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Diverse Jewish Voices Argue that Total Embrace of Israel Is Threatening Judaism’s Ethical and Humane Tradition

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 2005

Seth Farber,  
Common Courage Press,  
252 Pages,  

To many thoughtful American Jews, it is becoming increasingly clear that the embrace of Israel and its policies on the part of American Jewish organizations, both religious and secular, is threatening the ethical and humane Jewish tradition.  

Consider the response of the major Jewish organizations to the April 24 commemoration of 90 years since the beginning of what many have called a genocidal attack upon Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.  

Armenians claim that the Ottoman Turks killed as many as 1.5 million of their people during the years 1915-1923 through deportations and mass killings in what is now eastern Turkey. This is viewed as an ethnic cleansing campaign, meant to drive the non-Muslims out of Turkey’s Anatolian heartland.  

Since the 1960s, Armenians have been waging an international campaign to have it recognized as genocide, a step that has been taken as a symbolic gesture by legislatures in more than a dozen countries, including France. In response, Turkey has waged its own political fight to keep the word “genocide” from being attached to what happened.  

Jewish Groups Aid Turkey  

In the U.S., Turkey has enlisted the aid of Jewish groups to prevent Congress from adopting the term “genocide” regarding the slaughter of Armenians. The Jerusalem Report (May 2, 2005) describes this effort: “In the 1970s and 80s, as Armenian lobbying efforts in the U.S. started to raise pressure on Turkey, Ankara began to understand that the well-organized American Jewish lobby could act as a counterweight to the Armenians. The Jewish organizations played along, because the strategic value of the budding Israeli-Turkish alliance carried more weight than the historical claim of the Armenians. ‘The Jewish lobby helped us enormously,’ says parliament member Sukru Elekdag, who was the Turkish ambassador to Washington from 1979 to 1989. In realpolitik terms, the arrangement has worked for all involved. Turkey gets a powerful ally in Washington. The American Jewish community then has a useful lever to push Turkey closer to Israel (which has also refrained from recognizing the Armenians’ claims). Meanwhile, the implicit support of U.S. Jewish organizations and the tacit support of Israel give moral cover to any American administration that stops legislation recognizing the Armenian genocide.”  

Yair Auron, a professor at Israel’s Open University and author of The Banality of Denial: Israel And The Armenian Genocide, states: “To my sorrow, Israel has become Turkey’s principal partner in helping it deny the Armenian claims.”  

While countries that have not recognized the genocide still sent officials to commemoration events or issued statements that use nuanced language to remember what happened without calling it genocide, Auron points out that Israel refrained from doing either.  

Unpopular Position  

The Report declares that, “The policy is not without its critics. Jewish lobbyists in Washington admit that supporting Turkey in the genocide debate is an unpopular position among many of their organizations’ members. ‘We get a lot of criticism from our own members on this,’ says one Jewish official, who asked not to be named, The issue is compounded by the fact that large Jewish and Armenian communities live side-by-side in places like New York, Boston and Los Angeles.”  

“Israel committed an original sin by not explaining to Turkey from the start that the Armenian genocide could not be negotiated as part of their relations,” says Professor Auron. “I really think if we had told them from the outset that this subject is not part of the discussion regarding our relationship, the Turks would have accepted it.”  

As custodian of the memory and lessons of the Holocaust, Israel is obliged to change course on the issue, Auron says: “You have to take a position; And the historical moral position is one that accepts the genocide.”  

More and more, thoughtful Jewish advocates of the universalist prophetic tradition of Judaism are expressing their dismay with the manner in which many in the American Jewish establishment have replaced God with the State of Israel as the object of veneration, what they call a contemporary form of idolatry.  

An important new book, Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers (Common Courage Press), by Seth Farber, brings together a number of such critical voices. In their view, Zionism and Judaism represent contradictory belief systems which are largely incompatible.  

