Mondoweiss

Why a Texas rabbi keeps losing a debate over Israel with a white nationalist leader

Richard Spencer

It must have been a terrible embarrassment to Hillel rabbi Matt Rosenberg at Texas A&M University, when he tried to challenge the alt-right Spencer with ‘radical inclusion and love’. Spencer was invited to the University, and Rosenberg was there to challenge his bigotry:

“My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love,” Rosenberg said, in a video picked up by the Forward, and posted by the campus newspaper The Eagle. “Will you sit down and learn Torah with me, and learn love?”

Spencer gracefully declined the offer to pray, but in return offered an appraisal of Judaism and Zionism that literally left the rabbi speechless. Spencer actually blew Rosenberg’s pink balloon, and Rosenberg didn’t know what to do. Here is what Spencer said:

“Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Spencer said. “And by that I mean radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East could go move in to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?”

Rosenberg was silent.

“You’re not answering,” Spencer said.

“I’m not answering,” Rosenberg said.

“Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate,” Spencer went on. “That is why Jews are a coherent people with a history and a culture and a future. It’s because you had a sense of yourselves. I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.”

Shock horror. With all the generalism inherent in Spencer’s appraisal, he was touching upon a very central issue for Zionism, and he connected it to the Jewish culture – it’s the exclusivist vein that Zionism champions in Judaism. Whilst there may be many Jews in the world who seek greater or lesser assimilation, Zionism basically defies, on a national level, the issue of assimilation. Zionism assumed from the outset that Jewish assimilation is not viable and should not really be attempted, and realised its exclusivism (which Jews also blamed the world for upholding) through the Jewish nation-state. The ideology became reality, the Palestinians were and are continually being ethnically cleansed, there is Apartheid. This is the manifestation of what Spencer seeks, ‘white exclusivity.’ This ‘whiteness’ is just as real and valid as Jewish ethnic homogeneity, and those who truly believe in the validity of these constructs are the racists.

In any case, Rosenberg didn’t have an answer. Spencer’s point was, after all, compelling. What’s more, he didn’t throw spiteful words at Rosenberg, he simply took Rosenberg’s ‘radical inclusion and love’ and questioned it in light of Israeli policy and Zionist ideology, and in a rhetoric martial-arts turn of energy, gave him back the ‘’inclusion and love’ by saying how he respects Jews, respects that sense of exclusivity.

You’ve got to hand it to this neo-Nazi, he is a masterful debater. He’s certainly not stupid. And yes, Spencer said the same thing to our website last summer: “I respect Israel as a homogenous ethno-state.” 

But the same skills cannot be ascribed to Rosenberg. He has now admitted to not being a great debater anyway:

“I wasn’t on the high school debate team,” Rosenberg told the Forward.

He also thinks such a task, in the future, should be passed on to the “next rabbi”:

“I really didn’t want to get into it. That might have been the wrong decision, but I’ll let the next rabbi deal with it,” he said.

He continues to ‘humble’, or perhaps humiliate himself by saying “I am a simple teacher of Torah”.

Well, that is some failure, huh? But Rosenberg doesn’t offer any actual answers to Spencer’s contentions. Perhaps because he doesn’t really have them. His only attempted punches in the aftermath are generalist accusations of ‘hate speech’:

“We can’t normalize hate speech…It’s a philo-Semitic campus, where people appreciate Jewish culture and Judaism.”

Yes, but didn’t Spencer just say how he appreciated and respected Judaism, in his own way?

The Forward tells us that Rosenberg “said he found Spencer’s attempt to get him to defend Israel erroneous and bordering on anti-Semitic”.  Erroneous? Wasn’t Spencer allowed to ask these rhetorical questions and pose these views to Rosenberg? Rosenberg’s attempt at ‘tarnishing’ Spencer with being ‘borderline anti-Semitic’ is perhaps the most pathetic of all. Who does Rosenberg think he’s talking about? Some Jewish Hillel student who went out of line? ‘Borderline anti-Semitic’ is by now a claim that doesn’t even add a scratch to people like Spencer. It would be totally realistic to call Spencer something more precise – borderline Nazi – and even that would be a conservative appraisal.

The more Rabbi Rosenberg lashes out in retrospect against Spencer and the debate he sorely lost, the more he attracts attention to Spencer’s point. Yet he bemoans also this very aspect: “The undue amount of attention given to Richard Spencer and his message was and is troubling to me,” he said.

Yes, Spencer made a point, posing how Rosenberg’s supposedly Jewish, pink, multicultural advocacy of ‘radical inclusion and love’ is incompatible with Israel and Zionism, and Rosenberg was silent because he didn’t want to fall into the trap of ‘defending Israel’, that is, Israel’s intrinsically exclusionist policies, but he didn’t want to attack it either. Rosenberg’s silence represents the prevailing paradigm of Jewish ambivalence about Zionism, where the ‘liberals’ simply seek to paint it over. One scratch under the surface and it isn’t very appealing anymore.  

Spencer masterfully put Rosenberg in a checkmate, whilst Rosenberg the amateur player was thinking that he would outplay him with liberal and humanistic bravura.

This debate should focus us upon far more than the rhetorical aspect of the debate itself. It should alert us to how Zionism and white-supremacy in fact dovetail, and it should make us think about what Zionism may be doing to this world, beyond what is supposedly ‘good for the Jews’.

As Zionism’s founder Herzl wrote in his diary, “the anti-Semites will become our most dependable friends, the anti-Semitic countries our allies” [see the Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl. Vol. 1, page 84]. This prophecy may come to manifest in ways that will leave Jews speechless.