Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010
Reflections After My Home Was Vandalized
Stop the Assault by Right-Wing Extremists on Israel's Critics
You may have read that a group of Zionist extremists plastered the outside of my home with signs identifying me with Judge Richard Goldstone, who put together the UN report on Israeli human rights violations during the war in Gaza (it also pointed to human rights violations on the part of Hamas). The vandals' signs called Goldstone and me "extreme leftists" and "Islamofascists," accusing us of supporting terrorism. The police said the point of the vandalism was to show us that we are vulnerable to personal physical attack even in our own home, and to scare us. And in fact, to this day my wife and family remain very concerned.
If only my personal safety were at stake, I wouldn't take this space in Tikkun to discuss the incident. But the truth is that hundreds of thousands of Jews in the United States and around the world face this same problem: many of the most vocal defenders of Israel in the Jewish community personally assail anyone who criticizes Israeli policies toward Palestinians, declining to answer the actual criticisms and instead labeling the critics as "self-hating Jews" or "anti-Semites" or, as you'll read below, worse. You can hear these attacks in the pews of not only Orthodox but also Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues. And you can hear this among both secular and religious Jews. The resort to assaulting the integrity and decency of critics of Israeli policy, instead of answering their criticisms, is a move by frightened people who cannot really understand why Israel treats Palestinians so harshly, who really can't provide a rational defense. To protect themselves from the horrible realization that the Jewish State is acting immorally and self-destructively, they react by denouncing the people who call this reality to their attention.
The long-term effect of this intimidation of dissenters is a weakening of global support for Israel. These defensive attempts to silence critics also drive people away from the Jewish community and provide aid and comfort to the real anti-Semites, whose hatred of Jews becomes easier to hide behind criticisms of Israel. But in the short term, it is an effective technique for suppressing dissent and ensuring that people in the Jewish world rarely get to hear the ideas and nuanced strategies for Israel's security from those who share our pro-Israel/pro-Palestine "progressive middle path." And it's not just Tikkun that faces this—J Street, the New Israel Fund, Rabbis for Human Rights, and the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem now also face the same attacks that Tikkun and I have endured for two decades.
The most recent phase of the political assault on dissenters began this way: in mid-April we learned that leaders of the Jewish community of South Africa were telling South African Justice Richard Goldstone that he should not attend his grandson's bar mitzvah because right-wing Zionists had threatened to disrupt the event. Jewish community leaders told Goldstone they could not guarantee his safety. We at Tikkun were outraged at this capitulation to threats of violence.
Let's remember that Goldstone was an honored jurist who—though he served under the apartheid regime and apparently upheld its laws—was selected by Nelson Mandela to continue in office under the new regime; Goldstone played a role in legitimizing the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa that had headed off the feared civil war between Blacks and whites after the apartheid system was dismantled. The UN later selected Goldstone to head investigatory commissions into the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. It was with this background, and as a proud Zionist and former member of the board of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, that Goldstone accepted the UN task of investigating the large number of deaths of Palestinian civilians, particularly children, during the Israeli assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.
Goldstone sought Israel's collaboration in this investigation. He was going to hear a great deal of evidence indicating Israeli human rights violations and even war crimes, and he hoped to include in his report Israel's version of what happened. He also hoped that Israel would punish any members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) found guilty—by appropriate Israeli judicial process—of illegal or immoral acts.
Unfortunately for Israel, the world, and the Jews, Israel refused to cooperate with Goldstone's UN mission or to present its information and explanations. As a result, the report that Goldstone issued was necessarily one-sided. Recognizing that, Goldstone called upon Israel to hold its own public, objective, and credible investigation into what had happened, calling both Palestinian Gazan witnesses and members of the IDF to explain their experience of what had happened. He hoped Israel would announce an intention to punish the individuals responsible for breaking international law. As Goldstone explained to me, the crimes he was detailing need not have been seen as "Israel's crimes." The state could have distanced itself from the crimes by holding people from the bottom to the top of the command structure accountable and disciplining those who erred. This is precisely what happened, Goldstone told me, after the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla in Israel's Lebanon war: Ariel Sharon, who was deemed responsible for the massacres, was forced to resign, thereby showing that it was not "Israel" but rather specific Israelis who deserved to be blamed. And this is what Tikkun is now calling for in regard to the assault on the flotilla of boats bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza that took place on the high seas on May 31, 2010, resulting in the deaths of some and injuries to many of those who sought to bring aid to Gaza.
Unfortunately, in the case of the invasion of Gaza, the response was just the opposite of what it had been with Sabra and Shatilla. Following a pattern with a long history in the American Jewish tradition, Israel decided to "shoot the messenger" rather than investigate the message. Israeli government officials attacked Goldstone, suggesting that he was an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. Israeli hasbara (public relations "explainers" of whatever Israel does) spread the word that Goldstone himself could not be trusted—that he was intentionally serving Arab interests.
