Alvin H- Rosenfeld: Rhetorical Violence and the Jews. Critical Distance, February 27, 2007

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In December, 2006, I published an essay with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) titled “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism .” It slumbered for a while and then suddenly provoked the interests and passions of more people than I could ever have imagined. More about these reactions soon. For now, the facts:

With assaults against Jews and Jewish institutions annually numbering in the hundreds, anti-Semitism has once again become a serious threat, made all the worse by the rhetorical violence that helps to fuel it. Much of this rhetoric is directed aggressively against the Jewish state and those deemed “guilty” of supporting it. Often hardly distinguishable from verbal anti-Semitism at its ugliest, it issues not only from jihadist preachers and neo-Nazi hate-mongers, but increasingly from otherwise respectable intellectuals, scholars, artists, and journalists. Some of these people are themselves Jews. In the spirit of George Orwell’s seminal insight–“[1]f thought corrupts language, language also corrupts thought”– I set out to examine their words and the degree to which they might be consonant with today’s anti-Semitism, especially in its more virulent anti-Zionist forms.

I am not the first writer to take a hard look at Jewish authors whose statements go well beyond what most reasonable people would see as legitimate criticism of Israel and who call into question the very essence of the Jewish state and its right to continued existence. Writing in the pages of TNR about Tony Judt–who professes that “Israel today is bad for the Jews”–Literary Editor Leon Wieseltier pointed out that, to confuse the object of anti-Jewish hostility with its cause, as Judt does, is not to understand anti-Semitism but to reproduce it. Others have also analyzed the contributions of Jewish thinkers to today’s anti-Zionist discourse. (See, for example, Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor’s collection, The Jewish Divide Over Israel, Emanuele Ottolenghi’s Autodafé, and the current issue of Shmuel Trigano’s French journal Controverses.) So my essay was by no means a pioneer effort.

The New York Times evidently thought otherwise: On January 31, 2007, it ran a prominent story about my work with the headline “Essay Linking Liberal Jews to Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor.” Prior to the Times’ article, there really hadn’t been much of a furor. In an age of instant Internet communication, though, a major story in America’s leading newspaper about an alleged attack on “liberal Jews” raced around the globe and, in no time at all, unleashed a huge and bitter debate.

In part, the debate was triggered by the Times’ erroneous reference to “liberal Jews” (a term I never used) and to the AJC as a “conservative advocacy group” (it is not). Owing to these mischaracterizations, some readers were prepared to see my essay as just the latest salvo in the already overheated culture wars between right-wing and left-wing opinion in this country. Before reading what I actually wrote, for instance, Gershom Gorenberg, commenting in The American Prospect, groaned: “Here we go again, I thought: Another right-wing American Jew… is trashing liberal Jews for voicing criticisms milder than what an Israeli ex-paratroop officer might express over lunch with old army friends.” On closer look, though, he found something quite different: a critical review of the words of “those Jews who reject the very existence of a Jewish state and who express their opposition in shrieks that rise to equating Israel with the Nazis.”

These “shrieks” were my subject; and I had no trouble locating them in the work of certain Jewish authors, many of whom identify as “progressives” and are prominently represented in Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon’s Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Adopting their own self-chosen moniker, I took “progressive,” not “liberal,” as my term of choice.

No commonly agreed-upon taxonomy of terms–“liberal,” “leftist,” “radical”–exists to define “progressive” today with any precision, but the word generally is taken to designate a political position to the left of “liberal,” the latter term becoming a casualty of the culture wars and no longer enjoying the currency it once had. The slide from “liberal” to “progressive,” however, involves more than just a semantic switch. As the political scientist Andrei Markovits explains in Uncouth Nation, “an uncompromising anti-Zionism, which occasionally borders on the anti-Semitic,” has become requisite for membership in good standing in the progressive left. Together with anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism “has become a kind of litmus test for progressive thinking and identity…. Just as any self-respecting progressive and leftist in Europe or America, regardless of which political shade, simply had to be on the side of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s, anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism have become the requisite proof of possessing a progressive conviction today.”

There are people within the progressive left who strongly oppose these tendencies–the British-based authors of the Euston Manifesto and writers featured in Dissent and Democratiya come immediately to mind. They make clear their concern with growing anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, noting (I quote from the Euston Manifesto website) their stand against “organizations of the left that are willing to entertain openly anti-Semitic speakers and to form alliances with anti-Semitic groups.”

Among others on the left, though, an often strident anti-Zionism is part of the ideological package that gives them their political identity. Their inclination to liken Israel to Nazi Germany and white-ruled South Africa–and their frequent excoriations of the Jewish state as guilty of “racism,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “war crimes,” and “genocide” draw from a common lexicon of hyperbolically corrosive speech and have helped to fashion an intellectual and political climate that encourages the demonization of Israel and its supporters. Jacqueline Rose’s reduction of Zionism to a form of collective lunacy and her attempt to link Theodor Herzl with Adolph Hitler; Joel Kovel’s call for “true Jews” to “annihilate their particularism,” “annihilate or transcend Zionism,” and “annihilate the Jewish state”; Norman Finkelstein’s claim that Israeli Jews are a “parasitic class” and that their “apologists” are comparable to the Gestapo; and Michael Neumann’s equation of “Jewish complicity” in Israel’s policies with German complicity in the Holocaust illustrate the extremity of such views. Citing innumerable examples of such tendentious thinking, I closed my essay by noting that, “at a time when the delegitimization and, ultimately, the eradication of Israel is a goal being voiced with mounting fervor by the enemies of the Jewish state, it is more than disheartening to see Jews themselves adding to the vilification.”

