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It Is Time to End the Doomsday Rhetoric of a “Second Holocaust”

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 2002

The continuing conflict in the Middle East, and the debate about that conflict which is growing in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere in the world, has produced increasingly inflammatory rhetoric on the part of many Jewish spokesmen. Where others see a sharp exchange of views about geo-political questions, they see a storm of anti-Semitism and even genocide on the horizon.  

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Jews face a greater threat now than they did in the 1930s. New York Observer columnist Ron Rosenbaum wrote of his fears of a “second Holocaust,” and Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff said that, “If a loudspeaker goes off and a voice says, ‘All Jews gather in Times Square,’ it could never surprise me.”  

Cannes Film Festival  

The American Jewish Congress urged Hollywood figures to reconsider their plans to attend the Cannes Film Festival in May, citing a series of anti-Semitic attacks in France. In full-page ads in trade newspapers, the West Coast chapter of the AJC compared the situation in contemporary France to the climate 60 years ago, when the anti-Semitic Vichy government was in power and Hitler stalked the rest of Europe. “France, 1942: Synagogues and Jewish schools set on fire, Jews beaten on the street, Jewish cemeteries vandalized,” the ad reads, next to a similar list under the heading, “France 2002.”  

In Israel, a resolution warning Jews around the world of an imminent world jihad was unanimously passed at the World Likud Convention in June. The resolution called upon community leaders to organize the immigration of their respective communities to Israel. Another organization, Students for Mass Aliya, said in a statement: “We call upon the Jewish leadership worldwide to recognize the current dangers facing Diaspora Jewry and act on them immediately by organizing the mass aliya of their communities.”  

Return of Anti-Semitism  

In the Anti-Defamation League’s view, “Anti-Zionism is showing its true colors as deep-rooted anti-Semitism.” In an article, “The Return of Anti-Semitism” published in Commentary (Feb. 2002), Hillel Halkin, one of the magazine’s regular contributors, states that, “...one cannot be against Israel or Zionism, as opposed to this or that Israeli policy or Zionist position, without being anti-Semitic. Israel is the state of the Jews. Zionism is the belief that Jews should have a state. To defame Israel is to defame the Jews...”  

Halkin notes that, “only an anti-Semite can systematically accuse Israel of what they are not guilty of.” He proceeds to declare that, “Even this is not putting it strongly enough. There are times when only an anti-Semite can accuse Israel of what it is guilty of...We cannot give an inch on this point. The new anti-Israelism is nothing but the old anti-Semitism in disguise.”  

In a similar vein, Rabbi Michael Melchier states that, “The anti-Semites during the ages had disguises. The new anti-Semitism has its centrality in the attacks against the existence of the Jewish state.” Melchier, who is Israel’s deputy foreign minister, announced the creation of an International Commission for Combating Anti-Semitism and declared that the “demonization” of Israel has crossed the line of fair criticism. The Anti-Defamation League announced that it would team up with the World Jewish Congress in a new global effort.  

Criticism of Israel  

The fact is, of course, that criticism of Israel and its policies, such as the continued occupation of the West Bank, is not “anti-Semitism.” The evidence that anti-Semitism is growing, that Jews are in danger, and that the present time is in any way comparable to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s is less than persuasive.  

Fortunately, many Jewish voices have vigorously criticized such doomsday rhetoric and the effort to silence criticism of Israel by defining it as “anti-Semitism.”  

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes that, “If I weren’t a Jew, I might be called an anti-Semite. I have occasionally been critical of Israel. I have occasionally taken the Palestinians’ side. I have always maintained that the occupation of the West Bank is wrong and while I am, to my marrow, a supporter of Israel, I insist that the Palestinian cause ― although sullied by terrorism ― is a worthy one. In Israel itself, these positions would hardly be considered remarkable. People with similar views serve in Parliament. They write columns for newspapers...I cannot say the same about America. Here, criticism of Israel, particularly anti-Zionsim, is equated with anti-Semitism.”  

