Attempts to Silence Critics of Israeli Policies as "Self-Hating Jews" a Failing Strategy

For some time, the Jewish establishment in the United States, Israel and other countries has attempted to silence Jewish critics of Israel as “self-hating Jews” in an effort to stifle discussion and debate–”just as non-Jewish critics have been accused of “anti-Semitism.”

Recently, it was reported that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu denounced two top aides to President Barack Obama–”Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod–”as “self-hating Jews” for urging a policy calling for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

A July 9 story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu used the epithet “self-hating Jews” to describe Axelrod and Emanuel, who are viewed by the Israeli government as the driving force behind Obama’s push to pressure Israel to freeze settlement activity. Only when the quote was picked up by American newspapers did Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, issue a statement denying that the prime minister had used that term.

In this country, writing in the July/August 2009 issue of Moment, David Frum, a leading neoconservative now at the American Enterprise Institute–”who, as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush coined the term “Axis of Evil” and who once wrote an article in the National Review charging that conservatives, such as the late columnist Robert Novak, who opposed the war in Iraq were “unpatriotic”–”described Jewish critics of Israel as people who “exploit their identity to enhance the impact of their anti-Jewish speech and action.”

Among those Jews he accused of being “anti-Jewish” is Gerald Kaufman, a Labor member of the British Parliament who in a Jan. 17 speech, during Israel’s war on Gaza, explicitly identified Israel with Nazi Germany: “My grandmother was ill in bed when the Nazis came to her hometown [in Poland]. A German soldier shot her dead in her bed. My grandmother did not die to provide cover for Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian grandmothers in Gaza.”

Frum’s other targets included Prof. Tony Judt of New York University, Canadian filmmaker Avi Lewis, and Barbara Spinelli, a columnist for the Italian newspaper La Stamps who wrote that, “If one thing is missing in Judaism [it] is a mea culpa vis-à-vis the peoples and individuals who had to pay the price of blood and exile to allow Israel to exist.”

In its Aug. 14 issue, The Forward noted that there has been “a long tradition of targeting Jewish administration officials.”

According to The Forward, “For Martin Indyk, former ambassador to Israel, it was the image of the late Cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi calling him ‘Yehudon’–”translated loosely to ‘Jew boy’–”that came to mind. ‘I told him that the last time someone called me that was in school,’ said Indyk, who added that he had punched his tormentor in the face. Ze’evi replied with a repetitive taunt: ‘Yehudon, yehudon.’ This time it ended with no punching. Prodded by Israel’s chief rabbi, Ze’evi later went up to Indyk and apologized.”

When Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew, was U.S. ambassador to Israel, right-wing lawmaker Zvi Hendel referred to him from the Knesset podium as “that little Jew boy.” The same term was used when Kurtzer was part of former Secretary of State James Baker’s Middle East team, alongside two other Jewish officials, Dennis Ross and Aaron David Miller, during the administration of George H.W. Bush. “The reality is that it is more a statement about the person saying it than on those who are being called it,” said Kurtzer.

Miller, as well as other former Jewish officials, said that after being attacked by Israelis, he received no backing from Jewish leaders at home. “I never had the feeling the organized Jewish community is willing to stand up against these things,” he said.

Daring to Speak Out

In 2007, the Feb. 5 Times of London and the Feb. 9 Jewish Chronicle featured a declaration signed by prominent British Jews calling themselves Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). It stated: “We are a group of Jews in Britain from diverse backgrounds…We come together in the belief that the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole.”

Among the points made in the statement were these:

“Human rights are universal and indivisible and should be upheld without exception. This is applicable in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories as it is elsewhere.

“Palestinians and Israelis alike have the right to peaceful and secure lives. These principles are contradicted when those who claim to speak on behalf of Jews in Britain and other countries consistently put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people. The Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza Strip face appalling living conditions with desperately little hope for the future. We declare our support for a properly negotiated peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people and oppose any attempt by the Israeli government to impose its solutions on the Palestinians. We hereby reclaim the tradition of Jewish support for universal freedoms, human rights and social justice. The lessons we have learned from our own history compel us to speak out.”

