April 07

Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Boundaries of Dissent: Round 2 of the Alvin Rosenfeld Debate

Shaul Magid and Paul Bogdanor

The Jewish world is abuzz with Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld's controversial report, "Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism," which claims that progressive Jews have been giving succor to antisemitism by criticizing Zionist ideology and Israeli foreign policy. Here in Why Must Jews Support a Jewish State?, Rosenfeld's Indiana University colleague Prof. Shaul Magid disputes Rosenfeld's argument, suggesting that the anti-Semitic quotes he has used were taken out of context. Paul Bogdanor, whose book provided Rosenfeld with much of his original material, responds in Dissent or Hatred by providing, for the very first time, the original sources for Rosenfeld's essay, as well as additional citations. In Response to Paul Bogdanor, Magid counters by arguing that Judaism as a religion is distinct from its manifestation in a nation-state and suggests that Bogdanor and Rosenfeld have abandoned Judaism for a secular Zionist nationalism.

This second round in the Rosenfeld debate ends with a more provocative question than it began: Can left and right in the U.S. dialogue any further at all?

-Zeek Editors

Why Must Jews Support a Jewish State?
Shaul Magid

The recent New York Times article about Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay, "Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” has caused quite a stir in the Jewish world. Whether the point of Rosenfeld’s essay is about censoring Jewish criticism of Israel (critics claim it is, Rosenfeld claims it is not), the article has ignited a robust and lively conversation and debate among scholars, clergy, and the lay community. As it should. The issue that underlies Rosenfeld’s essay is a fundamental question about the identity of Jews in the contemporary world: why must a Jew be in favor of a Jewish state?

Underlying Rosenfeld’s essay is the implicit assumption that Zionism is the sine qua non of Jewish identity and legitimacy. If a Jew is not a Zionist, that is, if he or she does not believe in the necessity of the State of Israel, then for Rosenfeld that Jew has renounced a claim to Jewish identity. In fact, Rosenfeld seems to go farther, suggesting that Jewish anti-Zionism may itself be a form of antisemitism; that any Jew unwilling to support Israel is de facto unwilling to support the Jewish people as a whole. Like a modern Jeremiah crying out in the postmodern wilderness, Rosenfeld accuses his own people of undermining their future.

What makes Rosenfeld’s argument so forceful is that he is not the only Jeremiah out there.

Contemporary Jeremiads
Attacking Jews for undermining Judaism seems to have become something of a theme in modern Jewish life. When I was in yeshiva in Jerusalem in the 1980s, I had a rosh yeshiva (an American ultra-Orthodox Jew) who used to refer to all secular Jews as anti-Semites.

The logic of my rosh yeshiva’s argument was clear enough. He believed that the very existence of the Jewish people hangs on their having received the Torah at Mount Sinai and that Jewish existence is totally dependent upon the covenantal relationship forged there. If Israel abandons the Torah, they deserve to be punished, perhaps brutally. One can see this in many prophetic passages, perhaps the most striking being Ezekiel 20:31-37. For my rosh yeshiva, this “covenant” was embodied in Orthodox practice. Israel is a Nation of Torah, nothing more, nothing less. Hence, to his mind, one who abandons, or chooses not to adopt, Orthodox practice is, in effect, endangering and even destroying the Jewish people. They are “Jewish” anti-Semites.

The metaphysical foundation of this position is well-known and remains popular among many ultra-Orthodox Jews. It has been maligned as the wacky theology of the marginal ultra-Orthodox religious right, but it is a view that was espoused by some of the most respected and traditionally learned Jews in the twentieth century, for example, Rabbis Elhanan Wasserman, Shlomo Zalman Unsdorfer, Hayyim Elazar Shapira, Joel Teitelbaum, Shalom Noah Barzofsky, among many others, and continues to be popular with some of the religious knitted kippah community today.

