A Jewish child growing up as I did in Montreal during the 1940’s absorbed Zionism as naturally as Canadian ground did the snow in springtime. Our island city was divided between Catholic French and Protestant English, their rights equally protected by the state. The division between these two populations along ethnic and religious lines increased the staying power of other minorities, our own included; most Jewish children attended Jewish schools, all but two of which were Zionist in orientation.
My school, for example, asked students in the upper grades to raise money annually for something called the “Histadrut.” We were given booklets containing about twenty coupons arranged by color in denominations ranging from 25 cents to a dollar and we went door to door, inspecting the jambs for mezuzahs. I had no idea that the Histadrut was the labor union associated with the dominant Labor Zionist party, and I suspect that those who bought the coupons similarly assumed that they were supporting the Zionist project as a whole. My classmates and I very much enjoyed being foot soldiers in the national cause: our sense of the Jews as a cohesive and, on the whole, generous people was everywhere reinforced at home, at school, and on the street.
Were things different south of the Canadian border? It didn’t seem so. Though Jews there were blending more quickly into the mainstream, the American students whom I met at regional youth conferences in the 1950’s were no less passionately Jewish and Zionist than I. And why not? Zionism was both a natural and logical instance of the then-general phenomenon of emerging nation states and a keen expression of the human instinct for justice. Now that Palestinian Jewry, or the yishuv, had fought for and won its independence, and was on the road (so we thought) to gaining the acceptance of its Arab neighbors, Zionism as a revolutionary movement was quite properly morphing into a movement to support the country that it had helped bring into being.
To be sure, the emergence of Jewish Israel was not quite so unexceptional as the emergence of other postwar states. Not only had Jews been deprived of their political sovereignty for almost two millennia, they had just been subjected to genocide in Europe. Whatever forces had combined to set them apart in the past could not be overcome in a single day or year. But, on the other hand, Israel could also claim more “rights” to its existence than virtually any other nation.
There were, first of all, the Jews’ ancestral rights to the Land of Israel, as laid down in the Hebrew Bible. Although the boundaries of the Promised Land were open to dispute, the promise itself had been registered in one of the most highly disseminated books in the world, the fount of three major religions. And Jews had always regarded the Land of Israel as their land, perpetually mourning its loss, observing its calendar and laws, praying in its direction, and frequently migrating to it over the centuries.
For another thing, Jewish rights to the Land of Israel had been recognized by the League of Nations in 1922 and ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1947. For still another, the Zionist movement had purchased large tracts of land in Palestine, and on those lands successive waves of Jewish immigrants had established new communities and repopulated existing towns and cities; many had laid down their lives to “drain the swamps and make the desert bloom.” Finally, in its role as the national home and refuge of world Jewry, the new state of Israel, still reeling from the losses of the 1948-9 war of independence, opened its doors to the most damaged survivors of Hitler’s Holocaust and to Jews fleeing persecution from Arab lands—in this way, too, fulfilling dramatically its claim to national legitimacy.
With the establishment of modern Israel, then, American Jews had joined every other immigrant group, including descendants of the Mayflower, in having somewhere out there a “native” homeland. Zionism transformed American Jews from a forever desperate immigrant community seeking refuge into an ethnic-religious minority with an “old-country home” like the Roman Catholic Italians or Irish. In 1964, the Israel Day parade in New York took its place alongside its Columbus and St. Patrick’s Day counterparts. Leon Uris’s novel Exodus (1958), extolling the rebirth of Israel, became the biggest American best-seller since Gone with the Wind.
Zionism’s realization in the state of Israel left American Jews sitting pretty. Recognition of Judaism as one of America’s major religions, acceptance of Jewish studies as a normal part of a college curriculum, and tolerance of Jews by a growing majority of the American public—all these followed, directly or indirectly, from the demonstration that Jews now had a land of their own. Israel inspired sectors of Christian America to recognize their own affinities with Jews. Not least, political support for Israel also grew, eventually becoming one of the most unifying issues in the United States Congress.
For Jews themselves, it sometimes even seemed that, thanks to Israel’s emergence, the “great tasks that have united the Jewish people for the past hundred years and more are reaching their successful conclusion.” So spoke the late political theorist Daniel Elazar on Israel’s 50th anniversary in 1998, voicing the hope that Jews might now be free to devote themselves increasingly to “quality of life” issues rather than having to respond to crisis after national crisis. If that was indeed the case, then Zionism could be said to have well and truly completed its work.
