Amalek? You Must be Kidding… Alas, No

In the ongoing struggle over what’s legitimate criticism of Israel provoked by Alvin Rosenfeld’s essay, “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Antisemitism,” this article in the Jerusalem Post makes the same tired claims of gagging dissent. But this one takes it a step further, illustrating the very thing it rejects: it embodies crossing the line where criticism becomes irresponsible. Here, believe it or not, Jews criticizing Jews whom they think go too far in their criticism of Israel, are compared with genocidal zealots. I kid you not.

In the Diaspora: The Amalek syndrome

Samuel Freedman, THE JERUSALEM POST Feb. 8, 2007

The Jewish calendar is moving toward Purim, and with it one of the most troublesome passages in the Torah. For all the boozy, costumed boisterousness of the holiday, it also means reading the verses in Deuteronomy that urge all Jews to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

For those who don’t know the whole story, the Amalekites are the people par excellence who should be exterminated to the last woman and child (Exodus 17; Deuteronomy 25). No people had so dismal a record of wanton violence, targeting the weak — children and elderly.

In the last two weeks, Diaspora Jews have experienced the latest version of what I call the Amalek Syndrome – an effort not to eradicate our external enemies but to invalidate, delegitimize and disenfranchise the supposed traitors within. I speak, of course, of the report written by Alvin H. Rosenfeld and published by the American Jewish Committee, which charges a variety of left-wing Jews in the United States, Canada and England with abetting the resurgent anti-Semitism of the jihad era.

Now I find this breathtaking. To compare Rosenfeld’s essay with an effort to target “traitors from within,” and wipe out dissent akin to the effort to wipe out Amalek, defies any informed reader’s credulity. Surely this is a spoof.

“[T]he arguments for the elimination of the Jewish state – every anti-Semite’s cherished dream – are contributed by Jews themselves,” Rosenfeld, a professor of English and Jewish Studies at the University of Indiana, asserts in conclusion. “Given the drift of ‘progressive’ Jewish thought, that, too – perverse as it is – should come as no surprise.”

The old saw that even paranoids have enemies certainly applies here. Rosenfeld is sadly correct in identifying the upsurge of anti-Semitic rhetoric and action in both the Arab world and the Western European nations with large Muslim communities. He singles out some of the most virulent Jewish critics of Israel, such as Jacqueline Rose and Michael Neumann. But he casts his net so widely, so indiscriminately, so demagogically that it implicates even proven Zionists and amounts to an attempt to quarantine the entire possibility of critically discussing and debating the Israel-Palestine issue.

Apparently not a spoof. Okay, so: “Rosenfeld is right in some cases, but he goes so far that…” that what? that he’s like Saul and the Amalekites? The most generous possible reading of this staggeringly inappropriate analogy is that it reflects “prophetic inflation” (what Rosenfeld calls “overwrought rhetoric”). And this excessive language — Gitmo = Gulag — is, imnsho, the core of the problem. Note also, that Freedman will not return to this issue later and name “proven Zionists” who presumably represent the “entire” range of possible criticisms of Israel. (Presumably he’s thinking of Richard Cohen of the Washington Post who wrote a bullying essay shortly after Qana, and who although not nearly as bad as Neumann or Rose, represents the degree to which the delegitimation of Israel’s right to exist has penetrated supposedly “liberal” circles.

I say this as someone who has written repeatedly in support of Israel, not as a sentimental abstraction but as a nation entitled to self-defense during the Aksa intifada and last summer’s war against Hizbullah. I also say this as a journalist and a small-d democrat who believes that competing ideas, even ones that I personally find abhorrent, should be engaged and then argued to the ground. To stifle dialogue, to smear one’s ideological foes, is only to lend aid and comfort to the conspiracy theorists, embodied most recently by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who want the world to think that the Zionist cabal quashes even the slightest dissent.

