Discourse about Israel occasionally elicits heated responses from some American Jews. Although we are thousands of miles from the conflict zone, a number of self-appointed guardians of Israel in the U.S. are quick to heap invective on their coreligionists who stray from what they see as the party line, so to speak, on Israel.
With the emergence of J Street, the dovish Washington-based lobbying group, and the increased influence of other liberal groups — including the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace Now — with the Obama administration, the debate over who is “pro-Israel” has taken on a heightened intensity.
My editorial, “Right-wing incitement,” in the Nov. 27 edition of the American Jewish World, provoked some vitriolic responses. A couple letters — spirited defenses of Rep. Michele Bachmann — will be published in the next print edition; another writer withdrew his bombastic e-mail missive upon further reflection. And one e-mail was so unhinged and ad hominem in nature that it doesn’t warrant further dissemination: I don’t publish letters that are purely personal attacks, so I will not publish a scurrilous e-mail message that refers to me as a “self-hating Jew the world can live without.”
Shortly after receiving this vile e-mail, I read the “Ask the Rabbis” column in the new issue of Moment magazine. The question put to rabbis from varied Jewish streams was:Â What is a “Self-Hating Jew”?
There were a number of thoughtful responses, including one by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a prominent figure in the American Jewish community, here representing the “Modern Orthodox” viewpoint.
Here’s Rabbi Greenberg’s response:
The self-hating Jew is primarily a modern phenomenon. In the Middle Ages, Jews were surrounded by hostility. However, they maintained a high degree of self-respect because, living in ghettoes, they were mostly shielded from the degradation. They were also buoyed by a rich inner life and caring community.
In the modern period, Jews mixed freely and were constantly exposed to the majority’s opinions and media. Individual Jews, separated from the community, illiterate Jewishly, lacking in positive experiences, had no resources to repel anti-Semitic degrading images and sometimes internalized others’ contempt. One notorious case was Otto Weininger, an Austrian Jewish psychologist/philosopher who self-hated to the point of converting to Christianity and writing a philosophical justification of anti-Semitism. He followed the logic of his self-loathing (apparently feeling that he could not shake off his Jewishness) and committed suicide at age 23. Nazi thinkers drew upon his writings.
In recent years, the term has been politicized by certain Israeli public figures who have used it to stigmatize Jewish-American government officials who did not support right wing policies. This usage should be stopped. The reality that some deracinated Jews fall into this category is sad enough; the term should not be bandied about promiscuously or turned into a political weapon.
So, I generally concur with Greenberg’s analysis and opinion, and would add that it is not just “certain Israeli public figures” who wield the “self-hating Jew” epithet; some right-wing American Jews also are quick to fling this calumny against liberal Jews with whom they disagree politically.
Personal vilification aside, the Nov. 27 editorial suggested that there should be a communal discussion about the nature of political alliances, vis-a-vis Congresswoman Bachmann, who is honored by local Jewish leaders because of her staunch defense of Israeli government policies, as most Jews abhor her far-right, and often far-fetched, views on a range of issues. You might recall that Bachmann suggested last year that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama might hold “anti-American” views, and that the press should investigate members of Congress toÂ “find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.” More recently, Bachmann has declared that the 2010 census is a nefarious plot, because the census was used previously in the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II.
The individuals writing letters to the AJW pressed the point about Bachmann’s pro-Israel bona fides, which was not the issue raised in my editorial. I acknowledged that she espouses pro-Israel views; the problem is the rest of her political agenda. Specifically, I wrote about her Nov. 5 “House Call” rally at the Capitol, which featured a prominent graphic banner linking the Holocaust to Obama’s health care reform proposal.
I placed Bachmann’s gathering in the context of right-wing Tea Party gatherings, which have attracted, and incited, a fringe element that seems to be on the verge of taking their rhetoric a step beyond and using violence against their political opponents.
As I have just learned, the ADL has the same concerns about this strain of “anti-government fervor” being expressed by the Tea Party promoters and others.
On Nov. 16, the ADL announced the publication of a report, “Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies,” which examines the “upsurge in anti-government anxiety, from the ‘birthers’ who claim the president is not an actual citizen of the U.S., to militia groups fearful that the government plans to forcibly disarm American citizens, to those who suggest that the health-care reform movement is akin to the Nazi policies that led to the Holocaust.”
The following is from the ADL press release last month:
“In the year since we marked the historic election of the nation’s first African-American president we have seen a tremendous amount of anger and hostility,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director.Â “There is a toxic atmosphere of rage inÂ America being witnessed at many levels, and it raises fundamental questions for our society.
“While not all ofÂ AmericaÂ has bought into these conspiracies, they seem to be seeping more and more into the mainstream,” added Mr. Foxman.Â “And since many of these expressions are interconnected in some significant ways, we wanted to try and connect the dots and ask the basic questions of why the anger, why now, and where might it lead.”
From the anti-government “Tea Parties,” where protestors have made explicit Nazi comparisons or suggested that the president is subverting the Constitution, to anger-filled town hall meeting disruptions over health care, the wave of anti-government animus has manifested itself in many forms, according to ADL. It has played out across a spectrum of groups, from mainstream groups and politicians to more extreme organizations and individuals.
“The fact that these anti-government sentiments are coming from such a broad spectrum makes it more likely that some individuals will become so inflamed with anger that they will move farther toward the fringes,” said Robert G. Sugarman, ADL National Chair. “This could result not only in the swelling of the ranks of anti-government extremist groups and movements, but might give rise to more individuals who are willing to act on their anger.”
The ADL report precisely underlines the points I was trying to make in the Nov. 27 editorial, in which I warned about the “potent threat to the Jewish community, and the general society, from a coterie of benighted individuals on the right who think they have a direct line to the divine and can dictate social policies that everyone must follow.” I noted that the Tea partisans are showing up with sidearms strapped on at some rallies.
And, for the record, I also decried the conflation of Obama’s health care reform proposal with Nazi policies in an Aug. 21, 2009, editorial. In that article I quoted Arthur Caplan, Ph.D.,Â director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, formerly of the University of Minnesota, who termed the resort to Nazi and Hitler analogies in the health care reform debate as a case of “Holocaust denial.”
I appeal to members of the Jewish community to avoid the worst excesses of the Tea Party movement in their political discourse.
— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at] ajwnews.com