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Anti-war protest in Tel Aviv, 2006.
News and Opinion

Israel doesn’t need American Jewish glasnost

-- Ilan Chaim

At the Seder table Jews consider the responses of four sons to the Exodus, each deficient in some way. The one identified as the wicked son asks his father, "What is this service to you?" In doing so he isolates himself from this primary event in the history of the Jewish people and stands at the sideline as an observer, rather than participating. The father’s traditional answer is, "It is because God acted for my sake when I left Egypt." The implication is understood: the wicked son would not have deserved to be freed from Egyptian slavery and what this meant for the Jewish people and world history – the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah to mankind.

In his piece, "Is a Jewish Glasnost Coming to America?", Tony Karon portrays himself as a Jewish dissident, persecuted for his beliefs by flaky extremists such as the heirs of Meir Kahane. By his definition, a Jewish dissident is one who rejects "the nationalist notion that, as Jews, our fate is tied to that of Israel, or the idea that our people’s historic suffering somehow exempts Israel from moral reproach for its abuses against others." In other words, Karon’s "Jewish dissident" is not someone who differs from a given policy of Jewish leadership, but is rather one who repudiates three millennia of Jewish history.

Karon offers as his liberated humanist credentials the fact that, as a South African teenager, he belonged to -- and then rejected – a progressive Zionist youth movement, Habonim ("The Builders," as in builders of the Jewish homeland). His Jewish heritage ("Justice, justice shall you pursue") primed him for participating in the struggle against apartheid – but then, in some unexplained loss of faith, he became alienated from his roots. Whatever the reason for this alienation, it would be wrong to call Karon a self-hating Jew, for one cannot really hate a self one doesn’t know. One may posture, and even persuade those who similarly lack true intimacy with the Jewish narrative. But the warped view of the Jewish world that Karon displays in his article, shows his lack of understanding of what Jewish, let alone glasnost, truly means.

Karon suggests, for example, that American Jewry is so monolithic in its opinions regarding Israel that it resembles unreconstructed Soviet-era communism in dire need of perestroika. Anyone familiar with the hoary joke about two Jews having three opinions knows that, in America, those two Jews have multiples of opinions, organizations, and a variety of media through which they share them with the world. The problem is not the availability of free expression, but whether they have an informed opinion to express. Ultimately, Karon’s celebration of what he calls "Jewish glasnost" is little more than uninformed compilation of trendy, politically correct, but factually ignorant jibes at Israel. If a Jew is so assimilated that he does not even know what part of his heritage he is abandoning, he is not self-hating so much as self-denying.

Identity crisis.

Karon identifies himself as a member of the Jewish religion, but in the same way a protestant would identify himself as a member of the Christian religion. The only factual problem with this mistaken worldview is that Christianity is a religion, while Judaism is a people, a civilization. For whatever psychological reasons, Karon has cut himself off from the Jewish people and its national liberation movement, Zionism.

Once he makes that great leap of faithlessness, it is easy to indulge in his litany of self-denial and estrangement. He accepts peoplehood only in the negative sense of Jewish suffering, which he claims has resulted in "the idea that our people’s historic suffering somehow exempts Israel from moral reproach for its abuses against others." Such an idea is totally un-Jewish, and would be obviously so for anyone cognizant of Jewish religious law. Like many Jews who seize upon the justice motif as being what is really Jewish, Karon is evidently unaware of the rest of the sentence from Deuteronomy: "Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land" (Deuteronomy 16:20) It is a conditional: without justice, the Jewish people has no moral right to the land. This is both mainstream Judaism and the ethical force that drives left-wing Israelis in a dozen social-justice NGOs.

Karon’s equating of South African apartheid and Israeli behavior toward Palestinians is another case of ignorance in the service of political correctness. Even as a teenager in South Africa, he writes, "the connection between the circumstances of black people under apartheid, and those of Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, seemed obvious enough to me and to many other Jews in the South African liberation movement: Both were peoples harshly ruled over by a state that denied them the rights of citizenship." And it should be noted that membership in the South African branch of the Habonim movement was not necessarily a departure ticket from the Jewish people. Many ex-South Africans immigrated to Israel as members of Habonim groups and went on to serve in the army and raise families. They had no difficulty reconciling being anti-apartheid and pro-Zionist, correctly seeing the justice of both causes.

