Paranoid style in modern Jewish politics

I had an eye-opening experience not too long ago. I published an opinion piece in this newspaper suggesting that Sheldon Adelson and Shmuley Boteach and their Campus Maccabees initiative were not the answer to the BDS problem on American campuses, but likely would make matters worse [Times of Israel, June 7, 2015]. I wrote on behalf of a big tent approach to contesting BDS on American campuses as opposed to an exclusive center-right approach endorsed by Adelson-Boteach, and I claimed  it took the liberal left to combat the hard left on campuses effectively.

I wrote as someone with long experience on American campuses, substantial knowledge of campus mores and faculty and student cultures, and as a former director and builder of a vital Jewish Studies Program at a Big Ten University which devotes central attention to Israel and to student study in Israel. I am not an enemy of the Jewish state, where I visit regularly. I wrote also as someone who has been and continues an outspoken opponent of BDS.

What I did not anticipate was the nastiness, name-calling, and outright insult aimed at me and at liberal Zionism and liberal Jews amidst the many responses I received. I know better now. I learned that there are elements in the global Jewish community — here in America and in Israel — for whom no nastiness is sufficient to respond to someone who raises questions about their agenda or actions or suggests their approaches might lack effectiveness. They not merely differ in orientation and approach to an important issue like combating BDS on campus but are willing to read out of the Jewish community those with whom they differ. Not only that — they stand ready to accuse others with whom they disagree of moral culpability for the Jewish fate and to use terms like betrayal, treachery, and duplicity. They signify the new presence of the paranoid style in modern Jewish politics.

I.

To be sure, some people joined me in profitable give-and-take. Some respondents suggested anti-BDS efforts needed better funding and organization, so why should anyone opposed to BDS look at a substantial gift horse in the mouth. Good point, funding could be helpful, especially if distributed broadly and creatively. Yet not everyone was invited to Las Vegas to dance in front of Adelson and Boteach or to make strategic presentations. Some  also suggested I mischaracterized the initiative. I should have written more about Haim Saban’s involvement, they said: Saban is a liberal Democrat, with differing commitments. Another good point, actually, but Saban has said that, regarding Israel, he and Adelson see things alike.

Others wrote to praise the piece, agreeing that the Adelson and Boteach initiative was indeed crude and unknowing about campus concerns — about academic freedom, free speech, and human rights. These responses expressed agreed liberal initiatives on campuses against BDS would play better with audiences. “Excellent piece,” wrote one respondent. “Kol ha-kavod for naming the issues so clearly. Anyone who would call this initiative ‘Campus Maccabees’ has no clue what will work on campus.” They (faculty and students), observed another writer, will see the effort for what it is: “well-funded hasbara coming from outside rather than inside the campus.”

But a large number not merely affirmed Adelson and Boteach as “generous patriots” and “selfless” friends of Israel but also went on forcefully to say that the real problem was liberal Jews and their radical leftist orientation (failing utterly to recognize any difference between hard left proponents of BDS and outspoken liberal opponents working against BDS). All liberals got lumped together as enemies of Israel by people writing in the harshest accusatory tones.

Several wrote typing me personally as a ‘self-hating Jew’. Without checking my record, which I assure shows no such thing, they blasted me — calling me self-hating, dishonest, and mendacious. One crackpot from Karmiel took special pleasure writing “all you write [are] lies, obfuscation, mendacity.” Another respondent, spotting the nastiness, quickly intervened and wrote: “The predictable right wing trolls and howlers have posted their self-nullifying protests below, ignoring the main issue ….”

Another conversation — equally heated and extended — was also playing out simultaneously on Deborah Lipstadt’s facebook page. Professor Lipstadt of Emory University had kindly endorsed my viewpoint and shared it widely. “Ken nails it,” she tweeted. “Ken nails it. “Precisely,” she wrote on her wall. In this thread, too, some people supported my view that Adelson, Boteach, et al. didn’t understand academic freedom or wouldn’t act independently of their Greater Israel loyalties, which play poorly on American campuses. Yet others raised critical questions about funding, suggesting fighting BDS was an “all hands on deck” situation. But, here too, many respondents were choosing sides and embracing the low road, identifying liberal Jews as supporters of BDS, characterizing my arguments as “liberal gobbledygook,” and accusing me of disloyalty to the Jewish people.

Things grew so nasty that Deborah Lipstadt who has a policy of seldom commenting on her threads believed she too must intervene. “I am thinking — and … Ken is [thinking] as well, strategically,” she explained. “What will work on campus[es]?” Lipstadt reasoned. “We must start at where the mass of students are…. and they are slowly being convinced that Israel is the wrongdoer.”

But so many were deaf to listening. Many of these voices appeared in both streams. Apologizing to Lipstadt, whose guidance they usually found helpful, they demurred from her endorsement, continuing a nasty stream. They eagerly blasted  all liberal American Jews. “Jews in America who identify first as liberals and second as Jews will intermarry and will not be part of the Jewish people in 1-2 generations,” one writer observed. “So whatever their opinions are they are irrelevant.” “Since it’s those liberal Jewish groups that are leading the way to intermarriage and disappearance,” chimed in another, Adelson’s lack of inviting them was because they are becoming irrelevant.”

