Zionism vs the Tikkun Olam Movement: Scorpions in a Jewish Bottle

Edited version of a talk delivered at Beth Emet Synagogue in Toronto Nov 18, 2018

At the prestigious Munk Debate in Toronto in early November between pundit David Frum and controversial right-winger Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Bannon asked a legitimate question: “Why is the nation-state so scorned and demonized [by the post-nationalists]?”

This is an especially important question for Canadian Jews to consider. For Israel is not only a nation-state, but it may also be said to be the original nation-state, a concept twice realized in Jewish sovereignty over its homeland before Europe was a gleam in Christianity’s eye. Nations begin with a religion, with a specific language and – here is the difficulty nowadays – in genetics, in bloodlines that have over the ages forged them into something much more substantial than a mere tribe.

When we speak of Indigenous peoples, normally our minds conjure up the indigenous peoples of North America – the First Nations, as we call them. We have no problem with their particularism; or their right to the term “indigenous”; or their insistence on genetic authenticity to claim belonging. We recently witnessed the joy of Democratic politician Elizabeth Warren in discovering that she can legitimately claim she is at least 1,024th percent native. She wanted this distinction because natives are one of the identity groups that have great social capital amongst leftists who see the world in binary terms of oppressors and oppressed.

But Jews are also an indigenous people. That is not my opinion. That is a fact. The working definition of “indigenous people” was developed by anthropologist José R. Martinez-Cobo, former special rapporteur of the Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities for the United Nations. There is a long list of criteria, including continued occupation of lands considered sacred, a specific language and customs, and other metrics that Jews meet to a T. But leftists cannot harmonize their assumption that peoples can be both indigenous to a specific ancient homeland and also be a high-functioning, educated and fully integrated identity group.

So you have the ludicrous cognitive dissociation of the Green Party of Canada, a faction of which lobbies to support the BDS campaign, calling, shamefully, for withdrawal of charity status from the Jewish National Fund. (Shamefully, for the JNF is one of the “greenest” organizations on the planet, and its land not only legally acquired, but usually at a hugely inflated cost.)

I don’t think I am going out on a limb in calling these Green Party members anti-Semitic. Anti-Semites, in general, have no problem with Canadian native groups comprised of 100 people holding up pipelines because they live on sacred space in which their ancestors are buried.

But they do have a problem with Israel, simply because it is the Jewish homeland. Anti-Semites prefer that Jews remain weak and vulnerable, even when, paradoxically, they resist the idea that Jews should live amongst them. They are not happy when they must cohabit with us; they are not happy when Jews prove that they do not need to cohabit with them to live well and prosper.

Here’s a further irony. In July Israel’s Immigration Minister, Sofa Landver, emotionally announced: “Israeli Jews now constitute the largest Jewish community in the world.”

Until now, the U.S., with its many millions of Jews, has been the most Jewish country in the world. For context, in 1948, when Israel achieved official nationhood, only 600,000 of the world’s 11.5 million Jews lived there (5.2% of world Jewry). By 1967, Israel’s Jewish population was 2.4 million (almost 20%), and in 2012, 5.9 million (43%).

The exact numbers are disputed according to methodology and definition of Jewishness. Landver puts the Israeli number at 6.6 million, the U.S. figure at 5.7 million, while Pew has the U.S. number at 7.7 million Jews identifying as Jewish at some level, which includes 2.4 million people with “Jewish background,” but no affiliation or practice.

However one calculates who is or is not Jewish for census purposes, everyone agrees the trend is to a diminishing Jewish presence in America (secularization, intermarriage, low birthrate) and an escalating Jewish presence in Israel. So whether it’s this week or next year, the population die are cast, and will, according to Hebrew University’s Sergio DellaPergolo, an expert on Jewish demographics, reflect a demographic reality not experienced by the Jewish people since 586 BCE.

In the age-old question: Is this good or bad for the Jews? It’s good in the sense that, since Israel is the Jewish homeland with Jews the only extant indigenous people who consider it sacred space, this is a return to an original norm. Twenty years ago, it was estimated that 98 percent of Jews no longer reside in the place in which at least one grandparent was born. Perhaps it is a few percentage points fewer today. Still, such numbers speak to a rather lachrymose history of dispersion and insecurity, in which the dream of Zion restored has been both a comfort in adversity and motivation for endurance.

Once the dream came true (at a cost of two-thirds of European Jews’ deaths, numbers still not made up), it makes sense that Jews should gather in the one place where they know they will be welcome – forever. A steady stream of European Jews – notably from France, where the state has proved unequal to the task of quelling or reliably containing Muslim anti-Semitism – will continue to swell the ranks of highly cultured and well-educated Jews who can fairly seamlessly and productively integrate into Israeli society.

