Unraveling of American Zionism Sharply Divides Jewish Americans

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Archbishop Desmond Tutu Funeral Service - YouTube



Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu (c) visits a house in the town of Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip on May 28, 2008. U.N. human rights observers led by Tutu met survivors of a 2006 Israeli bombing that killed 19 Palestinian civilians, including five women and eight children, in their homes, leading the South African cleric to say the group was “devastated” by what they learned. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)41111111111 Votes 4.00

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2022, pp. 15-17

Israel and Judaism

By Allan C. Brownfeld

WIDESPREAD ATTENTION is being focused on the decline of Zionism within the American Jewish community. An article in The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 7, 2021) by Marc Tracy, appropriately entitled, “Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism,” has stimulated much discussion. This came shortly after the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem used the term “apartheid” to characterize Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as did Human Rights Watch.

Increasingly, the term “apartheid” is being used to identify Israeli policy. The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African advocate of non-violence and racial justice, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, focused attention upon his characterization of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In a speech in Boston on April 13, 2002, (see June/July 2002 Washington Report, pages 56-58), he declared: “In our struggle against apartheid, the great supporters were Jewish people. They almost instinctively had to be on the side of the disenfranchised, of the voiceless ones, fighting oppression and evil. I have continued to feel strongly with the Jews. I am patron of a Holocaust center in South Africa. I believe Israel has a right to secure borders.” 

What Tutu found “not so understandable, not justified” was what Israel “did to another people to guarantee its existence. I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about…I have experienced Palestinians pointing to what were their homes, now occupied by Jewish Israelis… My heart aches. I say why are our memories so short. Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history, so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?”

Today, many prominent Israelis agree with Archbishop Tutu’s assessment. In December, Amos Schocken, the third generation of his family to run the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, declared that “The product of Zionism, the state of Israel, is not a Jewish and democratic state, but instead has become an apartheid state, plain and simple.”

The fact that so many Jewish Americans are turning against Zionism and are increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, has produced a backlash among those who defend Israel’s behavior, whatever it may be. Consider Rabbi Wendi Geffen of North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois. After Israel’s latest assault on Gaza, she gave a sermon about what she called “the new anti-Semitism,” as reported in Mondoweiss, Nov. 26, 2021, in which she declared that “Anti-Zionist Jews are Jews in name only,” who must be kept “out of the Jewish tent.” 

Rabbi Geffen told her congregation: “There are boundaries to that tent. And those begin when a person engages in words or action that seeks to destroy Israel or the Jewish people, or enables or condones violence in support of extremist ideology. There is no place for any of that in the big tent.”

In Rabbi Geffen’s view, “The vast majority” of Jews support Israel and Jews who oppose Zionism and say that Zionism and progressive values are a contradiction “are more dangerous” to the Jewish people than the right-wing anti-Semites who attack synagogues. Philip Weiss noted that, “The rabbi had nothing to say about a matter that has caused great disaffection among Jews: the lopsided conflict that ended a week earlier in which Israeli missiles leveled office buildings and killed 256 people in blockaded Gaza, while Palestinian militants killed 13 in Israel…That onslaught helped fuel a survey…showing that 38 percent of young Jews believe that Israel practices apartheid and 20 percent say Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state. Those are Geffen’s ‘Jews in name only.’”

In May 2021, a letter was signed by 93 rabbinical students during the Israeli onslaught on Gaza which declared that Israel maintains “apartheid” in the occupied territories and called on American Jews, who have taken on structural racism in the U.S., to oppose “racist violence in Israel.” This produced an extreme response from many in the Jewish establishment. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York and previously executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, wrote an article in the Dec. 2, 2021 edition of The Times of Israel with the headline, “For the love of Israel, we need to say: The Reform movement is Zionist.”

He wrote: “We have a communal responsibility to clarify what it is that the Reform movement believes. What are our values and principles…For the record, the Reform movement is a Zionist movement. Every single branch of our movement…are Zionist and committed ideologically and theologically to Israel. We are theologically committed to the centrality of the Jewish people and the Jewish state…What higher responsibility does a Jewish leader have than to love and protect fellow Jews…Some American Jews…provide Jewish cover to forces that seek not coexistence with Israel, but Israel’s destruction.” What is agitating Rabbi Hirsch and others is that young Jewish Americans, as the letter from the rabbinical students indicates, are returning to Reform Judaism’s prophetic tradition. 

Using the term “anti-Semitism” to characterize criticism of Israel is a tactic long used by Israeli advocates to silence criticism. Discussing this phenomenon, Peter Beinart, editor-at-large at Jewish Currents, notes that, “The problem is that their definition of anti-Semitism rests on a distinction between criticism of Israel, which they consider legitimate, and opposition to the country’s existence as a Jewish state, which they deem bigoted. But the validity of that distinction rests on what Jewish statehood actually means for the Palestinians under Israeli control—the very subject that its highest-profile defenders evade. It’s a sleight of hand. The trick is to enforce a set of boundaries around criticism of Israel without investigating whether those boundaries bear any relationship to reality on the ground.”

In her 2019 book, Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, Deborah Lipstadt, who President Joe Biden has nominated to be his special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, insists that, “We must carefully differentiate between campaigns that disagree with Israeli policy and those that essentially call for the elimination of the Jewish state. There is a vast difference between being opposed to the policies of the Israeli government and being an anti-Semite.”

