Those of us who believe in Jewish unity, who have long sought an open dialogue, increasingly face a dilemma: what happens when some fellow Jews cross red lines, canceling Zionism and Jewish peoplehood, denying Israel’s right to exist while popularizing Trojan horse terms that have spurred thousands of terrorist murders with lovely-sounding rhetoric? I’m all for leaning in — but not for keeling over. Sometimes, you must call out those who call you and your people evil, not just flawed.
Since Hamas unleashed thousands of rockets against Israel in May, a cluster of demonizing, delegitimizing terms targeting Israel’s existence has gone mainstream. In the traditional media and on social media, more and more call Israel “an Apartheid State,” call Zionism a project of “ethno-nationalist … settler-colonialism” reeking of “Jewish Supremacy” – a Nazi phrase – while calling for “Palestine to be Free: From the River to the Sea.” Even within the overwhelmingly pro-Israel American Jewish community, a small group of intellectuals, Jewish studies and Israel studies professors , and rabbis is spreading this anti-Israel, anti-Zionist vocabulary.
They aren’t anti-Occupation; they’re anti-Israel. They don’t reject what Israel did, Natan Sharansky and I recently wrote in Tablet, but what Israel is.
Our historical essay “The Un-Jews: The Jewish Attempt to Cancel Israel and Jewish Peoplehood ,” argued that these anti-Zionists target “the broad Zionist consensus the Jewish world developed after the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel as well as the post-1990s Birthright consensus embracing Israel and Israel experiences as central Jewish-identity building tools.” This “small fraction” knows “exactly what they are doing, and what they are undoing. They are trying to disentangle Judaism from Jewish nationalism, the sense of Jewish peoplehood while undoing decades of identity-building” – all supposedly in the name of a purer, more universal, social-justice-based Judaism.
That’s why we called them the un-Jews” – an in-your-face but well-justified label. Rooted in a long line of predecessors, today’s anti-Zionist, anti-Israel un-Jews seek to undo the fundamental pillars of modern Jewish identity. Their vision, if enacted, would endanger Jewish lives – and the Jewish soul – all in the name of freedom and justice.
Many welcomed our essay – some condemned it. Most moving were how many Jews from the center-left, traditional liberals, thanked us for pushing back, for offering a framework to rebut these sweeping, unfair, attacks while acknowledging the need for vigorous debate.
We don’t name names and aren’t canceling people: we endorsed substantive dialogue tackling “the difficult dilemmas we do need to debate,” as we did in our book Never Alone . But the situation is urgent. We are ready to risk offending this small, self-righteous minority that purports to speak for “American Jewry,” to defend American Jewry’s Silenced Majority, offering an analytical lens to see through those delegitimizing slurs that implicitly justified Hamas’s violence and helped fuel attacks against Jews worldwide. And note the irony: people who slash Israel wildly, with the harshest of criticisms, are quite offended when anyone dares to push back at them.
Both Natan Sharansky and I have worked hard for decades articulating red lines in the fight against antisemitism. Since the renewed wave of Palestinian terror in 2000, we have called out those who hide behind human rights rhetoric or exploit Israel’s faults to advance a more dastardly, obsessive, anti-Israel agenda rooted in traditional Jew-hatred.
While drawing those lines, we mapped out huge areas for the kind of intense debates all healthy communities need — there’s lots of room to criticize Israeli policy or the Occupation without rejecting Israel’s right to exist or caricaturing it as evil.
Unfortunately, rather than acknowledging our subtleties, Ori Weisberg chose to write a personal attack against us and particularly against Natan Sharansky in The Times of Israel. Weisberg consistently misrepresented our article. He exaggerated our limited target list while distorting our meaning of the term un-Jews by suggesting a nonexistent link to Orwell’s “unpersons” – as in undoing.
We’re not negating people. We simply noted that they seek to negate –undo — core principles of modern Jewish identity. And let’s be honest, if there’s someone who has looked evil in the eye and learned to call it out, it’s Natan Sharansky.
Weisberg also alleges: “For Sharansky, those who seek to advance full equality between Jews and Palestinians between the river and the sea are now excised from the Jewish collective in the name of its unity, literally labeled ‘un-Jews.’” Yet since he arrived in Israel in 1986, Natan Sharansky has consistently called for full equality for Palestinians, which is why he has condemned the PA and Hamas dictatorships while defending Palestinian dissidents. Weisberg’s attack ran with a subheading asking: “How can someone of such inspirational courage, wit and humanity label those seeking to advance full equality between Jews and Palestinians as ‘un-Jews’?”
The answer is he didn’t; we didn’t.
Our beef is with those who adopt the “river to sea” vernacular of delegitimization, or who prettify it, as Weisberg does in his post, and as the subheading The Times of Israel added implicitly does. The slogan is not some kumbaya call for “full equality” between Palestinians and Jews – it’s a blood-drenched call for full control by Palestinians with no Jews. Just as pro-Palestinian forces in America pretend that anti-Zionism is never antisemitic, just as they pretend that BDS doesn’t wish to destroy the Jewish state, now they pretend that “from the river to the sea” is not the murderous siren-song of the Palestinian maximalists.
Note how the rhetorical winds are shifting, against us. In December 2018, CNN fired Marc Lamont Hill for endorsing “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” This phrase, Wikipedia explains , “contains the notion that the land which lies between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea be entirely placed under Arab rule at the cost of the State of Israel” [emphasis mine]. Back then, the Times of Israel noted that it “became a popular political slogan used by Palestinians who reject compromise with Israel, including the terror group Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel.” Alas, last week, the Times of Israel’s subhead, ignoring its previous reporting and the truth, validated this ruse.
Professor Hill quickly apologized for using this “dog whistle” of a slogan, which “conjured a long and deep history of violence against Jewish people.” CNN still didn’t hire him back.
Back then, CNN understood the deadly, anti-Jewish implications baked into that phrase. We cannot lose sight of such distortions; we cannot back down in this fight over Israel’s basic right to exist in peace.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.