Jewish Hypercritics of Israel Criticized: How Dare You?

The NYT has a discussion of a controversy within the Jewish community about when criticism of Israel not only oversteps the bounds of decency, but rather feeds the current wave of anti-semitism that began in late 2000 and continues to gain momentum. Before discussing the article, which I think misframes the issues in critical ways, I want to make some remarks about what I think is at stake here (using the terminology developed at Second Draft and Augean Stables). The American Jewish Committee, a liberal, mainstream organization which has been as dedicated to defending the rights of others, as it has been of Jews for the last century, and, until quite recently, reflected the Politically-Correct Paradigm PCP1 position (pro-Oslo, pro-dialogue, pro-negotiations), has published an essay that criticizes Jews who, embracing the Post-Colonial Paradigm PCP2 criticize Israel so harshly and categorically that in some cases they have called for the dismantling of the state. In so doing, Rosenfeld argues, they actually feed the anti-Semitic delirium that, since 2000, has grown stronger by the year.

The primary issue at stake in this debate concerns the nature of criticism, more precisely, since we’re talking about Jews criticizing Israel, “self-criticism.” This is one of the most difficult issues to deal with right now for a number of reasons:

  • 1) Jews have a tradition of ferocious self-criticism that goes back to the prophets (actually to the composition of the Torah): when the Assyrian empire conquered the northern regions, or the Babylonians, the southern, the prophetic response was not to castigate the vicious invading imperialists, but to castigate the Israelites for not keeping their bargain with the Lord. Prophetic rhetoric — say calling the Israelites “men of Sodom” — does not offer “impartial appraisals” of the situation, but rather operates as a kind of “whip of shame” to lash the Israelites into returning to the right path. This tradition is evident throughout Jewish history, especially in the lively debates within the rabbinical community, as evidenced in the Talmudic exchanges.
  • 2) The ability to take self-criticism requires an important ability to overcome the emotional dynamics of honor-shame, in particular the prevailing attitude among honor-shame alpha males that a public criticism is an attack on one’s manhood, and, as the rules of those cultures tend to go, one can, even must shed the blood of another for the sake of one’s own honor. The ability to take criticism without violence — and even more, to acknowledge fault publicly — is a key marker of civil society and a free press, and demands a very high level of emotional maturity. In honor shame cultures the instinct is to point the finger and, in extreme cases, demonize the “other” rather than take responsibility.
  • 3) One of the essential elements of any learning curve, but especially of modernity’s extraordinary learning curve, comes from this kind of commitment to self-criticism (science, academia in general, public debate, free media). This overlap between Jewish and modern culture helps explain on the one hand why Jews do so well in modern cultures, especially in the professions that call for the ability to tolerate contradiction (academia, law, journalism), and on the other hand, why enemies of modernity, scapegoat and demonize the Jews as the manipulators of a giant scheme to use modernity as a way to enslave mankind.
  • 4) Modern Jewish self criticism has an important element of the prophetic. Rather than criticize others, Jewish thinkers, especially progressive ones, tend to focus on their own people’s faults. And, in more emphatic modes, they tend to use an inflated rhetoric of denunciation — Israelis are racists, the wall is apartheid, the state of Israel is born in sin. Now all of these things, on the scale of moral perfectionism, might be true. But no one’s perfect; and where does that leave the rest of the world? Israel is the only country to have brought blacks out of Africa to freedom. Israel treats her Arab Muslims better than the Arab countries treat their Arab Muslims.
  • 5) People who don’t realize how self-critical Jews are, almost as a cultural instinct, don’t understand the meaning of their comments on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They are self critical out of both a desire to “whip” the Israelis into the right path, and to placate and reorient Palestinian anger into productive relationships. They have only a marginal relationship with what one might call the “reality” of the situation (i.e., how well their behavior compares to that of their neighbors, or for that matter any society faced with the threats they live with daily). By these standards, Israel behaves exceptionally well. NPR did a piece shortly after the outbreak of the Intifada on the origins of the conflict. The Israelis they interviewed said, “it’s at least half our fault,” and the Palestinians said, “it’s all their fault.” The uninformed listener, assuming that no one willingly admits to stuff they haven’t done, would be entirely reasonable in concluding that it’s probably 75% Israel’s fault. No one would have a clue that, had the Arabs won, the most likely outcome would be no refugees because most would have been slaughtered.
