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A Night With Progressive Zionists

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Last night’s discussion among progressive Jews on Israel,

, organized by Charney Bromberg of Meretz USA at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, was a
turbulent one. A lot of that turbulence
surrounded me and my views. The divide in the discussion was between Zionists
who deplore many of Israel’s
actions – and this characterized most of the panel and audience – and
progressives like myself who disapprove of the religious-nationalist ideas that animate Israel. At one point a distressed questioner said that I wanted

Israel to “immolate” itself. Her statement got at the underlying emotional electricity in
the event. I responded that I had never
said that Israel should
destroy itself, I want

Israel to reform. That said, I was deeply moved to be included at the event. Here was an acknowledgment that my views are
widely held in the leftwing community, including among some progressive Jews.

The evening began for me in a very warm way. Big Bill
Pearlman,who frequently comments on this blog, introduced himself. He was
gracious and sweet. Then J.J. Goldberg, the editor of the Forward and the
moderator for the event, came over to ask me whether I thought we ought to
limit the discussion. I said, Probably,
because I was likely to say that I am an assimilating Jew, and I feared that
this hot-button topic might crowd out the real business of the discussion,
progressive Jews’ views on Israel. Goldberg said that I was wrong. The fact that I was assimilating means that I
am representative of a body of American Jewry. “And the great thing is you want to stay to fight
about Jewishness. Most of them have walked away.” A beautiful and generous statement.

During the ensuing conversation on the synagogue dais, Goldberg related something that Abba Eban had once told him. Eban was arguing with the
British politician Richard Crossman. Crossman said, Aubrey [Eban’s original English name] you Jews are oversensitive. Eban
said, we are very sensitive, but we are a wounded people. Crossman had the last word: you are a wounded
people with an atom bomb.

I think that
this idea of woundedness helps to explain the big difference on the panel. The other two panelists, Anne Roiphe and Dan Fleshler,
spoke in sympathy of that woundedness. Roiphe said that with the entire Muslim
world bent on pushing Israel into the sea, she would stand with the Jews. While Fleshler said that when we look at the occupied territories, we
must understand that both the soldier who is enforcing the checkpoint and the
Palestinian who was been held up at the checkpoint have been brutalized by this

Fleshler’s comment is the essence
of my disagreement with progressive Zionists. I do not see the soldier as a victim. I have little sympathy for him. I see the Israeli soldier as being a much
more powerful person than the Palestinian, say a woman who is trying to take
her child to a hospital. And I think
that I have a better grasp on reality than someone who takes that position.

Which is not to say that I was
persuasive. Fleshler said that the
progressive community is divided. He implied that before he would build a public coalition
with the people who agree with me, he would require that we endorse the idea of
a Jewish state. He, and others last
night, were saying that we wished to destroy Israel. For my part, I said that I thought of
nationalist ideologies as being backward, and divisive. The United
States and Europe are
trying to move past that type of thinking, and I want to go for the ride.
Besides, I want no part of a country that deprives the Palestinians of so many
rights, and where the Deputy Prime Minister wants to force hundreds of
thousands of Arabs outside the borders. (And I went on that Zionism may have
looked good on paper, but it seems to have exhausted its promise, as communism
once did; and that things seem to be getting worse not better over there.)

Anne Roiphe then said that she could have dialogue
with just about anyone about Israel,
including the Cynthia Ozicks and others to her right, but that she could not
talk to me about the issue. The most profound expression of Jewishness today is
support for the state of Israel,
she said.

Again: this is the essence of the problem in the progressive
community. The Zionist left doesn’t want to include non-Zionists or
anti-Zionists (I’m not entirely sure which camp I’m in). Yes, they gave me a microphone,
and I am grateful, but I think they have no more desire to empower us than
AIPAC and the Israel lobby do. When push comes to shove, the
Zionist left is by and large going to line up with the Zionist center and right, and invoke
the great threat to Jewish life in the Middle East,
a threat they perceive us anti-/non-Zionists to be abetting.

For my part, when
I say that I have a better grasp on reality than the Zionists do, I mean that
right now the world does not see Jews as victims and weak. And I think the world has a good point. I noticed two people in the audience last
night who appeared disturbed by the conversation. One, a man of about 60 with long hair and a
brogue, who professed himself an atheist, got up to say that there was something
self-indulgent about our conversation.  I took that as A
fiddling-while-Rome-burns sort of criticism.

The second man was Saifedean Ammous, a
Palestinian graduate student (and occasional contributor to this blog), who
slipped into a back row of the synagogue and left before the session was
over. I know Saif well enough to know
that he was turned off by the air of agonizing about soldiers at
checkpoints. Ammous has often attended sessions
of Jewish soul searching, and they always have this character: the feeling that
by expressing discomfort and outrage over the occupied territories, one has somehow
atoned. When more is called for at this point, in view of the moral enormity of
the situation – action, condemnation. As Ammous once mocked that attitude to me: "The
tragedy of an armed soldier abusing an old man at a checkpoint is that such a
noble Jewish soul had to descend to such lows, which really hurts the soul of
Jews everywhere to watch.  Damn those low-life criminal terrorist Arabs, forcing us to do things
that don’t look too good on camera."

I know that some Jewish readers will say, You care about the opinions of a Palestinian graduate student and an Irish
atheist more than you do the opinion of your coreligionists. They are right. Indeed, a problem in the
Jewish community right now is we refuse to see ourselves as the world sees us. We have a hunkered-down self-involvement, an embattled
feeling of let us talk about this among ourselves before we go public, a
great sense of alarm about threats to Jewish lives in the Middle East, and in that an
indifference to the slaughter of Arabs.

As Goldberg predicted, people would want to talk about Jewish identity and
assimilation. Bill Pearlman was one of
the first questioners, and asked me how I could think of myself as Jewish when
I was: not religious, married to a Christian, and "an avowed enemy of Israel" (his words). I said that my family had given me a core
sense of identity as a Jew, and that in midlife I
thank my Jewish tradition for my bookishness and my concern with social
justice. Bill didn’t think that was a good answer, but I told him we’d have to
have coffee some time and not take up the audience’s time.

Anne Roiphe was
distressed by Perlman’s question. She
said that discussions of who is a legit Jew and who is not become very personal
and mean-spirited very quickly; we should rule them out. I find I don’t fully agree with her; I think Jewish
identity issues are very important, including the toughening and abandonment of
ideals that Zionism has demanded of American Jewish identity. Frankly it made
me wonder whether Roiphe has good friends who have intermarried, and doesn’t want
to go there in the discussion.

Later in the conversation, Roiphe brought a negative
comments I made about Jewish women in an article in New York magazine some 10 or 12 years
ago. I apologized to Roiphe for those
comments. Afterward, on the synagogue
steps, Roiphe said that it was not necessary for me to apologize. But I said that I regretted the comments and
was sorry if I had hurt her. (I think
the comments were to the effect that as a young man I had found Jewish women to
be bossy and that was one reason I married out. Though there might have been more snarkiness in the original, which
happily, I have forgotten.) 

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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