"Gawd," I said, with my morning mix of disgust and voyeurism at a news item I wish I'd never seen and would surely read. Thus compelled, I clicked on the New York Times headline, "Essay Linking Liberal Jews and Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor." Here we go, I thought: Another right-wing American Jew with fantasies of his alternative life as an Israeli paratrooper is trashing liberal Jews for voicing criticisms milder than what an Israeli ex-paratroop officer might express over lunch with old army friends.
This expectation, I discovered, was unfair to Alvin H. Rosenfeld, author of the essay in question. In part, Rosenfeld was the victim of sloppy reporting. In her lead paragraph, Times reporter Patricia Cohen called the American Jewish Committee, which published Rosenfeld's essay, a "conservative advocacy group." Actually, the hard-to-pigeonhole AJC has endorsed creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It recently voted against ejecting a left-wing Zionist group from a campus pro-Israel coalition. The Times story referred consistently to Rosenfeld's targets as "liberal Jews." The essay itself refers to "progressives," a group that overlaps with liberals but is not synonymous. The Times story thereby reduced Rosenfeld's essay to one more round in the conservative-liberal catfight over what may or may not be said about Israel.
Yet Rosenfeld's own sloppiness also hurts him. While attacking vituperative opponents of Israel who call themselves "progressive," he identifies their views with all who call themselves progressives -- rather like letting James Dobson define what "Christian" means. He fires the shotgun of his criticism at such a wide flock of writers that his reader can wonder where he is aiming. Does The Washington Post's pro-Israel columnist Richard Cohen really belong to the same ideological species as those who accuse Israel of genocide?
The blurriness is a shame, because Rosenfeld has a legitimate argument. He explicitly rejects the view that any attack on Israeli policy equals anti-Semitism. Rather, his intended target is those Jews who reject the very existence of a Jewish state, and who express their opposition in shrieks that rise to equating Israel with the Nazis.
Rosenfeld catalogues many such purple-faced anti-Zionists. There's Michael Neumann, a philosophy professor at Canada's Trent University who claims Israel is waging "a race war against the Palestinians," and there's Berkeley Talmud professor Daniel Boyarin, who says that just as Christianity may have died at Auschwitz, "my Judaism may be dying at Nablus …" -- which at least implies that Israel has engaged in Nazi-style mass murder in that West Bank city. Outrage at such comparisons is justified.
But the catalogue includes little analysis. Rosenfeld pauses for just a moment to consider the philosophical question of why opposing Israel's existence may properly be seen as anti-Semitism. He raises the psychological question of what drives the rhetorical excess, but skips suggesting an answer.
The answer to the philosophical question is that anti-Zionists regard Jews as uniquely lacking the right to define themselves as a nation and seek self-determination. Some critics of Zionism claim that they oppose nationalism as such. Yet they show little interest in opposing Algerian, Kosovar or Palestinian self-determination. Despite the sins of France in Algeria, they do not propose that France dissolve itself politically. They affirm the right of Palestinians to return to a remembered homeland, but negate Jews' right to repatriate themselves to their remembered homeland. Jewish nationhood alone is a scandal. Morally, this is no different than deciding that everyone but black Africans has the right to self-determination.
As for the specific psychology of the Jewish anti-Zionists, Rosenfeld's chosen quotations suggest it is based on fury that fate has linked them with Israel. This appears understandable; people are often uncomfortable with the collectives to which birth assigns them. A good many Jews -- indeed, many Israelis -- are uncomfortable with the notion that, through no personal choice, they might be identified with specific Israeli policies in the occupied territories.
But for some of the anti-Zionists whom Rosenfeld quotes, the difficulty goes deeper. They are disturbed, and I do mean disturbed, by Jews having power. They have accepted the fallacy of the "righteous victim," to borrow historian Benny Morris's phrase: Jews are historically downtrodden, and are therefore righteous. True, the Jews who believe this may live in American suburbs or comfortable college towns. But by identifying with the downtrodden elsewhere -- say, by wearing a Palestinian flag on their lapels -- they remain on the side of the angels. Moreover, because of the Holocaust, Jews are the ultimate victims. The Holocaust divides the world into Jews and Nazis. Once Jews gain sovereignty and an army, which they sometimes use for defense and sometimes misuse aggressively, they stop being victims. If the only category in the Jewish universe besides victim is Nazi, well then, these armed Israelis are Nazis. (Careful, Alvin, don't quote this out of context -- I'm talking about what someone else thinks.)
The dichotomy is mad, of course. It arouses pity because it testifies to how badly the Holocaust has scarred some Jews. It warps moral reasoning. One of Rosenfeld's subjects, theologian Marc Ellis, returns obsessively in his writing to Israel's helicopter gunships. In one essay posted online, Ellis claims that gunships "are central to Jewish religiosity today." Ellis does not reason out whether using a helicopter gunship might ever be defensively justified; the very possession of the weapon exudes evil. He does not show similar obsession with the explosive vests worn by Palestinians who blow themselves up in crowded Israeli cafes. His drama has room only for villains and victims, not for the actual moral tangle of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.
What Rosenfeld does not mention is that the Israeli right regularly relies on the same false dichotomy. Benny Morris writes that in the cabinet meeting before Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982, prime minister Menachem Begin said that "the alternative to this is Treblinka," the Nazi death camp. For Begin, Yasser Arafat was Hitler. During the Israeli pullout from Gaza in 2005, some settlers wore Jewish stars designed to look like those worn by Jews during the Holocaust. For them, a government that evicted Jews was Nazi, even if it was Israeli.
Such rhetoric is painful -- and a distraction. I understand why it upsets Rosenfeld. But it leads him to focus on a radical fringe. By letting the fringe define what it means to be "progressive," he tars many other progressive Jews. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I'd like to believe that he does so unintentionally, through lack of precision.
Nonetheless, I'd say that the American Jewish Committee did more for Israel when it joined in voting to keep the Union of Progressive Zionists -- note the name -- in the campus pro-Israel coalition. Conservatives had objected when the Progressive Zionists invited speakers from an organization of Israeli army veterans critical of the occupation. From where I sit in Jerusalem, the army vets and the campus progressives are serving Israel's interests. An open debate certainly does.
Gershom Gorenberg, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times Books).
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to The American Prospect here.
Support independent media with a tax-deductible donation here.