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.

The New York Times and the "Conservative" American Jewish Committee:

The New York Times story on the American Jewish Committee's report criticizing left-wing opponents of Israel describes the AJC as a "conservative advocacy group."

This statement is very hard to reconcile with the facts, unless the Times is using an extremely idiosyncratic definition of "conservative." Like most mainstream Jewish organizations, the AJC is in fact dominated by political liberals.

The AJC's positions on public policy issues reflect this orientation. For example, its web page listing "Domestic Policy Statements" includes press releases decrying conservative criticisms of the "independent judiciary," supporting equal rights for gay couples and opposing the federal anti-gay marriage amendment, opposing Republican efforts to change Senate rules that permitted Democratic senators to filibuster Bush's judicial nominees, embracing the cause of DC statehood (a position supported by most liberal Democrats and opposed by most Republicans and conservatives), advocating for the rights of illegal immigrants and so on. The AJC has also taken generally liberal positions on separation of church and state (e.g. - opposing religious displays on public property), and education policy, among other issues.

Many of the AJC's leaders are also liberal in their politics. For example, Kenneth Stern, the AJC's "specialist on anti-Semitism and extremism" is best known for a book he wrote denouncing right-wing militia groups.

If the Times can be so wrong about the simple and fairly obvious fact that the AJC is a liberal organization (or at the very least not a "conservative" one), it is difficult to put much faith in the validity of the other statements in the article.

There are, to be sure, different definitions of what it means to be "conservative." But it's hard to believe that a group with the above set of positions could reasonably be described as "conservative" in a way that conforms to the generally accepted usage of that term in modern American political discourse.

Perhaps Times reporter Patricia Cohen merely meant to say that the AJC is "conservative" on Israel-related issues. Even this characterization is questionable, given that the organization endorses the idea of a Palestinian state and strongly supported the Oslo "peace process" (which most Israeli right-wingers and American Jewish conservatives opposed). But if this was the meaning that Cohen had in mind, she should have at the very least indicated that the AJC is "conservative" on Israel-related issues, while taking liberal stances on most other issues.

UPDATE: Here is the AJC's own statement denying that it is a conservative organization. The AJC claims that "it is a strictly nonpartisan organization long viewed as centrist in its orientation." I think that "liberal" is a more accurate classification of the AJC than "centrist." Be that as it may, it certainly isn't conservative.

Another Strange Use of Language in the Times's Article on the AJC Study:

Ilya points out below that N.Y. Times reporter Patricia Cohen refers to the American Jewish Committee as a "conservative advocacy group", when its policy positions are mainstream American liberal.

Equally oddly, the Times's headline screams: "Essay Linking Liberal Jews and Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor." The first paragraph relates: "The American Jewish Committee, an ardent defender of Israel, is known for speaking out against anti-Semitism, but this conservative advocacy group has recently stirred up a bitter and emotional debate with a new target: liberal Jews."

In fact, paging through the essay that is the subject of the Cohen story, the author never identifies his opponents as "liberal Jews," but as "'Progressives'" who viciously attack Israel. Note the double quotes: the author of the AJC piece is suggesting that the relevant individuals think of themselves as being progressive in their thinking, but actually are not. He even refers to "individuals who refer to themselves as "'Progressives'", but he never calls them "liberals."

Cohen knows, or should know, that self-styled "Progressives" are generally well to the left of mainstream American political opinion, and certainly an essay for a liberal organization attacking self-styled Progressives is going to be attacking leftists, not liberals. And even if she didn't manage to grasp this, if one looks at the actual targets of the essay--individuals such as Adam Shapiro, Noam Chomsky, Adrienne Rich, Tony Judt--it's pretty obvious that with few exceptions, the article is targeting radical leftists, not mainstream liberals. This continues the Times's grand tradition of almost never calling anyone on the left, no matter how far left, anything other than a liberal, while using various extremist appellations (far right, right-wing, etc.) for even moderate conservatives. Calling an obviously liberal organization like the AJC "conservative," however, is new even for the Times (to my knowledge), and it reminds me of the nomenclature in radical circles when I was in college: Leftist was "progressive" or "liberal," liberal was "conservative," and conservative was "reactionary" or "far-right" or "fascist." Sad to see that the Times' editors are using (or allowing the use of) nomenclature better suited for a Berkeley alternative weekly than for the nation's leading "paper of record."

