Loeffler Book Offers Help in Answering New York Times Columnist
Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times column earlier this month headlined “Anti-Zionism Isn’t the Same as Anti-Semitism,” generated a number of strong responses.
Here at The Algemeiner, Benjamin Kerstein and Stephen Flatow weighed in, as did I. In The New York Times itself, Bret Stephens wrote a rebuttal, “When Anti-Zionism Tunnels Under Your House,” that effectively destroyed Goldberg’s argument without even mentioning her by name.
One of the most intriguing responses, though, came from Andrew Mark Bennett, writing on the online platform Medium. On Twitter, a former Times editor, Mark Horowitz, touted it as, “A very calm, sober and comprehensive rebuttal to that Goldberg column about anti-Zionism, from a serious scholar. (And don’t miss the devastating factcheck of the Jacob Blaustein quote that was thoroughly misrepresented.)”
Bennett’s article, in turn, cites one book, published earlier this year by Yale University Press: Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews And Human Rights In The Twentieth Century, by James Loeffler, who is associate professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of Virginia.
Loeffler’s book is relevant to the Goldberg controversy because Goldberg trots out one of the main characters in Loeffler’s book, Jacob Blaustein of the American Jewish Committee, as supposed evidence that “there’s a long history of Jewish anti-Zionism or non-Zionism, both secular and religious.” Loeffler’s book, though, recounts Blaustein lobbying President Truman for military aid to Israel. Even today, Blaustein’s descendant family foundations are donating millions of dollars to Israeli causes. Blaustein’s “non-Zionism,” in other words, was a far cry from the contemporary Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement of which Goldberg strains to portray Blaustein as a predecessor.
My bet is that the Goldberg flap will be only the first in a long line of controversies for which Loeffler’s fine book will provide useful guidance. I read it earlier this year, and it has been sitting annotated on my desk awaiting an opportunity to provide it more attention. It’s a history of how Jews played important roles in founding what became the human rights movement.
The hottest and perhaps the most provocative element of Loeffler’s story is his suggestion that some of the anti-Israel animus of international human rights organizations is rooted in the theology of Christian universalism. All Christians don’t hate Israel, of course; Christian Zionism has been an important and admirable element of American political support for Israel. But Loeffler describes Amnesty as “a secularized global Christianity.”
“Amnesty was an idea born of the flight from Jewish politics and the Cold War into a purer realm of Catholic religious universalism,” Loeffler writes.
The key figure in the Amnesty story as Loeffler tells it is the organization’s founder, Peter Benenson, a Jew who converted to Catholicism. Loeffler writes that Benenson resembles the early Christian leader Paul, a former Jew who left a “twin legacy of stirring universalism and obsessive anti-Judaism.”
Loeffler quotes Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
And he quotes Benenson as writing, “I have always regarded Amnesty as a part of the Christian witness.”
Understanding the anti-Israel obsessions of Amnesty International — or, for that matter, the United Nations and other self-described human rights groups — as only the most recent development in a 2,000-year-old program to supersede Judaism with global Christianity certainly helps explain some things that otherwise might be difficult to explain, such as why a single small if imperfect country with a democracy, a free press, and relatively strong protections for minority groups attracts such a large share of bitter condemnation. It makes a lot of sense.
If the Times’ Michelle Goldberg column has the unintended consequence of generating more attention for Loeffler’s book, it may prove ironic. Not that Israel is beyond criticism. But understanding some of that criticism as a modern manifestation of Paul’s “obsessive anti-Judaism” might lead one to different conclusions than Goldberg’s about the overlap between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.