But the truth, of course, is otherwise. From the very beginning, what set Zionism apart from other national-liberation movements was its nemesis: anti-Zionism. Unlike every other new member state of the United Nations, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, Israel, from birth, had been denied its national legitimacy. The front-line deniers were the seven founding states of the Arab League, later joined by fifteen additional members. Refusing to accept the partition of Palestine as originally envisaged by the UN, or, after 1948, to resettle those Palestinian Arabs who had fled their homes in the war of independence, Arab leaders created the idea of a nakba—a Palestinian catastrophe. This, in a transparent effort to turn attention away from their own aggressive misdeeds, they laid at the feet of the Jews.
In fact, the Palestinians formed a relatively small and fortunate group among the untold numbers of 20th-century refugees, having been displaced only several miles from their homes and to places where they shared the majority’s culture and language. Nevertheless, in contrast to the 20 million refugees generated by the contemporaneous Pakistan-India conflict and Korean war, all of whom were resettled without being made to serve anyone else’s political aims, they alone were consigned to permanent refugee status. Not content with the attempt to deny Jews their rightful land, Arab leaders compounded the aggression by accusing Jews of denying Palestinians theirs.
Thus did an otherwise normal process of national self-emancipation become arrested in its infancy by the abnormal hostility directed against it. Arab “rejectionism”—defined by Daniel Pipes as the intent to destroy Israel—made not just the Jewish state but Jews everywhere politically idiosyncratic once again. And among the varied branches of the Jewish people, American Jews, then in the midst of their own relatively effortless integration into a democratic, pluralistic society, may have been caught the most unprepared.
In its effects on political and psychological reality, the Arab war against Israel replicated the situation sketched by Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1946 study Réflexions sur la question juive (the title in English is Anti-Semite and Jew). According to Sartre’s scheme, the archetypal modern “anti-Semite,” to whom liberal democracy is nothing but a Jewish conspiracy, cannot be reached by way of reason-based evidence, because his convictions are not based on fact and are not subject to argument. Facing this wall of antipathy, the “Jew,” therefore, is forced to react in one of two ways: “authentically,” by affirming and living his Jewish identity, or “inauthentically,” by trying to squirm out of it. Sartre’s portrait also includes a third party. This is the enlightened “democrat,” who, although opposed in principle to the anti-Semite, pretends that the problem of anti-Semitism does not exist.
The same three actors could be seen functioning in the post-1948 scenario, with the place of the anti-Semite taken by Arab and Muslim leaders whose opposition to Israel could not be mitigated or dislodged through reason, and the place of the democrat by Western leaders who did not want to antagonize the oil-rich Arabs by even so much as acknowledging the fact of their war against the Jews. As for the Jews, they too were in their place, confronted with the need either to defend Israel forthrightly or, implicitly or explicitly, to hold it responsible for causing the Arabs’ aggression against it.
Ignorant of Judaism, Sartre was mistaken in thinking that anti-Semitism was what made Jews Jewish. But he was right to insist that, so long as the Jewish body politic was under attack, no individual Jew could hope to avoid being implicated in the drama set in motion by this new form of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.
Initially, Arab leaders threatening to drive the Jews of Israel into the sea borrowed freely from the racist rhetoric of Nazi Germany. By the early 70’s, however, and mirroring the military alliance forged between the Arab and Soviet blocs, the terminology of anti-Zionism had begun to borrow much more from the Left than from the Right; its quintessential ideological expression was the 1975 UN resolution equating Zionism with racism. While this shift signified no essential change in the nature of Arab opposition to Israel, it made all the difference to the targeted Jews, who were vulnerable to it as they never were to charges from the Right.
How so? By an irony of history, Hitler’s Final Solution had fixed its own archetypal image of modern-day anti-Semitism: the image, in short, of Nazi storm troopers. “Holocaust education,” a growing fashion by the 1970’s, had hardened this connection in the popular mind. But Holocaust-education curricula, like the one tacitly propounded by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, inevitably suggest a happy ending: Hitlerism, after all, was crushed. The museum event went so far as to expunge from its exhibits virtually any reference to other contemporaneous expressions of anti-Semitism, whether the role played by the Palestinian Arab leader Haj Amin al-Husseini in Hitler’s program of genocide or Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaigns before and after World War II. By focusing on the only variety of anti-Semitism that went down to defeat, Holocaust education made it that much harder to confront new forms of anti-Semitism. Today, in an era of steadily mounting aggression both verbal and physical, it still does.
