It is a principle of journalism that news consists of those events that are out of the ordinary. The old cliché is that when man bites dog, it’s news. A dog biting a man is not. Thus, the conceit of the New York Times Beliefs column feature on Friday met that basic standard for newsworthiness. A story about religious Jews who actively oppose the existence of the State of Israel is one in which it must be conceded that the subjects are unusual.
The Pew Research Center of U.S. Jews published in October reported that 91 percent of Orthodox Jews, 88 percent of Conservative Jews, and even 70 percent of those who identified themselves as Reform Jews are either very or somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. That means any discussion about observant Jews who are anti-Zionists is, by definition, one about a very tiny minority. But considering that three of the five Jews whose views are featured in the piece seem to fall into the category of Modern Orthodox, of whom 99 percent told Pew they were very or somewhat attached to Israel with one percent saying “not very attached” and zero percent “not at all attached,” the trio constitute a sample of a group that is not merely a minority but one so small that it is statistically insignificant.
Once that is understood, it becomes clear that one of the main failings of the article is not only the fact that its author has no interest in challenging their views but that it fails to put that fact in proper perspective. The Orthodox trio and the one Conservative Jew and one Reconstructionist movement rabbi (whose views may not be all that out of the ordinary among that small left-leaning demographic) highlighted are a peculiar minority. But the willingness of the paper to give them such favorable attention illustrates once again the falsity of the notion that it takes courage for Jews to oppose Israel. To the contrary, as was made clear last week by the controversy over two Manhattan rabbis who defied many of the congregants by signing a letter denouncing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), those Jews who publicly denounce Israel can always look forward to the applause of the mainstream media.
While this quintet are entitled to their views about Israel and appear to be none the worse for wear for being so determined to flout the views of their co-religionists, two aspects of the article are particularly objectionable. One is the article’s assumption that there is something remarkable about the fact that they are able to go about their business while living in a Jewish community and attending synagogue without much trouble. The second is the failure of the piece to acknowledge that the views their subjects express are inherently bigoted.
It should be acknowledged that the article is correct when it states that prior to 1948, support for Zionism was not universal among American Jews. Many Jews, especially those affiliated with “classic” Reform temples, viewed it as a threat to the rights of American Jews to be treated as equal citizens in the United States. The reason the adherents of that view declined from minority status to statistical insignificance is that Israel’s creation did no such thing. To the contrary, the creation of a Jewish state only a few years after the Nazis and their collaborators had killed nearly one third of the Jews on the planet engendered the respect of other Americans as well as enhancing the self-esteem of every Jew in the world whether he or she was religious or a Zionist.
Israel gained its independence because the Jews had a right to sovereignty in their ancient homeland and not as compensation for the Holocaust. The sweat and the blood of the Jews who built Israel and fought to defend it earned that independence. But the Holocaust made it abundantly clear, even to those who had never previously given the idea their support, that without a Jewish state to defend them, Diaspora Jews who had not been lucky enough to make it the United States or the other English-speaking countries that had not succumbed to the Nazis would always be at the mercy of violent anti-Semitism. That was just as true of Jews who lived in Muslim and Arab countries (who were forced to flee their homes after 1948) as it was of the Jews of Europe. Theodor Herzl’s understanding of the inevitable fate of a homeless Jewry—a thesis that he adopted after seeing Alfred Dreyfus being degraded in Paris as a mob shouted, “Death to the Jews”—was sadly vindicated by the events of the first half of the 20th century.
Though their neighbors and fellow congregants treat them with the toleration that Israel’s foes do not extend to the Jewish state, the common failing of the five anti-Zionist Jews in the Times story is their failure to account for this basic historical lesson that the rest of their community understands. One need not support every action of the government of the State of Israel or have no sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians to understand that not only does Israel have a right to exist but that its fall would endanger the lives of its people and, by extension, Jews everywhere. The notion put forward by one of the subjects that “non-statist Zionism” would succeed was exploded several decades ago by the refusal of Arab opponents of the Jewish presence in Israel/Palestine to accept Jews on any terms.
Nor does the article ask its subjects why the Jews, of all peoples, should be asked to forgo the right to their own country when no other nation is required to do so. Cynthia Ozick famously wrote that universalism is the parochialism of the Jews. But it takes a particularly perverse kind of universalism to say that Jews should have fewer rights than other peoples.
But what is particularly disingenuous about the Times article is the unwillingness to hold its subjects accountable for the thinly veiled anti-Semitism that often masquerades as anti-Zionism in contemporary debates. Groups like Jewish Voices for Peace—which is supported by one of the quintet—aren’t content to support liberal Israelis or to criticize Israel’s government. Instead it seeks to wage economic warfare on Israel in order to destroy it. If the only imperfect state that is seen as worthy of such a fate is the one Jewish one—rather than the many others founded on national or religious principles—then it is clear that the driving force behind anti-Zionism is prejudice and not concern about human rights. Websites like Mondoweiss, to which one of the five contributes, similarly trades in anti-Jewish stereotypes in its campaign against Zionism.
What the overwhelming majority of Jews know that these five people and their adoring audience at the Times don’t is that opposition to Israel’s existence—as opposed to criticism of it—is taking a stand against the right of the Jewish people to life. While there is a portion of the ultra-Orthodox community that also holds to anti-Zionism because of their own bizarre interpretation of Judaism (which strangely goes unmentioned in the article), non-Haredim who do so are fighting common sense, history, and the basic principles of fairness. If those who adopt such positions are a minority, it is not due to any resistance on the part of the majority to ethics or concern for others but because of the implausibility of their beliefs.