Despite Increased Attempts to Stifle Dissent, Jewish Criticism of Israel’s Policies Grows

To the dismay of the organized American Jewish community, and despite its increasingly strident efforts to silence dissent, Jewish criticism of Israel’s policies continues to grow.

Even the slightest hint of concern about the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation is met with the harshest assault. In an article in the June 2011 issue ofCommentary entitled "Are Young Rabbis Turning Against Israel?" David Gordis asked: "Can Israel and Judaism survive when many of their new leaders no longer believe that their primary responsibility is to protect and defend their own?"

What upset the author so much? A message sent to students at Boston’s Hebrew College rabbinical school asked them to prepare themselves for Yom Ha-Zikaron (the day of remembrance in Israel for the Fallen of Israel’s wars) by musing on the following paragraph: "For Yom Ha-Zikaron, our kavanah (intention) is to open up our communal remembrance to include losses on all sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. In this spirit, our framing question…is this: On this day, what do you remember and for whom do you grieve?"

What concerned Gordis was the refusal of young rabbinical students to see the world in "us" versus "them" terms. He wrote: "The heartbreaking point was this: in the case of these rabbinical students, there is not an instinct that should be innate–”the instinct to protect their own people first, or to mourn our losses first. Their instinct, instead, is to ‘engage’…It means setting instinctive dispositions aside. And this is precisely what this emerging generation of American Jewish leaders believes it ought to do."

Most disturbing to Gordis was that, "This new tone in discussion about Israel is so ‘fair,’ so ‘balanced,’ so ‘even-handed’ that entirely gone is the instinct of belonging–”the visceral sense on the part of these students that they are part of a people, that the blood and the losses that were required to erect the state of Israel is their blood and their loss…There is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Judaism’s worldview…It actually does mean that Jewish authenticity requires caring about ourselves before we care about others…Today’s universalism leaves no room for the particularism that has long been at the core of Jewish life."

For many American Jews–”perhaps a silent majority of them–”the notion of viewing the world in terms of "us" and "them," rather than seeking justice, as the Biblical prophets commanded, is in violation of Judaism’s highest principles.

Consider the bitter attacks from the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Weisenthal Center upon Julian Schnabel’s film "Miral," based on an autobiographical novel by his romantic partner, Rule Jebreal, a Palestinian. It tells the story of three generations of Palestinian women from the perspective of a teenage girl who comes of age during the first intifada in the late 1980s. Schnabel says that he traveled to Israel "with a completely open mind" to make the film.

Writing in The Jewish Journal (and published as an ad in the March 25, 2011 New York Times), Danielle Barrin asked: "Why is the American Jewish Committee afraid of ‘Miral?’" According to Barrin, "Maybe it’s the simple fact that a high-profile film written by a Palestinian is cause enough for Jewish opprobrium. Maybe it’s because the director of the film, Julian Schnabel, is Jewish, and his commitment to any perspective other than the dominant Jewish paradigm is akin to tribal and national betrayal. Maybe it’s because the distributor of the film, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, was reared and raised a New York Jew who should know better…Or, maybe a cultural malaise has taken hold that’s made it impossible for Jews to empathize with anyone but each other."

Barrin went on to point out that the Torah, Judaism’s most sacred text, "admonishes again and again ‘love the stranger,’ ‘remember the stranger,’ ‘be kind to the stranger’ because ‘you were slaves in the land of Egypt.’ Have we forgotten? Or have we become so mired in our own neuroses…that we can’t see behind our own noses?…’Miral’ is asking us to pause from our consideration of Palestinians as ‘the other’ and instead to see a people with whom we might partner. It is asking us to consider the millions of Palestinians who are not terrorists, who desire economic opportunity, civil liberties and a chance to swim in the Mediterranean Sea. If, as American Jews, we can’t even watch a movie in peace, I fear what that means for the peace prospects of an entire nation–”or, rather, two."

Any Jewish dissent from pro-Israel orthodoxies is met with an often brutal response. In early May, the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) voted to shelve an honorary degree by John Jay College to Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. The vote came after CUNY trustee Jeffrey Weisenfeld accused Kushner of disparaging the State of Israel in past comments.

Kushner, who was not present at the board meeting, responded that he was "dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs." He added that he was a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist and had never supported a boycott of the country, and that his views were shared by many Jews. "I’m sickened that this is happening in New York City, shocked really," Kushner said.

The outcry was swift. Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University who received an honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College in 2008, said she planned to return it in solidarity with Kushner. In a May 7, 2011 editorial, The New York Timesdeclared that, "The trustees of CUNY got it exactly backward…They supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America’s most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member…Mr. Kushner, who is Jewish, described the ousting of Palestinians from their homes in the 1940s as a form of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ He has also said Israel is engaged in the deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture…" The editorial’s title: "CUNY Shamed Itself."

In the end, the CUNY trustees reversed themselves and finally approved Kushner’s honorary degree.

Even a leading rabbi and strong supporter of Israel–”albeit not "Israel, right or wrong"–”has been the victim of a bitter campaign to silence his views and remove him from any leadership role. When Rabbi Richard Jacobs was selected as the new head of the Union for Reform Judaism, a debate was set off about the Reform movement’s commitment to Israel.