Dehumanize Palestinians  

Cohen said that, “To turn a deaf ear to the demands of Palestinians, to dehumanize them all as bigots only exacerbates hatred on both sides. The Palestinians do have a case. Their methods are sometimes ― maybe often ― execrable, but that does not change the fact that they are a people without a state. As long as that persists so too will the struggle...To protest living conditions on the West Bank is not anti-Semitic. To condemn the increasing encroachment of Jewish settlements is not anti-Semitic...To suggest, finally, that Ariel Sharon is a rejectionist who provocatively egged on the Palestinians is not anti-Semitism...”  

Many in Israel are also challenging criticism of their government’s policies as “anti-Semitism.” Professor David Newman, chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics, states that, “A country that continually uses, and all too often manipulates, Holocaust imagery to justify its policies of self-defense and ‘never again,’ cannot complain when the rest of the world uses those same standards to make judgments concerning its own policies. We used to play a game of make-believe and convince ourselves that our occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was a ‘benign’ occupation.”  

Pariah of the World  

Dr. Newman points out that, “We are becoming the pariah of the world, just as South Africa was during the apartheid era. And if we simplistically attribute it to good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, we are missing the point. Neither President Bush nor Prime Minister Tony Blair can be accused of being anti-Semitic...But they do oppose our continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and they do favor the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. No amount of newspeak or closure of the territories can change these basic facts and any attempt to argue otherwise only blackens our image throughout the world.”  

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes of “the feckless American Jewish leaders” who have “helped to make it impossible for anyone in the U.S. administration to talk seriously about halting Israeli settlement-building without being accused of being anti-Israel. Their collaboration has helped prolong a colonial Israeli occupation that now threatens the entire Zionist enterprise.”  

In Israel, there is bewilderment about the repeated warnings of a “Second Holocaust” to be heard from American Jews. A headline in the Israeli daily Yadiot Aharonot in May read, “In the collective conscience of American Jews, Hitler is alive again ― and this time, he’s a Muslim.” The article described with surprise a meeting between a group of “sane, educated, multi-lingual, opinionated, mostly left-leaning, freedom-loving American Jews” who publicly railed against the ambassadors of France, Germany, Holland and Sweden to the United States. The Jewish leaders’ message was summarized in Yediot as “All of Europe is against us. All Europeans are anti-semitic and they want only the extermination of Israel.”  

Right-Wing Trap  

Some in Israel think that many American Jews have fallen into a deliberate trap created for them by the Israeli right-wing. “The response of American Jews reflects, first, the fact that right-wing Israeli leaders have for years tried to mobilize American Jewish ethnic solidarity with the settlements, and to tie fund raising to appeals that highlight the dangers Israel faces,” states Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi. “If you analyze (former Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu’s recent speeches in America and in the U.K., the logic holding these speeches together is a connection between the events of Sept. 11, the Holocaust and an imminent danger to Israel’s existence.”  

Avi Primor, vice president of Tel Aviv University and former Israeli ambassador to Germany, said that Americans are “overreacting” to the threat of European antisemitism because of lingering psychological scars. “They have a complex that American Jewry did nothing to save European Jewry. During World War II, they didn’t act like a strong Jewish lobby...So they are trying to do today what they didn’t do then, and save European Jewry that no longer needs saving.”  

Yair Sheleg agrees: “American Jews have been deeply and legitimately disturbed that they didn’t do more during the European extermination of the 1940s...A sense of shame has grown from this that never took hold in Israel...This shame also created a general Holocaust obsession among American Jews, so that it is central in a way it is not in Israel.”  

“Jewish Panic”  

In a cover article in The New Republic (May 27, 2002), that magazine’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, rejects what he calls “Jewish panic.”Wieseltier rejects the “conflation of the Palestinians with the Nazis,” which he says is not a historical argument, but a political one. He writes: “If you think that the Passover massacre (in Netanya) was like Kristallnacht, then you must also think that there cannot be a political solution to the conflict, and that the Palestinians have no legitimate rights or legitimate claims upon any part of the land, and that there must never be a Palestinian state, and that force is all that will ever avail Israel...After all, a ‘peace process’ with the third Reich was impossible...(Such thinking) is designed to paralyze thought and to paralyze diplomacy.”  

