In the war of words against Israel, one series of charges is frequently made: The Jews close ranks to defend the Jewish state, even when Israel’s conduct is indefensible. In so doing, they put their community allegiance above universal values. To get away with this inexcusable political stance, they silence critics through the powerful arm of their establishment, their lobbies, and their influence, financial and political.
It’s a pretty old conspiracy theory by now, and the latest version of it was launched by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who conveniently chose a traditionally anti-Zionist magazine, The London Review of Books, for their crusade against what they call “the Lobby.” A month after Walt and Mearsheimer took to the pages of the LRB, claiming that nobody in the U.S. would publish them, the London-based Independent devoted the cover story in its weekly magazine to an article by anti-Israel journalist Robert Fisk. The cover featured a U.S. flag with Stars of David in lieu of the usual stars; it was reminiscent of neo-Nazi and white-supremacist websites, on which the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack are routinely juxtaposed with Jewish symbols.
Fisk, Mearsheimer, and Walt insinuate that it is dangerous to speak out against “the Lobby.” Yet, in the six years since the start of the current intifada, three lengthy articles appeared in major British publications “exposing” pro-Israel groups in Britain and the U.S.: in the New Statesman in January 2002, in the London Review of Books in March, and now in the Independent. Sinister references to the “Lobby” are ubiquitous in Western publications. The BBC even devoted a radio program to it. Yet, nobody lost his job; nobody was denied a visa to the U.S.; nobody was jailed for writing those articles. The only response they faced was a torrent of letters to the editors and several articles responding, sometimes in praise and sometimes in condemnation.
With all this denouncing of the Jews for congregating and defending Israel no matter what, it may seem surprising that the most vociferous critics of Israel are Jewish. The most vicious anti-Israel articles are penned by Jews. The most extreme agitators against Israel are Jewish. In short, while those who evoke the bogeyman of the Jewish lobby and the Jewish conspiracy accuse Jews of being tribal in their “uncritical” defense of Israel, there is no shortage of Jews taking the most extremely negative views of Israel and of their fellow Jews.
A rich literature has flourished in the six years of the current Palestinian intifada: Books with such titles as Prophets Outcast, Wrestling with Zion, and The Other Israel abound, offering a collection of Jewish voices ready to “break ranks” and denounce Israel. They have much in common: They denounce Israel as evil; they accuse Israel and Zionism of having betrayed Judaism’s authentic voice; they embrace a narrative of victimization, where the authors present themselves as victims of a Jewish establishment that tries to silence them; and, in describing Israel and its policies, they frequently use vocabulary, imagery, and stereotypes that are dangerously close to the old repertoire of classical anti-Semitism.
Jews Against Jews
The language of current anti-Semitism is deeply indebted to these Jewish voices and in fact needs them to make its case. Their eagerness to denounce Israel in the most virulent terms and to call for its destruction offers a powerful alibi to the anti-Semites. Anti-Semites rely on Jews to confirm their prejudice: If Jews recur to such language and advocate such policies, how can anyone be accused of anti-Semitism for making the same arguments? As for anti-Israel and anti-Jewish Jews, their rhetoric is coated in a self-image of heroism. They present themselves as dissenters. They purport to be “critical Jews” who reclaim the authentic tradition of the Prophets of Israel: Their role as critics of state power and dissenting voices in society makes them not rebels but authentic interpreters of Jewish morality, whistleblowers on a Jewish community that has lost, in its support for Israel, its moral compass.
The phenomenon of self-hatred among Jews is not new. Neither is the virulence of Jewish anti-Zionist rhetoric, before and after Israel’s establishment. But the close nexus between Jewish enemies of Israel and anti-Semitism is a subject that has not been explored much.