An advertisement carried in the May 6, 2011 issue of The Forward and other Jewish newspapers was headlined, "We Are Reform Jews Who Want the Reform Movement to Stand With Israel." The ad, signed by a group of Reform Jews calling itself "Jews Against Divisive Leadership," stated that "The Union for Reform Judaism’s nominee for president, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, does not represent the pro-Israel policies cherished by Reform Jews. He does not represent us."

Among the charges against Rabbi Jacobs were the following: "Rabbi Jacobs serves in J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet. He told the Jewish Week, ‘I support the goals and vision of J Street.’ J Street opposed Iran sanctions, supported Goldstone and opposed the U.S. veto of the U.N. Security Council condemnation of Israel…Rabbi Jacobs served on the board of the New Israel Fund (NIF)…NIF has supported organizations that were in the forefront of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel…Rabbi Jacobs joined the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrations in Jerusalem. We question his judgment in associating himself with a group that the Jewish Agency condemns for ‘opposing the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland and promoting an anti-Zionist agenda.’ We call on the Union for Reform Judaism to reconsider their divisive appointment. Do not drive mainstream Zionist Jews out of the Reform movement."

The vitriol has become so great that many voices in the Jewish community are expressing concern. Editorialized The Forward on May 20, 2011: "In the past few weeks, two men have been forced to explain their views on Israel by members of the Jewish community who have assigned themselves the role of the Israeli government’s local defender…deciding that [Israel[ alone is the threshold for acceptance, stifles constructive debate and makes it seem as if that’s all American Jews care about. It’s not, and it never should be. We also care about human rights and democratic thought, about freedom of expression and freedom from want. Rick Jacobs cares about those values. So does Tony Kushner. Instead of denigrating their Jewishness, we should be proud of it."

An article in the June 6, 2011 Jerusalem Report headlined "A Split Community: U.S. Jewish Leaders Are Alarmed at the Venom Sweeping In" described the American Jewish community as "increasingly intolerant." In an interview, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical college, declared: "I’m struck virtually speechless that of anyone in the world, [Rabbi] Jacobs would be considered anti-Israel. The ad was beyond simplistic and smacked of McCarthyism…The attack is the most despicable thing I’ve ever encountered in my life in the Jewish community. This brings great shame to the Jewish community. I’m just infuriated."

An Ugly Wind

Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Temple Shalom in Newton, Massachusetts (rabbi of one of Jacobs’ critics, Yvonne Baehr-Robertson), said, "The campaign to discredit and delegitimize is part of a bigger ugly wind in the community that distresses me terribly…There are people in the world who want to delegitimize Israel and now we’re trying to delegitimize Jews because they don’t hold the ‘correct’ support of Israel…We are at a precarious point, at a crossroads. And are we going to walk to the crossroads or walk away from each other?"

Even Israelis who challenge the policies of their government have come under bitter attack. Commentary, which seems to be assuming a major role in the campaign to silence any dissent, carried an attack in its May 2011 issue on the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem written by Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel.

Without challenging any of B’Tselem’s findings with regard to Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ human rights, Pollak declared that "B’Tselem is merely one player, albeit a leading one, in a political movement that had developed over the past decade that seeks to place the very legitimacy of the Jewish state in question…The policies they support would constitute no less than Zionism’s destruction."

In general, however, there is less hesitation of critics in Israel itself to speak out than there is in the U.S. In April, for example, dozens of Israel’s most honored intellectuals and artists signed a declaration endorsing a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders and asserted that an end to Israel’s occupation "will liberate the two peoples and open the way to a lasting peace." Yaron Ezrahi, a political theorist at the Hebrew University and one of the signers, said the group chose the week of Passover to issue its declaration because Passover marks the freedom of the Jewish people from slavery. "We don’t want to pass over the Palestinian people," he said. "This is a holiday of freedom and independence."

In May, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Washington, he challenged President Barack Obama’s statement that the 1967 borders–”with "land swaps"–”should be the basis of negotiations. AIPAC–”and the U.S. Congress–”gave the foreign leader standing ovations. Yet, according to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, a majority of Israelis think Netanyahu should have supported Obama’s approach.

A poll commissioned by the newspaper found that 10 percent felt the prime minister should have supported Obama "with no reservations." An additional 46.8 percent said he should have supported Obama "but with reservations." And 36.7 percent said he should have done what he did. Washington Post columnist Al Kamen noted: "One thing the poll means is that AIPAC had better open up an office in Tel Aviv immediately to straighten out those folks."

Clearly, the efforts to stifle dissent within the Jewish community–”both in the U.S. and Israel–”have failed, perhaps the reason the community has become increasingly incendiary.

In a May 19, 2011 Washington Jewish Week column entitled, "Is Israel Beginning to Drift out of View?" Douglas Bloomfield wrote: "AIPAC’s real enemy…may be a rising tide of apathy. The deeply committed, particularly those with the deepest pockets, are a minority in a Jewish community that is growing weary of a conflict that seems to drag on endlessly in a leadership vacuum…Most American Jews don’t care about settlements, and they see that Netanyahu prefers settlement expansion to peace with the Palestinians."

Reported Bloomfield: "Activists tell me it is increasingly difficult to excite young people about Israel; they don’t see a mortal danger but a muscular, nuclear-armed Israel that can handle itself. Increasingly, they don’t see ‘the Middle East’s only democracy,’ but a country dominated by extremists, political and religious, that seems intent on abandoning its democratic roots. As one who speaks to Jewish audiences around the country, I have noticed an increasing sense of what one author called the ‘waning Jewish love affair with Israel.’"