Jews, Israel, and Anti-Semitism

Dennis Prager, a Jewish columnist and talk-show host, blames the university for instilling anti-Semitism in today’s Jewish students — and, along the way, destroying both Judaism and America. "How’s that work?" I hear you ask. Well, Prager doesn’t say directly, but those of us who have been smacked with the working end of the "anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism" argument can basically work it out. See, universities teach something called "critical thinking skills" which, when applied to contemporary Israeli policies, tends to make Israel look like less of a hero among nations and more like just another state playing geopolitical games in order to maintain and extend its hegemony. Since this sort of "extension of state power" runs counter to a) Americans’ basic ideology of independence and freedom, and b) well-founded Jewish concerns about the risks of powerful states and their use of power, a lot of Jewish-American students come to develop a distrust of Israel, even a distaste for its politics.

That’s the easy part, though — to get from there to anti-Semitism you have to follow a very particular train of thought. First, you have to agree that a criticism of Israeli policies is akin to a criticism of Israel as a nation. Then you have to accept that Israel is not only the best but the only possible realization of Zionism, so that to oppose Israel is to oppose Zionism. And finally, you have to believe that Zionism is not only the best but the only possible manifestation of Judaism, so that to be anti-Zionist is to be anti-Semitic. Each of these assumptions is questionable, but Prager depends on all three to make his case. Here’s the money quote from Prager’s article:

Yet universities have become society’s primary breeding ground for hatred of Israel. This hatred is often so intense that the college campus has become a haven for people who use anti-Zionism to mask their anti-Semitism. Moreover, anti-Zionism itself is a form of anti-Semitism, even if some Jews share it. Why? Because anti-Zionism is not simply criticism of Israel, which is as legitimate as criticism of any country. Anti-Zionism means that Israel as a Jewish state has no right to exist. And when a person argues that only one country in the world is unworthy of existence — and that happens to be the one Jewish country in the world — one is engaged in anti-Semitism, whether personally anti-Semitic or not.

The first assumption, that non-support of Israel’s policies implies non-support of Israel’s "right to exist" (a much-bandied but not particularly well-grounded "right", it should be noted), is easily disposed of. After all, dozens of Israeli "refuseniks" (soldiers and officers who have refused to particpate in actions against Palestinains) have challenged Israel’s policies, ostensibly without denying their own right to exist. A large and growing contingent of Israeli leftists and pacifists, including groups such as Women in Black and New Profile have challenged their government’s actions and policies, again without apparently calling for an end to the Jewish state. For many Jewish liberals in the US and elsewhere, Israel’s Jewishness (or lack thereof) is no excuse for policies that would be condemned if enacted by any other nation.

The second assumption, that non-support of Israel can be equated with anti-Zionism, is a trickier issue, though. By definition, American and other non-Israeli Jews have rejected a central tenet of Zionist thought, that the rightful place for Jews in the modern world is in the bosom of a Jewish nation-state. However, despite their failure to make Aliyah (that is, to emigrate to Israel), many American Jews define a significant part of their Jewishness in relation to their support for Israel. They are not strictly Zionists, but "fellow travellers" of a sort (the sort that doesn’t travel, I suppose). That is, they feel that it is a good thing that a Jewish state exist, and that part of their obligation as Jews is to defend (if not militarily, at least politically) and financially support their "brothers and sisters" in Israel.

But Zionism is not the only way of being Jewish — in fact, it’s not even a particularly Jewish way of being Jewish. Zionism emerged in the 1890s as a modern reaction to modern concerns, notably anti-Semitism and nationalism, and proceeded to be marginalized by mainstream Jews for the next half-century. Almost all pre-WWII Jews rejected Zionism as a retreat from their place in the world and as an eccentric fantasy. Far more popular in the first part of the 20th century was the Bundist ideology of local engagement and "cultural nationalism", a stance that called for local autonomy for Jews and their recognition as equal citizens in their respective nations. Bundists were heavily involved in the abortive 1905 attempt to overthrow the Czar in Russia, as well as the more successful 1917 Revolution (after which they were swiftly purged from the newly-established Leninist state). Banned in Russia, the center of Bundism moved to Poland, where Bundists established defense committees that protected Jewish communities from pogroms and riots and, eventually and less successfully, Nazi invaders. Their communities shattered by the Nazi invasion, many Bundists joined partisan groups behind the German lines, while others fled to England to fight with the Allies.

