Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Jews Behaving Badly (enough, already)

Like many other people, I followed, with a mixture of serious engagement and detached amusement, the political food fight over the rising Jewish action group J Street, which bills itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.” Conservatives and many centrists would of course have no truck with the organization from the start. However, some centrists and left-liberals who may initially have been attracted also came to have their doubts, occasioned by a series of actions or statements that seemed to emphasize only criticism of Israel, without support for the idea of a Jewish state or understanding of its security needs. The picture at the time of the conference became, if anything, even more blurred. It was first reported and then denied that the college arm of the movement had decided to drop the designation, “pro-Israel.” In any case, the organization certainly found that many of the attendees did not share the commitment to the first half of that slogan.

The picture was blurred in part also because founder Jeremy Ben Ami likened J Street to Israel’s centrist, big-tent (others would say: characterless and rudderless) Kadima party, a move that angered and puzzled supporters without necessarily winning over skeptics. In an interview, the Atlantic noted, "He declared himself a Zionist; condemned the book "The Israel Lobby"; called America's military aid package to Israel untouchable; and told me he hopes his group angers the non-Zionist left by staking out mainstream Jewish positions on Israel and the peace process -- 'I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us.'" His views, he insisted, were resolutely pro-Israel, which in no way precluded criticism of Israel—in other words, pretty much what J Street always claimed to be. Time will tell which characteristic is the dominant one. New organizations, like adolescents, require time in order to develop distinct and consistent identities. In the meantime, who needs action movies and video games when you can just sit back and watch people slug it out in the blogs?

My point here, however, is not about J Street, and rather, about the way that people talked about it. Internecine Jewish fighting is of course nothing new. There is that old joke told in the days of the British Mandate in Palestine:
Sergeant, reporting to his superior: “We have arrested a dozen Jews! Five Revisionists, four Mizrachis, two Communists, and one General Zionist.”

Officer: “Good work. Where are they?”

Sergeant: “They’re standing outside.”

Officer: “What?! without a guard?!”

Sergeant: “Not necessary. They’re keeping a very sharp eye on one another."
Healthy debate is always a good thing. After all, that’s why J Street’s proponents claim it was founded. Some stupid debate is the normal price of healthy debate, and we all know how to tune out the static. Much of the casual and instinctive (emphasis on the preceding terms) critique of J Street was simply nasty and uninformed and did not attempt to address the issues in a serious way. However, there comes a point at which stupid and nasty cross a line and become unhealthy and vicious. I was therefore revolted (though, as an occasional reader of talkbacks on newspaper sites and blogs, not totally surprised) to see the following image of anti-J Street protesters:

The take of Jewcy (whence this photograph)—“worst swastikas ever”—is probably the best one: you lame-asses, not only are you alone, but you can’t even make a graphically effective poster (I paraphrase).

That response accords with my basic instinct and literary sensibility. Such behavior was the exception, and not the rule; better to slap it down and then move ahead. Still, we ignore or merely mock this sort of nastiness at our peril.

There comes a point at which the infighting and invective cross a line. This is it. The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed not because of the Romans, but because of “causeless hatred” among the inhabitants of the land.

The J Street conference took place around the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. The murder in turn took place at a time when right-wing forces were attacking his peace policies with unprecedented venom. The obscene poster depicting him in Nazi SS uniform came to epitomize the atmosphere commonly said to have made his murder possible. (One may recall that his widow, Leah Rabin, long refused to speak to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, regarding him as complicit in that sort of vile incitement.)

Have these protesters learned nothing? (for example: a real vocabulary? more sophisticated reasoning? or just plain common sense and decency?). Most of the abuse of the Nazi analogy (periodically documented on this site) comes from antisemites and enemies of Israel. It is repulsive, but it is no longer surprising. But should not at least the Jews show a modicum of common sense and restraint when deploying that most potent of analogies? Do they not worry that they desecrate the memory of their dead? How can you criticize people who use the term, “Zionazis,” when you yourself trivialize history and human suffering? It’s just plain stupid. It's a shame. Literally.

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