The anti-Zionist blogosphere is celebrating that a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Award to a Jewish high school student who fancies himself a hero for freeing himself from the yoke of supporting Israel. Comparing himself – and his people -- to King’s Southern redneck “oppressors,” this junior wrote that, as a pro-Israel Jew, “I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason.”
Dietrich College of Carnegie Mellon University chose this essay “Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong” to share first place honors in the High School Prose category in its annual competition. This self-important, sloppy screed would have appalled Martin Luther King, who said "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking antisemitism.” Carnegie Mellon should disassociate itself and Martin Luther King’s noble name from the politicized decision to honor this essay that betrays King’s commitment to fighting bigotry.
Unfortunately, this essay typifies the lazy reasoning and false analogizing clouding much discussion about Israel. The essay begins, Woody Allen style, calling Judaism “a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time.” Having caricatured Jews as arrogant yet “self-pity[ing],” the student distorts Israel’s actions in what seems like Operation Cast Lead but he fails to specify. Accusing Israel of “genocide,” he claims Jews described “the situation in shockingly neutral terms,” hiding behind formulations that “it was a ‘difficult situation.’”
Having incorrectly used the G-word – when genocide means slaughtering unarmed millions not firefights that result in limited casualties – he then stretches to suit a King Day competition by introducing the four letter word “race.” He alleges that once, “after a fresh round of killings … I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. ‘We need to defend our race,’ they told me. ‘It’s our right.’”
Most educators would recognize such a pat quotation as overdoing it. I have never met any modern Jew, let alone a Jewish teenager, who talks about defending the Jewish “race” -- the Jewish people, maybe. Race-talk died with Hitler. If the student claimed friends invoked the Holocaust or said something bigoted about Palestinians, I would have winced but found it plausible. This unconvincing, unsourced quotation undermines the essay’s credibility, and the judges’ judgment.
The student describes attending temple. After a “seventeen-minute cello solo,” during the rabbi’s Q and A, the student asks how he can “support Israel … when it lets its army commit so many killings?” The rabbi supposedly answers: “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it? But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.” I hope the rabbi will write in and claim he was misquoted too. However, there are idiot rabbis who answer challenges about Israel with such empty equivocations.
Some critics are blaming the student’s angst on the Israel-is-perfect brainwashing American Jews supposedly receive. The essay may reflect an opposite problem. The student also claims: “I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs.” Too many American Jewish rabbis, educators and parents are so ignorant, so awash in ambiguity, they cannot explain why Israel felt compelled to enter Gaza after unilaterally withdrawing from it but then suffering thousands of rocket attacks. Too many American Jews are too morally confused to detail Israel’s attempts to limit civilian casualties while fighting terrorists cowering behind mosques and hospitals, schoolyards and family compounds.
This essay includes the basic elements of the classic anti-Zionist attack: misreading chosenness as arrogance, charging genocide against Palestinians whose population continues to grow, viewing the conflict as about race not nationalism, analogizing falsely to demonize Israel. Mass-produced in the 1970s, this formula received UN approval after its 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution.
That a naïve teenager might swallow this Big Lie, given how frequently it is repeated, is not news. That this young Jew will feel so self-righteous, pretending that denouncing Israel is a courageous, countercultural move rather than a politically correct act which eventually wins him a prize, is an old story. What is newsworthy is the way this kind of Israel-bashing risks becoming the conventional wisdom, especially among academics like the Carnegie Mellon judges who swallowed it whole.
Martin Luther King’s family has nothing to do with this desecration of his name. Anyone can make an award and call it anything they like. Tomorrow, I could, on my university stationary, announce the Noam Chomsky-Yasir Arafat Appeasement of Terror awards for sniveling dupes who distort Zionism and libel Jews. But my university would not assign its public relations team to publicize it. I would expect university leaders to distance themselves from such a move, because academics should not implicate their universities in polemics. Similarly, Carnegie Mellon should be embarrassed that this biased, inaccurate essay, with at least one crucial line that is so implausible, dishonors King and perpetuates prejudices.
Using Martin Luther King’s name to spread any form of bigotry is disturbing enough. But to use his name against Israel is particularly dismaying. On March 25, 1968, shortly before his assassination, King called Israel, “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”
Meanwhile, Sunday night’s Avi Schaefer memorial Jerusalem symposium “Z-Word: Re-Imagining Zionism,” attracted a sold-out crowd of over 300 students. These students are the real heroes – who will have to fight trendy anti-Zionism, especially on campus. These countercultural Zionist activists, like the late Avi Schaefer, who fought in Israel’s army but also fought for peace, would have made Martin Luther King, Jr., proud.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. firstname.lastname@example.org