In Wieseltier’s view, “Fear is wild. Reason is derailed. Anxiety is the supreme proof of authenticity. Imprecise and inflammatory analogies abound. Holocaust imagery is everywhere...The murder of 28 Jews in Netanya was a crime...but it was not in any deep way like Kristallnacht. Solidarity must not come at the cost of clarity. Only a fool could believe that the Passover massacre was a prelude to the extermination of the Jews of Israel...All violence is not like all other violence. Every Jewish death is not like every other Jewish death...The Jewish genius for worry has served the Jews well, but Hitler is dead. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is harsh and long, but it is theology (or politics) to insist that it is a conflict like no other or that it is the end.”  


Wieseltier rejects what he calls the “Amalekization” of the Palestinians, portraying them as simply another in a long line of enemies determined to eliminate the Jewish people. He quotes Isaac Abarbanel, the thinker and statesman in 15th century Spain, who noted that the sin of Amalekites was their aggression against the Israelites was groundless: “Amalek attacked them without reason ...For the Israelites possessed no land that the Amalekites coveted.” Someone like Abarbanel would find no place in Israel’s Likud Party, writes Wieseltier, “For his implication is decidedly a moderate one. If the Israelites had possessed land that the Amalekites coveted, then this would not have been a war to the end of time. It would have been an ordinary war, a war that can be terminated in peace.”  

Rather than seeing Jewish “peril” at the present time, Wieseltier argues that, “Jewish history now consists essentially in a competition for the Jewish future between Israel and the U.S., between the blandishments of sovereignty and the blandishments of pluralism; it is a friendly competition, and by the standards of the Jewish experience it is an embarrassment of riches...”  

Forward columnist Leonard Fein notes that American Jews are offended by the comparisons of Ariel Sharon to Adolf Hitler which are heard in some circles in Europe, but tend to embrace similar sentiments when it is Yasser Arafat who is compared to Hitler in the U.S.: “Sundry columnists and politicians in this country casually compare Yasser Arafat to Hitler, write and speak of an imminent final chapter of the Final Solution, a new Holocaust just over the horizon ― and we applaud. Our applause when we are told of the apocalypse that nears is as bankrupt, intellectually and morally, as the wretched conclusions of the Europeans (and of those Americans who have joined their chant). Let a right-wing politician who has nothing more in mind than pandering to the Jews assert that Israel should annex the West Bank, that the Palestinians should make their state in one of the Arab countries, and we applaud. Our applause of such babbling is as mindless as the chants that equate Sharon with Hitler.”  

Comparisons with Vichy  

When it comes to the question of whether anti-Semitism is rising in Western Europe, and whether criticism of Israel among Europeans is veiled anti-Semitism, the evidence seems not to confirm the overheated comparisons, for example, of contemporary France with the Vichy regime of World War II.  

The head of France’s central Jewish representative body criticized the American Jewish Congress for endorsing a boycott against France and comparing the situation there to the dark days of World War II. “It’s absurd, it won’t help and it is even counterproductive,” said the French Jewish leader, Haim Musicant, director general of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, or CRIF. “We oppose all kinds of boycotts.”  

Musicant said that Israeli officials and American Jewish activists should take their cues from the French Jewish community on how to respond to the recent wave of anti-semitic incidents: “It’s not for Israel or American Jews to tell French Jews what they need to do,” Musicant said. He blamed the recent incidents on Muslim immigrants from North Africa and rejected claims that France is an antisemitic country. He was particularly critical of comparisons of the present time with the Vichy regime: “It’s totally crazy to compare 1942 to 2002. There is no state antisemitism, no occupation, no yellow star in 2002.”  

French Intellectuals  

In Paris in June, a group of 21 French left-wing intellectuals, many of them Jewish, launched a petition accusing supporters of Israel of automatically branding as anti-Semites anyone critical of Israeli policy. “Until now, France was a country where criticism of the now-ruling Israeli government was not considered an anti-Semitic act,” they wrote in a petition published in the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. “But as the Palestinian tragedy develops, campaigns are being launched which use threats and libel...and loosely and unjustly bandy about accusations of anti-Semitism.” They acted after three pro-Israel groups filed a lawsuit for incitement to racial hatred against a French radio journalist, Daniel Mermet, who aired a report particularly critical of Israel. The petitioners include World War II resistance heroes Lucie and Raymond Aubrac and Stephanie Hessel, as well as former Spanish Culture Minister, Jorge Semprun, a concentration camp survivor.  