Driven by the wave of officially-sanctioned pogroms following the 1905 coup attempt, a wave of Bundists emigrated to the US, where they would come to play a key role in the developing labor movement as well as the efflorescence of the American Yiddish literary scene. Between 1900 and 1930, a vibrant Yiddish theater, literature, film, and press developed, closely connected to unions like the the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and to mutual aid societies like the Workmen’s Circle. While Zionism was struggling to find a foothold in the American Jewish psyche, Bundism — along with communism and anarchism — was laying the groundwork for a Jewish liberalism that would reach its peak in the decades immediately following WWII.

Zionism finally began to attract mainstream attention in the aftermath of WWII, when the failure of virtually every nation to step forward and offer to do something about the hundreds of thousands of Jews in displaced persons camps (many of which were as bad as the concentration camps their inhabitants had supposedly been liberated from) opened up the political opportunity to press for the establishment of a Jewish nation-state. Although several candidate locations were put forward — Argentina, Madagascar — Palestine stood out as the least potentially troublesome location. Zionism offered some degree of hope to displaced Jews who, refused entry to the US, Britain, Canada, and other nations, and unwilling to return to their homes where whatever Jewish communities had once existed were now wholly destroyed, these Jews began to rally around the promise of a place they could call their own.

Elsewhere in the world, however, the prospect of a Jewish "homeland" failed to inspire much attention. Throughout North Africa and the Middle East, Jews chose to remain in their integrated Muslim-Jewish communities rather than relocate to the newly-founded Israel. In the US and Western Europe, likewise, Israel was not seen as having much to offer. The first wave of immigrants was thus predominantly those Ashkenazic Jews who had felt the brunt of the Holocaust, who proceeded to lend the fledgeling state much of its character. For instance, the decision to revive the long-dead Hebrew language was undertaken in part because of the Zionist characterization of Yiddish — the native language of most of Israel’s early population — as a "ghetto jargon", a sign of Jewish weakness and a reminder of their emasculation at the hands of Europeans, with the Holocaust only the most recent and morst horrific of a millenium-long history of oppression.

In the US, neither the founding of Israel nor the revelations of the horrors of the Holocaust did much to advance the position of Zionism. Holocaust survivors who had family in America and were thus able to escape the DP camps found little sympathy for their experiences among American Jews. Most Americans found their tales of suffering and degradation too difficult to countenance, often seeing them as pure fantasy. With only a handful of exceptions, the Holocaust was eclipsed from Jewish-American memory in the decades after the war. Anne Frank‘s diary was published in English in 1952, and began to attract attention with its adaptation into first a Broadway play in 1955 and then a movie (largely denuded of any Jewish content) in 1959, but of course Diary of a Young Girl does not detail life in the concentration camps. Elie Weisel’s Night , for many their first look at life in the camps, was published in English in 1960, selling only 1,000 copies in its first 18 months in print.

Israel and the Holocaust only really entered American Jewish consciousness following the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel’s swift victory in this conflict demonstrated to many Americans that Israel was a serious power in the Middle East, and that it could be an important player in Cold War politics in the region. For many American Jews, Israel’s victory demonstrated that Judaism was not a religion of weak bookkeepers, but could in fact be a source of strength and power, even in the face of overpowering odds. At the same time, the seizure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with the war itself which many saw as unprovoked, greviously strained Muslim-Jewish relations throughout North and East Africa and in the Middle East, producing tensions that Israel was quick to exploit and even intensify in order to attract new immigrants. Massive and widely-publicized operations in Ethiopia, Morocco, Iraq, and elsewhere showed Israel rescuing Jews from conditions that had become hostile. This new awareness of Israel as a major player in world affairs, and as a refuge not just for Holocaust survivors but for oppressed Jews the world over, brought Israel to the forefront of American Jewish attention.

