April 07

Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Boundaries of Dissent: Round 2 of the Alvin Rosenfeld Debate
by Shaul Magid and Paul Bogdanor
p. 3 of 3

Response to Paul Bogdanor “Dissent or Hatred?”
Shaul Magid

I came away from reading Paul Bogdanor’s response to my essay somewhat baffled. The fact that he never once addressed the central question in my essay, “Why must a Jew today support the State of Israel in order to be a legitimate part of contemporary Jewish discourse?” made me wonder. It seems to me we are simply talking past one another. Below are some brief reflections as to why we seem to be living on different planets.

The point of my essay was not to defend any of those mentioned in Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay (some I agree with, some I do not). And my point was not to make a case for or against a two-state solution, a bi-national state, or the continuation of the occupation. My point was, rather, to explore the boundaries of legitimate dissent in what has become a histrionic and poisonous debate among Jews on the question of Israel/Palestine.

Traditional Jewish leaders in the wake of the Enlightenment and subsequent emancipation of the Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries feared at least three things. First, that Jews would disappear, via conversion, into the vast landscape of western European Protestant society. Second, that Jews would re-construct a progressive Judaism that would undermine and subvert tradition. Third, that Jews would abandon any notion of “Judaism” and simply define themselves as an ethnic/racial group. The latter two are still relevant today. Progressive Judaisms (including non-Orthodox Judaism, secular Judaisms and Spiritual Zionism) became the most powerful forces of Jewish identity in modernity. Many Jews either chose a Judaism that diverged from tradition, or chose to sever themselves from Judaism as a religion altogether, choosing to define themselves as an ethnic/racial group with a history with no discernable theological foundation.

My sense from reading Rosenfeld and Bogdanor is that their position represents this third group. In their position, as explicated in their essays, “Jewishness” seems utterly severed from any notion of Judaism. In at least some, but not all cases, the “dissenters” that Bognador suggests may be “haters” of Jews represent the second group. In my essay I suggested Rosenfeld conflated Jews with Zionism. A more accurate locution would be that Rosenfeld has conflated Jews and the Jewish nation-state (Zionism and the Jewish nation-state are, of course, not identical).

Bogdanor argues that vehement opposition to the Jewish nation-state is, by definition or at least by implication, to “hate” the “Jews.” While it is certainly true that anti-Semites oppose Israel, it is not true that all who oppose Israel “hate” the Jews. In fact, for a radically disparate group of Jews (including Daniel Boyarin, Marc Ellis, ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists, and Reform anti-Zionists among many others), opposition to Israel is built on their particular understanding of Judaism as a culture and religion! One could say there may be individual Jews who are anti-Semites but does it make sense to argue, as Bogdanor essentially does, that there is such a thing as an anti-Semitic Judaism? And if so, what criteria would be used to make such an assertion?

For example, for Bogdanor to simply write-off Rabbi Elhanan Wasserman or Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook as “fanatics” and thus not worthy of attention – or even refutation – illustrates, in my view, the profound way his position is divorced from Judaism and Jewish theology. I do not at all agree with either Wasserman or Kook’s assertion that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for Zionism (Wasserman) or God’s way of making sure Jews did indeed immigrate to the Land of Israel (Kook). However, both base their arguments on a deep and informed reading of Judaism and thus they cannot simply be discounted as “fanatics.” Their positions can, and in my view should, be contested with alternate readings of Judaism, but to refuse to take them seriously is to suggest that Judaism has nothing to do with the Jews.

One could say the same about Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, the virulent anti-Zionist and leader of American Reform Judaism in the late nineteenth century or the bi-nationalist (and Zionist) Martin Buber. Kohler stated that “the fundamental principle of Reform Judaism to be accentuated more than any other is that Judaism is no more a national religion than its God is a tribal God.” Buber strongly dissented against fundamental policies enacted by the fledgling Jewish State in 1947-48 such as the “Land Acquisitions Act” that permitted the state to confiscate Arab property simply for purposes of “development.” This was not simply a disagreement of policy. The “Land Acquisition Act” was a central tenet of the Jewish nation-state and the source of at least part of the present conflict. Buber was thus protesting against the very form the state was taking.

Kohler’s position that Jews are a people and not a nation, thus not deserving of a state (concretized in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform), and Buber’s biblical humanism as the source of his bi-nationalism would draw the ire of Rosenfeld today. But what I want to underscore here is that both Kohler the anti-Zionist, and Buber the bi-nationalist, have more in common with Kook, the founder of settler Judaism, than they do with either Rosenfeld or Bogdanor. Why? Because Kohler, Buber, Wasserman, and Kook all assume an intimate and inextricable connection between Jews and the Jewish classical tradition that seems absent in both Rosenfeld and Bogdanor’s analysis.

It is surely true that the Jews-Judaism connection can yield positions very different from the anti-Zionism of Wasserman and Kohler, or the bi-nationalism of Buber, but that is not the point. It is also not the case that everyone who uses Judaism to create a position about “the Jews” is legitimate. It is only to say that “dissent” against Jewish behavior toward the non-Jew or questioning whether Jewish sovereignty more generally is “good for the Jews” has a long history in “Judaism” with strong, albeit not definitive, theological foundations. One needn’t agree with any of these positions but one cannot simply dismiss them either. That is, unless the identity of the Jews has nothing to do with Judaism.

One of the premises of most positions that emerge from the Jewish tradition is that the Jewish people must answer to their tradition (and, in doing so, respond to the covenant). Whether focusing on biblical, prophetic, rabbinic, philosophic, or kabbalistic Judaism, each community makes their case from these theological positions and not in spite of them. As I read them, Rosenfeld and Bogdanor do not think Jews have to answer to anything that would temper their secular nationalist agenda of “the Jews.” Rather, it is the world that has to answer - and can never fully answer - to the Holocaust, an event which underlies the exceptionalist argument that seems to frame their side of the debate. For Rosenfeld, Bogdanor, et al, anti anti-Semitism has become, in a sense, their “religion,” defined here as the engine that drives their argument.

This may be one reason why we seem to be talking past one another. I come from a place where Judaism (construed very widely to include theology, culture, humanism et al) cannot be severed from “the Jews.” In fact, for me, “the Jewish people” is itself a theological construct. By that I mean that “the Jews” only exist in and through a covenant with God (however one understands that). Thus, to talk about the Jewish people divorced from Judaism is empty for me. To (re) construct “the Jews” from anti-Semitism, making the Jewish nation-state the centerpiece of Jewish identity, is, in my view, a sad consequence of a Jewish modernity in which Judaism no longer speaks to the Jews.

Moreover, basing Jewish identity on anti-Semitism may itself be anti-Zionist. Most Zionists and contemporary Israelis would reject such a negative foundation of their identity. Indeed, for most Israelis and for people like myself who have spent large parts of their lives living in Israel, Israel is a country, not their identity. What Jewish sense of self they have comes from elsewhere.

Perhaps Bogdanor and I represent two very different manifestations of Jewish modernity, so different that we no longer share enough to have a constructive debate. I hope this is not the case, but given Paul Bogdanor’s response to my essay I am frankly not that optimistic.



Image: Andy Alpern

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Modern Judaism at Indiana University/Bloomington. He is the author of Hasidism on the Margin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). His latest book From Metaphysics to Midrash: History, Myth, and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbala is due out next year with Indiana University Press. He is presently working on a book on American Judaism as an American Religion. Magid is a founding member of "Jews Against the War." This is his first contribution to Zeek.

Paul Bogdanor is the co-editor (with Edward Alexander) ofThe Jewish Divide Over Israel (Transaction, 2006).

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