Israel

Some thoughts on being afraid of your own shadow in contemporary polite society

Tablet is running a series on Jewish privilege — or rather, a series condemning criticism of Jewish privilege from the Left — and thus far, the story that’s been getting the most attention in my timeline is this one from NY Times Magazine and GQ contributor Taffy Brodesser-Akner, entitled “I Probably Won’t Share This Essay on Twitter: Some thoughts on being Jewish in contemporary polite society.” The piece first came to my attention when Allison Yarrow shared it on Twitter.


Well, I just reread it. And I still think it sucks. So, without further ado, I’m making good on my promise of post-yuntiff fisking.


A famous screenwriter/director and I were having lunch, doing our interview, and I asked him this one thing, and he answered this other thing, but that other thing didn’t make sense, and I followed up, and he once again said the other thing. And again, I said, “I don’t know about that.” And he asked me to turn my tape recorder off, so I did, and he said, “It’s about Israel.” He looked at me, testing me out. “I’m sort of pro-Israel.” I opened my eyes wide and said yes, I told him I was, too. Then he said, “I’m really, really pro-Israel, and I’m disgusted with what’s going on there, but what are you going to do?” He sighed, lifted his fork, and returned to the Chinese chicken salad (it is always the Chinese chicken salad), nodding at my tape recorder, saying I could turn it back on, that we were official again. He didn’t need to explain his reticence. It is not OK to be openly pro-Israel anymore, and I know why.

Following Bibi’s speech, Gallup surveyed American attitudes towards Israel and found that 70% of Americans view Israel favorably vs. 17% of Americans who view the Palestinian Authority favorably. 62% of Americans said their sympathies are with Israel vs. 16% who said their sympathies are with the Palestinians. Ergo: “It is not OK to be openly pro-Israel anymore,” complained one of the vast majority of Americans who are pro-Israel.


My DM boxes on Twitter and Facebook are filled with people like me—liberals, culture reporters, economics reporters—baffled and sad at the way the cause of Jews avoiding another attempt at our genocide has gone from a liberal one to a capital-c Conservative one.

Unlike Israel which has at least 80 undeclared nuclear warheads, which has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and which has not permitted UN inspectors into its nuclear facilities, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, is nowhere near having a nuclear weapon, has signed the NPT, and has permitted inspectors into its facilities. Iran’s leaders have also never declared that they will destroy Israel with or without a nuclear bomb, but rather that Israel will be its own undoing through its own arrogance. Therefore, when one takes the position that Jews are avoiding “another attempt at our genocide,” they are making a political statement based on the “analysis” (ie., fear-mongering using deliberate misrepresentation of cherry-picked statements and intelligence) of the very same small-c conservatives (in my community, capital-C Conservatives are those who practice Conservative Judaism) who sold us the Iraq War, and who have been trying to get us into Iran since the 1990s. Not only that, but the very same community at the forefront of scuttling Obama’s negotiations with Iran have been at the forefront of demonizing everything Obama — who was elected by roughly 70% of American Jews — has done since he took office. Therefore, whether you like it or not, this is a deeply partisan issue, and Bibi and his crew have gone out of their way to make it more so.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GoYdKaoSdG8]

There was no room for our sadness and fear to be public during the Gaza war. There was no room for us to say, “Hey, hold on a second, these terrorists are firing rockets at civilians!” There was no room for us to say that it was not a national character flaw to defend one’s own citizens from attack. There was no room to remind people how they felt when planes flew into the Twin Towers.

Five Israeli civilians and 66 soldiers died during the last conflict with Gaza. 2,220 Palestinians were killed. Which population experienced an event closer in scale and resemblance to 9/11? Israel has decimated Gaza, leaving over 40% of the land uninhabitable, and killed more Palestinians last year than in any year since 1967.
Here’s Gaza:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJN9fnt0rpw]

Here’s the WTC:
Aerial_photo_of_WTC_groundzero
You know the difference? One block in NYC was reduced to rubble. In Gaza, 40% of everywhere is rubble.
And let’s not forget how this war started: A rogue Hamas cell seeking to scuttle the PA unity deal kidnapped three kids, who Israel knew were dead from day one, but who they used to stoke national outrage in order to build support for a campaign to purge Hamas from the West Bank. In retaliation for that campaign, Salafists fired rockets into Israel — whom Hamas subsequently arrested — and Israel “responded” by killing over 2,200 people. BUT, OH BOO FUCKING HOO, THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR YOUR SADNESS AND FEAR, which mind you, was on every television news channel and newspaper front page as the dominant narrative.


