These three brief essays are my current take on this increasingly painful dilemma. Part 1 looks at the place of Jews in America. Part 2 discusses the Holocaust and its impact on the the conversation. Part 3 addresses whether one can be anti-Zionist without being anti-semitic.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM -- Part 1
When Jews came to North America before the founding of the United States, they discovered themselves in an unfamiliar circumstance. They were treated by their fellow residents essentially as being equal. Perhaps the better word here is “equivalent.” Though they faced disadvantages at the hands of religiously-driven figures, they were nonetheless increasingly embraced as part of the hybrid notion of national identity that was summarized by the word “American.”
The Jewish part of their identity was mostly considered to be a function of their faith, much as a Christian or a Catholic or a “Mohammedan” was identified by belief. In the hodge-podge of stereotypes and prejudices that rose and fell in mainstream America over the centuries, Jews found that they had opportunities to be nearly-full participants in American life, especially compared to the African slaves and their offspring. Building on George Washington’s remarkable affirmation of the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, most Jews and most Americans came to view the Jewish community as one defined by their mode of worship, their particular holidays and their adherence to a religion that did not affirm Jesus as the Christ. Not every American (and I include some of notorious prominence) accept this perspective, but as matters of both law and culture, the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment were understood to make the definition of American specifically include Jews, of course among others.
The later popularizing of the term “Judeo-Christian,” accurate or not, and the integration of Jews into the military, especially during the Second World War, was further proof that Jews were in every respect but one just like every other American. Even deep into the twentieth century, when restrictive covenants, whites-only country clubs and “gentlemen’s agreements” were yet a part of everyday life, Jews learned from civic circumstances and most of their rabbis that Judaism was to occupy a compartment in their identity. It defined their faith, but not their patriotism.
To be sure, aspects of Jewish culture influenced Jews as well, much as the children of Italian, Irish, Greek, Slavic and Baltic immigrants maintained music, cuisine and supplemental schooling in their neighborhoods to preserve old-country values. But like those neighbors, Jews came to accept that they were Americans by nationality and Jews by faith, heritage or culture. And we still do.
That attitude makes us unique in our history of displacement since Jacob and his sons settled in ancient Egypt. Throughout the Bible, from Pharaoh to Haman, our identity was as a people, not as a religion. (In fact, the two words may have been a difference without distinction back then, but more ahead.) The prophets assailed us about faithfulness, but the history unfolding around and beyond them was one of alliances and conquests during which our ultimate allegiance was to our unseen Commander rather than the kings and conquerors who coveted our homeland. The notion of holiness, intimately connected with the Holy Land, was forcibly disconnected by Jews and affixed to Torah and ritual. Likewise, for others, religious life was wrenched from geography and affixed instead to authority figures who laid claim to acting as God’s representative and to the religious law that grew up around them.
The Jews, however, had no king. (Well, at least according to us.) We were a stateless people, condemned to wander because we would not accept the sovereignty of (name of potentate here) as a divinely ordained representative of (particular name for God here).
Centuries later, cultures throughout Europe, where most Jews lived, had diminished the authority of religious hierarchy in most circumstances. Vibrant cultures had emerged, influenced by faith, but not beholden to it. It is impossible to say with certainty whether the artists who relied on the patronage of the churches were devout or mercenary – no doubt some combination of the two – but by the time concert halls and museums and even cabarets were filled with an abundance of artistic expressions, civic life was similarly mostly independent of the churches. As national identity became a stronger determinant of belonging than specific belief, the stateless Jew remained an outsider. To be sure, some Jews succeeded to integrate and gain acceptance, but they were exceptions, and they often had to abandon their allegiance to Judaism and Jewish identity to do so.
Nation-states began to emerge in Europe to replace monarchs. And, still, the Jews were without a place. We were therefore considered by others and (this is extremely important) by ourselves a people apart, just as Pharaoh and Haman had declared. We were not French, not German, not Italian, not Russian, not Polish. The religiously practicing among us declared a daily hope too be restored to our land, evidence enough to others that they were correct in their estimation that we could not pledge allegiance to the land in which we settled. Never mind that the capacity to hold multiple ideas and fidelities in mind is a hallmark of human existence; Jews were others – not to all, but to most.