If all a Times reader read was the headline and the first paragraph, one would get the impression that the furor is about a conservative Jewish organization attacking liberal Jews for promoting anti-Semitism for some unspecified reason. The furor is actually about a liberal Jewish organization attacking leftist Jews for giving aid and comfort to genocidal anti-Semitism in the Islamic world by vicious and uncalled for attacks on Israel. You would never find this out from reading even the whole of Cohen's article, because the words "Muslim," "Islamic," and "Arab" never appear in it.

UPDATE: Here's how a better, or at least more neutral, reporter, might have phrased the first paragraph: "The American Jewish Committee, [a strong supporter of Israel], is [best] known for speaking out against anti-Semitism, but this [liberal Jewish] advocacy group has recently stirred up a bitter and emotional debate with a new target: [self-styled Progressive] Jews [who it claims aid and abet growing worldwide anti-Semitism, especially in the Muslim world, by engaging in rhetorical warfare against Israel]."

FURTHER UPDATE: Checking around the blogosphere via Technorati, I see that many bloggers simply accepted Cohen's characterization of the controversy without actually reading the underlying AJC paper. Some aspects of the paper are far from unassailable, but it's simply incorrect to suggest that the paper itself targets mainstream liberal critics of Israel for any criticism they make of Israel, and the author draws a clear distinction between anti-Semitism, and "progressive" views expressed in such a way as to give aid and comfort to anti-Semites. I think the paper raises this very interesting issue: if you are left-wing Jew who is hostile to Israel, but are aware that expressing this hostility in an unvarnished way is encouraging anti-Semitism, do you have a responsibility to temper your criticism, or at least the way you express it? And that goes for non-Jews hostile to Israel, too.

A Peculiar Use of "Anti-Semitism":

As I've noted before, friends of Israel sometimes use overwrought charges of anti-Semitism to try to silence critics of Israel. That's undeniable, and regrettable.

Equally undeniable, and regrettable, is when a friend of Israel criticizes critics of Israel, and then gets accused of calling everyone who criticizes Israel anti-Semitic, even when the author never mentioned anti-Semitism, and even, oddly enough, when the author has explicitly disclaimed any intention of suggesting that the individual he criticized is anti-Semitic. I've lost count of how many times commenters on this blog have written something along the lines of "there goes Bernstein again, claiming that legitimate criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism," when accusations of anti-Semitism were never leveled, and even when they were explicitly disclaimed.

Consider how Matthew Yglesias (note: who, for the record, I think is neither anti-Semitic, nor even "anti-Israel", but is far too kind to those who are, perhaps under the "an enemy of my enemy [Bush foreign policy] is my friend" theory) portrays the recent AJC study on leftist Israel-hating Jews, who, according to the study, are playing into the hands of growing genocidal anti-Semitism in the Muslim world by engaging in highly inflammatory rhetoric criticizing Israel in terms normally reserved for brutal dictatorships. Yglesias sums it up as "AJC's 'Jews who have different political opinions from ours are anti-semities' [sic] essay."

A commenter responded:

Yeah, except that isn't what the essay says.

Just as when you said Abe Foxman branded Wesley Clark an anti-semite, only except for where Abe Foxman expressly stated he wasn't.

Just as when you criticized Leon Wieseltier for calling Tony Judt an anti-semite, only except for that part where he explicitly wrote "Tony Judt is not an anti-semite." You know, for someone in the midst of a crusade against rhetorical sophistry re: Israel & anti-semitism, & someone who defended Clark's inartful expression against accusations of anti-semitic conspiracy theory, you seem to have a nasty habit of misrepresenting other's views re: Israel/Jews. In the Matthew Yglesias equation, the rules are turned completely on their head; anyone who criticizes another commentator for treating the subject of Israel & the Jews in a manner, to quote Wieseltier "Icily lacking in decency" is accused of anti-semitism baiting.

Unfortunately, Yglesias is hardly alone.

So on the one hand, we have friends of Israel who are too quick to label others anti-Semitic, though I believe that this phenomenon is declining, as it has received increasing scrutiny and criticism. On the other hand, we have critics of Israel who try to portray anyone who defends Israel as a hysteric who sees anti-Semitism everywhere. This seems to be on the rise. And the most vociferous critics of the former phenomenon tend to be the most egregious participants in the latter.

N.Y. Times Issues Correcton re American Jewish Committee:

An article in The Arts on Wednesday about an essay titled "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism" on the Web site of the American Jewish Committee referred incorrectly to the committee. Its stance on issues ranges across the political spectrum; it is not "conservative."

Well, that's better, and given that the AJC identifies itself as "centrist," it's about all we can expect. But don't be fooled, as Ilya pointed out previously, the AJC's stance on issues does not "range across the political spectrum"; it is consistently mainstream liberal, including on Israel-related matters.