Virtual Talmud

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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