Can I Come Back into the Tent Now, Rabbi Goldberg?

Four days ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski tweeted this:

Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic tweeted this in response:

Seemed like a crazy read of what Brzezinski said, but it’s the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from Goldberg. I didn’t give it a second thought.

But Logan Bayroff at J Street did. J Street, in case you don’t know, is a liberal-ish Jewish group in the US that’s pushing for a peace settlement with the Palestinians. They call themselves “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.” Not my people, but what are you going to do?

Anyway, Bayroff went after Goldberg:

Goldberg got furious and this morning tweeted this:

And when he was asked what this rude J Street employee had done to piss him off, Goldberg explained:

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the head of J Street; Bayroff is his assistant.

Okay, now that we’ve introduced our cast of characters let me say this:

By what authority does Jeffrey Goldberg arrogate to himself the right to defend (with the implicit threat that he might not in the future) someone or some group’s “place in the Jewish tent”? Who elected him Pope to excommunicate or not some heretical Jew? Who made him Defender of the Faith?

(Let’s set aside that the reason he gives for wavering in his commitment to keep J Street in the fold is that one of its impertinent employees had the audacity to criticize him. For reasons that seem perfectly legitimate.)

Isn’t that sort of talk—I’ll defend (or won’t defend) your staying within the tent, but only if you’re well behaved—sort of, well, un-Jewish? I know there are more theologically minded Jews than myself who think they can dictate how one ought to be Jewish, who is or isn’t a Jew, but that’s the point: they ain’t Jeffrey Goldberg. He’s a self-described liberal Zionist, not an Orthodox Jew. But in his cosmos, Zionism is the religion, he’s the rebbe, and the rebbe gets to decide if you’re in or you’re out, if you’re kosher or treif.

Zionists like Goldberg like to style themselves as open, hip, and pluralist. They think what distinguishes them from the Black Hats is their embrace of secular modernity. But as you can see from this incident and the one I discuss below, Zionism has not only made these types intolerant and anti-pluralist; it has turned them into Popes and Inquisitors, enthralled with their imagined power to exile and excommunicate.

Under their watch, one of the most important questions that lies at the heart of the Jewish tradition—What does it mean to be a Jew?—gets taken off the table. Because we already know the answer: support for the State of Israel. If you do, you’re a Jew in good standing; if you don’t, you’re not.

That’s what nationalism—especially nationalism hitched to a state—does to people. It makes the Goldbergs of this world think they can give Jews a passport or take it away. Well, guess what, Rabbi Goldberg: you can’t. I don’t need you defending my right to be in the Jewish tent because that’s not within your, or any other Jew’s, power to decide.

I wish Ben-Ami had jumped in in response to Goldberg and said, “Fuck you, you don’t get to decide who’s a Jew or not.” Instead, he tweeted (never has that word seemed more appropriate) this:

Like I said, not my people. What can you really expect from a group that needs to surround their support for peace in the Middle East with bumper stickers affirming they’re pro-Israel and pro-America?

Anyway, as I said above, this isn’t the first time Goldberg has said something un-Jewish in the name of the Jews. About two years ago he made a similar move, and I wound up writing a lengthy blog about it. Here it is…

•  • • • •

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.


  1. Freddie DeBoer November 24, 2013 at 10:46 pm | #

    It’s really kind of breathtaking, the way Goldberg rolls right from “Netanyahu’s efforts to dictate US policy” to “Jews run America.” Just breathtaking.

  2. wetcasements November 25, 2013 at 2:12 am | #

    It makes you wonder if anything short of a bombing campaign that might just start World War III would ever satisfy Goldberg.

  3. david mizner November 26, 2013 at 10:36 am | #

    Something happened on the way to a great post. Goldberg calls a J-streeter a bad Jew. And you respond by calling Goldberg…a bad Jew.

    • Corey Robin November 26, 2013 at 2:32 pm | #

      I tried to address the issue that I think is bothering you here (in case the link doesn’t work exactly, it’s comment 25). What I would add is that the issue is definitely not whether Goldberg is or isn’t a bad Jew. It’s that the pronunciamentos that are being issued here are not, whatever he might think, on behalf of Judaism or even the Jewish people; they’re on behalf of Zionism. I think it’s important that people don’t confuse those two things.

