February 22, 2024

Denouncing critics of Israel as ‘un-Jews’ or anti-Semites is a perversion of history | Kenan Malik

William Zuckerman was born in 1885 in the Pale of Settlement, that part of the Russian Empire to which Jews were largely confined, a place of poverty and pogroms. His family managed to escape and emigrated to America in 1900.

During World War I, Zuckerman returned to Europe to work with a charity that helped American Jewish soldiers. He later settled in London, where he founded the European office Of Tomorrow zshurnal, an influential American Yiddish newspaper. Returning to America in 1948, he founded the Jewish Newsletter, just as the new state of Israel was born. Zuckerman’s columns were published in dozens of Jewish newspapers and he became the New York correspondent of the British one Jewish Chronicle.

Zuckerman could have been embraced by the Jewish establishment as a model public figure, if only there was one problem. He was critical of the policies of the newly established Jewish state, especially towards Palestinian refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom had fled or been expelled and were now unable to return. “The land now called Israel,” Zuckerman wrote, “belongs no less to the Arab refugees than to any Israeli.”

Zuckerman’s advocacy for Palestinian refugees alarmed Israeli diplomats, who successfully organized a behind-the-scenes campaign to prevent his work from being published in the Jewish press. “Around the Jewish Chronicle to withhold Mr. Zuckerman’s services means to have performed a true mitzvah,” one official rejoiced.

The story of Zuckerman and his erasure is one of many that Geoffrey Levin tells in his new book Our Palestinian issue, about the forgotten history of Jewish dissent in America in the decades after Israel’s founding. It is one of several reports to be published this year examining the history of American Jewish opposition to Zionism and support for the Palestinian cause.

These investigations provide essential backstory to one of today’s sharpest debates within Jewish communities: how to respond to Hamas’ murderous attack on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent attack on Gaza. For many Jews, the existential threat of Hamas gives Israel the right to take any necessary measures to eliminate the organization. For others, regardless of the horrors of the Hamas attack, the destruction of Gaza, the deaths of more than 25,000 people and the displacement of almost the entire population are unconscionable and contrary to Jewish ethical traditions. These divisions have led to intense debates about what it is to be Jewish and the meaning of anti-Semitism.

In the US, both themes are visible in the fallout from the Claudine Gay debacle at Harvard University. As president of Harvard, Gay gave a disastrous performance at a congressional committee on anti-Semitism in December. She was subsequently forced to resign after critics discovered plagiarism in her scientific work.

In the wake of Gay’s resignation and criticism of Harvard for abandoning its Jewish students, a task force on anti-Semitism was created, chaired by Derek Penslar, director of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies, and a of Judaism’s leading historians.

But for many, Penslar, like Zuckerman for a previous generation, is the wrong kind of Jew, too critical of Israel and insufficiently hostile to anti-Zionism. Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, chair of the committee that criticized Gay, denounced “his despicable anti-Semitic views.” Jonathan Greenblatt, of the Anti-Defamation League, accused him of “libel”.[ing] the Jewish state”. Bill Ackman, the hedge fund manager who led the first campaign against Gay, warned that Harvard will continue “on the path of darkness”.

An essay in the Jewish magazine in 2021 Tablet labeled Jews who were too critical of Israel or Zionism as “non-Jews.” Three years later, it is a description that seems to have found more resonance.

Perhaps in no country is the official exclusion of ‘non-Jews’ as deeply rooted as in Germany. “To be a left-wing Jew in today’s Germany means to live in a state of permanent cognitive dissonance,” says Susan Neiman, a Jewish-American philosopher and director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam for the past quarter century. “German politicians and media talk incessantly about protecting Jews from anti-Semitism,” but many who “criticize the Israeli government and the war on Gaza have been canceled and certainly attacked.” I am an Israeli citizen and in the mainstream media I am accused of being a Hamas supporter, and even a Nazi. Should I add that I am neither?

Germany has banned many criticisms of Israel (such as describing its treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid”) and banned many expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The main targets were Muslims, but Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights have also been deplatformed and arrested. According to researcher Emily Dische-Becker, almost a third of people canceled in Germany for their alleged anti-Semitism are Jews. There is, as Israeli-born architect and academic Eyal Weizman has poignantly said, a certain irony in “being read to.” [on how to be properly Jewish] by the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators who murdered our families and who now dare to tell us that we are anti-Semitic.”

For many of Israel’s supporters, the history of Jewish suffering, culminating in the Holocaust, has made it necessary to defend the nation and maintain its security at all costs. For those who think differently, it is precisely that history that creates the moral imperative to defend Palestinian rights.

What guided Jewish critics in the late 1940s and 1950s, especially of Israeli policy toward Palestinian refugees, was, as Levin shows, their commitment to Jewish traditions that reject discrimination or barbarism against any group. “Oppression must be fought everywhere,” said Don Peretz, a researcher at the American Jewish Committee and advocate for Palestinian refugees who, like Zuckerman, have been targeted by Israeli officials. It’s also what guides contemporary critics like Neiman. Germans, she suggests, “have forgotten the depth of the universalist tradition in Judaism, which goes back to the Bible.”

Rejecting such critical voices as “un-Jewish,” even anti-Semitic, also has deep roots. Contemporary campaigns against figures like Penslar and Neiman mirror those of 70 years ago against Zuckerman and Peretz.

What makes all this particularly troubling, Neiman notes, is the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere. Rather than policing Jewish intellectuals and activists who “insist on unconditional loyalty to Israel” and “downplay the suffering in Gaza,” what is needed, according to Nieman, is to support those individuals and organizations that build forms of solidarity that both can challenge anti-Semitism as anti-Muslim bigotry, and promote justice in Palestine and Israel.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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