Andrew Pessin

The Indelible Stain of Antisemitism: The Failure of ‘Jew-Washing,’ Part 3

Part 1 may be found here, Part 2 may be found here.

We continue our survey of the many different “types” of Jews that anti-Israelists might invoke for Jew-washing purposes. So far we have examined, and critiqued, the use of Jews in Genes Only (JIGOs) and ultra-orthodox Jewish anti-Israelists. We turn now to what we might call “ultra-non-orthodox Jewish anti-Israelists.”

Most Jew-washing activity, particularly at universities in Europe and North America, actually occurs toward this end of the spectrum. Such environments are home to many perhaps well-meaning, often left-leaning faculty members and students who endorse and promote anti-Israelism on their campuses. Many of these individuals are Jewish, of course, so they not only provide an ample supply for Jew-washers, but also have the advantage of being local and, unlike the ultra-orthodox Neturei Karta, not rather alien to these populations.

“How can I be antisemitic,” the typical campus non-Jewish Jew-washer objects, “when so many highly educated and enlightened Jews right here on my own campus not only participate in, but often lead our anti-Israel campus activism?”

(a) “John Lennon Jews”

As with the Neturei Karta, we might absolve some of these Jews of intentional antisemitism. As Samuel Lebens points out in the article mentioned previously as well, some academics, including Jews, are attracted to “cosmopolitanism” and “liberalism”—doctrines such as that all human beings do (or should) belong to a single community, based on a shared morality, and that states should be neutral with respect to private goods—and thus they are opposed to any ethnic- or religion-based states. Let us call these individuals “John Lennon Jews,” in reference to the famous song Imagine (“Imagine there’s no countries … and no religion too…”) and in deference to Ze’ev Maghen’s recent book criticizing cosmopolitanism, John Lennon and the Jews (Toby Press, 2014). If cosmopolitanism is someone’s reason for being anti-Israel, clearly, then that person’s anti-Israelism is not intentionally antisemitic.

Of course the beliefs and behavior of many John Lennon Jews may still be antisemitic in effect, because—despite affirming cosmopolitanism and liberalism—few of them (it seems) spend much time protesting any of the many other ethnic- or religion-based states in the world besides Israel, including its many Islamic or Islamist enemies. Indeed one suspects that opposition to Israel genuinely based on cosmopolitanism and liberalism would look very different from the opposition to Israel we generally see on campuses. Most campus anti-Israelism, for example, is framed not as being “anti-Israel” (because that smacks of antisemitism) but rather as being “pro-Palestinian,” i.e. in support of the human rights of Palestinians, including their establishing a Palestinian state[1]—but that obviously is not a position a sincere cosmopolitan or liberal could take, for it amounts to endorsing an ethnic state.[2]

In any case, John Lennon Jews are ill suited to serve the needs of Jew-washers, for two related reasons.

First, as in the Neturei Karta case, there is the effective-intentional disconnect. Many non-Jewish anti-Israelists are not anti-Israel for cosmopolitan or liberal reasons but because they prioritize Palestinian national rights over those of Jews. If so, then they share with John Lennon Jews the effective antisemitism—in campaigning 3-D-style against Israel—but without the cosmopolitan or liberal intentions that would absolve them of the antisemitism simpliciter.

And second, it is not sufficient for the John Lennon Jew invoked by the Jew-washer merely to be a cosmopolitan or liberal: the John Lennon Jew must specifically derive his cosmopolitanism or liberalism from his Jewishness. For if he does not, then the fact that he may be Jewish in whatever sense is irrelevant to his anti-Israelism, as in the JIGO case above. If, for example, his cosmopolitanism simply outweighs his Jewish affiliation, or even replaces it insofar as he largely disaffiliates (and becomes a JIGO), then we are speaking here of a Jew who has chosen to demote his Jewishness in favor of some other ideal that trumps it. For the non-Jewish Jew-washer to invoke this individual to absolve himself of charges of antisemitism would be roughly akin to medieval Church officials invoking a converted Jew to absolve themselves of antisemitism.

Successful Jew-washing, then, again, must rely on Jews who specifically derive their anti-Israelism from their Jewishness.

(b) Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JFJFP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP)

Let us consider groups such as these, the first two British, the last one American, among many other similar groups across Europe. IJV (for example) was formed in 2007 by British Jewish anti-Israelist professors Brian Klug and Jacqueline Rose, among others; Klug himself is known for denying the existence of the “new antisemitism” (targeting Israel), has argued that subverting Zionism is the “Jewish thing” to do, and has been described as having made it “his mission to immunize anti-Zionists from the charge of antisemitism,”[3] i.e. serve the needs of Jew-washers. These groups are typically filled with similar individuals.

Although any of them will do, we shall focus on JVP.

Describing itself as the “Jewish wing” of the Palestinian solidarity movement, JVP actively promotes boycotts against Israel, constantly condemns Israel in a manner indistinguishable from that of the most ardent non-Jewish anti-Israelists, and counts among its major goals mitigating Islamophobia and supporting Muslim refugees. One might wonder why it does not just name itself “Jewish Voice for Palestine,” as that appears to be its primary mission.

Given the word “Jewish” in its name, the apparent Jewish ethnicity of many of its staff, and its growing popularity among Jewish students across U.S. campuses, it is no wonder that JVP is very appealing to non-Jewish Israel-haters in need of Jew-washing services.[4]

Indeed, JVP goes to great lengths to stress its Jewishness. Its website announces that its members “are inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law, and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals.” It boasts of its “Rabbinical Council,” and it provides numerous resources for Jewish ritual and cultural life, including materials for Shabbat, Passover, Chanukah, the High Holidays, and Tisha B’av.

So is JVP the perfect Jew-washing resource?

To see why not, consider the famous Hillel quote from Pirkei Avot that begins: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” (1.14)

Although this is not the place to defend the point at length, Hillel’s dictum is reasonably construed (I believe) as a rough criterion for counting as speaking from the perspective of a certain group: one must be “for” that group and its interests at least to some minimal degree. Now while JVP pays lip service to the needs and interests of “Jewish Israelis,” its actual policies, resources, and behavior are overwhelmingly one-sided in support not merely of the “rights” of Palestinians but of their entire narrative. It claims to be a “Jewish” voice, yet it speaks so minimally “for the Jews,” of the interests and rights of Jews, and so maximally of the interests and rights of the enemies of the Jewish state—including those who openly desire to replace that state with an Arab Muslim state, and those (such as Hamas) who make no secret of their genocidal antisemitism[5]—that it is difficult to treat it as a genuinely Jewish voice, at least in a way consistent with Hillel’s dictum.

This point is only amplified by closer examination of the “Jewish” resources JVP offers on its website. Its “Rosh Hashana” guide (for example) converts the traditional shehecheyanu blessing into one praising the many successful Israel-boycott achievements of the preceding year. Its Chanukah guide praises the sumoud (Arabic for “steadfastness”) of Palestinians, interprets olive oil as a symbol of Palestinian sumoud, and asks, “This night of Chanukah, how will you honor the steadfastness of the Palestinian people? What will you do to ensure that Palestinian steadfastness will be rewarded with a bountiful harvest?” Its Passover guide opens with sentences about

arriving at the Passover table with the salty taste of authoritarian racism on our tongues … devastated, lead in our water or no access to water. Ferguson, Flint, Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem …scared, aware of the rise in Islamophobia and anti-immigrant discourse.

The “authoritarian racism” that JVP deplores appears by all counts to be only that alleged of Israel, and not that of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; and while the group is concerned here about Islamophobia it offers not a word of concern about the ever-rising violence toward Jews around the world. The Passover message of liberation from slavery conveyed by this document is that of the Palestinians, from the Israelis.[6] Tu B’Shvat is now about Palestinian olive trees, and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Jews. And what does Tisha B’av become, for JVP? Not a day for remembering and mourning the destruction of the great Jewish Temples, the two great symbols of ancient Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel. Rather JVP offers, “The Tisha B’av Gaza Mourning Ritual Guide.”

By converting Jewish religious symbols and ceremonies into those with a pro-Palestinian significance, it seems to me, JVP seriously calls the “Jewish” part of its name into question. To Jew-wash with JVP, then, is once more akin to medieval Church officials denying their antisemitism by referring to their fondness for those converts who reject Judaism.

