Another Jewish Liberal Rationalizes Silence on Things That Disturb Him in the Middle East

Following Tony Judt’s lecture two weeks back, NYU had a wine-and-cheese where I ran into a leftish Jewish journalist who felt guilty over Judt’s criticisms of the Jewish state. I ought to write about what is going on in Palestine, she said, but I don’t. It’s complicated, and you invite storms of invective by doing so.

Liberal Jewish Alan Wolfe makes similar points in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he says that “we need in the United States a debate about the future of Israel as robust as the one that routinely takes place within Israel itself.”

Yet Wolfe isn’t jumping in. He says it’s hard to raise criticisms of Israel when the American discussion is basically “a shouting match” with alot of Christian antisemites and right-wing pro-Israeli “illiberals” screaming at one another.

[I]t is hard to raise them, at least in any probing way, when prominent Hollywood celebrities like Mel Gibson flirt with anti-Semitism, and when newspapers like The New York Sun, a staunch defender of Israel, routinely accuse those who criticize Zionism of being little different from Gibson. It is difficult to know why honest discussions about Israel have become so difficult to conduct. Is it, perhaps, because the rise of the Christian right, no matter how ostensibly supportive of Israel it claims to be, reminds Jews that they live in a Christian country and thereby makes them more likely to circle the wagons?

This is a tired rationalization for passivity. When Wolfe suggests that to criticize Israel means to be lumped with a laughingstock, Mel Gibson, he is writing off the ability of the intellectual to express independent ideas if he chooses to. When he suggests that to criticize Israel is to help Christians oppress Jews, he is self-involved and deluded, offering a Boratish shtetl paranoia about goyische America. Wolfe is a big deal professor and head of a center on religion and public life at an important school. The power structure has long since made room for Jewish wealth, Jewish brains, and Jewish political muscle. The people he is so fearful of are largely outsiders. He ought to focus on Nancy Pelosi, who is an insider. When Pelosi denounces Jimmy Carter and says that the U.S. will stand with Israel forever and there is no such thing as second-class citizenship in occupied territories, she is bowing to a powerful lobby and misrepresenting reality in a way that ought to concern an intellectual more than whatever Mel Gibson said drunk to a cop.

Wolfe’s muddle is the same muddle that Jewish liberals have been in since the Iraq war. They are against the war, but their critique is blunted because they know that devotion to Israel played a part in the thinking of some of the war planners, but they don’t want to talk at all about that because they fear it would result in a pogrom. And so they ascribe all the bad stuff to people they don’t know and can easily demonize: the Christian right. Or Halliburton. And thereby fail to do their jobs as intellectual leaders, at a time when the country is in a tremendous foreign-policy crisis.

Wolfe’s weakest moment is granting the right to silence him to the New York Sun. The Sun is a superb newspaper. I disagree with just about everything it says, but I have to marvel at how much influence it has achieved in five years, as well as its cultivation of fine talents like critic Adam Kirsch. Hats off to Kovner, Hertog and Lipsky. But to give these rightwing neo-Jabotinskyites power? Einstein didn’t give them power. Nor did Isaiah Berlin, Ahad Ha’am or Chaim Arlosorov. Today progressive Israelis like Gideon Levy, Akiva Eldar, and Yehuda Shaul don’t care what the Sun says about them when they criticize religious-nationalist forces they are up against.

This is the tragic aspect of Wolfe’s muddle. He says we need the robustness of the Israeli discourse here. The Israeli left agrees. It keeps looking to liberals in the U.S. to form an arc of thought to help end the hateful occupation and challenge the racists like Avigdor Lieberman who now have a place in the government there. By looking away from all that and blaming it on the Sun, Wolfe is doing precisely what liberal American Jews have done for a long time now: handed their power to the rightwing Israel lobby.