11 March 2007

Protesting Too Much

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Professor Stanley Fish, one of The New York Times’ blog-op-ed-ers, recently wrote a fascinating post: “Is It Good For The Jews?” Among my many reactions to this (well-written and articulate) set of arguments was the feeling, yet again, that I have more to fear from the American Jewish institutional community than I do from Americans generally. Too much of American Jewish life become fixated on the idea that we have reason to be concerned for our welfare, our community, and (above all else) our co-religionists in Israel. Therefore, these organizations – like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, not to mention the many “United Jewish Communities” fundraising organizations – have decided that the best method for ensuring uncritical American support for Israel is to create an American Jewish community that is perceived as unified in thought and deed by forcibly squashing alternative opinions wherever possible. The American Jewish Committee’s terrible and nasty publication “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, is but one example of this.

Fish’s post further concluded that he “can’t buy” the idea that, as he quotes a friend, “criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another.” This reflects a common tactic of this American Jewish political correctness, to label anyone who disagrees, Jewish or not, an anti-Semite. Let me be clear: I am not accusing Professor Fish of doing this; but his comment mirrors that effort, while perpetuating the belief that the fates of Israel (a nation-state) and worldwide Judaism (a religion) are inextricably intertwined, and that they cannot be legitimately separated out for analysis. This view is simplistic and irrational.

It was with all of these concerns very much top of mind that I read with sadness the recent story of the two German bishops who, following a visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories, were quoted as drawing interesting historical connections. The New York Timesarticle on 10 March said: “‘In the morning, we see the photos of the inhuman Warsaw Ghetto, and this evening we travel to the ghetto in Ramallah; that makes you angry,’ Bishop Hanke was quoted as saying...” A Jewish Press report said: “Asked to confirm that statement, [Bishop] Mixa said, ‘I wanted to say that building the wall between Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas, as well as the many Israeli settlements, amounts to a degree of provocation from the point of view of the Palestinian population.’” (For other articles, of which there are many, see: Associated Press, as well as this news search or this news search.)

The Jewish reaction was swift and harsh. The tireless and ever-vigilant Anti-Defamation League put out a press release calling for the bishops to “publicly repudiate” their statements. The director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, said “Israel's actions do not bear any resemblance to the Nazis,” and that these comments do “nothing to help us understand what is going on [in Israel] today.” The Times reported Israel’s ambassador to Germany as saying that these comments were “verging on anti-Semitism,” while the highest-ranking Catholic in Germany quickly put out a statement distancing himself and the German branch of the Church from these statements. And as the above news searches show, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

And so, to Shakespeare, because there is too much protesting going on here. It is true that Israel is not – absolutely is not – conducting a simple, genocidal campaign against the Palestinian people.

But the situation does bear resemblances to other conflicts, including those of World War II, and in this it must be acknowledged that these two German bishops had a few good points to make. Israel has effectively cordoned off Palestinians into ghettos, much as the Germans did to Jews across Europe (not just in Warsaw). Access in and out is tightly controlled; while the Israelis have freedom of movement, the Palestinians do not. Moreover, this access extends to everything from money to supplies, ensuring that the Palestinians living in these ghettos do suffer a range of deprivations, while the Israelis on the other side of the Israeli-built border wall have access to just about everything they can afford to buy. And these oppressive conditions certainly “amounts to a degree of provocation from the point of view of the Palestinian population,” as Bishop Mixa said – just as partisan fighters in Europe’s ghettos fought back against their imprisonment.

The pro-Israel counter-arguments are to fall back on attacking the implied connection of genocide – not, it should be noted, ever stated directly by the bishops – and to then twist the politics into knots by declaring that the Palestinians have only themselves to blame. After all, asks Commentary, are the bishops too stupid to know that “Israel’s fence, [was] built to protect its people from Palestinian terrorists”? And so here we are back at the weakness of the American Jewish lobby, which cannot tolerate any Israel criticism whatsoever – even when true. The Palestinians have certainly been guilty of terrible acts of terrorist violence, and should definitely change their ways. Violence only begets more violence, as I keep writing. But the failures of the Palestinians cannot always justify the inhumane actions of the Israelis. The real shame of it is that, at some point, American citizens will realize – as with the Iraq war – they they have been mislead, and eventually the entire framework of American support for Israel will collapse. That, to Professor Fish’s point, would surely be bad for the Jews.


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