In England, Rabbi David Goldberg of the Liberal Jewish synagogue of London wrote in The Guardian that Jews make the “ahistorical” mistake of conflating the political positions of Israel’s opponents with the theological hatred of Jews embodied in classic anti-Semitism.  

Jews Do a Disservice  

Goldberg writes that “We Jews do ourselves a disservice if we cry ‘anti-Semite!’ with the same stridency at a liberal commentator who criticizes the Israeli army’s disproportionate response to terrorist outrages, and a National Front lout who asserts that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a genuine document; if we try equally vehemently to silence a Holocaust denier and proven liar like David Irving, and ideologically leftwing Tom Paulin, who last year wrote an angry and not very good poem...that compared Israeli soldiers to Nazis.”  

In discussions with non-Jewish acquaintances, Goldberg notes that he hears “appreciation of Israel’s achievements and recognition of her democracy, unhappiness at the obduracy of West Bank settlers, dislike of Sharon, exasperation at Arafat’s dithering, wariness of Arabs and Islam (especially after Sept. 11), an abhorrence of suicide bombers and all fundamentalists, but a natural sympathy for the Palestinians when faced by Israeli tanks and fighter jets. More or less my own sentiments...If this is the extent of English anti-Zionism, then Israel is certainly strong enough to live with it.”  

Is Anti-Semitism Rising?  

Addressing the question of whether or not anti-Semitism is really rising in Europe, The Economist (May 4, 2002) argues that such a charge is “a gross distortion and a terrible slander.”  

The Economist provides this assessment: “The enormity of the Holocaust ought to have eradicated anti-Semitism for all time. Shamefully, it did not. In much of the world, hatred of Jews thrives. In particular, newspapers and broadcasters across most of the Arab world deal routinely in repellent expressions of loathing of Jews and their faith. Elsewhere in the world ― in Europe and, it should not be forgotten, also in the United States ― anti-Semitism also survives, most visibly in a fringe of neo-Nazis and other despised outcasts ... Impossible as it may be to measure people’s private feelings, the great majority of Europeans, it seems to us, harbor no suppressed anti-Semitic hatred. On the contrary, they sincerely deplore anti-Semitism...In most of Europe, to call somebody anti-Semitic is one of the worst accusations you can make. It is not one to be made lightly...A quite separate point is that criticism of Israel, let alone criticism of its government, need not be motivated by hatred of Jews...Israelis who feel that Mr. Sharon is wrong to resist a settlement with the Palestinians are presumably not guided in that belief by anti-Semitism, not even of the disguised or pent-up kind....”  

With regard to such manifestations of anti-Semitism as the defacement of synagogues and cemeteries, The Economist points out that, in the case of France, “As far as anybody knows, the perpetrators of nearly all the attacks on Jewish property there have been disaffected young men from among France’s 4-5 million Muslims...Opinion polls in France suggest that personal hostility to Jews, as opposed to the Israeli government is neither widespread nor increasing. Jews in France, who number some 600,000 (the biggest such community in Western Europe), are on the whole respected, professionally successful, socially assimilated and well represented in politics...In the current government, Jews hold several important portfolios (for finance, European affairs, education and health, among others)...In Britain, too, Jews who (loosely defined) number around 300,000, have prospered in all walks of life...Britons of Jewish descent are well represented in Parliament and better than ever in the House of Lords, where they hold around a tenth of the seats...Anyone defending Israel’s government nowadays is bound to have a harder time of it. But that does not itself mean that heavily anti-Semitic sentiment goes beyond a very small proportion of Europeans.”  

Use and Abuse of Holocaust  

Perhaps most disturbing in the current use of excessive rhetoric about growing anti-Semitism is the use and abuse of the imagery of the Holocaust as a means of silencing Israel’s critics and as a fund-raising tool within the American Jewish community. At the present time, fund-raising letters warning of a “Second Holocaust” have become a staple for some organizations.  

