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Kenneth Levin on The Jewish Divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Israel, Peace Process
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 18:3-4 (Fall 2006)


Dissecting Jewish Demonization of Israel

The Jewish Divide over Israel: Accusers and Defenders, edited by Edward Alexander and Paul Bogdanor, Transaction Publishers, 2006, 283 pp.

Reviewed by Kenneth Levin


This important and timely essay collection explores the poisonous phenomenon of Jews who fulminate against the Jewish state. Among those it considers are the best-known representatives of this group, many of them ensconced in academia.

Natan Sharansky, in addressing the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, has suggested the “three Ds” of when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic: when it demonizes the Jewish state, or delegitimizes it, or applies double standards to it. A number of the people discussed in this book easily fit these criteria and can be considered fellow travelers of Israel’s crudest and most hate-driven critics. Among them are Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Tony Judt, Daniel Boyarin, Marc Ellis, Martin Jay, Michael Neuman, Jacqueline Rice, Judith Butler, Joel Beinin, and Israelis such as the late Israel Shahak and Tanya Reinhart.

Hostility and Indifference

The volume’s essays include both general considerations of the Jewish derogation of Israel and discussions of individual culprits. Among the former, coeditor Edward Alexander’s Introduction offers an excellent overview. In a subsequent chapter, Alexander looks specifically at Israelis who regularly express boundless loathing for their fellow countrymen and their nation and who represent a considerable portion of the nation’s academic and cultural elites. Alexander suggests that: “the special contribution of Israeli accusers of Israel to the larger campaign against their country has been their compulsive promotion, with countless variations on the theme, of the Israeli-Nazi equation.”

At this point, however, the equation has become firmly established as well among Israel’s Jewish defamers in the Diaspora and-as with Israel’s Gentile demonizers-is used mindlessly, automatically and stereotypically; an obscene political tic.

In a short, brilliant chapter, Cynthia Ozick cites George Eliot’s 1878 essay “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!”: “[It would be] difficult to find a form of bad reasoning about [Jews] which had not been heard in conversation or been admitted to the dignity of print.” She notes the applicability of Eliot’s words to polite society today, particularly in Europe, where Israel represents the Jew, and she discusses the striking readiness of some Jews to parrot these sentiments in apparent eagerness to ingratiate themselves with that “polite” society.

Another of the more panoramic chapters is an incisive analysis by Alvin Rosenfeld of the general silence and apparent indifference of American Jewish intellectuals to the plight of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s and during World War II. He compares the phenomenon to the indifference and hostility of many Jewish intellectuals in Israel and America in subsequent decades to the Jewish state. Rosenfeld looks at the intellectual tenets used to justify these stances, notes their irrationality, and also touches on the motives-most notably a desire for acceptance-that underlies these people’s attitudes toward things Jewish and explains that irrationality.


Individual Culprits

Like the general pieces, all the essays focused on specific individuals, or a specific few, provide valuable analyses of their subjects and expose the intellectual sloppiness and crudeness of their arguments. These essays generally point to the converging of that crudeness with the arguments of Israel’s, and the Jews’, most hateful and murderous attackers. But the chapters vary widely in addressing these people’s motives.

Some portray their subjects as simply embracing intellectual ideals to which Zionism and Israel somehow represent an affront, and they interpret such attacks on Israel as reflecting allegiance to those ideals. For example, Assaf Sagiv views George Steiner’s attitudes toward Israel as shaped by his commitment to a “cosmopolitan ideal.” Even as Sagiv demonstrates how that ideal was molded by an intellectual tradition with intensely anti-Jewish roots, he still construes the problem to lie essentially in Steiner’s cultivated intellectual allegiances.

Similarly, Menachem Kellner attributes Daniel Boyarin’s hostility to Israel and sympathy for its would-be destroyers to his embrace of a popular and politically correct multiculturalism. Alan Mittleman discusses Marc Ellis’s intemperate attacks on Israel as emanating from his allegiance to the dogma of liberation theology.

Other essays focus on the dishonesty and bigotry of the subject’s attacks, perhaps noting but putting less emphasis on broad ideological allegiances. Thus, coeditor Paul Bogdanor, in his chapter on Chomsky, refers to his subject’s ideological orientation but concentrates on dissecting the content of Chomsky’s writings, his “diatribes on the Arab-Israeli conflict…[that] bear the hallmarks of his intellectual repertoire-massive falsifications of facts, evidence, sources and statistics….”  Bogdanor takes a similar approach in his essay on Norman Finkelstein and in another on Israel Shahak and Tanya Reinhart.

Still others, including Cynthia Ozick and Alexander, give greater weight to the desire of their subjects to ingratiate themselves with Israel’s enemies.


The Wish for Acceptance

This last element seems essential. It is virtually impossible to fathom these people’s apparent intellectual allegiances, or their wanton distortion and prevarication, without considering their desire to distance themselves from a targeted people and to appease Israel’s besiegers. Some, such as Benny Morris, discussed by Efraim Karsh, and Thomas Friedman, analyzed by Martin Krossel, represent a variation on the same theme: their perspectives on the conflict are shaped by a wish to see the threat to Israel as soluble, and they readily distort the truth and amplify Israel’s “guilt” in the service of construing its besiegers’ enmity as rational and appeasable.

Alexander captures an essential truth when he states in the Introduction that:

“Cowardice” is the word that springs to mind most often as the suitable epithet for Israel’s Jewish enemies. This is not only because coming to the defense of this tiny and beleaguered nation (or of the Jews themselves) has never been an exercise for the timid, but also because of the abundant accolades these accusatory Jews have received for their courage from persons not exactly famous as discerning judges of character.

Alexander opens his Introduction to the volume with a 1970 quote from Irving Howe: “Jewish boys and girls, children of the generation that saw Auschwitz, hate democratic Israel and celebrate as ‘revolutionary’ the Egyptian dictatorship…. A few go so far as to collect money for Al Fatah, which pledges to take Tel Aviv.  About this, I cannot say more; it is simply too painful.” Now these children are grown and have extended their sympathies beyond the Egyptian dictatorship and Fatah to Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Iranian mullahs. In contrast to the cowardice of those discussed in the book, the authors of this collection demonstrate considerable courage in not being deterred by either their perspective’s unpopularity or their subject’s painfulness.

Although some of the essays in the book have been published elsewhere, their inclusion here, together with the new material, is a great service to those who recognize the threat that Jewish defamation of Israel represents and want a better understanding of its nature and roots.

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DR. KENNETH LEVIN is a psychiatrist and historian and author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People under Siege (Hanover, NH: Smith & Kraus Global, 2005).