Prof. Rosenfeld’s Notorious Paper

Prof. Rosenfeld’s Notorious Paper

This is an excellent editorial by Andrew Silow-Carroll, Editor-in-Chief of New Jersey Jewish News, a paper I occasionally write for. Please note that this begins by summarizing Rosenfeld’s thesis without endorsing it:

The AJC and the Left: a work in progress

Here’s what the average reader might learn after reading “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” the much-talked-about paper written by Indiana University professor Alvin Rosenfeld and published by the American Jewish Committee:

There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism, mainly in the Muslim world, but also among Western leftist intellectuals. The forms of this anti-Semitism seem new but actually play on classic Jewish stereotypes, from the poisoning of wells to “Protocols”-like manipulations of government and finance.

The most insidious forms of this new anti-Semitism include the hyperbolic language used to denounce Israel’s actions and the hostile way intellectuals challenge the Jews’ very right to a state of their own.

The Jewish writers named in the paper — poet Adrienne Rich, British polemicist Jacqueline Rose, and a professor at Bard College named Joel Kovel, for example — typify “one of the most distressing features of the new anti-Semitism — namely, the participation of Jews alongside it, especially in its anti-Zionist expression.”

Here’s what you don’t learn from Rosenfeld’s paper: How widespread are these views among Jewish “progressives”? When Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, a self-described “writer and poet, activist, scholar and teacher,” writes that she is renouncing her “right to return,” does she represent some, many, or most “progressives”? Who is Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz?

If there is a “drift of ‘progressive’ Jewish thought” in this direction, as Rosenfeld asserts, what are his measures for this “drift”? How does he define the marketplace of ideas, and how influential are these Jews “who are proud to be ashamed to be Jews” (that’s Rosenfeld quoting British lawyer Anthony Julius)?

Since the paper does not acknowledge their existence, should the reader assume that there are no Jewish “progressives” who represent a countervailing force or trend — that is, of unabashed Zionist leftism?

Since The New York Times reported on Rosenfeld’s paper early this month, reaction to it has been swift and vociferous. The paper has its defenders, including Shulamit Reinharz, a professor of sociology at Brandeis University, and Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick. “Far from seeking to silence these hostile Jewish voices,” Glick writes, “Rosenfeld’s essay simply serves to draw lines between friend and foe where such lines are important.”

Much of the criticism of the paper, especially on the Left, challenged Rosenfeld’s premise that certain forms of invective aimed at Israel — namely, the use of Nazi and apartheid imagery and calls for a “binational” state of Arabs and Jews — are prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism. Still others suggested that the “anti-Semitism” label is intended to squash debate on Israel.

For their part, Rosenfeld and the AJC deny this last point. AJC executive director David A. Harris issued a statement, declaring, “It is important to stress that [Rosenfeld] has not suggested that those about whom he writes are anti-Semitic.” This is simply disingenuous. Rosenfeld builds an eight-page argument that certain views and attitudes exemplify the “new anti-Semitism” and then quotes at length the Jewish writers who hold these very views. If that is his definition of the new anti-Semitism, in what ways are these writers not anti-Semites? How can you participate “alongside” anti-Semitism without being a purveyor?

Or perhaps Harris is not being disingenuous, and Rosenfeld genuinely believes that Rose, Kovel, et al, are not anti-Semitic. If so, that strengthens the argument of critics like the New Republic’s John Judis, who writes that “harsh denunciation of Israeli policies can be offensive without being anti-Semitic.” In fact, if you take away Rosenfeld’s once-over-lightly treatment of the “new anti-Semitism,” you really have an expose and rebuttal of some extremely offensive writings by some seriously misinformed or malevolent thinkers.

