Commentary Magazine

"Good Jews"

To the Editor:

I would like to respond to Emanuele Ottolenghi’s article, “Europe’s ‘Good Jews’” [December 2005]. Mr. Ottolenghi and I are colleagues at the Middle East Center at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, an institution renowned for pluralism, diversity of views, and vigorous debate—just like the country of Israel. But while debate is always welcome, ad-hominem attacks are not. Sadly, Mr. Ottolenghi’s article is full of sweeping generalizations, distortions, and ad-hominem comments. As a result, it generates more heat than light.

Mr. Ottolenghi’s entire argument rests on a fallacy—the conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. To argue that the former necessarily involves the latter goes against the values that most academics in Europe and Israel hold dear: free thought, free speech, and a free society. It is a form of moral blackmail on the part of those who want to silence any criticism of Israel’s policies.

The very title of Mr. Ottolenghi’s article is offensive, as it is no doubt intended to be. But it is odd to label Jews as “good” or “bad” based on their views of the state of Israel. It also runs counter to an old Jewish tradition of political dissent, of which I am proud to be part. By arguing that to criticize Israel is to aid and abet anti-Semitism, Mr. Ottolenghi reveals his own totalitarian conception of what it means to be Jewish. The logic of his argument boils down to “my country, right or wrong.” This does not place him in a strong position to engage in rational discussion of Israel’s policies toward the Arabs.

Mr. Ottolenghi misrepresents my own position at every turn. He can include me in his preposterous category of Europe’s “good Jews” if it pleases him, but I am an Israeli who lives and teaches in England. My academic discipline is international relations, and my principal research interest is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Contrary to what he writes, I have not “responded to the latest assault on the Jewish people by excusing it, justifying it, and in effect joining it.” Nor do I regard it as my “specifically Jewish duty to denounce Israel”; I approach my work as a scholar, not as a member of a religion or tribe. Mr. Ottolenghi alleges that I have based my academic career on “implacable anti-Zionism.” I like to think that my academic career has been based on extensive archival research and on the careful use of primary sources in both Hebrew and Arabic.

It is not at all clear on what basis Mr. Ottolenghi would deny me the right to criticize Israel’s policies toward the Arabs apart from his dislike of my views and his implicit assumption that Israel is above criticism because it is a Jewish state. But the fact remains that I grew up in Israel, served in the Israel Defense Forces, played an active part in the debate about Israel’s past, and recently brought out a Hebrew edition of my book, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. My right to criticize Israel is no greater but no smaller than that of anyone else.

My views are really quite simple and nowhere near as sinister as Mr. Ottolenghi would have one believe. To use his own sophisticated categories, I regard Israel as good and the occupation as bad. I regard Israel within the pre-1967 borders to be completely legitimate; what I object to is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. I have been a consistent supporter of the Oslo Accords, and I remain a proponent of a two-state solution. I am critical of the policies of the present Israeli government precisely because they undermine the basis for a two-state solution. If these views make me anti-Semitic, then so be it.

Avi Shlaim

St. Antony’s College

Oxford, England


To the Editor:

Emanuele Ottolenghi writes that “a core component” of Jewish identity is Jews’ “sense of Jewish peoplehood as expressed through their attachment and commitment to the democratic state of Israel and to the Zionist enterprise.” Such a linking of the Jewish community to the realities and destinies of a particular country is problematic.

When the idea of Jewish peoplehood was first proposed in the American context, most notably by Mordecai M. Kaplan in the 1930’s, there was no state of Israel to prevent the realization of Jewish identity within the framework of American citizenship. American Jews wanted to be recognized by others as fellow Americans. Today, by contrast, the dual loyalty that Jews were once accused of is proudly proclaimed by Zionists as a virtue. The commitment of American Jews to Israel has evidently emerged as a sine qua non of Jewishness itself.

As an American Jew who has no problems with his Jewish identity but also no interest in the Zionist enterprise, I find this hijacking of the American Jewish cause both offensive and ominous. Jews who want to support Israel are free to do so and to identify themselves as Zionists; Jews who want simply to be Americans should also be free to express that identification without being dragooned into support for a foreign country. May one not feel solidarity with one’s fellow Jews in Israel without feeling loyalty to the Jewish state or the Zionist enterprise?