  • 6) Self-criticism can and does morph into a pathological (and messianic) form which I’ve called “masochistic omnipotence complex.” We are to blame for everything that’s wrong, if only we would change, we could fix everything.” This is the reflex both of the Israeli “left” who still think Oslo failed because of something they did (“If only Barak had been more respectful to Arafat“), and the American “left” who responded to 9-11’s question “What did we do to make them hate us so?” with “because of what we did and do to them.” And just as the prophetic rhetoric of “you are like the men of Sodom” was meant as a whip, so modern invectives against the West are designed to “clean up our act.” On one level, such exceptionally self-critical responses are very generous. But when they become inflated with prophetic rhetoric, we end up with a moral narcissism — only my actions count — and a subtle bigotry that robs the “other” of any agency — they merely “react” to my misdeeds.
  • 7) PCP1 (liberal version) is based on a basic reflex of self-criticism on the one hand: What can we do to make things better? — concessions (land for peace), confessions (we did wrong), apologies (we’re sorry for what we did); and well intentioned projection on the other: If we’re nice, they’ll be nice because they share our desire for a peaceful, positive-sum future. PCP2 (“progressive” or radical version) is based on a compulsive self-criticism: we — capitalism, imperialism, hegemony — are the source of all problems, and a corresponding affirmation that the outrage of the wretched of the earth is entirely justified, even admirable. Thus, 9-11 is the result of how we’ve treated the Arab world. HJP is (in my mind) a healthy recognition that we cannot assume that “other” cultures are committed to the civic values (positive-sum relations, freedom and mutual respect) that strike liberals as “self-evident.” We must at least allow for the existence of — and recognize when we are faced with — cultures committed to very different values and psychological assumptions. So, on the one hand, it means appreciating that for all our faults, we have come a long way in achieving the kinds of moral imperatives that liberals believe in — human rights, respect for others, tolerance, freedom, sharing of wealth — no matter how much farther we need to go; and on the other hand, that many of the people we are dealing with in the Muslim world have no commitment to these values. Indeed, they have devoloped a whole demopathic discourse that uses the language of human rights to undermine the very institutions that are dedicated to supporting those rights (Western democracies, UN, Israel).
  • 8 ) The current situation — since 2000 in particular — has strengthened a dynamic I call the “Moebius strip of cognitive egocentrism.” We project our good intentions on them — PCP1 holds that “if we’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to us” — while they project onto us their worst intentions — conspiracy theory assumes that your adversary is evil, without good intentions. They take full advantage of this to manipulate us into “standing with them” on matters of human rights (the entire framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from PCP is in terms of human rights), while they have no interest or commitment to those rights (the Palestinians are already treating their Christians as dhimmi).
  • 9) The Moebius strip becomes a knot when the hyper-self-critical (MOS) types adopt the demonizing language of the demopaths, including their irredentist demands, and, by adopting that demonizing discourse — today heavily anti-Semitic in ways that make the Nazis look mild — and toning its worst excesses down, they turn it into acceptable discourse, “justifiably harsh criticism of Israel. Thus they speak in the language of prophetic rhetoric and self-sacrifice in which Israelis are and have been such horrific abusers of human rights that Israel should be dismantled, i.e., they, as Jews, renounce the right to sovereignty). Willingly or unwillingly (Marx would say “objectively”) they ally with the demopaths. Behind them, the active haters and killers who now proliferate with such astounding speed around the world. It is this phenomenon, the radical, hypercritical Jew who is so obsessed with the sins of his own people that he cannot see the monster he feeds, who stands at the center of Alvin Rosenfeld’s critique.
  • 10) The idea of a one-state solution for the Arab Israeli conflict was a favorite of the Zionist left back in the days before the 1948 war, a vision of a single, “bi-national,” secular, modern democratic state for all inhabitants of the land. And those Arabs who, drawn to this modernizing vision, declared their commitment soon found themselves the target of the irredentist forces of the Mufti. The outburst of hysterical xenophobia and Jew-hatred that accompanied that conflict woke up all but the most determined “universalists” among the Zionists to the impracticality. After 1973, however, convinced of the futility of destroying Israel by military means, the PLO adopted the language of a bi-national secular state as part of their demopathic use of “human-rights” discourse. Those who advocate a bi-national state after 2000, and the wave of unmitigated hatred and violence that comes from the Palestinian side are either dupes of demopaths, or actively vindictive Judeophobes. In any case, anyone who views what passes for mainstream discourse in the Palestinian world can only conclude that, “objectively,” those who call for the dismantling of the Jewish state are supporting massacres, ethnic cleansing, and the return of dhimmi status for the Jews.

NYT text in bold blockquote.

Note that Benjamin Kerstein has also responded to this piece at Diary of an Anti-Chomskyite, His reading of the meaning of the word “liberal” is somewhat sharper than mine.