All this did was serve to remind us what our teachers had taught us all those years, that Israel exists because we are not welcome here, on this earth. They taught us that we are tolerated, at best, and that we are enjoyed most when we are victims, or we remember that we are vulnerable. I know. This sounds crazy. But like David Brooks says, one of the most unfortunate things about anti-Semitism is how people here at home think it couldn’t possibly exist the way we say it does (And only some parts of home. Let me remind you all that while on the Paula Deen Cruise, in a United States territory, a woman imitated a Jew to me after finding out that I was Jewish.).


I can’t even.


Meanwhile, quietly, we whispered to each other that it felt like the anti-Israel sentiment was actually a new way of being openly anti-Semitic, somehow wrapping it up in a Democratic cause.

Thus far, the author has not once recognized that, for nearly 50 years, millions of Palestinians have lived under Israeli military occupation, many of whom have been displaced from their homes and agricultural lands, separated from their families, and denied freedom of movement. Their ongoing disenfranchisement and dispossession has served as an excuse and an inspiration for violent extremists for roughly a century, claiming thousands of lives that could have been saved by justly resolving an entirely resolvable conflict. Rather, the author deems support for Palestinian emancipation — or at least, support for containing Israel’s intemperance — to be a form of antisemitism masquerading as “a Democratic cause.” Why on earth might that engender hostility, I wonder?
And as to “being openly anti-Semitic,” in 2009 the ADL announced that they’d recorded the “lowest level [of antisemitism] in all the years of taking the pulse of American attitudes toward Jews,” with only 12% of Americans professing to hold antisemitic beliefs. Last year they did their survey again and found that number to be even lower, at only 9%. Is it getting worse in some places in Europe? Yes. But there is no statistical evidence to support the contention that Americans are growing increasingly anti-Israel or antisemitic. Quite the contrary. And, sorry, but there is simply no denying that these things flare up most when Israel is killing scores of Palestinians, whether or not it perceives itself to be acting in self-defense.


My inboxes lit up again when Netanyahu spoke to Congress. They lit up again when the massacre at the Kosher market in Paris netted a #jesuisjuif hashtag, and when people rolled their eyes at the hashtag and say how it degraded the journalists who had been killed just days before. And then even again when some chucklehead wrote an essay asking if Jews “use” the Holocaust too much, in maybe the Guardian? I don’t know, don’t make me google it.
And then, there in my inboxes, are all of us—you know us, you’re friends with us—feeling righteous and sad, and keeping these conversations private, and also hating ourselves a little or a lot for wishing we were the types of people who could speak up. One of the reasons that I was given in my many years-long study of the Holocaust—this education comes via relentless osmosis and relentless actual lesson when you attend day school—for why it happened (and it was always our fault) was that we tried too hard to assimilate. The Jew, the world thought, was insidious because he could blend in so well. I thought that was about working and dressing. I didn’t realize it was about silent agreement, but it is.
The war and the election that followed set something free in people. They were allowed to be as critical as they wanted, and those of us who weren’t critical became more silent. I faved a bunch of Yair Rosenberg’s tweets. I RT’ed some of Jeffrey Goldberg’s, when I was feeling brave. But I sat there quiet, too.

I’m going to leave this to Sarah Seltzer:


In other words, when you go out of your way to exclude Jewish critics of Israel from Jewish life, we will congregate elsewhere and find the means to express ourselves and to challenge the individuals, institutions, and attitudes that have placed us outside the walls of the community. Deal with it.


There is much talk going around now about so-called Jewish privilege: That we can blend in, that we’ve “made it” here in America. But privilege only exists when you’re comparing one people to another people, and I’m not sure why we do that. Does anyone benefit from this kind of one-upsmanship?

Checking one’s privilege is not about one-upmanship. It’s about recognizing what’s problematic about the things you take for granted and the ways in which those things negatively impact others whose experiences you haven’t taken into consideration. All of society benefits from the struggle for genuine equality. Its unfortunate that the author seems to be completely oblivious in this case.


I would not trade my problems—which, to be clear, are that the country that I can flee to for asylum is under threat of nuclear annihilation by Iran and random, unprovoked attack by its neighbors—with anyone else’s. It sucks all around.