Many readers agreed with these conclusions. But some were clearly discombobulated. “I am almost in a state of shock,” Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College and TNR contributing editor, told The New York Times. Confronting me on NPR’s “On Point,” Wolfe dropped the “almost”; he also accused me of employing “Stalinist tactics” to stifle free speech and suppress open debate. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, told the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen, “The atmosphere is hysterical, verging on McCarthyism. You can’t raise questions about Israel without being told you’re an anti-Semite or a self-hating and disloyal Jew.” The Boston Globe ran a story by Stanley Kutler under the absurd heading, “All Critics of Israel Aren’t Anti-Semites,” which carried the fantastic charge that my “real targets” are “Democrats and opponents of George W. Bush’s dubious adventure into Iraq.” And the Forward lost its editorial wits altogether with a piece called “Infamy,” claiming that my intent was to “turn Jews against liberalism and silence critics” and, for these alleged sins, placing me in their secular version of cherem.

Since I never once referred to “liberalism,” called no one a “Jewish anti-Semite” or “self-hating Jew,” said nothing about Democrats or the Iraq war, and made no attempt to “silence” anyone, this Kakfaesque bill of indictment makes me wonder what is at play here–illiteracy, dishonesty, or worse? As Bret Stephens recently put it, “How does joining a debate become an effort to suppress it?”

Vigorous discussion of Israeli policies and actions is not in question here. Such discussion proceeds across all of the media in this country and within Israel itself. It’s disingenuous, therefore, to say that “you can’t raise questions about Israel.” Such questions are raised continually by a broad range of commentators. Read Yossi Klein Halevi, Michael B. Oren, Dennis Ross, Hillel Halkin, and Michael Walzer, to name only a few of the best informed commentators, and you will find such discussion taking place in thoughtful and clarifying ways.

The ubiquitous rubric “criticism of Israel,” however, has also come to designate another kind of discourse–one that has almost become a politico-rhetorical genre unto itself, with its own identifiable vocabulary, narrative conventions, and predictable outcomes. At its ideational core is what the British scholar Bernard Harrison calls a “dialectical scam.” It goes something like this: (1) Spot an Israeli action that can serve as the ground of “criticism of Israel” (e.g., Israel’s military incursion into the area near Jenin in April 2002 in response to Palestinian terrorist massacres); (2) Then “dissent” in the strongest possible terms, for instance by likening the “razing of Jenin” to the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, while anticipating that “powerful” and “repressive” Jewish institutions will try to “silence” the critics by calling them anti-Semites; (3) When taken to task by more sober-minded critics who find that, contrary to your charge, there was no such thing as “the razing of Jenin” and that the IDF has nothing in common with the SS, cry “foul” and claim their censure perfectly illustrates the point that there really is a Jewish organizational conspiracy to silence “criticism of Israel” by branding the authors of such criticism “anti-Semites.”

For some, this dialectical scam works nicely and validates their sense of themselves as intellectual martyrs suffering for a higher ideological cause. Once one is on to it, however, the scam readily dissolves into what it actually is: political bias, compounded by a touch of hysteria, masquerading as victimization. Thus, when a tiny political group calling itself “Jewish Voice for Peace” sets out to track “a growing epidemic of intimidation and harassment from fellow Jews seeking to stifle open debate over America’s policy toward Israel,” it can hardly be expected to be taken seriously.

What is at stake in the present debate, though, is serious and calls for thoughtful minds to move beyond the regnant clichés and recognize that Jews and the Jewish state are once again embattled. The most violent enemies–Iran and Syria, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda–are undisguised. On another level, but causing its own damaging effects, is the hostility embedded in language. One libel after the other, today’s anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric erodes Israel’s moral standing and marginalizes those who are devoted to the Jewish state and speak out on its behalf. In Europe, slanted media coverage has already reduced Israel and its supporters to something close to pariah status while creating a sense of unease within the local Jewish communities that has not been felt for decades. Some Jews fear that it is now open hunting season on them and their children and are giving thought to leaving. Many have, in fact, already left.

This is not the situation of American Jews at the moment, but, with words like “apartheid” and “dual loyalty” in the air and intimations of powerful “Jewish lobbies” controlling the national press and exerting undue influence over foreign policy, a quiver of nervousness is now detectable among Jews in this country, too. Language matters, and its contamination by thoughtless or malicious people can be invidious. That was the thrust of my reflections on anti-Zionist ideas and anti-Semitic utterances in my AJC essay. Some of the responses to it prove my point.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is professor of English and Jewish studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts at Indiana University. He is the editor of The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature (Indiana University Press, forthcoming).

Alvin H- Rosenfeld: Rhetorical Violence and the Jews. Critical Distance, February 27, 2007

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