Howard Kaminsky

Ocean Ridge, Florida


To the Editor:

In criticizing British parliamentarian Oona King for speaking of her “personal ‘shame’ as a ‘Jewish person’” over Israel’s Nazi-like treatment of Palestinians, Emanuele Ottolenghi notes parenthetically that King’s father is Jewish. If he cannot even get right the much publicized fact that it is King’s mother who is Jewish (her father is an Af- rican-American civil-rights activist), his opinions do not inspire much confidence.

Owen Beith

London, England


To the Editor:

The former British M.P. Oona King is right to call herself a “Jewish person”; her mother is Jewish. But her prostitution of her Jewish background to vilify Israel was widely seen as an act of political opportunism rather than as ideologically inspired. A member of parliament who represented the constituency with the largest proportion of Muslims in the United Kingdom, she was seeking to appease an electorate that was enraged over her support of the invasion of Iraq.

As a tactic, King’s slandering of Israel turned out to be in vain. At the general election last spring, she was ousted by the rabid anti-Zionist demagogue George Galloway.

Alexander Massey

London, England


To the Editor:

Emanuele Ottolenghi deserves high praise for his remarkably insightful essay on Jewish calumniators of the Jewish state. Alas, this disturbing phenomenon is by no means confined to Europe.

In North America, haters of Israel in search of “good Jews” to ratify their prejudices have no difficulty finding suitable candidates, as Edward Alexander and I document in a forthcoming book, The Jewish Divide Over Israel. They can invoke the authority of world-famous MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who wrote that “Hitler’s conceptions have struck a responsive chord in current Zionist commentary.” They can turn to Norman G. Finkelstein of DePaul University, who proclaimed that Israeli Jews are a “parasitic class.” Or they can seek reassurance in the sentiments of Michael Neumann, a philosopher at Trent University in Ontario who admits not caring if an effective campaign against Zionism entails “encouraging vicious, racist anti-Semitism, or the destruction of the state of Israel.”

Aspiring bigots can also take up the slanders that go forth from Zion itself. From the late Israel Shahak, who taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, they can learn that “Israeli Jews, and with them most Jews throughout the world, are undergoing a process of Nazification” and that “Jewish terror is very kosher in the U.S.A.” From Tel Aviv University’s Ran HaCohen they can discover that Israeli military tactics reflect “Hitler’s concept of war for annihilation.”

With a little effort, they can trace this poisonous language back to Martin Buber, who in an essay, “Old Zionism and Modern Israel,” lamented that “the majority of the Jewish people preferred to learn from Hitler rather than from [the advocates of a binational Palestine]. Hitler showed them that history does not go the way of the spirit but the way of power, and if a people is powerful enough, it can kill with impunity as many millions of another people as it wants to kill.”

With “good Jews” like these, who needs anti-Semites?

Paul Bogdanor

London, England


To the Editor:

Thank you very much for Emanuele Ottolenghi’s informative if disturbing article. I have been struggling for decades to understand the reasons for the anti-Zionism of some of my fellow Jews, and have never quite gotten a handle on it. When I have asked some of these Israel-repudiating Jews why they disdain Israel so much, the answers have been evasive or illogical or conspicuously wrong on the facts.

Mr. Ottolenghi’s article offers a plausible explanation as far as European Jews are concerned, but societal pressure seems less of a force operating on Jews in the U.S. Here, Jews who are anti-Israel are not giving in to pressure to renounce Jewish peoplehood; rather, they are trying to create it.

James Michael Price

Herndon, Virginia


To the Editor:

Emanuele Ottolenghi’s article is a lucid analysis that shows us how we are, in a sense, re-living the 1930’s. In select archives, there are letters from German Jews of that time telling fellow Jews in America and elsewhere that Hitler was misunderstood, his policies were not “that bad,” and that coexistence was possible, if only the Jews (and others) lowered their rhetoric and “changed.” The fearful, self-doubting, and even self-hating Jew has never vanished, and is ready to reappear at any historical inflection point or period of crisis. One has only to review the current situation in Israel to see that accommodation—even elective “conversion” to “dhimmi” status—is not a phenomenon limited to Jews of Western Europe.

Harold Bernard Reisman

Carlsbad, California


Emanuele Ottolenghi writes:

Avi Shlaim accuses me of “moral blackmail,” of trying to “silence” him and “deny” him his “right” to speak. This is risible. I am so far unaware that the Guardian, the Observer, and other distinguished publications have stopped hiring his pen on account of anything I wrote; nor is his tenure at Oxford endangered by my having dared to criticize his ideas. To the contrary, it is typical of Mr. Shlaim that, instead of addressing the substance of what I wrote, he responds by in effect accusing me of McCarthyism, of violating “the values . . . [of] free thought, free speech, and a free society.” Who, then, wishes to silence whom?

