Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Despite Strident Efforts to Stifle Dissent, Jewish Criticism of Israel’s Policies Grows

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2011

Despite strident efforts to silence dissent, Jewish criticism of Israel’s policies continues to grow.  
Even the slightest hint of concern about the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli occupation is met with the harshest assault.  
In an article entitled “Are Young Rabbis Turning Against Israel?” (Commentary, June 2011), David Gordis asks: “Can Israel and Judaism survive when many of their new leaders no longer believe that their primary responsibility is to protect and defend their own?”  
What upset Gordis so much was a message to students at the rabbinical school at Boston’s Hebrew College asking them to prepare themselves for Yom Ma-Zikaron (the day of remembrance in Israel for the Fallen of Israel’s wars), by musing on the following paragraph: “For Yom Ma-Zikaron, our kavanah (intention) is to open up our communal remembrance to include losses on all sides of the conflict in Israel/Palestine. In this spirit, our framing question ... is this: on this day, what do you remember and for whom do you grieve?”  
What concerns Gordis is that young rabbinical students refuse to see the world in “us” versus “them” terms. He writes: “The heartbreaking point was this: in the case of these rabbinical students, there is not an instinct that should be innate — the instinct to protect their own people first, or to mourn their losses first. Their instinct, instead, is to ‘engage’ ... It means setting instinctive dispositions aside. And that is precisely what this emerging generation of American Jewish leaders believes it ought to do.”  
Most disturbing to Gordis is that, “This new tone in discussion about Israel is so ‘fair,’ so ‘balanced,’ so ‘even-handed’ that what is entirely gone is an instinct of belonging — the visceral sense on the part of these students that they are part of a people, that the blood and the losses that were required to erect the state of Israel is their blood and their loss ... There is an ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Judaism’s worldview ... It actually does mean that Jewish authenticity requires caring about ourselves before we care about others ... Today’s universalism leaves no room for the particularism that has long been at the core of Jewish life.”  
This overlooks the fact that for many American Jews — perhaps most — the notion of viewing the world in terms of “us” and “them,” rather than seeking justice, as the Biblical prophets commanded, is in violation of Judaism’s highest principles.  
Any Jewish dissent from pro-Israel orthodoxies is met with an often brutal response. Early in May, the trustees of City University of New York voted to shelve an honorary degree at John Jay College to Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. The vote came after a CUNY trustee said that Kushner had disparaged the State of Israeli in past comments,Kushner said, in response, that he was “dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.” He believed, he noted, based on research by Israeli historians, that the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of Israel was ethnic cleansing. But he added that he was a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist and that his views were shared by many Jews. “I’m sickened that this is happening in New York City, shocked really,” he said.  
The outcry was swift, Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University who received an honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College in 2008, said she planned to return it in solidarity with Kushner. Even former New York Mayor Ed Koch, an outspoken supporter of Israel, called for the board to grant Kushner the degree.  
Editorially, The New York Times (May 7, 2011) declared that, “The trustees of CUNY got it exactly backward ... They supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America’s most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member ... Mr. Kushner, who is Jewish, described the ousting of Palestinians from their homes in the 1940s as a form of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ He has also said Israel is engaged in the deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture ...” The editorial’s title: “CUNY Shamed Itself.”  
In the end, CUNY trustees reversed themselves and finally approved the honorary degree for Tony Kushner.  
The Forward (May 20, 2011) supported Kushner and declared: “Drawing a bright line on Israel and extending it everywhere, deciding that it alone is the threshold for acceptance, stifles constructive debate and makes it seem as if that’s all American Jews care about. It’s not, and it never should be. We also care about human rights and democratic thought, about freedom of expression and freedom from want.” Instead of “denigrating” Tony Kushner’s “Jewishness,” declared The Forward, “we should be proud of it.”

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.