To growing numbers of European Jews who had joined their neighbors in stepping away from religious life and faith, the situation was perplexing and frustrating. Enough of them came to the conclusion that in their modern world Jews would never find a place of security and self-determination unless they had a land of their own, just like Germans and Austrians, Czechs and Slovaks, Russians and Ukrainians. Out of that mentality grew Zionism – a political movement for Jewish self-determination in a dedicated homeland.
By now it is clear that the long history of Jewish longing for a return to the Holy Land made that territory the only destination for a homecoming. But other territories were considered, in Africa and North America in addition to the ancestral lands.
As Jewish nationalism affirmed a Jewish identity that was other than European, America’s Constitutional culture affirmed a national identity that, for Jews, was differentiated only by faith – a faith that began waning along with the faith of many Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM – Part 2
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the Holocaust on the Jews who survived the Auschwitz years. While the rest of the world may look at those events with sadness, embarrassment or impatience, in most cases the Holocaust is an external event to those who are not Jewish.
I want to be specific with my words: I am not referring to World War II or to the suffering and deprivation experienced by other Europeans and their offspring or to the losses endured by those who lost disabled family, homosexuals or dissidents to the Nazi death machine. I refer specifically to the Holocaust, the systematic attempt to murder all the Jews in the world.
Even today, as Americans use DNA mapping and on-line search tools to discover their personal history, there is barely a Jewish family of European heritage that does not have a gaping hole in the family tree, as if someone tore pages out of the records in the family Bible and tossed them in the fireplace.
The Holocaust occurred in large measure because the perpetrators guessed correctly that nobody would believe they would do what they did. And until it was too late, no one did believe. Since then, and probably forever more, Jews will never doubt the depths of depravity to which the human imagination can sink nor the capacity of human beings to perpetrate evil.
Every word I wrote above is true, and it pertains to me at least as much as to anyone else.
Allow me, at some risk, to suggest some lessons that are uncomfortable in this context.
Too many of my fellow Jews have conflated what is possible with what is likely. I agree with those who repeat the warning that we cannot afford to dismiss those who pledge to do us harm. But having seen the worst that can befall us, too many of us (including, sometimes, me) hope for an opportunity to prove that we will never let it happen again. The pump is primed, and the evidence is pre-packaged. We are trigger-happy with accusations of anti-semitism, and not just Jew-hating anti-semitism, but genocidal anti-semitism.
At the same time, we presume more than ill intent from those we fear. We presume a conspiratorial network motivated by the unfinished work of the Third Reich. The hatred of Jews in Nazi Germany was so comprehensive, building on the creative denigration of everything Jewish throughout the preceding centuries, that there is barely a new way to be critical of Jews. And since we have schooled ourselves in the litany of stereotypes, we presume that others have done the same. The fact is that most non-Jews – except the professional anti-semites – are unaware of what is second nature to us.
(During the scandals of the Clinton presidency, a Methodist minister worried that the conduct of the Special Prosecutor would have an impact on the denomination. I told him I worried in the same way about the young intern. He told me he had no idea that she was Jewish. And I had no idea he prosecutor was Methodist.)
The Holocaust produced two results that pervade Jewish life collectively and, mostly, individually. Theologically, as one brilliant orthodox thinker observed, belief in God is difficult, but belief in man is impossible. Almost all Jews who do not espouse a fundamental ultra-orthodox belief have contracted the notion of a God willing to exercise protection of the faithful in this world (some of them down to zero). Practically, as I have suggested throughout my career, Jews should never be without power. Power is expressed differently in different circumstances, but most certainly the power of self-determination is primary on the global stage – best expressed by the State of Israel as the national expression of Jewish peoplehood. In the United States, I would argue that power is expressed politically, officially in government and sociologically in the influential segments of society.
But how is such power deployed? The influence of Jewish religion – values drawn from 2000 years of the experience of relative powerlessness – emphasizes accommodation, compromise and the moral high ground. The influence of Jewish experience – lessons learned from hundreds of years of suffering discrimination and, ultimately, attempted obliteration – emphasizes cautious ally-ship, suspicion and exquisite preparedness.
Is it fair to ask Jews to step out of their Holocaust consciousness when considering their concerns about their own security or that of the State of Israel? I think the answer is no, any more than it is fair to ask African Americans to set aside the awareness of their enslaved past, or native tribes to leave their displacement and slaughter to history books, or any American who lived through the Great Depression to refrain from sharing their memories with affluent offspring.