According to Mr. Shlaim, my “entire argument” rests on a fallacious “conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” In fact, nowhere do I assert that criticism of Israeli policies is equivalent to anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, there is criticism and then there is criticism, and Mr. Shlaim, despite protesting here that he views “Israel as good and the occupation as bad,” has consistently shown himself incapable of stopping short of the most sweeping denunciations not only of Israel itself, occupation or no occupation, but of the entire Zionist project. Examples include his recent statements that “Zionism today is the real enemy of the Jews,” that “the essence of Zionism is territorial expansion,” and that Israel’s response to the second intifada was a “savage colonial war”; his support for a 2002 boycott of Israeli products; and his summary of his own professional task in these words: “the historian is a judge, and above all a hanging judge. And therefore I sit in judgment on Israeli leaders.”

Mr. Shlaim objects to my grouping him among those “good Jews” who regard it as their “specifically Jewish duty to denounce Israel.” He need not be so shy. Like many of his fellow travelers, Mr. Shlaim has been generous with the details of his own biography, flourishing his authority, as an Iraqi-born Jew, to speak on all matters having to do with Israel and Zionism. Thus, in an interview with the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, he stated that since childhood he viewed the founding of Israel as “an Ashkenazi trick,” one that forced Jews to leave the Arab countries where they had long felt perfectly at home: “There weren’t real problems between Jews and Arabs until the state of Israel was established.” His nostalgia for a mythical state of Arab-Jewish harmony preceding the rise of Zionism and Israel is enough in itself to call into question his claim as a scholar to follow an objective, nuanced, and document-based approach to history.

I am not sure what Mr. Shlaim has in mind in attributing to me a “totalitarian conception of what it means to be Jewish.” (He has similarly accused Efraim Karsh of promoting a “totalitarian conception of history.”) His conception of his own Jewish identity seems to involve waving his Israeli passport in public whenever that suits his polemical convenience while at the same time emphasizing other “identities,” including that of an “Arab Jew” (a made-up term never used by either Jews or Arabs and only recently surfacing in post-Zionist jargon). In January 2003, he proclaimed before a university audience that he was an “honorary Jordanian citizen” who was “very worried,” on behalf of his “adoptive country,” that Ariel Sharon might seize the occasion of America’s invasion of Iraq to “ethnically cleanse” the West Bank.

No doubt all of this is consistent with Mr. Shlaim’s notion of “an old Jewish tradition of political dissent, of which [he is] proud to be part.” This, one gathers, is the same “tradition” that has much to say about the mani- fold alleged crimes against justice and human rights perpetrated by the likes of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel but falls demurely silent in the face of Palestinian terrorism or Saddam Hussein. There is indeed such a Jewish tradition, and it formed the subject of my article. In confirming his “pride” at belonging to it, Mr. Shlaim helps make my point.

Howard Kaminsky finds “problematic” my assertion that “a core component” of Jewish identity is the “sense of Jewish peoplehood as expressed through [the Jews’] attachment and commitment to the democratic state of Israel and to the Zionist enterprise.” To say that Israel is today a core component of Jewish identity is a simple statement of fact; as surveys repeatedly show, most Jews in the U.S. (as throughout the Diaspora) support it politically and are concerned with its well-being. Moreover, they see no conflict between that support and their identity as Americans. This hardly means that every Jew is or must be a Zionist in the narrow political sense. (As for Zionism in the religious sense, namely, the attachment to and longing for a return to, precisely, “the realities and destinies of a particular society,” that is as old as Judaism itself.)

Ironically, the centrality of Israel to Jewish identity is nowhere more evident than among those Jews who choose to embrace an anti-Zionist worldview. These tend to define their Jewish identity almost entirely through their often compulsively stated dissociation from the Jewish state. In my article I cited former British M.P. Oona King as an example. I thank Owen Beith and Alexander Massey for correcting me about her parentage, but my error does not affect my main point—namely, that King exploited her Jewish origins in attacking Israel.

Paul Bogdanor’s forthcoming book with Edward Alexander is a welcome addition to a debate far too long defined by one side. In their self-righteousness as prophets of Jewish authenticity, detractors of Israel have turned discourse into a monologue of indictment, playing to the hilt the role of, in Avi Shlaim’s self-gratulatory words, “hanging judge.” It is time to reclaim the moral high ground.

My thanks to James Michael Price and Harold Bernard Reisman for their kind comments.

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