Analyzing American Jewish anti-Zionism

Peter Beinart once wrote a piece about the growing split between American Jewish youth and Israel, which he sees as the inevitable cost of Israel’s failure to make peace with the Palestinian  Arabs, on the one hand, and the long-term effects of seeing an Israeli Goliath bullying the Palestinian Arab underdog on the other.

American Jewish youth, he claims, has “imbibed some of the defining values of American Jewish culture: a belief in open debate, skepticism about military force, a commitment to human rights.” Studies show Jewish youth “resist anything they see as ‘group think’… want an ‘open and frank’ discussion of Israel and its flaws… and desperately want peace.”

And every effort to defend Israel by criticizing the Palestinians merely offends their sense of fairness: blaming those they see as the victim, is not a winning strategy.

Beinart asserts that "for several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead. Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral.”

Given what they perceive as a choice between Zionism and liberalism, much of American Jewish youth has chosen the latter.

For them, the case is pretty much open and shut. Israeli political choices are illiberal and bad, and its politicians act in bad faith. The split between American Jews and Zionists, therefore, is inevitable. There is little sympathy for the plaints from Israel that the neighborhood there does not permit such simplistic naïveté. Not much room in this worldview for Palestinian Arab contributions to the endlessness of the conflict, for Islam's poisonous hatreds, for prevailing insane religious violence, for blaming terrorists who stab, shoot and throw boulders at unarmed civilians of all ages. 

Remember – don’t blame the [perceived] victim.

Israel, says a generation of Jewish critics of Israel, should act like a liberal, or lose their affections.

To which the obvious response is, “Are you kidding me? Do you know what they’re dealing with there?”

To which the apparent response is, “No. And I’m not listening.”

But why? Why do so many Americans turn a deaf ear on the Jewish state, their family, as it tries to explain how hard it is for Israel to survive in the Middle Eastern neighborhood? Why join groups that claim they’re “pro-Israel, pro-peace” when they relentlessly criticize Israel, and team up with groups that hate it? What is going on here?

In a recently reported exchange, a J-Street organizer explained their self-perception vis-à-vis Israel:

"Well, I’m the head of the J Street club on my campus and what you don’t understand is that we see Israel as our younger sister. We want our younger sister to be better — we love her and care about her."

Maybe that’s what is done in some neighborhoods, but most people believe that you don’t show love and loyalty to a sister by trash talking her. On the contrary, that will most likely get her killed because of the peculiar power of shame and the overwhelming desire to annihilate such feelings.

The Shame of it all: Panic in a Crooked Mirror

A significant amount of this “split” in the American Jewish community between liberals and Israel can be understood not as a response to real problems in Israel – of which, like any country, there are many – but as responses to feeling ashamed of it.

The feelings stem not because of what Israel has done, or is accused of doing, and certainly not in comparison with its neighbors, but because of “how it looks” to outsiders. Shame comes from looking bad in the eyes of people whose opinion matters to you.

It is not easy to see picture after picture, hear story after story, read analysis after mendacious analysis, all depicting Israel as a bully Goliath beating up relentlessly on a victim David, as the “roadblock to peace,” as the wholesale killer of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians, murderer of children.

One of Oslo’s most fervent architects, Yossi Sarid, recently said in response to Israel’s refusal to take in refugees from Syria: “My love for Israel has been replaced by shame.”

Of course, given that Israel has been providing medical care for wounded Syrians for years, and absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, the depth of this shame seems a bit outlandish:

"I love you no longer, my homeland. This is no longer my country. As far as I’m concerned, you can scream or be silent – do whatever you want, unbeloved land. The place of love has been taken by shame. I am ashamed, which means I still care, it still hurts, but less. See how you look, our little country, our petty country."

Since the Second Intifada (aka the Oslo War), when the doctored pictures of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy, cowering in fear behind his father, “gunned down in cold blood” by the IDF hit the news media, and brought to prominence the “Israeli-Goliath” school of journalism, Jews the world over have felt horror and shame.

The relentless drumbeat of false accusations against Israel for (non-existent and unproven) unspeakable brutality – the never-happened Jenin Massacre, Gaza open-air prison (with its luxury hotels and markets), fabricated child-killing – has dominated the mainstream news media (MSNM). When I gave a talk in 2007 in Europe and called Al Dura a “blood libel”, one of the participants objected (and thereby proved my point): “It’s not a libel: Everyone knows that every day the IDF kills children.” There is not a Jew alive, who doesn’t live under the cloud of the ferociously negative depiction of Israel in the public sphere of the 21st, the global, century. 

