Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Empty Rage of Jewish 'Progressives'

First published in The Jewish Press

The storm of vituperation unleashed against Alvin Rosenfeld in response to his monograph "'Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism" (published in December 2006 by the American Jewish Committee) continues unabated.

What is noteworthy about the attacks on Rosenfeld is how uniformly dishonest they have been in distorting his thesis and then condemning him on the basis of their false renderings of what he actually said.

Rosenfeld directs his critique essentially at those Jews who, in their verbal assaults on Israel, meet what Natan Sharansky several years ago set out as three criteria for when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Jewish bias: when it entails demonization of Israel - that is, condemnations based on accusations that grossly distort reality; when it damns Israel by a standard not applied to any other nation; and when it seeks to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Rosenfeld, of course, in discussing those he criticizes, quotes their statements that are the basis of his concerns. They are consistently statements that meet Sharansky’s criteria.
Yet his critics uniformly and dishonestly insist Rosenfeld is seeking to stifle all criticism of Israel. Lettie Cottin Pogrebin, for example, in the April 2007 issue of Moment, acknowledges that Rosenfeld distinguishes between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and demonization and delegitimization of the state, but insists his doing so is "a hollow disclaimer."

Pogrebin interprets his using the word "progressive" for many of those he critiques as somehow sinister and evidence of his broad attack on any criticism of Israel, even though he makes clear that he is simply invoking his targets’ own self-description as "progressives."

Pogrebin then undermines her thesis by seeking to defend the likes of historian Tony Judt, playwright Tony Kushner, poet Adrienne Rich and columnist Richard Cohen, whom she characterizes as "respected cultural figures."

Are we truly obliged to respect Tony Judt when he calls for the dissolution of Israel or makes the breathtakingly nonsensical claim that, as a nation based on an ethnic/religious identity, Israel is an anachronism? (Where has he been as, for example, more than a dozen new nation states, based on ethnic/religious identities, have been created in the last fifteen years, with the support of liberal opinion in the West, following the demise of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia?)

Why is Adrienne Rich worthy of respect and not censure when she declares that Zionism "needs to dissolve before twenty-first century realities"? Or Tony Kushner when he insists, "I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened." By what standard should Richard Cohen be given a pass when he calls Israel’s creation a "mistake"?

Pogrebin rounds off her supposed demonstration of Rosenfeld’s ill will toward all progressive Jewish thought on Israel by noting that, in his discussion of Kushner and Alisa Solomon’s edited essay collection, Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, he fails to discuss, or "disappears" - her term - those essays more tolerant of Israel.

In this disingenuous sleight-of-hand, she first makes the false claim that Rosenfeld is attacking all "progressive" criticism of Israel and then indicts him for not fully covering the range of that criticism. Again, Rosenfeld’s topic here is Jewish demonization and delegitimization of Israel, including in some of the essays in this collection. There is no reason for him to discuss the other papers.

In addition, let us imagine for a moment a collection of essays in which some contributors demonized and delegitimized any other state and called for its dissolution, singling out some non-Jewish ethnic group as not fit for that national self-determination accorded others as a right. Would Pogrebin defend such a collection by arguing that not all the essays contained defamatory and bigoted material?

In complaining that Rosenfeld is trying to silence Jews who disagree with him, Pogrebin at one point compares him to Brandeis donors who withdrew their support from the university after it invited Jimmy Carter to speak. She construes this as an intolerable attempt to silence the ex-president.

But Brandeis originally invited Carter to debate Alan Dershowitz and Carter refused, insisting he would only appear if he had the stage entirely to himself. Some Brandeis faculty and students demanded the university acquiesce to Carter’s terms and it did so, to the disgust of a number of Brandeis contributors. That Pogrebin interprets this yielding to exclusion of Dershowitz from a direct debate as somehow serving the free exchange of ideas is a breathtaking reversal of reality all too common among pontificating self-styled "progressives."

