Against Un-Jewing: Recalling the History of Jewish Dissent
In recent weeks, a pair of related articles appeared in Tablet Magazine that make audacious and, in some cases, outlandish claims about the intersection of Jewish Studies scholarship and recent criticism of Israel government policy. One, written by Joshua Karlip, a Jewish historian at Yeshiva University who, in the name of full disclosure, is a friend and colleague, seeks to situate left-wing Jewish Studies academics in the history of delusional and traitorous Jewish Communism. The other, written by former Soviet refusenik and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky and historian Gill Troy, appended a slapdash historical narrative to the breathtaking declaration that Jewish Studies academics who signed a recent statement critical of Israel’s actions in the latest violence in May are “un-Jews.”
This kind of claim—and the arrogation of the right to make such a claim—should not be taken lightly. It is serious and merits a response. In the first instance, it is dangerous, because it–and the wider historical association on which it rests–succumb to a resilient and lethal antisemitic claim. For the sake of simplicity, we might describe that claim as “Judeo-Bolshevism.” As Paul Hanebrink has masterfully demonstrated in his recent book A Specter Haunting Europe, Judeo-Bolshevism is the ubiquitous and fallacious accusation that Jews in the modern age were beholden only to the ideal of Soviet-style Communism, and as such were intent on subverting order, tradition, and national well-being across the globe. Rooted in Catholic conservatism and readily embraced by Adolf Hitler, the claim of Judeo-Bolshevism knew virtually no geographic limits in Europe—and made its way into the Muslim world as well. Nor was it restricted to a distant totalitarian past. The epithet of Judeo-Bolshevism crops up in reactionary ethno-nationalist discourse in Europe and the United States today.
Sadly, there is a particular element of Jewish neo-conservatism that buys into and bolsters the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. The two pieces by Karlip and Sharansky-Troy train singular attention on the undeniable sins of Soviet Communism and its Jewish enablers, who are not seen as individuals but as a synecdoche for leftist Jewish politics writ large. So exclusive is this focus that another ideological monstrosity, Nazism, barely merits mention at all. But of course, it is Nazism that was the ultimate source of “un-Jewing” in modern history. It is striking that they do not mention or “un-Jew” Jewish collaborators with the Nazi regime, who came from the right as much as from the left.
They might also have recalled in this vein the long-standing statist tendencies of Jewish religious traditionalists, who often aligned (and still tend to align) themselves with conservative, even reactionary, political sovereigns in the name of preserving the status quo. Instead, what we get is a dose of coarse historical revisionism that would have been objectionable enough on its own. It is all the more chutzpadik in that they strip away the Jewishness of those whom, they actually go on to admit, “are and remain deeply involved Jewishly, despite their harsh dissent.”
In that last word lies a key to understanding just how errant is the historical claim in Sharansky/Troy. Dissent is not a marginal or episodic feature in Jewish intellectual history. It is a central, perhaps the central, hermeneutical tool in the shifting framings of Jewishness and Judaism over the course of centuries. It was and is deeply operative in the rich body of rabbinic literature. Even if one focuses solely on Zion as the axis around which Judaism revolves, there is a long and rather illustrious tradition of dissent which is anything but “un-Jewish.” Babylon stands as a powerful symbol of a self-standing intellectual and cultural project that served as a counterweight to and even critique of Jerusalem. Later the Pharisees innovated new models of Jewish spiritual and ritual expression in reaction to a Temple-based cult in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple in 70, a class of proto-rabbis laid the foundations for an alternative and life-saving form of Jewish literary expression, led, the Talmud tells us, by Yohanan ben Zakkai in the exile of Yavneh. The rabbinic tradition that subsequently emerged not only included but foregrounded dissenters in its canonical texts.