According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), it is “offensive” to accuse Israel of practicing apartheid. The reason, according to the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt, is that “Deriding Israel as an apartheid state is not a just critique but part of a broader effort to delegitimize and demonize the Jewish state.” Ironically, Deborah Lipstadt used the same logic against the BDS movement. She said, “If you look at the founding documents of the BDS movement, you see an effort to destroy the state of Israel. That I find anti-Semitic.”

Jewish critics of Israel who use the term “apartheid” to characterize its treatment of Palestinians are growing in number and calling them “anti-Semitic” only seems to be increasing their voices. Consider Ronnie Kasrils, a leading South African Jewish anti-apartheid activist who served as a minister in Nelson Mandela’s government. He wrote an article in The Guardian (April 3, 2019) with the headline, “I fought South African apartheid. I see the same brutal policies in Israel.” He noted that, “Israel’s repression of Palestinian citizens, African refugees and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza has become more brutal over time. Ethnic cleansing, land seizure, home demolitions, military occupation” remind Kasrils of the years of apartheid in South Africa.

He declares that “I’m also deeply disturbed that critics of Israel’s brutal policies are frequently threatened with repression of their freedom of speech, a reality I’ve now experienced at first hand. Last week, a public meeting in Vienna where I was scheduled to speak in support of Palestinian freedom, as part of the global Israel Apartheid Week, was canceled by the museum hosting the event, under pressure from Vienna’s City Council, which opposes the international BDS movement from Israel.”

Kasrils recalls that, “South Africa’s apartheid government banned me for life from attending meetings. Nothing I said could be published because I stood up against apartheid. How disgraceful that despite the lessons of our struggle against racism, such intolerance continues to this day, stifling free speech on Palestine. During the South Africa struggle, we were accused of following a Communist agenda, but smears didn’t deflect us. Today, Israel’s propaganda follows a similar route, repeated by its supporters—conflating opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism. This must be resisted.”

The more extreme Israel’s actions, the more virulent and irrational the charges of “anti-Semitism” on the part of Israel’s defenders has become. Consider Alan Dershowitz, a long-time defender of Israel’s right-wing, now embroiled in the Jeffrey Epstein sex trafficking affair. Dershowitz was Epstein’s attorney and is currently being accused of rape by Virginia Giuffre. Still, after the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, he found time to  launch a bitter attack. Dershowitz posted a statement on Dec. 30, 2021, with the headline, “Bishop Tutu was the most influential anti-Semite of our time.” He wrote, “Tutu has a long history of ugly hatred toward the Jewish people, the Jewish religion, and the Jewish state. He not only believes in anti-Semitism, he actively promoted and legitimated Jew-hatred among his many followers and admirers around the world.” Dershowitz’s examples of alleged “anti-Semitism” on Tutu’s part include nothing more than quotes from him such as, “Zionism has very many parallels with racism.” There is no evidence that Dershowitz’s assault on Tutu met any resistance on the part of Israel’s defenders.

The older moral and ethical Jewish tradition is reasserting itself.

The idea that criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is “anti-Semitic” would have to include increasing numbers of American Jews as well as an increasing number of Israelis. Former Israeli Attorney General Michael Benyair recently declared, “Calling it apartheid in the West Bank only is a mistake. The apartheid regime is in all areas controlled by Israel, between the Sea and the Jordan River. The distinction between democratic Israel and the West Bank it controls is wrong…The solution to this is one of two things: granting equal rights to the disenfranchised in the entire controlled area and the loss of the Jewish majority, or ending the control of the disenfranchisers…and granting self-determination to each community in its own territory. The passage of years does not help to resolve the dilemma, but to exacerbate it.”

More and more prominent Jewish Americans are also speaking out. In a Dec. 24, 2021 statement for Jewish Voice for Peace, actor, playwright and essayist Wallace Shawn, whose father, William Shawn, was longtime editor of The New Yorker, declared: “Jews have suffered so much over the centuries and have felt the cruelty of which humans are capable. Although I’ve had good luck so far in my own life, I feel that what has happened to my relatives and ancestors has affected me and given me an opportunity, as a person with Jewish heritage, to be a few minutes quicker than others to identify with those who are persecuted and oppressed. Conversely, I am particularly horrified—and yes, I take it personally—when Jews draw the wrong lesson from the history of Jewish suffering, and instead of feeling, ‘We understand what it is to be hunted down and tormented, and so we need to stand up for those who are hunted down and tormented,’ they concluded instead, ‘We know what can happen to Jews, so in fighting on behalf of Jews, no tactics should be considered impermissible or immoral.’”

Shawn laments that when he pays his taxes to the Internal Revenue Service, “…the State of Israel gets to buy weapons that are used to subjugate, terrorize and kill Palestinians… At this particular moment, the Palestinian people need our support more than ever before, because it seems that an increasing number of Jews in Israel have made the choice, impossible as this may seem, to simply accept the hideous status quo as a normal condition that may never change.”

As Zionism unravels in the American Jewish community, the idea that AIPAC and other establishment Jewish organizations speak for large numbers of Jewish Americans becomes increasingly difficult to promote. The older moral and ethical Jewish tradition is reasserting itself. Calling it “anti-Semitic” shows us how much Zionism has distorted the very nature of Jewish identity.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.


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