I have been the editor of our local Jewish Federation newsletter for several years. Now that I am about to leave and go back to Israel, I wrote a “last editorial,” a letter to my (liberal) Jewish friends. I think it might be of broader interest, so I am reproducing it here.
By Vic Rosenthal
This will be the last Federation Focus that I will edit. Some of you know that after almost exactly 26 years, Lise and I are moving back to Israel. It’s a strange feeling – on the one hand I’ll be with two of my three children and 7 of 8 grandchildren; but on the other, Fresno will always be my home.
This part of my life, in a place where I found a great deal of warmth and friendship from Jewish and non-Jewish people, is ending and a new one beginning. At times like these my thoughts turn beyond my personal concerns, to history and to our people.
I was born in the US during WWII, which means that I grew up in one of the most remarkable places and times, an environment in which, among other things, a Jew didn’t have to worry about being murdered for being a Jew. It doesn’t sound like much, but it has been quite special in Diaspora history. By the time I was 20, barriers to Jews in various occupations, quotas at universities and real estate restrictions were virtually gone. A Jew in America could be an American and a Jew.
The horror of the Holocaust stunned Americans like General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who saw death camps with his own eyes in 1945. This, they felt, was the natural outcome of Jew-hatred, and they vehemently rejected it. Since then, traditional Jew-hatred has been marginalized in America, along with all forms of racism and ethnic prejudice. It is simply not acceptable, at least in polite society.
But something else took its place.
Around 1968, Yasser Arafat took over the PLO, an organization dedicated to ending Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East. Until then, the PLO’s rhetoric was the usual “throw the Jews into the sea” variety, which – especially after the Holocaust – didn’t go over very well in the West. So Arafat sought out, and received, advice from the masters of propaganda at the Soviet KGB.
And they told him to turn the story around: instead of a tiny Jewish state standing up against the might of a racist, genocidal Arab world, instead of Arabs trying to end Jewish sovereignty and self-determination, they told him to present the conflict as the struggle of a powerless, indigenous third-world people, the ‘Palestinians’, to be free of their colonial oppressors.
Although this required a distortion of history – suddenly, Arabs from Syria or Egypt who had been in Palestine for one or two generations had to be presented as the remnants of a millennia-old ‘Palestinian’ civilization, and Jews who were hated and exterminated in Europe became ‘European colonialists’ – it fit in perfectly with the decolonization movements throughout the world, the civil rights movement in the US, the perception of the Vietnam war as a colonial war, and the New Left’s hatred of ‘American imperialism’.
Later, the language of civil rights was invoked with the 1975 ‘Zionism is racism’ resolution in the UN, followed by the 2001 Durban Conference in which Israel was accused of being an ‘apartheid state’ and likened to South Africa before the overthrow of the apartheid regime. Ugly words, with absolutely no connection to the truth, but by this time a large group of people were ready to believe almost anything negative about Israel.
And the Arabs and their supporters provided plenty of material, expertly exaggerating real events, making up things that didn’t happen, and even staging ’atrocities’ for the benefit of the media (the word ‘Pallywood’ was coined to describe these productions). Israeli efforts at getting the truth out were often late and inadequate.
The degree of animus against Israel on the Left became so great that it disconnected not only from the facts, but from logic. Israel was demonized, and every accusation against her was believed – just as the medieval Jews were accused of poisoning wells and making matzah from Christian blood. A double standard was applied – Israel’s every action in self-defense was subjected to intense scrutiny while serious human rights violations committed by other countries were ignored. Finally, Israel was delegitimized – its enemies argued that its evil was so great that (unlike any other country in the world), it should not even exist.
Instead of hating Jewish people (which is still taboo, at least in the US), they hate – no less irrationally – the Jewish state. This is often presented as simple political disagreement with Israeli policy, but the “three Ds” (as they were called by Natan Sharansky) – demonization, double standard and delegitimization – always give it away.
This extreme hatred of Israel has been called “the new anti-Semitism.”
This puts tremendous pressure on American Jews. Many Jewish immigrants found a place on the American Left, particularly in the labor movement (my grandfather was secretary of his chapter of the ILGWU). They strongly supported FDR and the Democratic Party. Their children and grandchildren were in the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the student revolts of the 1960s. They grew up, had children of their own, and sent them to ‘good’ colleges where ‘academic freedom’ has come to mean ‘political indoctrination’. They read the New York Times and listen to NPR.
The election of Barack Obama has torn the relationship wide open. How could Jews not support the first black president, who many see as the final triumph of the civil rights movement that they supported so strongly? But at the same time, despite positive rhetoric, the administration’s actual policies toward Israel have been remarkably unsympathetic and even dangerous.
Today, many Jewish Americans are ambivalent about Israel (or even openly hostile), believing – incorrectly – that Israel acts in ways that contradict their liberal or progressive ideals. Jews are even at the forefront of some of the most vicious anti-Israel organizations in the US. This subversion of American Jewish support for Israel has been one of the greatest accomplishments of the forces that want to deny the Jewish people their right to sovereignty in the one tiny Jewish state.
The writer Peter Beinart made a career out of saying that Israel has forced American Jews to choose between their liberalism and Zionism. This is inaccurate. The truth is that a perversion of liberalism is making “new anti-Semites” out of them.
Most of us don’t remember a time when there wasn’t a state of Israel – when a Jew had no homeland and was physically and psychologically dependent on his non-Jewish hosts. When a Jew didn’t belong, wherever he lived.
History tells us that it will not always be so easy to live in the Diaspora. American society is changing rapidly, and the unique situation that has held since 1945 will not continue forever. It will not always be possible to be comfortable as both an American and a Jew, particularly a Zionist Jew. Did you know that the IRS already gives ‘special treatment’ to organizations that support Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria?
The existence of a strong Jewish state is essential to the continued existence of the Jewish people, and the support of the US – or at least the indifference of the US – is essential to the state. Unfortunately, for various reasons US policy today is less pro-Israel than it has been at any time since 1948.
As I say goodbye to my Jewish friends in the Central Valley, I ask you to open your eyes. Don’t let yourselves become unwitting agents of a new incarnation of the old hatred that we have faced for thousands of years, just because it falsely presents itself as ‘progressive’.
If we, American Jews, don’t fight for our country to support Israel, who will?
And if not now, when?