The Common Good
September-October 2003

A Litmus Test?

by Joel Finkel | September-October 2003

ARTHUR WASKOW ("Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace, Anti-Occupation," May-June 2003) red-baits one group that has been successful in organizing huge anti-war demonstrations.

ARTHUR WASKOW ("Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace, Anti-Occupation," May-June 2003) red-baits one group that has been successful in organizing huge anti-war demonstrations. He argues that those people who do not speak out in favor of a Jewish state of Israel, which has a "special relationship with the Jewish people," are necessarily anti-Israel and, by implication, anti-Semitic. The same goes for anyone who does not favor a two-state solution. One wonders what he thinks of Israelis who advocate a single, secular, democratic state with the Palestinians.

As a Jew, I find Waskow's argument spurious and his implication dangerously flawed. Waskow applies a specific litmus test to activists. No one who is unwilling to accept the Zionist project of creating a Jewish state may be allowed into the movement. They are, at the least, subject to the suspicion of being anti-Semitic. Waskow insists that people in the movement pledge allegiance to the idea that Israel is a Jewish state, for the Jewish people, and furthermore insists that Israel actually does, or should, represent the Jewish people and the Jewish religion.

But, of course, Israel represents neither the Jewish people nor the Jewish religion. It is time to stop preaching that it does, for it is exactly this myth that has led to a new form of anti-Semitism. Having internalized this mantra, when people get angry at Israel, they quite naturally get angry at Jews. Why would we expect otherwise?

Waskow speaks of "some Jews who feel so betrayed by the perversion of Jewish values embodied in many aspects of the occupation that they fail to take into account the real pain and fear of Israelis and the real terrorism carried on by some Palestinian groups." One first wonders what "aspects of the occupation" are not "perversion[s] of Jewish values." I have met extremely few activists who "fail to take into account the real pain and fear of Israelis and the real terrorism carried on by some Palestinian groups." In fact, I find that some of the Palestinian activists tend to be among the most sensitive to these issues.

But many of us do not attempt to articulate a false parity, as if the level of terror experienced by the Israelis, horrific and criminal as it is, comes anywhere near the terror, humiliation, destruction, and death that is experienced on a daily basis by the Palestinians. For to do such a thing would be both dishonest and insulting.

Our goal is not to mollify the Jewish community. Our goal is to enrage them at the realization that the most appalling atrocities are being committed in their name. And they must be made aware that if they are not part of the solution, they are most definitely part of the problem.

Joel Finkel
Chicago, Illinois

 

Rabbi Arthur Waskow responds:

The letter-writer imagines implications of what I wrote, and then attacks the implications. Easy to do, and quite useless to any discussion of the issue. Just one example: I wrote that the Israeli people should be free to choose to continue Israel's special relationship with the worldwide Jewish people, and that only those with a special animus against Israel, Judaism, or Jewish peoplehood would be likely to oppose their right to do so. This becomes, through implication, the notion that Israel "represents" Judaism or the Jewish people. The former makes sense; the latter doesn't.

So the letter itself is easy to dismiss. But let us address the underlying issues.

Some of those who—quite correctly—demand that Israel live by international law also assert—quite incorrectly—that the state has no right to exist, or that it has no right to affirm a special connection with the Jewish people. They ignore the truth that international law guarantees Israel's existence and its right to choose its culture. Some of these same people are quite convinced of Quebec's right to secede from Canada to protect its French culture, or of Pakistan's right to choose to exist distinct from India solely so that it can protect and affirm Islam. Yet they attack the very existence of a state that was affirmed by the United Nations both in its founding and today. Whatever label one sticks on that special animus, it is wrong.

The same ethical commitments that demand freedom and self-determination for the Palestinian people demand it for the Israeli people. Israel's violation of law, justice, and peace through its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem no more justifies abolishing Israel than the U.S. war against Vietnam or its occupation of Iraq justify the abolition of the United States.

The world is entitled to—indeed, obligated to—demand the end of the occupation, as well as such inhuman and dehumanizing acts as the suicide bombings of teenagers in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. (Indeed, such bombings may use the rhetoric of "opposing" the occupation, but in actuality they are rooted in the same immoral version of "morality." By frightening and enraging Israelis, they actually strengthen the occupation. They are Sharon's best ally.)

Individuals are entitled to urge Israelis and Palestinians to move toward the creation of a broader state that can support the cultures of both peoples. But to try to impose such a state on either people will turn the present rivers of blood into oceans of death. Only through a generation of living in peace alongside each other in two separate, free, and secure states is it likely that Israelis and Palestinians could begin to create such a federal arrangement.

The anti-war movement needs to remember that more than a century ago, it was said that "anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools." History bore out the truth of that assertion. Today, anti-Semitism is the anti-imperialism of fools—or knaves. We must insist that our own opposition to injustice, war, and empire not fall into that perversion of our vision.

 

Joel Finkel responds:

I am grateful to find that Rabbi Waskow and I share much common ground, which he expresses in his response to my letter. Yet, the important distinction remains that, while I never denied anyone's right to claim that Israel represents the Jewish people, or Judaism, or the man in the moon, this claim has not the slightest foundation in reality.

To actually state this fact is neither anti-Israeli nor anti-Jewish. Furthermore, to be firmly opposed to the realization of such a "dream" is neither anti-Israeli nor anti-Jewish.

Contrary to what Waskow says, I did not simply infer his message from his original article. The final sentence of his piece, which chastises what he considers to be the 'anti-Israel' forces within the peace movement, and which despairs of Jews who might develop an "inverted identity," was clear: "But among almost all Jews who call themselves 'pro-Israel, pro-peace, anti-occupation,' the distinctive quality is a vision of what an Israel would be like that could authentically and joyfully speak (and be heard as speaking) in the name of the Jewish people, Torah, and God."

Waskow is quite correct that anti-Semitism is the anti-imperialism of fools just as it was the socialism of fools. However, it is time to consider that Zionism has been not only the nationalist socialism of fools but also a very destructive false messiah.

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