In an essay published in the Jewish magazine Tikkun last January, Bertell Ollman, one of the world’s best-known Marxist theorists, recounted how, on his way into the operating room, he realized that if he did not survive his surgery, he would die a Jew. The prospect was so unsettling that, once healed, he wrote his letter of resignation from the Jewish people. The reasons were Zionism, Israel, and the support its policies enjoy from other Jews.
Ollman might yet reconsider, but for that to happen, Jews would have to embrace his own version of Jewish identity. Paraphrasing a Lenny Bruce joke, he said: “Noam Chomsky, Mordechai Vanunu and Edward Said are Jewish. Elie Wiesel is goyish. So, too, all ‘Jewish’ neo-cons. Socialism and communism are Jewish. Sharon and Zionism are very goyish. And, who knows, if this reading of Judaism were to take hold, I may one day apply for readmission to the Jewish people.”
Of Ollman’s trinity, Chomsky is the only halachic Jew, but he qualifies more for his anti-Israel venom than for his devotion to his ancestry’s traditions. Vanunu is a convert to Anglicanism and his alienation goes as far as refusing to speak Hebrew, his mother tongue. Said was not Jewish, though he was the darling of many anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals.
So what makes Chomsky, Vanunu and Said “authentic” Jews, then? For Ollman, it’s their adherence to a political orthodoxy: being Jewish equals being a certain type of progressive intellectual.
* * * Ollman may sound outlandish. But he is not alone. Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, prominent Jews criticizing Israel have become louder and more assertive. Increasingly frequently, they feel it is not enough to denounce Israel’s policies publicly – they must do so “as Jews.” And going even further, they routinely renounce Israel itself as part of their identity, and appeal to other Jews to do the same. In some cases, despite the secularism of their proponents, these appeals feature the salvation language of Christianity.
Israel’s creation is dubbed “original sin” or derided as not exactly “an immaculate conception.” Jews, formerly “blinded” by the Zionist narrative, should “see the truth” and forgo Zionism as a “redeeming” act that will ensure “justice and reconciliation” with Palestinians. And so on.
What is behind this trend?
It started with Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm who suggested, long ago, that Jewish identity need not include religion, language, culture, tradition, historic background, kinship, or what he deemed “a certain attitude toward the Jewish state.” That doesn’t leave much, other than being part of the Left.
The change was really spelled out, though, in late 2001, when the Italian columnist Barbara Spinelli wrote that today’s ultra-nationalist Israel constitutes nothing less than a “scandal.” And it is a scandal, above all, for Jews themselves, since, as everyone knows, Jews are the quintessential victims of modern nationalism (nationalism being, for Spinelli as other likeminded intellectuals, virtually coterminous with Nazism).
It follows, then, that Jews everywhere have a special duty to speak out against Israel, to apologize to its victims, and to do so publicly.
“If one thing is missing in Judaism,” Spinelli wrote, “this is precisely it: a mea culpa vis-à-vis the peoples and individuals who had to pay the price of blood and exile to allow Israel to exist.”
She called upon world Jewry to undertake such an act of contrition forthwith:
“If the initiative does not come from Jerusalem then it should start in the diaspora, where so many Jews live a double and contradictory loyalty: to Israel, and to the state they belong to and vote in. A solemn mea culpa, proclaimed from the scattered communities in the West.”
No one can accuse Jewish intellectuals of being deaf to these calls. For the most part, those answering them have been not the long-term, all-out, rabid haters of Israel, who need no excuse and waste no pieties in reviling the Jewish state. Our heroes are of a somewhat different complexion. Not only do they tend to speak more circumspectly but, with whatever degree of disingenuousness, they cloak their hostility to Jewish nationalism (i.e., Israel) in the mantle of solicitude for, precisely, the good name of Jews and Judaism.