Essay Linking Liberal Jews and Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor

Published: January 31, 2007

The American Jewish Committee, an ardent defender of Israel, is known for speaking out against anti-Semitism, but this conservative advocacy group has recently stirred up a bitter and emotional debate with a new target: liberal Jews.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is the author of an essay critical of liberal Jews that has generated heated debate.

This is very strange. The article itself is quite explicit: the target is a certain kind of “progressive” Jew, not the more mainstream “liberal” Jew. It’s the difference between the liberal, well-intentioned (if misguided) and mainstream liberal Politically Correct Paradigm (PCP1) and the much more aggressive and radical Post-Colonial Paradigm (PCP2). And as for the AJC as a conservative advocacy group — what do you have to do to get the label liberal, or as the AJC itself prefers, centrist, in this world? Why would the author so badly misinform the reader right off the bat?

Essay From the American Jewish Committee Web Site: ‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism (pdf)

An essay the committee features on its Web site,, titled “ ‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” says a number of Jews, through their speaking and writing, are feeding a rise in virulent anti-Semitism by questioning whether Israel should even exist.

Again, this brief summary of the article makes it look bad. It’s not, as Cohen states, that they feed a rise in virulent antisemitism by questioning whether Israel should even exist, it’s because their ferocious criticism of Israel confirms the demonizing voices that want to make Israel the greatest violator of human rights in the world and deligitimate her. The denial of Israel’s right to exist is a manifestation, a logical and grotesque outcome of this larger problem of moral hysteria. To reduce it to “questioning” makes it sound like a mean-spirited and authoritarian effort to shut down legitimate, indeed desperately needed discussion about how to restore moral sanity.

In an introduction to the essay, David A. Harris, the executive director of the committee, writes, “Perhaps the most surprising — and distressing — feature of this new trend is the very public participation of some Jews in the verbal onslaught against Zionism and the Jewish State.” Those who oppose Israel’s basic right to exist, he continues, “whether Jew or gentile, must be confronted.”

The essay comes at a time of high anxiety among many Jews, who are seeing not only a surge in attacks from familiar antagonists, but also gloves-off condemnations of Israel from onetime allies and respected figures, like former President Jimmy Carter, who titled his new book on the Mideast Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. By spotlighting the touchy issue of whether Jews are contributing to anti-Semitism, both admirers and detractors of the essay agree that it aggravates an already heated dispute over where legitimate criticism of Israel and its defenders ends and anti-Semitic statements begin.

This remark gets to the core of the problem. Just like the Israeli government is reluctant to confront the media, so Jews have been reluctant to confront Jews on these issues. This partakes of the general Western malaise of appeasement: don’t say anything, you’ll only make things worse. The key is to raise these issues intelligently, judiciously, and with the aim not of destroying the opponent, but engaging constructively with those who, benevolently or malevolently, do damage with their aggressive (mis)understandings of the stakes involved. Ultimately, the vast majority of us are on the side of civil society.

The essay, written by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, an English professor and the director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts at Indiana University in Bloomington, castigates a number of people by name, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, the historian Tony Judt, the poet Adrienne Rich and the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, in addition to a number of academics.

Mr. Judt, whose views on Israel and the American Jewish lobby have frequently drawn fire, is chastised for what Mr. Rosenfeld calls “a series of increasingly bitter articles” that have “called Israel everything from arrogant, aggressive, anachronistic, and infantile to dysfunctional, immoral, and a primary cause of present-day anti-Semitism.”

A historian at New York University, Mr. Judt said in a telephone interview that he believed the real purpose of outspoken denunciations of him and others was to stifle harsh criticism of Israel. “The link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is newly created,” he said, adding that he fears “the two will have become so conflated in the minds of the world” that references to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust will come to be seen as “just a political defense of Israeli policy.”

This is pretty sorry stuff. Judt’s dismissal of the critique — which is far more substantive than merely listing Judt’s insults — speaks volumes for the lack of substance in the “progressive” critique. This is little more than the classic dismissal of concerns about the anti-Semitic elements in anti-Zionism with: “Oh any criticism of Israel is dismissed as anti-semitism.” Part of the problem is that Israel has such a tolerance for criticism, that they take far more than they deserve, and only cry anti-semitism when they’re really viciously attacked. What any reasonable person would call harsh criticism, Israel stomachs daily with barely a peep of protest. Let Prof. Judt try aiming his moral indignation at the Palestinians and Muslims and see how much they’ll tolerate.

