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Philip Weiss and the straw man of Jewish “separatism”

On April 1st, I remarked that a post by Philip Weiss had conveyed the far left’s discomfort with Jewish identity. Weiss’ response created so many straw men that it would take hours to torch them. But one of his ideological scarecrows deserves comment, because it is based on a notion of Jewish identity that is alarmingly simplistic.

In his original post, Weiss excoriated Michael Walzer for “turning inward” and becoming more Jewish. In my rejoinder, I sought to defend the American Jewish quest for community as a sensible response to 21st century American life. I indicated that some expressions of Jewish communal ties should be condemned, including support from Jews in Brooklyn and LA for provocative new settlements or clear instances of disloyalty on the part of American Jewish public officials. But other expressions –e.g., support for Israel’s peace-and-human-rights camp– are based on the same values that Weiss cherishes.

In his response to my response, he treats all expressions of Jewish identity as narrow “religiosity” and all attempts to develop or define Jewish identity as pure “separatism.” There does not seem to be any distinction in this vision between the Hasidic Jews of Monsey, NY and American Jews who support B’Tselem –the Israeli human rights group– precisely because they are Jewish, because they believe it is decidedly un-Jewish to deliberately humiliate and brutalize Palestinians.

There is no room in his vision of community for, say, the young, progressive and often religious Jews who congregate on blogs like jewschool or for self-identified Jewish bloggers like Richard Silverstein, people who are trying to cultivate a Jewishness that rejects the Greater Israel obsessives, the pre-emptive Republican warmakers, the conventional pro-Israel lobby and anyone who displays callous indifference to human suffering.

Armed with a narrow definition of “turning inward,” Weiss graciously assures us he is ok with American Jews who embrace Jewish communal ties and a sense of Jewish peoplehood, as long as we keep to ourselves and live off the grid. And, of course, no one who embraces those values must ever be allowed to have any say about American foreign policy or dare to integrate ourselves into the American power structure. You are with us or against us, implies Philip Weiss. More importantly, either obliterate your Jewish identity completely or leave us alone and keep your mouths shut.

He proclaims:

Let me plain about my emotional bias here. I am an assimilationist, and Jewish, and pluralist, and something in me bridles when I hear Jews calling for all the privileges of American society (economic, statuswise, political) and not wanting to mix in. I don’t think it’s sustainable in a democracy. Democracy can abide strong corporate minorities–absolutely. Utah is run by the Mormons, and we seem to abide by it (though the New Republic argues (and I’m prepared to agree) that Mitt Romney’s Mormon-corporate interest disqualifies him from high office). Monsey, N.Y., is run by the Hasidim and that also is tolerable. I think it’s great that Ruth Wisse is at Harvard and Michael Walzer at Princeton. But assuming high position in society and maintaining a program of separate corporate identity; that’s when it gets dicey. I wouldn’t want Walzer or Wisse as president of Harvard. Rightwing Christian evangelicals also should pay a price for their religiosity…

I feel that realistic dove and Walzer are both failing to understand this moment in Jewish history. Something new and astonishing is unfolding in the U.S. I say that privileged Jewish Americans should share their gifts with this great society, and accept some of the risks therein, that privileged Jewish writers should write for American readers. Walzer wants to reseparate, and be anomalous. O.K., you can do it, but I would say there’s a price to be paid in political power for such conduct.

The source of these assertions, of course, is not just a vague squeamishness about ethnicity of any kind; it is also a concern about the potential “dual loyalty” of rightwing American Zionists in positions of power. But I don’t understand how all of these dots are connected.

I have yet to see sufficient evidence that neocons in the Bush Administration were motivated mainly by their loyalty to Israel or a vision of Israel’s future when they planned and promoted the inane invasion of Iraq. But let us say, for the sake of argument, that Weiss’ oft-repeated suspicions about these men are true. And let us say, for the sake of argument, that American Jewish organizations played a critical role in the political calculus that influenced the decision to invade Iraq. Why does that necessarily implicate ALL self-defined American Jews who affiliate in some fashion with other Jews, feel like they are part of the Jewish people and –as part of that identity– want to help ensure that Israel survives? Is there no way to have those beliefs and feelings without being “disloyal” to America? Is there no way to have them without becoming a Likudnik?

As far as I’m concerned, there is absolutely no contradiction between being pro-American, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. A 2-state solution along the lines of the Clinton plan is in the interests of all three peoples as well as the rest of the world. Moreover, I demonstrated against the invasion of Iraq. I was quite comfortable doing so while identifying myself as an American Jew who feels a profound kinship with other Jews, including friends and family in Israel. What aspect of my identity does Phil Weiss wish me to discard as part of the “price” of being a full-fledged American? If he looked through back issues of the Dearborn Independent, I am sure he could find useful talking points from Henry Ford to help him address this question.

