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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.

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