Pogrebin’s major points are echoed, with some further elaboration, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in a long April 9 posting on Arianna Huffington’s website, . (The biographical tag accompanying Waskow’s piece identifies him rather grandiosely as "director of The Shalom Center, a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life for peace, justice, community and healing of the earth.")

Waskow never actually names Rosenfeld in his attack on the monograph. Rather, his target is the American Jewish Committee and he uses criticism of the monograph - which he labels "inane and vicious" - as the starting point for a broad assault on the AJC. The organization, he insists, has fallen from its once commendable path to a point where its "only test of Jewish value is whether one wholeheartedly and singlemindedly supports the policies of the Jewish state," and he interprets Rosenfeld’s work as reflecting this agenda.

Thus Waskow, too, dishonestly recasts criticism of those who demonize and delegitimize Israel and promote its dissolution as an attempt to smear anyone who might take exception to particular Israeli policies.

Among those whose criticism by Rosenfeld Waskow finds especially offensive are - as with Pogrebin - Tony Kushner, Adrienne Rich and Tony Judt. Waskow, also like Pogrebin, seems to believe these people’s "cultural" contributions make criticism of them particularly unconscionable.

Waskow does not directly address any of the points made by Rosenfeld regarding these and other individuals. Nevertheless, he declares that the AJC has "slandered" them. How, for example, quoting Judt and Rich’s own words in which they call for Israel’s dissolution could constitute slandering them is something he does not bother to explain.

Waskow does, however, discuss at length what he values as those cultural contributions that, he seems to believe, have rendered various people beyond reproach. In waxing rhapsodic about the writings of Adrienne Rich, he declares, "Her prolific work is infused with the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam (‘repairing the world’)."

Of course, having chosen not to cite or even note Rich’s statements in which she insists that the Jewish struggle for national self-determination is intolerable and that the Jewish state must be dissolved, Waskow chooses also not to elaborate on how advocacy of Israel's destruction is congruent with tikkun olam.

Historian Daniel Boyarin is another writer Waskow defends without quoting any of his defamatory attacks on Israel and the Zionist enterprise. Boyarin too insists that Jewish national self-determination is unacceptable; he argues that Jews should instead pursue "self-deterritorialization." Moreover, they should be content with a "subaltern" status. (He does not make clear if his model for the status Jews should embrace is that of early Christian formulas for Jewish subordination or Muslim prescriptions for Jewish dhimmitude.)

But Waskow recites what he sees as Boyarin’s cultural contributions as though they somehow - as with Waskow’s gloss on Adrienne Rich - place him beyond reproach. Must we really excuse Boyarin’s delegitimizing of Israel and calls for its dismantling because, as Waskow assures us, Boyarin "has contributed extraordinary scholarly studies of sexuality in the Talmud"?

Waskow declares that he personally would like to see "peace between a renewed Palestine and a renewed Israel - still, and hopefully always, a state with a special connection to the Jewish people." Without defining more precisely his vision of such a state, he does acknowledge that, in wishing it to have a special connection with the Jewish people, "I disagree with Kushner, Rich... Boyarin and Judt."

But in his heated attack on the Rosenfeld/AJCommittee monograph, and on the AJC more broadly, Waskow makes clear that he is so enamored of the wider political predilections he shares with these people that he is willing to overlook their making common cause with those who would destroy the Jewish state. His is a very idiosyncratic comprehension indeed of "repairing the world."

If Pogrebin and Waskow are rather pedestrian in their attack on Rosenfeld’s monograph, plowing the same zigzag furrows as other critics, Shaul Magid - a colleague of Rosenfeld’s at Indiana University - offers a somewhat distinctive emphasis in his indictment, published in the April 2007, edition of Zeek (which describes itself as "A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture").