Is there some kind of coming purge of American Jewry I don’t know about that would require me to flee for asylum to Israel? Are the Cossacks now approaching the steppes of Long Island?
A subtle shift in perception might help the author to better see her position. She thinks her problem is that the place to which she can theoretically flee (Israel) in the event of a purely imaginary threat (an American Holocaust) is facing duress (and through no fault of its own, apparently). What she doesn’t see is that she actually has the privilege of making aliyah in the event of catastrophe, whereas Palestinians displaced in 1948 have no ability to return to their homeland (despite their guaranteed right under the Geneva Conventions to which Israel is party); Palestinians within the territories Israel occupies cannot leave nor travel between those territories without Israel’s say-so, even in the event of life-threatening disaster; and non-Jews fleeing actual genocide, forced conscription, and torture happening right now and not hypothetically are being imprisoned and forcibly deported whilst seeking asylum in Israel.
Damn straight you wouldn’t trade your position with anyone else’s.


Privilege has two meanings: One is that those who are privileged are elevated somehow. The other is that they are different. I renounce the notion that Jews—Jews, being told to stay home from their synagogues for their safety, Jews being kept out of schools and ridiculed in the street, all this, right now in Europe—have the first kind of privilege. But the second, we have it in droves:

“OMG, just because Jews are second only to Hindus in income distribution, or because there are laws increasing the penalties for crimes targeting Jews for being Jewish, or because Congress votes unanimously to let Israel kill with impunity, doesn’t mean Jews are privileged. I mean, antisemitism exists, so we obviously can’t be privileged in any way, shape, or form.”
That Jews in Europe are presently facing antisemitism from a small — and predominantly Muslim — segment of society does not invalidate the fact that Jews generally benefit from a protected status in most of the Western world. There are laws outlawing antisemitic hate speech and organizations, and increasing penalties for anti-Jewish violence existing throughout much of the Western world. The majority of Homeland Security grants in the U.S. benefit Jewish institutions, providing for security systems, personnel, and intelligence cooperation with law enforcement. We enjoy tremendous economic success, wield enormous political influence, and because at least Ashkenazim are passably white, we are largely able to eschew the societal injustices which plague people of color.
So when you write this bullshit…

It is my Jewish privilege to have very few blood relatives because the rest of them were murdered in the Holocaust. It’s my privilege to have to keep my mouth shut at casually racist remarks, because “you know what I mean, like a JAP, everyone says it.” It is my privilege to have thought twice about accompanying a celebrity to Paris as I profiled him, then let the clock run down on the offer so that I could only interview in Los Angeles. It is my Jewish privilege that the word lampshade makes me cringe, that the word camp—camp!—makes me cringe. It is my privilege to always wonder what I should have been doing differently, how I am a disgrace to the martyrs of the Holocaust because my outrage and sadness is confined to my Direct Messages.

…I can only do this.

I’m a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors. My parents, including my father who was born in a DP camp, are life-long professional advocates for Holocaust survivors. And you know what? The Torah commands us to remember every day that God took us out of bondage in Egypt, not that we are perpetual Holocaust victims under constant threat of annihilation. Why are you allowing yourself to relive a traumatic episode you didn’t even directly experience that transpired 70 years ago because people are less afraid to openly criticize Israel on Facebook?


For the record, the Lena Dunham piece didn’t offend me except for how much it took over my life. David Remnick defended her—as did a lot of people—saying that her humor was in the long running tradition of Jews making Jewish jokes about themselves, and that that doing so, and it being OK, proves that we are part of the establishment. But it doesn’t. It proves the same thing that our silence proves on social media about things that matter to us, or when our recorders are turned off, or when we DM. It proves that we know inherently that we’re not part of the establishment, that we are surrounded by ourselves in certain enclaves, but mostly that this particular tradition comes from the fact that know we are believed to be disgusting, and we know we can calm everyone right down by letting them know we know that.

Lena Dunham’s piece offended me. I thought it was a lazy list of antisemitic stereotypes barely passing for humor and beneath the New Yorker, let alone beneath contempt. And I wasn’t silent about it. But I have no compunction calling out actual antisemitism. What I won’t do is cry antisemitism when someone justifiably criticizes Israel.


That’s not a privilege. That’s a nightmare of self-loathing. And yet, it is somehow our birthright. We do not speak up now. We didn’t speak up then. We might have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, yes, we stand idly by, and we would have as our relatives were being sent off to the gas chambers back then. This essay is the bravest thing I have in me. I don’t know for sure that I’ll post this on Twitter. But I know that someone, maybe a lot of people, will write to me about it. They won’t RT it. They won’t FB it. But they’ll write to me about it, and I guess I’ll have some comfort in my cowardice—because it will be shared.