Even as Zionism finally broke through the resistance of American Jews, however, its promise of a homeland for all Jews was rapidly eroding in Israel itself. The new Israelis were mostly Sephardic, with a long history of incorporation into the Arabic-speaking Muslim world. They did not share the Euro-centric Ashkenazi’s history of suffering in Jewish ghettoes, nor of the Holocaust. Conditions for these new Israelis were (and remain) often horrific. Ella Shohat, an Iraqi immigrant to Israel and, later, to the United States, writes:

The same historical process that dispossessed Palestinians of their property, lands and national-political rights, was linked to the dispossession of Middle Eastern and North African Jews of their property, lands, and rootedness in Muslim countries. As refugees, or mass immigrants (depending on one’s political perspective), we were forced to leave everything behind and give up our Iraqi passports. The same process also affected our uprootedness or ambiguous positioning within Israel itself, where we have been systematically discriminated against by institutions that deployed their energies and material to the consistent advantage of European Jews and to the consistent disadvantage of Oriental Jews. Even our physiognomies betray us, leading to internalized colonialism or physical misperception. Sephardic Oriental women often dye their dark hair blond, while the men have more than once been arrested or beaten when mistaken for Palestinians. What for Ashkenazi immigrants from Russian and Poland was a social aliya (literally "ascent") was for Oriental Sephardic Jews a yerida ("descent").

More recently, a wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union has been greeted with less-than-open-arms in Israel, where they complain of being treated as "second-class citizens". Representing as much as 1/5 of Israel’s current population, Russian Jews are largely well-educated, many of whom were skilled professionals in the Soviet Union who fled the rising wave of anti-Semitism in the wake of Communism’s collapse. These Jews responded heartily to Israeli portrayals of a better life in Israel — however, in the words of one such immigrant,

for the great majority of the 800,000 immigrants that arrived in Israel reality was somewhat different. In Israel they found all the elements of a capitalist system. Thousands of people to this day still have no homes and live in old hotels and caravans. They discovered that in the USSR the health service and the education system had been much better than in Israel.

In its treatment of Sephardic Jews, Russian Jews, Bedouins, and others, Israel is not acting as a Zionist state, but merely as a state. Like other states, Israel has a need to make its population "legible". As official policy of the state, Zionism functions not as an ideology promoting the free expression of Judaism, but as a tool for the creation of citizens of the state. The Zionism of Israel is a far cry from the early Zionism of poet Emma Lazarus, whose "Epistle to the Hebrews" advanced the notion of a united Jewry a decade-and-a-half before Theodor Herzl published The Jewish State in 1896. Lazarus’ vision is one of unity and diversity, not of conformity:

We who are prosperous and independent have not sufficient homogeneity to champion on the ground of a common creed, common stock, a common history, a common heritage of misfortune, the rights of the lowest and poorest Jew-peddler who flees, for life and liberty of thought, from Slavonic mobs. Until we are all free, we are none of us free. But lest we should justify the taunts of our opponents, lest we should become "tribal" and narrow and Judaic rather than humane and cosmopolitan like the anti-Semites of Germany and Jew-baiters of Russia, we ignore and repudiate our unhappy brethren as having no part or share in their misfortunes- until the cup of anguish is held also to our own lips.

So if Zionism is not the only Judaism, and if Israel’s is not the only Zionism, then how can we say that opposing Israel — even denying it’s tenuous "right to exist" — is anti-Semitic? While Israel can be opposed for anti-Semitic reasons, must we conclude that all opposition to Israel or its policies is likewise anti-Semitic? Prager, who — like my father — belongs to the generation of American Jews raised in the wake of the Holocaust and for whom the Six-Day War had a lasting impact, is fighting a rear-guard battle in defense of a way of being Jewish that is bound to a specific historical period. For the generation of Jews born after the Six-Day War, for whom the Israeli "aleph Jew" role holds little appeal and even less resonance with our own position in American society, Prager’s Zionism reads less as an ideological stance and more as an awkward apologia for Israeli violence. For many (though by no means all) of today’s younger Jews, particularly those of us raised outside of the Boston-New York corridor, Israel does not play a major role in our understanding of ourselves as Jewish. While the pro-Israeli stance of the neo-conservatives resonates with some of my generation of American Jews, others have found their Jewishness in exploring and uncovering other ways of being Jewish, ways eclipsed by the rise of Israel to prominence in Jewish identity and by the rise of Jews to "whiteness" in American culture. In the face of revived interest in Yiddish culture, Bundism, klezmer, Sephardic Judaism, Jewish mysticism, unionism and mutual aid, Jewish-American political traditions, and indeed, other Zionisms, Prager’s insistence on Jewish-American investment in Israel’s "right to exist" comes off as a denial of the vibrancy and diversity of the Jewish tradition, and perhaps a denial of the Jewish tradition itself.