Magid complains that Rosenfeld is trying to make Zionism "the sine qua non of Jewish identity and legitimacy." Magid’s Rosenfeld is seeking, in effect, to delegitimize any comprehension of Judaism and Jewish identity not centered on Israel. This point, repeated by Magid in various permutations, sets truth on its head. Rosenfeld’s argument is with those Jews who are trying to delegitimize - largely through demonization, gross distortions of fact, and calls for Israel’s dissolution - fellow Jews who support the Zionist enterprise and believe that Jews have at least as much right as any other group to national self-determination.

Rosenfeld says nothing of Jews who may be indifferent to the existence of Israel; he does condemn those who insist Jews have no claim to a state or argue, on the basis of false accusations, that Jews have forfeited that right.

The perversity of Magid’s criticism is perhaps most clearly demonstrated when he declares that "a major flaw in [Rosenfeld’s] essay is that he never substantiates the crucial linkage... between supporting Israel and Jewish survival."

Magid never clarifies why such a linkage is "crucial," but clearly in his own thinking justification for Israel’s existence, and for criticism of Jews who argue against its existence, can only rest on the Jewish state’s being necessary for Jewish survival.

Would Magid, or those Jewish detractors of Israel that Rosenfeld criticizes and Magid defends, say this about any other nation? What if a movement arose arguing that the Muslim riots in France in recent years were caused by French mistreatment of its Muslim minority and that, as a consequence of France’s misbehavior and Muslim discontent, the French state should be dissolved; would Magid defend that objective with the claim that, after all, the French people would survive despite the dissolution of their state?

In the context of any other nation, the argument is extremist and nonsensical. But for some, including more than a few Jews, among them Magid, it is perfectly legitimate when it is directed at Israel.

Magid’s final defense of those Rosenfeld criticizes is that "I am quite certain all or most of [them] are in fact concerned about preserving Jews and Judaism in their own way." That may be true but it is also irrelevant.

Consider how Magid’s argument has circled around on itself. It began by insisting - falsely - that Rosenfeld was, in effect, seeking to excommunicate Jews who were not pro-Israel. When, in a rebuttal essay in the same edition of Zeek, Paul Bogdanor pointed out once again that Rosenfeld was not criticizing those unsupportive of Israel but those Jews who joined in the defamation, demonization and delegitimization of the state, Magid, given the last word by Zeek, ignored Bogdanor’s argument and continued to insist Rosenfeld and his supporters were trying to extrude all critics of Israel from the Jewish community. But by the end of his essay he is defending true extruders - those in the Jewish community who are seeking to cut off Israel and its supporters. His defense is that they are doing so out of concern "about preserving Jews and Judaism in their own way."

Again, that may be true. It has, in fact, been a recurrent pattern in Jewish history that, in the face of anti-Jewish assault, segments of the community have sought to label other Jews, usually Jews on the other side of some political or religious or class divide, as the true targets of the hatred. They would indict those Jewish others, parroting the anti-Semitic bill of indictment, and would believe that they were doing so in the interest of ending the attack and "preserving Jews and Judaism in their own way."

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, some German Jews blamed eastern European Jews for anti-Semitism; secular and reformist Jews blamed traditionally religious Jews; and socialist Jews blamed the Jewish bourgeoisie, often doing so in terms that mimicked anti-Semites. They no doubt often believed their embracing anti-Semitic indictments in this manner was in the interest of "preserving Jews and Judaism in their own way," which meant essentially preserving themselves as they wishfully hoped the haters would tolerate their sort of Jew.

And so today there are Jews who believe that Israel’s existence is a threat to Jews worldwide and, rather than blame the haters of Israel, they seek, in a perversion of all decency, to "preserv[e] Jews and Judaism in their own way" by joining the haters in their attack and defaming, delegitimizing and promoting dissolution of the Jewish state.

Whatever the rationales offered by Magid and those similarly disposed, embracing the arguments and agenda of those who would destroy the Jewish state is indeed itself a form of "the new anti-Semitism," as Rosenfeld so cogently demonstrates.