How effectively is the Jewish establishment confronting intolerance?
In a recent editorial, Morton Klein and Elizabeth Berney of the Zionist Organization of America criticized the ADL’s latest report on radical violence, “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2021,” arguing that it focused on white supremacism but downplayed threats from minority extremists.
Similarly, critics of the secular liberal establishment lament its tendency to understate progressive bigotry and excess. Indeed, politics seems to set the tone for those communal leaders who appear restrained when social justice warriors target Jews and their institutions, leftist professors malign Israel on college campuses, or progressives promote global conspiracy theories on their social media platforms.
This begs the question of whether cultural survival is possible when Jewish identity is conflated with partisan politics. Or whether invoking tradition in name while equating it with modern progressive values – many of which contravene traditional Judaism – will instead facilitate assimilation.
Those who believe political progressivism is synonymous with Jewish prophetic tradition are just as misinformed as evangelicals who claim Jews can only be “completed” by accepting Christianity. Neither view has any foundation in Jewish Scripture or tradition.
The more confounding question is whether activists who equate Jewish advocacy with jingoism or ethnocentricity can honestly claim concern for Jewish continuity. While many liberals pay lip service to heritage, they also support organizations hostile to traditional Jewish priorities. Can they be effective guardians against antisemitism if they ignore Jew-hatred from the left? Is it chauvinistic to rebuke antisemitism in minority communities?
Incredibly, some progressives claim Jews are part of the power structure and that, accordingly, anti-Jewish bias in minority communities is understandable or even justified. The insidiousness of such woke drivel, however, has finally alarmed some within the liberal mainstream and spurred protest resignations from radical synagogues where anti-Israel activists are validated.
And why shouldn’t lay membership be disgruntled by leaders who refuse to acknowledge Jew-hatred on the left or within today's Democratic Party?
Nontraditional rabbis were largely silent a few years ago when David Friedman was confirmed as President Trump’s ambassador to Israel over objections from Democrats who insinuated he had divided loyalties. Though this pernicious slur echoed the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fraudulent work concocted by the Okhrana (Tzarist Secret Police) to promote antisemitism in Russia, most liberal clergy and community leaders said nothing. Some of those who failed to condemn the malevolent chorus against Friedman, for example, later excoriated Trump for moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.
It should have been a wakeup call when many Reform congregants pushed back against those clergy who criticized the embassy move. When it comes to anti-Israel hostility, however, woke leadership continues to enable through silence or complicity.
Few if any seemed to care, for example, when Biden’s ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, stated during a pro-BDS organization’s webinar earlier this year that “your agenda is where my heart is.” Neither were they alarmed by references to Jewish areas in united Jerusalem (i.e., neighborhoods) as “settlements” or warnings against “settlement growth” in a city that never had an Arab-Muslim majority or served as the capital of a sovereign Arab-Muslim nation.
An ambassador’s endorsement of an agenda that challenges the legitimacy of his nation of assignment would seem to impair his diplomatic credibility. In fact, it should be disqualifying. In this case, however, it dovetails with the antipathy of the President who appointed him, whose White House staff includes many BDS supporters – including a recent Congressional resolution proposed by Democratic “Squad” members to formally recognize “the catastrophe” of Israel’s creation.
And then there’s the President's deemphasis of the Abraham Accords and commitment to reopening a Palestinian Arab consulate in Jerusalem.
Those who claim BDS only opposes “occupation” in Judea and Samaria are disingenuous or ignorant.
Israel’s control of these lands (which were part of the ancient Jewish Commonwealth) does not constitute “occupation” as that term is defined in the Fourth Geneva Convention. It would be more accurate to say that Israel liberated these lands from occupation by Jordan, which seized them in derogation of international law in 1948. (Only Great Britain and Pakistan recognized Jordan’s unlawful conquest at the time.)
Ignorance may not be antisemitic, but the crafty denial of history is, and it is certainly antisemitic to discard Jewish history in favor of rejectionist narratives lacking in historical substance. Those who validate the BDS agenda cannot mitigate the words of co-founder, Omar Barghouti, stating: “A Jewish state in Palestine, in any shape or form, cannot but contravene the basic rights of the land’s indigenous Palestinian population…most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian – rational Palestinian, not a sellout Palestinian—will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.”
According to such skewed perspectives, Jews have no right to sovereignty in their homeland, which historically included Judea and Samaria. But chimerical whimsy does not negate certain historical realities, e.g., that the Land of Israel has a Jewish pedigree going back thousands of years, that no sovereign Arab-Muslim state ever stood within its boundaries, and that there is no record of an ancient Palestinian presence as documented by archeology, culture, language, religion, or national institutions.
Jewish national claims may have no place in the BDS universe, but the myth of Palestine hovers outside the historical record. And yet, secular progressives who eschew the faith of their ancestors embrace the Palestinian Arab narrative with religious-like intensity, despite its basis on a repudiation of their own history.
Progressive rejectionists deflect accusations of prejudice by pointing to leftist Jews who renounce Israel, embrace her enemies, and delegitimize Jewish history. There is no doubt that Jewish self-hatred runs deep, a phenomenon that moved early labor Zionist leader Berl Katznelson to ask: “Is there another People on Earth so emotionally twisted that they consider everything their nation does despicable and hateful, while every murder, rape, robbery committed by their enemies fill[s] their hearts with admiration and awe?”
In his seminal work on Jewish self-hatred, “Juedischer Selbsthass,” German-Jewish philosopher Theodor Lessing similarly chastised acculturated intellectuals who incited antisemitism and sought to “remove the stain of Jewishness from mankind.” Although Lessing grew up completely nonobservant, he nonetheless considered such behavior aberrant, contemptible, and a form of psychosis.
Progressives can rationalize disdain for Israel and Judaism all they want, but they cannot say it represents the Jewish virtues of introspection or self-criticism. Neither can they argue their repudiation of traditional Jewish claims is shared by those among the haredi sector who reject political Zionism. The left is consumed by its denial of Jewish historical yearning, whereas religious critics embrace that yearning while disagreeing with its secular actualization devoid of spirituality.
There were always religious supporters of Jewish national regeneration; and in fact, some of its earliest proponents were Orthodox rabbis and mystics. These “proto-Zionists” included Rabbis Eliyahu Guttmacher, Zvi Hirsch Kalischer, and Yehuda Alkalai, all of whom preached the message before Herzl was born. Perhaps not coincidentally, Herzl’s grandfather was an observant Jew and follower of Rav Alkalai, whose views likely influenced Herzl’s own political evolution.
There is absolutely no ideological similarity between secular leftists and those among the religious who are critical of political Zionism.
The former are motivated by their rejection of heritage, but the latter by their affirmation of it. Whereas the left repudiates the Jews’ right to autonomy in their homeland, religious critics of secular governance continue to pray for the ingathering of exiles and rebuilding of the Temple.
And therein lies the difference.
Though Israeli society might reflect variegated degrees of observance, most remain connected to Jewish tradition in a way that secular Diaspora liberals simply do not understand. Deep down, many secular Israelis would probably agree with Saadia Gaon that Torah sustains the Jewish nation. They may not all be observant, but they aren’t looking to offer strange fire on the altar of progressive politics like their secular American cousins.
It’s a strange fire indeed.