On emancipation and tough Jews

When I was growing up, my mother would often extol the virtues of the “tough Jew.” The tough Jew, unlike the garden variety, does not take things lying down. He isn’t a Woody Allen-type, anxiously cracking jokes in the office of his psychoanalyst, who’s been trying in vain for fifteen years to shrink his patient’s supersized superego. Nor does she let a bunch of jackbooted Germans put her on a train bound east without bloodying a few Aryan noses. The thing about tough Jews is that when they have problems, they don’t kvetch; they shoot people. And the toughest Jews of all, of course, are the Israelis.

I don’t want to write about Israel. Losing my voice from arguing late into the night is a semi-regular occurrence for me. I’m far too eager to inflict my opinions on anyone who’s willing to listen, and sometimes those who aren’t. In short, I possess all the requisite self-absorption and over-intellectualism necessary for an opinions columnist in a low-circulation college newspaper. But every discussion I have about the Jewish state leaves me with a strong desire to make a head-shaped dent in the wall. No matter what position I take, no matter what position my interlocutor takes, I leave the conversation feeling angry, irritated, and, above all, guilty. The origin of the guilt varies: I might feel like a self-hating Uncle Moishy, an apologist for imperialist occupation, or, perhaps worst of all, a blowhard perpetuating a loathsome and interminable conversation. Ethno-religious conflict, beyond being byzantine and bloody, has always struck me as fundamentally petty. To be related to such a conflict, however tangentially, is to be part of a very high-stakes schoolyard tussle. It’s just embarrassing.

Yet, at the risk of embarrassment, I’m going to write about Israel anyway, because the Zionist movement offers a lesson on a subject I’ve been tossing around in my head a lot over the last several months: how liberatory projects can go wrong. Zionism, despite the settler-colonialist rap it’s received from BDS activists, can’t be separated from its emancipatory content. The whole point of the Zionist project was to give self-determination to a scattered diaspora, that, throughout its history, had been ghettoized, pogromed, and massacred by many of its host populations. The Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe did not make the First Aliyah to Palestine out of some laughable abundance of sentimentality; they left the Pale of Settlement because the conditions of Jewish existence there had become increasingly intolerable. That’s why other Jews often idolize the supposed toughness of their Israeli counterparts. The appeal of that toughness isn’t about macho posturing; it’s about a willingness to seize control of one’s own destiny. The independence afforded by the 1948 declaration is nearly unprecedented in Jewish history; for the first time in nearly two thousand years, a Jewish community would be the primary shaper of its own future.

And yet the Zionist project, for all its emancipatory sheen, has been engaged in ethnic oppression throughout its existence. From its earliest days, Israel displaced and murdered Palestinian Arabs. Today, the crimes of the Israeli government are legion: the continued occupation of the West Bank, the expansion of illegal settlements, and the demolition of Arab homes, just to name a few. For Bibi Netanyahu and his conservative allies in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), the point of Zionism isn’t Jewish national liberation; it’s Jewish national domination.

This way of thinking is, I fear, more a feature than a bug of certain kinds of identity politics. The line between national liberation and ethnic chauvinism is incredibly thin. A movement that seeks to emancipate one people can easily oppress another when it comes time to govern. In any struggle, it is not enough for a movement to articulate the grievances of its own members alone. If it takes the prospect of victory seriously, it must articulate a sense of justice that applies to all people, for all time.



  1. ““The spiritual father of the fanatical incitement against the Jews was Abner of Burgos, a Jewish kabbalist and scholar who converted to Christianity in about 1321, upon experiencing a deep religious and spiritual crisis, and became known as Alfonso of Valladolid. His… despair of the Jewish question found expression in his polemics—some written in Hebrew, others in Spanish—which contain a complete doctrine of denunciation of the Jews and their laws and morals. Oral Law, he maintained, constituted a code of robbery, usury and deception. …Various sayings by the Talmudic sages … were interpreted by this apostate to mean that the Jews must be deprived of the easy livelihoods of usury and medicine, that they must be deprived of their autonomy and that they must be terrorized and subjected to harsh laws. Only then would they merit redemption.”

    –H. H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People.