Theological jeremiads like these are often linked to the twin earthquakes in modern Jewish life: the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists have claimed that Zionism itself caused the Holocaust because only God has the covenantal right to reestablish Israel as part of the Messianic era (R. Elhanan Wasserman even going as far as saying Zionism, as idolatry, caused the divine creation of Nazism in heaven in order to punish the Jews). For this group, it is Zionists who are self-hating Jews.

On the other hand, the Zionist camp of ultra-Orthodoxy (e.g., Rabbi Yaakov Meir Harlap, a disciple of R. Abraham Isaac Kook, R. Mordecai Attiah, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook, among others.) argue the reverse. That is, the Holocaust happened, they say, because the Jews did not leave Europe after the Balfour Declaration and immigrate to Eretz Israel when they had the chance. In one very chilling passage, R. Zvi Yehuda Kook wrote of the Holocaust as a divine act brought about to purify the Jewish people and instill in them (apparently through mass murder) the desire to immigrate to Israel.

Between the self-hating Zionists and the self-hating anti-Zionists, you just can’t win. As David Novak compellingly argues in his recent essay "Is There a Theological Connection between the Holocaust and the State of Israel," any theological link between these two events really would require one of two responses: either to celebrate the Holocaust as an historical event that brings us the Jewish nation-state; or (this is my addition to Novak) to claim that all Diaspora Jews (including myself, Alvin Rosenfeld, and David Novak) are, in fact, “anti-Semites” because our choice to remain in the Diaspora creates the conditions for another Holocaust in the future. I assume Rosenfeld would reject both responses, as do I.

Survivor Judaism
What does Rosenfeld have in common with these ultra-Orthodox Jews? Not much, except that both he and they believe Jews are undermining Judaism and the Jewish people. Likewise, both believe what determines Jewish legitimacy is completely wrapped up in the twin events of the founding of Israel and the Holocaust. The difference between Rosenfeld and the ultra-Othodox rabbis of both Zionist and anti-Zionist persuasions is that the rabbis base their arguments for Jewish legitimacy on theological principles, while Rosenfeld bases his on more pragmatic political questions.

At least, one assumes so. Rosenfeld does not explicitly tell us why any deep criticism of the State of Israel (not only its existence but also its present ethnic construction) steps over the line of legitimate dissent. The only suggestion of an answer Rosenfeld gives is that the Holocaust creates the need for a Jewish nation-state in order to assure the survival of the Jewish people. But would another Holocaust be prevented by the existence of such a nation-state? Not all cases of “ethnic cleansing” or genocide are internal matters—the ethnic cleansing of South and North American Indians by European settlers is a prime example of genocide from outside.

Would the disappearance of the Jewish State threaten the continued existence of the Jewish people in the context of a globalized world? One would have to make a clear and persuasive case for this thesis. While the nation-state was of critical importance in the twentieth century, many would argue that its salience seems continually to diminish. Rosenfeld’s implied argument may pluck at the heart-strings of many Diaspora Jews, but its foundations are conjectural at best.

Rosenfeld’s essay purports to tackle these questions - yet it does not. A major flaw in the essay is that he never substantiates the crucial linkage in his argument between supporting Israel and Jewish survival. One way to do so is to link the Holocaust directly to the nation-state, as do both the Orthodox Zionists and anti-Zionists cited above, but I am quite certain Rosenfeld would disagree with either of those positions. Yet, without some linkage, theological or empirical, Rosenfeld’s argument falls flat. That is, it does not provide an adequate answer as to why a Jew today must support the existence of a Jewish State and why non-support of such a state is beyond the bounds of legitimate dissent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this unsubstantiated and unexamined claim at the heart of Rosenfeld’s essay is only the most glaring of several. In attacking “progressive” Jews, Rosenfeld gives short shrift to their arguments and in several cases actually mischaracterizes them. If the Jewish world is going to have a serious discussion of the value of the nation-state for the people - a discussion I would welcome - it should be based on firmer ground than that occupied by Rosenfeld.