This tradition continues up to the modern age. It is important to recall that early Zionists, including religious figures such as Yaakov Reines and Y. M. Pines, were dissenters from a more quietistic rabbinic culture for which they were vilified and excoriated. It is also important to recall other twentieth-century religious dissenters—in this case, dissenters from Zion—such as Aharon Shmuel Tamares, Chaim Elazar Shapira, Yoel Teitelbaum, and, in a lesser vein, Yeshayahu Leibowitz. One could use many different labels to describe them, but it would be the height of foolishness to call them “un-Jews” because they failed to fall in line with a conservative rendering of Zionism.
This lineage of often sharp dissenters bears no resemblance to the meager examples that Sharansky-Troy evince: the medieval Spanish apostate Pablo Christiani who renounced not an ideological strand of Judaism, but Judaism itself in the disputation of Barcelona in 1263, or the first-century Roman procurator of Judea, Tiberius Julius Alexander, who, according to the contemporary Josephus, eschewed the ancient customs of his Jewish forbears for the faith of Roman imperialism. There is a vital difference that altogether escapes Sharansky-Troy: outright self-abnegation (which, it should be added, some have questioned in Tiberius) is very far from dissent vis-à-vis one strand of Judaism.
The failure to distinguish between the two recurs throughout their essay. Just as they did in their ancient and medieval examples, they play bait and switch in discussing their chief target: modern Jewish leftism. It is true that Rosa Luxemburg and, even more, Marx were disconnected from their Jewish roots. But this doesn’t give others the right to define their identity for them by “un-Jewing” them. Nor is it clear whom Marx and Luxemburg, in their respective distinctiveness, represent within the panoply of Jewish identities. Not the Jewish partisans and resistance fighters during the Second World War, a fair measure of whom were leftists, socialists or Communists. Imagine telling Mordechai Anielewicz, Abba Kovner, Emanuel Ringelblum or Rokl Auerbach that they did not have a robust sense of Klal Yisra’el (the unity of the Jewish people). Imagine telling the hundreds of thousands of leftist Zionists, autonomists, and even Bundists (whose ideological stance shifted over the course of the first half of the twentieth century) that they did not have the well-being of the Jewish nation at the center of their worldview.
The insinuation in Sharansky/Troy and Karlip that leftist Jews uniformly and unrepentantly prayed to the idol of Soviet Communism—and are thus traitors to their people—verges on the defamatory, but it gets even more daring. Karlip’s writ of indictment is so capacious as to summon both 18th-century Maskilim and proto-Zionist thinker Leon Pinsker to the tribunal of justice because their diagnoses of anti-Jewish expression contained a measure of self-criticism—as if that were a disabling and dishonorable pursuit. To reduce the Haskalah and Pinsker’s project of “Auto-Emancipation” to manifestations of Jewish self-blame for the malady of Judeophobia (as Pinsker called it) is deeply misguided. By those same terms, Theodor Herzl would have been one of the great self-haters of modern Jewish history given the frequency and intensity of his critique of Diaspora Jewish lassitude.
The lesson to be learned today is clear: those who criticize Israeli government policy—the occupation or discrimination against Palestinians within or beyond the Green Line—are continuators of this ignominious tradition. If this kind of attack on those deemed leftist sounds familiar, this is because it draws from the playbook of conservative Jewish polemics, whose central text may well be Ruth Wisse’s Jews and Power, a chilling embrace of Machtpolitik as the remedy to a weak-kneed, self-lacerating Jewishness. In the same genre, one recalls Yoram Hazony’s 2000 book Jewish State, which offers a fiction-like characterization of the founding German-Jewish professorate of the Hebrew University—people like Gershom Scholem, S. H. Bergmann, and Martin Buber—newly cast as cartoon-like self-haters.
Drawing on this tradition of conservative polemics, Sharansky/Troy and Karlip offer a one-dimensional view of the Jewish past, which, on their rendering, is littered with left-wing turncoats. They take a further bold and ill-fated step by inserting into the lineage of leftist traitors the signers of the recent petition on Israel. Here one could criticize their outdated assumption that all Jewish Studies scholars, including those who signed, are Jewish. Or one could go after the claim that the signatories are, to a one, cowardly self-abnegators whose criticism of Israel bespeaks a surrender of the essence of Jewishness.
