Editor's Notes: No longer part of us

While they may still technically be Jewish due to their parentage or conversion, while they may lead superficially Jewish lives, we can no longer consider them part of Klal Yisrael.

 AN ACTIVIST wears a kippah with a political message during a protest against Israel in Washington, DC, on October 18.  (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
AN ACTIVIST wears a kippah with a political message during a protest against Israel in Washington, DC, on October 18.
(photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)

It may seem incongruous that war in Israel reminds me of Joan Rivers, but here we are.

The late Jewish comedic icon spent the better part of the summer before her passing in September 2014 speaking out in Israel’s defense during Operation Protective Edge, the seven-week military campaign that followed the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas.

“Don’t you dare put weapons stashes in private homes, and then we say ‘get out’ — of course we’re gonna do it,” she told a reporter for TMZ who approached her at an airport and asked about Israeli military action in Gaza.

“We are doing something very wrong in Israel and we are not doing public relations work,” she said on Israel’s now-defunct Channel 10. “They gave us the worst possible land and we have made it into Eden.”

“No matter what Israel does, and we are so right and so honorable, the world does not want to listen, and you want to shake people and say, ‘Have you lost your minds?’,” she said in that same interview.

 People demonstrate as they take part in civil disobedience and a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)
People demonstrate as they take part in civil disobedience and a protest calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 18, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS)

At the time, I was struck by the realization that, in speaking about Israel, Rivers – who appears to have visited the Jewish state only once in her life – repeatedly used the words “us” and “we.”

“Joan Rivers understood something profound about Jewish identity and, consciously or not, she taught us all a valuable – and timely – lesson,” I wrote in a tribute marking her shloshim (the thirtieth day following her passing).

Drawing on various rabbinic texts, I explained that Judaism has long considered those who separate themselves from the broader Jewish community to be utterly despicable. According to the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, they are condemned to Gehenna (hell), and “even when Gehenna will be destroyed, they will not be consumed.”

In his seminal work, the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides went on to describe what such a separation looks like: “One who separates himself from the community, even if he does not commit a transgression but only holds aloof from the congregation of Israel, does not fulfill religious precepts in common with his people, shows himself indifferent when they are in distress, and does not observe their fasts, but rather goes his own way as if he were one of the nations and did not belong to the Jewish people — such a person has no share in the world to come.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks tied Maimonides’ description to the Passover Haggadah’s wicked son, who – by removing himself from the community – “has denied a fundamental principle [of Judaism].”

“The mere fact that an individual fails to identify with the collective fate of the Jewish people… is a denial of one of the principles of Judaism, namely that ours is a collective faith,” Sacks wrote. “Though many Jews in the modern age found it difficult to believe, they identified with the Jewish people, fought its cause, and gave it their support. Belonging is the first step to believing. What makes the wicked son wicked, according to the Haggadah, is not that he fails to believe, but that he fails to identify with the people of whom he is a part.”

“And that, ultimately, is what Joan Rivers taught us all,” I wrote at the time. “She was the very antithesis of the wicked son, the one who separates himself from the community. Her identification with the fate of her people and its homeland was so complete that it was probably unconscious, though its expressions were as loud and as colorful as she was.”

Pro-Hamas Jews can't be part of us

I found myself reflecting on Rivers earlier this week, when I saw a lengthy Twitter thread by my former boss and the current head of The Jewish Agency for Israel in North America, Dan Elbaum.

“I never thought I would say what I am about to say,” Dan wrote, noting that it was “the hardest thing that I have ever written.”

“Since October 7, when 1,400 Jews were slaughtered, I have been overwhelmed by the unity and support for Israel of the global Jewish community,” he wrote. “I have spent every day fielding phone calls and meeting with American Jews who want to do all they can for their fellow Jews in Israel.”

“I have also seen another group of American Jews,” he continued. “They are a minority, a fringe, but they are vocal and make their voices heard in a disproportionate manner. These include, but are not limited to, members of IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace.”

“To be very clear, I am not talking about American Jews who have expressed sympathy for Palestinians or have criticized Israeli policies,” Dan noted. “I am also sympathetic. I have also been critical.”

“I am talking about American Jews who say that killing the act of 1,400 Jews was consistent with the ‘Palestinian right to resist’ and blamed Israel for the loss of life,” he wrote. “I am talking about American Jews who proudly use a heroic image of a paraglider – lionizing the Hamas murderers who came into Israel and murdered and tortured their fellow Jews. I am talking about American Jews who call Israelis Nazis and accuse them of acts of genocide – knowing full well and even relishing the hurtfulness of those terms. I am talking about American Jews who question whether the atrocities committed against Jews are accurate or propaganda and use phrases and terms that sound remarkably like [those of] Holocaust deniers. I am talking about American Jews who have taken down pictures of Israeli hostages.”

“I have reached a sad conclusion,” Dan wrote. “As much as I would not like to give up on a single Jew, I have given up on them. For me, they are deserving of herem (formal exclusion from the Jewish people).”

“There will be a time in the future to wonder about how such people could have emerged from our community,” he wrote. “It should involve introspection as to Jewish and Israel education. But for now, there is nothing to be done with them. Unlike Hamas, who would have joyously murdered them on October 7, I do not consider them Jews.”