4 thoughts on “Jews, Israel, and Anti-Semitism

  1. Thanks so much for this post…

    “Then you have to accept that Israel is not only the best but the only possible realization of Zionism, so that to oppose Israel is to oppose Zionism.”

    This is a problem I’ve felt a lot while reading (admittedly not profoundly or widely) about all of this. In particular Said seems to consistently miss it, such as in ‘The End of the Peace Process’.

    where I don’t follow you is here:

    “In its treatment of Sephardic Jews, Russian Jews, Bedouins, and others, Israel is not acting as a Zionist state, but merely as a state. Like other states, Israel has a need to make its population “legible”…”

    and then this:

    “As official policy of the state, Zionism functions not as an ideology promoting the free expression of Judaism, but as a tool for the creation of citizens of the state.”

    Wouldn’t that be a Zion-ist- (Zionistic?) state, then?

    Are you saying that State Zionism is metaphysically incapable of being authentic, of really being what it claims to be(‘false’?).

    Or is it the point that the contestation of the state is itself metaphysical?

    Just a thought.

  2. Fellow Temple grad, Jason Greenberg Motamedi wrote his dissertation about Bedouins and Mizrahim (Saphardic) Jews, comparing the different ways in which these groups are intergrated into the bottom rungs of Israeli society:


    The dissertation itself is here [PDF].

    He also has some nice pictures from his fieldwork here.

  3. Max,

    My basic contention, drawing on a rather extensive literature of “the State”, is that there are certain functions any state must accomplish in the construction of a citizenry. Much of what we are asked to accept as “Zionism” — and therefore deserving of special accomodation — in Israel is no different from what every modern nation-state has done.

    On the question of the State Zionism: on one hand Zionism is rooted in a view of European Jews that was itself anti-Semitic; early Zionism promised the literal reform of the Jew, the transformation of weak, cowardly, over-intellectual, citified Jews into “Muskeljuden” (“muscle Jews”), and this strain of thought is fairly evident in Israeli militarism. On the other hand, though, another strain of Zionism promised Jews a place where they could be Jews, where freed of the external constraints imposed by non-Jewish oppressors, they would be free to realize their own visions of what being Jewish meant. Nation-states, however, don’t need Jews, they need “citizens”, and Israel is no exception. So some kinds of Jews remain unacceptible, and must be “converted”; free practice of Judaism is no more, and maybe even less, a possibility in Israel than in the nations its people hail from.

    This is not a radical view, I hasten to add. Most Israeli functionaries will tell you that Israel is not a Jewish state — it simply cannot be. Much of the population, including most (but not all) of the Bedouins I mentioned, are non-Jewish, either Muslim or Christian. Muslims sit in the Knesset — not many, of course, but being non-Jewish is no bar to taking part in the Israeli state, and the precepts of international law and human rights demand that this be so. Israel is a secular state whose citizens just happen to be mostly Jewish; it is perhaps more accomodating of (certain kinds of ) Jewishness than other states, but that is all. And of Jewishnesses that deviate from the (imposed) standard, it is just as unforgiving as any other state, and has been since the beginning. For instance, in order to elevate Hebrew — a language, it must be recalled, that nobody spoke in 1948 as a conversational language — to the national language, Yiddish-speaking was punished, Yiddish presses were raided and destroyed, and so on. If we recall Weber’s description of the state as defined by its use of force against both its enemies and its citizens, this makes perfect sense — a state needs to simplify the complexity of its citizenry, in language as much as anything else. But the promise of Zionism — at least that second strain I mentioned — was not the imposition of a particular way of being Jewish, but of freedom from imposition, the freedom for Jews to figure out their own way of being Jewish.

    So yes, I guess I am saying that “State Zionism” is bound to be self-contradictory. But my argument isn’t so much against the particular way that Zionist identity has developed in the context of the Israeli state, but against the idea that this represents the only way to be Jewish, even for people outside of Israel. Prager’s argument is that if I and other Americans fail to support this particular brand of Zionism, we are not only anti-Zionist (which I freely admit I am, though that’s irrelevant to my point) but anti-Semitic, implying that Israel’s is not only the only way to be Zionist but the only way to be Jewish.

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