Divided they fall

Why do many of today's Jewish intellectuals view anti-Israel sentiment as the ticket to academic acceptance?

September 21, 2006 10:25

jewdivid88298. (photo credit: )


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The Jewish Divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders By Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor (editors) Transaction Publishers 283 pages $39.95 The passionate debates that raged through the Jewish world about Zionism in the years before the Second World War have long since died down, rendered irrelevant by events. Today Israel enjoys overwhelming, if occasionally critical, support. But in recent years, the anti-Zionist camp has managed to recruit a motley collection of Jewish apologists, who seize every chance to proclaim that the Jewish state has no right to exist. The editors of The Jewish Divide over Israel, Edward Alexander, an American professor emeritus of English, and Paul Bogdanor, a London-based writer, return fire in this feisty collection of essays, including contributions from such distinguished contributors as Cynthia Ozick and Irving Louis Horowitz. The problem this book faces is that it aims at targets who, for the most part, are too extreme to be interesting in themselves. George Orwell noted 60 years ago that there are dreary tribes of polemicists who have to be fought against, but in real life are not worth powder and shot. The contributions here that eviscerate Noam Chomsky and Israel Shahak are cases in point. They are crisply and efficiently written, but the overall effect on the reader is depressing. Doubtless these pieces are necessary, and useful for those who have to deal with the wild allegations of such people and their disciples. But the awkward fact is that monomania only excites the hopelessly partisan. Even its exposure does little to lift the reader's spirits. The book becomes much more interesting when it tries to answer the question as to why some Jews feel motivated to attack Israel with boundless ferocity, identifying it as "the father of impurities from which all lesser deformities flow." Some personal factor or factors are at work. What are they? Disappointment? Perhaps. Several Jewish intellectuals charge that Israel's behavior violates the highest Jewish ethics and values. This claim has some basis. All states, driven by necessity, mistake or fear, go wrong from time to time. But the conclusion the critics draw that Israel has therefore lost its moral right to exist is absurd, ignoring as it does such Jewish values as repentance and forgiveness. In the mind of the accusers, Israel alone should forfeit its existence for its bad behavior. What is worse, most of these people are ignorant of Jewish values, and otherwise do not identify as Jews. As the editors point out, it is "the demonization of Israel that makes them Jews." A desire to fit in to their intellectual milieu? More likely. In progressive academic circles, hostility to Israel is a fact of life. When the likes of Tony Judt complain that Israel is bad for the Jews, they worry that their Jewishness will compromise them in the eyes of anti-Israel campus critics. The venom of their attacks comes partly from the fear that any hint that they accept Israel's existence will rule them out of decent, left-wing society. Just as the baptismal certificate was the entry ticket to European culture for the Jewish intellectual of the 19th century, so the anti-Israel article in the London Review of Books is the price of academic acceptance for the Jewish intellectual of today. The weakness of the intellectual for rigid ideological schemes for distinguishing good guys from bad guys, summed up by the editors as "utopian messianism," and a resulting intolerance toward those who have no choice but to make compromises with reality, should also be taken into account. All these things, however, do not entirely explain the obsessive and intense hatred of Israel on display here. It boils down, in all probability, to the discomfort felt by a few Jews with the positive assertion of any form of Jewish identity. In some obscure way, these people take such assertions to be an attack upon themselves and upon their status, and react accordingly. And to them, the very existence of a Jewish state is cause for alarm. They internalize all attacks on Israel, fair or otherwise, as truthful because it chimes with their sense of psychological unease, and they react either by publicly pronouncing anathema upon Zionism or by fawning over its attackers. The essays here, about half of which are appearing in print for the first time, are nearly all well written and of high quality. If I had to single out one piece for special mention though, I would select Alan Mittleman's superb demolition of the theologian Marc Ellis. His target is easy meat: anyone who spends Yom Kippur attacking Israel in front of a Christian audience leaves himself open to justified ridicule. But Mittleman's incisive analysis sums up not only Ellis, but many other high-minded critics, when he remarks that "...he holds up an entirely unrealistic standard for politics - the complete renunciation of national interest - as the only measure of a just politics. The historic Jewish community, marginalized and victimized, apparently lived according to this standard. Only with the state, with the return to history, have Jews forfeited their pristine morality for a sinful compromise with the world." There are a couple of difficulties with this book. First, the editors, by concentrating on left-wing Jewish enemies of the state, ignore others no less dangerous. Where is Natorei Karta in all this? Their public caperings in full haredi garb at the side of terrorists sworn to our destruction is notorious, but you will find little mention of them here. Yet they too have influence, albeit not on college campuses, and they have in full measure that "utopian messianism" rightly decried by the editors. Second, not all of its targets belong here. Nobody need quibble with the presence of the Noam Chomskys, the Jacqueline Roses, and the Norman Finkelsteins of this world. They have earned their reward in full. But Thomas Friedman is scarcely a sworn enemy of Israel, however unfair his criticism of the country may be. And while Benny Morris's books receive well-merited attention here from Efraim Karsh, his recent polemical writings, including a thorough debunking of the egregious Ilan Pappe, come close to earning himself a place in this book as a contributor. Alexander and Bogdanor have certainly put together an impressive and necessary book. But be prepared to be depressed too.

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