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The far left’s discomfort with Jewish identity

Philip Weiss, a casual friend and often an ideological nemesis, has a fascinating, typically disturbing post about Jewish identity on his blog, MondoWeiss.

In his magazine articles and his blog, he has been asking very provocative, often necessary questions about American Jews and Israel. As a result, he has become an increasingly important figure to those who feed on vitriol about Zionism and the Jewish people, some of whom regularly post comments on his blog.

    The Jewish Anomaly

This particular screed presents Phil Weiss’ reactions to a YIVO lecture by Michael Walzer, the eminent political philosopher, entitled “Are We A People?” His brief summary of Walzer’s thesis:

Jews are a people in a way that no one else is a people. We are both religion and nationality. That identity comes from God’s covenant with our people as recorded in the Torah, and is at once a religious and political self-definition. We have obeyed the same laws for a long time, and this has made us a Jewish nation, irrespective of whatever I or any one else has to say about it. “There are many nations, but we are one among them. And we are also a religion… We inherit a religiously inspired culture.”

Being both a religion and a nationality makes us an anomaly. We’re like the French but unlike the French we do not include Muslims and Catholics. And we can be members of the French nation but not the same as other members of that nation. “Jews are French, English and Russian with a difference.” We have been a “nation” for a long time. Jews may be comfortable and prosperous in America, but: “we are not simply at home.” Being full citizens in a stable democracy is a relatively new condition for Jews, and “we can’t be entirely confident about its permanence, Jewish history is full of warnings.”

Now the existence of a Jewish state, Israel, “makes things even more complicated.” We are connected to Israel, “to another place, to another geographical place and and a different history… this makes us different from other Americans who do not have these connections.”

Our anomalous status might make the world uncomfortable, but the world should just get used to it, Walzer said. There will be accusations of parochialism and disloyalty. We shouldn’t try and deny the anomaly so as to be liked; we shouldn’t be critical of ourselves. We should embrace the anomalies.

“We need not make excuses.. We have a simple position to defend. It isn’t that hard for our neighbors to live with our differences. We are what we are and we need to make a secure place for ourselves in the world.”

Phil indicates he was impressed by this lecture. But he also lets loose with a torrent of complaints. He is deeply disturbed by Walzer’s embrace of the Jewish people. He seems to harbor a kind of all-inclusive hostility to any expression of identification with that maddeningly hard-to-define entity calls “Jews.” Here’s one example:

The parochialism left a sour, tyrannical feeling. Walzer, having appeared on the scene as a liberal, has late in life occupied more and more the life of Judaism. Some of this is to his great credit as a scholar. He learned Hebrew in his 50s. But the orientation is defiantly particularist. He is not interested in Judaism as a universalist religion, as the anti-Zionist rabbis and liberal theorists offered it to the world. He doesn’t really want to share.

He presented it as a good thing that Jewish novelists are writing for Jews, unlike Bellow and Malamud. I repeat that statement because I find it so shocking. At a time when Jews are more prosperous and comfortable than ever in history, the community is to be congratulated for turning inward. In celebrating this, Walzer seems essentially conservative.

This is, well, a shocking statement. Later, there is a more reasonable argument against the political expression of Jewish nationalism. But he seems to be disturbed not just by Jews who support Israel or the occupation or American military interventionism; he has a problem with the very act of “turning inward.” He is alienated by efforts to develop and define a shared Jewish community, by American and other Jews who try to speak to each other about Jewishness, by any act of separation.

You can tell how upsetting this intra-Jewish communication is to Phil Weiss by the exclamation point in his post’s title: “Michael Walzer on Jewish Identity: Jewish Writers for Jewish Readers!” How dare those contemporary Jewish writers reflect on the Jewish experience in a manner that speaks to other Jews instead of everyone else?!

Another version of the same complaint:

Walzer’s exaltation of our “anomaly” as American citizens seemed a little complacent and self-congratulatory, and blind to the anomalous status of other citizens with historical vectors of non-Americanness. Indians, say, or Mexican-Americans. No: our difference was being sanctified here…

How dare American Jews be “self-congratulatory” or have any ethnic pride of any kind?! What do we need this for? We are already successful, well-established Americans who could easily discard our Jewish identity. How dare some of us choose not to disappear completely into the undifferentiated muck that Phil seems to prefer?! Shocking!

    Anti-Semites and Universalists

Hostility to Jews who voluntarily search for and reinforce Jewish bonds is quite common on the far left, including the fans of Phil Weiss’ blog. It is not necessarily anti-Semitic, this assault against Jewish clannishness. Phil is a sweet, compassionate guy, a self-described “alienated Jew,” and I know he does not harbor hatred for Jews per se. But there is less difference between this attitude and classic anti-Semitism than he might think.

Sartre wrote brilliantly about Weiss’ mindset in 1944, in Anti-Semite and Jew. He called those who rejected Jewish parochialism and embraced only universal values “democrats.” Stay with this. It is worth reading. You’ll recognize many of the people who now frequent the neighborhoods of the blogosphere that focus on Israel and the Jewish lobby:

The democrat…fails to see the particular case; to him, the individual is only an ensemble of universal traits. It follows that his defense of the Jew saves the latter as a man and annihilates him as a Jew…

Taking this point of view, he fears that the Jew will acquire a consciousness of the Jewish collectivity. His defense is to persuade individuals that they exist in an isolated state. “There are no Jews,” he says. “There are no Jewish people.”