We criticized this response when it first began to happen and soon assumed that it had quieted down. But in fact what was happening was a growing fear of a purported delegitimation of Israel. According to the Israeli Right and its champions around the world, Goldstone and other critics of Israeli policies—in particular the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS)—are to blame for spurring on this "delegitimation."
There is a range of positions in the BDS movement. Some support boycotting Israel itself or anyone who collaborates with Israeli economic, military, cultural, or higher education institutions. Others only support the use of BDS against the Occupation—in other words, against products produced in the occupied territories, against corporations that produce goods or services that help Israel enforce the Occupation (like Caterpillar, which has been building bulldozers specifically designed for use in bulldozing Palestinian homes), and against corporations that trade with and help the settlers. But these distinctions are sometimes lost on some Israelis and many American Jews who have difficulty distinguishing between delegitimation of Israel's policies toward Palestinians and delegitimation of Israel itself as a country.
Americans who oppose U.S. imperial adventures and wars have experienced a similar kind of repression. We have often been told that our criticisms of the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the almost-war in Iran are really manifestations of disloyalty. But in the Jewish world, the anger on the part of defenders of Israel toward critics takes on a very personal feeling: people find their own family members accusing them of "betraying" the family by criticizing Israeli policies, or even of rejecting God and Judaism!
This intolerance of dissenters was a major reason why Tikkun lost its funding sources in the Jewish world once it started to critique the Occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements. This same discounting and marginalization has also been inflicted on a wide variety of Jewish peace organizations, including the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Breira, the New Jewish Agenda, Jewish Voice for Peace, and now J Street and the New Israel Fund as well.
One of the reasons why the various peace groups have not worked together in a more coordinated and powerful way like AIPAC does on the right is that each peace-oriented group has the fantasy that if it shows itself to be "not as radical" as some other groups, it will gain legitimacy and have more impact.
Eventually each group has found itself demonized anyway, because for many in the right wing of the Zionist movement anyone suggesting that Israel give up control of the West Bank (Judah and Samaria) is a traitor who seeks the destruction of the Jewish people.
Ironically, we learned shortly before going to press that Rahm Emanuel, who played a role in convincing the Clintons to distance themselves from Tikkun's peace perspective on the Middle East in the 1990s, moved his son's bar mitzvah ceremony in May 2010 away from the sacred Temple Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, at least in part because of threats from right-wing Zionists who announced their intention to disrupt the ceremony in protest of the Obama administration's support for a building freeze in Jerusalem and shouted at him that he was an anti-Semite when he visited the Wall shortly before the bar mitzvah. These right-wingers had already forgotten how Rahm Emanuel served AIPAC in Congress and helped Obama show obeisance to the pro-right-wing Israel lobby in Congress. For the demeaners of the peace movement, it's not the level of moderation that makes a difference—anyone who articulates criticisms of Israeli policies toward Palestinians or who does not toe the line of the settlers is perceived as an enemy, no matter how nuanced or gentle the criticisms are.
Nowhere was this demonstrated more graphically than in the San Francisco Jewish Federation, which had earned a reputation for being a "liberal" bulwark within the conservative Jewish establishment because it funded some projects of the New Israel Fund. Imagine everyone's surprise when, in fall 2009, the federation issued guidelines that essentially threatened to end financial support for any Jewish institution that allowed speakers who might be seen as delegitimating Israel. The policy was understood to have emerged after the leaders of the extreme right-wing Koret Foundation and its allies in the Jewish Federation expressed outrage when the Jewish Federation-funded summer 2009 Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco presented a film about the killing of Rachel Corrie. Some right-wing leaders reportedly demanded that the Jewish Federation stop funding the annual film festival; others thought the focus should not be specifically on the festival but that the federation should instead develop a general policy to induce all potential funding recipients to police themselves.
When it became clear in mid-April that the attacks on critics of Israeli policy had escalated to a point where a grandfather (Goldstone) was being kept from attending his own grandson's bar mitzvah, a group of thirty-nine rabbis signed the letter below.
Meanwhile, we announced at Tikkun that if the boycott of Goldstone from his grandson's bar mitzvah continued, we would invite him to hold the bar mitzvah at Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, California. We also announced something we had decided upon previous to this incident—namely, that we would confer one of the prestigious Tikkun Awards on Judge Goldstone at our twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in 5771 (2011).
When the Jewish media got hold of this announcement, they made a rather loud fuss. I started to receive death threats on the phone and hate mail on the computer. Tensions dramatically escalated when Harvard Professor of Law Alan Dershowitz wrote a hate piece in the Jerusalem Post and the Huffington Post (don't know why it was printed there—ask Arianna) in which he described the thirty-nine of us as "rabbis for Hamas."