Despite all the clamor about Jewish lobbies’ silencing of critics of Israel, and about the difficulties faced by true Jewish heroes who break ranks to “tell the truth,” most Jewish detractors of Israel are well-established figures — from MIT professor Noam Chomsky to New York University historian Tony Judt, from Oxford don Avi Shlaim to New Yorker star reporter Seymour Hersh, from Stanford University Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin to a plethora of tenured Israeli radicals. These commentators tend to have easy access to publishing houses and to the op-ed sections of prestigious and influential newspapers and magazines. In the literary landscape of op-eds, pamphlets, and academic works, it is the pro-Israel voice that is constantly struggling to be heard.
Enter Paul Bogdanor and Edward Alexander, editors of the new book The Jewish Divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders. This book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand not only why so many Jewish intellectuals turn against Israel, but also the mechanisms by which their otherwise shoddy and superficial scholarship and journalistic work earns so much praise.
As with other collections, it is hard to offer a comprehensive view of this volume, which includes analyses of the works of such anti-Israel figures as Noam Chomsky and his student and follower Tanya Reinhart, George Steiner, Israel Shahak, and others. But two main themes emerge that deserve scrutiny. The first is the claim, made by so many Jewish intellectuals, to be the authentic expression of Judaism’s prophetic tradition in their crusade against Israel and Zionism. And the second is the crucial role their rhetoric plays in excusing, condoning, and — in effect — abetting anti-Semitism.
There is something appealing in the idea of a Jewish antinomian as the quintessential embodiment of what being Jewish is all about. Jewish intellectuals who rise as Israel’s accusers claim to be doing so in order to save Judaism from Israel and Zionism. In effect, their crusade against Israel is less about justice for the Palestinians than about coming to terms with their own tortured Jewish identity. As Jerome Segal — whom Jacob Neusner tears apart in The Jewish Divide — admits, his “engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns on an essentially conceptual point: Jewish identity and Jewish history have become hostage to this conflict. Who and what we are will be determined by this conflict and the relationship we bear to it.” He is not involved, in other words, to save the Palestinians and restore justice and dignity to an oppressed people. He is involved because he fears his own self-image as a Jew will be tarnished, unless he can influence the outcome of the conflict in moral ways. As Edward Alexander writes in his essay on Berkeley’s Jewish radicals, “Jews who assign responsibility for anti-Jewish aggression to Jewish misbehaviour not only save themselves from the unpleasant and often dangerous task of coming to the defence of Jews under attack but also retain the delightful charms of good conscience.”
Yet the Biblical prophets to whom these critics appeal were anything but the advocates of a post-national Israel or of a policy of mercy and human rights vis-à-vis Israel’s neighbors. They were not exactly pacifist either. Take Gideon, for example: Upon returning from battle (prophets did fight, yes), he “took the elders of the city and . . . punished the people of Succoth with them. And as for [the city of] Penuel, he tore down its tower and killed its inhabitants” (Judges 8:16-17). What about the Prophet Elijah, who in the First Book of Kings (18:40) orders the people of Israel to “capture the prophets of Baal, do not let anyone escape!” and then proceeds to order their execution? What about Elisha, who in the Second Book of Kings (6:18) asks (successfully) that God strike the Arameans with a blinding light? What about the oft-cited Isaiah? If this is the prophet to whose tradition anti-Israel Jewish intellectuals refer, they might prefer to ignore the fate he augurs on Babylon, then the “multicultural” capital of the Orient: “Therefore shall heaven be shaken and earth leap out of its place, at the fury of the Lord of Hosts on the day of His burning wrath. Then like gazelles they are chased, and like sheep that no man gathers; each man shall turn back to his people, they shall flee every one to his land. All who remain shall be pierced through, all who are caught shall fall by the sword. And their babes shall be dashed to pieces in their sight, their homes shall be plundered, and their wives shall be raped” (Isaiah 13:13-16).