But the greatest intellectual failing is that they don’t address the content of the petition at all. They refuse to allow for any moral, political or humanitarian misdeeds committed by Israel in the violence of May 2021. Instead, they accuse the signatories of the sin of anti-Zionism and excessive reliance on the analytic framework of settler colonialism without making any attempt at defining or analyzing these categories. This is too bad, because one might have had the kind of rigorous conversation about them that conservatives always claim to love. But nary a word.
In their stead, I’ll offer a critical observation about the settler colonial paradigm rooted in the petition of the Jewish studies scholars. The petition begins by “condemn(ing) the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza; their evictions of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and other neighborhoods of East Jerusalem; and their suppression of civilian protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Jewish-Arab cities, and Palestinian towns and villages in Israel.” It then invokes the paradigm of settler colonialism as the guiding frame to understand Zionism and the unfolding of the Jewish settlement project in Palestine.
Settler colonialism, as explicated by scholars such as Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini, has contributed much to our understanding of settlers and indigenes in a variety of historical settings. Zionism meets a number of the key criteria they outline, for example, its insatiable appetite for land, present from the earliest to the most recent Jewish settlers. It also has deployed a range of methods, from mass displacement to assimilation, that seem consonant with the eliminatory features of settler colonialism.
But there is one important way, at least on my reading, in which the settler colonial paradigm falls short in understanding Zionism: its ahistoricity. The settler colonial frame seems relatively uninterested in questions of etiology or provenance. It is concerned with the structure of elimination as it manifests itself in situ, not the circumstances or motivations that brought settlers to the territories which they wanted and needed. But it is here that we could benefit from the insights of an intellectual godfather of the settler colonial frame: the eminent Palestinian-American scholar and intellectual Edward Said. In addressing what he called “the politics of displacement,” Said found it helpful to imagine Palestinians as “victims of victims.” He was as mindful as anyone that the trauma of the Palestinians was closely and causally related to the prior traumas of the Jews. It is neither possible nor responsible to detach the actions of Zionists toward Palestinians from the toxic mix of forces—modern antisemitism, the failed promise of national minority protection, the rise of fascism and Nazism—that befell Jews in Europe and prompted some of them to take leave for Palestine under the aegis of Zionism.
The effect of this claim is not to absolve Zionism or Israelis of legal, political or moral responsibility toward Palestinians. It is to add an essential link in the chain of historical causality—or, in this case, to allow us to see the serial nature of displacements that occurred in the mid-20th century and drew European Jews, Palestinian Arabs, and Jews from Arab countries into an intimate and violent triangulated relationship. Without understanding this causal chain, we deprive ourselves of the capacity to grasp the guiding aims and motivations of Zionist settlers, initially focused on the goal of finding a place of refuge from the scourge of antisemitism as much as anything. We miss the powerful and, at times, blinding affective dimensions of the Zionist notion of homeland. And we miss the capacity to comprehend how the unresolved trauma of one group collapses upon and compounds the trauma of another group—to troubling and sometimes disastrous effect.
To point out these problems is not to undermine the right or legitimacy to invoke the settler colonial paradigm in discussions of Zionism. Nor, heaven forfend, is it to declare signatories of the petition to be “un-Jews.” It is rather to engage in a substantive discussion about the limits and potential of that conceptual framing in the Jewish studies letter. Sharansky/Troy and Karlip altogether avoid that discussion, choosing instead worn tropes and historical sleight-of-hand to defend their tendentious idea of Jewish peoplehood. Intellectual probity demands far more.
David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA and is at work on a book tentatively titled “Victims of Victims” that explores three interrelated population displacements in the mid-twentieth century.