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Leftist Jews And The Longing For Victimhood


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.

In the Guardian of August 8, 2002, 45 Jewish signatories, in a widely hailed act of public abjuration, repudiated their right of return to the Jewish state on account of its allegedly racist policies. Since the statement’s original publication, over 80 more individuals from around the world joined their ranks. One of the organizers subsequently explained that what motivated him to act was the “pitiless violence” of his “blood relatives”, i.e., the Israeli people – the “violence”, as he put it, of the “traumatized former victim, clinging to past wounds from generation unto generation.” His goal was to save his fellow Jews from themselves.

In a similar vein, Israeli academic Bernard Avishai wrote a piece in 2005 entitled “Saving Israel From Itself” – another Samaritan, no doubt. And British-born historian Tony Judt, having chastised Israel for its “immature” behavior, has recommended that Israel “converts” – though he stopped short of providing aspergillums.

The publicity given to this and similar initiatives by European Jews, abetted in some cases by their Israeli counterparts, has been extensive. There was tremendous excitement in Europe in 2002 over the declaration by 99 Israeli academics that their government was planning an imminent “fully fledged ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian people (a charge that was not withdrawn when the atrocity failed to occur), and again over the refusal of a few hundred Israeli army reservists to serve in the territories.

There was even greater excitement when several European Jewish academics turned up among the instigators of a movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, and yet again when Jewish politicians such as Gerald Kaufman, Oona King and South Africa’s Ronnie Kasrils called for the boycott of Israeli commercial products. All three used similar rhetoric: they were duty-bound, “as Jews,” to denounce Israel. Kasrils, for example, said, “As a person who was born Jewish, I am morally obliged to speak out against what is being done by the Zionist state of Israel to the Palestinian people.”

Many others have likewise seen it as their specifically Jewish duty to denounce Israel. Shamai Leibowitz, an Israeli former tank commander, explained his support for Israel divestment by saying that the call “reflects true loyalty both to Israel’s peaceful existence and to the highest Jewish values.”

And to mark Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2005, Anthony Lipmann issued just the kind of mea culpa for which Spinelli called. The son of a Holocaust survivor, albeit a convert to Christianity and an active member of the Church of England, Lipmann was moved temporarily to reclaim his patrimony. Writing in The Spectator under the title “How I Became a Jew,” he averred that the “little band” of Holocaust survivors in Europe has a terrible responsibility – to live well in the name of those who did not live and to discourage the building of walls and bulldozing of villages. Even more than this, they – and all Jews – need to be the voice of conscience that will prevent Israel from adopting the mantle of oppressor, and to reject the label “anti-Semite” for those who speak out against Israel’s policies in the occupied territories.

Then there’s Jacqueline Rose, an academic whose admiration for Edward Said is inversely proportional to her knowledge of Zionist history. In her book The Question of Zion (2005) – dedicated to Said – Rose undertook to save Judaism itself from the curse of nationalism. “What is it,” she asks, “about the coming into being of this nation [Israel] and the [Zionist] movement out of which it was born, that allowed it – and still allows it – to shed the burdens of its own history, and so flagrantly to blind itself?”

Zionism, she concluded, has to be seen not as the fulfillment of an age-old Jewish dream but as the out-and-out betrayal of Jewish history and the Jewish heritage, an adoption of all that is, historically and morally, un-Jewish.

*     *     *         Can Judaism be saved? Yes, Rose and others assure us, but only by a thoroughgoing renunciation of Zionism. As anti-Zionist polemicist Michael Neumann writes, Jewish detractors of Israel such as Uri Avnery and Noam Chomsky “are all Jewish. Their focus on Israel is no evidence of double standards, but of where they feel their responsibilities lie.”

For Neumann, as for Rose, these voices are needed more than ever today, during the Jews’ “dark night of the soul,” as Rose calls it, because, in Neumann’s words, “Israel’s current policies are themselves a threat to Jews and Israelis everywhere.”

That’s why Jews must speak out against Israel, continues Neumann: “The case for Jewish complicity [in Israel’s crimes] seems much stronger than the case for German complicity [in the Holocaust]. If many Jews spoke out, it would have an enormous effect.”

Presumably, by this Neumann means to imply that wartime Germans were powerless victims of Hitler. Perhaps he’d go on to say, as it logically follows, that they were just “obeying orders.”

And so Jews line up to comply, as if condemning Israel in the public square was a secular surrogate to the Vidui, or Yom Kippur confession. In an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, Oxford historian Avi Shlaim justified his denunciation of Zionism by appealing to a faith he never felt much connection to: “One of the greatest accolades in Judaism,” he instructed his readers, “is to be a rodef shalom, a seeker of peace.” That’s why he sincerely believed that “Israel today is the real enemy of the Jews.”

Calls abound for Jews to repent, condemn Israel, hear the gospel of anti-Zionism and convert to a new, exciting form of Judaism, based more on Karl Marx and Rosa Luxembourg than Theodor Herzl and David Ben Gurion. So is the rush to heed them.

With anti-Semitism rising across Europe alongside violence in the Middle East, Jews have been under pressure for several years now. Instead of getting sympathy for the harassment they are subjected to, Jews have earned only scorn for their refusal to denounce Israel first.

That is the sad truth – one that anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals, with their demonizing rhetoric against Israel and their patronizing attitude toward fellow Jews, have irresponsibly abetted. To shield themselves from shame and abuse, Jews are asked to discard Israel from their own collective identity. This step, and an active denunciation of Israel as the antithesis of progressive and Jewish values (themselves, in this vision, synonymous with one another), will gain them full acceptance. Scores of Jews, especially among the progressive intellectuals, indeed comply in public acts of mea culpa, thus lending an alibi to anti-Semites and gentrifying anti-Jewish prejudice in the process.

A simple explanation is at hand for this: it is lonely, on the Left, when you step out of line. And the party line, when it comes to Israel and the Jews, is that one can express a proud Jewish identity only through the experience of suffering and victimization from the past, which the Holocaust has come to embody above all.

The Jew as a victim and as a witness of the quintessential, archetypal experience of suffering emerges as the positive Jewish role model, in sharp contrast to the pro-Israel or even Zionist Jew, who is chastised for having betrayed both universal values and what is seen as the authentic Jew. Again, to borrow from Christian terminology, the Jew as the sacrificial lamb, the Agnus Dei, is what we are being asked to be.

That’s why so many Jews, spiteful of their faith and ashamed of Zionism’s accomplishments as a society that rejects the role of the victim, wish Israel away. For them, it was so much better before Zionism, when we could still say, with some self-righteousness, s’iz shver tsu zayn a Yid – it is hard to be a Jew!

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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.

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