The fixation on the Nazi model is not the only obstacle, however. Another has been the very success of America in encouraging full and equal participation of all in the country’s national life. The movement of Jews into the middle and upper classes—an unalloyed blessing—exacted a price in communal solidarity and group cohesion. One consequence has been a diminished appetite among American Jews for fighting a hatred that does not seem to have them as its primary target. This is hardly to minimize the effectiveness of agencies like AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, or the American Jewish Committee, or of media-monitoring and advocacy organizations, or of the commentators and intellectuals, many clustered around Commentary, who consistently rally support for Israel in America. Yet, as social scientists have long since observed, most American Jews continue to depart from the normal political pattern, habitually cleaving to a “universalist” agenda even when that agenda shows little or no concern for their proper concerns. Tellingly, George W. Bush’s support for Israel garnered him no political payoff from American Jews.
If some Jews ignore the escalating aggression against their people, others minimize the danger or blame its persistence on the alleged recalcitrance or bellicosity of their fellow Jews. In this vein, a new Jewish organization, J Street, targets the strongest defenders of Israel, including AIPAC, precisely because they strongly defend Israel (and thus supposedly rob it of its freedom to make diplomatic concessions). Needless to say, no other American minority works this way, much less one whose homeland remains under enemy fire. Sartre’s scenario explains how the extreme nature of such enmity can itself create so anomalous a pattern of internal defection.
A third impediment to the ongoing struggle for Israel is more specific: the legacy of anti-Zionism among Jews themselves. Opposition to Zionism at the beginning of the 20th century was common to several religious branches of Jewry, including the so-called ultra-Orthodox, who believed that only God could rightfully restore the Jews to Zion, and Reform, which in its own words considered Jews “no longer a nation, but a religious community.” (The majority of both these groups eventually changed their views.) On the political front, revolutionary Marxists opposed Jewish nationalism in favor of the new internationalist order that was expected to form along class lines—in Lenin’s view, anyone who directly or indirectly embraced the idea of a Jewish national culture was “an enemy of the proletariat, . . . an accomplice of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie.” As for the Jewish Socialist Bund, it believed in furthering the cause of progressive politics in the communities where Diaspora Jews already lived.
The Arab assault on Israel’s legitimacy has reawakened some of these long-ago antagonisms, encouraging their reemergence in modern form. Although the most shocking exemplars of the phenomenon are surely the rabbis of Neturei Karta, a delegation of whom embraced Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the 2006 “conference” in Iran denying the Holocaust, much greater damage is caused by leftist Jews who identify objectively with the Arab cause. A concatenation of political forces similar to the one that forged the Arab-Soviet alliance at the United Nations in the 1960’s and 1970’s can be seen nowadays on American campuses. There, a loose coalition between Arab or Muslim students and leftists, many of the latter of whom are Jews, acts out a campaign of hostility whose origins lie in the teachings of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky.
In a recent essay, “Anti-Semitism and the Left that Doesn’t Learn,” Mitchell Cohen, the editor of the socialist quarterly Dissent, has warned his fellow leftists that their brand of anti-Zionism currently serves the same anti-liberal ends that it once did under Stalin. Cohen condemns the “fixation on Israel/Palestine within parts of the Left, often to the exclusion of all other suffering on the globe,” and bemoans the extent to which leftist college students have been forced to choose between defending Israel and staying “progressive.” Unfortunately, he seems not have noticed how some have resolved this difficulty—namely, by claiming to be supporting Israel while attacking it.*
An example from my own university. Last spring, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a group at Harvard, announced that it was bringing to campus a traveling exhibit of political art called Breaking the Silence, based on the experience of 64 Israeli soldiers who had served in Hebron shortly after the end of the second intifada and subsequently compiled videos, photographs, and written testimony to convey the harm they believe they did while policing the Palestinian Arab population. The exhibition was co-sponsored by an array of adult organizations—Americans for Peace Now, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Hashomer Hatzair, Jewschool.com, Meretz USA, the Moriah Fund, the New Israel Fund, Open Society Institute, and the Union of Progressive Zionists—that use campus groups to promote their own political programs.
Though the anonymous authors of this exhibition prided themselves on their “meticulous research, including fact-checking and cross-checking with other witnesses,” they conspicuously omitted from their show any hint of the circumstances that led to the presence of these Israeli soldiers in Hebron in the first place, or indeed any historical context establishing Israel’s need to defend itself against Arab terror. Thus, the exhibit and accompanying text fail to mention the Oslo Accords of 1993, whereby Israel agreed to a transfer of power and responsibilities to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in return for PLO recognition of the right of the state of Israel to exist in peace and security and the PLO’s renunciation of the use of terrorism and other acts of violence, with both parties stipulating that until a permanent agreement was reached, Israel would remain responsible for security. The historically unprecedented risk Israel took in signing this document was rewarded in short order by the PLO’s incitement of a terror campaign that, in the two years between 2002 and 2004 alone, would claim more than 600 Israeli dead and 4,000 wounded.