Among those signing this statement were Geoffrey Bindman, chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights and a professor of law at University College London; Prof. Brian Klug, senior research fellow in philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford; Antony Lerman, director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research; and Prof. Jacqueline Rose of Queen Mary, University of London.

The assault upon those signing this statement was brutal. For example, one strongly pro-Israel columnist, Melanie Phillips, called those who joined in this statement “Jews for Genocide” belonging to the “lamentable tradition” of Jews who “want to destroy the Jewish people.” The term “self-hating Jew” was widely used by defenders of the establishment.

Conceived in the aftermath of the IJV declaration, a book of essays, A Time To Speak Out: Independent Jewish Voices On The Middle East (Verso) was published by the signers.

In an essay entitled “The Myth Of Self-Hatred,” Professor Rose, author of the widely read book The Question of Zion, declares: “Rather than accusing Jews who criticize Israel of self-hatred, we should…be asking ourselves what love–”a love that is creative rather than self-deceiving and suffocating–”can and should be able to tolerate….I do not hate myself, or Jewishness, or Israel, when I criticize the policies of the state. I hate what the Israeli government is doing, and has been doing for a very long time, to the Palestinians and to itself…Israel’s own conduct is playing a key part in rendering its future precarious.”

Julia Bard, who edits the British Channel 4 “Faith and Belief” Web site and produces materials for such groups as Amnesty International, points to the fact that “Many aspects of our diasporic culture that survived to link us to the past and sustain us through difficult times…have been attacked and undermined by an insistence, since 1948, that Israel is central to Jewish life and that all other Jewish communities are subordinate to it. This has resulted in Zionist cultural, economic, political and social imperatives being imposed on the Jewish world both by the Israeli state and by diaspora leaderships operating as its proxies and public relations agents.”

20th Century Calumny

As The Forward noted, attacking Jewish critics of Zionism and of Israeli policies is hardly new. The American Council for Judaism (ACJ) has always opposed Zionism and advanced the view that Judaism is a religion, not a nationality, and that American Jews are, in fact, American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Presbyterians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, or Muslims. In May 1963 the annual ACJ conference was addressed by Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR), who had been holding hearings on whether American Jewish groups lobbying on behalf of Israel should register as foreign agents.

That same weekend, Rabbi Philip Bernstein addressed an AIPAC gathering in Washington. Discussing the ACJ, he claimed that “I have maintained through the years that the American Council for Judaism is of no consequence” and that he was speaking of them “only because the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chooses its convention as a platform for a policy statement.” Then the rabbi let loose: “Therefore, I must say this is a handful of sick Jews. They are soul sick. They are self-hating Jewish anti-Semites.”

Name-calling, however, does not seem to have silenced Jewish critics of Zionism. Instead, their numbers are growing. Around the world, more and more respected Jewish voices are being heard rejecting the notion that Israel is “central” to their Jewish identity and declaring that their commitment to Judaism is a religious one, and not a political association with a state which pretends to speak in their name, but does not.

Groups of Jewish critics of Zionism and of current Israeli policies are active in the U.S., South Africa, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Independent Australian Jewish Voices came into existence within a month of the launching of IJV in England. In March 2008, an Independent Jewish Conference in Toronto formed a new nationwide association in Canada.

All of these groups reject the idea that the role of Jews is to defend whatever other Jews may do. Instead they believe in the Prophetic ethic which imposes higher standards upon Jews and calls them to task when these are not met.

What becomes immediately clear is how broad Jewish opinion really is and how it is totally unrepresented by those who speak of “unity” and seek to enforce some form of “acceptable” discourse. Indeed, those who are decried as “self-hating Jews” by the Israeli government and the Jewish establishment may, in reality, be the very men and women who are keeping the humane Jewish tradition alive. Fortunately, their numbers are growing.