Michelle Goldberg, Anti-Zionism, and Ahavat Yisrael
Michelle Goldberg’s December 7 New York Times op-ed denying the connection between antisemitism and anti-Zionism has aroused some controversy, though perhaps less than expected, as the Times’ hostility to any form of Jewish particularism is now so ancient that it is practically a ritualistic cliché.
In this sense, any point by point response to Goldberg is bound to be something of a bore. It is nonetheless worth looking at her claims if only because they represent, to a remarkable degree, a segment of the American Jewish establishment that dissents from the beliefs of the vast majority of the world’s Jews, in the sense that this majority is at least nominally and often passionately Zionist, and does indeed consider anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism.
In a stunningly unoriginal claim, Goldberg states, “The conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand that depends on treating Israel as the embodiment of the Jewish people everywhere.”
Citing Jewish criticism of BDS, she admits that the movement “calls for the right of Palestinian refugees and millions of their descendants to return to Israel, which could end Israel as a majority-Jewish state. (Many B.D.S. supporters champion a single, binational state for both peoples.)”
This is irrelevant to her, however, because while “some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, it’s entirely possible to oppose Jewish ethno-nationalism without being a bigot.”
Goldberg’s arguments, as already noted, are so archaic as to make refutation almost superfluous. We have heard these claims repeated endlessly since Zionism was first conceived, and in recent years they have simply become a mantra among Israel’s detractors. They are worth considering, however, not in terms of what they say about Israel, but what they say about Goldberg and the small but highly vocal minority of American Jews she represents.
First, it is clear that Goldberg simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Her claim that the BDS movement and anti-Zionists need not be bigots is perhaps accurate in principle, but it is completely irrelevant in practice. The truth is that today’s anti-Zionists and the BDS movement do not criticize or oppose Israel: they hate Israel. Hate it with a relentless, obsessive, passionate, violent, and sometimes murderous loathing.
Quite literally anyone who pays any attention to what they say and do is well aware of this. Anti-Zionists have kidnapped, tortured, assaulted, and murdered Jews across Western Europe. Pogroms have broken out in which synagogues have been attacked by mobs of Israel-hating rioters. The anti-Zionist leader of the main British opposition party is now believed by the overwhelming majority of British Jews to be an antisemite, and quite reasonably so. Some 40% of European Jews are reportedly considering emigration as a result, most of them considering Israel their likely destination. In America, anti-Zionists have slandered, disrupted, demonized, and physically assaulted Jews and pro-Israel activists, largely with impunity.
Given all this, it is simply absurd to claim that anti-Zionism is not, objectively if not subjectively — though it is usually that as well — a form of antisemitism. Theoretically, there may be a difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It is possible. But in practical terms, there is none whatsoever, because the anti-Zionists have made it so.
What then, does this tell us about Goldberg and the sub-culture of American Jews she does indeed represent?
Most notably, it is clear that Goldberg is deeply sheltered, both as a Jew and a human being. Indeed, the most likely explanation for why she does not contend with the violence and racism of anti-Zionist antisemites is because, at best, she does not know about them or, at worst, chooses to ignore them. This is, perhaps, only possible from within a specific subset, a bubble, of American Jewry that has rarely experienced antisemitism, would not recognize it if they saw it, and in fact has little interest in it. Confronted with the suffering of their fellow Jews, they feel no solidarity, kinship, or even the basic sympathy they tend to grant all other minorities. Indeed, I doubt Goldberg has ever written a word about the brutal anti-Zionist persecution of Europe’s Jews, or given much thought to the possibility that claiming the conflation of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is merely a “rhetorical sleight of hand” is simply impossible when the anti-Zionists themselves conflate them. They do not differentiate between Zionist or non-Zionist Jews, Israel or the Diaspora, when they set out to do murder. To ignore this is, at best, wishful thinking born of privilege and willful ignorance.
Second, Goldberg’s failure in this regard recalls Gershom Scholem’s criticism of Hannah Arendt — that she lacked “ahavat yisrael,” a love of the people Israel. Perhaps more to the point is the statement of the wicked son: “What does this mean to you?” That is to say, Goldberg does not walk with us. She and those like her do not sense a shared destiny, a historical experience that unites the Jewish people. And in this, her rejection of Israel as a representative of the Jewish people is inevitable.
But like it or not — and one is permitted to dislike it, but not to dismiss it — the State of Israel does represent a kind of Jewish destiny. For better or worse, it is unquestionably a culmination and a realization of one of the central concepts of Judaism: that of return and redemption. To a remarkable extent, the biblical narrative is one of the descending from the land and then ascending to it once again. It is not a coincidence that the Hebrew Bible concludes not with a statement of ethical monotheism or the admonitions of the prophets, but with the words “let him go up,” heralding the return of the exiles to the homeland. And for 2,000 years, the Jewish people held fast to the hope that the second exile would one day end in a similar fashion. To deny that, at the very least, the modern State of Israel is the realization of this essential tenet of Judaism, as important as the prohibition of idolatry and the prophetic vision, is to deny Judaism and, as a Jew, oneself.
It is here, perhaps, that we find the fatal flaw of Goldberg’s claims. As successful and creative as the American Diaspora has been, it does not and cannot represent this historical destiny or, as such, the essence of Jewish identity. The Diaspora unquestionably has a right to exist, and Israel needs it for reasons practical, moral, and idealistic. But the American Diaspora also desperately needs Israel if it is to escape from assimilation and dissolution. Goldberg, in effect, advocates for an emptiness that cannot sustain and is not sustaining Jewish life.
It is only by a mutual embrace — ahavat yisrael — that Israel and the American Diaspora can find the means to both survive and retain the fertility that is perhaps the source of our people’s endurance. Israel must play its part in this relationship as well, but so must American Jews like Goldberg, who seem to believe that a studied and even righteous alienation can somehow sustain them. That, as C.S. Lewis once put it, they can castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. The return and redemption represented by Israel is proof that this is impossible, and that opposition to the Jewish state is, in essence, an attempt at that castration. One that, by definition, can never bring about the regeneration that American Jews so desperately need.
Benjamin Kerstein is The Algemeiner’s Israel Correspondent.