Commentary Magazine


Zionism's Critics Frozen in Time

To the Editor:

In his article “Attacking Israel Online” [July/August], Ben Cohen makes reference to the American Council for Judaism, which he accuses of being guilty of the same “willful myopia” that characterizes the online critics of Zionism and Israeli policy whom he takes to task.

Mr. Cohen and Commentary have every right to champion Zionism and to disagree with the philosophy of the American Council for Judaism. It is not intellectually honest, however, to totally misrepresent the Council’s philosophy and point of view, which has a long tradition in Jewish thinking.

The Council is not anti-Israel. It opposes the Zionist philosophy, which holds that Israel is the “homeland” of all Jews, and that Jews living outside of Israel are in “exile.” It is the Council’s view, which we believe represents the thinking of the majority of American Jews, that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality. American Jews are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim.

The Council has been advocating this view for more than 60 years–but the notion is much older than that. In 1841, at the dedication ceremony of Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina, Rabbi Gustav Poznanski declared: “This country is our Palestine, this city our Jerusalem, this house of God our temple.”

Prior to the mid-20th century, the overwhelming majority of all Jews rejected Zionism. In 1929, Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamarat wrote that the very notion of a sovereign Jewish state as a spiritual center was “a contradiction to Judaism’s ultimate purpose.” He wrote:

Judaism is not some religious concentration which can be localized or situated in a single territory. Neither is Judaism a “nationality” in the sense of modern nationalism, fit to be woven into the three-foldedness of “homeland, army, and heroic songs.” No, Judaism is Torah, ethics, and exaltation of spirit. If Judaism is truly Torah, then it cannot be reduced to the confines of any particular territory. For as Scripture said of Torah, “Its measure is greater than earth.”

The reality of Jewish tradition and the views of the majority of Americans of Jewish faith are far more complex than Mr. Cohen indicates. Why is it so difficult for him–and for Commentary–to admit that there are legitimate Jewish opinions about Zionism and Israel’s role that they do not share, but which are worthy of respect and, at least, a proper presentation?

Sadly, for some, the state of Israel has replaced God as the object of worship, a form of idolatry not unlike the Golden Calf. Those who share different views of the nature of Judaism and Jewish identity should be able to disagree without being disagreeable. Perhaps Mr. Cohen would like to take another look at this matter–one more respectful toward those with whom he disagrees.

Allan C. Brownfeld
Publications Editor, American Council for Judaism
Alexandria, Virginia

_____________

To the Editor:

An old Jewish folk reading of Isaiah 49:17 well captures a truly depressing reality: “Thy spoilers and destroyers come forth from thee.” There is a long, disheartening history of Jews joining our enemies, even exceeding them in excoriation. Current Internet sniping, such as that described by Ben Cohen, is just rebottled old wine. But it is, as Mr. Cohen so ably points out, highly damaging.

While these “truth-telling dissidents” are entitled to their warped opinions, even as they seek slyly to inhibit criticism, they are hardly entitled to freedom from it. If anything, the Jewish community to date has shown them far too much deference.

When Jews employ anti-Semitic tropes, willfully ignore the hateful words and deeds of Israel’s enemies, or advocate sanctions against all or part of Israel, they need to be called out forcefully. Despite a rising chorus of anti-Israel voices emanating from campuses and churches, municipal initiatives and international forums, old and new media, the case for Israel actually continues to grow stronger. Defending that case in the court of public opinion means that advocacy is ever more desperately needed within the Jewish community itself, especially among the young.

Richard D. Wilkins
Syracuse, New York

_____________

To the Editor:

Ben Cohen has invented his own definitions for words in order to support his argument. My dictionary defines dissident as “a person who disagrees, esp. one who disagrees with the government.” Yet according to Mr. Cohen, M.J. Rosenberg et al. are just phony dissidents because they have not been imprisoned for disagreeing with the Israeli government. Maybe Mr. Cohen is displaying a Freudian wish.

It is also interesting that he groups all these individuals together and brands them anti-Zionists. I’m sure that this would be news to both Rosenberg and Peter Beinart. But the Zionist spectrum for individuals like Mr. Cohen and magazines such as Commentary seems to start with the Likud and move rightward. It consists only of the self-styled “national camp” in Israel. Those who comfortably support the Zionism of, say, Meretz are considered anti-Zionists.

Thomas G. Mitchell
Madison, Wisconsin

_____________

To the Editor:

Ben Cohen’s critique of Israel’s Internet critics is spot-on. The Daily Beast does not sponsor a forum on Islamist extremism and its threat to world order. The Beast does not sponsor a blog on the Arab Spring and its iniquitous impact on life in Arab countries. The Beast offers no daily forum on Latin and South America and the impact of drug cartels.

“Why Zion Square [now Open Zion]?” asked Peter Beinart. “Because every day, official Jewish discourse about Israel grows more disconnected from reality, and that disconnect endangers Palestinian dignity, American security, and the Jewish future.” Thanks for your concern about the Jewish future and Palestinian dignity. The Daily Beast ignores the abrogation of human rights to Palestinians living in Jordan, and their expulsions from other Arab states. Beinart et al. rarely opine on the murders, judicial death sentences, and imprisonments of Palestinian journalists by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Are Jews disconnected from reality? Consider the 400 rockets and mortars fired into civilian Israel since January, killing our children and making them scurry into specially built bomb shelters with three-minutes’-notice alerts from screaming sirens. Only the nation of Israel needs an Iron Dome to protect her citizens. My wife and I must pick up our government-issued gas masks, because Arab leaders have dropped chemical weapons on their own people.

