Last night in icy rainy Brooklyn there was a discussion and party for Jack Ross's new book Rabbi Outcast, sponsored by the wonderful group Brooklyn for Peace. First Ross read a brilliant essay about the role of Jewish nationalism in American Jewish life, and then there were responders.
I am going to pull out three important statements from last night's hoe-down. The first is a speech by Abdeen Jabara, the legendary Arab-American lawyer and activist (and a great soul if ever there was one). The second is from Jack Ross himself on the Iran threat. The third is from Leonard Rodberg, a professor at Queens College, speaking on anti-Semitism as the context for the rise of Zionism in the U.S.
1. Jabara on how Gaza has vindicated Elmer Berger.
Jabara was a friend of the late Berger and said, "I think Elmer Berger would be tremendously enthused by what is happening today." Jabara can say as much because of two different events in Israeli history.
After the 1967 war, the Zionists felt incredible “hubris and joy.” And anyone who questioned the Zionist narrative experienced “tremendous pressure.”
"I had come back from a year in Lebanon and opened a law practice in Michigan, and Americans celebrated the Israeli victory as the Israelis themselves did."
Berger never wavered. He never changed. And he paid for that resolution. (Another speaker, Leonard Sussman, said that Berger's opposition to the '67 War led to his being forced out of the leadership of the American Council for Judaism).
Fast forward to the attack on Gaza of 08-09. The picture was entirely different, Jabara said. The frontline states were no longer a threat. Egypt had a treaty with Israel, so did Jordan. The Arab countries were in disarray. The US controlled the Gulf States. The situation looked entirely bleak to the Palestinians, and the loss of life in Gaza was incredible.
"I think more than anything else, anti-Zionism got a shot in the arm because of Gaza. Because it revealed the Zionist project was not about creating a safe home for the Jews. It was expansionist, and brutal, and persecutory, and the Palestinians were isolated.
“There was no one to support them. I think that’s the difference.”
(Alas these are not complete notes. I was sitting next to Jabara as he spoke. The tremendous compassion for the Palestinians being pounded to smithereens in '08-'09 with no one not even our great president-elect to speak up for them was moving. I think we sometimes forget what a gamechanger this has been inside the American discourse, and the Jewish one.)
2. Jack Ross statement on Iran.
"As for current events in Zionism.... well, it is all about desperation. Now it is about desperation to start some kind of war with Iran.
"The Israeli obsession with Iran is not rational and cannot be understood in rational terms. Iran is simply a scapegoat for all of Israel’s problems."
3. Leonard Rodberg's statement on the postwar context of anti-Zionism.
Rodberg grew up in Baltimore (where he went to the rival high school to mine) and was bar mitzvah'd by anti-Zionist rabbi Morris Lazaron. In fact, Rodberg was briefly himself a member of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism because of his relationship to Lazaron.
The context for the American Jewish relationship to Zionism was anti-Semitism, he said. On one side that produced "a concern about dual loyalty." The appeal of anti-Zionism drew on a fear that if a Jewish state were established, it would undermine the credibility of Jewish patriotism in the eyes of other Americans, and so foster a wave of anti-semitism. Remember, this was the time of the Gentlemen's Agreement.
And the opposition to the anti-Zionists-- and therefore the appeal of the Zionists-- well, Rodberg said that anti-Zionists were seen after the war as "standing in the way of the Jewish remnant finding a place in the world." The decimated Jews of Europe could only go to South America, and to Palestine. The anti-Zionists were seen as denying them that out.
"In 1948 my rabbi was thrown out of the congregation and replaced. I never saw the ACJ presence again....
"Today, Israel is the embodiment of American Zionism. But in '45 there was a moment of real anxiety about the identity of Jews in America."