    Prelude: at Vassar College

    Starting in late February the campus of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie has been the scene of some of the ugliest depredations yet organized by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign designed to expel Israel from the family of nations. The college founded in the nineteenth century by a brewer has become a witches’ brew of bullying and raw violence carried out by Students for Justice in Palestine and its collaborators. They described themselves as “staging an action [italics mine]” (on March 3) against the on-campus part of an International Studies class that was to include a trip to the Middle East to consider “water issues” in the region. Since the Jew and then the Israeli have been perpetually on trial it was considered necessary by Vassar to convene a special forum to consider the “ethics” of a course that would include setting foot in Israel. Although the trip’s itinerary confirmed that its (predictably tendentious) purpose was to convince students that Israel is unfairly depriving Palestinian Arabs of water, that slander was not sufficient to protect it (or its two garden-variety Jewish leftist instructors) from the wrath of BDSers, who consider Israel the devil’s own experiment station or, in the colorful lingo of Philip Weiss, a Jewish hater of Israel in attendance at the forum, “a blot on civilization.” Their violence (which included screaming, interruptions, and perhaps ululating) was the existential realization of a letter published on March 1 by a group of thirty-nine Vassar faculty members who condemned the Vassar administration for daring to criticize the recently passed resolution of the American Studies Association in favor of boycotting Israeli academic institutions.

    The professors charged that critics of the ASA boycotters had had “a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and opinions.” It is now almost 65 years since Lionel Trilling remarked (in The Liberal Imagination) on the way in which modern liberals not only want the right to go their own way in all things, but to go their own way without any questions ever being asked of them. Those who carried out the “action” also had their special complaint. According to Weiss they were “people of color” (perhaps by analogy with “jeans of blue”), and therefore entitled to accuse their critics of “racism.” (They understand liberal-left quackery only too well: liberals think “the poor” are their equals in every sense … except that of being equal to them.) But the final word on that allegation of “chilled” discourse was left to the gloating Weiss: “The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence.”

    Matthew Arnold, recalling (back in 1883) the happier moments of his second visit to America, expressed pleasure that “in colleges like Vassar College in the State of New York,” women (“the fair host of the Amazons”) were now studying Greek art and Greek literature. One wonders what he would say if he visited the same place now. I believe that what would most shock him would be not the bullying, the intimidation, the thuggery—to Oxford itself he had applied Byron’s aspersion: “There are our young barbarians all at play!”–but the flagrant violation of conscience in intellectual work, a violation like the following course description by Vassar’s Professor Joshua Schreier:

    “History 214: The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict:

    This course is NOT designed to present ‘an objective’ account of a ‘two-sided’ conflict. The fact that there are supposedly two sides does not obligate us to portray each as equally right and/or equally wrong. The goal, rather, is to understand why the conflict arose, and what sorts of power inequalities have made it continue. … Why and how did economic globalization, technological development, and European imperialism foster the creation of two different national identities in Palestine? Why and how and when did these two identities develop in such a way as to preclude members of certain religious or ethnic groups from belonging?”

    Ruth Wisse has pointed out the impossibility of finding a course description at any elite American college or university that operated from the opposed ideological premise to Schreier’s: namely, that “the Jewish people had a connection to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean that was greater and of longer duration than the nomadic peoples who came to be called Palestinians, and that the central place of Palestinians in world politics is due to an imbalance of power between the small Jewish state and the petroleum-drenched Arab states with which it must contend.”

    When he wrote this description, which apparently raised no eyebrows in whatever Vassar administrators pass judgment on curriculum, Schreier was an untenured toiler in the college’s Jewish Studies Program; now he is its chairman—and also (a fact that may surprise some people) the chief campus spokesman for the academic boycott of Israel. Here is how Lucette Lagnado (a Vassar graduate) reported the revelation in the Wall Street Journal (February 24, 2014): “The head of the Jewish Studies Program… had also expressed support for the boycott movement. Prof. Schreier was quoted in the campus paper ruminating that while once ‘instinctively against’ the boycott, he had heard more ‘substantiated, detailed’ arguments in its behalf, and as a result ‘I am currently leaning in favor of it,’ he concluded delicately, as if choosing a favorite tea.”

