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Needed: An American Jewish Community Which Welcomes Free Speech and Diversity

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2010

What the American Jewish community desperately needs at the present time — and does not have — is a welcoming attitude toward free speech and diversity of opinion.  
For some time, the Jewish establishment in the United States, Israel and other countries have attempted to silence Jewish critics of Israel and those who deplore the politicization of Judaism as “self-hating Jews” in an effort to stifle discussion and debate — just as non-Jewish critics have been accused of “anti-Semitism.”  
Late in 2009, it was reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced two top aides to President Barack Obama — Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod — as “self-hating Jews” for urging a policy calling for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.  
“Self-Hating Jews”  
A story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu used the epithet “self-hating Jews” to describe Axelrod and Emanuel, who are viewed by the Israeli government as the driving force behind Obama’s push to pressure Israel to freeze settlement activity. Only when the quote was picked up by an American newspaper did Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, issue a statement denying that the prime minister had used that term.  
In this country, writing in the July/August 2009 issue of Moment, David Frum, a leading neoconser-vative now at the American Enterprise Institute — who, as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush coined the term “Axis Of Evil” and who once wrote an article in National Review charging that conservatives, such as the late columnist Robert Novak, who opposed the war in Iraq were “unpatri-otic” — described Jewish critics of Israel as people who “exploit their identity to enhance the impact of their anti-Jewish speech and action.”  
Among those Jews he accused of being “anti-Jewish” is Gerald Kaufman, a Labor member of the British Parliament who in a speech during Israel’s war on Gaza declared: “My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her hometown (in Poland). A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.”  
Other Targets  
Frum’s other targets included Professor Tony Judt of New York University, Canadian filmmaker Avi Lewis, and Barbara Spinelli, a columnist for the Italian newspaper La Stampa who wrote that, “If one thing is missing in Judaism it is a mea culpa vis-a-vis the peoples and individuals who had to pay the price of blood and exile to allow Israel to exist.”  
The Forward (Aug. 14, 2009) noted that there has been “a long tradition of targeting Jewish administration officials.”  
According to The Forward, “For Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel, it was the image of the late Cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi calling him ‘Yehudon’ — translated loosely to ‘Jew boy’ — that came to mind. ‘I told him the last time someone called me that was in school,’ said Indyk, who added that he had punched his tormentor in the face. Ze’evi replied with a repetitive taunt: ‘Yehudon, yehudon.’ This time it ended with no punching. Prodded by Israel’s chief rabbi, Ze’evi later went up to Indyk and apologized.”  
When Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew, was U.S. ambassador to Israel, right-wing lawmaker Zvi Hendel referred to him from the Knesset podium as “that little Jew boy.” The same term was used when Kurtzer was part of former Secretary of State James Baker’s Middle East team, alongside two other Jewish officials, Dennis Ross and Aaron David Miller, during the administration of George H.W. Bush. “The reality is that it is more a statement about the person saying it than on those who are being called it,” said Kurtzer.  
No Backing at Home  
Miller, as well as other former Jewish officials, said that after being attacked by Israelis, he received no backing from Jewish leaders at home. “I never had the feeling the organized Jewish community is willing to stand up against those things,” he said.  
In 2007, the Times of London and the Jewish Chronicle featured a declaration by prominent British Jews calling themselves Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). It stated: “We are a group of Jews in Britain from diverse backgrounds ... We come together in the belief that the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole.”  
Among the points made in the statement were these:  
“Human rights are universal and indivisible and should be upheld without exception. This is appli-cable in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as it is elsewhere.  
“Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to peaceful and secure lives. These principles are contradicted when those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and other countries consis-tently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people. The Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip face appalling living conditions with desperately little hope for the future. We declare our support for a properly negotiated peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people and oppose any attempt by the Israeli government to impose its solutions on the Palestinians. We hereby reclaim the tradition of Jewish support for universal freedoms, human rights and social justice. The lessons we have learned from our own history compel us to speak out.”  
Among those signing this statement were Geoffrey Bindman, chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights and a professor of law at University College London; Professor Brian Klug, senior research fellow in philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford; Antony Lerman, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research; and Professor Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary, University of London.  
Brutal Assault  
The assault upon those signing this statement was brutal. For example, one strong supporter of Israel’s right wing, columnist Melanie Phillips, called those who joined in this statement “Jews for Genocide,” belonging to the “lamentable tradition” of Jews who “want to destroy the Jewish people.” The term “self-hating Jew” was widely used by defenders of the establishment.  
Conceived in the aftermath of the IJV declaration, a book of essays, A Time To Speak Out: Inde-pendent Jewish Voices on the Middle East (Verso) was published by the signers.  
In an essay entitled “The Myth of Self-Hatred,” Professor Rose, author of the widely read book The Question of Zion, declares: “Rather than accusing Jews who criticize Israel of self-hatred, we should ... be asking ourselves what love — a love that is creative rather than self-deceiving and suffocating — can and should be able to tolerate ... I do not hate myself, or Jewishness, or Israel, when I criticize the policies of the state. I hate what the Israeli government is doing, and has been doing for a very long time, to the Palestinians and to itself ... Israel’s own conduct is playing a key part in rendering its future precarious.”  
Julia Bard, who edits the British Channel 4 “Faith and Belief” Web site and produces materials for such groups as Amnesty International, points to the fact that, “Many aspects of our diasporic culture that survived to link us to the past and sustain us through difficult times ... have been attacked and undermined by an insistence, since 1948, that Israel is central to Jewish life and that all other Jewish communities are subordinate to it. This has resulted in Zionist cultural, economic, political and social imperatives being imposed on the Jewish world both by the Israeli state and by diaspora leaderships operating as its proxies and public relations agents.”  
Widespread Controversy  
When Forward columnist Jay Michaelson wrote a column entitled “How I’m Losing My Love for Israel” (Sept. 25, 2009), he stirred widespread controversy.  
He wrote: “To paraphrase a recent Jewish organizational tagline, I’ve ‘hugged and wrestled’ with Israel for 20 years now. At first, it was all embrace ... On my first trip to Israel I kissed the tarmac at Ben-Gurion as did other USY (United Synagogue Youth) kids. Eventually, the wrestling came to the fore, particularly as I became more conscious of the Palestinians, settlements and religious-secular divides ... I’ve loved Israel for decades, lived there for three years ... And so it is with the sadness that accompanies the end of any affair that I notice my love is starting to wane.”  
In a subsequent column in The Forward (Oct. 30, 2009), Michaelson reported that, “Since the publication of ‘How I’m Losing My Love for Israel’ ... the most disturbing responses have not been the vitriolic e-mails or online comments nor the thoughtful and well reasoned replies ... Rather, I have been most troubled by the statements of many Jewish professionals ... rabbis, federation leaders, non-profit directors ... who have told me, ‘Thank you for saying what I cannot.”  
Michaelson asks: “Why is it that they cannot say what I said? Because they fear for their jobs, or fear their organizations would be harmed if they expressed their opinion? And what opinion is that, which they and I share? Is it hatred of Israel? Support for the terrorists of Hamas? No. It is ambivalence, uncertainty or reservations regarding the State of Israel ... This is outrageous, and it has shocked me in the weeks since the column was published.”  
Doesn’t Deserve Unconditional Love  
While noting that he continues to “love” Israel, Michaelson declares that Israel “does not deserve the kind of love — unconditional, unwavering — that many in our community demand. This is so not because we are unfaithful, but because our lover has become abusive. ... Fortunately, I think the American Jewish community is at a tipping point on these issues ... I think one reason my little personal essay struck such a chord is that, between J Street, President Obama, and these shifts in the American Jewish community, there’s an understanding that the tide has begun to turn ... I loathe the company we Zionists are forced to keep: ethnocentrists, know-nothings, warmongers and worse; that angry pseudo-majority whose Disney-fied myths eclipse the region’s messy realities, who dehumanize Arabs and furiously lob the words ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘Holocaust’ like rhetorical hand-grenades. What they love is not what I love.”  
Writing in Moment (January/February 2010), author Letty Cottin Pogrebin decried what she referred to as “Jewish McCarthyism” in the widespread attacks upon Judge Richard Goldstone, who is Jewish and a long-time Zionist, who headed the fact-finding mission charged by the United Nations Human Rights Council with investigating possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Israel’s three-week military action in Gaza in 2009.  
Goldstone’s panel investigated 36 separate incidents, traveled all over Gaza and spoke to more than one hundred witnesses. Violations were found on both sides of the conflict, though far more were attributed to Israel.  
Perilous to Go Public  
“Some weeks after the report’s release,” writes Pogrebin, “a rabbi friend e-mailed me asking what I thought of it, promising me ‘confidentiality.’ He knew how perilous it can be for a Jew to go public with an opinion that diverges from the ‘mainstream,’ meaning the views expressed by ‘Jewish leaders’ of ‘major Jewish organizations’ and others who purport to speak for ‘the Jewish community.’ To understand the price for breaking ranks, just look at how mercilessly Judge Goldstone — a proud Jew and declared Zionist — was vilified, not by gentile anti-Semites ... but by Jews in the Israel-right-or-wrong mafia who, rather than address the troubling issues raised in the report, resorted to character assassination to delegitimate its lead author. ... An international blitz of blogs, op-eds and talking heads rained slander on Goldstone, accusing him of ‘blood libel,’ favoring Hamas, betraying his people, being a naive dupe, malicious traitor, self-hating Jew and enemy of the Jewish State.”  
A former judge of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, Goldstone chaired his country’s Commission of Inquiry into violence under apartheid, prosecuted war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Kosovo and investigated the Oil for Food scandal in Iraq. The American Bar Association and the MacArthur Foundation gave him their top awards.  
“His Jewish credentials,” notes Pogrebin, “are similarly solid; board member of Hebrew University; chair of a Brandeis advisory board on ethics, justice and public life; president of World ORT; service on an international panel of the Commission of Enquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina, which investigated World War II criminals.”  
Debate Is Squelched  
Pogrebin concludes that, “I wish the document’s (the U.N. report) charges were being actively discussed and convincingly rebutted by an internal investigation, but debate has been effectively squelched. Smears and death threats have done little to erode Judge Goldstone’s prestige among those familiar with his lifelong commitment to truth and justice. But the ad hominen attacks have deeply wounded him, his wife, two daughters and four grandsons who must relate to their Jewish friends and colleagues under a cloud of McCarthyite slander.”  
In October, 2009, more than 1,500 people attended the first annual conference of J Street, a self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby,” whose executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami says is fighting for the “heart and soul of the American Jewish community.” Unlike AIPAC, J Street intends to push aggressively for a two-state solution based on Israel’s pre-l967 borders.  
Prior to the Washington meeting, J Street came under a withering attack from both established American Jewish groups and the Israeli government. A full page ad in the Oct. 22, 2009 Washington Jewish Week sponsored by the group StandWithUs, declared that “J Street’s positions undermine Israel’s search for peace and security.” A spokesman for the Israeli embassy declared that J Street supports policies that could “impair Israel’s interests.” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, a native American who repudiated his U.S. citizenship, boycotted the J Street conference.  
Interfering in Domestic Affairs  
Ambassador Oren, it seems, is actively interfering in domestic American political and religious life. After boycotting the J Street meeting, he addressed the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, and called on American Jewish communities to actively engage in promoting a boycott against Iran. He declared: “Next to banners by synagogues and Jewish groups protesting the genocide in Darfur and the hunger in Africa, there should also be banners calling for sanctions on Iran and to stop the Iranian bomb.”  
In December, 2009, Ambassador Oren delivered what The Forward described as “an unprecedented blast against J Street.” In what was widely viewed as an attempt to control the debate over the Middle East within the American Jewish community, Oren addressed the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and described J Street as “a unique problem in that it not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream ... when it comes to the survival of the Jewish state, there should be no difference of opinion. You are fooling around with the lives of 7 million people. This is no joke.”  
It is almost unprecedented for the ambassador of a foreign government to tell an American religious organization what should constitute “mainstream” Jewish opinion, and to go so far as to say that there “should be no difference of opinion” when it comes to Israel’s survival. Within Israel itself, of course, there is widespread difference of opinion.  
“Mainstream” Jewish Thinking  
The fact is that J Street is far more representative of “mainstream” American Jewish thinking than Ambassador Oren is prepared to admit. There is a silent majority of American Jews who are not represented by the organizations which speak in their name. They reject the Zionist narrative which holds that Israel, not God, is “central” to Judaism and that Jews living outside of Israel are in “exile.” They are offended by Israeli flags being displayed in American synagogues and by the promotion of “aliyah,” emigration to Israel, as a religious imperative.  
What sets J Street apart, wrote Douglas Bloomfield in the Washington Jewish Week (Oct. 29, 2009), “... and so terrifies the hard-line establishment, is that it has a political action committee that raises and contributes money for political campaigns, something essential to being an effective player today ... Its greatest appeal is to younger and more progressive Americans ...who are turned off by the Israel-first establishment’s intolerance of dissent and its steady right-wing tilt, something that has been on display in the recent — and failed — effort to stifle J Street. The Netanyahu government and its ambassador here may be shunning J Street, but not the White House. The group has been invited to its meetings the president has held with national Jewish leaders, and some of its leaders have close ties to senior policy makers ... What is going on is an attempt by the establishment to define what it means to be pro-Israel, and to make that definition ever more ideologically restrictive and to paint J Street as unacceptable. That won’t work. Hypocrisy and political turf protecting, not concern for Israel, is what’s driving the over-the-top J Street opposition.”  
Message to Young People  
Writing in The Forward (Nov. 6, 2009), columnist Leonard Fein lamented the efforts to boycott and isolate J Street and to stifle open discussion within the Jewish community: “There were very many young people at the J Street conference. By his studied absence, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. sent a message to these young people. You are not welcome in the camp. You had the audacity to criticize our war in Gaza, you oppose the immediate imposition of sanctions on Iran; you do not take your cues from our preferences and our decisions. No matter, then, that so many of you find a breath of fresh air in an awfully stale room, no matter that you seem to care, really care, for Israel’s safety and welfare. Go away. The message is, in a word, intolerable. In two words, it is both stupid and intolerable.”  
On January 11, 2009, a rally in support of Israel, organized by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council was held in London’s Trafalgar Square. A number of Jewish critics gathered on the fringe of the square for a counter rally. Professor Brian Klug of Oxford University recalls that, “To get to our site outside Canada House we had to run a gauntlet of jeers. ‘Traitors,’ ‘cowards,’ ‘scum’ and other epithets were hurled in our direction. When the rally was over, some of us were spat at and called ‘Kapos’ (a derisory term for certain Jewish inmates of Nazi concentration camps who were seen as collaborators). The contempt and hatred for us, as Jews, was palpable. But it did not come from fanatical jihadists or fascists ... It a came from fellow Jews. A ritual was being enacted in which we were being symbolically ‘othered.’”  
In an important book, Offence, The Jewish Case (Seagull Books), Professor Klug laments the manner in which idolatry of the State of Israel has become so prevalent in Jewish life and open debate and discussion has been repeatedly challenged.  
Making State an Idol  
He writes: “What does it mean when you are expected to stand solidly with a state? When you must declare that you love it before you may question it? When criticism must always be balanced with praise? When all the fears and hopes of a people are placed in its hands? When to distance yourself from it is to invite contempt, and to approach it is to ascend, as if it were standing on a pedestal. What does this mean? It amounts to this: Israel is not a normal, ordinary state in the minds and hearts of many Jews. It means the state has been made into a statue. You can call it a cause or ideal. But it is an idol by any other name.”  
When it comes to Judaism, writes Klug, this “is no idle thing. In fact, nothing is weightier in the Hebrew scripture than the matter of idolatry. What, in heaven’s name, does it mean to be Jewish if not to knock statues off their pedestals? If, whatever our political opinions, we cannot rise above the State of Israel and put it in its place, if we do not reduce its status to that of a mere thing among things, then we are not Jews, or we are Jews in name only. But things can be criticized, challenged, opposed, rejected, replaced: there is not a line that you may not cross when approaching a thing — not in the iconoclastic Judaism to which I lay claim.”  
For a committed Jew, notes Klug, “... you cross any line in order to speak out about the degradation of others: this is a rule in the Judaism to which I lay claim. You do not infringe this rule to support a state, whatever your attachment to that state. If there is anything that Jews should always support it is justice, not a state; especially not a state that sports the name ‘Israel,’ not if ‘Israel’ stands for the toppling of idols (or their moral equivalent) and the pursuit of justice. ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue’ (Deuteronomy 16:20): this is the directive that Moses gives the people of Israel in the wilderness, the direction that he points out. ....These two principles, the one positive (respect for human dignity), the other negative (rejection of idolatry), lay the substantive basis for a Jewish case for outspokenness ... No political entity, no state, no object — nothing is above and beyond the reach of argument in the interests of peace, justice and truth. These are the commitments that I recognize as staple in the Judaism to which I lay claim.”  
Stifling Free Speech  
Attacking Jewish critics of Zionism and of Israeli policies and attempting to stifle free and open discussion within the Jewish community is hardly new. The American Council for Judaism has always opposed Zionism and advanced the view that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, and that American Jews are, in fact, American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Presbyteri-ans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, or Muslims.  
In May 1963 the annual Council conference was addressed by Senator J. William Fulbright (D-AR), who had been holding hearings on whether American Jewish groups lobbying on behalf of Israel should register as foreign agents. That same weekend, Rabbi Philip Bernstein addressed an AIPAC gathering in Washing-ton. Discussing the Council, he claimed that, “I have maintained through the years that the American Council for Judaism is of no consequence” and that he was speaking of them “only because the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chooses its convention as a platform for a policy statement.” Then the rabbi let loose: “Therefore, I mist say this is handful of sick Jews. They are soul sick. They are self-hating Jewish anti-Semites.”  
Name-calling, however, does not seem to have silenced Jewish critics of Zionism. Instead, their numbers are growing. Around the world, more and more respected Jewish voices are being heard rejecting the notion that Israel is “central” to their Jewish identity and declaring that their commitment to Judaism is a religious one, and not a political association with a state which pretends to speak in their name, but does not.  
“Acceptable Discourse”  
What becomes immediately clear is how broad Jewish opinion really is and how it is totally unrepre-sented by those who speak of “unity” and seek to enforce some form of “acceptable” discourse. For a Jewish community which repeatedly expresses its concern about “survival,” the surest way to alienate the next generation is to tell them that free speech and open discussion is not welcome.  
In fact, those who are decried as “self-hating Jews” by the Israeli government and the American Jewish establishment may be the very men and women who are keeping the humane Jewish tradition alive. Fortunately, their numbers are growing.

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