Ashley Rindsberg
Novelist & essayist.

The Rise of the Refuteniks

At the 2023 Oscars, Hollywood and the world were treated to the ugly spectacle of a Black celebrity slapping another Black celebrity across the face. This year, for the sequel, Jews received something arguably uglier—a slap to our collective face, an insult to our people.

When British Jewish Jonathan Glazer mounted the stage to accept his Oscar for his Holocaust-related film, Zone of Interest, few in the audience could have imagined what this Jew, given a unique opportunity to bolster his people in our moment of anguish, would choose to do.

Rather than breathe spirit into an embattled people, as actors like Michael Rappaport and Gal Gadot have done, or speak to the moral anguish some Jews are experiencing as a result of seeing the suffering in Gaza, as Fania Oz-Salzberger did recently on CNN, Glazer chose to announce that he “refutes” his Jewishness.

For Jews around the world, this is a shock. Among the people Glazer refuted with his acceptance speech are 1,200 who were murdered by Hamas civilians. Another group of refutees are huddled in Hamas dungeons, subject to torture and sexual abuse. None of these victims, however, made Glazer’s final cut.

The tragic aspect of this scene is that while Glazer delivered a new, appropriately jumbled term, the concept of self-refutation is as old as Jewry itself. From the time of Acher, the Talmudic sage who renounced his Judaism, to the “kapos” of the Holocaust who protected themselves at the expense of their fellow Jews, our people has been subject to those who seek refuge under the eaves of betrayal.

The history of the Jewish people is a history of survival. Those who learned to please power, at any cost, were in many cases the ones who made it. If we were to engage in the folk evolutionary biology so popular today, we could easily argue that, just maybe, there is a gene hidden deep in the Jewish genetic code that has adapted to the experience of many millennia.

Radical leftist Jewish movements that don’t simply oppose Israel’s policies but reject the very notion of a Jewish state itself are built on a foundation of self-protection. This is, in one sense, a physical protection. British Jews correctly fear walking in central London during the city’s weekly pro-Hamas demonstrations. But some Jews, the right kind of Jews, get a pass and can walk freely—so long as they espouse the anti-Israel venom of their comrades. It is the ideological version of transit papers in the form of an anti-Israel placard.

But there’s a more significant form of protection afforded by this willingness to impugn. It’s an ethical protection that gives the self-refuting an ability to opt out of the moral dilemma resulting from our place in the world. If, “as a Jew” you despise Israel a priori you don’t have to endure the challenge to your legitimacy presented by the pain of another people. You don’t have to ask what right we really do have to the land. You don’t have to defend yourself in front of friends or colleagues.

This is what makes groups like IfNotNow so odious to so many Jews, particularly to those on the liberal left. In their naive passion for their own righteousness, IfNotNowers believe they have found the solution to all our troubles. It’s a wonderful loophole that, to their minds, only young, urban 21st century Jews have the sophistication to exploit.

At my London synagogue this past Shabbat, a British peace activist who loves Israel but has a difficult relationship with the state spoke about her struggle. Some may have been tempted to snigger at this woman’s difficulty in finding her existential footing. That would be wrong. This woman is engaging in the struggle, attempting to reconcile difficult truths because she feels she has no other choice. And she feels she has no other choice because the one thing that she never considered was to “refute” her Jewish identity.

The refuteniks have always been a part of who we are as Jews. But with social media now ubiquitous, Jews are able to see what they actually look like, not in the rearview mirror of history, but in real time.

Jews learn from our pain. And what we learn here is that, in basing their movement around a single, morally myopic question, IfNotNow and groups like it have blotted out another, much more important question from Hillel’s famous verse: If I am only for myself, what am I? That is the question we, the unrefuted, have no choice but to ask.

About the Author
Ashley Rindsberg is an author, essayist and freelance journalist. In 2010, Rindsberg traveled to Nicaragua to investigate the disappearance and death of his best friend, an experience that inspired his novel, He Falls Alone. Rindsberg is also author of The Gray Lady Winked, a work of non-fiction which looks at how the New York Times’s reporting shapes the world.