Or even worse—for JVP is doing something more sinister than converting out of Judaism in the way that individual medieval Jews did, often out of understandable necessity. It is converting Judaism itself, claiming that its new, pro-Palestinian religion simply is an authentic form of Judaism.[7]

JVP goes so far as to remind the reader, in its Passover Haggadah, that the word “Israel” there refers to Jacob, who “wrestled” with God, and perhaps thus symbolizes those who admirably struggle against authority. “Israel,” the text insists, does not refer to the modern state, Israel—lest someone read anything in the long-established history of the Jews as providing grounds for Jewish sovereignty in that land. JVP ignores the fact that the actual name of the modern state of Israel is the “State of Israel,” i.e. of the people of Israel, i.e. of the descendants of that very same Israel.

In that one move in its Haggadah JVP denies to Jews the very foundation for their rights in the Land of Israel—and it does so as a “Jewish” voice.

Add to this the fact that most of its financing apparently comes from non-Jewish sources,[8] and it becomes hard not to see JVP as literally in the business of providing professional (if unsuccessful) Jew-washing services.

In the final part we turn, then, to “Social Justice Jews,” and a conclusion.

To be continued …..


[1] Activists sometimes must contort themselves to great lengths to frame their anti-Israelism this way. At Connecticut College, for example, one faculty member recently denied that the newly formed group, “Conn Students in Solidarity with Palestine,” was “anti-Israel”—after the group had plastered the campus with posters that (a) called Israel a “settler colonialist” state, (b) featured an image in which Palestinians were planting their flag on Israel with the words “1948,” (c) featured a map of Israel in the form of a Palestinian woman who, further, was dangling a key representing the “right” of return, and (d) explicitly denied that Jews are a people.

[2] Alternatively, a cosmopolitan or liberal who rejects ethnic states may support democratic states, and so call for a “one-state” solution to the conflict. But given the widely shared assumption that Palestinian Arabs outnumber Jews within the relevant geographical region, that amounts to supporting a Palestinian-majority state that would be the 23rd Arab state and at least the 51st Muslim state, at the loss of the lone Jewish state in the world. Since the Palestinian leadership has (a) not yet implemented a government resembling a genuine democracy, (b) on various occasions (such as its 1988 United Nations Declaration of Independence) declared that “The State of Palestine shall be an Arab State,” and (c) also declared in its 2003 Amended Basic Law that “Islam is the official religion of Palestine” and that “The principles of Islamic Shari’a shall be a principal source of legislation,” it is difficult to imagine how a sincere cosmopolitan or liberal could promote such a state.

[3] The occasion for the remark was the protest over Klug’s invitation to be a keynote speaker at an international conference on antisemitism sponsored by the Berlin Jewish Museum in November, 2013. A twenty-five page dossier of statements by prominent thinkers criticizing this invitation was produced. The remark in question is from Ben Cohen, p. 11. In the same document (p. 16), Sam Weston notes that Klug argued during a 2006 debate that “subverting Zionism” is the “Jewish thing” to do.

[4] As mentioned in Part 1, Students for Justice in Palestine explicitly rely on JVP for just this purpose. JVP’s response to the charge that they essentially provide services to Jew-washers may be found in “We’re Nobody’s Jew-Washing Pawns.”

[5] For a summary of its embrace of the Palestinian narrative and alliances with extreme anti-Israel groups, including those that call for Israel’s destruction, see here. For some examples of JVP’s support for Hamas, see here.

[6] Miriam Elman thoroughly dissects JVP’s manipulation of Passover in “Anti-Israel Activists Hijack Passover, Turn it into Palestinian Liberation Event.”

[7] In a perhaps analogous way, Christianity has historically seen itself as the completion of Judaism, the true Judaism. To Jew-wash with JVP would then be akin to the medieval Church rejecting traditional Judaism but denying it is antisemitic by pointing to itself as the true Judaism!

[8] In fact JVP is very secretive about its financing. But according to a recent investigation by watchdog NGO Monitor, JVP receives “funding from a broad range of foundations and charitable trusts, many of which, unsurprisingly, also contribute to other anti-Israel organizations.” According to that same investigation, very few (if any) of the organizations funding JVP are Jewish in nature or focus. See also “BDS Money Trail Suggests Opaque Funding Network.”

About the Author
Andrew Pessin is a philosophy professor, Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner, co-editor of "Anti-Zionism on Campus," and author most recently of the novel, "Nevergreen," an academic satire examining campus cancel culture and the ideological excesses that generate it. For more information, visit