Israel’s Soul

As I mentioned yesterday, Alvin Rosenfeld begins his essay “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism” with several harrowing pages on the state of Muslim anti-Semitism. From there he, commendably, suggests that criticizing Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza is “in itself, not anti-Semitic.”

What is anti-Semitic? Questioning the very genesis of the State.

Here Rosenfeld raises a point that’s very much worth sitting on. He correctly points out that for many on the Left, the problems with Israel have less to do with 1967 (i.e. the West Bank and Gaza) and more to do with 1948 (i.e. the very creation of the State). Thus he begins this section of the article with his first “progressive” Jew, Jacqueline Rose, who he quotes as writing “the soul of the nation was forfeit from the day of its creation.”

I’ve never read Rose’s work, but assuming the quotes Rosenfeld takes from her are representative, I think much of the critique he levels against her is justified. “We take Zionism to be a form of collective insanity,” writes Rose, and indeed, statements like this do echo with bias other than political justice and academic rigor.

Similarly, I’ve never read the work of Michael Neumann, but Rosenfeld seems justified in calling him out, as well. Writes Neumann, “we should almost never take anti-Semitism seriously and maybe we should have some fun with it.” The quotes from Rose and Neumann feel like they’re launched with aggression and hate, and though I would need to read more, Rosenfeld does lay the groundwork for an anti-Semitism charge against these Jews.

But back to Rose’s first point: 1948. From my brief interactions with those affiliated with “the international Left” who work on Israeli/Palestinian issues, Rosenfeld’s diagnosis is correct. They are not, ultimately, concerned with the West Bank and Gaza, but see the creation of Israel as part of a colonial enterprise that gave Arab land to white Europeans.

Of course, the problem with this position isn’t that it’s an outright fabrication (clearly, there’s at least a little truth to it). The problem is that it’s an utter simplification, and I would venture to say, the only categorical sin in discussing Israeli/Palestinian issues is transforming an unfathomably complicated conflict into something simple and obvious. So let’s go back to Rosenfeld’s paradigmatic progressive quote. Jacqueline Rose: “the soul of the nation was forfeit from the day of its creation.”

Looking at this idea honestly, I would say: Certainly it wasn’t forfeit. But was it compromised? Surely. What nation state comes into existence with a clean soul? Without blood and suffering? Would Rosenfeld object as vociferously if Rose claimed that the soul of the United States was forfeit from the day of its creation? But, of course, its soul was tarnished, too. In fact, I would venture to say that the Native American blood that fertilized our freedom and liberty has left the United States with a soul exponentially darker than Israel’s.

Israel’s genesis did not occur in a universe of absolute justice, many people — Jews and non-Jews — suffered for it. But that doesn’t mean its genesis was not justified.

My point: Rosenfeld and Rose suffer from the same malady: simplifying the infinitely complex. Rose seems to be the greater transgressor in this match-up, but ultimately Rosenfeld’s article — for all the truth mixed into it — fails on this account, as well. If ever there were a topic that needed all of our capacities to make distinctions, it’s this one.

(For those who want to read even more, Mobius over at Jewschool has collected a list of other articles that reflect upon the Rosenfeld paper.)

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