Were you surprised by the controversy surrounding your article, "'Progressive' Jewish thought and the new anti-Semitism "? What do you think caused it?
The New York Times ran a story about my article entitled "Essay Linking Liberal Jews to Anti-Semitism Sparks a Furor." It was really after this article that the furor began.
The article linked anti-Semitism with “liberal Jews”, a term I had not used. That disturbed a lot of people, for perhaps 85 to 90 percent of Jews in America think of themselves as liberals.
Additionally, the AJC was erroneously labeled a “conservative advocacy group,” which it is not. So, unfortunately, the article played into the current culture wars in the United States between right and left, liberal and conservative opinion.
In an explanatory article that you wrote for The New Republic, you emphasized the fact that your choice of the word “progressive” was self-chosen by the individuals whose work you examined. Could you define some generalized characteristics of the term, and what distinguishes it from liberalism, in your opinion?
The terms "liberal" and "liberalism" have fallen casualty to the culture wars, so some now use "progressive." In some sense, “progressive” is a more radical version of “liberal.” But, in many cases, it’s merely an honorific adopted by people who want to be on the "right-thinking side of things".
For some, to be counted as a member of the progressive camp, anti-Zionism is a necessary part of the equation - as well as anti-capitalism, anti-globalization, anti-Americanism, etc. It’s part of a whole ideological package.
In many respects, I regard myself as a liberal, especially on domestic US issues such as healthcare and public education. But, when it comes to foreign policy, if being a liberal means being anti-Zionist, I’d quickly count myself out.
Some so-called "progressives" are pro-Israel, but the momentum right now is not with them. Instead, many who see themselves in this camp have become so radical as to routinely accuse Israel of rampant racism, ethnic cleansing, even genocide. They are angry and bitter in their denunciations of Israel.
In their work, we often see an extreme version of rhetorical inflation, which sometimes goes so far as to link Israel with history’s worst regimes, such as Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa. Some of their pronouncements resemble anti-Zionist hate speech employed by the worst anti-Semites.
How do you think the anti-Zionism of some progressive Jews relates to their Jewish identity?
It varies a good deal. For some, being anti-Israel defines their core Jewish identity. They feel the need to negate Israel in order to validate a newly affirmed Diaspora identity, similar to the rejection of the Diaspora in Israel, especially during the nation’s early years.
Some of those in the leadership of the British effort for an academic boycott of Israel are Jews, including Israelis or ex-Israelis living in Great Britain. They dislike Israel intensely. Some also claim to be acting in accord with prophetic teachings and what they see as a higher Jewish ideal. They find their Jewish affirmations in opposition to the Jewish state.
Also, you find people who don’t want any Jewish connection at all. Many Jewish academics who think of themselves as Marxists, for example, refuse to be associated with religious or national identities, either Judaism or Israel.
Within the political sphere, Marxism is by and large a spent force, but Marxist ideas and loyalties hang on in universities and sometimes express themselves in fierce opposition to or outright rejection of Israel.
Moving from margins to mainstream
In line with these adversarial postures, Prof Rosenfeld alluded to a movement of extreme anti-Zionist thinking into the mainstream, noting that books by some of Israel’s foremost Jewish detractors have been picked up by major publishing houses.
One example, which he cited in his original article, was British academic Jacqueline Rose’s book, "The Question of Zion", published by Princeton University Press.
“What was disturbing about this,” he said, “is that the book is full of egregious factual errors, as well as badly distorted by ideological bias.
"Rose claims Adolf Hitler and Theodore Herzl attended an opera by Wagner on the same night in Paris, which supposedly inspired both of their ideas, although Hitler did not come to Paris until 1940, long after Herzl had died. Rose also calls Israel to task for the ‘razing’ of Jenin, which never happened.
“The fact that such a book carries the Princeton University stamp may show a troubling movement of radical anti-Zionist ideas from the margins into the mainstream. And Rose’s book is hardly alone.
"Norman Finkelstein’s most recent tirade against Israel was published by the University of California Press, and Jimmy Carter’s best-selling tarring of Israel with the apartheid brush came out with Simon & Schuster.
"These are seriously flawed, deeply tendentious books, but they carry the imprimatur of some of America's most highly respected publishing houses. That’s worrisome."
Can any legal recourse be taken, in light of such blatant factual errors?
I've been accused of advocating censorship, even of wanting to bring us back to the age of McCarthyism, but none of that is true.
Here, simply put, is what I believe: biased, erroneous, and irrational criticism must be met by all of the power of lucid argument and rational criticism. Any writer who publishes his or her ideas is subject to the latter.
What I and others are attempting to do is expose the poverty of some of these malicious ideas, including those that unfairly attack Israel and its supporters. But in the realm of public opinion, short of committing outright defamation, I don’t think legal recourse can or should be taken.
So, is that the way you believe we should combat the globalization and evolution, as you called it in your article, of anti-Semitism?
Let’s separate between anti-Semitic acts and anti-Semitic utterances. The first are illegal, so if one is caught firebombing a synagogue or physically accosting Jews, those people are liable for prosecution.
Anti-Semitic books, articles, and the like are something else altogether, especially in the United States where free speech is constitutionally protected.
If writers really think Israel resembles apartheid South Africa or Nazi Germany, there is no question of throwing the legal book at them. However, those are scurrilous accusations, and they need to be exposed as such.
It’s not easy, for we are involved today in a war of ideas, and there are some very bad ideas out there, many of them directed against Israel. It’s imperative to combat them with good ideas. We need more people to step forward and show the errors in that kind of thinking.
Intellectually and politically, it’s an intense war and will not quickly fade, and there are Jews on both sides. Hearing Israeli voices on the anti-Zionist side is especially troubling. Avraham Burg, for example, can now be cited by Israel’s enemies as validating some of their most damning charges.
If a state can validly be compared to Nazi Germany — and Burg apparently makes such comparisons in his new book - its existence should be called into question.
I don’t think Israel can be legitimately compared to the Third Reich or apartheid South Africa. But when some Israelis make these analogies, it becomes harder for those of us on the outside to contest them.
There have been parallel rises in violence on the streets and intellectual aggression against Jews. How much are these two trends related? If progressives ceased their verbal attacks on Israel, would you expect there to be less physical violence from anti-Semites?
It’s best to look at this matter country by country. Within Europe, the most vociferous anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, on the street, in the public media, and in academia, are found in England and France.
Do I think anti-Semitic violence would disappear in those countries entirely, in the absence of anti-Zionist rhetoric? No.
So the more we can dampen down rhetorical abuse directed against Jews, the better the chances of containing violence against them.
Alvin Rosenfeld is a professor of English and the director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University.
He has authored the books 'Imagining Hitler' and 'Double-Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature', as well as editing several books, including 'Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Weisel' and 'Thinking about the Holocaust after half a century'.