The omission of any mention of this worst period of violence in Israel’s history makes it possible for Breaking the Silence to portray Israeli officers and soldiers policing a terrorist-ridden area as so many brutes and random sadists. And what, meanwhile, about the Jewish connection to Hebron, the place where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah lie buried? The exhibit notes only that the city is “sacred to both Jews and Muslims,” but otherwise takes it for granted that while Arabs have a perfect right to live there, Jewish “settlers” have none. More than one anonymous soldier is quoted voicing his alienation from the local Jews he is charged with protecting and his affinity for the Palestinians “who were supposedly threatening them” (emphasis added).
And so it went. Alarmed by the likely effect of the show’s appearance on campus, Harvard Students for Israel, a group that had been formed a few years earlier in response to growing anti-Israel propaganda at the university, tried to dissuade the sponsors of Breaking the Silence from bringing it to Cambridge. Having failed in this effort, it then suggested that the exhibit be moved to Hillel House, the meeting-place for Jewish students at Harvard—the idea being that this was better than letting it be shown, as scheduled, at the more heavily trafficked Kennedy School of Government. Hillel House obliged, on the grounds that as an inclusive organization it had to accommodate the full range of Jewish views.
As it happens, I toured the exhibit with Hillel Halkin, the well-known critic and Commentary contributor, who was then visiting Harvard from Israel. Halkin felt that, notwithstanding the risk of wider exposure elsewhere, the show should not have been mounted under Jewish auspices. A similar view was aired by the Zionist Organization of America, which fired off an emphatic public letter to the Jewish press; this duly elicited protests from the Hillel director and the chair of Harvard Students for Israel, both of whom were now placed in the position of defending an exhibit they did not endorse.
Of the students I spoke with who abhorred the exhibit, most also defended its right to be shown at Hillel, and on the same “free speech” grounds that are routinely invoked to justify the appearance of anti-Israel speakers and events everywhere. In this way, leftist Jewish organizations get to flaunt their moral progressivism by taking up the cause of the “oppressed Palestinian Arabs,” in the process supplying Jewish ammunition for the anti-Zionist assault and deterring others from pursuing the worthier and morally sounder objective of defending the Jewish state.
This brings us to the last and most serious obstacle to a full-throated Zionism, which is the influence on American Jewish opinion exercised by sectors of Israel’s own Left and liberal Left. Its embodiment is David Landau, until recently the editor-in-chief of Israel’s daily Haaretz, who believes that Israel should be “squeezed” by the United States into making concessions to the Arabs that it might otherwise regard as contrary to its defensive needs. At a gathering of Israeli leaders with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this past year, Landau invited Washington to “rape Israel into resolving the problem” of the disputed territories.
“‘Rape’ is a word in the English language,” Landau later explained without apology, averring that he had been urging U.S. pressure against Israel ever since the 1970’s. According to this view, heavily promoted by the English-language edition of Haaretz, Israel bears primary responsibility for the aggression against it and, whatever the democratic will of its electorate or the considered judgment of its political and military leaders, must be forced to make amends. Israeli proponents of this view often compare themselves with American protesters of the Vietnam war in the 1960’s and 70’s. They fail to consider that, if so, Israel is not playing the role of the U.S. in the analogy but rather that of South Vietnam.
No doubt the Israeli ex-soldiers who gathered the material for Breaking the Silence had experienced severe emotional distress of the kind that scars every sensitive person who goes into combat. Their private scruples deserve the compassion of a Jewish public that survives thanks to their soldiering, but also the firm guidance of a public that needs their soldiering in order to live. There has never been anything like the Jewish conscience, forged over three millennia by a culture of self-accountability under the aegis of an exacting Judge. But neither has there ever been a war as protean and lop-sided as the Arab war against Israel.
One may excuse demobilized soldiers for wishing to ignore the political context of the struggle in which they were conscripted. Unfortunately, what is merely vulgar within Israel proper serves a far more corrupting function when it goes on the road. American university campuses, while not necessarily hostile to Israel, have become an intellectual war zone. The battlefield features ever more Muslim students for whom opposition to Israel is a matter of religious faith, anti-Israel exhibits like Breaking the Silence purveying wild accusations of Jewish brutality, a cadre of uninformed or biased professors who accept or disseminate the Palestinian “narrative,” and Jewish student enablers of the kind we have met.
These days, alas, those who are truly breaking the consensus on American campuses are the minority of pro-Israel students who strive to provide the political and historical correctives to anti-Zionist propaganda. “What’s the matter with those Israeli soldiers?” one of my students asked me, mulling in anguish over the recent exhibit. “Don’t they feel the disconnect between their protestations of peace and the hateful effect they’ve created on campus?” Others are less gentle. “It would be the end of Harvard Students for Israel if it ever fell into the hands of Israelis,” said one. The moral confidence that Israel once exported to American Jews, these students feel they must now export to Israel.