14 thoughts on “Philip Weiss and the straw man of Jewish “separatism”

  1. Amazing to read what some people in the blog-o-world believe is useful and educational commentary. This guy Philip Weiss actually wrote that he wouldn’t want Ruth Wisse or Michael Walzer to be President of Harvard because, well, they are proud to be Jews???!!! If that isn’t anti-Semitism, then I would like to know what is.(But, oh no, we’re not supposed to use the “a-word.” Using the a-word, we are told is just a way to shut critics of Israel up)…

    In his earlier post, the one you responded to, Weiss wrote that there was an “integrationist price” one had to pay in order to enjoy the benefits of full participation in American life. I became very curious about this guy and went back and looked at his blog on the NY Observer. A few years ago, it seems like he was just starting to think about his own American Jewish identity and his views of Zionism. If you read through it, month by month, you will have the privilege of observing the slow birth of an anti-Semitic mind. He is encouraged by a posse of Neturei Karta supporters and people who take a few quotes from Hertzl and Ben Gurion and Sharon, mash them all together, and try to show that the Zionists welcomed the Holocaust. They don’t just show that some of the Zionists didn’t work hard enough to stop it (a charge that could be levied against the entire civilized and uncivilized world). They don’t just show that a few Zionists tried to take advantage of it by offering to pay the Nazis for the transport of refugees to Palestine or did other things that, in retrospect, were not always admirable. They try to show that the Zionists welcomed the Holocaust!!! And that’s their strategy for answering us when we tell them the Holocaust made it essential for Jews to have a state of their own because no other country would take them in.

    Now some of those same people are on his new blog. Frightening stuff.

  2. Dove,
    I liked your comments on April 1. I’m not sure I like your comments above.

    Why not invite him over to your house on or after shabbat and share some food, some songs, a hike, some joking, some study, some prayer?

    You know “substance over form”.

  3. Richard,

    Phil is a friend, although our relationship is obviously complicated. I don’t think he minds if I express irritation with his views on this particular subject; on the contrary, he expects it. I also don’t think he’s likely to be interested in prayer, but maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s worth a try.


  4. Weiss’ recent discovery of his “Jewish self-hatred” probably has more to do with his professional failures and faltering career than objective analysis.

  5. Does he know any people of color? We certainly reject this idea that one has to “integrate” in order to receive the benefits of being an American. I am a proud Latino and a proud Jew; I honor both of those identities and receive much sustenance from them both. I do not see any contradiction in this.

    Also, he does not realize that there are many consciously secualr Jews who, while not believing in the religious aspect of Judaism, are PROUD Jews.

  6. Realistic Israeli,

    That borders on an unnacceptable, gratuitous, personal insult that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. I won’t delete it, as obviously I also pushed the envelope with my comment on Henry Ford (which I’ve been tempted to delete but have retained because I do think it is a valid intellectual comparison) and understand how upsetting this topic can be. But please base your comments on the evidence. Thanks.

  7. Dan,
    There are many prayers that anyone would be attracted to.

    I love the opening prayer to the seder, “Thank you for bringing us to this season”, which bridge two cultures during my lifetime.

    The first is a bridge to my hippie upbringing, remembering the Grateful Dead song with the line “see here how everything leads up to this day”.

    The second bridge is to self-identified Judaism and of just Zionism, “IF you keep my commandments, the land will be for you a birthright and I will bring the rain in its season” (a metaphor for things in their right place, natural, comfortable, just).

    “Thank you for forming me and the world, for every influence that has brought me to this moment, to this condition. Thank you for making me human, male, Jew. I accept my reality thankfully.”

    If one does not accept one’s identity, including everything that contributed to it in dna, upbringing, teaching, friendships, context, then one is by definition not “self-accepting”, and possibly “self-hating” if the confusions have grown thick.

    When the term is used as a pejorative though, it ceases to have the real meaning of an invitation to self-acceptance and active community and spiritual relationship, and ends up further clouding rather than liberating or self-affirming anything.

    For what its worth, although the Neturai Karta revise history in failing to acknowledge the plight of the traumatized post-WW2 Jewish refugees (persecuted in their homes – Poland, Russia, Hungary, Rumania, France; and mostly denied admittance to US, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia), the essence of their assertion is in the repeated conditional promise in Torah “IF you keep my commandments, the land will be for you a birthright”.

    That contrasts with many of the settler movement’s neo-religious view that the condition that Jews have to fulfill is to take the land, that somehow that is the summary of Torah, rather than Hillel’s “do not do unto others what is distasteful unto you”.

  8. Richard,

    Just about anything recited or read during the Seder can be meaningful to anyone, Jewish or not..except perhaps for Chad Gad Ya, which I once heard described as a rationalization for Zionist oppression (someone actually said that to me!). So perhaps I will invite Phil to my next seder.