This abuse of the Holocaust is hardly new. In his book The Holocaust in American Life, Professor Peter Novick of the University of Chicago, reports that after the Six Day War, and particularly after 1973, “much of the world came to see the Middle East conflict as grounded in the Palestinian struggle to, belatedly, accomplish the U.N.’s original intention. There were strong reasons for Jewish organizations to ignore all this, however, and instead to conceive of Israel’s difficulties as stemming from the world’s having forgotten the Holocaust. The Holocaust framework allowed one to put aside as irrelevant any legitimate grounds for criticizing Israel, to avoid even considering the possibility that the rights and wrongs were complex...Only a few months after the top officials of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had proclaimed that it was fading memories of Nazism’s crimes against the Jews that accounted for Israel’s isolation, the ADL decided to embark on an ambitious venture on Holocaust programming. Its public relations consultant submitted a memorandum on the shape the program should take. The memo concluded by insisting that everything done should be ‘against the background of a powerful J’Accuse that is now submitting its bill ‘for Sufferings Rendered.’”  

Holocaust as a Weapon  

Examples of how the Holocaust has been used as a weapon to promote policies favorable to Israel are extensive. Hyman Bookbinder, when serving as a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Commission on the Holocaust, wrote to the German ambassador to the U.S. in his capacity as a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, though he was not, saying that, “How Germany will be treated in the museum might well be affected by the decision you make pertaining to the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.”  

Beyond a diffuse relationship between the Holocaust and Israel’s cause, specific themes were developed. One was connecting Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular with Nazism. I.L. Kenen, a prominent Zionist spokesman, declared: “The Arabs cannot pretend they played no role in the Holocaust.” Peter Novick declares that, “The claims of Palestinian complicity in the murder of the European Jews were to some extent a defensive strategy, a preemptive response to the Palestinian complaint that if Israel was recompense of the Holocaust, it was unjust that Palestinian Muslims should pick up the bill for the crimes of European Christians.”  

The Holocaust is being used, Novick shows, to tie young American Jews to Israel through programs such as the March of the Living, in which thousands of Jewish teenagers tour death camps in Poland, where they commemorate Yom Hashoah, then are flown to Israel, where they celebrate Israeli Independence Day. The Zionist message is one of “Holocaust to Redemption.” At Auschwitz, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells them: “The world is divided into two parts: those who actively participated with the Nazis and those who passively collaborated with them.” At Maidanek, another rabbi informs them that the camp could become operational within a few hours. Armed Israeli security guards who accompany the tour do everything possible to convince the youngsters they are in constant danger in Poland. A teenage participant from Cleveland said: “Six million were killed by a country ― Germany ― where Jews were living the good life. I hate to draw the parallel, but Jews are living the good life in America.” A California student: “We are leaving this awful place tonight and tomorrow will be in Israel. All I want to do is go home and I realize now that tomorrow I will be at home, my real home, Israel.” One Jewish educator commenting on the march concluded that the participants “achieved a Zionist perspective which many hours in suburban Jewish classrooms could not transmit.”  

Closed Mindedness  

The way the Holocaust is being used in Israel, writes Israeli political scientist Charles Liebman, “reinforces and legitimates closed-mindedness, unrealistic foreign policies and barbaric behavior toward Arabs.” After the Hebron massacre, in which a Jewish extremist slaughtered Arab Muslims at prayer, Ze’ev Chafets, who had been head of the government press office under Menachem Begin, wrote that “dwelling on genocide may be a good fund-raising strategy, but it also encourages an us-against-the-world mentality that deranged zealots... translate into a religious obligation to murder.”  

A whole industry of Holocaust professionals has been created in the U.S. “As large numbers of American Jews no longer saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in black-and-white terms,” writes Novick, “the Holocaust offered a substitute symbol of infinitely greater moral clarity. At a discussion of the central role of the Holocaust in American Jewish life, held a few years ago at the University of Chicago, a local rabbi suggested that there was nothing at all surprising about this fact: “God and Israel are too controversial.”  

Novick is particularly critical of the hyping of anti-Semitism at the same time when it is rapidly diminishing. He reports that in the late sixties and during the seventies, influential Jewish leaders began to insist that a “new anti-Semitism” had arisen and that American Jews were threatened, isolated and vulnerable: “Previously, the history of Jews in America was seen as a success story. Now, increasingly, American Jews came to see themselves as an endangered species, and searched for themes and programs that could promote Jewish solidarity and stem the hemorrhage of assimilation and intermarriage. Overall, there was a shift away from the posture of the early period when American Jews rejected the status of ‘victim community,’ and in consequence marginalized the Holocaust. Now the posture adopted by an increasing number of Jewish leaders...was one in which the Holocaust became the central symbol of Jewish identity.”  

