Oren Gross
Oren Gross

Useful Idiots with Beards (Part III)

Ben & Jerry’s co-founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in an Axios on HBO interview

In Part I and Part II of this piece, I argued that, throughout history, Jews who wished to “fit in” have been essential to the success of certain forms of antisemitism, conferring a veneer of legitimacy and respectability to the antisemites, granting them a sort of an immunity charm against charges of antisemitism. Such Jews have functioned as detergent agents, laundering antisemitic campaigns. I argued further that this same pattern is being played out today with Jews who desperately want to be included in the “Progressive” club. 

To be considered for membership in the illustrious progressive club, the Jew must critically do three things. The combination of the three means that the dangling specter of club membership is but a fata morgana, a mirage. The goalposts are set in such a way that the only way to be accepted as a card-carrying member in the progressive club makes it impossible, by definition, to find a “progressive Jew.” If you are a Jew, you will fail the entry tests of progressivism. If you are a progressive, you will not be able to speak, in any meaningful way, “as a Jew.”

Jews simply cannot call out antisemitism. The lived experience of Jews, and of Jews alone, is ignored and erased.

First, the Jew must produce her anti-Zionist credentials. Challenging the policies of the Israeli government of the day would not suffice. Rather, to be considered for membership, the Jew must reject not only what Israel does, but what Israel is. It must accept the idea that Israel, alone of all the nations of the earth, is somehow an illegitimate entity, whose origin is in sin and whose continued existence is morally and legally wrong. That justice for Palestine will only come when Palestine will be free “from the River to the Sea,” i.e., when no independent Jewish state would exist. Progressives do not claim that no one is entitled to such a right, for they are more than happy to assert, for example, the right of the Palestinians to self-determination. To be progressive it is essential, in other words, to accept and buy into the idea that Jews, and Jews alone, are not entitled to self-determination as a people.

Second, the Jew must cede to other members of the progressive club the moral authority to identify what is, and what is not antisemitism. “It is a progressive article of faith,” writes David Baddiel in Jews Don’t Count, “that those who do not experience racism need to listen, to learn, to accept and not challenge, when others speak about their experiences. Accept, it seems, when Jews do. Non-Jews, including progressive non-Jews, are still very happy to tell Jews whether or not the utterance about them was in fact racist.” All other minority groups are given priority, and, frequently, exclusivity, in calling out speech, threats, and acts that target them. Blacks call out racial animus, women call out misogyny and sexual harassment, LGBTQ+ call out homophobia and transphobia, etc. But when it comes to Jews, matters change. Jews are not only not given exclusivity in calling out antisemitism. They often are not even given any voice at all in calling out antisemitism. Forget the fact that antisemitism is the oldest hatred and that Jews have been at its receiving end for millennia so much so that it is now very much part of our collective (and for many, also individual DNA). Jews simply cannot call out antisemitism. The lived experience of Jews, and of Jews alone, is ignored and erased.

And so other progressives (who precisely? Ms. Tlaib? Ms. Omar?) will decide, identify and call out antisemitism. And guess what? Such power will be sparsely, very sparsely if ever, used. And even on those rare occasions in which antisemitism may be called out, it may take a back seat and not be addressed because other, seemingly more pressing matters demand attention. Thus, for example, a recent complaint against a diversity, equity and inclusion program created at Stanford University alleges that “the DEI committee decided to omit any mention of antisemitism so as not to dominate the discussion about anti-Black racism.” Antisemitism, argues Baddiel, is seen as low on the hierarchy of offense, if it even counts at all. Indeed, if you dare so much as suggest that progressives ignore antisemitic speech and actions and if you are brazen enough to call out antisemitism yourself, such claims will, themselves, be called out as racist and as an unwarranted form of censorship. As a recent Statement in Solidarity With The People of Palestine asserts: “The conflation of objections to the Israeli state’s settler colonial violence with antisemitism is itself a violent oppressive form of censorship and an insult to our academic and moral integrity.” Apparently for BDS supporting progressives who, among other things promote the boycott of academics, such a statement requires neither moral nor mental contortions. All this leaves, in the words of Baddiel, “Jews who feel the hierarchy of racisms…nowhere to go.”

Finally, to be a candidate for acceptance to the progressive club, the Jew would have to check their Jewish identity at the door and denounce any aspect of Jewish particularism, adopting in their stead an idealized universalist vision, in the process becoming what Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy have termed “Un-Jews.” Those Un-Jews may either shed all vestiges of Jewish tradition, values, history, affinity, religion, and culture embracing instead the universalist progressive credo, or they may believe that the only way to fulfill the Jewish mission of saving the world with Jewish values is to undo the ways most actual Jews actually do “Jewishness.” The first no longer identify themselves as Jews in any real and meaningful sense. The second are as Jewish as Jews for Jesus or Christians are. They may be well-meaning. They may well be good and honest people who want to do good. But they are not doing so “Jewishly.”

Woody Allen famously quipped that he would never join a club that would allow a person like him to become a member. I would never seek to join a club that would not allow a person like me, the full me, true-to-my-own-self-identity-me, to become a member.

In fact, denouncing Jewish particularism and Jewish identity adds insult to the injuries identified above. For as much as the current militant version of progressivism celebrates a multiplicity of groups asserting their own identities, it refuses to do so where Jews are concerned. In the context of identity politics, the Jew, and the Jew alone, cannot and must not assert her own unique identity.

Universalism sounds wonderful in theory, but in practice it does not hold. It does not hold because, as Einat Wilf and I noted in “Jews Without Israel,” the trend around the world is towards a greater embrace of the particular, e.g., the nation-state (indeed the ethnic nation-state). In that sense, the State of Israel, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, with an Arab national, ethnic, linguistic minority, is well within the global norm of ethnic-national states. So is Jewish particularism more broadly. But perhaps more critically, universalism has, as Daniel Gordis argues in The Promise of Israel, betrayed the Jews “time and again.” One need only reflect back to the two examples given above of “clubs” to which Jews wanted to belong in the early 20th century—Communism and German nationalism—and consider the fate of those Jews who followed the universalist dream while discarding their Jewishness. Being excluded from the club was, in the end, the least of their worries.

Woody Allen famously quipped that he would never join a club that would allow a person like him to become a member. With the way he conducted himself, many others may not wish to join a club that would allow Woody Allen to become a member. That aside, I would never seek to join a club that would not allow a person like me, the full me, true-to-my-own-self-identity-me, to become a member.

It is high time for a much-needed Jewish pride for it is our own “here I stand” moment, for a Daniel Pearl moment of courage.

In February 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, was murdered by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. His last words were, famously: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Facing imminent death, Daniel chose to reaffirm his Jewish identity. Faced with far less, if any, risk to themselves, Jewish armchair social justice warriors choose, from the comfort of their American homes, to shed the last vestiges of their Jewish identity in the hope that they would be accepted by others. They cast aside much of what is truly Jewish in order to partake in what Igal Ram and Eliana Rudee called the “Disneyland of Hate.”

It is high time for a much-needed Jewish pride for it is our own “here I stand” moment, for a Daniel Pearl moment of courage. For me, the choice is clear. I am a Jew. I am a Zionist. And both would make it to my list of top things that define who I am. Beard or not.

About the Author
Professor Oren Gross is the Irving Younger Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. He is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of international law and national security law.
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