Commentary Magazine


“Progressive” Critics of Israel

Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay, “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” published in pamphlet form by the American Jewish Committee, continues to provoke discussion. Articles in the February 23 Forward by Chicago rabbi Ira Youdovin and New York media strategist Dan Fleshler represent responses to Rosenfeld’s essay by Jews who consider themselves politically “progressive” yet also “pro-Israel.” Both fear that Rosenfeld’s essay, even if such was not its purpose, will be used to silence voices like their own, voices that identify with Israel but are critical of many of its policies, especially in regard to the Palestinians.

Now, criticism of Israel, as of anything else, is all a matter of context, and if the context, from a Jewish point of view, is acceptable—if, that is, the identification with Israel is clear in it—then the criticism itself, whether or not one agrees with it, is certainly permissible. The question really is then: when is “identification” clearly present and when isn’t it? Ira Youdovin, for example, wants to know what’s wrong with Rabbis for Human Rights, “an Israeli-based pluralistic organization that . . . advocates a two-state solution, even as it accuses Israel of violating human rights.” Dan Fleshler argues on behalf of Jewish activists who are “ideal candidates for addressing the [anti-Israel] claims of the far Left [because they] aren’t afraid to say publicly that the occupation is morally repugnant.”

This is curious language for someone who “identifies” with Israel. “Morally problematic?” I’d have no difficulty with that. “Morally injurious?” I’d sign to that, too. But “repugnant?” It’s obviously not the Palestinians who are being labelled “repugnant” here, but the Israelis—the same Israelis who (whether or not you think they should be) are living, at considerable danger to themselves, as settlers in the historic heartland of the Hebrew Bible and whose presence there alone can enable Israel to redraw the perilous 1967 borders to its advantage. How identified with Jewish history or Israel can you be if you find such people, or the army that is protecting them and preventing daily acts of terror aimed at Israel proper, nothing but “repugnant?” How “identified” are you if you see in all this only a “violation of [Palestinian] human rights” and not, at the same time, an upholding of Jewish rights?

Dan Fleshler argues that only “pro-Israel” Jews like himself who are on the Left can make themselves heard when debating with the anti-Israel Left. That may be, but it’s not much of a debate when you say, “Yes, you think the Israeli occupation is morally repugnant and I think so too—but don’t forget that I love Israel.” Love has to do better than that to demonstrate its existence. Context is everything—and if men like Youdovin and Fleshler refuse to provide it in making their criticisms of Israel, their “progressivism” indeed plays into the hands of Israel’s enemies.

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