And this? This is a nightmare of hysterical hyperbole. The author might want to look herself in the mirror and ask, “Am I actually liberal? Or do I just imagine that I am?” Spouting off a largely incoherent condemnation of liberal disaffection towards Israel and maligning critics of the state as closet antisemites isn’t bravery, it’s an uninspired litany of right-wing Zionist talking points. That’s why I won’t RT it. That’s why I won’t FB it. Not because I’m a coward or an antisemite, but because…

I’m so tired of this shit.

11 thoughts on “Some thoughts on being afraid of your own shadow in contemporary polite society

  1. I’ll be all impressed when working for a *Zionist* (as in, Israel has the right to exist), *two-state* organization doesn’t put me on the list of people who can’t speak at a rather large number of Jewish institutions and ceases to taint me so badly that I can’t work at a shul. Oh, did I leave out that the reason I’m banned and tainted is because it’s a Zionist, two-state PEACE organization? Big wah, Taffy.

  2. things that jumped out for me, starting with the small points:
    *his reading of the intentions of iran (No, “Israel must be annhilated” is just *self*-annhilation!); the laugh-out-loud-able comparison of israel (has nuclear bombs! doesn’t let in inspectors!) and iran (does not have nuclear bombs; lets in inspectors!!)…
    *Jews threatened with rising antisemitism balanced by the “privilege” of laws that isolate and “privilege” antisemitism for chumrah?
    *His first point which reiterates throughout – brings the polls which say that the big majority of Americans view Israel favorably over Palestinians. But who was talking about America? It’s there in the title: Polite society; the company of liberals and progressives and intellecutals, with whom most, most Jews identify and associate. It’s the blue states, not the red states. (How did this escape him? or more likely, how did he think this would escape his readers?) It’s the excitedly organic-eating academics of Boston, not the people running the MTA trains and who say “Bwohstin”. In the liberal/progressive world, a world in which the red-state-ish viewpoints and assumptions and languages are “man dechar shmeih” [Gmara: who mentioned his name?], the climate, the language (in general), the world of values, is such that being pro-Israel severely doesn’t fit; being pro-Palestinian is obvious, easy and de rigueur. And increasingly, forces and voices of toxic israel-demonization are becoming mainstream and often dominant in academic and progressive circles (not to mention europe, which is on its own trip). (that toxicity is felt in this guy’s piece. cynical and poisoned with anger. nebech.)
    This gets to her point – that he failed to receive, because he’s busy with his own axes to grind: Jews in liberal circles, esp in our current very public and exposed social media existence, are uncomfortable expressing dissenting views. (He’s busy spinning the alleged cause: “people are less afraid to openly criticize Israel on Facebook”)
    He repeats that he doesn’t pity her. But I don’t think his pity is the point.

  3. This is an absolutely brilliant take down. I’m getting tired of the fake cries of “anti-Semitism” that come forth by those wanting to stifle legitimate criticism of Israel. I’m tired of the self-righteous, self-indulgent, self-pity that is used to try to silence Palestinian voices who objectively are suffering much more than Taffy Brodesser-Akner could ever imagine (Not that I imagine that she has even for one second tried to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a Palestinian’s eyes.)
    Well done on a very important essay!

  4. You’re a very good writer but you’re clearly not above cherry picking facts yourself. You said that Israel deliberately exploited the kidnapping to make war and kill Palestinians. The way you phrased it makes it sound like a legitimate point. You almost had me convinced until I remembered what you left out. Were the tunnels Hamas dug in to Israel not worth mentioning? Or were they made for some noble purpose that Israel also spun for their own purposes? Were the rockets Hamas fired to deliberately kill civilians not worth a mention? Was it not worth mentioning that Hamas stored their weapons in schools and hospitals to maximize civilian death on their own side? Or is none of that true and it’s all Israeli propaganda? The numbers seem to matter to you a lot. You’re giving them a pass because they had more casualties than their enemy. Didn’t Germany also lose a lot more people in WW2 than some of the Allied forces? It seems silly to not mention German war crimes or evil intentions when discussing WW2 just because they lost more people than the other side. It seems you and other leftist thinkers just want to cast Israel as the bad guy no matter what.

  5. “Iran’s leaders have also never declared that they will destroy Israel with or without a nuclear bomb, but rather that Israel will be its own undoing through its own arrogance.”
    The accepted translation seems to be “this Jerusalem-occupying regime [Israel] must be erased from the page of time.” There is little difference between that and the often-heard “wiped off the map”. If you’re trying to make the point that Iran hasn’t threatened Israel, this and other statements by Iranian leaders don’t support that.