Perhaps Karon’s puerile comparison is left over from a teenager’s unsophisticated understanding. But repeating such a blatantly false simile as an adult means either that Karon is being intentionally malicious or that he just doesn’t get it. Apartheid is the former South African policy of racial segregation, political, economic, and legal discrimination against non-whites. The Palestinians of the West Bank are under military occupation as the result of the Arab war of aggression against Israel in 1967. Apartheid denied native Africans citizenship rights. Israel cannot grant citizenship rights to West Bank Palestinians, because they do not live in the State of Israel. When Palestinian rejectionist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad abandon terrorism, accept Israel’s right to exist, and negotiate peace, then Palestinians will become citizens of their own state.

History lesson.

It is important even for the politically incorrect to remember that the provisional Jewish government accepted the UN General Assembly’s resolution of Nov. 29, 1947 endorsing the creation of two states, Jewish and Arab, linked by an economic union. The Arab states did not, unfortunately, and invaded the nascent Jewish state. In their unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Jewish state, they ensured the lack of a Palestinian state for at least the next 60 years.

The politically correct would also do well to bear in mind, in all their talk of "occupation" as if describing World War II Europe, that the occupation of the West Bank is the occupation of a disputed, not sovereign, territory. Sovereignty over the West Bank has yet to be determined – it was first occupied by Jordan for 19 years following Israel’s War of Independence until the Six Day War. Jordan claimed sovereignty, but this was recognized only by Britain and Pakistan. While it is likely that a future sovereign Palestinian state will include this territory as part of a permanent solution to the conflict, in the interim Israel occupies a virtual no-man's land claimed mainly by Palestinians and devout, right-wing Israelis.

Thus Karon’s throw-away trendy phrase – "Israel's ongoing dispossession and oppression of the Palestinians in the occupied territories" – reflects his ignorance of political reality. When the Israel Defense Forces repelled the invading Jordanian Arab Legion in June 1967, they dispossessed no one but the Jordanian army. The Palestinians who have been truly oppressed by occupiers were first done so by the Arab countries who deliberately kept them in so-called refugee camps for nearly six decades since 1948, denying them citizenship and rehabilitation in their own countries in order to use them cynically as tools against Israel.

Real refugees.

If we are to dwell for a moment on Palestinian refugees, Karon would probably be uncomfortable acknowledging the Jewish refugees in the conflict. Thus he writes: "But the ethnic-cleansing in which the Israelis expelled 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 and the apartheid character of Israel’s present occupation of the West Bank are objective realities." While approximately this number of Arabs (they were not known yet as Palestinians, a term which under the British Mandate described Jews) left Israel as a result of the war, historians are still divided as to how many were expelled during the fighting by Israel’s army and how many fled of their own accord after being directed to do so by the Arab League, so as not to impede the onslaught that would drive the Jews into the sea. What is not subject to debate, however, is the fact that some 850,000 Jews were indeed expelled from virtually every Arab country, even from countries like Iraq, where they had lived for some two millennia.

The difference between Arab and Jewish refugees, of course, is that Israel absorbed the Jews driven from Arab countries and made them productive citizens, while the Palestinians have introduced to the world the unique concept of inherited refugee status, which is passed down from the initial refugee to now a fourth generation of descendants; still kept in the camps by the Arab governments, still denied citizenship, and still confined in what may accurately be called an Arab version of apartheid.

Karon’s understanding of the events surrounding Israel’s independence reveals an inability to comprehend the difference between valid criticism of Israel’s faults on the one hand and unreasonable criticism that questions Israel's right to exist on the other. Either one accepts Israel’s right to exist and deals with the attendant problems, or one is in effect an anti-Semite. I don’t negate France’s right to exist because of problems it may have with Muslim immigrants.

Karon’s naïve absolutism argues that "serious criticism of Israel amounts to criticism of Jews." Not at all – serious criticism of Israel amounts to serious criticism of Israel. For example, an Israeli human rights group, Machsom Watch, women who volunteer to monitor checkpoints in the territories to ensure humane treatment of Palestinians, has pointed out a number of examples of mistreatment. We Israelis deal with it – we don’t blame Karon for it.

No place like home.

