THE BLOG
06/07/2010 04:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Is Criticizing Israel Anti-Semitic?

I just read Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's piece on Huffington Post about Helen Thomas the Jew Hater, and I felt compelled to write something in response.

Sure, Helen Thomas had to retire from her post at Hearst after saying that the Jews in Israel should go back to the countries where their forebears died in Nazi death camps (she also said America). It is an unfortunate way for such an august career to end. But this rash of talk about Israel and anti-Semitism on the left begs a question: Is Israel really Jewish?

The quick answer is yes. According to the history books, it is. Helen Thomas definitely failed to eloquently (or humanely) express the frustration many feel toward Israel, Jews and non-Jews alike, for simultaneously being a Jewish state while playing the bully in an ageless story that requires a more spiritual approach.

I used to live up the street from Rabbi Boteach in Oxford, England. I remember helping him with his groceries one day, and standing outside his Crowley Road house talking about what it's like to be a Jew in England. (I am half-Jewish.) It was a great conversation, tinged here and there with the ideology and dogmatism that has always estranged me from organized religion. Regardless, I left feeling like I'd had a spiritual experience.

Years after that encounter, I became interested in and then worked with the American historian and political commentator Walter Laqueur, who initiated me into a deeper understanding of the tensions between the Israeli government and the Palestinians than anything I could have gleaned from daily news coverage. There is no nuance in the current conversation.

Israel is engaged in statecraft, not religion. Unlike the Vatican, it is not trying to create more Jews worldwide. Nothing about the attack on those activists can be supported by the tenets of religion. Israel acts a lot more like a state than a religion. Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic. To frame it in this way, as Rabbi Shmuley and others have done this week, is intellectually disingenuous at best.

I live a few blocks from a large community of Hassidim, and I occasionally get into discussions with the rabbis as they wander north into the hipper climes of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Most Haredim are not Zionists because a strict reading of the midrash opposes it. Israel for them does not equal what they think it means to be a good Jew.

I did not have a spiritual experience when I heard about the death of those activists who were trying to draw attention to the situation in Gaza. I did not have a spiritual experience after reading Rabbi Boteach's screed on Helen Thomas.

Thomas's remarks were sired by lazy, off-camera hyperbole (the video was shot on something small and unprofessional-looking) launched into an ideological battlefield. Controversy allows outrageous things to be said before reason can reign in the dire emotionalism of debate. Take for instance, this gem from Boteach's post:

One can only imagine the uproar against Thomas had she said that all blacks should go home to Africa, or illegal immigrants to Tijuana.

It does not warrant much of a response. African Americans were abducted and shipped to the New World. Immigrating Mexicans leave a weak economy to make a living in a stronger one. There is no logic, no connection between the examples cited--besides base emotionalism.

In 1947, with the Holocaust still a bright terror in the collective conscience of the world, the United Nations partitioned Palestine into a so-called Jewish state and an Arab state. The UN was to take care of Jerusalem. Zionist leaders approved it; Arab leaders did not. There was a war. It's still being waged.

An interview with Anthony Julius a while back on WNYC has been on my mind. Julius is the author of the recently published book Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England. In that interview, Julius discussed his belief that the left wing intelligentsia has become increasingly anti-Semitic. His only evidence was the prevalence of anti-Israel views on the left. He's wrong on many levels, but it should suffice to say that most of the views he described are not anti-Israel. It is possible to oppose the ideas promulgated and put into action by the Israeli government while supporting of the "idea" of Israel.

In general, lefties are against unfair land grabs and stuff that resembles colonialism. You will find them critical of the European invasion of the Americas as well.

There has to come a time when the horrors of World War II no longer justify fresh injustices and killing. Nothing is going to change in the Middle East until all parties are willing to play ball. A little religion would be a great thing to inject into the battlefield--real religion based on deep spirituality, not the rhetorical variety featured in the news this week.

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