 2000-2001 and in 2008. Each time the Palestinian leadership rejected these offers. The current Israeli government is now offering to negotiate, without any precondition, a two-state solution and an end of the occupation of the West Bank. (Following the end of the occupation of Gaza, Southern Lebanon and Sinai.)
There is much to criticize in Israel’s actions, as there is with regard to the actions of every democracy. But no nation in history, faced with comparable threats, has ever behaved any better than Israel. Nor has any nation in history, in so short a period of time, contributed as much to humanity in terms of life-saving medical technology, environmental achievements and fighting global terrorism. Israel’s actions deserve, perhaps, no better than a B in a world of C’s, D’s and F’s. Yet it is regarded as a singularly evil pariah state by so many. This requires an explanation beyond the rational.
The extraordinary sympathy for the Palestinians, in a world with so little sympathy for the Tibetans, the Kurds, the Chechnians and other dispossessed people with strong claims to statehood, independence and human rights, also requires explanation. The hard-left and the international human rights establishment have become obsessed with the Palestinians, to the prejudice of other more deserving causes. The Palestinians have repeatedly rejected the two-state solution in favor of violent efforts to destroy Israel, terrorize its civilians and make alliances with some of the world’s worst human rights offenders. They have suffered to be sure, and deserve sympathy along with others who have suffered, but much of their suffering has been self-inflicted. The Palestinian leadership-Arafat, Hamas, even the current Palestinian Authority-has been among the worst human rights offenders in the world: targeting civilians; hiding behind human shields; denying religious freedom; stifling dissent; executing political opponents with no semblance of due process; inciting hatred against Jews, Christians and others; and denying equality to women, gays and non-Muslims. And yet the Palestinians have become the darlings of the hard-left-the cause de rigueur of the human rights establishment.
When the best is regarded as the worst, and the worst regarded as the best, something is surely wrong. When I am asked the question: Why is Israel so demonized and why are the Palestinians so glorified, especially by some Jews, I am used to responding that the answer is beyond my pay scale: it is more in the domain of Freud, Sartre and others who are capable of deeply exploring the human condition.
He raises some excellent questions, and I think that at least some of the answer is found in his references to the “hard left.” There are some Jews whose loyalties to far left politics are much greater than their loyalties to the Jewish people, or certainly to Israel. There is an amazing unity of opinion on the far left about a variety of complex issues, but none more than on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Regarding that, there are no complexities on the far left: Israel is solely responsible for the current state of affairs. Israel doesn’t want peace; Israel is imperialist; Israel is racist; Israel is unjust, and uniquely evil (well, along with the United States) in the annals of international relations. Palestinians, on the other hand, desire only peaceful relations with everyone, have a just and democratic society (or would, if only Hamas were allowed to take control of the West Bank), bear no responsibility for creating or sustaining the current situation, and are victims of a historic and unparalleled injustice. This is the view of the far left, and it is a mindset every bit as prevalent among Jews as non-Jews in that part of the political spectrum. (Dexter van Zile provides some excellent evidence for this here.)
Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute of Jewish Culture and Arts at Indiana University, provides another window on this that incorporates not only the political but something of the psychological. He explains this in an interview with the Jerusalem Post:
Prof. Alvin H. Rosenfeld’s 2007 essay “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism” triggered an international debate over a largely neglected phenomenon: anti-Zionist Jews who are waging fierce polemical and organizational campaigns against Israel’s existence. Many of them employ language that fulfills the criteria of both the European Union’s “working definition” of anti-Semitism and the US State Department’s definition of contemporary anti-Semitism.
Professor Rosenfeld, is there Jewish anti-Semitism? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?
On the face of it, Jewish anti-Semitism does sound like a contradiction in terms, but unfortunately the phenomenon exists and has a long history. Some even claim to find reference to it as far back as the Bible and interpret a verse such as Isaiah 49:17 as an example: “Your destroyers and they that make you waste will come forth from among you.” Isaiah was a farsighted prophet, and while I claim no direct line of continuity between ancient and medieval Jewish enemies of the Jews and the people that Henryk M. Broder has rightly been exposing as implacably anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, some of the parallels are chilling.
Jewish intellectuals like Tony Judt, Noam Chomsky and Alfred Grosser strongly deny being anti-Semites. They claim they are simply formulating severe critiques of Israeli policy that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. What do you think of that claim?