Karon is embarrassed at the idea of a Jewish homeland, perhaps because this makes demands on a loyalty that he doesn’t feel and would rather not have to deal with as a free-floating media darling of a dissident Jew. He probably has no problem accepting the notion of a homeland for other nations – say Italy for Italians, France for the French, or even South Africa for the Africans. What is it about his own homeland that he cannot accept – that Israelis have to deal with some messy challenges, like living with constant terrorist attacks by people who do not accept our right to exist?

More to the point, why is the term homeland with regard to Israel somehow obscene to assimilated Jews, who have no trouble at all acknowledging the "ancient" longings for a Palestinian homeland of a people that did not exist a century ago? For fear of being considered politically incorrect, I’d venture that the Palestinians, in the words of Abba Eban, are still those people who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Islamist suicide bombers are following the edicts of extremist leaders and murdering innocents, not just in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but in London, Madrid, Bali, and of course New York City. They were not targeting Jews or the Jewish homeland in the last four locations – they were targeting Western civilization. This is not the result of the Palestinians making the wrong decision in 1947, of declining a Palestinian state if it meant living alongside a Zionist, Jewish state – even if that's what the United Nations said was the best thing to do. Today the Palestinians have a second chance. Will they align with Islamofascism, a brutal, uncompromising assault that takes no prisoners, or will they choose to opt out of this conflict and live in their own state alongside Israel?

Fun with numbers.

Karon grasps at some incorrect population statistics in an attempt to shore up a silly argument that the Jews who do not live in Israel choose to absent themselves in a rejection of the Jewish state. He sounds almost gleeful in noting that many Jews prefer living in the Diaspora than in Israel. But is he describing an actual conscious choice, a rejection, or merely the effects of social inertia and lack of motivation? Giving up the fleshpots of America to move to a country where it’s harder to make a living and doing so in Hebrew is a daunting challenge. Aliyah is not for everyone, and even the strongest Zionist motivation is enough only to bring one to Israel. One will stay in the homeland only if one likes it. This notwithstanding, most of the world’s Jews do already live in Israel, and the ones in America are disappearing at an intermarriage rate of greater than 50 percent. His statistics do not reflect on what's wrong with Israel, but what's wrong with the Diaspora.

Israel has been home to the world’s largest Jewish population since last year, when it surpassed the community in the United States, according to Jerusalem’s Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. Compared with other countries, Israel has the highest Jewish birth rate. With more intermarriages, assimilation, lower birth rates, and later marriages, the number of Diaspora Jews is dwindling, the institute said. For example, in Israel the Jewish population increased by 1.3 percent in 2004, while it declined in the United States.

Professors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman revealed survey data that yielded some extraordinary findings: In order to measure the depth of attachment of American Jews to Israel, the researchers asked whether respondents would consider the destruction of the State of Israel a "personal tragedy." Less than half of those aged under 35 answered "yes" and only 54% percent of those aged 35-50 agreed (compared with 78% of those over 65). The study found that only 54% of those under 35 felt comfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state.

If the Jewish youth of America are so disastrously ignorant of their history and heritage as to be so nonchalantly careless about their homeland, this is an indictment of the failure of the American Jewish leadership to educate its young. Instead of fundamental Jewish literacy programs at a reasonable cost, Jewish so-called philanthropists, with the best of intentions and the worst sense of priorities, proclaim their "success" at saving Jewish identity by sending thousands of Jewishly illiterate college students on free trips to Israel, for the instant gratification of a 10-day free party.

Assimilation is winning, as Karon unwittingly demonstrates. As Cohen and Kelman found, "each generation of American Jews becomes even more integrated into the American mainstream than its parents and grandparents had been." Look at Karon's heroes. Richard Cohen thinks "Israel itself is a mistake" and ignorantly calls it a "nation of European Jews." How can he not know that more than half the population of Israel is Jews from Arab countries, not to mention our black Jews from Ethiopia?

Whose Zionism?

He seizes upon Avraham Burg as an example of a post-Zionist Israeli renegade, but Burg did not renounce Zionism, just the corruption of Zionism. Interviewing Burg in The Forward (6/13/07) and discussing, among other things, the misinterpretation of his book, Defeating Hitler, by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit, J.J. Goldberg concludes: "Burg argues that the time for Herzl's Zionism is past. Now it is time for Ahad Ha’am’s Zionism, for Israel as a spiritual beacon. Israel has lived long enough in the shadow of trauma and fear, he argues. Now is the time for trust — trust in Israel’s place in the world, in the possibility of coexistence, in the moral legacy of Judaism."