  6. Avivus:
    *his reading of the intentions of iran (No, “Israel must be annhilated” is just *self*-annhilation!); the laugh-out-loud-able comparison of israel (has nuclear bombs! doesn’t let in inspectors!) and iran (does not have nuclear bombs; lets in inspectors!!)…
    I do not believe Iran has positive intentions towards Israel. Obviously Iran finances terrorism against Israel. Nor am I certain that Iran has no desire to obtain a nuclear bomb. What I am certain of is that a) neoconservatives have misrepresented the statements of Iranian officials and the available intelligence to exacerbate this conflict and the likelihood of a showdown, and b) Israel is being preposterously hypocritical because it is itself a rogue nuclear state. You can laugh out loud all you want, but it doesn’t change the reality.
    *Jews threatened with rising antisemitism balanced by the “privilege” of laws that isolate and “privilege” antisemitism for chumrah?
    That people hate investment bankers for ravaging the economy doesn’t mean that investment bankers aren’t privileged, or that the special protection they receive from the police isn’t a privilege. So too for Jews.
    *His first point which reiterates throughout – brings the polls which say that the big majority of Americans view Israel favorably over Palestinians. But who was talking about America? It’s there in the title: Polite society; the company of liberals and progressives and intellecutals, with whom most, most Jews identify and associate…And increasingly, forces and voices of toxic israel-demonization are becoming mainstream and often dominant in academic and progressive circles (not to mention europe, which is on its own trip). (that toxicity is felt in this guy’s piece. cynical and poisoned with anger. nebech.)
    The same Gallup poll I cited, saying that only 16% of Americans identify as pro-Palestinian, shows that 60% of Democrats have a favorable view of Israel, that only 26% have a favorable view of the Palestinian Authority, and that 48% sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians. So when you or Taffy Akner insist that liberals and progressives are overwhelmingly anti-Israel, the numbers still don’t bear that out.
    Also, perhaps progressives and academics are less to blame for antipathy against those who identify as pro-Israel than those who have shifted to definition of pro-Israel so far to the right that supporting the two-state solution is now considered anti-Israel. Being pro-Israel now means being pro-occupation, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, pro-war, and so forth. This wasn’t the case a decade ago.
    And yes, I’m cynical, because I’ve been at this for a decade myself. And yes, I’m angry because I’m sick to death of being called an antisemite by my fellow Jews for criticizing a country that kills in my name. But I’m not poisoned. My anger is pure, holy fire.
    This gets to her point – that he failed to receive, because he’s busy with his own axes to grind: Jews in liberal circles, esp in our current very public and exposed social media existence, are uncomfortable expressing dissenting views. (He’s busy spinning the alleged cause: “people are less afraid to openly criticize Israel on Facebook”)
    He repeats that he doesn’t pity her. But I don’t think his pity is the point.

    Maybe you should feel uncomfortable if what you’re doing is defending ethnic cleansing, or bombing one of the most densely populated places on earth, or keeping 4.5 million people in limbo for half a century. That’s why I don’t have pity. Also, because it’s not like your side of the argument isn’t being represented virtually everywhere else. If I want to hear blind, obeisant defenses of everything Israel does, all I have to do is flick on the TV or open the newspaper or go to shul on Saturday morning. Do I also need to hear it on Democracy Now or in my Middle East studies class?

  7. I don’t disagree with most of what you’ve written here, but the fact remains: If a Jew walks into Ramallah or Jenin or Gaza City, chances are good that he or she will be murdered violently within, say, 30 minutes or less. That by itself is enough ‘excuse’ for me to support Israel.

  8. In partial response to your response,
    “A newly released Gallup poll shows that Democrats are far less sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians when it comes to the tensions in the Middle East.”
    http://www.mrctv.org/blog/poll-less-half-democrats-support-israel-over-palestinians
    As I recall the ratio was even among Democrats. The linked Gallup source didn’t provide much more as I found.
    In any event, the more liberal and academic you go, and the further you move from more “purple” state Democratic places like my first home and current location of Iowa, the less room there will be for anything but a predetermined and self-evident vilification of Israel. (It goes without saying that I think your reading of the media’s slant is backwards, and that your reading of the Israeli/Palestinian tango is… off. But I don’t expect much arguing will move anyone)
    If the anger were holy fire, then what’s with the sarcasm? And the animations?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.