So lest Mearsheimer and Walt seem proven right when they accuse the Zionist conspiracy of stiflng dissent, let’s not criticize irresponsible dissent? That kind of attitude has given us the appalling spectacle of a rising paranoid conspiracy of the “Jews controlling the press” just as they have lost even basic rights to defend themselves in that press… lest they succeed and be accused of controlling the press. How disheartening to see people reason so.

Part of what’s interesting here is that the only Jewish dissent on Israel that Freedman defends comes from the “Left.” This world of competing ideas that Freedman prizes and champions goes from center to left. I truly doubt that he, or anyone else among his colleagues, would ever consider defending the rights of those on the right who advocate positions progressives find excessive and offensive. Indeed, they would have no problem silencing such positions as racist and fascist, no matter how innacurate the label.

Rosenfeld’s essay operates from a faulty, and I would say highly intolerant, premise. He begins with seven pages – about one-quarter of the paper’s total length – that categorize the anti-Semitic rhetoric, popular culture, violence and vandalism of the Arab world and European nations including England and France. Referring to Western Europe, he posits “a conflation of interests among those on the far Right, segments of the intellectual Left, and radical Islam.”

Yet with barely a transition or a caveat of any kind, Rosenfeld moves into his deconstruction of Rose, Neumann, the historian Tony Judt, and the contributors to the anthologies Wrestling with Zion and Rabbis, Radicals, and Peacemakers.

Actually the analysis of Rose serves as the transition — an openly anti-Zionist historian who, despite her claims of concern and Jewish identificaiton, shows no sympathy for the Israeli Jews who have made her ashamed to be Jewish. Rosenfeld concludes his discussion of Rose’s work:

    The many false notes in this book point to something badly awry at the core of Rose’s treatment of her subject. On several occasions she claims to be “appalled by what the Israeli state peretrates on a daily basis in the name of the Jewish people” (p.11). Her overwrought rhetoric notwithstanding, nothing in her book expresses any genuine concern for the Jews as a people. In fact, she exhibits only antipathy for collective identities of any kind and most especially for ethnic or national identities. Like other postmodernists, she finds the concept of the “nation” suspect, and large, enveloping national ideas like Zionism are anathema. When she writes that “Israel inscribes at its heart the very version of nationhood from which the Jewish people had to flee” (p.83), she comes very close, once again, to equating Zionism with German anti-Semitism at its worst. Like her historically unsupported [indeed impossible -- RL] effort to tie Herzl to Hitler [attending the same performance of Wagner together in Paris], such poisonous linkages reveal nothing about the reality of Zionism, but a great deal about the author’s uneasy identity as an anti-Zionist Jew facing the reality of the Jewish state. (Rosenfeld, p. 12)

It seems to me that Rosenfeld has put his finger on precisely the problem with prophetic inflation — it’s empirically autistic. It only tells you reliably about the state of mind of the “prophet,” not about the actual conditions of the people he or she whips with a moral lash. Would anyone know from such post-modern anti-nationalists that a malignant Palestinian nationalism seeks to eliminate this “passé” Jewish nationalism? Do we find in their work the same feeling of being “appalled by what the Palestinian people perpetrates daily in the name of the Palestinian people and the Islamic faith?”

And from there Rosenfeld goes to the even more “pathological fury” found in the work of Michael Neumann and his “accusation of genocide with all Jews complicit.” Strikes me as pretty elegant transition. Too subtle? Perhaps.

What Rosenfeld plainly aims to accomplish with this structure is to have a reader conflate the Jews he assails with the atrocities he has earlier listed – the booming interest in Mein Kampf and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; the Holocaust-denial conference convened by the Iranian regime; the torture-murder of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew. Naturally, Rosenfeld does not explicitly charge the likes of Tony Judt or Tony Kushner with direct responsibility for these episodes, because such an indictment would be ridiculous on its face. Inference and innuendo are his chosen instruments.