I began by recalling the contribution of Zionism and the state of Israel to the confidence of North American Jewry. Were the story told in full, it would include many more instances: Israel’s mobilization of the movement for Soviet Jewry that helped open the gates of the world’s longest-lasting totalitarian regime; Israel’s successful intervention on behalf of Ethiopian Jews, which rescued a whole lost segment of the Jewish people; Israel’s supply of Jewish scholars, teachers, and cultural ambassadors to an American Jewry in dire cultural straits. Nor, taking in more than the Jewish community alone, can one ignore Israel’s 1982 strike on Iraq’s nuclear reactor, yielding benefits to humankind beyond calculation, and not least, Israel’s absorption of the brunt of Islamist and Arab anti-Western aggression.
Exodus, the novel that so thrilled Americans and sparked the refusenik movement of Soviet Jewry, tells the story of how a prototypical American, Kitty Freeman, overcomes her dislike of Jews by falling in love with a heroic Israeli. Hokey or not, this fictional romance projected the truism that Israeli Jewish grit had earned America’s affection. Can we today be facing a situation when the opposite may prove equally true? Will the growing success of anti-Zionism turn Israel into a liability?
There is no shortage of signs. One of them is the readiness of some academics and foreign-policy professionals to hold Israel accountable for the war in Iraq and other putative recent failures of American foreign policy. Another is the hijacking of human-rights organizations and forums by anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist ideologues. Then there is the leftward drift of the Democratic party, propelled in part by the energies of liberal Jews: might this end by weakening America’s tie to Israel and its vigilance against the common enemies of both countries?
The persistence and resurgence of anti-Zionism have undeniably sapped some of the self-confidence that Zionism instilled in the Jewish people. Arab belligerence has hammered away at Jewish optimism, including in Israel. How long can a society of builders withstand legions of destroyers? How long can Jews elsewhere be expected to rally to its side, especially at moments when Israel’s desperate hunger for peace leads it to seem weak or even pathetic?
Yet here is where, oddly, American Jews could actually make a difference, and could do so by flexing their American muscles no less than their Jewish ones. American leaders, after all, still take open pride in the commonalities between the two countries. President Bush spoke thus to the Israeli Knesset on May 13:
Our two nations both faced great challenges when they were founded, and our two nations have both relied on the same principles to help us succeed. We’ve built strong democracies to protect the freedoms given to us by an Almighty God. We’ve welcomed immigrants, who have helped us thrive. We’ve built prosperous economies by rewarding innovation and risk-taking and trade.
Bush went on to invoke the enduring alliance of the two countries in confronting terrorists and tyrants.
Though such morale-boosting sentiments do not always translate into action, they greatly reinforce the sense of the legitimacy of the Jewish national project. Indeed, America expects its citizens to root for their homeland as passionately as Bostonians and Angelenos cheer the Celtics and the Lakers. This expectation is especially appropriate in the case of Jews, who bear the scars of the most evil forces in history and whose enemies, like America’s, are a roster of the world’s autocrats, dictators, despots, tyrants, and terrorists.
Anti-Zionism in its most naked form is the mark of Arab and Muslim inhospitality, intolerance, and cruelty, and it will stain Arab and Muslim honor for as long as it endures—or longer, depending on how much damage it wreaks. But opposing it does not require defaming Islam, or returning malice for malice. What it requires is a sustained and relentless campaign to clear away the accretions of lies and disinformation and to make room for clarity and truth. One could begin such a campaign by asking why Arabs, who already have 640 times more land than Israel occupies in its entirety, believe that they have too little, and the Jews too much.
Distance from the battlefield, and well-protected freedoms, allow American Jews to make the case for Israel more forcefully than Israelis can make it for themselves. We (I include myself) are blessed with advantages greater than any Diaspora community has ever enjoyed, hence charged with greater responsibility than any Diaspora community has ever borne. History will ask only one question of our generation, and of the next one and the one after that: did you secure the state of Israel? Woe to an American Jewry that does not ensure a rousing reply in the affirmative.
* Cohen also seems to have felt obliged by feelings of collegiality to preface his case against his fellow leftists with a ritual condemnation of “all Israeli settlements in the occupied territories,” a blast at Benjamin Netanyahu for supposedly sharing responsibility with Yasir Arafat in scuttling the Oslo accords, and a denunciation of “American Jewish organizations that pander to American or Israeli right-wingers”—all this in the opening paragraph!