The Enemy Within

Review: Edward Alexander, ‘Jews Against Themselves’

An anti-Semitic cartoon posted by Richard Falk on his blog
October 17, 2015

In Deuteronomy, the people of Israel are told that their enemies will come from one direction but will flee in seven. Nowadays, something like the opposite seems to be true, with Israel’s enemies coming at her from many directions. One of these is from within. These internal enemies are the subject of Jews Against Themselves, a collection of 18 essays written over a span of 30 years by the scholar Edward Alexander. Alexander describes "the new forms taken by Jewish apostasy in an age when Jewish existence is threatened more starkly and immediately than at any time since the Nazi war against the Jews." He notes that there are always readers astonished to learn that Israel-bashing Jews exist. But precisely these home-grown haters are the ones who "play a disproportionate role in blackening Israel’s image."

Like Jewish apostates of medieval times, these "modern Jewish apostates," carry out with greater zeal than non-Jews the persecution of their brethren. But there are differences between the medieval and modern apostate. In medieval times, Jews fled from their religion. Today, they trumpet their Jewishness. Here Alexander quotes Cynthia Ozick: "So it is as self-declared Jews, as loyal and honorable Jews, as Jews in the line of the prophets … that we nowadays hear arguments against the survival, or the necessity, or the legitimacy of the state of Israel."

Alexander is a staunch defender of Israel, whose founding he calls one of the "few redeeming events in a century of blood and shame, one of the greatest affirmations of the will to live ever made by a martyred people, and a uniquely hopeful sign for humanity itself." As an English professor at the University of Washington, he wrote books on moral exemplars of the Victorian period like Matthew Arnold. He could have remained in his ivory tower, but instead he has delved into the muck. With pen in hand—happily Alexander is a superb writer and wields a very sharp pen—he has taken apart Israel’s enemies in books ranging from The Jewish Idea and Its Enemies to The Jewish Wars to The State of the Jews and The Jewish Divide Against Israel.

Alexander is not out to create a "systemic taxonomy" of the many species of anti-Israel Jews but he does give the reader a brief, dizzying list of them: "Jewish progressives against Israel; Jewish queers against Israel; Haredim against Israel; Holocaust survivors against Israel; children of Holocaust survivors against Israel; Jewish Voice for Peace; grandchildren of Holocaust survivors against Israel … and so on and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam."

Unfortunately, Jewish defamers of Israel often occupy positions of influence. Take Richard Falk, a Princeton professor for 40 years, who served for six years as the UN’s special rapporteur "on human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967." In 2008 Falk issued a statement condemning Israel (which had finally reacted to years of missiles lobbed into its territory) for "war crimes" in Gaza. Alexander writes of him: "From his UN post Falk has relentlessly described Israel as Satan’s lair, called for ‘a legitimacy war against Israel,’ blamed the Boston Marathon bombings on ‘Tel Aviv,’ and then—in the summer of 2011—having exhausted his own store of verbal eloquence on the topic, posted on his ‘blog’ site a cartoon of a dog wearing a yarmulke urinating on a blindfolded female figure of Justice. If any single figure ever embodied the image of the UN as the center of the world’s evil, it is Richard Falk."

J Street is another example of the real-world impact of these internal enemies. The group boasts a "Rabbinic Cabinet," Alexander writes, "whose members include supporters of Hamas’s relentless bombing of Sderot." In lobbying to oppose Israeli policies, J Street has proven a useful tool in the hands of the Obama administration, which sends its highest officials to attend its conferences, presumably because it sees in the group a kindred spirit and hopes that the group will provide cover, as a self-styled "Zionist" organization, against charges of being anti-Israel.

If there was a contest for the most morally repugnant of these defamers, at the least a runner-up prize would go to those who seek to gain moral authority by dragging in dead ancestors. Such a one is Jennifer Peto, whose anti-Israel master’s thesis (briefly the focus of a 2010 media controversy in Canada) was dedicated to her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor: "If she were alive today, she would be right there with me protesting against Israeli apartheid." Fortunately, her brother, David Peto, a Houston physician, sent an open letter to the press describing their real grandmother, a teacher at a Jewish orphanage in Budapest "who saved countless children from death at the hands of the Nazis." She was "an ardent supporter of the state of Israel … [and] I cannot in good conscience allow my sister to misappropriate our grandmother’s memory to suit her political ideology."

One of the biggest surprises in Alexander’s book—at least to the uninitiated—is that there are Israelis who join in the defamation. One would think terrorist bombs and missiles would act as a reality check, but this is far from the case. Alexander quotes the Israeli writer Aharon Megged saying in 1993 that "Since the Six Day War, and at an increasing pace, we have witnessed a phenomenon which probably has no parallel in history: an emotional and moral identification by the majority of Israel’s intelligentsia with people openly committed to our annihilation." Alexander observes that when the Labor Party took back the reins of government in 1992, they had absorbed the ideas of this intelligentsia. The result was the Oslo Accords, which gave the PLO’s Yasser Arafat a launching pad for attacks on Israel.

As to the why—the motivation of Jewish Israel-haters—Alexander doesn’t assign a single motive. The liberal rejection of Israel "brought about a mass defection of Jewish liberals from Israel," he says. Then there is the Jews’ awkward relationship with power. Long without it, some have made a virtue of powerlessness. Alexander refers to this as the "sissy" school of Jewish thought: "they believe it a virtue in Jews never to have picked up the gun or the knife, as if a man unable to eat should be praised for his ability to fast." And there is the cowardice of those Jews who would rather go along to get along.

There are rewards, as well. In a chapter called "Michael Lerner: Hillary Clinton’s Jewish Rasputin," Alexander reveals how this anti-Israel radical "had been a favorite of the news media ever since he began, in 1986, to promote the ‘Palestinian’ cause within the Jewish community."

Alexander’s way of dealing with these enemies of Israel is to expose them to his wit and withering indignation. What about the rest of us? Alexander addresses this in an interview with The Jewish Press: "Stop treating them with conciliatory gestures, honors, flattery, and oily sycophancy. Do not assume that every liberal fad must at once be called up to the Torah. Remember that exclusion is as much a function of human intellect as inclusion. And view them as apostates—Jews who, in Maimonides’s words, are indifferent to their people when they are in distress and therefore have no share in the World to Come."

This is an important suggestion. While Alexander does not talk about this, the Israeli government itself is guilty of precisely such "honors, flattery and oily sycophancy." The Israel Prize, the highest bestowed by the Israel government, has gone to some of Israel’s worst defamers: men like Yeshayahu Leibowitz who repeatedly referred to Israel’s government and soldiers as "Judeo-Nazis"; Natan Zach, a supporter of boycotts against Jewish communities outside the armistice borders of 1949; Ze’ev Sternhell, who says "only he who is willing to storm Ofra [a Jewish community between Jerusalem and Nablus] with tanks will be able to block the fascist danger"; Arik Shapira, who said his musical composition was dedicated to the destruction of Ofra , and a number of others of that ilk. What happens when the state gives its highest honor to those who call Israelis Nazis, justify Arab terrorism and advocate civil war among Jews? The prizes say that these people are the most cultivated; the highest achievers Israel has to offer. In giving these prizes to those who despise the state, Israel becomes an enabler and megaphone for its defamers.

Israel is ringed by enemies, excoriated by "the world community," and has to endure so many enemies within the Jewish world, it is helpful to end on a positive note. Alexander reminds us that "the first elegist to crow over the demise of Zion was a fellow named Merneptah, a ruler of Egypt who announced that ‘Israel is desolated; its seed is no more.’ That was in the year 1215 BCE."

Published under: Book reviews