Let Dershowitz speak for himself (with my italics):
A group of rabbis, many of whom have long records of anti-Israel activism, authored a "Rabbinic letter" to Goldstone congratulating him on his grandson's bar mitzvah and using the occasion to make virulently anti-Israel claims, including the blood libel that Israel deliberately targeted innocent Palestinian civilians without any military purpose. These ignorant rabbis ...
These bigoted rabbis ...
These "rabbis for Hamas" have no shame and no credibility. They exploit their rabbinical status to support any conclusion that undercuts self defense Israeli actions....
Not surprisingly, the worst of these rabbis (and that is saying a lot), Michael Lerner, after attempting to politicize the bar mitzvah by offering his anti-Israel synagogue for the event, has decided to honor Richard Goldstone with Tikkun Magazine's "Ethics Award." I guess all it takes to be honored by Tikkun is to pass Lerner's litmus test of lying about Israel. That's Lerner's definition of "ethics." There are some good people on the advisory board of Tikkun Magazine. They now have an obligation to reconsider their membership unless they wish to be associated with a rabbi who is prepared to accuse Israel, in the absence of any evidence, of deliberately setting out to murder Palestinian civilians without any military purpose.
Hamas, of course, is a violent group, and we at Tikkun (and I as a public representative of Tikkun) have frequently denounced its violence, just as we have denounced the violence of the Israeli Occupation, and the violence of many other countries and their human rights abuses (including China in Tibet; Russia in Chechnya; the United States in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; Sudan in Darfur; and Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt's violence against their own people). We are strong supporters of nonviolence as the best strategy to build a world of peace.
For Dershowitz to associate me with a terrorist group makes it easier to understand why those who attacked my home might have found it reasonable to take action against this alleged supporter of terrorism! There can be little question that in this context this language of "blood libel" and "rabbis for Hamas" is inflammatory and violent speech. Two days later, the vandalization took place. I doubt that this was Dershowitz's conscious intention, just as I doubt that his defense of targeted assassinations by the Israeli army against "suspected terrorists" (assassinations of suspects never given a chance to prove that they were not in fact terrorists) was intended to encourage attacks against many civilians ("collateral damage"), though of course that did then occur. What is reasonable to conclude is that the creation of a climate in which nonviolent activists, theorists, or rabbis are described essentially as cheerleaders for terrorists does risk encouraging others to take violent actions.
There was no doubt that the vandalization had an impact. Members of my family felt scared that the next action might be violence against us, not just our home.
When asked to respond to the role his language might have had, Dershowitz's response was, "I will continue to tell the truth about Michael Lerner, as long as he continues to lie about Israel."
The underlying message: the proper response to a criticism of a government's policies is not a rebuttal of the content of the critique, but rather an attack on the individual who offers the criticism.
Broad-brushed, emotive putdowns of a government are not, in my view, the smartest way to do politics, but they are a legitimate form of public speech. Attacking and demeaning an individual, on the other hand, is not appropriate unless that person is a holder of state power, and even then the attack on them should be limited to a critique of their actions and public speech.
We at Tikkun have strived to live up to this standard of ethical critique. For example, we always rejected the practice of demeaning George Bush through smears about his use of English grammar. Instead we criticized Bush's public actions and the policy content of his public statements. I believe that the Jewish command against using "evil language" lashon hara even applies to the personal life or intentions of a public official, and much more so to private citizens who engage in political activity.
Why this asymmetry in what is legitimate to critique? Critics of the powerful are vulnerable in a way that large corporations, wealthy and powerful elites, and the states that wage wars and violate human rights are not! And that is precisely why liberal ideology developed to protect us from the powerful.
It's ironic and outrageous that Dershowitz calls himself a liberal, even while supporting targeted assassinations—a classic case of governmental power abuse. Dershowitz then claims to be a liberal because he supports a two-state solution (probably in the same spirit that Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and George W. Bush have publicly claimed that they too support a two-state solution).
But Dershowitz is not the originator or chief perpetrator of the violent discourse against dissenters, and I am not the only or the most significant victim of it. The vandals did only minimal damage, and the attack was not aimed at killing us—unlike the bomb set in front of Israeli peace-oriented Hebrew University scholar Zeen Sternhell. The most significant victims within the Jewish world are the hundreds of thousands of young Jews who have moved away from their Jewishness because they have learned that anyone will be demeaned and shunned who raises fundamental questions of how Palestinians have been treated since 1949. They have been taught by the Jewish community, that to be a "good Jew" requires silencing one's moral doubts about Israeli treatment of Palestinians, so they are distancing themselves from the Jewish community.
For this reason, though I've welcomed statements of support from various Jewish federations and boards of rabbis who have condemned the acts of violence, I've tried to explain to them (and ask you now to join me in this) that the issue is not just acts of violence, but the discourse of violence that begins with labeling as "anti-Semitic" or "self-hating Jews" all critics of Israel or those who engage in nonviolent struggles to change Israeli policy.