And this enormous chasm that separates the Israelis/Jews from the Arabs/Muslims when it comes to tolerance of criticism lies at the heart of what makes Judt’s positions so ludicrous in terms of his own values. Judt thinks the way to get Israel to cease its moral outrages is a single state:

    The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution— the core of the Oslo process and the present “road map”—is probably already doomed… The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians… But what if there were no place in the world today for a “Jewish state”? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural. “Christian Europe,” pace M. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is a dead letter; Western civilization today is a patchwork of colors and religions and languages, of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Indians, and many others—as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.

The whole essay is classic expression of the Post-Colonial Paradigm (PCP2) which indeed Judt adheres to quite closely.

    The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”—a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded— is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

Okay, how many ways can an extremely intelligent professor, whose specialty is the post-War world, get it wrong. No, the Israeli project is not imported into “a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law.” On the contrary, the world in which Israel exists hasn’t come close to respecting individual rights, having open frontiers and obeying international law. This remark not only underscores Judt’s profound ethno-centrism (and attendant cognitive ego-centrism), but the huge gap between Middle Eastern realities and the angélisme of Moral Europe which he apparently identifies with even as it slowly — Roman style — commits suicide by bleeding to death.

Thus the likelihood that that “single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs” would live up to the progressive moral standards Judt holds Israel to are less than zero. Such a suggestion, made in terms of increasing moral behavior in the world, qualifies Judt — and others like Anthony Lerman — for a nomination for the idiotarian award. Only a fool or a knave could possibly suggest such a thing in good faith — let Judt and Lerman tell us which they are. (Actually, now that I think of it, “fool or knave” are generally the two ways outsiders think of apocalyptic prophets, which may just be what these folks are — MOS is definitely a manifestation of messianic impulses.)

So, having stepped into intellectual and moral terrain which marks him as a self-destructive radical, Judt’s defense is to say, “Oh yeah, well I know what your really up to, you want to stop people from criticizing Israel.” No state on the planet takes more criticism — from its own, from outsiders — than Israel. Judt’s contention is a variant of what what the French call enfoncer les portes ouvertes [crashing through open doors, i.e., making a stink about accomplishing something that’s quite easy].

The essay also takes to task “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (Grove Press), a 2003 collection of essays edited by Mr. Kushner and Alisa Solomon. Mr. Kushner said that he and Ms. Solomon took great care to include a wide range of voices in their collection, including those of Ms. Rich, the playwright Arthur Miller and various rabbis.

“Most Jews like me find this a very painful subject,” Mr. Kushner said, and are aware of the rise in vicious anti-Semitism around the world but feel “it’s morally incumbent upon us to articulate questions and reservations.”

The issue is not what you say, but how you express it. Of course there are troubling things in Israel. There are troubling things the world over. It’s when your moral perfectionism spills over into a self-flagellation that encourages the most depraved forces of hatred and violence — then there’s a problem. Then you end up with insane bedfellows like the left and the Islamist forces of Jihad and Muslim totalitarianism — in the name of “peace and anti-war.”

Over the telephone, the dinner table and the Internet, people who follow Jewish issues have been buzzing over Mr. Rosenfeld’s article. Alan Wolfe, a political scientist and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said, “I’m almost in a state of shock” at the verbal assaults directed at liberal Jews.

Now did Wolfe call them “liberal Jews” or was that Patricia Cohen’s license? Judt certainly is not a “liberal.” As for “state of shock”? Why isn’t Wolfe in a state of shock over the verbal assaults directed at Israel?

On H-Antisemitism (, an Internet forum for scholarly discussions of the subject, Michael Posluns, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, wrote, “Sad and misbegotten missives of the sort below make me wonder if it is not the purpose of mainstream Jewish organizations to foster anti-Jewishness by calling down all who take from their Jewish experience and Jewish thought a different ethos and different ways of being as feeding anti-Semitism.”

More of the Judt defense, with a nice twist — the Jews who complain about the radicals encouraging anti-Semitism are themselves contributing to “anti-Jewishness.” Turn a substantive critique into a sweeping attempt to shut down dissent. “All who take a different ethos…”? No, specifically those who have become so self-critical that they “objectively” (to use the Marxian term) feed anti-Semitism. It would be nice to hear one of these folk actually address the criticism, rather than try to hide behind a sweeping dismissal and make veiled threats about the criticism backfiring. Any decent outsider, not already attracted to the moral Schadenfreude that has engulfed so many in this young century, would not find this internal struggle a cause for further anti-Jewishness.

Others have praised Mr. Rosenfeld’s indictment and joined the fray. Shulamit Reinharz, a sociologist who is also the wife of Jehuda Reinharz, the president of Brandeis University, wrote in a column for The Jewish Advocate in Boston: “Most would say that they are simply anti-Zionists, not anti-Semites. But I disagree, because in a world where there is only one Jewish state, to oppose it vehemently is to endanger Jews.”

