American Jews, Between Zionism and the Palestine Solidarity Movement

American writer Abe Silberstein was struck, during the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence last May, by a peculiar expression of anti-Semitism. It manifested a new political climate, especially among the American left in general and among pro-Palestinian activists in particular, as well as among progressive American Jews. His text for K. reflects his concerns and an atmosphere that makes him fear that something similar to the European situation might be taking hold in the United States.

 

“Jews are guilty” and a swastika spray-painted on a wall at the Florida Holocaust Museum on May 27, 2021.

 

The violent antisemitic attacks that occurred in some of America’s largest cities in May were not exactly unprecedented – it has been less than three years since a gunman murdered 11 worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Similar attacks have taken place in the interim, including a particularly vicious stabbing of a rabbi in Monsey, New York in December 2019. What distinguished the most recent spate of attacks – including beatings at demonstrations, vandalism of synagogues, and bricks thrown at Jewish storefronts – was the confident self-righteousness of the assailants. These were not skinheads or neo-Nazi chatroom denizens in thrall to some contemporary spin on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but people who may sincerely believes themselves to be opponents of racism and even antisemitism.

It was jarring to see videos of Jews being assaulted on the streets of Los Angeles and New York, which often accompanied vicious invective directed at “Zionists” that one has come to expect in the parts of Europe where rancid demagogues like George Galloway and Jean-Luc Melenchon find political opportunity. America has never been free of antisemitism, but this was the first time I sincerely thought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was being “imported” here, with Jews serving as proxies for Israelis – including, ironically, the most highly visible anti-Zionist Jews of certain Haredi sects. 

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When war involving Israel erupts, some of the detritus inevitably touches Jews in the United States. It is how it has been since the 1967 seizure of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, when Israel’s manifest military superiority over the enervated Arab states was interpreted by a certain set of American Jews as a miracle surpassing that afforded to Joshua, who had merely secured Jericho after one week. The Yom Kippur War in October 1973 was cause for a sober assessment of Israel’s situation. The First Lebanon War and the First Intifada revealed more clearly an Israel-as-Goliath, which some diaspora Jews embraced and others denounced with equal or excessive fervor. The trauma wrought by the Second Intifada, set against the backdrop of the tense post-9/11 years, introduced Israel as a fellow victim.

The Gaza Wars since 2008 have been an altogether different experience for the diaspora. While in raw casualty count they are collectively dwarfed by the First Lebanon War alone, the introduction of instant reporting and social media have so thoroughly changed the international landscape that it is almost useless to make reference to similar events in the recent past. I understand the hackneyed scent of this observation, social media has changed everything, but how can it be seriously denied? Whereas the harrowing images of bombed-out apartment buildings in Beirut were limited to ephemeral segments on the nightly news and the imaginations of the minority of Americans who perused the international section of their local newspaper, the horrors caused by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza are now ubiquitous and pervade the Instagram feeds of the most politically insouciant teenager. 

Though the security of American Jews is most pertinent to my own welfare, I consider it somewhat crass to ask what a deadly conflict in the Middle East means for a relatively well-to-do diaspora population while scores of people watch their homes, if not their relatives, reduced to dust. In any event, more distance from the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian militant group that has exercised de facto control of Gaza since 2007, is required before any definitive answer can be given to the question of whether or not the perceived spike in antisemitism in May was worse than what we have experienced during previous rounds of fighting.

Panel News on American Television, CNBC, May 2021.

Are conditions for American Jews now approaching those of Britain and France? There are good reasons to be skeptical. America’s Arab and Muslim populations are comparatively much smaller and more integrated than in Europe, and so the openings to reap electoral awards from exploiting Jew-hatred are greatly limited. The Old Continent’s short distance from the Mediterranean and the Levant also makes it a much more amenable location for conflict export than the mainland United States. 

Nevertheless, there is some commonality in how the capital-L Left, the redoubt for those seeking justice for the oppressed and downtrodden, has struggled to reckon with very real instances of antisemitism in the Palestine solidarity movement on the one hand, and right-wing attempts to unfairly paint the entire cause as being irredeemably antisemitic on the other. While I am confident of the place of American Jews in the United States, the events of the last several weeks have left me less sanguine about our place on the American Left. 

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Recognizing the need to play a balancing act is difficult when under intense political fire, and so the unfortunate tendency of the Left – as we saw with the various Jeremy Corbyn antisemitism affairs over the years – is to dismiss the entire matter as a “smear campaign” or “overstated.” In the more extreme cases, what the sociologist David Hirsh called the “Livingstone Formulation” after the Hitler-obsessed former London mayor, suggestions that antisemitism is a problem on the Left are considered in themselves pro-Israel propaganda. This has started to appear, albeit on a smaller scale, in the United States.

Take, for example, the saga of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat who is a member of the so-called Squad, the leftmost faction in the House of Representatives that also includes Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“AOC”) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib. Rep. Omar, it must be said, is a dreadful rhetorician. Even if one is not inclined to label her antisemitic because of her previous statements – including an assertion that Israel has “hypnotized the world” and speaking of “political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country” – it is clear enough that we are confronted with someone profoundly insensitive to the Jewish experience. 