Some of us were in our prime when it began, others grew up in a changed world. Among the global progressive left, Zionism became a dirty word, in some cases a global villain, a Nazi avatar, an incarnation of evil. As Beinart says, Jewish liberals and progressives had to choose between what they saw as principles and family.

What is that deep desire for approval that drives us to conspicuous self-criticism? Why are Jews willing to believe every fabricated lie about their own people, rather than the reports of Israel's army and government press office?

Proxy “Honor-Killings”

When liberals hear about Muslim “honor-killings” (really shame-murders), they feel horror: kill your daughter or sister for having shamed the family?! Who would do that?

A close look at the behavior of some prominent voices among Jews, suggests that similar dynamics are at play in the anti-Zionism which not only criticizes Israel constantly (what Anthony Julius calls “scolds”), but tolerates, even encourages the application of terms like “racist,” “apartheid” and “Nazi.”

Liberals tell us that they model themselves on the prophets. But they keep company no ancient prophet would. Prophets of yore lived between the desert and their own people’s public sphere; these post-modern critics disparage their people in the public sphere of their people’s enemy – not exactly an act of prophetic love.

For these Jews, the shame of having a family member – Israel – viewed by others as a brutal and heartless Goliath is too much to bear. It has produced a bumper crop of “Theobald Jews” (a Jewish convert to Christianity who claimed that blood libels were correct and Jews had to sacrifice a Christian child every year) who “as-a-Jew” feel compelled to bear witness against their own people in front of a hostile world audience. These are Jews who are proud to be ashamed to be a Jew, because it shows how “good” they are.

Tuvia Tenenbom explains how such Jews, who embrace the accusations, clean their blackened face by remorselessly scanning for ways "to  catch a[nother] Jew" misbehaving.

Perhaps it’s a mental problem. For 2000 years Jews have been persecuted, for 2000 years they have been told taught they are the worst of humanity. Some people cannot handle it and you get a kind of Stockholm syndrome, which leads them to say: 'If everyone in the world says I’m bad, that I am ugly, a thief, a murderer, horrible shrewd person, a money grubber, it must be so. What can I do to cleanse myself of it?'

And what do they do? Catch another Jew doing wrong. That makes them feel better – it's not them, it’s another Jew.

See the sign held by one demonstrator during the Gaza war of 2014: ANOTHER JEW ASHAMED OF ISRAEL’S INSATIABLE WAR MACHINE.

What do you do to a family member that has deeply shamed you in the eyes of the world? In the Muslim world, you kill that member. But those Jews who feel such horror at being shamed, do not want to actually kill their embarrassing family member. Most Jewish anti-Zionists, like Judith Butler and Jewish Voice for Peace are avowed pacifists.

As a result, they have to outsource the job of murder to a proxy. Thus, Butler in 2006 welcomed Hamas and Hezbollah as “part of the global progressive Left.” In doing so she embraced Jihadi forces that betrayed every fiber of progressive values. Post-modern honor-killings are done in the name of peace, by proxy.

This deep shame is, I submit, the force driving a wedge between American Jews who think this way and Jewish Israelis. American Jews may be able to have a healthy “skepticism about the use of force”; Israelis, who must deal with neighbors bent on their destruction, cannot. And the reason that American Jewish liberals can’t listen is because they must, above all, maintain their self-image as "good" people, as liberals in a "good" world.

The tribal response – aka “Israel-firster” in this context – is the normal human response to us-them conflicts. Rally round one’s family, clan, people. Post-Zionist self-criticism flips this to “Israel-lasters” whose default mode is “their side right or wrong.” So how do we navigate between this Scylla of refusal to take any responsibility and the Charibdis of taking it all on our shoulders?

For one thing, we who remain relatively sane, must rebuke those driving headlong in either direction. We should not suffer Jews, furious at the hatred directed against them, to rage against whole peoples. Nor should we stand by while people, in the name of the Jewish people, spread hatred of Jews among gentiles, especially when their most eager audience is filled with those who actively seek for reasons to hate the Jews and delegitimize the one Jewish homeland.

Above all, we must face the shame and ask whom are those who feel shame trying to please, appease, gain approval from? Are there limits to self-abasement before one's people’s accusers?

Many of the West’s ills in this baleful century, are related to, or mirror the Jewish tendency of dealing with shame, even unjustified shame, by compulsive conspicuous self-criticism. Until Jews learn how to be fair to themselves as well as others, until they are willing to live with the hard facts of survival in the beleaguered Jewish state, our people cannot possibly contribute to a true tikkun olam. 

Professor Richard Landes is an American historian and author specializing in Millenialism and currently assoc. professor at Boston University. He coined the term "Pallywood" for what he considers the practice of "staged filming" of "evidence" against Israel for the benefit of the Palestinians.


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