To which one might add — especially at a time like this, when Jews feel increasingly threatened in one of their “traditional” post-Holocaust refuges, Europe.

Although many of the responses to the essay have referred to its subject as “Jewish anti-Semitism,” Mr. Rosenfeld said in a telephone interview that he was very careful not to use that phrase. But whatever it is called, he said, “I wanted to show that in an age when anti-Semitism is resurgent, Jews thinking the way they’re thinking is feeding into a very nasty cause.”

In his essay he says that “one of the most distressing features of the new anti-Semitism” is “the participation of Jews alongside it.” Like others, Mr. Cohen of The Washington Post complained that the essay cherry-picked quotations. “He mischaracterized what I wrote,” he said. “I’ve been critical of Israel at times, but I’ve always been a defender of Israel.” He did add, however, that a wide range of writers were named, some of whom have written inflammatory words about Israel. “He has me in a very strange neighborhood,” Mr. Cohen said.

This is what Rosenfeld has to say about Cohen:

    One hears it, for instance, in a recent op-ed by Richard Cohen, a Washington Postjournalist who in the middle of the Second Lebanon War pronounced the creation of Israel to be a “mistake” that has “produced a century of warfare and terrorism.” Cohen is right about the never-ending violence, but wrong about its causes. Instead of placing the responsibility for terrorism squarely where it belongs, he dodges the issue, saying, “There is no point in condemning Hezbollah.” Instead, he blames the agents of an abstract and errant “history” for having brought the Jewish state into being in the first place. His conclusion: “The greatest mistake Israel could make at the moment is to forget that Israel itself is a mistake.”

Now this may be cherry-picked. Indeed, he wrote it on July 18, six days after the horrendous footage from Qana appeared on the TV screens, a ghoulish piece of manipulation by Hizbullah of an eagerly sensationalist MSM, provoking widespread revulsion against Israel and inspiring the kind of scarcely disguised anti-Semitism of a post-colonial bien-pensant like Joostein Gaarder. Maybe Cohen’s other writings are more soft-spoken, but the terms quoted here seem enough for me to consider him a contributor.

“There’s no point in condemning Hezbollah.” A nice illustration of the “bigotry of low expectations” (just as there’s no point condemning your cat for killing a mouse) that robs the Arabs of their agency. When one combines this attitude that Muslim hatred is a natural force, with trying to explain what’s wrong in the Middle East, it’s pretty easy to come up with: “creating a nation of European Jews in an area of Arab Muslims… has produced a century of warfare and terrorism.” It may have been a moment of passion and weakness, Mr. Cohen, but how we behave in a crisis is a mark of our character, and I’d say this essay not only revealed what’s under the surface of your more restrained prose, but earned you a place in this critique. So take it like a man, and respond to the criticism, don’t weasle out of it with special pleading.

The dispute goes beyond the familiar family squabbling among Jews that is characterized by the old joke about two Jews having three opinions on a single subject. Bitter debates over anti-Israel statements and anti-Semitism have entangled government officials, academics, opinion-makers and others over the past year, particularly since fervent supporters and tough critics of Israel can be found on the right and the left.

Mr. Wolfe, who has written about a recent rise in what he calls “Jewish illiberalism,” traces the heated language to increasing opposition to the Iraq war and President Bush’s policy in the Middle East, which he said had spurred liberal Jews to become more outspoken about Israel.

“Events in the world have sharpened a sense of what’s at stake,” he said. “Israel is more isolated than ever,” causing American Jewish defenders of Israel to become more aggressive.

For a good analysis of the profoundly self-contradictory “liberalism” of Wolfe’s piece, see Benjamin Kerstein’s analysis.

On this point Mr. Rosenfeld and Mr. Wolfe are in agreement. “It’s going up a notch or four or five,” Mr. Rosenfeld said in an interview. “One of the things that is clear,” he said of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks, “is that what used to be on the margin and not very serious is becoming more and more mainstream.”

And this goes back specifically to October 2000, when in the wake of Muhammad al Durah (the first and most devastating of the lethal narratives that include Qana), the comparisons of Israel with Nazis went mainstream.

Mr. Rosenfeld, who has written and edited more than half a dozen books as well as other publications for the committee, emphasized that policy disagreements were natural and expected. Opposing Israel’s settlement of the West Bank or treatment of Palestinians “is, in itself, not anti-Semitic,” he writes; it is questioning Israel’s right to exist that crosses the line.