Diverse Opinions  

The value of this book is to be found in the many diverse opinions which are presented, many of which contradict one another. Few readers will agree with all, and many may agree with none, of the views expressed. The myth which is shattered by this book is that Jews, somehow, share the Zionist vision of Israel as a state which is the “homeland” of all Jews, who remain in “exile” outside of its borders. This has always been a minority view, both historically and among Jews at the present time.  

Seth Farber, who has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and has written several books in that field, notes in the introduction that, “This book, this compilation is intended to be an affirmation of the moral and spiritual tradition of Judaism — or at least of certain aspects of this tradition that probably most Jews, most Americans, agree constitute a valuable legacy. It is based on my conviction, shared by most of the individuals interviewed in this book, that this legacy was betrayed and is currently threatened with extinction by the policies of the State of Israel, and in particular its violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people. It was betrayed also by the American Jewish establishment which gives active and unqualified support to Israel and been willing to turn a blind eye to the considerable evidence that Israel’s actions over the last few decades are those of a state engaged in a brutal military Occupation in violation of fundamental principles of international law ... Most American Jews are reluctant to even consider the argument that Israel belies the ethical ideals of Judaism at its best — of prophetic Judaism — and instead have endowed Israel with mythic status as the political embodiment of Jews’ eternal innocence and goodness ...”  

Object of Idolatry  

In Farber’s view, “Although Jewish critics of Israel are frequently labeled as traitors to the Jewish community, as ‘self-hating’ Jews, there is a measure of irony in the fact that those Jews who will brook no criticism of Israel ... who treat the state of Israel as an object of idolatry that must remain protected from moral doubt or criticism, are, however unwittingly — themselves arguably unfaithful to their heritage as Jews ... Do Jews who are proud of their heritage use it as a cloak to defend or deny the mistreatment of people who are not Jewish? Do they refrain from protesting when Jewishness (with all its connotations of high ethical standards and abysmal martyrdom) is used to a bestow a halo of sanctity upon actions that are fundamentally unethical? Does the affirmation of one’s Jewish identity require the subordination of universal values to tribal loyalty? Is God’s covenant with Israel a promise of privilege rather than a call to service? If the answer to these questions is negative, on what possible grounds can criticism — even those that are mistaken — of the policies of Israel be equated with anti-Semitism, or with self-hatred? Norman Finkelstein, whose mother and father were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and (respectively) of the Auschwitz and Maidanek concentration camps, sees it differently: ‘Far from an expression of ‘self-hatred,’ denouncing Israel when it merits denunciation signifies remaining faithful to the memory of Jewish suffering.”  

Farber believes that, “What is ultimately at stake in the deeds of ‘the Jewish state’ is the Jewish spiritual tradition itself. Our faithfulness to that heritage — our obligation to preserve it — requires that we protest against Israel, which implicitly (if not explicitly) claims to be devoted to and acting in accord with the Jewish tradition. But in fact both Israel, and influential American Jews who for the most part have become uncritical apologists for Israel, are betraying Judaism.” Those interviewed in this book include Noam Chomsky, Joel Kovel, Norton Mezvinsky, Ora Wise, Norman Finkelstein, Daniel Boyarin, Marc Ellis and Rabbi David Weiss.  

“Jewish” State Is a Mistake  

Professor Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology declares that, “I think the creation of a state as a Jewish state was a serious mistake ... I thought then, and think now, that it is wrong in principle to establish a state that is not the state of its citizens, but rather, as the High Court later defined it, though it was clear enough from 1948 — the sovereign state of the Jewish people, in Israel and the diaspora. Hence it is my state as an American Jew, though it is not the state of non-Jewish citizens. For the same reason, I would oppose moves to turn the U.S. into the sovereign state of the white (Christian, whatever) people, and I object to Islamic states, etc. It’s a matter of principle, quite apart from the consequences.”  

It is those who challenge the present consensus, Chomsky believes, who are keeping the prophetic tradition alive: “The prophetic tradition basically comes down to the call on the authorities to act morally and decently, the call on the population to keep to basic and fundamental moral principles; ensure care for those who need care; ensure justice; fight for freedom; don’t be misled by, in those days, kings who are leading the country to disaster by their wild geo-political fantasies and so on. The prophetic tradition, that’s very much alive today. We just call it dissidence.”  