Redefining Anti-Semitism  

As anti-Semitism declined, and it was redefined by some as being anything which challenged Israeli interests, warnings about its alleged growth became increasingly vocal. Norman Podhoretz warned that the “golden age” is over. Earl Raab, a leading figure in Jewish communal life, spoke of the “end of the golden age.”  

Observing many Jewish spokesmen, Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna noted with dismay that, “influenced by the current obsession with the Holocaust, they ask only one question: could it happen here? And to this question they have only one answer: yes.”  

All of this, Novick writes, shows a serious disconnect with reality: “The reality in these years was that the ‘golden age’ for American Jews, rather than receding, became even more golden... surveys showed anti-Semitic attitudes continuing to decline,” yet, at the same time many Jewish leaders were “coming to accept classical Zionist ideological propositions: that murderous anti-Semitism was always latent in the ‘unnatural’ conditions of Jews living in the Disapora, that only in Israel were Jews safe...From the 1970s on, the growth sector in the Jewish organizational world consisted of the old and new ‘schrei gevalt’ agencies...The ADL, together with the enormously successful Simon Weisenthal Center, bombarded Jews with mailings announcing new anti-Semitic threats. The ADL was especially assiduous in giving wide circulation to anti-Semitic remarks by obscure black hustlers and demagogues, thus vastly increasing their audience. Of the dozens of local Jewish newspapers in the U.S., all but a handful were organs of local Jewish Federations, whose success in fund-raising was directly proportional to the level of anxiety among potential contributors.”  

Trivialization of the Holocaust  

Peter Novick laments the trivialization of both the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. He writes that, “The Holocaust came to symbolize the natural and inevitable terminus of anti-Semitism; first stop, an anti-Semitic joke; last stop Treblinka. Every loud-mouthed Farrakhan acolyte was the opening act of the Julius Streicher show.” As a Jew, Novick is also concerned about the growth of a narrow Jewish ethnocentrism and points out that the Talmudic adage ― cited in Schindler’s List ― that “whoever saves one life saves the world entire” refers, in the original, to saving “one life of Israel,” adding that this is the version “taught in all Orthodox yeshivas.”  

The late Lucy Dawidowicz, the distinguished historian of the Holocaust, declared that there should be a moratorium on the very use of the world “Holocaust” ― that it has become a crutch and an excuse and a cheapener of memory. And repeated warnings of a “Second Holocaust” because the policies of Israel’s current government are being sharply criticized, is an attempt to use the memory of those innocents killed in the past as a means of silencing debate in the present.  

The fact is that the issues which divide Israelis and Palestinians are questions of sovereignty, borders, and traditional geo-political concerns. There are legitimate arguments to be made on all sides of the continuing debate and, as with other disputes between nations, a compromise between the demands of the two parties will be the likely result. Attempts to silence debate by accusing those who disagree with the Sharon government of planning a “Second Holocaust” defies rational understanding, except as a tactic to intimidate free and open discussion.  

False “Unity”  

Within the organized American Jewish community, such efforts to impose a false “unity” in behalf of current Israeli policies is failing as dramatically as is the effort to silence Israel’s critics elsewhere.  

The Jewish establishment, however, does not welcome dissent. Consider the case of Henry Siegman, once a leader in the American Jewish Congress and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  

Siegman, himself a refugee who fled with is family from Nazi-occupied Europe, says that what he went through as a child makes it easier to understand what it is like to be a Palestinian living under the “fear and humiliation” of the Israeli occupation. His empathy for the plight of the Palestinians has, he says, made him a “pariah” among American Jewish groups.  

“We have lost much in American Jewish organizational life,” Siegman says. “I was a student and admirer of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. I read his books. We were friends. We marched together in the South during the civil rights movement. He helped me understand the prophetic passion for the truth and justice as the keystone to Judaism. This is not, however, an understanding that now animates the American Jewish community. Without that understanding there is little to distinguish the call of Jewish leaders for Jewish unity and solidarity from the demands made by narrow nationalist movements that too often degenerate into xenophobia.”  

