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Freedman on ‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)


Rosenfeld Is Right

‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, American Jewish Committee, 2007, 29 pp.

Reviewed by Shalom Freedman

Alvin H. Rosenfeld, professor of English and Jewish studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts at Indiana University, presents a disturbing picture of the new anti-Semitism and of certain radical Jewish academics’ contribution to it. Rosenfeld opens his essay by considering manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world. He then discusses the new anti-Semitism in Europe.

Rosenfeld then outlines four ways in which the new anti-Semitism differs from the old. First, the new anti-Semitism has been globalized and, thanks to the Internet, crosses borders in an instant. Second, although the new anti-Semitism relies on traditional themes such as that Jews are “clannish, conspiratorial, money-hungry, manipulative, predatory, etc.,” Rosenfeld maintains that it is protean and evolving. The Palestinians, for instance, charge that Jews are poisoning their wells; Arabs claim that Jews are disseminating AIDS in the Arab world.

Third, the most vicious anti-Semitism today is in the Muslim, not the Christian, world. Fourth, the new anti-Semitism often takes the form of anti-Zionism and is largely directed at the Jewish state. Rosenfeld stresses that the new anti-Semitism attacks not only Israel’s policies but primarily its “legitimacy and right to an ongoing future.” In short, the new anti-Semitism aims to destroy the Jewish state.


The Jewish Radicals

Rosenfeld then considers the work of some of the most prominent Jewish delegitimizers. He opens with British academic Jacqueline Rose, who sees Israel’s very existence as a crime and Zionism as an enterprise of messianic madness. Rosenfeld also notes the “pathological fury” of Canadian philosophy professor Michael Neumann, who accuses all Israeli Jews of genocidal intentions and views anti-Semitism as something not to be taken seriously.

Rosenfeld then focuses on perhaps the most widely respected of the radical Jewish voices, British-American historian Tony Judt. In promoting his idea of binationalizing Israel out of existence, Judt condemns Israel in severe terms.

For the title of the last section of his essay, Rosenfeld borrows a phrase from the British lawyer Anthony Julius, “Proud to Be Ashamed to Be Jews.” He points that most of these Jewish critics champion the dissolution of the Jewish state. They portray it as morally repugnant and even criminal, self-righteously proclaiming how ashamed Israel makes them as Jews. Most important, however, they strengthen the anti-Semites at large in their efforts to delegitimize and destroy Israel.



Rosenfeld’s sober essay painstakingly analyzes views and reasoning that are far from common sense or sanity. However, reactions to the essay have been disappointing. It has been misrepresented in the media, most notably in a New York Times article by Patricia Cohen that claims Rosenfeld’s target is “liberal Jews.”[1] Since the overwhelming majority of American Jews are liberal, this gives the mistaken impression that Rosenfeld characterizes most of the community as denying Israel’s right to exist.

Or more generously, Cohen might be said to give the impression that Rosenfeld splits the community fifty-fifty, half for the Rose-Neumann- Judt school and half for Rosenfeld and the like-minded. In any case, she serves the radical cause by augmenting their weight and distorting the Left-Right debate on Israeli policy among Jews.

Another reviewer, the normally more astute Samuel Freedman, wrongly charges Rosenfeld with attempting to silence critics of Israel.[2] Rosenfeld’s essay makes a clear distinction between those who legitimately criticize Israeli policies and those who seek to delegitimize Israel itself.

The Forward, in an editorial titled “Infamy,” accuses Rosenfeld of lumping together all left-wing Jews critical of Israel.[3] A careful reading of his text would have shown that he does nothing of the kind.

One Forward criticism may be valid. Rosenfeld would have been wiser not to use the too-encompassing term “progressive Jews” for the likes of Jacqueline Rose, Michael Neumann, Tony Judt, and others. The Forward, however, chooses to condemn the messenger without considering the significance and timeliness of his message. Today’s anti-Semitism focuses on the destruction of Israel, and a number of Jewish academics are eagerly contributing to the cause.

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[1] Patricia Cohen, “Essay Linking Liberal Jews and Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor,” New York Times, 31 January 2007.

[2] Samuel Freedman, “The Amalek Syndrome,” Jerusalem Post, 16 February 2007.

[3] “Infamy” (editorial), Jewish Daily Forward, 1 February 2007.

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SHALOM FREEDMAN is a freelance writer in Jerusalem.