Professor Joel Kovel of Bard College states that, “There are many ways of being Jewish. One of the great curses that Zionism has imposed on us is to make us think there’s only one way to be Jewish ... There are times in human history when people become great, and I think there is true greatness within the Jewish tradition insofar as it negated ... their tribal God and sought a universal humanity and sought justice for the universal humanity ... To me, the Prophets are the texts and the glory of the Jewish tradition.”  

Degree of Complicity  

To the question of why he and other Jewish critics of Zionism devote more time to criticizing Israel’s shortcomings than those of other countries, Kovel replies; “There is an immense amount of evil out there in the world. Clearly, the only coherent moral position is to give priority to those evils in the degree to which you are complicit and responsible. And I deplore the Arab states, but I have had almost nothing to do with them. But I’ve lived my life as a Jew in this country, I’ve seen my family rise up in support of Israel, I’ve seen institutions in which I’ve worked give support to Israel ... I think Saudi Arabia is a dreadful state, and it’s completely artificial, it was created first by the British and then by the Americans ... But it doesn’t fall under the same category as Israel. It’s not a settler-colonial society, and it’s rot a society that was made by the invasion of people from my country or people from Europe and my own ancestors.”  

Professor Norton Mezvinsky of Central Connecticut State University, formerly a member of the staff of the American Council for Judaism, notes that the Reform Jewish movement “said that Jews are not a nation, the Jews are not a people, there’s no such thing as Jewish nationalism, that it’s a false doctrine. Then they adopted Jewish nationalism — they adopted Zionism ... They rejected their own philosophical basis ... I’m opposed to the idea of a state that is an exclusivist state that by law and its public policy grants privileges to one people not granted to anyone else. And Israel does that. There’s no constitution. There’s nothing above the law. Israel is an exclusivist state that grants rights and privileges to Jews not granted to non-Jews. I oppose that just as I oppose Saudi Arabia, which in its laws gives Muslims rights and privileges that non-Muslims don’t have.”  

Evolution of Views  

Discussing the evolution of his own views, Mezvinsky recalls that, “I came out of a Zionist family ... we have lots of relatives in Israel and some were key people in the government. And when I started college at the University of Iowa ... I intended to graduate and do aliyah (go to Israel to live). And one day when I was a junior, after I’d taken a couple of history courses, I asked myself a basic question: Could it be that in a conflict this big, this significant, that one side, mainly the Israeli Jews, are one hundred percent correct as I’d always been led to believe, and all the Arabs are one hundred percent wrong? ... I knew five Arabs, and they’d been introduced to me in Israel by my relatives whom I knew were the most chauvinistic Israeli Jews you could find, and I knew something about what an Uncle Tom meant in the United States, so I figured for sure those five were Uncle Toms, and then I thought, I’d better go out and meet some Arabs on my own who are not introduced to me by my relatives. So that’s how I started. And I must say that I first became antagonized by the situation and by the oppression of the Palestinians because it seemed to me that what were the true values of Judaism as I understood them, those true values of Judaism were ... they held exactly the opposite from what was being done by Jews to Palestinians. So then I moved from that, and I just moved right down the path. ...”  

Mezvinsky says this of people who say that if you are critical of Israel or of Jews you are an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew: “Then from their point of view, it’s only logical to conclude that all the prophets were self-hating Jews.” To those who question his singling out Israel for criticism while overlooking greater evils in other places, he responds: “My answer is that there are only two governments in this world, two countries, who presume to speak for me. One is the United States. Because I’m an American, it can speak for me in a sense, or it can presume to speak for me. The other is the state of Israel. It says it speaks for all the Jews in the world. I don’t agree with that, but it says so. Therefore, if these two governments and countries say they speak for me, and they do things I don’t like, then I feel more of an obligation to stand in opposition, because if I don’t then it could be presumed that I’m in favor of it. ... I can say, when the Union of South Africa existed as oppressive to blacks, the Union of South Africa didn’t stand up and say, ‘We’re the government speaking for Norton Mezvinsky.’ They didn’t do that. The government of Israel says, ‘If Norton Mezvinsky says he’s a Jew, we’re speaking for him.’”  

