Enemies

July 10

Left-wing Jewish writer Peter Beinart has publicly posted the following on Facebook:

No Israelis have yet been killed in the latest round of Hamas rocket fire, thank God. But if one did, I suspect that many American rabbis would–rightly–mention his or her name this Shabbat. I don’t know how many Palestinians have died in Gaza, but it’s in the dozens, including quite a few children. So why can’t our rabbis–who often tell us that Judaism values life above all else–mention their names? I’m not suggesting that our rabbis denounce Israel’s behavior. That’s a separate question. In fact, it’s precisely because many American rabbis will defend Israel’s actions that they should read out the names and ages of the Palestinians who have died. If you’re going to defend war, then at least be honest about what you’re defending. Don’t perpetuate the mass desensitization to Palestinian suffering and death that characterizes mainstream American Jewish life. Tell your congregants that the world in general–and the Middle East in particular–is a tragic place, filled with awful choices. But don’t keep the people you lead morally numb.

Put aside for a moment the merits of Beinart’s proposal if it were limited to innocent Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire. Beinart made no such limitation or distinction, nor does he seem to have updated or edited his post in response to critics to make one. If he did, it would seem that with hundreds of bombing raids to date and a death toll of less than fifty including terrorists killed trying to infiltrate Israel, a large percentage of those killed are in fact Hamas fighters, whose overt ideological aim is to destroy Israel and murder or exile its Jewish population. So in effect Beinart is asking rabbis to memorialize genocidal terrorists, who by any sensible reckoning are enemies of the Jewish people. Oy. I don’t celebrate their deaths in combat, but I think it’s morally obtuse to suggest that American Jews should feel bad that Israel has killed them in combat.

This brings to mind a post I wrote a few years back. Here it is.

I’ve been thinking for some time about blogging about the concept of “enemies”, and how modern universalist liberalism has trouble dealing with the possibility that in some conflicts there is no mutually acceptable solution (at least not from the subjective perspective of the participants in the conflict), and thus one really has a conflict among enemies, not simply a misunderstanding that can be resolved through negotiations and compromises. [And sometimes, it should be pretty clear to a liberal of any stripe which side has the reasonable position.] To take an extreme example, if an Islamist extremist insists that violence against the West is necessary until Islam dominates Europe and North America, that extremist is an enemy, regardless of what the West does or doesn’t do. The West can either fight or submit.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis makes a similar point in the latest issue of Commentary, discussing specifically rabbinical students who express hostility to Israel, though his point could be extended to many on the Jewish left:

If you asked a Jew at any other time in the history of our people whether or not he had enemies, the notion that he should consider the possibility he did not have enemies would have occasioned a blast of the mordant humor that has helped keep our tribe alive through the millennia. Today, however, the discomfort with the idea of “the enemy” and the intolerability of being in a drawn-out conflict has led these students to the conviction that Israel must solve the conflict. The Palestinian position is not going to shift; that much they intuit. But having enemies, and being in interminable conflict, is unbearably painful for them. So Israel must change. And if it will not, or cannot, then it is Israel that is at fault. In which case, it makes perfectly good sense for these future Jewish leaders to refuse to purchase prayer shawls manufactured in Israel and to insist on demonstratively remaining seated as the prayer for Israeli soldiers is recited in their rabbinical-school communities. They will do virtually anything in order to avoid confronting the fact that the Jewish people has intractable enemies. Their universalist worldview does not have a place for enemies.

A version of Gordis’s point came up in a recent email discussion I had with a correspondent whose daughter is a left-wing Reconstructionist rabbi, who feels alienated from Israel. The correspondent posited that Israel’s drift to “right-wing” politics is alienated young men and women like his daughter. I responded that current Israeli right-wing politics would have been literally unbelievable to an Israeli leftist twenty-five years ago. A Labor government led by a non-peacenik general withdrew Israeli forces from Lebanon and offered to split Jerusalem, and with Yasser Arafat no less! Ariel Sharon withdrew from Gaza! Benyamin Netanyahu accepts a two-state solution! The purported rightist Avigdor Lieberman advocates large-scale territorial exchange with the Palestinians, including parts of pre-1967 Israel! What Israeli leftist circa 1986 could have even dreamed of such progress?

In short, while the Israeli left has largely collapsed under the weight of Oslo, the Israeli right has moved to positions once associated with the center, even the center-left and beyond. The Netanyahu government is far less “right-wing” than Yitzhak Shamir’s twenty years ago.

If young leftist [and let me emphasize yet again that I'm not talking about mainstream liberals, which would be maybe half the Jewish community, but political active "leftists," who are in the single digits but are overrepresented in various places, including, apparently, non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries] Jews are abandoning Israel, it’s because of their own internal ideological journeys, not because Israel has become increasingly “right-wing,” as one often hears, which is counter-factual. In part, I think, the collapse of the Israeli left leaves the American Jewish far left with no one to identify. In part, I suspect Gordis is right and they can’t stand the idea of an enemy, or a potentially intractable conflict. And in part, it’s a matter of heuristics: if you aren’t very learned on the Arab-Israeli conflict, do you take your cues from the Jewish community, which on the whole is highly supportive of Israel, or from the community of American leftists, which, unlike in the past, has made hostility to Israel a defining ideological issue? Which is your primary identity? Who do you trust? Whose views do you implicitly identify with, someone like Gordis, or someone like Noam Chomsky? For many leftist Jews, including rabbinical students, the answer seems clear, for reasons that Gordis may or may not correctly identify elsewhere in his piece.

[UPDATE: The latter bit about heuristics explains why left-wing Jews who are unaffiliated with the community and less attached to Israel are also more likely to share generally left-wing views on Israel, in contrast with a recent convoluted but ideologically self-satisfying post Beinart wrote last week. To be fair to Beinart, I should mention that while I often disagree with him, I've found his recent Ha'aretz columns to be generally thought-provoking and interesting, much more so than what I've read from him in the past.]

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA.
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