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Were Martin Buber and Albert Einstein Anti-Semites?

Recently, the New York Times published a piece on the uproar created over an article written by Alvin Rosenfeld put up on the American Jewish Committee website entitled “Progressive Jewish Thought and Anti-Semitism.” The article lumps a broad range of academics, poets, and writers together, suggesting that their criticisms of Israel amounts to a certain, at-least latent, anti-Semitism on their part.

There are so many problems with Rosenfeld’s essay that I really don’t know where to begin (Dan Sieradski from Jewschool has already written a lengthy response, some points of which I agree with). I would start, however, by saying that I first and foremost am a Zionist according to any definition of the term. I love the State of Israel, I stand in total and full opposition to any notion of a bi-national Israel-Palestine, I admire the heretical chutzpah on the part of secular Zionists to create a Jewish state, and I dream of a time when Israelis will not have to own guns and wear military uniforms to protect themselves–but until then I take great pride every time I see an Israeli military officer.

That said, here are my two cents on what’s wrong with Rosenfeld’s paper. One would have expected that a piece entitled “Progressive Jewish Thought and Anti-Semitism” would have begun with a general outline of the history and relationship of Jews in the academy and philosophic circles to Israel and Statehood. At the very least, one would have expected a description of the history and origins of progressive Jewish thought. Instead, what we get is some fear-mongering monologue about Muslims, anti-Semitism, and the burning of synagogues. Huh? These are important things, but don’t we already know this?

Why did Rosenfeld not begin his paper by giving his audience historical background as to where these Jewish critics of Israel are coming from? Is this a new phenomenon, or is this something that has a past? Rosenfeld makes a very calculated decision when he places these academics within the context of a Muslim anti-Semitism, leaving out the fact that, traditionally, most academics, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have always held a skeptical eye towards military power, nation-state building, and tribalistic political impulses.

As my friend Daniel Septimus pointed out to me the other night, had Rosenfeld dealt with the issue of the history of Israel and the academy or progressive Jewish thought, he would have had to contend with the fact that respected and celebrated Jews in the academy, ranging from Martin Buber to Albert Einstein–yes Einstein–proposed at one time or another the possibility of a bi-national state. Simply put, Judaism was more important to them than Jewish nationalism. While I totally disagree with Buber and Einstein, I would never in my right mind label them anti-Semites. These are not crazy people, nor can one even dare to refer to them as anti-Semites. Though, according to Rosenfeld’s criteria, they could be termed anti-Semites, he never once mentions their names.

The reason Rosenflield does not address those such as Einstein and Buber is because it would have forced him to be far more nuanced in his use of the word “anti-Semitism” and perhaps gotten rid of it in the title and lose the sensationalism of the piece. Suffice it to say, there are people in the article whose ideas seem to be, if not anti-Semitic then sick and dishonest. While I have not read Jacqueline Rose’s and Michael Nuemann’s articles, what I have seen I don’t like one bit–Rosenfeld is correct in calling them to task. The Jewish community would be wise to do everything in its power to speak out against them. However, Rosenfeld does not stop there; he goes on to call out the work of those such as Tony Judt and Daniel Boyarin as falling under the same anti-Semitic rubric.

It’s here where Rosenflield’s argument collapses and becomes not only absurd and
disingenuous but calls into question his own motivations.

Judt and Boyarin are both highly respected tenured professors–the former at NYU, the latter at UC Berkeley. Both lived in Israel. Judt lived on a kibbutz; Boyarin was a tenured professor at Bar-Ilan University. Boyarin raised his family in Israel, his children served in the Israeli Army, he himself served in reserved duties. Boyarin (who as matter of full disclosure is not only my dissertation advisor but someone whose friendship/mentorship I deeply cherish and whose ideas I take very seriously) regularly goes to synagogue, is shomer shabbat, keeps a Jewish home, wears a kippah, davens (prays), is a direct decedent of the Vilna Gaon, has rabbinic ordination and has spent his whole life learning Talmud. I feel embarrassed even having to say such things about someone who has given his life to Judaism–but Rosenfeld’s lack of nuance and insinuations makes such responses necessary.

Yes, Judt and Boyarin have made statements about Israel that I disagree with–but to label them under a rubric of anti-Semitism is sheer madness and socially irresponsible. Imagine someone calling Einstein and Buber anti-Semites!!

There is some truth in Rosenfeld’s article, but when you are going for the jugular, some truth is simply not good enough. Likewise, I like the AJC; it’s one of the finest Jewish organizations out there. But next time, could you do us all a favor be more careful before you put something like that up on your website.

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posted February 6, 2007 at 6:19 pm

Maybe Buber was an anti-semite. Can anyone (really) understand what he wrote?