Yet Omar is seen as a foreign policy leader on the Left and can comfortably draw from a large fountain of sympathy, including from many of her Democratic Party colleagues. She is the second Muslim woman to be elected to Congress, and the first to wear a hijab. As a result, she is undoubtedly the target of racist and anti-Muslim abuse, not least from former President Donald Trump. Perversely, this helps insulate her from legitimate criticism, which is then discredited as being of a piece with Trumpian racism. Some of her supporters have gone as far as to disregard the congresswoman’s own apologies for past comments to assert that this has all been a racist slime job from the start. The chief villain in their narrative is the former opinion editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, who was unlucky enough to have her tweet questioning Omar’s use of the song lyric “All About the Benjamins” to explain why Israel finds support in Congress go viral. In truth, she was one of many who noticed Omar’s comment and not even the first to deem it antisemitic. Setting aside the many controversies the editor in question has chosen to involve herself with since, the entire episode is a neat illustration of how valid complaints of antisemitism are transformed into a plot against the Left.

Emboldened by the slowly growing ranks of the Squad, the Left is becoming more assertive in challenging the pro-Israel consensus that still, more or less, represents the center of the Democratic Party. AOC has now called Israel an apartheid state, a sentiment long ago endorsed by Rep. Tlaib, who favors a one-state solution to the conflict, and now also touted by Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri. The Democratic Socialists of America have endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, which while ineffective to the point of nonbeing in the commercial realm has found some support in the academy. DSA’s local affiliate in New York City, which contains the largest Jewish population of any locale outside Israel, expects its endorsed candidates to toe the line.

There is nothing intrinsically antisemitic about these developments, but they all point to a future in which the American Left more closely resembles its European and Latin American counterparts in how it approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is one where concerns about antisemitism are treated at best as a secondary matter, a distraction, and at worst a conspiracy to perpetuate injustice. The Democratic Party, with a sturdy center and a mainstream liberal base, is hardly the Labour Party of 2015, but it would be a mistake to treat these developments on the left as insignificant. They hold serious implications for American Jews, the vast majority of whom support the Democratic Party and are either secular or belong to progressive denominations. It is they who will bear the brunt of these attitudes.

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It is into this unsettling cauldron of anxiety that Joshua Cohen has released The Netanyahus, a fictional retelling of Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s voyage to Cornell University, where he was hosted by the famed literary scholar Harold Bloom and eventually taught Semitic Languages from 1971 to 1975. Cohen’s tone throughout the book is one of giddy amusement with a premise much too laden with comedic potential to resist, but he seriously teases out the clash of ideas at the center. American Jewry’s best and brightest will be embroiled in this clash for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Netanyahu, the father of the former prime minister, is an ideal foil for the secure and upwardly mobile American Jew who believes he has successfully assimilated. His career-defining academic thesis can be summarized as follows: antisemitism, at least since the Spanish Inquisition, is a racial phenomenon from which no Jew can ever escape while living in a non-Jewish polity. The conclusion naturally drawn for American Jews from this fatalistic worldview does not, I think, demand belabored explanation. The Inquisition is an enduring reality awaiting its American Torquemada.

Graffiti on the Beth El Synagogue in Los Angeles, May 2021

The novel’s protagonist, a stand-in for Bloom, and by extension Cohen, ultimately rejects Netanyahu’s dour determinism: after dozens of pages lampooning the Netanyahu family, the postscript begins with an extensive précis of Benjamin Netanyahu’s offenses and misadventures. No minimally attentive reader should miss the unsubtle political point being made. But how seriously can this critique be taken when it is so mightily clear the author himself is at least as preoccupied with Zionism and Israel as Old Man Netanyahu? The British Jewish writer and American transplant Ben Judah has perhaps provided the most incisive explanation for this fixation, which Cohen shares with a great many American Jews: “We are bored of ourselves.” That is, the blandness of the typical American Jewish life has refocused our intellectual energies onto Israel and its problems, challenges, and antinomies.

The most intense and colorful debates animating American Jewish leftists are about Israel and Zionism. Contrary to what some of the Jewish Left’s communal detractors may want to believe, there is no anti or non-Zionist consensus. Those voices are loud and resonate with many, but they compete with liberal and progressive Zionists who share their loathing for the occupation but have no truck with fantasies about dismantling the Jewish state in its entirety. Palestinian activists resent what they see here as navel-gazing: Jews are “centering themselves” in what should be a straightforward liberation struggle for Palestinians.

In the end, my fear is not America becoming a hostile environment for Jews. It is that this renewed reckoning with Zionism among American Jews, which is mostly taking place on the Left, will appear as simply reactionary when pitted against the ideology of the Palestine solidarity movement, whose young Praetorian guard has already dispensed with any notion of accommodating Zionism through a two-state solution. Slowly but surely, the Left is regressing to the old “Zionism is racism” formulation, setting the stage for a clash with progressive American Jews who, for all their harshly worded criticism of Israel, are too emotionally invested in the country to ever be persuaded that it must be jettisoned. Ben-Zion Netanyahu may have been much too extreme and tendentious in his assessments, but we have not progressed beyond the need to consider them.


Abe Silberstein

Abe Silberstein is a writer focusing on American Jewish life and Israel. His work has previously appeared in The New York Times, Ha’aretz, The Forward, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. His free subscription newsletter can be found at http://abesilberstein.substack.com

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