But Mr. Judt said, “I don’t know anyone in a respectable range of opinion who thinks Israel shouldn’t exist.” (Mr. Judt advocates a binational state that is not exclusively Jewish, something that many Jews see as equivalent to dissolving Israel). He contends that harsh complaints about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians are the real target.

Now is Mr. Judt really a broken record? Or is the author of this article part of the repetitive and shallow defense here articulated for a third time (second by Judt) in this article.

Last year Mr. Judt came to the defense of two prominent political scientists, Stephen M. Walt at Harvard and John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, after they were besieged for publishing a paper that baldly stated (among other things) that anyone critical of Israel or the American Jewish lobby “stands a good chance of being labeled an anti-Semite.”

I guess then, that this is one of Judt’s principle themes of defense. That it’s hollow, that it fails to address the substance of the critique, that it expects Israel to endure far harsher criticism than Judt or Walt or Mearsheimer or Jimmy Carter will endure without throwing around the epithets — none of that matters.

David Singer, the committee’s director of research, said the attention Mr. Rosenfeld’s essay had drawn was not unexpected. “We certainly thought that it would raise eyebrows in some quarters,” he said.

“I think it’s an act of courage” on the part of the American Jewish Committee and the author, he added. “It obviously deals with matters of great sensitivity.”


Having read the essay, I’d say it’s an excellent opening round of discussion on what responsible criticism of Israel entails in an age of demonization and Judeophobia unparalleled since the Nazi era. And if the best that those criticized can do, is give these responses to a reporter apparently sympathetic with their position, then I’d say that the “progressives” are in trouble. For too long, as Sissy put it, they’ve been talking to each other, nodding vigorously in agreement when nonsense is uttered, reveling in “being proud to be ashamed to be a Jew,” and banishing anyone who disturbs their moral narcissism with reality checks from a world in which the terrifying drumbeat of vicious hatreds prepares wars that will sweep their beautiful souls into the maw of these death cults.

As for this article, although it is “balanced and fair” in terms of the “sides” it cites, but it’s framing in terms of “liberalism” strikes me as an astonishing misrepresentation. It frames the debate in terms that invite the typical projections of “right-wing” vs. “middle of the road.” I’d see it, rather, as a dispute between those of us who are painfully aware of how much the situation has veered off towards the disastrous, how outrageous the contempt for human rights among those who claim their “rights” through terror of the most debased sort (Sbarro, 9-11, 7-7), and now stand ready to hold the Arabs accountable on the one hand, and those who still live in a fantasy world of moral narcissism. The astounding claim that, because of how they’ve behaved, Israel shouldn’t exist (or even more stupid, that by dismantling Israel we’ll put an end to Islamic terrorism), defies sane thinking about the real world. What country would survive such claims? What historical example of appeasement to bloodthirsty fanatics has succeeded in soothing their savage breats?

To present that as an idea worthy of respect, and not an astounding piece of moral extremism which tosses out the most important lessons of the 20th century, is to skew the field severely. And to present those who object, as “attacking liberals” is to completely disorient the uninformed.

Now I don’t expect the NYT journalist, or even an academic these days, to present this as an effort of a sane mainstream to criticize some highly irresponsible members of their community, rather than as an increasingly authoritarian “advocacy” community attempting to shut down “reasonable criticism of Israel.” She did balance her quotes from “both sides” reasonably well, even if the balance gave credibiltiy to an unbalanced position.

“What? — who are we to judge what’s balanced?!?” Umm, the journalist’s job is to judge what’s balanced, and he or she is then open to criticism from readers for not doing it right. By substituting liberal for “progressive,” Patricia Cohen has badly misled her audience and stacked the deck in favor of the unbalanced.

If my expectations of the MSM are low, that comes partly from my familiarity with how shallow the discourse in their Augean Stables. Still, more than six years since the war broke out, and this article’s basic assumptions are still essentially carried over unchanged from the late 20th century.


The Forward has published a short and nasty editorial about Rosenfeld’s piece with an incomprehensible title. I append it below without comment (yet). The tone has all of the sneer that characterizes — once more — the people who won’t even think about what the issues are. One can disagree with Rosenfeld, but it seems to me the issues are too important not to engage. This is neither mature nor responsible comment. It’s dismissive. Alas.


Thu. Feb 01, 2007
It’s hard to fathom what could have possessed the leaders of the American Jewish Committee to publish the screed posted on their Web site this week, “’Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” by Alvin Rosenfeld of Indiana University. From its sensationalist title to its tired invocation of the Holocaust in the opening paragraph to its closing words about the “drift of ‘progressive’ Jewish thought,” the slim essay is a shocking tissue of slander.