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Grethel J. Rickman

posted February 6, 2007 at 10:37 pm

It is my opinion that many folks are using the term anti-Semite too loosely in this day and age. People need to be careful with terminology that they use if they do not like the material someone else has written. Instead of attacking the person or group of people, folks should be focusing on the material instead. I’d like to read this article in question. As I do, I’d like to take a close critical look at it.

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Hannah F

posted February 6, 2007 at 11:45 pm

Well put. It’s a shame that people who use the scary words are always the ones who make the headlines.

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posted February 7, 2007 at 5:42 pm

Do liberal Jews help anti-semites? Is Noam Chomsky a linguist?

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posted February 7, 2007 at 6:48 pm

Rabbi Boyarin is problematic in that, as you have pointed out, he is immersed in Jewish learning, even if he seems to empathsize with the Palestinian position. So clearly people can be religiously Jewish and yet feel uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish power and a Jewish state. But many ‘Jewish’ critics of Israel are ethnically Jewish but not intellectually/spiritually/communally so. Ulitmately this is not a religious issue but a communal issue. The messiah has not come. Can Jews criticize how the Israeli government handles issues, such as fighting terrorism, building settlements, dealing with her Arab citizens? Of course. The problem is when that criticism moves from legitimate differences regarding policy and goals to denigration of the whole Zionist enterprise. The same discussion is being held in America, using different terminology. Criticising the war is fine; questioning whether America even has the right to exist, or whether the Constituion should be overthrown, will get you a lot of scathing attacks from the Right. By the way, one cannot bring up Buber and Einstein anachronistically ( we’ll skip over the question of whether Einstein’s relativity could ever allow him to return and pass judgement on the situation). People critical of Jews who favor universalism over particularism are basing their read of the situation on historical events and the consistent refusal of the Arab nations to make peace. Buber could afford to be more idealistic prior to Arafat and the intifadas. We have no idea whether, given the current situation, he would be a Boyarin, a Grossman, or a Netanyahu. I think that critics of these far left Jews are reacting more to the tone of the liberal critique. The sages foresaw this phenomenon years ago when they discuss the wicked son at the seder, wondering what Israel means to ‘us’.

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Stephen Davidson

posted February 8, 2007 at 7:33 pm

Liberal Jews are anti Jews that trust the Torah (Tanakh). It seems quite clear. A “secular Jew” is almost the perfect oxymoron. The questions start from there.

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posted February 8, 2007 at 9:04 pm

Liberal Jews are anti Jews that trust the Torah (Tanakh). What?!

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James Rodgers

posted February 9, 2007 at 2:28 am

In its sixty year history Israel has never committed one human rights outrage, one war crime, one act of terrorism, one act of aggression,racism, or oppression of innocent Palestinians, one act of expulsion or dispossession of an indigenous people, one illegal land-grab or theft of water. How do I know? Because in every instance where such charges have been leveled it has clearly been a case of virulent anti- semetism, jew hating, blood libel, slander or Israel bashing, and when such charge have been made by a Jew, it is invariably just the ranting of a self-hating Jew. I can think of no other state with such an exemplary history. Amazing.

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posted February 9, 2007 at 4:50 pm

James Nice sarcasm. Could you please provide examples where defenders of Israel claimed that she is innocent of any crimes whatsoever? Please. No country is completely ‘innocent’ of certain failings. The problem is when Israel is singled out as a monstrosity and other countries or groups are not given the same scrutiny. Again, the title of self-hating Jew is usually reserved for Jews who are vehement in their calls for the end of the State as a state. I don’t remember the last time someone called Americans for Peace Now or the Israeli leftist intellectuals as self-hating Jews. But then again, recognizing that there are plenty of Jews who criticize Israel and her actions would undermine your simplistic argument that the Zionist entity is so effective at squelching debate.

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posted February 9, 2007 at 9:06 pm

James is a “gnostic” Xtian who has been banned from Beliefnet through numerous user names. He will never answer your comments, so don’t bother.

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David Swyer

posted February 11, 2007 at 3:50 am

Michael Neumann’s essays are clear, well-written, and insightful. If that’s “anti-Semitic”- maybe we could all use a little more anti-Semitism in this world. The fact is- Israel’s persecution and subjugation of the Palestinians is a monstrous Crime Against Humanity with no apparent end in sight. The Occupation is now into its 40th year, and people are still quibbling over what criticism goes too far? Israel deserves far worse than criticism.

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posted February 11, 2007 at 5:49 pm

Israel deserves far worse than criticism. Oh, and what would your final solution to the Israel problem be? At some point, one just has to tune out all non-Jewish criticism of Israel, because their motives will always be suspect.

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