Every couple of years a pro-Israel book comes out that gets red carpet treatment in American Jewish circles. That was true for Ari Shavit’s 2013 book, My Promised Land. Now it’s happening with Yossi Klein Halevi and Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor.
Halevi appeared at the J Street conference this spring, and on an AIPAC tour, too. He did an event with David Gregory, another with Abigail Pogrebin and a Muslim imam sponsored by the Jewish Federations. Liberals adore him: Cokie Roberts gave him a fulsome blurb (“Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor offers a model… for Middle East peacemaking”). And Halevi has been hailed as a guide by New York Times editors Jodi Rudoren and Bari Weiss at various Jewish gatherings.
One thing these folks don’t seem to notice is that Halevi, who moved to occupied East Jerusalem from Brooklyn more than 30 years ago, is such a fervent Jewish nationalist that he does not consider anti-Zionists to be Jews. Halevi wants support and understanding from American Jews; but if you are against the existence of a Jewish state, or have concluded that Jewish sovereignty hasn’t worked out for Palestinians or Jews– Halevi says you’re not a Jew.
In his book he writes that Judaism cannot now be separated from Zionism.
Is it possible, as anti-Zionists insist, to separate Zionism from Judaism? Is Zionism mere “politics,” as opposed to Judaism, which is authentic “religion”?…
If by Zionism one means the Jewish attachment to the land of Israel and the dream of renewing Jewish sovereignty in our place of origin, then there is no Judaism without Zionism. Judaism isn’t only a set of rituals and rules but a vision linked to a place. Modern movements that created forms of Judaism severed from the love of the land and dream of return all ended in failure.
By the time the state was established, anti-Zionism had become peripheral in Jewish life. Aside from a vocal fringe, most ultra-Orthodox Jews made their peace with a Jewish state. Israel’s Declaration of Independence was signed by representatives of almost the entire spectrum of the Jewish community–from ultra-Orthodox to Communists. That document attests to the legitimacy, within the Jewish people, of the state created by Zionism.
In recent years, there have been renewed attempts, especially on the fringes of the Diaspora left, to create a Jewish identity severed from Israel. But with nearly half the world’s Jews living in a thriving Jewish-majority state, that debate has long since been resolved. If in the past one couldn’t separate the land of Israel from Jewish life, today the same holds true for the state of Israel.
So if you don’t accept the idea of a Jewish state, you’re not a Jew.
During an appearance at Duke University last fall, Halevi filled in the point. He said it was OK for American Jews to criticize Israel about its religious practices at the Western Wall, but not about its security practices. And again, anti-Zionists are not part of the Jewish community.
Tough love is legitimate. when the love is evident. I would make a distinction between a group like J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace. I don’t agree with J Street on a whole range of issues, especially on the Iran Deal. But J Street is part of a normative Jewish conversation. Jewish Voice for Peace, supporters of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] to my mind have placed themselves outside the confines of the Jewish community.
Every community is defined by its red lines. I believe that in our Israel conversation we need to have low red lines. But we still need red lines, and groups, individuals, who actively support Israel’s enemies,who support effectively the destruction of the Jewish state, these are voices that should have no place in our communal conversation. And so the question of tough and love, there needs to be a balance.
Halevi also said that it worries him that more and more American Jews are opting out of the relationship with Israel, because American Jews need to be engaged with Israel right now to save Israel from the ultra-Orthodox, who have done the least to build the Jewish state but are being “anti-Zionist” in their efforts to limit access to the western wall. BTW, others have said the same thing to American Jews: Shut up about who we kill, but please weigh in on how we can pray.
You’d think Halevi’s intolerance about Who is a Jew might make him a bit too crispy for liberal audiences. But they overlook this intolerance. Halevi got a whole session to speak about his book at J Street this year. J Street obeys Halevi’s norms– inasmuch as it features a lot of center-right Zionists, including Tzipi Livni, who lied about the Gaza slaughter; but it excludes members of JVP (though Leanne Gale snuck in with some pro-BDS talk, and Jeremy Ben-Ami always says I’m part of the Jewish community).
J Street accepts Halevi’s red lines because: These are the norms of the American Jewish establishment. Being Jewish entails being Zionist. That conflation is now being undermined on a number of fronts by younger Jews who don’t like the way the Jewish state behaves in their name. But a lot of older Jews haven’t gotten the memo, or they’re in denial (“Where did we go wrong in our homes and schools?”).
P.S. Halevi reminds me of Shavit because Shavit was also heralded till his provincialism caught up with him. Nathan Thrall exposed Shavit’s rightwing Zionism in LRB; Reja-e Busailah showed that Shavit’s narration of the Lydda expulsion was insufficient and irresponsible; we did a piece about Shavit’s adoration of “sex in the toilets” in Israel.