To refer to Isaiah’s prophetic wisdom in the name of a pacifist, post-nationalist, and non-violent view of Judaism would clearly be out of place. Nor is Isaiah an exception among the major prophets. Jeremiah promised troubles to the Ammonites, whose town of Rabbah will “become a desolate hill and its villages will be set on fire” (Jeremiah 49:2); as for Babylon, he too wishes to see the fabled city in ruins, never inhabited again except by jackals (Jeremiah 51:36). Ezekiel, for his part, spends seven chapters of his prophecy (25-32) promising terrible vengeance to the nations who wronged Israel. And his idea of vengeance is not limited to U.N. resolutions, petitions to liberal newspapers, and letters of protest. Between towns razed to the ground and people killed, one struggles to find a verse that aspires to peace among the nations.
Those who invoke the prophets of Israel as a source of inspiration to attack Israel and its policies usually prove only one thing: that they have no idea what’s written in the books of the prophets. This should come as no surprise and The Jewish Divide exposes this phenomenon well in many of its essays: Anti-Israel Jewish intellectuals are frequently secular and alienated from Jewish tradition. The focus of their wrath is not Israel but a Jewish identity that no longer dwells in their hearts.
Even as their distance from Jewish values demonstrates that they are not legitimate heirs of the Jewish prophets, their role in providing cover for anti-Semitism cannot be dismissed or underestimated. The only Jew anti-Semites can tolerate in their midst is a Jew who has abandoned all the vestiges of Judaism and shows no traces of identification with the Jewish people. Promoting the abandonment of Judaism has always been high on the agenda of Jew-haters: From conversion to assimilation, no version of anti-Jewish sentiment has ever left the Jews with the option of defining their own identity on their own terms. If they wanted to survive, they had to accept what the outside world wanted them to be. And even as our age celebrates cultural diversity and religious freedom, the Jews are nonetheless barred from defining themselves in national terms. Some Jewish intellectuals, therefore, embrace anti-Zionism in order to become accepted in their liberal and progressive circles, where hatred for Israel is most rampant.
And this is highly convenient for the anti-Semites. It is no coincidence that the accusation that Israel was “born in sin” — on account of its responsibility for the birth of the refugee problem — has recently gained much currency in the West. For decades, Palestinian propaganda made that charge, with little success. But once Israeli historian Benny Morris came along and coined that “born in sin” expression, the charge gained credibility: This was an Israeli Jew, after all, with all the academic apparatus and footnotes. (The charge itself, I am at pains to point out, is still as false as it ever was. In The Jewish Divide, Efraim Karsh exposes the farrago of distortions and fabrications still peppering Morris’s work even after Morris took Israel’s side after October 2000.)
The mechanism through which an anti-Semitic accusation becomes respectable once a Jew endorses it is not limited to Israel’s new historians. Norman Finkelstein provides a blanket cover to Holocaust deniers, as does Noam Chomsky. Israel Shahak made the comparison between Israel and Nazism respectable — all the while describing Judaism according to the medieval canons of the blood libel. And George Steiner popularized the view of the ideal Jew as the wandering Jew — perennially in exile, the only acceptable condition for being authentically Jewish in his view. All these stereotypes are part and parcel of the anti-Semitic arsenal today. And all of them have found the endorsement of a Jew. Is it any wonder that these Jews are so popular in so many Western circles?
Not that anti-Semitism would not exist without self-hating Jews, but they provide a stronger case for it. And in so doing, they gain acceptance and full recognition in the circles to which they want to belong. Their adherence to the political dogma of the progressive and liberal Left is a small entry fee, given their effective alienation from Jewish life, Jewish values, and Jewish communities. But it is also evidence that they are anything but the antinomian dissenters they purport to be. In fact, they are the expression of a herd instinct and living proof that nobody is immune from anti-Jewish prejudice, not even the Jews themselves.
The Jewish Divide exposes this phenomenon and its promoters. At a moment in history when Israel is again fighting for its survival while being vilified as the aggressor and the villain, many Jewish intellectuals have once again sought the spotlight to state that what Israel is doing is “not in my name.” This book may not provide a cure for this disease, but it certainly offers a key to recognizing its symptoms and developing an effective antidote.
– Emanuele Ottolenghi is the incoming executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute.