The AJC and the Left: a work in progress
Here’s what the average reader might learn after reading “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” the much-talked-about paper written by Indiana University professor Alvin Rosenfeld and published by the American Jewish Committee:
Here’s what you don’t learn from Rosenfeld’s paper:
Since The New York Times reported on Rosenfeld’s paper early this month, reaction to it has been swift and vociferous. The paper has its defenders, including Shulamit Reinharz, a professor of sociology at Brandeis University, and Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick. “Far from seeking to silence these hostile Jewish voices,” Glick writes, “Rosenfeld’s essay simply serves to draw lines between friend and foe where such lines are important.”
Much of the criticism of the paper, especially on the Left, challenged Rosenfeld’s premise that certain forms of invective aimed at Israel namely, the use of Nazi and apartheid imagery and calls for a “binational” state of Arabs and Jews are prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. Still others suggested that the “anti-Semitism” label is intended to squash debate on Israel.
For their part, Rosenfeld and the AJC deny this last point. AJC executive director David A. Harris issued a statement, declaring, “It is important to stress that [Rosenfeld] has not suggested that those about whom he writes are anti-Semitic.” This is simply disingenuous. Rosenfeld builds an eight-page argument that certain views and attitudes exemplify the “new anti-Semitism” and then quotes at length the Jewish writers who hold these very views. If that is his definition of the new anti-Semitism, in what ways are these writers not anti-Semites? How can you participate “alongside” anti-Semitism without being a purveyor?
Or perhaps Harris is not being disingenuous, and Rosenfeld genuinely believes that Rose, Kovel, et al, are not anti-Semitic. If so, that strengthens the argument of critics like the New Republic’s John Judis, who writes that “harsh denunciation of Israeli policies can be offensive without being anti-Semitic.” In fact, if you take away Rosenfeld’s once-over-lightly treatment of the “new anti-Semitism,” you really have an expose and rebuttal of some extremely offensive writings by some seriously misinformed or malevolent thinkers.
But Rosenfeld is not satisfied with exposing and rebutting these folks; he wants to tie them instead to something darker and more dangerous. As Harris puts it in his statement, Rosenfeld has “courageously taken on the threat that arises when a Jewish imprimatur is given to the campaign to challenge Israel’s very legitimacy.” The threat, the reader can only presume, is that the enemies of the Jews are strengthened when they can point to Jews who may share some of their arguments about Israel’s behavior and legitimacy. It’s an academic version of former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s comments, soon after 9/11, that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”
Is this true, and in what context? When a Jew writes an anti-Zionist essay or a book that compares the Palestinian territories to the Warsaw Ghetto, does that make things worse for other Jews and the State of Israel, and in what ways? To turn it around, if no Jew held these views, or if no publisher would print them, would the world’s attitudes toward Israel be any more positive? Would the threat to Israel be any less dire?
There is another threat, and that is the danger that once you start declaring certain ideas and writers a “threat,” you don’t know how to stop. That’s certainly what happened when Rosenfeld cherry-picked a single column on the Lebanon war by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Ignoring his long-standing support for Israel and devotion to the subject, Rosenfeld accused Cohen of purveying “the age-old indictment of the Jews.” (Harris has apologized, somewhat grudgingly, to Cohen, saying his “disturbing comments expressed this summer…do not reflect the totality of his occasional writings on the Middle East”).
And then there is the threat that when you “draw lines between friend and foe,” the boundaries you sketch become narrower and narrower. What I find most unfortunate about Rosenfeld’s essay is his equation, from the title onward, of “progressive” with “anti-Semitism.” In the good old days of ideological ornithology, when it was the Right that was more likely than the Left to be analyzed for its anti-Semitism, academics were always careful to distinguish among, say, conservatives, paleo-conservatives, and neoconservatives. These distinctions made clear that while individuals may share certain beliefs, that doesn’t mean they share all the same beliefs.
Rosenfeld doesn’t mention the Zionist leftists who defend Israel in “progressive” settings, with, admittedly, varying disagrees of success. He doesn’t mention the network of American Zionist organizations, like Ameinu and Meretz USA, who support their counterparts in the Knesset and the Israeli Left. He doesn’t even call on leftist Zionists, as you might expect he would, to clean their ranks of those who “participate” in the new anti-Semitism. To do so, he would have to acknowledge that there are alternative “progressive” Jewish voices to those he lambastes in his paper. A mainstream Jewish organization with AJC’s reputation for scholarship and measured activism should know better than to hand an emboldened right wing a cudgel with which to beat nearly anyone to its left.
That being said, there’s work to do on the Left. Gleeful bloggers have suggested that the negative reaction to the AJC paper is the sign of a reborn “movement” of Jews who agree with their criticism of Israel. Perhaps. And yet it’s not enough to declare “I’m no anti-Semite” and at the same time only engage with Israel and Jewish life to the degree to which you protest its policies and attack its mainstream. “Progressive” also means imagining a positive, engaged expression of Judaism and Zionism, not just tearing down its myths and idols.
Rosenfeld’s paper is an attack on a movement’s extreme. The non-extremists within that movement should use their moment in the sun to express a leftist Zionism that proudly earns the name “progressive.”
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