Reality checks come courtesy of Iran-financed terror and the eliminationist rhetoric of Hamas’s leaders. Reality for Beinart is observed from behind a desk at City University of New York.

Beinart holds that Jews and Israel are overly concerned with the survival of the Jewish people, writing, “because the Jewish establishment still depicts Jews as victims, this celebration of power comes without the burden of responsibility.” Israel, a sovereign nation state, cannot use its power to defend itself?

The intent of Open Zion is to elevate the discourse on peace between Israelis and Palestinians–to serve as Israel’s “moral compass.” Beinart should gift wrap that moral compass and send it to leaders throughout the Arab world who are busily enslaving, murdering, and torturing their own people. They want Israel to survive in this hostile neighborhood. Newsweek, the Daily Beast, and Zion Square/Open Zion are a monomaniacal multimedia combine, pounding away at Israel’s legitimacy, invigorating those who want the Jewish state to disappear.

Harold Goldmeier
Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel

_____________

To the Editor:

Ben Cohen’s article on Israel’s Internet critics was cogent and well argued. I’m grateful someone can do this subject justice, because to me, as a child of Holocaust survivors, the current climate seems like a nightmare. I have one question, however, for Mr. Cohen. He writes that “charting both the writings and the career trajectories of devoted anti-Zionists makes a uniquely strong case for the continued existence and protection of the Jewish state,” but he doesn’t elaborate. I agree that this is important work, but how, exactly, does writing about Israel’s Jewish critics make the case for the Jewish state?

Anna Link
New York City

_____________

Ben Cohen writes:

Allan C. Brownfeld takes exception to what he perceives as my lack of respect for those with whom I disagree. He then accuses me, and presumably every other Zionist, of “worshipping” the state of Israel in much the same way that the Children of Israel prostrated themselves before a Golden Calf during their sojourn in the desert. But then again, the exchange of views on the topic of Zionism has never been particularly cordial, especially between Jews.

Mr. Brownfeld’s letter reads as if it’s been frozen in time. He is correct that Zionism was not the only tendency competing for Jewish loyalties in the modern era, but it is only when we update the story to the present day that we can understand why the project of building a Jewish state won that contest. And when I think about the context in which Israel emerged, I wonder, for example, what advice Mr. Brownfeld would have given to the Jewish displaced persons trying to break the British blockade of Eretz Israel after the Second World War. Would he have aided them, or would he have engaged them in a lofty debate about Jewish identity? That question becomes even more pertinent when one recalls that, as well as being dismissive of Zionism, the ACJ, along with several other American Jewish groups at the time, was distinctly queasy about campaigning for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to join their brethren in the United States.

It is also instructive that Mr. Brownfeld ignores my analysis of the work of the ACJ’s most famous sons, Elmer Berger and Alfred Lilienthal. The attitude of these two individuals toward Zionism was most definitely not one of polite indifference or theologically rooted disapproval. Both men actively consorted with the bloodstained enemies of Israel, among them Qaddafi’s Libya and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to the point that Lilienthal even questioned whether Anne Frank’s diary was authentic. Yet in his December 2008 obituary of Lilienthal, Mr. Brownfeld eulogized this fellow traveler of Holocaust deniers “as an eloquent advocate of Judaism as a prophetic religion of universal values.” Against that light, my use of the word myopia in relation to the ACJ comes across as a tad over-generous.

If I understand Thomas G. Mitchell correctly, his point is that M.J. Rosenberg is a Zionist. I would therefore ask Mr. Mitchell what type of Zionist can push the term “Israel-Firster” as frenetically as Rosenberg has done, and still claim to be part of the pro-Israel community. I also want to assure Mr. Mitchell that I do not, at either a conscious or subconscious level, wish to see Mr. Rosenberg imprisoned for his views. He is entitled to say exactly what he pleases, and he does–which is precisely why his self-description as a “dissident” is so absurd and, frankly, insulting to the genuine dissidents imprisoned by various forms of tyranny around the world. Finally, I would urge Mr. Mitchell to consider the unarguable observation of Richard D. Wilkins, who writes, in his letter, that individuals like Rosenberg promote themselves in a manner designed to “slyly…inhibit criticism.”

It is a similar story with Peter Beinart and Open Zion. As Harold Goldmeier points out, what is unremarkable in the behavior of other states–the use of power to defend vital national interests–becomes a matter of moral anguish for Jewish leftists, who have something of a tin ear when it comes to the tribulations of their own people. For, as I pointed out in my article, one looks in vain for any serious analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism on the Open Zion site.

Anna Link asks why an examination of the works of Jewish anti-Zionists makes the case for the continued existence of the Jewish state. I think the answer is simple: Were Israel’s leaders to heed the advice of Beinart and those to his left, it is unlikely that there would be a Jewish state for us to discuss.




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