What is fair – and, in my opinion, advisable – is to ask Jews to consider the role that their personal or collective historical memory plays in contemporary circumstances. Cultivating fear and suspicion of others is a guarantee that fear and suspicion will be returned in kind.
ANTI-ZIONISM AND ANTI-SEMITISM -- Part 3
Is it possible to be anti-Zionist and not anti-semitic? A lot of people have been weighing in on that question. It is a very different question than if it is possible to criticize the policies and actions of the State of Israel without being anti-semitic. The answer to that question is necessarily yes, or the entire citizenry of Israel has a paradoxical identity.
But Zionism – the belief that the Jewish people have a right to self-determinism in their own homeland – is not about policies and actions, but about place in the world.
I will risk alienating those American Jews who conflate criticizing Israel with calling for Israel’s destruction. The inability to distinguish between the two is a mark of paranoia, but (if you read my previous two columns) an understandable affliction.
It is not the case that Israel exists because of the Holocaust. Political Zionism was founded a century before World War II, and the ideas behind it before that. But anyone who denies that the destruction of European Jewry had an influence on when Israel came into existence is simply incorrect. Not always for admirable reasons, the nations that had fought in the war eventually sought a place for the remnant of the Jewish population with nowhere to call home.
It is the case that in the minds of most American Jews, there is an inextricable link between the catastrophic events of the Holocaust and the necessity of the State of Israel. As such, when critics challenge Israel using terms that resonate with historical attempts to eradicate our people, it is near impossible for those Jews to imagine any motive that does not include Israel’s destruction.
But please read what follows carefully, because both sides of this debate have a responsibility to lower the heat.
Jewish peoplehood – or, if you prefer, community, ethnic identity, common cause or any related term – is different than Jewish faith. Each is part of the other, but they are not identical. When it comes to our place in the world – that is, Zionism – Jews engage on the basis of peoplehood, not faith. If you challenge the endeavor of Zionism, you challenge the place of Jews in the world even if that is not your intention.
Just as it is not harmless for white people to wear blackface, or for sports teams to use caricatures of Indians as mascots, or for fraternal organizations to appropriate Muslim imagery for entertainment, it is not harmless to for activists to appropriate Zionism as a stand-in for the current Israeli administration or its policies. If you deploy Zionism as the villain, then you will be correctly understood to be calling for the destruction of the Jewish people. Jew or non-Jew – it is your responsibility to understand that truth.
At the same time, the Jewish community has been unclear with others and with itself about the nature of our civic engagement. Most faith-based organizations in the majority Christian community are represented by clergy, or at least leaders who answer to religious authorities. Most Jewish organizations that are not specifically focused on religious life are led by people trained in organizational management, business or a related profession. Their personal Jewish commitments may be profound, but they are not faith leaders. Yet, because we have accepted the notion that in America our Jewishness is a matter of faith, we have let stand the presumption that we are defined by the houses of worship we attend, especially when we interact with others.
But we should be honest that our engagement in support of Israel comes from our sense of place in the world, part of which is spiritual in nature, but much of which is not. We revel in no longer being “a people apart,” and resent when we are reminded that sometimes we are. We can be terrific allies, but sometimes we are not when the fascination we maintain with the resilience of anti-semitism provokes a fight-or-flight reaction from people who do not understand the complicated nuances of being American Jews.
We attribute a base of knowledge and an innate antagonism based on our perceptions, too often rushing to a judgment of malice that can be confusing at least and offensive at worst. And it is incumbent on us to work on our own reactiveness, both as individuals and in a willingness to call out the extreme reactions of other members of the Jewish community.
Lastly, I offer a plea for respect of our allies. We have genuine friends in the world, and especially in the United States. They are people who stand with us when we need them and stand up to us when we need them. They are committed to our partnerships because we have stood with them, and because we have persuasive and moral arguments for our positions. There are people who disagree with our priorities and with our agenda items, but if we do not find their challenges persuasive, mostly our friends will neither. We do not need to crush dissent nor, just as important, dissenters.
Jews are “blessed” with a special name for the bigotry directed at them; they have chosen a special name for the right of self-determination that all others assert. People of good will refuse to accommodate bigotry by any name. People of good will acknowledge the right of self-determination for all peoples.
Can one be anti-Zionist and not anti-semitic? Only if such a person elects to define the Jewish community by his or her own self-serving definition: a faith community, not a people, with no claim on a place in the world.