Uncritical Endorsement  

Siegman argues that, “American Jewish organizations confuse support for the State of Israel and its people with an uncritical endorsement of the actions of Israeli governments, even when these governments do things that in an American context these Jewish organizations would never tolerate. It was inconceivable that a Jewish leader in America 20 or 30 years ago would be silent if a political party in the Israeli government called for the transfer of Palestinians ― in other words, ethnic cleansing. Today, there are at least three such parties, but there has not been a word of criticism from American Jewish organizations.”  

After studying to be ordained as a rabbi, Siegman served with combat troops as a chaplain in Korea, where he earned a bronze star and a purple heart. For 16 years as head of the American Jewish Congress, he advanced the view that social justice was central to Judaism. Now, he laments, many Jews have made the State of Israel into a “surrogate religion.” He notes that: “The support for Israel fills a spiritual vacuum. If you do not support the government of Israel then your Jewishness, not your political judgment is in question.”  

Siegman calls the Palestinian struggle for a state “the mirror image of the Zionist movement” that led to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. “This does not excuse suicide bombings,” he said, “but the way Israel deals with these outrages is suspect as long as they are exploited to extend the occupation and enlarge Israeli settlements. Future Jewish historians who will be writing about our times will not be kind to us because of such political and moral blindness. In a recent demonstration in Washington in support of Israel, the demonstrators drowned out a spokesman for the administration, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, a hawkish supporter of Israel, because he dared to express sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. This is why I do not look to leaders of Jewish organizations, or to the political leaders of Israel, many of whom are Jewishly illiterate, to define for me the meaning of Jewish identity or solidarity. Classical Jewish sources are a far more reliable guide.”  

Ferment Inside Israel  

Expressing a similar concern abut the role now being played by American Jewish organizations, columnist Anne Roiphe, writing in The Jerusalem Report (July 15, 2002) declares: “I do not understand why the major American Jewish organizations seem so eager to support Israel’s government’s hard line when there is so much ferment inside of Israel itself. Shouldn’t American Jewish institutions reflect the political conflict, allow the conversation to be broadcast within its own ranks?”  

Roiphe reports that, “A suburban housewife from Long Island approached me at a dinner a week ago and accused me of being a Palestinian-lover, a traitor to my people. How is this level of rhetoric possible? Why is she, a member of her local federation and sisterhood, so angry at someone who supports Oslo? How is it possible that those of us who have a political vision that includes the humanity of the enemy, and echoes the words of Labor politicians in Israel, have become traitors in the eyes of their fellow Jews?...American Jews are not sheep to be herded by a leadership out of touch with us. In the end there will be a groundswell of support among American Jews for a two-state compromise. I just hope it won’t be too late.”  

In recent days, the agendas of most American Jewish organizations seem to relate to the politics of the Middle East, not to Judaism or the religious insights it might bring to bear upon the problems faced by our own society. The leaders of such groups might consider a recent Gallup Poll in which it was discovered that Americans’ confidence in religious institutions is at a 30 year low, tumbling to just 45 percent. When there is growing concern about the nation’s moral health in the wake of scandals in business, Wall Street, and various religious institutions, the focus upon political events in another part of the world may be seriously misplaced.  

Humane Jewish Tradition  

This is particularly the case when that focus is not on applying the humane Jewish tradition of universal morals and ethics to the Middle East dilemma, but, instead, appears to be committed to whatever positions the current Israeli government may embrace. Most damaging is the trivialization of the Holocaust by accusing Israel’s critics of planning to recreate this uniquely horrible event.  

It would be useful to learn the real lessons the Holocaust has to teach rather than making its victims pawns in current Middle East politics or using them as a means to silence criticism. It was precisely chauvinistic nationalism and notions of racial and ethnic purity which motivated the perpetrators of the Holocaust. We should learn from that period the dangers of narrowness and of ethnocentric religion, of separating men and women from one another because of ethnic background, religious faith, or racial identity.  

That lesson, however, must be learned anew in each generation, and we are in dire need of that lesson at the present time.  

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