Dissent or Disloyalty?

A professor rages against critics of the Jewish state as traitors to Israel

Peace Now activists hold a protest in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Peace Now activists hold a protest in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Jews Against Themselves, Edward Alexander, a retired English professor from Seattle, deals with the concept of “Jewish apostasy” – members of the tribe who “abandon” the State of Israel.
Throughout this collection of essays, the author vents anger against Jews of “the progressive persuasion” who fail “to mobilize their intellectual resources on behalf of Israel.” He links anti-Semitism of the past to present-day Israelphobia and anti-Zionism. He traces a direct line from the Holocaust to the situation today and disparages any critic of Israel – whether loyalist or not – with a barrage of withering commentary.
Thus, Rabbi Michael Lerner becomes “Hillary Clinton’s Jewish Rasputin.” J Street is described as “fancying itself as a Jewish government-in-exile.”
Alexander’s belief is that uniformity will bring about unity – and unity will help the Jews to defeat their genuine enemies.
Hence the title.
But debate, discussion and dissent have characterized the Jews throughout their history.
Alexander too often conflates criticism of the policies of an Israeli government with a delegitimizing attack on the state itself. Thus Benny Morris is bracketed with his most severe critic, the anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe, simply because both address the reasons why many Arabs left Israel in 1948. Writers Amos Oz and David Grossman are assailed for their criticism of the settlement drive on the West Bank over many decades. On the other hand, Alexander is keen to attack the Rabin government itself over the Oslo Accords, which he labels “post-Zionism’s major political achievement.”
Before 1993, American Jews were told that they should criticize only in private.
With the advent of the Oslo Accords and with the Likud out of power, Jews were suddenly exhorted to protest and “save Israel.” Such “patriotism” even led to the establishment of an office of Israeli lobbyists in Washington with the express task of propagating an anti-Rabin government line in Congress to rival the approach taken by the Israeli Embassy. Alexander endorses this phenomenon when he comments that after Oslo, “Peres and his Foreign Ministry routinely promoted the interests not of a sovereign Jewish state, but of the (largely Arab) Middle East.”
Why is dissent on the Left forbidden and disloyal, yet wholesome and welcome when coming from the Right? Either dissent is part and parcel of a healthy democracy or it is not.
Moreover, Alexander does not ask whether the policies of one Israeli government produce the same resonance in the world as those of another Israeli government.
Are all Israeli governments treated the same by global critics simply because of blind Jew-hatred? Significantly, the author predicates his views on “the need to choose between survival and definition.” Alexander cites a letter by Jabotinsky to Ben-Gurion in 1935 in support of this approach. Jabotinsky commented that if he was sure that socialism or Orthodox Judaism would secure a state, then he would be only too willing to follow that path. Jabotinsky’s monism was based on the idea that there should be no ideological distractions blocking the road to statehood. There could be only one goal – to secure a state of the Jews. What Alexander does not mention is that Jabotinsky further advocated that after the establishment of the state, Israeli society should be a laboratory of ideas – a place of debate to secure the best way forward. While Jabotinsky passionately attacked the wishy-washy liberalism of assimilationists and opponents, he also wrote about his respect for the liberalism of pre-World War I Italy. Indeed, how does Alexander look upon President Reuven Rivlin’s invocation of Jabotinsky’s teachings in the context of publicly discussing the ills of Israeli society today?
ALEXANDER DEALS in black-and-white situations – there can be no middle ground. For him, the Israel-Palestine conflict is simple, not complex. But is anti-Zionism always a manifestation of anti-Semitism? Is it the mirror image of the Trotskyist position that anti-Zionism can never be anti-Semitic? Or is the reality somewhere in between, depending on the context and the circumstances? There is a history of Jewish anti-Zionism.
For example, thousands of Zionists turned to Communism after the October Revolution in 1917. It might be argued that they were deluded – and they eventually paid a heavy price for their choice of a political path – but were they also anti- Semitic in the early 1920s? Alexander wants all Jews to be defenders of Israel. If only! Yet many Jews in the Diaspora are acculturated and assimilated.
There is a profound difference between Jewish Americans and American Jews. It can be argued that the tribulations of Jewish history have produced a multiplicity of Jewish identities – including ones where a pro-Israelism hardly registers.
Interestingly, there is neither mention nor discussion in this book of Isaac Deutscher’s essay on non-Jewish Jews.
Alexander is a retired professor of English who writes very well when examining literary subjects (rather than overtly political ones). Thus, his essay on Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question is a tour de force. His dissection of Jacobson’s “ASHamed Jews” is informed and enlightening.
In one sense, Jews Against Themselves shouts at its readers. Vociferous intellectual remonstrance, however, is counter- productive. This book is undoubtedly sincere in defending the right of the Jews to self-determination and in opposing the genus “enemies of Israel.” Yet it is astoundingly unfair in including in this definition concerned and informed critics of government policy.
This is a work of intellect which does not consistently manifest intelligence. ■

Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London. His latest book
, The Rise of the Israeli Right: From Odessa to Hebron, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.