At a recent rally for Israel held in central New Jersey, an Israeli diplomat thanked the hundreds of Jews who turned out on a Monday morning to stand with Israel during the Gaza crisis. “We know that what happens in Israel is as if it happens in New Jersey,” he said. His was the heartwarming rhetoric of Jewish unity, a recurring theme of Diaspora fundraising campaigns for Israel. “We are one” may no longer be the slogan of the annual UJA campaign, but it encapsulates what most mainstream Jewish organizations, schools, and synagogues consider the idealized relationship between world Jewry and Israel.
Almost every synagogue in the Diaspora displays an Israeli flag along with an American one. If the Jewish connection to Israel is not the sum total of American Jewish identity, it is never far from the top priority. The most visible and prestigious American Jewish institution — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — is not organized around prayer or Torah study, but around political support of Israel. Nearly every Jewish day school, outside of the fervently Orthodox, considers Zionism and ahavat Yisrael – love for Israel – as an important if not central part of its curriculum. When it came time to address a crisis in Jewish identity among disengaged young Diaspora Jews, the best-known organizational response was Birthright – free trips that use exposure to Israel to inspire participants about Jewish belonging.
You’d probably forgive the Martian who might observe all this and conclude, ”Frequently, in the Diaspora, Jewish communal life has been built around and upon the accomplishments of Israel and the challenges she faces. Support for the State of Israel has often been correlated with personal Jewish identity and commitment.”
Of course, that was no Martian; those were the authors of a November 2004 report on an American Jewish Committee symposium, “Israel on my Mind: Israel’s Role in World Jewish Identity.”
Few who are engaged with American Jewish life would disagree with their assessment, although I might replace “Frequently” with “Almost always.” Individual Jews, as frequent studies remind us, may be drifting from identifying with Israel; as for institutions, the connection between Israel and a strong Jewish identity has never seemed stronger.
Those of us who care deeply for Israel or consider it essential to our own Jewish identities would have it no other way. I am proud to have lived there for a total of three years, on various academic and volunteer programs. Observing Israel, debating Israel, and visiting Israel are essential to my life as a Jew. I celebrate its victories and accomplishments, mourn its losses, defend is very existence against those who want it to die or disappear.
So I worry about the zeal in which many in the organized Jewish world try to equate anti-Israel activity with anti-Semitism. It’s not that I have any sympathy for Israel’s enemies or anti-Zionists. And where we do see opposition to Israel expressed in distinctly anti-Semitic terms, we should call it what it is.
But the too-easy assertion that “anti-Zionism = racism” often seems disingenuous, and dismissive of the central role Israel plays in the lives of engaged American Jews like me. I am proud to stand up for Israel, alongside Jewish organizations that share that pride. So I am hardly surprised or insulted when critics of Israel criticize those institutions, or protest outside them, or direct their anger at the constellation of American Jewish organizations that support her. This is one of the main reasons we literally wave the flag for Israel: to counter those who demonize Israel, ignore its claims to normalcy, and exaggerate its flaws.
To call all those critics “anti-Semites” doesn’t just make the organized Jewish community look indiscriminate, it makes it look hypocritical. You can’t put Israel at the center of your agenda and then object when someone sees you as a fair target for a response. We can’t teach our children to love Israel and then rush to protect them when they meet someone who doesn’t share that love.
And that’s exactly what’s happening when Jewish organizations back speech codes and litigation that tries to quash pro-Palestinian activity on campus, or want obnoxious anti-Israel protests on campus treated as “hate crimes.” No Jew or Jewish institution should be subject to verbal abuse, physical attacks, or vandalism. But if our Hillels are going to stand up for Israel, they’ll have to tolerate pushback. And if we urge friends and family to “buy blue and white” in support of Israel, we should be more careful about labeling as “anti-Semitic” anyone who supports some form of a boycott against Israeli products. We politicize pop stars every time we treat them as heroes for performing in Israel; we shouldn’t be surprised when the other side tries to enlist them in their cause.
Don’t get me wrong: There is anti-Semitism in the anti-Israel movement. The despicable pro-Palestinian riots in France, along with attacks on Jewish individuals in the streets, are anti-Semitic not because the assailants support the Palestinians or march outside synagogues. They are anti-Semitic because they devolved into the classic rhetoric and symbolism of Jew hatred – swastikas, blood libels, conspiratorial control of world institutions – or because they target Jews for being Jews.
Elsewhere, the disproportionate attention given to Israeli misbehavior — while other countries with far worse records are treated far less harshly – reeks of a hate-filled double standard. The depiction of Israel as a spearhead of western colonialism – and the conflict as a clash between “European” and “brown” people – depends on a stereotypical and caricatured image of the “Jew” that ignores the diverse reality of Israel (which includes, not coincidentally, brown and black people who were either thrown out of or made miserable in a wide range of non-European, “post-colonial” countries).
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is not anti-Semitic because it seeks justice for the Palestinians, but because it sees no place for the Jewish state or the Jews who live there.
The Jewish community needs to remain vigilant against these transparent forms of anti-Semitism, but not at the expense of our own deep identification with Israel.
Owning our Zionism means telling its harshest critics, “Yes, as Jews we support Israel. You have a problem with that? We’re not afraid. Cross the line and we’ll call you out, but because our cause is right and true, we are not going to cower when you come with your list of allegations and smears.”
What we need is a dose of Jewish defiance, especially at moments like these, when Israel is preparing to face ever more scrutiny.