If all Freedman has is his reading of this transition as a form of innuendo, it renders his “Amalek” comparison genuinely grotesque. There is nothing “plain” about the aim he attributes to Rosenfeld. Freedman’s reading is actually a perverse reading of a powerful critique of what Anthony Julius rightfully referred to at the Global Forum on Anti-semitism as the “post-left.”

I THINK there is a very plausible argument to be made about the moral cowardice of much of British Jewry when it comes to Israel, and Rosenfeld himself made it effectively in an earlier research paper. Just as the Enlightenment offered Jews full citizenship if they would surrender their Jewishness, so Great Britain’s chattering classes promise complete acceptance of any Jew who will on cue denounce Israel and Zionism.

That scenario is a long way from the scene in America, but, again, Rosenfeld elides a fundamental distinction. Despite such anti-Israel academics as Joel Beinin, despite Jimmy Carter’s new book, despite the Off Broadway production of the agitprop theater piece about Rachel Corrie, no polling I have seen suggests any sudden erosion of American commitment to Israel. If there is a crisis about Israel among American Jews, especially younger ones, it is a crisis of disinterest, not disdain.

This is facetious, and again far too mild to support the opening framing of Rosenfeld’s attack on the Left as “Amalek syndrome.” Rosenfeld doesn’t even discuss polls. As for Jewish youth’s disinterest if not disdain for Israel, one can attribute a good deal of it — especially the disdain — directly to the image of Israel that the Pallywood-duped MSM and the post-colonial academics — Jewish and non Jewish — purvey. Rose, for example, in her indictment of wanton Israeli violence, invokes “razing the town of Jenin,” showing herself the product of the very Pallywood cum media defamations that produce the anti-Zionist frenzy that grips today’s world. With such an ugly picture of Israel, only the most informed could remain proud Zionists. In other words, what Freedman offers as counter-proof is precisely the opposite: an illustration of Rosenfeld’s position.

In prosecuting American Jewish leftists, Rosenfeld conveniently overlooks or downplays any complex or contradictory information. Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon, the co-editors of Wrestling With Zion, are indeed fierce critics of the Jewish state, but they are also deeply knowledgeable about Jewish culture and Yiddishkeit. If anything, they embody the modern version of Martin Buber, Ahad Ha’am and other cultural Zionists. (Rosenfeld alights on that comparison only briefly and dismissively.)

It’s hard to believe that Freedman can so misunderstand the argument. The point is not the roots of this thinking in Judaism, but an intensified hostile rhetoric from secular Jews precisely at a time of growing anti-Semitism. No one needs to question these hyper-critics “love of things Jewish.” The problem is their inability to see how their overwrought and profoundly unjust hyper-criticism feeds a current wave of insane Judeophobia. Alain Finkielkraut would say, it’s not that they hate “things” Jewish, or even themselves. It’s other Jews, the ones who embarrass them in front of their “progressive” peer group, whom they hate. Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber, were they alive today, would almost certainly side with Rosenfeld here rather than their zealous and oblivious epigones, especially if they knew how tainted the evidence on which they base their critique.

I happen to disagree with Kushner and Solomon, being a political Zionist myself, and I have argued with them in print and occasionally in person. Not in a million years, however, would I lump them with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as Rosenfeld attempts to do.

If Freedman argues here that Rosenfeld is trying to lump Kushner et al. with Ahmadenijad, rather than linking them in a continuum of verbal violence that makes the former enablers of the latter, then he’s got it exactly wrong. Why such misreading?

Wrestling With Zion makes no pretense of being anything other than a critical look at Israel, and if one or two anthologies of this sort are enough to destabilize the Zionist enterprise, then it’s a flimsier contraption than I’d always thought. What Wrestling With Zion does afford is something I’ve heard a number of Jewish students on college campuses express a yearning for – the chance to openly dissent about Israel, or simply voice doubts about its policies, without being banished from the Jewish community.

More misreading. No one that I know of in the Rosenfeld camp, and more broadly in the Zionist camp wants to throttle the chance to “openly dissent about Israel, or simply voice doubts about its policies.” This is a red herring of the most astonishing — if not dishonest — sort. There is no country on the planet whose patriots tolerate, even welcome, so much criticism as Israel. The notion that Zionists refuse to tolerate criticism is not only a counter-factual claim, but replicates precisely the kind of Protocols-inspired Islamist claim that the Jews control the media and throttle criticism. Indeed, no fair observer could help but notice that if there’s a side of this conflict that ruthlessly throttles even the most tentative criticism, it’s the Palestinians. So what on earth is Freedman talking about?

Even given its declared political bent, Wrestling With Zion is a more varied collection than Rosenfeld lets on. As Ellen Willis, the late journalist and professor, put it in her contribution: “I reject the idea that Israel is a colonial state that should not exist. I reject the villainization of Israel as the sole or main source of the mess in the Middle East. And I maintain that Israel needs to maintain its ‘right of return’ for Jews around the world.”

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, whose great achievement as both author and activist has been to battle against the fashionable anti-Zionism in certain feminist circles, sounds a similar note: “The Jewish right to instant citizenship strikes me as a factually warranted, compensatory response to the truth of Jewish experience… Since being a Jew has been enough in some places to mark one for persecution or death, at least on one spot on the globe it should be a ticket to safety.”

Are Willis and Pogrebin typical of the anthology as a whole? Or course not. They do, however, prove that Wrestling With Zion is not simply a doctrinaire tract.

That’s another red herring. By including radical anti-Zionism with this collection, Kushner gives respectability to an extremist point of view. And there’s nothing in this allegedly capacious book that gives voice to the criticisms of Jews who think that Israel is far too timid in its self-defense. That would be “right wing,” and therefore not an acceptable form of criticism. If anyone has throttled “unacceptable criticism” it’s the (post-)left.

What motivates so many other contributors to dissociate themselves from Israel, I think, is not that they are fellow travelers with international anti-Semitism, but that they suffer the American Jewish delusion that powerlessness equals morality. Or, to put it as the essayist Shelby Steele has, they achieve power themselves by playing the innocent victim.

Here I agree with Freedman (although it’s not an either/or: their delusion can make them fellow-travelers). I’d take it further and talk about their embarrassment at being Jewish when Israelis are doing things they don’t like. As Rose herself admits, she is “appalled by what the Israeli state perpetrates daily in the name of the Jewish people.” Ironically, this is at the heart of the blood libels that Pallywood disseminates. Within a day of the report that Israeli soldiers had deliberately killed Muhammad al Durah, Jews in Europe were being assaulted by outraged fellow-citizens. Jews in Europe found themselves asked by their (former) friends, “What are you Jews doing?”

The very fact that this one incident, even had it happened, could provoke such fury at Jews who had nothing to do with it — except in the minds of their accusers — illustrates the terrible logic of anti-Zionist anti-Semitism. No one attacked Muslims in Europe for the unquestionably intentional Palestinian sniper killing of 18-month-old Shahlevet Pass in the arms of her mother a month later. The immediate transformation of anything Israel — a sovereign nation defending itself — does, accidently or not, or not at all, becomes an indictment of the Jewish people. When people like Rose choose to identify themselves as Jews in order to heap their moral horror at Israel, willy-nilly, they participate in this madness.

Now Rosenfeld has given them exactly what they want: intellectual martyrdom. Nothing grants more undeserved status to the Jewish critics of Israel, particularly to those who oppose its entire existence, than to let them think their ideas are so dangerous, so powerful, that they dare not be uttered or heard. We should crave the debate rather than duck it.

Rosenfeld never claimed their words were never to be uttered or heard. He claimed they were to be criticized. The people who grant these folks their craven intellectual martyrdom get their affirmation not from Rosenfeld, who explicitly engages in debate, but people like Freedman, who so astonishingly misread Rosenfeld that a) he worries that Rosenfeld will affirm Mearsheimer-Walt’s conspiracist accusations, and b) that the poor hyper-critics will not have their day in court.

