In the Diaspora: The Amalek syndrome

Recently, Diaspora Jews have experienced an effort to invalidate supposed traitors within.

amalek 88 (photo credit: )
amalek 88
(photo credit: )
The Jewish calendar is moving toward Purim, and with it one of the most troublesome passages in the Torah. For all the boozy, costumed boisterousness of the holiday, it also means reading the verses in Deuteronomy that urge all Jews to "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven." In the last two weeks, Diaspora Jews have experienced the latest version of what I call the Amalek Syndrome - an effort not to eradicate our external enemies but to invalidate, delegitimize and disenfranchise the supposed traitors within. I speak, of course, of the report written by Alvin H. Rosenfeld and published by the American Jewish Committee, which charges a variety of left-wing Jews in the United States, Canada and England with abetting the resurgent anti-Semitism of the jihad era. "[T]he arguments for the elimination of the Jewish state - every anti-Semite's cherished dream - are contributed by Jews themselves," Rosenfeld, a professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Indiana, asserts in conclusion. "Given the drift of 'progressive' Jewish thought, that, too - perverse as it is - should come as no surprise." The old saw that even paranoids have enemies certainly applies here. Rosenfeld is sadly correct in identifying the upsurge of anti-Semitic rhetoric and action in both the Arab world and the Western European nations with large Muslim communities. He singles out some of the most virulent Jewish critics of Israel, such as Jacqueline Rose and Michael Neumann. But he casts his net so widely, so indiscriminately, so demagogically that it implicates even proven Zionists and amounts to an attempt to quarantine the entire possibility of critically discussing and debating the Israel-Palestine issue. I say this as someone who has written repeatedly in support of Israel, not as a sentimental abstraction but as a nation entitled to self-defense during the Aksa intifada and last summer's war against Hizbullah. I also say this as a journalist and a small-d democrat who believes that competing ideas, even ones that I personally find abhorrent, should be engaged and then argued to the ground. To stifle dialogue, to smear one's ideological foes, is only to lend aid and comfort to the conspiracy theorists, embodied most recently by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who want the world to think that the Zionist cabal quashes even the slightest dissent. Rosenfeld's essay operates from a faulty, and I would say highly intolerant, premise. He begins with seven pages - about one-quarter of the paper's total length - that categorize the anti-Semitic rhetoric, popular culture, violence and vandalism of the Arab world and European nations including England and France. Referring to Western Europe, he posits "a conflation of interests among those on the far Right, segments of the intellectual Left, and radical Islam." Yet with barely a transition or a caveat of any kind, Rosenfeld moves into his deconstruction of Rose, Neumann, the historian Tony Judt, and the contributors to the anthologies Wrestling with Zion and Rabbis, Radicals, and Peacemakers. What Rosenfeld plainly aims to accomplish with this structure is to have a reader conflate the Jews he assails with the atrocities he has earlier listed - the booming interest in Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the Holocaust-denial conference convened by the Iranian regime; the torture-murder of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew. Naturally, Rosenfeld does not explicitly charge the likes of Tony Judt or Tony Kushner with direct responsibility for these episodes, because such an indictment would be ridiculous on its face. Inference and innuendo are his chosen instruments. I THINK there is a very plausible argument to be made about the moral cowardice of much of British Jewry when it comes to Israel, and Rosenfeld himself made it effectively in an earlier research paper. Just as the Enlightenment offered Jews full citizenship if they would surrender their Jewishness, so Great Britain's chattering classes promise complete acceptance of any Jew who will on cue denounce Israel and Zionism. That scenario is a long way from the scene in America, but, again, Rosenfeld elides a fundamental distinction. Despite such anti-Israel academics as Joel Beinin, despite Jimmy Carter's new book, despite the Off Broadway production of the agitprop theater piece about Rachel Corrie, no polling I have seen suggests any sudden erosion of American commitment to Israel. If there is a crisis about Israel among American Jews, especially younger ones, it is a crisis of disinterest, not disdain. In prosecuting American Jewish leftists, Rosenfeld conveniently overlooks or downplays any complex or contradictory information. Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, the co-editors of Wrestling With Zion, are indeed fierce critics of the Jewish state, but they are also deeply knowledgeable about Jewish culture and Yiddishkeit. If anything, they embody the modern version of Martin Buber, Ahad Ha'am and other cultural Zionists. (Rosenfeld alights on that comparison only briefly and dismissively.) I happen to disagree with Kushner and Solomon, being a political Zionist myself, and I have argued with them in print and occasionally in person. Not in a million years, however, would I lump them with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Rosenfeld attempts to do. Wrestling With Zion makes no pretense of being anything other than a critical look at Israel, and if one or two anthologies of this sort are enough to destabilize the Zionist enterprise, then it's a flimsier contraption than I'd always thought. What Wrestling With Zion does afford is something I've heard a number of Jewish students on college campuses express a yearning for - the chance to openly dissent about Israel, or simply voice doubts about its policies, without being banished from the Jewish community. Even given its declared political bent, Wrestling With Zion is a more varied collection than Rosenfeld lets on. As Ellen Willis, the late journalist and professor, put it in her contribution: "I reject the idea that Israel is a colonial state that should not exist. I reject the villainization of Israel as the sole or main source of the mess in the Middle East. And I maintain that Israel needs to maintain its 'right of return' for Jews around the world." Letty Cottin Pogrebin, whose great achievement as both author and activist has been to battle against the fashionable anti-Zionism in certain feminist circles, sounds a similar note: "The Jewish right to instant citizenship strikes me as a factually warranted, compensatory response to the truth of Jewish experience… Since being a Jew has been enough in some places to mark one for persecution or death, at least on one spot on the globe it should be a ticket to safety." Are Willis and Pogrebin typical of the anthology as a whole? Or course not. They do, however, prove that Wrestling With Zion is not simply a doctrinaire tract. What motivates so many other contributors to dissociate themselves from Israel, I think, is not that they are fellow travelers with international anti-Semitism, but that they suffer the American Jewish delusion that powerlessness equals morality. Or, to put it as the essayist Shelby Steele has, they achieve power themselves by playing the innocent victim. Now Rosenfeld has given them exactly what they want: intellectual martyrdom. Nothing grants more undeserved status to the Jewish critics of Israel, particularly to those who oppose its entire existence, than to let them think their ideas are so dangerous, so powerful, that they dare not be uttered or heard. We should crave the debate rather than duck it. It gives me no pleasure to write these words. I have had close ties with the American Jewish Committee for nearly a decade. I have relied on its staff for expert analysis of issues, participated in its think-tank sessions, and written papers under its aegis. In my experience, the AJC has never imposed a party line. And in one case with which I'm extremely familiar - the controversy about the Middle East studies program at Columbia University, where I teach - the committee played an especially smart, nuanced, and productive role. But if a friend is someone who can tell you the truth, then, for me at least, the truth is that the Rosenfeld report is a mistake, even a self-inflicted wound. (Full disclosure: Alisa Solomon is also on the Columbia Journalism School faculty.) The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.