Karon’s pathetic recourse to pre-Holocaust anti-Zionism is startling. The Bundists have been defunct for nearly a century. It is a given that, had a Jewish national home already existed in Palestine in accordance with the British Mandate given by the League of Nations, the Holocaust might have been averted. He miscategorizes the ultra-Orthodox as a "sizeable minority" that refuses to recognize a Jewish state that has not been delivered by the Messiah – without acknowledging that these are the same tiny cabal of wackos who embraced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his Holocaust-denial conference.

Karon appears fixated on an adolescent misunderstanding of Zionism. "I learned in the Zionist movement that Jewish life in the Diaspora was inevitably stunted and ultimately doomed," he confesses. He obviously has refuted this obsolete notion of extreme right-wing Zionism, which called such a dire prediction of the Diaspora's future "negating the Diaspora." Karon invents absurd Zionist tenets, such as "the Zionist premise that the Diaspora is an innately hostile and anti-Semitic place." Obviously if some 750,000 Israeli Jews live there, this is not true. The fact that they are free to choose where to live and choose to live elsewhere does not negate the attractiveness of Israel to the remaining 85% of its Jews.

American Jews like Karon are schizophrenic about Israel and criticism of Israel: "If you want to bludgeon Jewish critics with the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ when they challenge Israel’s actions, then it’s hardly helpful to have other Jews standing up and expressing the same thoughts." The difference is that we Israelis are free to criticize, because we are responsible for the consequences. Ultimately we – and our children – will live or die as the result of our choices.

Consider the sources.

Karon invokes such authorities as Mearsheimer and Walt to bolster his case, as if their tedious anti-Israel prejudices have not been laughed off by serious critics. Similarly, Karon hails Norman Finkelstein as another hero of anti-Israel "dissidence," totally ignoring his reception by the card-carrying Jewish intelligentsia. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in The Atlantic.com on Aug. 30, 2007: "Leon Wieseltier put it best when he referred to Norman Finkelstein—the hysterical, Hizbullah-loving, soon-to-be-late-of DePaul University political science professor—as ‘poison, he’s a disgusting self-hating Jew, he’s something you find under a rock.’ Finkelstein has built a career on defaming Holocaust survivors as greedy liars out to rob noble Swiss bankers, all the while using ‘I'm Jewish!’ as a defense. The wife of the neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Ernst Zuendel once said, ‘I feel like a kid in a candy store… Finkelstein is a Jewish David Irving.’ "

Karon’s Kahanist straw bogeymen --- this lunatic fringe group, this minor footnote – are infinitely less relevant than the bloodthirsty Jewish fanatics who fought in the great rebellion with Bar Kochba, who were also responsible for the first Jewish political assassination, Gedalia. Their heirs are alive and well and living in Israel and the territories, and one of them murdered Yitzhak Rabin 12 years ago. They are the ones Jews should fear, not the posturing Kahanists and their Internet S.H.I.T. list of "Self-Hating and Israel-Threatening" Jews.

"The Zionist establishment,: Karon says, is threatened by "once unthinkable" criticisms of Israel’s behavior. Since when has criticism been unthinkable?! Has he ever followed a debate in the Knesset, or on the country's ubiquitous talk shows, or op-ed pages? Jewish critics like Karon are not bludgeoned by charges of anti-Semitism, but written off as ignorant self-deniers. He spots a "burgeoning of dissent?!" Israel is a country where an estimated 400,000 demonstrated against the First Lebanese War; where reservists have chosen jail over the territories, where a women’s group patrols checkpoints to ensure soldiers’ good behavior toward Palestinians.

Critical thinking.

Karon confuses "fierce criticism" with accurate criticism. Whatever happened to constructive criticism? Why does the current fashion of debate consider Israel only in terms of demonization. It should suggest something to Israel's so-called critics that the world leader of the demonization camp is the president of the country that calls for its annihilation and refers to it as the Lesser Satan, alongside the Great Satan of the United States.

The Soviet Union needed the publicity, openness, and transparency of glasnost and was finally dissolved by it. The open society that is Israel is not the Soviet Union, nor South Africa, nor the demon of Karon’s overwrought, but uninformed, imagination.

The writer is an Israeli journalist.

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