This means he wants to separate the Jew from his religion, from his family, from his ethnic community, in order to plunge him into the democratic crucible whence he will emerge naked and alone, an individual and solitary particle like all other particles…

This is what,in the United States, is called assimilation…For a Jew, conscious and proud of being Jewish, asserting his claim to be a member of the Jewish community without ignoring on that account the bonds that unite him to the national community, there may not be so much difference between the anti-Semite and the democrat. (emphasis added by DF) The former wishes to destroy him as a man and leave nothing in him but a Jew, the pariah, the untouchable; the latter wishes to destroy him as a Jew and leave nothing in him but man, the abstract and universal subject of the rights of man and the rights of the citizen….

The anti-Semite reproaches the Jew with being Jewish; the democrat reproaches him for willfully considering himself a Jew.

When Jewish tribalism manifests itself in the expansion of West Bank settlements or the dehumanization of Palestinians or the justification of flagrant human rights abuses, of course it should be denounced. When right wing Jews in Brooklyn and Los Angeles finance Israeli fanatics who take over Palestinian homes in Hebron or Silwan or East Jerusalem, they are not only acting immorally; they are adding fuel to a fire that is not in the interests of America or Israel.

And if there are American Jews in positions of power and influence whose loyalty to the Jewish people and Israel over-rides their loyalty to the United States, the American Jewish community should wholeheartedly and publicly reject them.

But, fortunately, there is another version of Jewish parochialism that should not leave a sour taste in Phil Weiss’s mouth

    The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

Identifying oneself as part of the Jewish people is an expression of a simple, deep-seated human yearning for community, for ties with those outside of ourselves. What is wrong with that? Do Weiss and his fans believe that Americans must feel a sense of solidarity and a connection only with other Americans? Followed to its logical extreme, their suspicion of Jewish bonding and American Jewish concerns about Israel leads them to an exclusive nationalism, an America First and Last mentality that is characteristic of the far right that they otherwise detest.

Just about every thoughtful, politically engaged person I know –whether Jewish or not– often feels like he or she is in America but not of it. If you are not alienated by the air-conditioned nightmare of this 21st century culture, where people are glued to daytime reality T.V. shows in which grandchildren accuse their grandparents of sleeping with them, there is something wrong with you.

To most American Jews, the quest to define their Jewish identity and find solace in Jewish community is one way to remain sane and whole. To many of them, it also involves an embrace of principles rooted in ancient texts that, in fact, were the first to articulate many of the values that Phil Weiss and the modern left also embrace, including the injunctions to welcome strangers, pursue justice and “seek peace and pursue it.”

Much of my own Jewish identity is defined by an effort to fix what is broken in Israel and Palestine. This effort involves participation in a global community of progressive Zionists who are fighting settlement expansion, urging the Israeli government to stop taking steps that could preclude a 2-state solution and trying to build alternatives to the conventional pro-Israel lobby in America. If the price of building a community that can achieve those ends is a certain amount of parochialism, I’ll pay it.

    Occupation and Alienation

To be fair, much of Phil’s hostility to Walzer has an explicitly political foundation,and is based on anger about Israeli policies and the conventional Israel lobby that I and many other Jews share:

The talk was not very political….Given his lack of politics, and interest in religion, Walzer can embrace the irreligious in Jewish life, but he doesn’t seem to have any place for the unnationalistic… He briefly mentioned the critics of Zionism in American academic life. He said they were hostile and alienated, and he thought this a bad thing.

As I am part of that alienation, I felt there was a blindness on his part in the lecture to the contradictions in his nationalist definition. Those who feel it a moral crisis that Israel has created an apartheid state in part of Eretz Israel, as he continually referred to a territory for which I would have a political designation: Palestine…He did not deal with Breaking the Silence’s utter demoralization, as soldiers serving in the Occupied Territories and casually abusing Palestinians– all moral lines removed in the name of a security state. He did not mention the words occupation or Palestinian…

My response:

First of all, I sit on the Americans for Peace Now board with Walzer. We’ve exchanged perhaps 30 words in the last 15 years but,although I barely know him, I can testify that he has long been opposed to the occupation and upset by the same human rights violations as Weiss. I don’t know why he didn’t deal with the situation on the ground in his lecture. Perhaps it was a mistake to leave it out, but the fact is he has not ignored it.

His positions on the conflict are nuanced, not easily summarized. He has defended some Israeli military policies with arguments that are mortifying to many on the left. But the following quote from a 2003 interview in Imprints, a British journal, should indicate to Phil and his acolytes that Walzer is hardly a man with political blinders:

I recently published an article in Dissent, ‘The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine,’ explaining my position, which I will try to summarise here. These are the four wars: there is a Palestinian war to destroy and replace the state of Israel, which is unjust, and a Palestinian war to establish a state alongside Israel, which is just. And there is an Israeli war to defend the state, which is just, and an Israeli war for Greater Israel, which is unjust…

…Palestinian terrorism, that is, the deliberate targeting of civilians, should always and everywhere be condemned. And Israeli settlement policy in the occupied territories has been wrong from the very beginning of the occupation. But this second wrongness doesn’t mitigate the first: Palestinian attacks on the occupying army or on paramilitary settler groups are justified – at least they are justified whenever there is an Israeli government unwilling to negotiate; but attacks on settler families or schools are terrorist acts, murder exactly.

So this increasingly parochial political theorist believes that Palestinians using violence against the Israeli military are fighting a “just war.” Expressing that statement would get him tossed out of more than a few American synagogues.

Again, I barely know this man. But when he cultivates his Jewish identity, he is obviously engaged in the effort to balance the universal and the particular that has always characterized Jewish experience.

Does Phil Weiss think it is impossible to balance the two if one cares about Israel and feels part of the Jewish people?

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