On the contrary, the hyper-critics do not want their day in court. They want to continue publishing in the NYReview of Books, Princeton and Stanford University Press, and all the other publications that eagerly give them a platform, untroubled by the people who point out how damaging their excesses. Indeed, they don’t want their day in court where they must submit to cross-examination.

So any effort to get them to respond to the criticism, they view as an attempt to silence them. Do they know something that others don’t about how fragile their arguments? Is there so little they can say in their own self-defense, that their only recourse is to scream “Foul!”?

It gives me no pleasure to write these words. I have had close ties with the American Jewish Committee for nearly a decade. I have relied on its staff for expert analysis of issues, participated in its think-tank sessions, and written papers under its aegis. In my experience, the AJC has never imposed a party line. And in one case with which I’m extremely familiar – the controversy about the Middle East studies program at Columbia University, where I teach – the committee played an especially smart, nuanced, and productive role.

But if a friend is someone who can tell you the truth, then, for me at least, the truth is that the Rosenfeld report is a mistake, even a self-inflicted wound.

(Full disclosure: Alisa Solomon is also on the Columbia Journalism School faculty.)

The writer is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.

The writer’s best possible defense is that he’s a terrible reader. Rosenfeld is not about silencing the radical left, but criticizing it for its excesses which, in the current climate, serve to amplify a terrible new round of an ancient hatred. That the hyper-critics want to hide behind the screen of misreading serious and responsible criticism, rather than face the debate they (may feel they) cannot win, is understandable if cowardly. That they avoid criticism when it is specifically about their excessive criticism just adds to the pathetic irony. That “moderates,” like Samuel Freedman take their side rather than tell them to grow up and respond, is not only incomprehensible, it’s tragic.

Dear Professor Freedman,

Get over your pain and reread the article. This op-ed is an embarrassment that will later make you flush red when you return to it. If you need help, call up the AJC — or Alvin Rosenfeld — and ask them if you got it right.

And, by the way, what happened to the Amalek Syndrome? Was that just for shock effect? Was it so gratuitous that you forgot about it at the end of this sad excursion?

Sincerely,

RL

PS. So far I have yet to see a substantive critique of Rosenfeld’s essay. Please forward me any you may have read.

6 Responses to Amalek? You Must be Kidding… Alas, No

  1. kahaneloyalist says:

    Freedman would fit in perfectly with Israeli leftists who say with a straight face that Democracy must be limited to those with acceptable viewpoints in order to defend Democracy.

  2. Robert Schwartz says:

    The paradox of Amalek. If the Jews did not read and re-read the Torah, Amalek would be so completely forgotten that they really would be completely blotted out.

    But, the reference is overwrought.

  3. Eliyahu says:

    Robert S,
    the tribe of Amaliq is mentioned in Richard Burton’s 19th century account of his travels in Arabia as an ancient Arab tribe. Immanuel Velikovsky believed that the Hyksos conquerors of Egypt were the tribe of Amaleq, which had conquered Egypt after the Exodus, that is, Israel and `Amaleq had crossed paths in Sinai going in opposite directions. Velikovsky asserts that the Egyptian name of the Hyksos was `Amuw which is fairly close to `Amaleq phonetically. Otherwise, you’re right that without so much mention in Jewish sources, `Amaleq might be totally forgotten.

  4. Kesher Talk says:

    Alvin Rosenfeld on “Rhetorical Violence and the Jews”

    Alvin Rosenfeld – author of “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism.” [PDF] the critique of Jewish Leftish antisemitism which has roiled the Jewish comunity for the past month – responds to his critics and mischaracterizers in The N…

  5. [...] that, and given the tenor of the reaction on NPR, the Boston Globe, the Forward, even the Jerusalem Post, for goodness sakes, they are taken seriously.) Th [...]

  6. [...] tion either Soros’ sanity or his integrity. Like the hyper-critics screaming “You’re like Amalek trying to utterly eradicate our voice,&#8 [...]

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