Weak Claims
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 misquotes Rose again when he criticizes her for writing, “We take Zionism to be a form of collective insanity.” If one looks at the passage on page 17, one will find Rose is paraphrasing a statement Chaim Weitzman made at a Zionist meeting in 1914 which is quoted on the same page. Weitzman says, “It is the Zionists’ good fortune that they are considered mad; if we were normal, we would not consider going to Palestine but stay put like all normal people.” Unless one can make a cogent argument for distinguishing “madness” from “insanity,” Rosenfeld’s citation is misplaced (although he may very well want to take issue with Chaim Weitzman).

Rosenfeld also accuses Rose of identifying the “ruinous” false messiah Shabbatai Zvi as a “proto-Zionist.” If one looks at Rose’s discussion on page 3 (and other pages throughout), Rose is actually discussing Gershom Scholem’s equation of Shabbatai Zvi and Zionism, not her own. Anyone familiar with Zionist history will know that many Zionists were infatuated, even obsessed, with Shabbatai Zvi, along with other Jewish heretics and false messiahs such as Spinoza and Bar Kokhba. Shabbatai Zvi may be a “ruinous” villain for Rosenfeld, but for many early Zionists he was an important, albeit tragic hero and for some even a proto-Zionist. To isolate Rose for bringing Shabbatai Zvi into the discussion of Zionism is to misplace the context in which her comments are made, and in which they are not all that radical.

Rosenfeld claims Rose’s book is full of “blatant errors or outright fabrication.” These few examples exhibit some serious misreadings of Rose that should cause some concern as to the overall accuracy of Rosenfeld’s own critique. They also suggest that Rosenfeld is capable of disregarding Zionism’s early history as he rushes to its defense. That is certainly the case with his attack on “progressive” Jew Michael Neumann.

On page 13, Rosenfeld focuses his critique on Michael Neumann’s interest in discussing Jewishness in the context of race/racism. Rosenfeld writes, “The thinking here is so breathtakingly awry that one hardly knows how to address it. First of all, Jews do not typically define themselves in racial terms, nor do they value other people’s lives according to their blood.” If so, how does Rosenfeld understand the following verse from the Torah? “God had a delight in your fathers, to love them, and God chose their seed after them, even you, above all the peoples, as it is this day.” [Deut. 10:15]. Moreover, how does he understand the entire fabric of Jewish identity throughout history? Jewish thinkers from Judah ha-Levi and the MaHaRal of Prague to Franz Rosenzweig talked openly about “Jewish blood.”

This is not to say that Judaism is racist. But it is certainly the case that Jews have often identified themselves according to racial/ethnic criteria. We could—but needn’t— point to the hyper-racial doctrines of the Kabbala to see this. The entire halakhic tradition gives us a meditation on Jewish racialism. For example, when the rabbis discuss whether a Jew who converts to another religion ceases to be a Jew (in the eyes of the legal tradition) the answer is almost unequivocally no. The great Jewish medieval rabbi Rashi writes in a responsum that the marriage of a Jew and Jewess who marry after converting to Christianity is binding according to Jewish law, requiring her to receive a Jewish divorce if she chooses to marry another Jew. That is, what determines Jewishness is precisely “racial” or “ethnic” and not belief or affiliation with a community. One’s ability to be counted in a minyan has nothing to do with belief or practice but only “blood” (and, in some communities, gender). In fact, the rabbis argue that according to biblical law, a convert to Judaism could marry his biological mother because conversion is essentially a miraculous change of biology. The rabbis forbid such a marriage for other reasons.

Jewish Messianism
Rosenfeld’s refusal to acknowledge Judaism’s racialism is part of his refusal to accept the primacy of exceptionalism in the formation of Jewish identity. He argues, for example, that “as most historians of Zionism demonstrate …Israel’s founders, by and large, were secular Zionists who opposed religious notions like messianism and chosenness.” It is difficult to know what Rosenfeld is referring to in this claim.