In and of itself, criticism of Israeli politics and actions need not be anti-Semitic. Like all countries, Israel is far from perfect and should not be exempt from criticism, even sharp criticism. But too often what passes as criticism of Israel is no more than a code term, or rhetorical cover, for what is sometimes transparently a form of verbal aggression – an impassioned denunciation or vilification of the state itself and even its right to continued existence. If one attends carefully to the language of some of the people you name, one finds that it has an edge to it – an extra note of enthusiasm, anger, bitterness: an overwrought quality – that goes well beyond what one normally thinks of as political commentary or criticism. Something perverse is going on here, something that one almost never finds when critics turn their sights on other countries, unless that country happens to be America.
When does criticism of Israel become anti-Semitic?
Natan Sharansky’s “three Ds” test applies here: Whenever so-called criticism of Israel demonizes or delegitimizes the Jewish state or holds it to a double standard in passing judgment on it, we have crossed a line that distinguishes legitimate criticism from anti-Semitism. There are other measures as well, but Sharansky’s are surely apt.
The European Union has had a working definition of Anti-Semitism since 2005. The US State Department’s definition mirrors the EU definition. The American historian Jeffrey Herf commented that “the State Department definition is okay, but I would add that the most dangerous form of anti-Semitism accuses Jews of waging wars with the intent to exterminate others. This was the central Nazi accusation and key justification for mass murder. Related to it is the accusation that Jews have seized control of a nation’s foreign policy and led it to war against its own national interests. The accusation that an Israel lobby was responsible for the war in Iraq is of that sort.” How do you view the definitions? And is Herf’s criticism justified?
The EU’s working definition is helpful, as is the US State Department’s which resembles it closely, but neither is exhaustive. Herf’s additions focus on some current, concrete examples that are justified and help to drive home the reality of a resurgent anti-Semitism.
In your essay “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” you write: “The extreme anti-Zionism is not driven by anything remotely like reasoned historical analysis, but rather by a complex tangle of psychological as well as political motives that subvert reason and replace it with something akin to hysteria.” What political and psychological motives do you mean?
The political motives behind present-day hostility to Jews and the Jewish state spring from both right-wing and left-wing circles, but on the intellectual level, most of it is situated among people who identify with the Left. To proclaim oneself an anti-Zionist today is to seek validation as a member in good standing of so-called progressive opinion. To my mind, such gestures illustrate nothing much more than the ritualistic aspects of a weak political identity and point up the poverty of much of what passes today as “progressive” thought.
As for the emotional content or psychological motives at work here, that’s complex and cannot be adequately covered in a brief interview. Sander Gilman has analyzed some of this complexity in his major study of Jewish self-hatred. Theodor Lessing’s earlier study exemplifies as well as clarifies some of the mental/emotional turbulence at play.
In your essay you do not address Jewish self-hatred. Does the phenomenon exist? And if so, how do you asses it?
You are right, I don’t deal with Jewish self-hatred in that essay, and not because I am skeptical about its existence. Sadly, it does exist, especially among Jews who are beset by a disturbed or deeply conflicted Jewish identity. Gilman’s book is a must-read for anyone who wishes to learn more.
Let me just say this much for now: No one who knows the Jews well would mistake them for being a normal people. They are not. The Jews date back a long time – we are now in the year 5769 – and in different ways see themselves as part of a long, accomplished, but often difficult history. Threatened with total annihilation by Nazi Germany and its allies just the day before yesterday, as Jews count time, some Jews do not want to see themselves or want to be seen by others within this line of descent.
Add to these anxieties and rejections the revival of Jewish national sovereignty in the State of Israel after millennia of national political disenfranchisement, and you can begin to see how complex Jewish identity can be. It is impacted by numerous factors – family, community, country, culture, history – some of which make Jews feel uneasy or inadequate or embarrassed or vulnerable.
One way – not a healthy way – to deal with the tangle of pressures that accompany such a multifaceted identity is to deny it altogether or turn aggressively against it. When that happens, and especially when Jews internalize the external charges against them and adopt the negative stereotypes in which these charges crystallize, you get something like Jewish self-hatred. Most Jews are not afflicted by it, but some are.
The phenomenon of Jewish anti-Semitism (or at the very least an anti-Israelism that is so virulent as to be indistinguishable from it) would be inconsequential if it weren’t for the way that genuine Gentile anti-Semites–of whom there are obviously far more than their Jewish co-haters–use it to give their own views a patina of legitimacy. If for no other reason than that, it’s important to understand it. But for those who are seeking to expose and defeat the growing anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred in the mainline churches (at least among the leadership and activists), it’s especially important to recognize the tactic, and to call it what it is: a fig leaf to cover up naked bigotry.