Leftist Jews Who Hate Israel:

The New York Times has a story today about the buzz over an AJC study attacking leftist Jews who hate Israel; and I do mean hate, not simply "criticize," as the quotations collected in the piece show quite clearly (The author, however, at times goes overboard, as when he puts someone like Richard Cohen, who has doubts about whether it was wise to establish a Jewish state in hostile territory, in the same camp as the likes of Adam Shapiro of the International Solidarity Movement, and others who welcome terrorist violence against Israelis or call for the (inevitably violent) destruction of Israel).

It so happens that I corresponded with a VC on related issues over the weekend. I noted that one first has to separate sincere Jewish critics of Israel, who criticize Israel harshly and disproportionately because they would like to see Israel improve itself (from their perspective), and because as Jews they feel a special responsibility to see that Israel be a "light to the nations," from those who attack Israel from motives that reflect an underlying hostility to the very concept of a Jewish nation.

Why would a non-religious Jew be hostile to the concept of a Jewish nation-state(beyond, like Cohen (and me on some days) worrying about whether the establishment of Israel in its particular time and place will turn out, in retrospect, to have been a wise decision?), in others word, be anti-Zionist, in disproportion to their expressed hostility to any other form of nationalism?

There are those who have an internationalist, leftist perspective that hates all Western (but, oddly, not non-Western) nationalism. Israel is seen as a uniquely vulnerable example of such nationalism, one that is particularly dangerous because of its alliance with the United States, and one that is in the unique position of potentially being turned over in the near future to a Third World liberation movement. Today Israel, tomorrow all Western nation-states! Jewish leftists in particular volunteer for anti-Israel duty because they know they get they can get extra mileage out of attacking Israel precisely because they rightly believe that being Jewish inoculates them to some extent from criticism (how many times do we have to hear that Norman Finkelstein's mother is a Holocaust survivor, and why is it relevant? Torquemada's mother was a Jew coerced to convert to Catholocism, and that hardly made him a Boy Scout.)

Moreover, there's nothing new about ethnically Jewish leftists being on the forefront of attacks on established Jewish institutions. In Lenin's day in the Soviet Union, it was ethnically Jewish Communists who led the attack on Jewish cultural and religious institutions, which were decimated relative to, say, the Russian Orthodox Church. Beyond that, attacking other Jews has always been a way for Jews who wish to be accepted by groups hostile to Jewish corporate existence to prove their bona fides. A significant percentage of auto de faes in Europe during the Inquisition were instituted by Jewish apostates, the better to dissipate any suspicions of lingering loyalties to the Jewish community. Is it possible these days for a Jew to be accepted into radical left circles without going through the initiation rite of attacking Israel? As long ago as 1986, editors at the Village Voice made it clear that they wouldn't hire a Brandeis acquaintance of mine unless he was willing to denounce Israel (according to his version of events, he then walked out of the interview).

Other Jewish Israel-haters have what I consider a more innocent, but still seriously misguided, perspective: they actually associate their Jewish identity with victimhood, and would much rather Jews continue to be the victims than ever be perpetrators. At least in modern times in the Western world, perpetual victimhood has its advantages and thus attractions--it allows one to claim the moral high ground, and to claim special insight into the woes of the world. (I still remember a bizarre scene at Yale Law School during a "student strike for diversity" in which Yale Law students--overall a rather privileged lot--one by one strode to a speaker's podium to explain their personal victim status, including such gripping tales as being a first generation professional who wasn't sure how to dress for an interview at an elite New York firm. The horror of being on the cusp of a six figure job, but needing to ask the sales clerk at Brooks Brothers for advice!)

The problem such Jews have with Zionism is that having a nation-state for the Jews necessarily implies that the nation-state will sometimes misbehave (as all nation-states do). This in turn implies that to maintain Jewish victimhood, the sense that Jews are to play their assigned role as the Jiminy Cricket speaking to the world's conscience, that Jews, uniquely, may never have a nation-state. Unlike more generic leftist universalistic anti-Western nationalism, this is a specifically Jewish reason to be hostile to Zionism, and one that's quite foreign to my own thinking; given the choice, I'd rather not be a perpetual victim thank you, and I believe that's why the vast majority of other Jews also support Israel. But it's not at all uncommon to hear this particular version of anti-Zionism espoused by Jews.

Put another way, there is a segment of the American Jewish community, if asked to describe one of the great events of post-Holocaust Jewish history, would describe the murder of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwermer while working for the cause of civil rights in Mississippi. This incident combines Jewish powerlessness and victimhood with a sense of innate Jewish goodness in a way that has a certain masochistic appeal to some Jews; the image of an Israeli soldier, which makes most Jews proud, revolts at least part of this segment of the community. This is actually a peculiar form of Jewish particularism, and one that I found far more chauvinistic in its own way than most versions of Zionism.