Nor is this simply an issue for Jews. U.S. policy in the Middle East has been shaped in part by legislators and government officials who have been intimidated by this violent language. So non-Jews have as much right as Jews to challenge their Jewish neighbors when they start to throw around terms like "anti-Semitic" as a functional equivalent to "critical of Israeli policies."
Of course defenders of current Israeli policies have every right to criticize the arguments of Goldstone, or Tikkun, or J Street—but they cannot label the individuals or the members of the organizations that take critical stands as "anti-Semitic" or "self-hating" unless they have reason to do so. In my book The Socialism of Fools: Anti-Semitism on the Left, I lay out a variety of good reasons to see certain kinds of criticism as anti-Semitic, for example those that single out Israel and apply a different standard to Israel than to other countries. I've met real anti-Semites and self-hating Jews on the left, and I've publicly criticized their behaviors (though avoided mentioning names because I don't want to make any individual vulnerable to personal attack).
But the profligate use of these accusations works against Israel, against the Jewish people, and against the best interests of the United States.
In addition to turning young Jews away from Judaism and the Jewish community, the tactic of demeaning the critics of Israel has two other terrible consequences.
First, by labeling these critics as "anti-Semitic," the Jewish world actually empties the charge of anti-Semitism of its sting. Increasing numbers of people are beginning to say, "OK, if ‘anti-Semitic' means ‘being critical of the policies of the state of Israel,' then I guess I support anti-Semitism because I know I dislike Israel's policies." That, in turn, weakens the Jewish people and makes it easier for the real haters of Jews to mix with the mass of critics of Israeli policy who aren't anti-Semitic at all, and thereby get their own voices taken seriously. This is a terrible outcome.
Second, to the extent that the labeling of critics works in the short run, it produces a deep resentment against Jews that will eventually explode into real anti-Semitism, which can then be manipulated in destructive ways, both against Israel and against the Jewish people worldwide. People hate "political correctness" imposed upon them by the powerful. Jewish political correctness—to the extent that it effectively imposes a silence on honest debate about Israeli policy as it largely has in the United States—may eventually explode in our faces in unpredictable ways, or even in a resurgence of fascistic forces and widespread anti-Semitism.
When will all this craziness stop? Not soon, judging from Israel's assault on the flotilla bringing aid to Palestinians living under the Israeli blockade of Gaza. "We were being lynched," cry the IDF assailants on the flotilla, apparently unaware that when an armed force seeks to board a ship in international waters, the law counts that as an act of piracy or terrorism, and every ship in that situation seeks to defend itself. As writers for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it on June 1, the provocation came from Israeli troops trying to stop the flotilla and, in a broader sense, the irrationality and immorality of the Israeli blockade of Gaza itself. Too many Jews still insist that whatever Israel has done must be just, and whoever suffers must have deserved it, implicitly assuming that "the rules of humanity do not apply to us, because we are Jews and we have suffered and we must always be perceived as the underdog and righteous victim!" We who love Israel must do all we can to save it from this arrogant and self-destructive blindness.
None of this, however, is to put the blame solely on Israel for the current mess. Hamas rocket attacks—however understandable in light of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the misery it was causing in 2007 and 2008—were themselves terrible violations of the human rights of Israelis. In my book Healing Israel/Palestine I give a full account of the way both sides have been willfully ignorant of the pain and fear that they have caused to the other side. Those who see either side as the "righteous victim" are deeply ignorant of the hurtful, disrespectful, and violent ways that each side has acted toward civilians on the other side.
Yet in the final analysis, it is only through a fundamental shift from the focus on who can best dominate the other to who can win the hearts of the other that is the only hope for a lasting peace. That's why we at Tikkun are urging the United States to take a leadership role in championing a GMP—a Global Marshall Plan (please visit www.spiritualprogressives.org/gmp to read details and learn why we are advocating that the GMP should be implemented first in the Middle East).
If the United States does not publicly let go of the belief that homeland security comes from domination and does not embrace a new worldview that recognizes security as coming from a spirit of caring and generosity toward others, then how can we blame Israel or the Palestinians for not being able to get to that new consciousness when both of them are far more vulnerable than the United States? So our task is not to demean Israel or the Palestinians, nor even to demean those who attack us with words and deeds, but rather to become witnesses to the possibility of a world of kindness, generosity, and love.
For that very reason, starting the day after the attack on my home, I have prayed for God to forgive those who did it, to forgive Dershowitz and others who demean me and my fellow rabbis, and to change the hearts of the Jewish people so that they no longer demean those among us who feel called upon to be witnesses to the possibility of a world based on open-heartedness, repentance, and reconciliation between former enemies!