Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Alvin H. Rosenfeld

Bombs and Buzzwords

We know times are overwrought when the language goes whacky and no longer connects its users to reality in anything but hyped-up ways. Add Jews into the mix and, especially, the Jewish state, and hateful feelings find release from the taboos that previously restrained them. People sound off aggressively: “Israel is more Nazi than Hitler!” “Hitler was right!,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” The slogans may be catchy, but when people think in slogans, they stop thinking. They march and they scream. And never alone but with multitudes of others on popular social media sites or out in the street. Language is not spoken but aggressively hurled– “Down with apartheid Israel!,” “Fuck the Jews! Rape their daughters!” The slogans pile on. Shouts fill the screen, fill the throat, and shut down thought. Their appeal is to the heart, or the gut, or wherever angry and resentful feelings reside and can be easily whipped up.

Jewish ears tuned to the past will hear familiar echoes in this verbal hostility. It arises out of and incites some primitive instinct to turn hateful and hostile, especially against Jews.  A popular slogan in Nazi Germany was “Die Juden sind unser Unglück! (“The Jews are our misfortune”). Those ugly sentiments led to a homicidal end. And today? Jew-hatred has gone global and slaughter is in the air, vociferously so. “Israel ist unser Unglück! (“Israel is our misfortune!”), accompanied by “Intifada bis zum Sieg” (“Intifada until victory”),  “Bomb Tel Aviv,” and no end of similarly vicious chants see They are being sounded not just in American and German cities, but in Paris, London, Brussels, Rome, and elsewhere. Jews who hear these militant chants instinctively know they are once again marked for murder.

Elsewhere, in universities, churches, cultural centers, political institutions, the language may be more muted but the ritualistically repeated buzzwords promote a politics of ill-will. The stated goals are the right ones. Who, after all, can object to “peace,” “justice,” “civil rights,” and “human rights?” Decent people affirm all of them, until they are weaponized against the world’s only Jewish state, which is routinely denounced as guilty of ethnic cleansing, apartheid, body organ theft, settler colonialism, imperialism, racism, and even genocide. These words are curses, not descriptors, and the maledictions they convey create no end of anger and ill-will. That is their sole purpose, and their wicked lexicon continues to expand. A major front-page story in the New York Times recently added child murder to Israel’s growing list of villainous acts, with lots of heart-wrenching pictures to make the slain innocents graphic. Other stories in the Times now regularly refer to “Jewish supremacy,” this at a time when few epithets in the American vocabulary of social sins are worse than “white supremacy.”  The effect is to brand Israel a curse among nations, no more legitimate than apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany. Like them, it should disappear.

Some BDS proponents are explicit about this goal. They claim that BDS is committed to merely boycotting Israel, but some of the movement’s leaders have more ambitious goals in mind. Speaking in a forum organized by the Democratic Socialists of America on February 6, 2021, Mark Lamont Hill, a professor at Temple University and a prominent activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, declared that “Black Lives Matter [is] for the dismantling of the Zionist project” and “very explicitly [is] embracing BDS on those grounds.” As’ad Abu Khalil, another prominent advocate of dismantlement, declares “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel . . . That should be stated as an unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel.” Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of BDS, agrees and is on record favoring “euthanasia” for Israel.  He openly admits, “Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian — rational Palestinian, not a sellout Palestinian — will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” He and other supporters of BDS believe Israel never should have been created and are doing what they can to bring about its demise. They regard the very existence of the country as a provocation and want to see it gone.

Outrageous though it is, the idea has found a hospitable home on a number of American college campuses. As of this writing, over 150 academic departments, programs, centers, and institutes have signed onto or issued anti-Israel statements in the name of anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-militarism and pro-feminism, pro-indigeneity, pro-queer and trans-rights– the catalogue of intersectionally-approved rights and wrongs goes on. Not since the 1960s have American universities seen such a well-mobilized, energetic display of oppositional passions. And all of this high-strung political feeling was directed against the State of Israel in May as terrorist groups in Gaza targeted it with over 4,300 rockets. Murderous violence against the Jewish state did not matter. What did was one-sided proclamations of solidarity between social justice movements in the U.S. and Palestine. The canonical terms of the Black Lives Matters movement have been transported to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been racialized along American lines.  Signs, face masks, and tee shirts reading “We Can’t Breathe Since 1948” were visible in anti-Israel street demonstrations in American and Canadian cities during the war with Hamas. The Palestinians are pictured as oppressed “people of color” whose neck is under the knee of Derek Chauvin look-alikes—white, mean, powerful, and oppressive Israeli Jews. The hugely damaging Soviet-inspired defamation, Zionism equals racism, introduced in the United Nations in 1975 and not repealed until 1991, is back, powerfully so.

Examples abound. To cite just one of many now prevalent on college campuses, a statement by a student group (“Bar None”) on the official website of the University of Illinois School of Law reads: “Our goal is to educate and activate law students to become socially-conscious lawyers in whichever practice area they enter, as well as to keep civil rights at the forefront of their minds. We recognize that structures such as capitalism, White supremacy, Zionism, sexism, queerphobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism as systems of oppression that must be dismantled.  We are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and anti-racist and we strive to incorporate these practices into our legal careers.”

The second sentence above is grammatically incoherent as written, but it is even more seriously incoherent conceptually, for one cannot lump “Zionism” together with those other condemnable “isms” and also declare oneself to be against “anti-Semitism.” Simply put, Zionism affirms the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination in an independent and sovereign state. Such a state has existed since 1948, and its legitimacy has long been recognized by the United Nations and most of the world’s other states. Anti-Zionism denies that right and seeks to delegitimize Jewish nationhood and eliminate the state that has been its political and territorial expression for more than 7 decades. Inasmuch as almost 50% of the world’s Jewish population today resides in Israel, and the great majority of Jews living elsewhere identify closely with Israel, the loss of the state would be catastrophic for the Jewish people as a whole. Such a prospect, coming two generations after the Nazi destruction of most of European Jewry, would be the culmination of antisemitism in one of its most destructive forms.

The very insertion of “Zionism” into this catalogue of “systems of oppression that must be dismantled,” therefore, is itself antisemitic. A mind seduced by today’s fashionable buzzwords will not think so; but, then, thinking is not what is operating here: feeling is, along with political virtue signaling. All of it is on proud display on the website of one of this country’s leading law schools.

Have none of the law school’s professors noticed?

They should, for one of a professor’s primary responsibilities (and I speak as a member of the guild) is to teach students to think clearly, write lucidly, and develop arguments that will stand up to intellectual scrutiny. The statement by the students at the Illinois Law School falls well below those expectations. More grievously, so does a statement recently issued by almost 100 rabbinical and cantorial students at leading American seminaries. Entitled “Rabbinical and Cantorial Students Appeal to the Heart of the Jewish Community,” their piece was published in the Forward at a time when Israel was being hit each day by rockets fired indiscriminately at towns in several parts of the country.

As it happens, my daughter and two of her children live in Tel Aviv, and they had all of 90 seconds to run for shelter when the sirens went off warning of incoming rockets. In Sderot and other Israeli cities close to Gaza, the warning time is all of 15 seconds. The party responsible for these bombardments, Hamas, declares at the opening of its foundational document, the Hamas Charter or Covenant, that their aim is the annihilation of Israel: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” In the general media reporting of this war, virtually no mention is made of the Hamas Charter, let alone of this murderous goal of obliterating the world’s only Jewish state.

The rabbinical students’ statement is in line with this avoidance and at no point even mentions Hamas. Instead, it recycles the buzzwords now commonly used against Israel—accusing it of “racist violence,” injustice,” “apartheid,” “abuses of power,” “the violent suppression of human rights”—in order to shame the American Jewish community out of what they claim is its “silence” in the face of a “spiritual crisis.” The “crisis” is underway, they twice repeat, and “blood is flowing in the streets of the Holy Land.” Since they never once mention the name of the blood-letters, though, the crisis is really an internal one, centered on their own pathos: no fewer than 12 times in the space of 2 pages do they refer to their “tears” and crying and weeping. They claim to be “shocked” by the “violence” (the word is repeated 5 times), which they attribute to Israel’s actions, never Hamas’s. Three times they refer to their “heartbreak.” All of this rhetorical over-kill is about feeling bad, but never once feeling anything remotely like solidarity with their fellow Jews in Israel, who were faced with a real crisis and had mere seconds to flee into safe rooms or the stairwells of their buildings as the air-raid sirens sounded.

To his credit, this time a professor did take notice. Rabbi Bradley S. Artson, Professor and Dean of Rabbinic Studies at the Ziegler School of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, saw the names of some of his own students on the list of 99 signatories and reproved them for offering not a single expression of Ahavat Yisrael. He also called them out for never once alluding to Hamas or mentioning antisemitism, this at a time when Jew-hatred has become resurgent. Most tellingly, he is direct in stating that “the letter some of my rabbinical students wrote shows a lack of empathy—for Jews.”  He is right, shockingly so, for while these students are forthright in their condemnation of Israeli “apartheid,” “power,” and “injustice,” they show no compassion for Israelis on the receiving end of Hamas’s rockets.

The rabbinical and cantorial student signers of this letter proudly state that “we are future leaders of the Jewish community.” Interestingly, not a single one of them is studying in an Orthodox rabbinical seminary. The great majority are aligned with Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, Hebrew College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the Jewish Theological Seminary. No doubt many will eventually assume pulpits in Reform and Renewal synagogues. Before then, one can only hope that their professors will follow Rabbi Artson’s example and teach them to look beyond their own self-indulgent tears and learn something more substantial about Judaism and Jewish peoplehood. The two are inseparable, although there is little appreciation of the latter in this pathos-laden “Appeal to the Heart of the Jewish Community.” The fact is that there will be no Jewish community worthy the name if those who emerge to lead it lack a genuine love for and solidarity with other Jews. At that point, and Chas v’shalom that it will ever come to be, the community’s future will itself be a source of tears.

About the Author
Alvin H. Rosenfeld is a Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Indiana University.
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