(October 24, 2019 / JNS) In a column titled, “I Was Protested at Bard College for Being a Jew,” Batya Ungar-Sargan, a liberal Zionist and the opinion editor of The Forward, a paper that is decidedly to the left, was targeted by progressive anti-Zionists because the panel was comprised of three Jews, including the esteemed Ruth Wisse of Harvard University.
She said the university had no plans to stop “what was fixing to become an ugly disruption of Jews trying to discuss anti-Semitism.” What shocked her more was the support of the academics and intellectuals in the audience who “applauded” the blatantly anti-Semitic disruption. “These vaunted intellectuals, flown in from across the country … were commending a display of racism against Jews.”
Welcome to a world where far-left progressives find commonality with far-right fascists.
Unlike liberal Zionists of the 20th century, many 21st-century progressives attending our leading universities learned that Israel’s founding was the original sin of the Middle East, the ethnic-cleansing of the indigenous Arab minority by the interloping Jewish Zionist.
As New York Times columnist and author of How to Fight Anti-Semitism Bari Weiss wrote, “Where once only Israel’s government was demonized, now it is the Jewish movement for self-determination itself” that is delegitimized.
Israel, a nation whose existence is dedicated to a particular people, is an anathema to the universalism of the progressive intellectual, whose dream is a globalized world of universal values, and a distorted understanding of human rights and social justice.
Why Israel is singled out to be the only country whose very existence offends progressives—who seem to ignore other religiously or ethnically dominated states whose actions are far more egregious than Israel’s imperfect democracy—raises troubling questions.
Is it even possible that the next generation of American Jewish progressives can find commonality or respect for their Israeli Jewish brethren, or are Israelis marked like Cain, permanently branded as illegitimate occupiers who deserve to perish in the dustpan of history?
This all came into focus in reading two new books, Weiss’s and Daniel Gordis’s We Are Divided. The latter speaks of the different paths American and Israeli Jews have taken that led to their different perspectives of what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.
Most Israelis—whether secular, traditional or national religious—are unapologetically proud to be Jewish, in large part based on their understanding of 3,000 years’ continuous narrative of a people who decided to take charge of their lives and re-enter history by living in a nation among nations in their ancestral homeland.
There is profound discomfort among American progressive Jews regarding their Jewish cousins and the choice they have made that Judaism can be fully expressed as a combination of civilizational aspirations, a multi-ethnic tradition, a religion, and yes, a legitimate national movement called Zionism.
Many American progressive groups see Judaism as Palestinian Arabs define it: as a religion without legitimate national rights. American progressive readers of The New York Times are comfortable with stories of powerless and persecuted Jews, especially from the Holocaust, but if Jews successfully defend themselves and prosper, then they are found to be guilty of colonialism, war crimes and a failure to honor the demands of diversity.
Will the next generation of American Jews follow many of today’s progressives and deny that Israel has any right to exist, or could they come to find this denial specious and become liberal Zionists?
Respect for Zionism is becoming weaker among progressive and even liberal Diaspora Jews. There is no doubt that some of this can be blamed on Israel for continuing to allow Israel’s ultra-Orthodox to delegitimize non-Orthodox branches of the religion.
Not acknowledging that until 30 years ago, when the ultra-Orthodox took over control of the rabbinate, Israeli Orthodox Judaism was more tolerant, especially when one thinks of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi who saw Judaism and Zionism of non-observant Jews as complementary and necessary for Jewish survival.
There are some challenging questions that need to be addressed and discussed within American synagogues, organizations, and yes, progressive forums, if Diaspora Judaism wants to survive.Can progressive Jews see Israel as legitimate in its own right as both democratic and Jewish, and not compare it to American democracy, which is a different democratic experiment? Can they see the importance of a nation-state of the Jews as essential for the survival of Diaspora Judaism in America? Can they ever feel comfortable with a powerful and self-confident Israel? Can they see beyond Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories as defining the legitimacy of the state?
If a progressive American Jew cannot acknowledge that Zionism is a valid way of expressing one’s Judaism, then are progressive Jews any different from ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists who think Israel has no right to exist until the coming of the Messiah?
Weiss writes that anti-Semitism of the left is more insidious and potentially more existentially dangerous than Jew-hatred from the right. “Leftist anti-Semitism like communism pretends to be something that it’s not that has been smuggled into the main stream to manipulate us, in the name of human rights and universal rights of man.” As an example, she tells us to look across the pond at British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to see where progressivism may be headed in America.When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speak at J Street’s national convention, will they be 100 percent clear that Israel’s right to exist is not up for discussion? Will they tell the audience, as they have said before, that they will remain unequivocally pro-Israel until this conflict becomes a negotiation about boundary lines, rather than a debate whether Israel has a right to exist?The survival of the liberal Jewish Diaspora, whether acknowledged or not, is dependent on Israel’s survival. Let the discussion begin.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”
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