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columnJewish Diaspora

Progressive Judaism ‘without Israel’ is a tool for antisemites

“Diasporism” was once based in Yiddish, socialism, naiveté about the fate of Jewish Europe or American assimilation. Now it’s a weapon that aids a genocidal cause.

Credit: AugierLe42e via Wikimedia Commons.
Credit: AugierLe42e via Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The post-Oct. 7 information war against Israel has many fronts. Some involve the denial of the unspeakable atrocities committed by Hamas during its pogroms in southern Israel. Others concern disinformation about the efforts of the Israel Defense Forces to eliminate the terrorist movement or a refusal to acknowledge the genocidal goals of Hamas and other Palestinian groups while falsely accusing the Jewish state of genocide. But as appalling as those smears and disingenuous narratives may be, even more insidious are those that seek to deny Jews the same rights as any other people.

At the heart of this sinister effort are its preferred mouthpieces: Israel-hating Jews who typically chime in to criticize the Jewish state “as a Jew.” They are essential props in the campaign to legitimize efforts to distort and deny traditional Jewish beliefs. While sometimes couched in the language of faith, scholarship and human-rights advocacy—and purportedly anchored in Jewish historical movements—the goal is much the same as that of bloodthirsty Hamas terrorists: destroy the Jewish state, something that could only be accomplished by the slaughter of its people.

Unsurprisingly, the outlet that is doing its utmost to mainstream such advocacy is The New York Times, a publication whose long record of hostility to Zionism and Jewish peoplehood is part of some of the most tragic chapters in modern Jewish history.

The latest entry in this category was a piece published on the 100th day since the Oct. 7 mass murders in southern Israeli communities titled, “Is Israel Part of What It Means to Be Jewish?”

The ‘Times’ campaign against Israel

The conceit of the piece is similar to other articles published in the Times that seek to generate support for left-wing groups that are harshly critical of Israel, like J Street, or to legitimize anti-Zionist organizations, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which openly traffic in antisemitism as well as seek the elimination of the Jewish state.

To so-called “progressives,” like those who edit and report at the Times, the aftermath of the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust—an event that also set in motion a surge of antisemitism around the world, and especially, in the United States—is the perfect time to lend credence to the tiny minority of Jews who sympathize more with the perpetrators of those crimes than the victims. As former White House speechwriter David Frum, who is now among the most bitter opponents of former President Donald Trump and pro-Israel Republicans, aptly put it, “On Day 100, the NYT features a closely reported profile of the Wicked Son from the Passover Seder. “What does all this mean to you?”

Anti-Zionists quoted in the piece are searching for a way to express their discontent not merely with Israel but with the entire concept of Jews possessing the power to defend themselves. Most prominent among them is Shaul Magid, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, who touts himself as a champion of “diasporism.”

According to the Times, diasporism is a belief “that Jews must embrace marginality and a certain estrangement from Israel the country, and perhaps even Israel the place.” And it argues that this is a worldview that has deep roots in Jewish history.

There have been movements that specifically rejected Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as the Socialists of the Bundist movement and the authors of Reform Judaism’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. But the attempt to link Magid’s thoughts—and those of the clique of anti-Zionists who write for the extremist left-wing publication Jewish Currents cited in the article that put forward a Marxist argument against Israel’s existence—to either of those movements is both deeply dishonest and drenched in hatred for Israel and its Jews.

Today’s “diasporists” share Magid’s belief in Jewish “marginality.”

They are appalled by the reality of Jews living fully Jewish lives, whether religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Mizrachi, right-wing or left-wing in a Jewish state where its citizens speak Hebrew and live by the Jewish calendar in their people’s ancient homeland. To them, Jewish powerlessness—the root cause of millennia of persecution and martyrdom that culminated in the Holocaust—is a good thing since it relieves Jews of the responsibility to govern or protect themselves. In this way, they can bask in the faux righteousness of victimhood, absolved of any guilt that comes from the difficult and complicated task of survival in a hostile world.

This is deeply wrong on several levels.

Those who claim that support for Jewish life and sovereignty in the land of Israel is marginal to Judaism—and those who do make that argument are usually antisemitic non-Jews—are betraying their abysmal ignorance. Israel is integral to Jewish observance, prayer and its most profound beliefs, as well as to the history of the Jews. For two millennia, Jews prayed every day for their lost homeland, for the rains to come in season there, and for the complete rebuilding of Jewish life and worship there. Nor was there ever any time in history since the Roman expulsion when Jews were completely absent from it despite the hardships, humiliations and persecutions exacted by various foreign conquerors, of whom the Arabs were only relative latecomers.

Misunderstanding Bundism

What these diasporists and their cheerleaders at the Times don’t seem to understand is that the motivations of the Bundists and the late-19th-century adherents of “classic Reform” Judaism had nothing to do with a belief in marginality or powerlessness.