“I hope that someday they see what they have become and offer some repentance,” Dan concluded. “I am not that religious a person, but I do pray that God forgives them for their actions. I, for one, do not believe that I ever will.”

I know Dan well. He is a friend and a mentor, and one of the kindest people I know. He is also a pluralist who is deeply passionate about Jewish inclusivity and peoplehood. He would not have written such a fiery indictment of these individuals if he didn’t feel it was absolutely necessary. I could feel the anguish in his words.

In expressing his despair, Dan was – perhaps unknowingly – channeling another of my former bosses, and the former leader of the organization he currently represents, Natan Sharansky.

Two years ago, in the aftermath of a previous escalation between Hamas and Israel, Sharansky and Jerusalem Post columnist Gil Troy co-wrote a much-discussed Tablet article titled, “The Un-Jews.”

“In May [2021], when Israelis were attacked by Hamas missiles from Gaza, the criticism from some voices within the American Jewish community seemed not only more intense but categorical, escalating very quickly from what Israel did to what Israel is,” they wrote.

“Within American Jewry, this surge in anti-Zionism openly targets the broad Zionist consensus the Jewish world developed after the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel,” they continued. “The anti-Zionists know exactly what they are doing, and what they are undoing. They are trying to disentangle Judaism from Jewish nationalism, the sense of Jewish peoplehood, while undoing decades of identity-building.”

“We call these critics ‘un-Jews’ because they believe the only way to fulfill the Jewish mission of saving the world with Jewish values is to undo the ways most actual Jews do Jewishness,” Sharansky and Troy wrote. “They are not ex-Jews or non-Jews, because many of them are and remain deeply involved Jewishly, despite their harsh dissent… For many of these un-Jews, the public and communal staging of their anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist beliefs appears to be the badge of a superior form of Judaism, stripped of its unsavory and unethical ‘ethnocentric’ and ‘colonialist’ baggage.”

They went on to describe “un-Jews” throughout the ages, from the Roman general Tiberius Julius Alexander – a nephew of the noted Jewish philosopher Philo who was Titus’s second-in-command during his siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE – to members of the Evreyskaya Sekcia, the Jewish division of the Communist Party, who eagerly participated in the erasure of Judaism in the Soviet Union while promoting sanitized ideals of social justice.

One of the most prominent “un-Jews,” Sharansky and Troy wrote, was the German Jewish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg. In 1917, when a friend expressed concern about the plight of Jews threatened by pogroms, Luxemburg’s response was scathing.

“I have no room in my heart for Jewish suffering,” she raged. “Why do you pester me with Jewish troubles? I feel closer to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations of Putumayo or the Negroes in Africa... I have no separate corner in my heart for the ghetto.”

“This assault goes far beyond ‘hugging and wrestling’ or ‘daring to ask hard questions’ or giving Israel ‘tough love,’” Sharansky and Troy wrote about contemporary Jewish anti-Zionists’ disavowal of the Jewish state. “Those who are set on denying the essence of Jewish peoplehood are rarely interested in the kind of respectful mutual exchange that builds us all up. Rather, they are bent on destroying the most powerful force that has kept us together as a people through the ages – and without which they, too, will paradoxically wither away.”

The prominence of visibly Jewish anti-Zionists in the ongoing flood of bile and opprobrium targeting the Jewish state in the aftermath of the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust should repulse us all. The sight of photogenic kippot at rallies featuring calls for Israel’s destruction, of tallitot at protests accusing Israel of “genocide,” and of shofars at sit-ins calling on foreign governments to prevent Israel from acting in self-defense give succor to the worst enemies of the Jewish people. Some anti-Zionists with Jewish surnames have gone so far as to suggest that the Israelis who were murdered on October 7 had it coming to them, that the massacre was the understandable consequence of Israeli government policies, and that Hamas’s unspeakable atrocities were beautiful expressions of decolonization and liberation. In ordinary times, these people work to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, to single it out for censure, and ultimately to dismantle the Jewish state and yet again render the Jewish people stateless and defenseless.

They exploit and appropriate Jewish ritual items and texts, their Jewish names and backgrounds, and even – perversely – their families’ stories of persecution and mass murder to cause harm to the Jewish people and their state.

The time has come to regard these individuals and groups as having separated themselves from the Jewish community and the Jewish people. As we at the Post wrote in an editorial on the subject this week, “anti-Zionist Jews are not representative of the Jewish community and they don’t speak in its name. They are as Jewish as the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian.” While they may still technically be Jewish due to their parentage or conversion, while they may lead superficially Jewish lives, we can no longer consider them part of Klal Yisrael.

Concluding that these people, whose actions directly endanger the Jewish people, are no longer part of us will be immensely painful to their families, their communities, and our entire nation. Like my friend Dan, many of us have long believed that every Jew is worth fighting for. And like him, I consider these lines some of the most difficult I have ever written. But the past few weeks since the October 7 massacre have represented a watershed moment, a turning point in the history of the Jewish people and of their greatest collective project in the modern era, the Jewish state. A line has been drawn in the sand.

Those who have aligned themselves with the murderers of Jewish children are not with us. They are against us. And even as we hold out hope that perhaps, someday, they will repent and return to the Jewish fold, we need to view them as lost to our people and treat them as such.