Yet another wrote, digging down deeper into the historical well of insult: “How do you respond to people that point out that your ilk bears great moral responsibility for the Holocaust? “ This brickbat took my breath away until I figured out what this troll was suggesting. “I mean what did organized Jewish American leadership do, including the ADL (sic), once the State Department confirmed the Riegner Telegram was correct, besides shutting up and attacking the few Jews that tried to help, such as Bergsen and Hecht?” Now we were lumping me in 2015 with the alleged American Jewish leaders and rank-and-file who allegedly did little (not true) and supposedly cared less during the Holocaust.

I now recognized what was going on. Revisionist Zionist supporters of a one state solution — supporters of Greater Israel — followers of the Netanyahu-led right coalition that now rules in Israel — were ganging up, spewing insults, and offering outrageous claims, while damning liberal American Jews as irrelevant, morally culpable, enemies of and betrayers of the Jewish people. “Kenneth Waltzer probably voted for Obama,” one wrote, correctly. “Ken is blind to the hate Obama has for the Jewish people and the love he bestows on our enemies.”

II.

It should be noted that nothing I had written was outrageous or an appropriate basis for reading me out of the Jewish people. Four days into the whirligig of exchanges, which continued over a week, The Forward published an editorial on the subject “The Wrong and Right Way to fight BDS” (June 11, 2015), offering a similar analysis. More recently, Jay Michaelson also chimed in with “Four Reasons Why Adelson’s anti-BDS Campaign Will Backfire.” [July 6, 2015]

Forward editors noted that BDS forces had co-opted the language of human rights on campuses and effectively tapped into a well of frustration with an occupation that now measures 48 years stirring student discontent. Now Adelson was coming to save the day. “What Adelson has done to campaign financing he is now doing to Israel activism: bypassing the established organizations, bestowing millions upon his favorites, and bending the communal agenda to fit his perspective and will.”

The Forward thought it conceivable in such an initiative that the money might be distributed wisely and independently, but noted the selective call to Las Vegas. Basically, The Forward agreed that an effective anti-BDS campaign must reach and persuade liberal and progressive Jews, who wouldn’t be inclined to listen to groups funded by Adelson or any others who refuse to see the salience in shaping American campus opinion of the ongoing occupation.

Forward editors also comprehended that any successful movement to counter BDS had to be built into the organic nature of each college campus, led by students and not imposed on them, using their language and reference points, answering their legitimate concerns. “In the end, countering BDS on campus is a task for the left wing, not the right,” the Forward concluded.

Jay Michaelson went further. Commenting on the Adelson initiative, Michaelson wrote “these donors (and the handful of organizations ideologically pure enough for them to support) have so drunk their own Kool-aid that they don’t see how alienating it is to any reasonable American college student in 2015.” Demonizing the demonizers would also not work well as a strategy in the close confines of collegiate and university communities, where students interact in so many ways. Finally, the initiative would fail because it misdiagnoses the reasons why students are susceptible to influence, which d is related to Israel’s turn against the two state solution.

III

Chastened, I now spot these same voices turning up repeatedly on internet chats concerning BDS, Israel, and other related subjects. When Yossi Klein Halevi recently called on people to stop demeaning Michael Oren, in The Times of Israel [July 4, 2015], arguing that Oren’s recently book Ally warrants a sympathetic response, the voices quickly chimed in, attacking people who want reasonably to raise questions about Oren’s book and identifying such people as “Obama lackeys” or “Obama stooges.” “Obama’s strategy to isolate and defeat Israel depends on having his ‘court-Jews’ white-wash his anti-Israel actions,” one remonstrated. Another insisted that “the Jews who voted for him, [they] knowingly betrayed Israel and the United States.”

Reading such comments again and again, encountering them repeatedly, one slowly recognizes a discourse resembling a language of true believers and conspiracy in politics — something replete with charges of betrayal, duplicity, treachery, and chicanery. American Jews, these writers insist, liberal Jews, the Jews who voted for President Obama, have “knowingly betrayed Israel and the United States.” “’Progressive American Jews,’’ they say, “are among the most disgraceful people in the world, along with their master Obama.”

The late Richard Hofstadter dubbed the term “paranoid style” to refer to “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that sometimes at the extremes accompanies modern politics [“The Paranoid Style in Politics” Harpers Magazine, November, 1964.]

The paranoid style today is at home on the Jewish right where many trolls believe there is a conspiracy against the Jewish state and the Jews, liberal American Jews are court auxiliaries, and specific Jews are agents of  subversion of Jewish interests. This is an extreme politics of enmity, a Manichean world in which liberal American Jews are truant from the true role of Jews in Jewish life and history. The only fit names for them are “traitor,” “betrayer,” and “kapo.”

In the present, we are entering a period of open conflict concerning whether the Iran nuclear deal signed by the U.S. and the P5 powers with Iran should be supported, despite warranted concern about some provisions, or whether the U.S. Congress should be pressed to vote no and override a presidential veto. Everything seems at stake. AIPAC is firmly against the deal and is currently mounting a massive lobbying effort in Congress. My local Jewish Federation dubs it a “defining moment” in American Jewish life and instructs all Jews in our state to tell their representatives to “vote no.”  And so what is to be expected , in this situation, if this Jew — after exhaustive reading on all sides of the issue — thinks the current deal is better than the alternative of no deal at all.

What if I conclude that the deal blocks off multiple paths for Iran to becoming a nuclear power, at least for a crucial time, and that disrupting the achievement will be neither good for the U.S., or Israel, or the Middle East generally? What names can I expect to be called now? What charges of duplicity, mendacity, and betrayal are in the offing in the coming days?

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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