      On Tue, Nov 26, 2013 at 10:36 AM, Corey Rob

      • david mizner November 26, 2013 at 5:41 pm | #

        Thanks. Yeah that comment gets at it. Not sure how I feel.

        I suppose you’re right, that if a holiday (or a food) can be un-Jewish, so too can a belief. But you say Goldberg’s POV is “un-Jewish” as if that’s a bad thing. Its Jewishness or lack thereof tells us nothing about its morality or wisdom unless we’re willing to equate “Jewishness” with “good” and then we’re well down the chauvinistic rabbit hole.

        • Corey Robin November 26, 2013 at 5:54 pm | #

          I agree. But since he’s the one who’s trafficking in who gets in and who stays out, it seems worthwhile to point out that that very idea doesn’t really belong within the tent.

  4. BillR November 26, 2013 at 11:02 pm | #

    What else do you expect from a man who volunteered to become a prison guard for the IDF:

  5. Richard Holowka November 29, 2013 at 4:01 pm | #

    Rather than leave “chosenness” aside, I’d love to hear thoughts about the type of exceptionalism that this self-regard fosters, not simply in relation to Israel but to the US as well. The Puritans saw themselves as fulfilling a divine “errand,” having been specifically chosen by god as the OT Israelites were. They went one better, going so far as to see the ancient Hebrews only as a figural “type” of chosen people for which the Puritans were the final embodiment. I wonder at times if this implicit self-regard is what inflames other nations. Please note: I am NOT stating that Israel or US are worse than other nations — there are too many brutalities globally by all kinds of societies. But I do wonder about reactions prompted by a rhetoric of exceptionalism or chosenness.

  6. Howie Berman December 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm | #

    As a Jew and a Zionist I’m in full agreement.
    The crux of the matter of why this ostracism and controversy
    is happening at all, is that today’s Jews are in some way a Diaspora
    community and in some way a nation, like ancient Judah and Israel;
    I’m still working out the details of my theory; but I was helped by Waltzer’s book on ancient Israel and politics

  7. Roquentin December 3, 2013 at 10:17 am | #

    I usually try and stay out of discussions on Israel because I don’t feel like it’s my fight. I’m not the least bit Jewish, so it’s not a personal or important issue for me. I have a general sympathy for the Palestinians who have been displaced, and to me it seems vaguely analogous to the British in South Africa during Apartheid.

    Anyhow, I don’t know if you read The New Inquiry but they posted a review of Blumenthal’s Golaith, which you have written about several times on this blog and I thought I’d share:

  8. BarryB December 4, 2013 at 3:28 pm | #

    It’s not even a matter of “not my fight.” It’s a matter of bringing intellectual weapons to the table against a completely disarmed opponent. I know you feel you have to keep pointing out how vacuous he is, Corey, but Goldberg’s just a thug wrapped in a coat of pseudo-religious patriotism. His “bosses” are the issue, particularly Bibi, and they’re not about to abandon their apartheid plans any time soon.

  9. Alon December 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm | #

    I don’t always agree with Zizek, but I found his discussion here from 2009 on the nature of the question you are getting at to be pretty damned good.

    It really gets going in Part 2.

  10. Phillip Hallam-Baker December 26, 2013 at 9:22 am | #

    I think you are missing the real story here. Jeffrey Goldberg’s peculiar behavior is the sort of thing that the gay community is very familiar with, the closet case anti-gay bigot. The attacks on ‘un-jews’ who reject Zionism look to me like the protestations of someone who recognizes the moral bankruptcy of their position but is unwilling to change it because they fear rejection by the tribe.

    It is the fate of utopian projects based on an unwillingness to face inconvenient facts that get in the way of the ideology to produce distopias. Zionism could never explain how a state for Jews could exist without visiting the same discriminations once visited on Jews on non-Jews.

    Goldberg has obviously realized that Israel has turned into an apartheid state complete with Bantistans for those who are not members of the chosen tribe. But he fears becoming an outcast if he recognizes this. He is a moral coward who knows what he should do but fears the consequences. And so he is projecting the fear of what he thinks would be the consequence to him onto the people who have the courage to do what he fears doing.

    People who try to exclude others from the group like this are people who fear exclusion. Becoming the arbiter of who is in and who is out of the group is a strategy to prevent being excluded themselves.

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