Messianism, whether religious, secular, or utopian, lies at the heart of almost all Zionist ideology from Herzl to A.D. Gordon to Ben Gurion to Buber to Kook to Begin. The official Prayer for the State of Israel, written by the great Shai Agnon and recited by Jews around the world every Shabbat, includes the suggestion that Israel is “the first flowering of our redemption.” This link between Zionism and messianism has been amply demonstrated by scholars of Zionism such as Aviezer Ravitzky, Ehud Sprinzak, Ian Lustick, and Eliezer Schweid among many others. These and others consistently argue that, in fact, there is an inextricable link between Zionism (of all strains) and messianism (in its many forms). Rosenfeld’s history of Zionism is selective in ways that require much further justification.

This is not to defend either Rose or Neumann. The issue at hand is not whether they are correct, but whether their criticism of Israel constitutes legitimate dissent. In both cases Rosenfeld mischaracterizes their work and shows little understanding of the Zionist project itself. Therefore, the bite of his critique is significantly compromised.

He comes closer to the mark in his characterization of Daniel Boyarin, whom he simply cannot believe is making the argument Boyarin is in fact making. Rosenfeld criticizes Daniel Boyarin for saying that “just as Christianity may have died at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sorbibor… I fear…that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Deheishe, Bereen…” (Wrestling with Zion, 202, Rosenfeld, 17). Rosenfeld critically asserts, “In this case, as in others, Jewish identity is affirmed in opposition to the Jewish state.” In fact, Rosenfeld gets this exactly right, but draws the wrong conclusion.

If one reads Boyarin’s lengthy discussion of the relationship between Diasporism and Rabbinic Judaism in his book, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (pp. 228-260), one will find an argument about how the political power of a nation-state collapses difference, alienates the “other,” racializes the community and creates a situation that Boyarin feels is anathema to his vision of (Rabbinic) Judaism.

Boyarin’s views may be radical, and one can surely contest them, but simply saying they are “illegitimate,” as Rosenfeld does, does not suffice. Rosenfeld particularly attacks Boyarin for using “Holocaust rhetoric,” but that line of attack leaves Rosenfeld in a difficult position since the Zionists Rosenfeld embraces are perhaps more guilty of Holocaust rhetoric than anyone on the progressive left. One can think of Shamir’s statement of “the borders of Israel as the gates of Auschwitz,” Begin’s justification for war as “either this or Treblinka,” Sharon’s Holocaust parallels and the myriad instances of Arafat being referred to as Hitler by many on the Zionist right. And who can forget Netanyahu campaigning in front of a poster of Rabin dressed up as Hitler? I am not aware of one instance in Rosenfeld’s writings where he chastises Zionists for freely using such Holocaust parallels when referring to their contemporary enemies.

These lacunae are some of the many weaknesses in Rosenfeld’s piece. Regrettably, Rosenfeld seems so intent on accusing Jews like Rose, Boyarin and others of self-hatred that he does not take the requisite time actually to evaluate their arguments or look at their objections to the State of Israel within a wider Jewish context. It is a pity because the issues raised in this essay are of critical importance and should be aired and debated in the public sphere.

Boyarin, like Rose (as far as I know), never denies Jews’ right to live in Israel nor do any of these writers espouse or support hatred of the Jews (the basic tenet of antisemitism). Indeed, I am quite certain all or most of those Rosenfeld criticizes are in fact concerned about preserving Jews and Judaism in their own way. And all would agree that the rise of anti-Semitism in the world is alarming and demands our attention.

Ironically, both sides agree that Israel stands at the center of this emerging problem. Rosenfeld posits that progressive critiques of the Jewish state “foment,” perhaps tacitly legitimize, anti-Semitism. Many progressives believe that it is Israel, both in its policies and “ethnic” construction, that foments anti-Semitism. What we need now are fewer jeremiads, and more thoughtful and constructive engagement on both Jewish history and the nature of a Jewish future.

Images: Kitra Cahana.
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Paul Bogdanor's response to Shaul Magid
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