The essay’s contents, mostly a recitation of anti-Israel sentiments voiced at various times by a handful of left-wing and liberal intellectuals — some quoted correctly, others twisted beyond recognition — teach us little that we didn’t know about the current state of thought among progressives, Jewish or not. But that is not its intent. It is deliberately silent about Jewish progressives who support Israel, defend it against detractors, lobby for it in Washington — and lead its troops into battle. When such liberals are mentioned, as in the case of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, it is only to defame them by lumping them with the extremists. Explaining nuance would muddy the essay’s apparent intent, which is to turn Jews against liberalism and silence critics.

No, this booklet teaches nothing worth learning about antisemitism or progressive thought. On the other hand, the fact that it was commissioned and published by an organization that once stood for dignity and civility in Jewish communal discourse speaks volumes about the state of Jewish leadership today.

Note: comments disabled. Why?

34 Responses to Jewish Hypercritics of Israel Criticized: How Dare You?

  1. Jewish Hypercritics of Israel Criticized: How Dare You?

  2. Gal Shalev says:

    Hypercriticism of Israel can easily be exposed. First of all it can be exposed substantively.
    It can also be exposed when the other person criticizes Israel in a reactionary and knee jerk fashion. A classic example is a lot of the work of Amira Hass and Gideon Levy who criticized Israel even after leaving Gaza and the Palestinians lobbing rockets in response.
    The criticism is so knee jerk as to contradict the person’s own messenger.
    Here is a classic example:
    You have your garden variety anti-colonial advocate. You point out to the person that the Hamas charter calls, in no uncertain terms, for the destruction of Israel. The other person says that “they don’t mean it” or “it doesn’t count”. In response you point out to the person that he is being racist and paternalizing for not taking Arab political platforms at face value. The inference here is that this advocate is the racist one for whitewashing the abovementioned sentiments.

  3. Lisa says:

    French philosopher, Jean-Claude Milner, has written about this phenomenom. In a sub-chapter entitled From denunciation to self-exalation in his book Le Juif de savoir he explains that, contrary to Kafka’s Joseph K. the hyper-critical Jew does not claim incessantly that he is innocent. Not at all. The hyper-critical Jew is a denunciator. He points the faults of all the other Jews. There is not a shred of self-hatred in him. There is vanity: he is the only innocent Jew, the others are guilty. And they are everywhere, blaming Israel and other Jews – putting him/herself apart. He/she thinks of him/herself as a self-congratulary creature. Milner thinks that soon nobody in Europe will need them any more, i.e. they will become redundant.

    We should stop prentending that self-looathing guides them. Vanity guides them everyday of the week.

  4. Solomonia says:

    Jewish Hypercritics of Israel Criticized: How Dare You? — Also, Tony Judt at BC

    Lengthy examination and fisking of the New York Times at Augean Stables: Jewish Hypercritics of Israel Criticized: How Dare You? The Times reports on the AJC’s report, ‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought…

  5. trophyb says:

    the first time you cite Kerstein you misspell “liberal”.

    Don’t think this means I don’t appreciate your razor-sharp analysis and creative way of looking at the problem…

  6. Well done…. Too bad those who should listen won’t.

  7. […] I received a circular email from Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine with comments on the Rosenfeld controversy, asking me to “brin […]

  8. Herve Seligmann says:

    Excellent analysis, especially on the nuances in the roots for “jewish” (rather hebrew) self criticism. It lacks the components indicated in the etimology of the word “hebrew” (which more or less means “in between’, or “on both sides”, or “from the other side”).

    The reactions, or rather lack of reactions I get/dont get about my publications on decennial publications trends from Israel in some scientific journals is very revealing (see links below). Most denying are Israeli academic colleagues.


    Herve Seligmann 2003 More transparency in reviewing is called for. British Medical Journal 327:989-990. also here.

    Seligmann Herve. 2003. Hidden academic boycotts. (accessed 16 Oct 2003)

    Seligmann Herve. 2005. Boycott Israeli Academics? The Numbers Don’t Lie: They’re Already Blacklisted. Discardedlies.

    Seligmann Herve. 2006. Does the boycott backlash? Presentation at Bar Ilan, Conference for Academic Freedom (The politics of boycotts).