    Self-hatred– or self-love and apostasy?

    In his formidable book entitled Jewish Self-Hatred (1986) Sander Gilman showed how apostasy in the form of conversion to Christianity was the solution to their personal predicament chosen by substantial numbers of disaffected European Jewish intellectuals . He concluded the book by suggesting that “one of the most recent forms of Jewish self-hatred is the virulent Jewish opposition to the existence of the State of Israel.” In the modern world, however, the contradiction between liberal pieties and the defense of Israel is rarely resolved by formal apostasy, and it is difficult to find any self-hatred in such Jewish Israel-haters as Professors Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Judith Butler, and Jacqueline Rose, who suffer rather from a self-love that would shame Shakespeare’s Malvolio. They do on occasion cling to the outer trappings of medieval apostasy. Marc Ellis, the wandering “liberation theologian” and former Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, famously spent one Yom Kippur publicly confessing the sins of (other) Jews against Palestinian Arabs in front of a Christian audience at the (Protestant) Union Theological Seminary. (He also praised the “courage” of Gillian Rose, sister of the aforementioned Jacqueline, for her deathbed conversion to Christianity via the Church of England.) Daniel Boyarin, the University of California, Berkeley professor (of Talmud) who has identified himself as a Jew “destined by fate, psychology, personal history, or whatever, to be drawn to Christianity,” warned that “My Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Daheishe, Beteen,” (i.e., places the Israeli army had entered to pursue people inclined to massacre Jews). Noam Chomsky favors St. Paul’s Cathedral, in (or in front of) which he has often held forth, in one instance introduced by another perfervid Jewish Israelophobe, the late Harold Pinter, who introduced Chomsky as “the leading critical voice against the criminal regime now running the United States.” (Lest that remark prove overly cryptic, the ever-helpful Chomsky had a few weeks earlier clarified: “Antisemitism is no longer a problem [in the U.S.], fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control.”

    These, however, are but the dramaturgy, the trappings and suits of woe where “virulent Jewish opposition to the existence of the state of Israel” is concerned. We see it more frequently, and frighteningly, in the BDS movement, dedicated to turning the pariah people into the pariah nation by calling into question Israel’s “right to exist,” just as the Nazis had called into question, and very successfully too, the Jewish people’s “right to live.” The leaders of this movement are “disproportionately,” if not preponderantly, Jewish apostates of a new kind that may well frighten us…”

  2. I am the father of a Swarthmore grad, and am old enough to be your grandfather.

    You sound to me like a nice kid who has never been to Israel for more than two weeks

    and likes to fit in with your friends and teachers, many of whom are equally as unknowledgeable

    about Israel as you are.

    Let me offer you a different perspective on the situation.

    For the past seven years, Palestinians on the West Bank have had the sympathy and support of an American President fully in sync with their desire to obtain a state of their own. And willing to take unusual political risks to help them achieve it.

    Yet in that time we have almost no words of compromise from Mr. Abbas and none-at-all from Hamas for his efforts on their behalf.

    Nor have we seen any real change in the determination of ordinary Palestinians to ultimately expel the Jewish people from their homeland.

    Or efforts made to confront and displace their own corrupt political and religious leaders.

    What we have seen instead are massive buildups of arms, the building of tunnels, stabbing attacks in Jerusalem, rockets launched at Israel from Gaza, the naming of day care centers in honor of vicious murderers and an enormous quantity of vile anti-Semitic propaganda directly aimed at young people.

    I use to believe that Palestinians were an accomplished people capable of doing difficult and important things, but the evidence is proving me wrong.

    They have on their front doorstep a neighbor who withdrew from Gaza a long time ago and who is immensely tired of war.

    Making a final settlement with Israel will be difficult and will not be accomplished overnight, but in the end it will prove to be a great deal quicker and easier than establishing a Palestinian state on the moon.

    But that is where the Palestinian people, and you with your profound misunderstanding of Israel, currently are heading.

    P.S. — Zionism is not a project. It is the dreams and aspirations of a people.

    P.P.S. — Were it not for the tough Jews of Europe, Hitler’s project would have been even more

    complete than it was. Jews should never speak casually of tough Jews. One never knows when you

    might need them or need to become one yourself.

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