But Rosenfeld is not satisfied with exposing and rebutting these folks; he wants to tie them instead to something darker and more dangerous. As Harris puts it in his statement, Rosenfeld has “courageously taken on the threat that arises when a Jewish imprimatur is given to the campaign to challenge Israel’s very legitimacy.” The threat, the reader can only presume, is that the enemies of the Jews are strengthened when they can point to Jews who may share some of their arguments about Israel’s behavior and legitimacy. It’s an academic version of former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s comments, soon after 9/11, that Americans “need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”

Is this true, and in what context? When a Jew writes an anti-Zionist essay or a book that compares the Palestinian territories to the Warsaw Ghetto, does that make things worse for other Jews and the State of Israel, and in what ways? To turn it around, if no Jew held these views, or if no publisher would print them, would the world’s attitudes toward Israel be any more positive? Would the threat to Israel be any less dire?

There is another threat, and that is the danger that once you start declaring certain ideas and writers a “threat,” you don’t know how to stop. That’s certainly what happened when Rosenfeld cherry-picked a single column on the Lebanon war by Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. Ignoring his long-standing support for Israel and devotion to the subject, Rosenfeld accused Cohen of purveying “the age-old indictment of the Jews.” (Harris has apologized, somewhat grudgingly, to Cohen, saying his “disturbing comments expressed this summer…do not reflect the totality of his occasional writings on the Middle East”).

And then there is the threat that when you “draw lines between friend and foe,” the boundaries you sketch become narrower and narrower. What I find most unfortunate about Rosenfeld’s essay is his equation, from the title onward, of “progressive” with “anti-Semitism.” In the good old days of ideological ornithology, when it was the Right that was more likely than the Left to be analyzed for its anti-Semitism, academics were always careful to distinguish among, say, conservatives, paleo-conservatives, and neoconservatives. These distinctions made clear that while individuals may share certain beliefs, that doesn’t mean they share all the same beliefs.

Rosenfeld doesn’t mention the Zionist leftists who defend Israel in “progressive” settings, with, admittedly, varying disagrees of success. He doesn’t mention the network of American Zionist organizations, like Ameinu and Meretz USA, who support their counterparts in the Knesset and the Israeli Left. He doesn’t even call on leftist Zionists, as you might expect he would, to clean their ranks of those who “participate” in the new anti-Semitism. To do so, he would have to acknowledge that there are alternative “progressive” Jewish voices to those he lambastes in his paper. A mainstream Jewish organization with AJC’s reputation for scholarship and measured activism should know better than to hand an emboldened right wing a cudgel with which to beat nearly anyone to its left.

That being said, there’s work to do on the Left. Gleeful bloggers have suggested that the negative reaction to the AJC paper is the sign of a reborn “movement” of Jews who agree with their criticism of Israel. Perhaps. And yet it’s not enough to declare “I’m no anti-Semite” and at the same time only engage with Israel and Jewish life to the degree to which you protest its policies and attack its mainstream. “Progressive” also means imagining a positive, engaged expression of Judaism and Zionism, not just tearing down its myths and idols.

Rosenfeld’s paper is an attack on a movement’s extreme. The non-extremists within that movement should use their moment in the sun to express a leftist Zionism that proudly earns the name “progressive.”

By | 2007-02-22T15:51:00-05:00 February 22nd, 2007|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Charles Barton February 22, 2007 at 11:46 pm - Reply

    We ought to distinguish between fair and unfair criticisms of Israel. It would be a fair criticism of Israel to assert that Israel does not provide the Palestinians with enough water, and that a more equitable distribution of the water resources of Israel/Palestine ought to be made. A second form of criticism Israel is unfair, but not inherantly anti-Semetic. Such criticisms as “Israel does not accord its Arab Citizens human rights,” and “Israel treats the Palestinians as subhumans,” is demonstrably false, and represents little more than malicious slander. Yet many people who repeat these “criticisms” are simply repeating what they have heard, without bothering to check the truth of these assertions. They are shallow anti-Zionists. A third form of criticism is outright anti-Semetism. An example arguing that Judaism is a racist religion, and therefore the Jewishness of Israel reflects the racism of Judaism.

    Shallow, demeaning and factually inacurate anti-Zionist criticisms of Israel – think Jimmy Carter – ought to be dennounced, or even better subjected to satire and other humorous responces, but they should not be described as anti-Semetic.

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