Betrayal of Judaism  

Rabbi David Weiss of the Orthodox Neturei Karta expresses the view that Zionism is a betrayal of the commandments of Judaism and a violation of the ideal that Jews will return to Jerusalem only when the Messiah returns, in peace, and not by conquest. He says that, “We don’t yearn to return to become a mighty nation. This concept is totally strange to Judaism. Judaism’s yearning is for the glory of G-d ... So these two issues here: G-d doesn’t want us to leave exile ... and of course to be a nation of compassion, a nation who’s supposed to serve G-d. He doesn’t want us oppressing a second person. So with both aspects, Zionism is totally incongruous with Judaism, it’s the antithesis of Judaism.”  

The Jewish concept of redemption, says Weiss, is redemption in exile: “In the exile, we know that when G-d sent us into exile, he put us under oath. Now this is stated in the Talmud ... it says there that when G-d put the Jewish people into exile, he put them under oath and said they should not rebel against any nation; they shall not try to end the exile. Because basically, G-d put us here; he doesn’t want us to try to rebel against his wishes. So he put us under oath and he warned us that if we will try to basically break these oaths, then what would happen is that we would he severely punished ... G-d wants us to be a light unto the nations. A Jewish person is ... a priest. He has many commandments to follow, and he has to emulate G-d, Just as G-d is compassionate, you should be compassionate ...The work of a Jew is to perfect himself as best he could, to serve G-d and to emulate G-d and he should be a light unto the nations.”  

Turned from Religion  

The modern Zionist movement, Weiss believes, turned away from religion and from what God expected of Jews: “Theodore Herzl ... took G-d out of the equation, and he said, well, let’s try another angle, let’s make a 180 degree turn. Instead of assimilating, let’s make a strong nation. And that way we won’t suffer anymore ... So his solution: he looked at our problem, and the problem that we were sent into exile was viewed instead of a metaphysical reality as a sign of physical weakness. ... The solution was a physical solution: we’ll just be strong, we’ll make a strong army, and we will stop suffering. ... The main issue was to actually transform this religion of Judaism from a religion into a political nationalistic entity.”  

The first Jewish settlers in Palestine, Weiss points out, “had no desire to establish a Jewish state or a Jewish majority. ... What they wanted was simply to serve G-d. And they lived door-by-door with the Arab neighbors, and we have people who attest to that constantly ... Now the Zionist movement started at the beginning of the 20th century with aspirations to create a state. To have their nationality, it should be their land. And the Arabs had no idea who these people were, so they sold them land. Why not? They had good Jewish neighbors, why shouldn’t they?”  

Those who speak in terms of an ancient enmity between Jews and Arabs are, Weiss argues, misreading history: “There wasn’t the kind of anti-Semitism in the Arab world that there was in the Christian world. Jews knew that they had a safe haven as a general rule — of course, there were certain cases that were different, but as a general rule amongst the Arab land was a safe haven for Jewish people. This was constant in all the countries, whether it was Yemen, or Tunisia or Morocco or Iraq or Iran; Jewish people lived and they lived basically as a whole peacefully. And now all of a sudden the Zionists came — and they had to pick Palestine as the land because they had to get the Jewish following — and they told the Jewish people that this is the ‘beginning of redemption.’ This is what G-d meant by redemption ... Judaism should not he equated with Zionism ... the Jewish people should know it and the non-Jewish people should understand it.”  

Lessons of Holocaust  

Professor Norman Finkelstein of DePaul University is the son of Maryla Husyt Finkelstein, survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Maidanek concentration camp and Zacharias Finkelstein, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz. He dedicated his first book to his parents and wrote: “May I never forgive or forget what was done to them.” It is precisely because of the lessons he has learned from the Holocaust that he has become so concerned about the total embrace of Israel on the part of the American Jewish establishment.  

