Michael Saenger

Are You a Good Jew or a Bad Jew?

This question has been through many historical versions.  A thousand years ago, being a good Jew meant being willing to convert to Christianity, that is, to stop being a Jew.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, being a good Jew was a little more civilized—it was a question of being willing to fit in, to be openly loyal to your secular country—think Hank Greenberg, missing years in his career to serve in World War II.  In the middle of the twentieth century, it became a willingness to embrace progress.  The best Jews were the ones who advocated for Jewish women’s rights, for example.  Near the end of the twentieth century, being a good Jew meant being willing to criticize Israel.  The logic was simple: bad Jews advocate blindly for everything Israel does, and good Jews are more reflective, more open to the rights of others. The good Jew / bad Jew thing is not entirely bad.  It may be a stereotype, but it has caused the Jewish people to improve aspects of our own religion, to improve Israel, and to engage more with the world.  But in its original version, it was deeply aggressive.

We are now in a new mode of the good Jew / bad Jew question.  More recently, being a bad Jew has once again meant, to many in our culture and particularly on the Left, being openly Jewish at all.

Thirty years ago, things were different. Back then, synagogues openly debated how to deal with complicated issues involving the Palestinian territories and Israel.  Since then, criticism of Israel has become much more fundamental, and it has blended with anti-semitism, both on the Left and on the Right.  It used to be that critics of Israel avoided extreme rhetoric, such as comparing Israel to Apartheid or fascism; now such connections have become ordinary in the “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” movement. The point has become not simply to criticize Israel, but to deny its legitimacy entirely, to say that it is, essentially, not a country but rather a criminal act.

As the opposition to Israel has become so extreme, Jewish communities have reacted accordingly.  Increasingly, simply asserting the fact that Israel is a country has become controversial, and Jewish communities have responded by simply putting Israeli flags in prominent places—though often, inside buildings.  The message is simple: supporting Israel has now become such a fundamental element of Jewish culture that there is little logical room for Jews to object any more.  If the question has become, should Israel exist, the answer has become, yes.

That shift is important to understand, because otherwise what happened recently at UCLA would be truly baffling.  A nominee for Student Council was questioned, and initially rejected, on the basis of her engagement with Jewish groups. Not Israeli groups. Jewish groups.

Ditto with a British effort to shut down a Jewish film festival.  Not an Israeli film festival.

This, along with attacks on synagogues—not Israeli government offices—could not possibly mark more clearly a turning tide in the anti-Israel movement.  While the effort to stigmatize South Africa in the late 1980’s was successful relatively quickly, this effort to stigmatize Israel has taken a different turn.  Because so much of the anti-Israel rhetoric depends on misrepresentation, it has not convinced the majority of Americans that it makes any sense.  Having galvanized a minority and stopped there, the anti-Israel movement, in frustration, has begun showing its true colors, and attacking Jews for being Jews. Bad Jews have become the ones who go to synagogue and pray—we’ve taken a huge step backward.

Is Israel the great moral question of our century?  Yes. And many on the Left are on the wrong side.

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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