  9. […] st Several of my last posts were on the problems of Jewish self-criticism, the ways the MSM has difficulty presenting the conflict, and […]

  10. […] Redeker’s behalf and in defense of France’s “most fundamental liberties.” Now if Patricia Cohen were writing this article, she w […]

  11. […] er: Pallywood — RL @ 9:00 am — Print This Post In the ongoing struggle over what’s legitimate criticism of Israel pro […]

  12. Kesher Talk says:

    “Obsession” at NYU

    [ UPDATE: More from the NYU Dialogue Group & Friends at the end of this post. ] “Obsession: The Threat of Radical Islam” is a controversial documentary which presents video and quotes from the purveyors of radical Islam, Islamofascism (or…

  13. […] l masochistic omnipotence complex and its attendant “prophetic rhetoric” which uses inflated language to “whip” the wa […]

  14. […] doesn’t come out, there’s excellent reasons. Haaretz is a ferociously “self-critical” newspaper that makes a spe […]

  15. […] ist movement. And they systematically abuse and manipulate the poor leftist Zionists who, addicted as they are to prophetic rhetoric and self […]

  16. […] nism. In it he illustrates the same kind of hollow thinking that characterizes so much of Jewish “self-critical” analysis of […]

  17. […] lem of hyper-Jewish self-criticism repeatedly in the past, including issues concerning the Alvin Rosenfeld Controversy. Among other things […]

  18. […] close consideration. I have written a good deal about self-criticism, and its origins in the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. Recently I have been hearing a consistent invocation of this “prophetic tradition” […]

  19. […] Avineri, one of the more radical hyper-self-critical activists in the Israeli “peace” camp has written an interesting meditation on the […]

  20. […] after “anyone who so faintly utters a word of criticism” is the classic refuge of the hyper-self-critical left. Campus Watch and Israel Academia Monitor only target the most outrageous groups, groups who, even […]

  21. […] hyper-self-critic David Landau, whose astonishingly self-destructiive advice to Condaleeza Rice, I’ve discussed […]

  22. […] a joke, a bad joke for anyone who knows how often Jews criticize Israel. No, it’s Jews who compare Israel to the Nazis (like Norman Finkelstein, Richard Falk, and David Theo Goldberg), it’s Jews who think that […]

  23. […] hyper-self-critic David Landau, whose astonishingly self-destructiive advice to Condaleeza Rice, I’ve discussed […]

  24. […] The inaccuracy (dare I say, dishonesty) of such a response (embraced by everyone from NYT reporter Patricia Cohen, to Lenny Pogrebin, to Michael Lerner, to Samuel Freedman, illustrates well how the ardent defense […]

  25. Pro-Israeli says:

    Judt is dying of ALS. I think the Jewish community should organise a massive celebration in Times Square the day Judt succumbs to the disease.

  26. […] and bigotry it involves in its abysmally low standards for the Palestinians, and the inversely exacting standards to which it holds Israel. The result – people, Jews! – for whom Israel is the new Nazi. […]

  27. […] complaints, I’d argue justifiably.) Criticism fine, demonization, not. And there’s a huge and legitimate debate on where to draw the line(s). But it has to be something pretty huge to get a loud complaint […]

  28. […] people who – gasp! – criticize us.” It’s fascinating to see how they can turn a disagreement into an assault on freedom of expression. Enderlin and his buddies at the Nouvel Obs did the same thing: what? we can be […]

  29. […] importance and welcome both your comments and your sending the links on to friends. I have a long one on the NYT article, and then just posted one on Michael Lerner’s response. T his is the big paradigm fight […]

  30. […] The inaccuracy (dare I say, dishonesty) of such a response (embraced by everyone from NYT reporter Patricia Cohen, to Lenny Pogrebin, to Michael Lerner, to Samuel Freedman, illustrates well how the ardent defense […]

  31. […] The inaccuracy (dare I say, dishonesty) of such a response (embraced by everyone from NYT reporter Patricia Cohen , to Lenny Pogrebin , to Michael Lerner , to Samuel Freedman , illustrates well how the ardent […]

  32. […] [lv] Note that while these critics of Israel invoke their role as modern-day prophets, they do what no prophet would have done, which is take their scathing criticism of their own people, itself a form of flagellating rhetoric (you are as bad as Sodom), and publish it among their people’s enemies. For a good discussion of the phenomenon and its effects, see Alvin Rosenfeld, “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism.” AJC, NY, 2006;; for a critique of the liberals who attacked Rosenfeld and defended the radicals, see Landes, “Jewish Hypercritics of Israel Criticized: How Dare You?” Augean Stables, February 1, 2007; […]

  33. […] terms of a larger problem in Western culture. You seem to be an outspoken member of what I call the Jewish hyper-self-critics who show their greatness of soul by beating their breasts in atonement for whatever we have done, […]

  34. […] if we Jews and Israelis show some sense of self-preservation rather than rushing to self-immolate to prove what “good” Jews we are, we will serve as examples to those Europeans who, […]

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