As someone who identifies as Jewish—who periodically goes to shul, celebrates some if not all of the holidays, and tries at least some (ahem) of the time to get off the internets for shabbos—yet opposes Zionism, I thought I’d heard all the charges that have been and could be made against me and my tribe. But yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic writer and one of the leading voices of liberal Zionism in this country, threw a new one into to the mix.
In my experience, those Jews who consciously set themselves apart from the Jewish majority in the disgust they display for Israel, or for the principles of their faith, are often narcissists, and therefore seem to suffer from an excess of self-regard, rather than self-loathing.
What caught my eye (really, my ear) was not the evident wrongness of the claim, starting with the lazy assumption that those who oppose the State of Israel are somehow setting “themselves apart from the Jewish majority.” It was that “excess of self-regard.” Whether Goldberg knows it or not, or was conscious of it when he used it, that charge has a pedigree in Jewish—or rather anti-Jewish—history.
To be sure, there is within Judaism an injunction, and more generally an ethos, not to separate oneself from the Jewish people. The Wicked Son at the Passover Seder asks, “What does this service [or ritual or story] mean to you?” His wickedness lies in that final hissing “to you”: he refuses to acknowledge that in addition to being an “I” he is also a “We.” Verses in the Pirkei Avot enjoin us not to hold ourselves apart from the community. There’s also a Halachic stipulation that for the sake of practicality and communal living, Jews must abide by legal rulings regarding everyday ritual and civil law. Despite the many differences and disagreements it generates, Judaism is not really a religion of individuals or individualism; it is the religion of a people. Am Yisrael: the people of Israel.
But, as far as I can see, there is little in the tradition that views the dissenter as somehow haughty or superior, narcissistic or self-regarding. And while friends more knowledgeable than I joke that one can always find evidentiary support in the Talmud for some claim or other, this particular one would probably require some digging. If it exists, it’s a subterranean position. And how could it not be? For every two Jews, goes the old saw, there are three opinions. If every unorthodox statement were treated as a symptom of overweening arrogance or pride, well, there’s not enough room in the universe—let alone the Talmud—to contain such a lexicon of self-regard.
In fact, the only document I can think of that even approximates such an accusation is Annie Hall. Think of those scenes where a young Alvie Singer presses his existential concerns (“The universe is expanding”) upon his parents only to be told by his mother, “What is that your business?” and, later, “You never could get along with anyone at school. You were always outta step with the world.” Or perhaps that scene in Hannah and her Sisters where Mickey (the Woody Allen character) tells his parents he’s thinking of converting to Catholicism because he’s afraid there’s no God or life after death, and his father replies, “How do you know?” and his mother, less indulgently, “Of course there’s a God, you idiot! You don’t believe in God?” Aside from these hints that the questioner of—or deserter from—the faith is somehow punching above his weight (and, of course, the characters here are speaking the language of parents rather than Judaism), it’s hard to find this specific rhetoric of accusation that I’m talking about, in which the dissenter is impeached as a presumptuous snob, in the Jewish tradition.
But if you’re not in the mood for digging deep, if you want quick and easy access to that rhetoric, simply put your hand into the garbage can of anti-Semitism. For it is there, in the rubbish of ancient and modern history, that you’ll find the accusation that the Jew who refuses to conform to the ways of the dominant culture—with the culture now understood, of course, to be non-Jewish—is smug and superior, that he assumes he knows better and believes he is better than the majority. Because how else are we to understand a minority insisting upon its own ways over and against the majority?
Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad is a veritable compendium of such accusations, from ancient pagans to Vichy officials to Brezhnev’s Soviet Union to the modern Arab world (making full allowances, as Wistrich does not, for the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism). Over and over, one hears the complaint from the anti-Semite that the Jew has set himself up not only in opposition to, but in judgment upon, the dominant culture. And that in doing so he has presumed himself to be better than that culture.