Bundists were Socialists who were sure that the coming worker’s revolution in which they believed would transform Europe from a death trap for Jews to a place where they could thrive. This was a reflection of two factors. One was their hopeless naiveté about the strength of European antisemitism. The other was a misunderstanding of the fundamental hostility of Marxism to Jewish peoplehood and rights or that of any minority or faith, as Jews learned to their sorrow during the 70 years of Communist tyranny that only ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Though the events of the 20th century illustrated just how colossally wrong they were, the Bundists were not interested in powerlessness. They wanted Jewish autonomy over regions of Eastern Europe, where Jews predominated, and saw the promulgation of Yiddish language and culture as an expression of a Jewish national identity that was the polar opposite of Magid’s exaltation of marginality. Even as their dreams of a vibrant future for Jews in Europe went up in the smoke of the Nazi death camps, Bundists fought alongside Zionists—whose understanding of European history was more prescient and whose vision proved to be a path to Jewish survival—in futile yet heroic last stands like the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion.

Nor are today’s anti-Zionist diasporist foes of Israel comparable to 19th-century Reform Judaism.

The Jews who endorsed the Pittsburgh Platform were also not interested in marginality as a philosophical goal. What they wanted was complete assimilation into the American mainstream while preserving a minimal amount of Jewish identity. They were willing to forswear not just the hopes of a restored Jewish homeland but the entire concept of Jewish messianism and replaced it with faith in the American Zion.

The excesses of this mindset—including adopting Sunday rather than Saturday as the Sabbath and a sort of high-church Protestant approach to worship, as well as discarding the idea of Jewish peoplehood—now seem excessive and indefensible. But it was very different from a belief system that holds that Jews are better off as perpetual victims. And while a minority of Reform Jews persisted in opposing Zionism into the 1940s as the struggle for Israel’s rebirth took place, most American Jews did not. As it turned out, two of the greatest leaders of American Zionism of that era were Reform rabbis: Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver. Though the Reform movement is now often very critical of Israel, it is still, as a matter of doctrine, Zionist.

While the Times seeks to depict advocacy for Zionism as linked to the idea prevalent in the movement’s first decades about “negation of the Diaspora,” that is something that few Israelis or their supporters still speak of. Indeed, Zionists have always been firm believers in the idea of supporting the rights of Jews everywhere, though many of their opponents in the first half of the 20th century feared that a Jewish state would lead to them being forced to move there whether they wanted to or not.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, an ardent advocate for Zionism, saw it as inseparable from support for Americanism, saying that “to be a good American meant that local Jews should be Zionists.” Belief in a Jewish state is not antithetical to support of Jewish life elsewhere. The triumph of Zionism in 1948 changed the lives of every Jew, whether or not they actively support Israel, for the better.

Marxist hypocrites

The best way to understand today’s Diasporists is to put them in the context of contemporary leftism, not Jewish history or faith.

If a certain small percentage of people who have some Jewish ties are openly anti-Zionist, it generally has little to do with seeking a non-nationalist vision of Israel or even the ultra-Orthodox belief that a Jewish state must await the coming of the Messiah—a point of view espoused by a minority of even those Chassidim who do not think of themselves as Zionist but still accept the reality of modern-day Israel.

Rather, it is a function of their acceptance of the toxic beliefs of the intersectional left, whose origins are related to the rise of critical race theory and the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion. They accept the false idea that the world is divided between two immutable groups locked in perpetual racial conflict—oppressive possessors of white privilege and victimized people of color. In this formulation, Jews are wrongly labeled as “white” colonialists while Palestinian Arabs are their racial victims.

This is nonsense since the conflict is not racial; the Jews are the indigenous people of the land of Israel and the same race as Arabs. But if you see the Jews as inherently white oppressors, then you are bound to support those who wish to kill and/or displace them, regardless of their tactics or goals.

Moreover, as even the Times article notes, while these anti-Zionist seekers of marginality and exile think that being homeless is somehow good for the Jews, they don’t think the same is true for the Palestinian Arabs. While they decry even the most liberal concepts of Jewish nationalism, they are strong supporters of “Palestinian self-determination” and statehood, despite its being anchored in the belief that the same right should be denied to the Jews.

While early-20th-century Bundists wanted merely a different kind of autonomous national life for Jews than Zionists, the Diasporists lionized by the Times, demanded that Jews, and Jews alone, should be denied not only that but the status of a people altogether. For them, Jews shouldn’t be merely homeless but must embrace the weakness and psychosis of powerlessness, so as to gain the prized status of permanent victimhood that their intersectional identity as “white” would otherwise deny them.

Hamas’s useful idiots

Nor should one take seriously their claims that they merely want Jews and Arabs to live together in a peaceful secular state of Palestine. Palestinians have repeatedly shown that they won’t accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. The only thing standing between the 7 million Jews of Israel and the fate of the victims of Oct. 7 is Jewish sovereignty and the Israel Defense Forces that the Diasporists wish to disband. To oppose Israel’s efforts to destroy Hamas—an ideological force that is the spiritual heir of Nazism—is to countenance not merely the survival of a group bent on Israel’s destruction but to act as “useful idiots” in aid of a genocidal jihad to repeat those horrendous crimes again and again.

Since the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, anti-Zionism can no longer be considered as having even a shred of intellectual integrity. Even before Oct. 7, for a Jew to delegitimize Zionism was to be an ally to those forces seeking to annihilate the Jewish state and its people. After Oct. 7, even if it is expressed as sympathy for the victims of the war that Hamas started, diasporism must be seen as, at best, the unwitting ally of those who slaughter, torture, rape and kidnap Jews or, at worst, their open allies. Such people should be seen for what they are: Jews who are the willing tools of murderous antisemites.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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