    Let’s not forget that there has long been a tiny but inspiring peace movement among modern Orthodox (i.e., not haredi or anti-Zionist) Jews. The people from Oz v’Shalom are the ones I used to encounter and some of them are still around. I’m under the impression there are newer groups as well. There are many ways to intepret the holiness of the holy land and God’s promise to the Jewish people as evidence that we must share the land. The settlers don’t have a monopoly on interpretation –no one does.

  9. I too share some slight discomfort with some of Phil’s views about Israel and Zionism. But I have to say that Phil manages to say things in ways that other folks might give me hives. And with Phil I can take it in stride. He’s just not polemical in ways that so many others are. If we all could present our views in ways as tolerant & respectful as Phil we wouldn’t have half the intolerance we often see in this debate.

    Likewise, Phil isn’t intolerant of those who don’t share his views on Zionism. It’s quite a remarkable phenomenon. He almost has a Buddhist-Jewish soul.

  10. Buddhist and personal ethical life is primarily oriented to the quality of individual character and person.

    The fulcrum of Jewish life is largely the character of community, not individuality. Individual morality is important as a means to construct a wonderful community life.

    One of the conflicts that Zionism as a nation building movement both solved and then contradicted and then “unsolved” was emphasis on community.

    In some respects “nation” may be described as the community of communities, and therefore natural, non-exclusive, both venue for reconciliation between communities and a thing in itself.

    Rather than a focus on Jewish community, with majority of emphasis on internal relationships, but some emphasis on relationships with others, modern Zionism shifted the focus of attention and institutions to nation. Community was no longer the focus.

    Not intimate, not prayerful, not friendship, not an elegant social scale of ecological balance and versatility, not flexible in dealing with one’s neighbors.

    Zionism as articulated by Chaim Weizman was a Wilsonian self-governance movement. If Jews are a people, then it is preferable that they self-govern than be governed externally.

    That is also the math of the mandatory phenomena to break up former colonial British regime. (India – Pakistan, Israel – Palestine, Nigeria, others). The logic of that formula is that it is better for there to be two states in areas of ethnic or other cultural majority in which potentially tyrranized minorities comprise only 20% of the population (not a threatening number to the majority), than a single state in which minorities comprise 45% of the population in a winner take all society. (Where 45% are harmed in what would be an oil/water law, is a formula for brutal civil war.) Hence the mandate as a lesser of two evils.

    Expansion threatens even that though. Still, the Likud party platform describes the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan as Israel. And the Hamas party platform describes the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan as Palestine.

    But, the former majorities as indicated by electoral polls in Israel and less formal polls in Palestine, indicated support for civil parties, secular, non-expansionist.

    That is no longer the case in Palestine (as indicated by the Hamas election), and presumably not in Israel depending on whether Kadima morphs back into Likud or opts to morph into Labor.

    Traumatized nations (short and long term) defend more than they are willing to risk or even construct.

    So, what is best for us? What do we do with our short, finite lives?

    One of the reasons that anti-zionism is getting attention currently, is do to the impotence of the peace movement to effect a better alternative. Those that articulate an ethic of mutual decency, even assistance, are trumped in both American and Israeli politics, and slowly but relentlessly, Palestinians get more and more cornered and ignored. (Not to mention the righting of prior wrongs, even if inevitable or necessary.)

    No matter that a peaceful Zionism approach is the lesser of two political evils. That option is also “slowly” moving off the menu, shifting to “which side are you on?”.

  11. “I feel that realistic dove and Walzer are both failing to understand this moment in Jewish history.” -Philip Weiss

    Only a poser like Weiss- with a dilettante’s knowledge of Jewish history- would make such a comment.

  12. Realistic Israeli,

    Another way to interpret it is he is educating himself day by day, and thinking about what he’s learned, and then imparting what he has learned and thought about. So we are observing a sometimes tormented, but always well-intentioned, quest to discover what to believe.

    In pre-Web says, such insights and observations would have been shared with a few friends in grad school bull sessions. Or they would have been jotted down in journals. Now, they are shared with the universe.

    I don’t agree with J-boy’s characterization (1st comment above) about the “slow birth of an anti-Semitic mind.” At least I don’t agree with it yet. My problem is that some of Phil’s posts provide fodder to people who, as Richard Silvertstein writes, “give me hives,” and Phil does not seem to be concerned.

  13. I believe the issue of dual loyalty is one that must be discussed. That is what Phil Weiss has called for in the past. It is clearly not in America’s interests to give Israel massive amounts of aid and protect and defend its leaders no matter what they do. If Administration officials like Elliot Abrams or former officials like Douglas Feith supported the settlers and Likud governments in the past, why is it taboo to suggest that they might not be the best people to help shape America’s Middle East policy?

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