“I don’t think anybody has the right to define what’s the right lesson of the Nazi Holocaust,” he states. “You know, some people walked out saying, ‘Nobody gave a darn about us, so we don’t give a darn about anybody’ — that’s the lesson they learned — that now Jews have to look after each other. Other people walked out stating that precisely because nobody gave a darn about us, we have to care about others. We have to ... because it was strong that nobody cared about us, then we have an obligation to care about others. So that’s the lesson my parents imparted ... I remember the first Palestinian I met in graduate school — his name was Muhsin Yusef, and he said, ‘I can’t believe after what your parents went through that you feel sympathy for me.’ And I said to him, ‘That’s funny, because I always saw it just the reverse, I can’t believe after everything they went through, that I wouldn’t feel sympathy for the Palestinians,’ That’s how my parents thought ... there was nothing unusual about it.”  

In Finkelstein’s view, “It’s not possible to reconcile classical liberal values with the Zionist idea. The former starts from the concept of citizenship while the latter starts from the concept of a ‘people,’ outright rejecting the concept of citizenship — that’s a pretty stark difference. Or take the liberal Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League which are always fighting against the introduction of any Christian symbols, every time a Santa or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer appears in the classroom. Yet, when it comes to Israel, they uphold a state legally defined as Jewish and replete with Jewish symbols as well as discriminatory laws privileging Jews.”  

Repellent Chauvinism  

Finkelstein laments what he calls “a repellent chauvinism among many Jews,” the view “that we do no wrong, and if anyone criticizes us, it’s not because of anything we’ve done, but because they’re anti-Semites. And they’re anti-Semites, fundamentally, because they envy all of our successes and envy the fact that we’re better. And that’s how they reason.”  

Professor Marc Ellis of Baylor University compares Judaism’s involvement with political power to Christianity’s embrace of worldly power at the time of Constantine’s conversion and the transformation of the Roman Empire to a Christian enterprise. Today’s Judaism, Ellis believes, is what he calls “Constantinian Judaism.” He states: “The Jewish community is divided between those who support Jewish power without question and those who resist the use of that power to oppress and silence. A Constantinian Judaism has come into being, mirroring the empire-oriented Christianity that emerged ... There is a civil war in the Jewish world that crosses geographic and cultural differences. There are Constantinian Jews in Israel and America; there are Jews of conscience all over the Jewish world.”  

Constantinian Judaism  

Constantinian Judaism, Ellis argues, is “an assimilationist Judaism,” one involving “an assimilation to power and the state.” Rather than maintaining and perpetuating Judaism’s uniqueness, it becomes part of the larger world of power politics. At the same time, Islam contains similar tendencies. He notes that, “There has been historically and is today a Constantinian Islam. There are also Muslims of conscience. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam contains elements of both beauty and violence. The continuum is shared, as is the struggle. One wonders if Constantinian Jews, Christians and Muslims should be seen as a community bent on power and exploitation while Jews, Christians and Muslims of conscience are gathered together as seekers of justice and compassion. Then the critique of all three religious perspectives can be internal and across boundaries. Aren’t all people of conscience fighting the same battles within their communities and outside of them? All people of conscience are to some extent losing; they are involved in a witness that raises the possibility of an alternative path. ...”  

Ellis urges a return to Judaism’s prophetic tradition: “... a return to the roots of the Jewish experience, a re-embracing of our most lasting contribution to the world. For if Jews do not practice the prophetic, who then will? It is true that the greatest gift is the one given to others, freely and without expectation of reward or attribution. ... It is of little solace to remember that the prophetic, our great gift to the world, our indigenous practice, has always been heard and rejected by the Jewish community. The prophets have always been persecuted within the Jewish world and one hears through the ages the cries of Aaron and Moses, Jeremiah and Isaiah, Amos and Jesus. They have always and everywhere been surrounded by darkness and violence. ... I cannot embrace my own history or religion without embracing the Palestinian people. I cannot affirm the prophetic without practicing it in my own lifetime. The prophetic is not for the few or for someone else or for another time. It is the now deeply grasped, even in loss and at a cost.”  