Of course, that accusation often preys upon the complicated—and by no means uncontroversial—notion of chosenness within the Jewish tradition. Bernard Lazare, the Jewish radical who wrote the first genuine history of anti-Semitism just before the Dreyfus Affair (and whose work had a tremendous influence upon Hannah Arendt), offered a version of this claim. In Wistrich’s lucid paraphrase:
Bernard Lazare was convinced that the “revolutionary spirit of Judaism” had been a major factor in anti-Semitism through the ages. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Karl Marx were prime examples of Jewish iconoclasts of their time. The Jews, by creating an intensely demanding God of morality and justice whose stern monotheism brooked no toleration of alien deities, threatened the natural order. The prophetic vision of an abstract transcendent Godhead above nature, a deity without form or shape, who had nonetheless created the universe and would in the fullness of time redeem all mankind, was disconcerting, powerful, and mysterious to the pagan world. It was rendered especially irritating by the Jewish claim to be a “chosen people,” a “kingdom of priests,” and a ferment among the Gentiles. Anti-Semitism could best be seen as an instinctive response by the nations of the world to this provocation—to the uncanny challenge of an eternal people, whose refusal to assimilate defied all established historical patterns. Hatred of the Jews was often combined with fear, envy….
Though it seems quite wrong to me to locate the sources of anti-Semitism in anything Jews do or say—and that’s not really Lazare’s point, I don’t think—there can be no doubt, as Wistrich shows, that anti-Semites have consistently chosen to interpret the Jewish insistence on separateness and difference (leave aside the more difficult notion of chosenness) as a bid for superiority.
Conversely, and ironically, for writers like Tom Paine, it is precisely this insistence upon setting themselves apart that has been not only the glory of the Jewish people but the guarantor of whatever is democratic and egalitarian in their culture. In Common Sense, Paine takes up a lengthy disquisition on the question “of monarchy and hereditary succession.” There he makes a special point of noting that the Jews were originally without a king and were governed instead by “a kind of republic administered by a judge and the elders of the tribes.”
But the temptation to monarchy dies hard, Paine observes, even among the Jews. And the reason it dies hard is that the desire to conform, to abandon one’s ways in the face of outside pressure, dies harder. So frequently does Paine recur to the lures and dangers of imitation and conformity—”Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the Heathens, from whom the children of Israel copied the custom”; “We cannot but observe that their motives were bad, viz. that they might be like unto other nations, i.e. the Heathens, whereas their true glory laid in being as much unlike them as possible”—that we might say for Paine (at least in Common Sense; Age of Reason sounds a different note) it is the Jew’s refusal to conform that most guarantees his democratic and egalitarian credentials.
For Jeffrey Goldberg, it’s the reverse. It’s the Jew who sets himself apart from the dominant culture—Goldberg’s referring to mainstream Judaism, of course, rather than the culture as a whole, but the structure of the argument is the same—who is making a bid for superiority. And in this respect, Goldberg is aligning himself with neither Judaism nor democracy but their antitheses.
It’s ironic that what started this whole discussion, for Goldberg and excellent journalists like Spencer Ackerman, was the use of the controversial term “Israel-Firster” by critics of Israel and the ensuing debate over whether or not it’s anti-Semitic. I don’t have much of a dog in that fight: I’ve never used and would never use the term, not because it questions the patriotism of American Jews but because it partakes of the vocabulary of patriotism in the first place, a vocabulary I find suspect and noxious from beginning to end. Even so, I’m amazed that someone who is so quick to find anti-Semitism in the words of others is so careless about its presence in his own.
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A special word of thanks goes to Jeffrey Shoulson for walking me through the thickets of Jewish liturgy and commentary. Jeff’s an old friend from college and graduate school, whose book Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity won the Salo Baron Prize for First Book in Judaic Studies from the American Academy of Jewish Research. He’s a professor of English at the University of Miami, where he’s now working on a book called Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England, due out next year with University of Pennsylvania Press. It goes without saying that any errors in this post are entirely mine.