In March, Max Blumenthal and Rabbi Brant Rosen spoke at Marquette University during Israel Apartheid Week on the subject “Living Under Apartheid.” To its credit, the Wisconsin Jewish establishment noticed that the two were in Milwaukee, and it has been doing some soul-searching in the aftermath. A couple of leaders have initiated a discussion of whether anti-Zionists and non-Zionists should not be included inside the American Jewish conversation. This seems to me as important an opening, in the older generation, as Open Hillel is in the younger one. (And it’s just inevitable now that we will be included.)
First, here is Leon Cohen, editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. He went to hear Blumenthal and Rosen, and says they’re part of a Jewish tradition. And he seems to be more on their side that on rightwing ranter Caroline Glick.
Jews taking the side of the Palestinian Arabs against Israel might seem like a “man bites dog” story. However, there is an historical context for this phenomenon.
Before World War II, many liberal Jews intensely opposed the idea of a Jewish state. They included some significant historical figures, like philosopher Martin Buber and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s first president Judah Magnes. Blumenthal and Rosen showed themselves aware of that tradition during their talks, and recalled some of the arguments of that group — that Judaism is not and should not be tied down to a land and a military, that a “Jewish state” is bound almost by definition to treat resident non-Jews as problems instead of as equal human beings, and so on.
Most Jews today do not agree with these views; but some do even within Israel itself. Moreover, apparently there seem to be increasing numbers of Jews who, if they don’t so radically criticize Zionism itself, at least seem willing to side with the Palestinian Arabs on some issues…
Blumenthal, Rosen, et al also have powerful opponents, however. I’m sure the organizers of Caroline Glick’s appearance in Mequon on March 30 did not intend that event to constitute a rejoinder to the MU speakers, but her talk could well have been one.
Glick is senior contributing editor of the Jerusalem Post, an author and an unabashed Zionist. She insisted that the Jewish people have the primary right to sovereignty over the entire land of Israel, and that the Jewish community in Israel and beyond should unapologetically say so.
On that basis, she proposed in her latest book, “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East,” that Israel extend its law to the West Bank-Judea/Samaria region. (Curiously, neither in her talk nor the book does she use the word “annexation.”)
I am not sure yet what I think of the merits of her plan. But I heard her some days after I heard Blumenthal and Rosen, and I couldn’t help but feel that the three speakers encapsulated the polar opposite positions within our community — positions held with frightening certainty and between which little if any dialogue or compromise is possible
Next, here is Elana Kahn-Oren, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, writing an article in Cohen’s Jewish Chronicle shortly after Blumenthal and Rosen’s visit: “Build a values-driven community.” Kahn-Oren observes that the Pew poll shows that young Jews don’t feel much connection to Israel. And while she writes out of devotion to Israel (and opposes boycott vehemently) she seems to acknowledge that the next generation is paying more attention to the likes of Blumenthal and Rosen. It’s painful to have to listen to anti-Zionists, she confesses. But “so what?” Good for her.
Like it or not, many young Jews don’t feel deeply tied to the Jewish state.
Growing up in a post-1948 world, they have no memory of the Jewish experience without the state. They have grown up associating Israel with conflict, and many of them don’t see themselves in that conflict.
Our community also includes Jews who are not Zionists, either because of ideology or lack of engagement. For those of us who care deeply about Zionism and modern Israel, this is deeply unsettling and painful.
But so what? As a Jewish community, we must figure out how to transcend our discomfort and include those Jews and their opinions in our discourse — or we risk alienating them from any connection to community or Israel.
Mindful that Israel is an expression of the deepest Jewish aspirations and that we cannot separate the Jewish story from the national project, I believe that we are strong enough to allow the range of voices within our community conversation. We must be. Or we risk pushing out of our tent those whose lot is with the Jewish people.
Right now, we don’t know how to include those challenging opinions in our community discourse. Instead, we get caught on code language and infighting, with Jews attacking other Jews. Israel is so deeply intertwined with our identity that their disagreement feels like an existential threat.
So we dig in our heels and affirm the “us vs. them” caricature. And then we learn to avoid the topic of Israel altogether; there is no upside to talking about Israel because you’re bound to become a target.
We need to simultaneously teach love and allow criticism. As the mother of teenagers, I want my children to fall in love with Israel. But I also want them to be ready for the outside world. If they cannot see Israel’s imperfections, their love may collapse under the pressure of harsh criticism. I’ve seen it happen.
But maybe, if our children are taught about Israel, warts and all, and if they are allowed to stray from our talking points and wrangle with its reality, perhaps they will become Israel’s most loving advocates. Perhaps they will see themselves in its aspirations, imperfect as they are.
We would be wise to consider the Pew study our call to action — look deeper, open your arms, or perish.
Leon Cohen, the editor of the Chronicle, has now followed up with an article called, “Anti-Semites and other enemies,” where he argues that the old smear, “anti-Semite,” used against Blumenthal and Rosen, should be put aside as a block to conversation.
Calling such people “anti-Semites” may be harmful to the Jewish cause. For one, it often stiffens their resolve and makes them unwilling to listen to us. For another, it enables us to dismiss these people and ignore their concerns and issues, thereby preventing us from thinking about them and devising effective responses — and even from working to correct real problems they do at least sometimes point out.
Finally, here is reader Sorin Iancu writing to the Jewish Chronicle in response to Cohen. This is the reactionary backbone of the older Jewish community. Shows what anti-Zionists are up against, in a long sectarian struggle:
In the May Chronicle, Leon Cohen wrote in his Editor’s Desk column that the positions of two anti-Israel Jews who spoke at an event at Marquette University that accused Israel of being an “apartheid” state and the talk by Caroline Glick about a one-state solution “encapsulated the polar opposite positions within our community.”
I have no idea what “community” he is referring to.
The two anti-Israel Jews sat on a panel with Osama Abu Irshaid, the former editor of the newspaper for the Islamic Association of Palestine, a former part of the U.S. Hamas infrastructure and the predecessor of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to accuse Israel of being an apartheid state. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government and the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel.
At best, these anti-Israel “Jews” can be described as “useful idiots” and at worst as anti-Semites. They are not part of any Jewish community my friends and I belong to, and we think that Cohen and The Chronicle owe all Jews of Milwaukee an apology for putting them in the same “community” with these people.