[Editor’s note: Apologies for the noticeable absence of new posts over the past few days. We’ve been at our sold-out conference, meeting and strategizing with fellow travelers from across the country. But we’re back now.]
The April edition of Zeek magazine has an interesting back and forth between Shaul Maggid and Paul Bagnador about the American Jewish Committee’s infamous Alvin Rosenfeld report, “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism.” As we’ve written before, the booklet generated significant backlash by Jews who understood it more as a form of blacklisting, than a substantive piece of scholarship.
Professor Shaul Magid, who is, interestingly, a colleague of Rosenfeld’s at Indiana University, poses the question: Why Must Jews Support a Jewish State? He surveys some of the more egregious examples of polarized ultra-Orthodox theological thinking on the topic: those who think Jews caused the Holocaust because we didn’t move to Eretz Israel fast enough, and those who think we caused it because only “God has the covenantal right to reestablish Israel as part of the Messianic era.”
But I found more compelling his quote-by-quote deconstruction of Rosenfeld’s essay, a shoddy piece of scholarship. Magid takes the time to go back to the original source to provide not only context, but attribution.
Rosenfeld’s first “progressive” Jew under investigation is Jaqueline Rose, author of The Question of Zion (Princeton University Press, 2005). Rosenfeld quotes Rose as saying “In sum, Israel on its present course ‘is bad for the Jews’ …” If we turn to page 154 (Rosenfeld’s citation) we indeed find those words “bad for the Jews” in reference to Israel, but these words are not Rose’s. Rose is quoting Avner Azulay, retired IDF army general and Director of the Rich Foundation in Tel Aviv. In fact, on page 134, Rose quotes Azulay more extensively. Azulay writes, “What is happening in Israel is bad for the Jewish people in the long term. It seems to be coming true that what is happening in Israel is damaging to Jews.”
Rosenfeld’s transparent methodology doesn’t surprise me for several reasons.
1) What you say isn’t as important as who says it.
Attacking well-known Jewish leftist thinkers who offer searing moral critiques of Israeli policies makes perfect sense when your entire project is to accuse progressive Jews of a unique role in promoting anti-Semitism. But what do you do when those same searing critiques come from the heart of Israeli political culture, from people like former speaker of the Knesset Avraham Burg, former attorney general Michael Ben-Yair, former general Matityahu Peled, former education minister Shulamit Aloni,Yael Dayan and so many more?
If you’re Rosenfeld, you ignore them. It’s just not the same to smear these folks with the charges of fomenting anti-Semitism.
2) I’ve spoken directly to several of the scholars and writers who were targeted in the essay, who said that it wasn’t just their words that were taken out of context, but their entire lifetimes of progressive politics.
The report was written as though people like Adrienne Rich or Tony Kushner or Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz had simply stayed at home, silent, and had chosen only to write or speak out from time to time to proclaim their disdain of Israeli policies.
In fact, if one were to look at their entire bodies of work, one would find condemnation of repression and bigotry wherever it occurs. Their crime was to be consistent in their critiques of repression rather than to be selectively blind when it involved their own people. (Further, many of these extraordinary thinkers have long histories of preserving many facets of a rich Jewish culture, which stands in direct opposition to closing one’s eyes to human rights violations.)
It’s worth reading Bogdanor’s response- it’s interesting to note the feeling of victimization shared by people on all sides of this debate.
To ask these questions is to pierce the sanctimonious aura enveloping so many “progressives” who begin their public attacks on fellow Jews with the words “As a Jew…” Still, analysts of such utterances can expect to be vilified, as Alvin Rosenfeld has been vilified, as being practitioners of “Stalinist tactics” (NPR discussion).  They should know that their work will be dismissed as “a shocking tissue of slander” (editorial in The Forward).  They may even be diagnosed, as Alvin Rosenfeld has been diagnosed, with a new mental illness, “the Amalek Syndrome” (columnist in the Jerusalem Post).  Or perhaps they will be paired (by Shaul Magid in this issue of Zeek) with the religious fanatics who blame Jews for the Holocaust. Reasoning with “critics of Israel” who insist on immunity from criticism is certainly a frustrating task.