Embrace of Worldly Power  

Seth Farber compares the present embrace of worldly power by many Jews with similar trends which, in the view of many, corrupted Christianity at an earlier time. He notes that, “The Anabaptists argued that the corruption of the Church first took place when it subordinated its own witness to the goal of defending and advancing the cause of the Empire, now viewed as a ‘Christian’ empire. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder explicates a modern Christian critique of mainstream Christianity based on the premise that Christianity has still not overcome its Constantinian heritage. Only by separating itself from ‘the world’ — which Yoder terms ‘structure unbelief’ can the Church become a transformative force. Anabaptist Charles Scriven in his book on Yoder writes ‘the Church must be willing to accept the role of outsider in society, that precisely in that role it must exercise political responsibility.’ This is of course analogous to Ellis’s position: Jews of conscience must be willing to accept a new exile — an exile from the structures of Jewish power ...“  

Farber points out that Jewish nationalism was originally rejected by both Orthodox and Reform Jewish leaders, “Zionism,” he writes, “was rejected by virtually all Jews before World War II ... The Orthodox originally rejected the Zionist concept of salvation because it eschewed the messianic-universalist interpretation of the return to Israel — they maintained the Jewish exile could not come until the Messiah came and brought peace to all humanity. Reform Jews’ original principles included the rejection of a literal return to Palestine altogether. They argued that the early nationalist period of Judaism was a temporary necessity to prepare Jews for their God-given task of carrying the message of universal justice to all men — Jews were not a nation but a distinctive religious community. ...”  

Prophetic Messianism  

He quotes the German Liberal Jewish theologian Hermann Cohen, who wrote in the late 19th century: “The world marches toward prophetic messianism, and the realization of Judaism is bound with the Jewish dispersion among the peoples of the earth. The dispersion is our historical realization to be ‘a light to the nations’ ... Hence the political nationalism of the Zionists runs definitely counter to the conceptual world of the prophets and must be rejected ... In the Jewish state we may vanish as the bearer of God’s mission.”  

Similarly, Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of the neo-Orthodox movement, rejected the idea of Jewish nationalism which, he argued, valorized violence. Hirsch wrote: “Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was willing to give up homeland, fortune, fame and status — all things that people obtain by force to ensure, in a peaceable way, that the world be governed by justice. The destiny of Abraham’s descendants is to proclaim (to the nations) the victory of moral force over armed physical force.” Hirsch wrote that Israel must “root out” from itself all traces of worship of physical power, especially “the cult of the hero, the laurels that the nations in their blind enthusiasm bestow upon murderers.”  

Also cited is the late Israeli Orthodox theologian Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who wrote: “Nationalism and patriotism are not religious values. The prophets of Israel in the period of the first commonwealth ... were for the most part ‘traitors’ from the perspective of secular rationalism and patriotism.”  

Prophetic Tradition  

The prophetic tradition clearly remains alive, certainly in the pages of this book which calls upon Jews in the United States, Israel, and throughout the world to return to that humane and universal standard. “In every aspect,” Farber concludes, “Zionism was not an assertion of the Jewish ethos, but its repudiation — an assimilation to the values of (Constantinian) Christendom.”  

Whether one agrees with Farber’s analysis or not, and whether the views expressed by those interviewed for this book are found to be worthy, or extreme in their approach, the fact remains that the author has performed a notable service in gathering together so many thoughtful men and women and for sharing their divergent views with us. No one who reads this book will ever again believe that there is a Jewish consensus about the subject area under discussion. Instead, those who take the prophetic Jewish tradition seriously find themselves with divergent and contradictory notions of how that tradition should be implemented and manifested at the present time. It is within this very debate that this worthy tradition is most alive.

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