Media Analysis

‘We understand why our young turn away from Israel in pain and anger’ — leading DC rabbi on ‘anti-Israelists’

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The neverending Jewish crisis. Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., gave a long sermon on Yom Kippur calling Israel’s government “anti-Zionist” (which was then echoed by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post. )

The Reform rabbi said that he loves Israel as the embodiment of Jewish values and hopes, and Zionism is the God that didn’t fail (a reference to Communism as the God that failed), but that Israel is not returning the love of American Jews.

Today’s government is deviant from all previous Zionist thought. The primary issue is that the current government of Israel has turned its back on Zionism. This is it in a nutshell. If the very heart of Zionism is Jewish peoplehood—the idea that we are a far-flung people with a spiritual center in Israel, the current government has cast that idea and that commitment asunder. This is, to my way of thinking, Israel’s first anti-Zionist government.

So: Israel is anti-Zionist because it has stopped listening to liberal American Jews.

Zemel goes on to tear down a lot of intolerant Israeli trends, and scarcely mentions Palestinians. Though he acknowledges that Israel is delegitimizing itself. Here’s his riff on the many anti-Israelists among us. They’ve scorned their birthright, he says; but he doesn’t call them anti-semites.

We… have to recognize a growing drumbeat around us that sees only an “apartheid regime” founded upon “racism,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “colonialist imperialism.” Zionism, anti-Israelists believe, can be neither defended nor corrected, because the very idea of a Jewish state in that region depends on the dispossession of others. This voice casts Israel as altogether illegitimate. The problem isn’t Israel’s alleged “crimes,” then, but its sinful essence. “A crime,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “is met with punishment; a vice can only be exterminated.””

We must recognize and confront this reality as well. It is real and it too is a threat and the Jews among those vehement anti-Israelists that say this have likewise despised and scorned the birthright they have inherited…

So Zemel doesn’t excommunicate the anti-Israelists. He suggests these vehement young people have a clue about Israel:

We therefore understand why our young people turn away from Israel in pain and anger. They see a government in Israel that has abandoned any semblance of a Jewish ethic, a Jewish norm.

Zemel ends by imploring Zionists to stand “on the principles of the great Zionist past” — “the narrow bridge of ethical Zionism forged by Herzl, Bialik, Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, Begin and Rabin” (!) — and “fight the Zionist battle for the soul of Israel just as we struggle for America’s.”

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank extracts the political lesson from Zemel’s sermon. Writing that “America’s Jews are watching Israel in horror,” Milbank says that Israel is threatening its future by dividing American Jewry. Milbank struggles to maintain the Israel lobby that he once worked so hard to deny (calling Walt and Mearsheimer “two blue eyed men with Germanic names” who write about Jewish “cabals”). To wit:

For 70 years, Israel survived in no small part because of American Jews’ support. Now we watch in horror as Netanyahu, with President Trump’s encouragement, leads Israel on a path to estrangement and destruction…

Netanyahu, for his part, is dissolving America’s bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in favor of an unstable alliance of end-times Christians, orthodox Jews and wealthy conservatives such as Sheldon Adelson…

Milbank quotes Eva Illouz, the Israeli sociologist, writing in Haaretz, and agrees with her about the trend in the U.S. politically:

“Latinos and left-wing Democrats will become increasingly involved in the country’s politics, and as they do, these politicians will find it increasingly difficult to justify continued American support of Israeli policies that are abhorrent to liberal democracies. Unlike in the past, however, Jews will no longer pressure them to look the other way.”..

Milbank concludes with a stern warning: that “if the answer [to Hamas and Hezbollah] is an ultranationalist apartheid state, American Jews have a duty to tell Israelis that support cannot be sustained here — nor should it be.”

These two writings are significant of the change afoot in mainstream Jewish circles. Daniel Zemel (who Milbank says has Zionist pedigree as the grandson of a ZOA leader) is expressing far greater empathy to the anti-Israelists than David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, who wrung his hands last year and asked, What have we done wrong in our homes and schools that young people are turning against Israel? Zemel says it’s Israel’s fault.

Peter Beinart was semi-ostracized in 2010 for saying that Zionism is in crisis because of Israel’s conduct. Now this is conventional wisdom in liberal Jewish circles. These folks love Israel. Milbank once sided with his Israeli au pair and Netanyahu against Obama. But they must be listening to their children now, who are in turn listening to anti-Zionists like Avigail Abarbanel, and recognizing that Israel is a toxic brand losing American progressive support. And that is a political crisis for the Israel lobby, and Zionism.

Thanks to Ofer Neiman. 

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Dear Rabbi Zemel, I have read about your concerns regarding young Jews and their “birthright” to Israel. Unfortunately, your logic is no better or more decent than that of the crusaders who believed that they, too, had a “birthright” to the “Holy Land.” You are a man of European descent and like most–probably all–European Jews you have zero genetic, ancestral connection to Israel. You are not a descendant of the ancient Jews. The Arabs, Jewish… Read more »

“This is it in a nutshell. If the very heart of Zionism is Jewish peoplehood—the idea that we are a far-flung people with a spiritual center in Israel,”

It is not a spiritual center, where is the evidence of that?

Rabbi Zemel talks about getting back to the Zionism of Herzl,Jabotinsky and Ben Gurion. All three spoke of the necessary removal of Palestinians. In Otherwords Ethnic cleansing and Genocide. How can any modern day humanitarian thinker of fair mindedness condone such criminal actions.

It was interesting to hear Avigail Abarbanel, but I would not present her as an exemplar of where a mainstream antiZionist Jew would want antiZionist youth to turn. She is against the Jewish religion, quite clearly, and has little or nothing in common with Jews who consider Jewishness something more than a burden that must be tossed off in order to start anew unencumbered by history and trauma. She has evolved her own story to… Read more »

The Reform rabbi said that he loves Israel as the embodiment of Jewish values and hopes this reminds me of something an ex (my first real heartbreak) said to me a long time ago. i was having a hard time with our break up. he said ‘you miss the idea of who we were, not who we were’. (paraphrasing, i can’t recall) and he was right. on this note, i think the rabbi loves his… Read more »