It’s bad in the sense that the more clustered Jews are, the more tempting a target they become for neighbourhood bullies bent on eradicating their presence. As Iran’s anti-Semitic overlords frequently note, one nuclear weapon would effectively destroy the Jewish people for good. There would be survivors, but remnant exile yet again is not in our cards. In a secular world, one would not see the persistence of Zionist faith as happened in pre-modern exiles. Demoralization would be complete. Most other small peoples once defeated and exiled, die out. Israel’s modern rebirth was a miracle. Another of that magnitude seems unlikely.

So it seems self-evident – to me at least – that any Jew who asks himself how best he or show can support the best interests of our people would automatically point to Israel’s security and continuing prosperity as our era’s most pressing obligation.

But this is not a self-evident proposition to significant numbers of Jews on the political left. Not all left-wing Jews are anti-Zionist, but apart from a tiny fringe group of whacko fundamentalists, virtually all anti-Zionist Jews identify with the politically left. And again, not all anti-Zionist Jews stand shoulder to shoulder with anti-Semites. But Jews who promote the BDS movement do consort with anti-Semites and they don’t care that they do. They cannot accept the premises on which Israel exists. In a nutshell, they are “anywheres”, and Israel is the nation-state of a “somewhere” people.

Now I am sure that like me, you have heard the same mantra over and over: that Jews who are standing with the BDS movement are not promoting the disappearance of Israel; rather they are pressuring Israel to act more conscientiously towards the Palestinians, whom they see as victims of Israeli oppression. But they cannot say that in good faith. Boycotts of Jewish shops in Germany in the 1930s were organized to put Jews out of business. And the same impulse fuels the BDS movement.

In fact, we have data to prove this. As reported in the Canadian Jewish News’ November 1 edition, [1] Campaign Research, a research and strategy firm recently conducted a poll that offers very unsurprising results to BDS skeptics. “The survey found that among those Canadians who support BDS, nearly half believe that Israel should be subject to further punishments, even if it complies with all the movement’s demands.”

Amanda Hohmann, executive director of La’ad Canada, which seeks to build Jewish identity amongst millennials, and which commissioned the study, said that the poll’s results send a “loud message about the beliefs and values” of BDS proponents. “Proponents of BDS claim that the movement is motivated strictly by a desire to end the so-called abuses by Israel. However, the results of the survey appear to show for almost of BDS supporters, that is simply not true.”

The poll showed that about 19% of the (about) 1500 people surveyed agreed with BDS. One of the questions asked was, “If Israel were to meet its obligations under international law, including withdrawal from the occupied territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and promotion of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, do you believe it should be subject to further boycott, sanction, and divestment?” Of those supporting BDS, 45% answered yes.

In other words, co-existence with a future Palestinian state is not the goal of almost half the people surveyed who support BDS. Their real goal is a state that is no longer linked to Jewish particularism – that is, a state in which Palestinians are the majority and where Jews are citizens as in any other country. These people do not feel Jews have the right of self-determination, even though they feel Palestinians do have the right of self-determination and self-governance, and they are therefore not critics of Israel, they are anti-Semites.

The poll also showed that support for BDS beyond the stated aims of the BDS movement is highest among those aged 18-24 (76%), and regionally, highest in Ontario (66%).

Hohmann says further that Canada is “one of the main hotbeds of BDS activity.” Robert Walker, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships Canada, commented that the survey’s results “confirmed for us what we have been seeing for many years: that the lines between those who are anti-Israel and those who are anti-Semitic are increasingly being blurred”.

How many BDS supporters are Jewish? We can’t say for sure, but according to a poll with a nationally represented sample, commissioned by the Wall Street Journal, political activists, in general, are much more likely to be white, highly educated, and rich. In fact, they are nearly twice as likely as average to make more than $100K a year, nearly three times as likely to have a postgrad degree and constitute  “the most racially homogenous group in the country.”

Jews register disproportionately on all three metrics, plus we know that non-Orthodox Jews skew disproportionately leftward, especially in the universities, where all faculties in the humanities are overwhelmingly leftist, and where a very large proportion of the faculty is Jewish. Not to mention the administration.

Since 2003, extreme sensitivity to bias against identity groups such as blacks, Muslims, indigenous peoples, and LGBT people has spread from academia to the culture at large. Conversely, extreme anti-Zionism on campus has led to tolerance for Jewish anti-Semitism in the culture at large. In 2013, boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) activist Judith Butler received an honorary degree from McGill University (from a Jewish chancellor). Author Max Blumenthal’s odious anti-Zionist ravings made him persona non-grata in Germany’s parliament, but not to PEN Canada, which gave him an uncontested platform to bruit his hate for Israel.

It is disturbing that so many Jews align themselves with the BDS movement. In July of ’39, left-wing Jewish groups, Jewish Voices for Peace most prominently, signed an open letter of support for BDS. “Some of the undersigned organizations support BDS in full, others in part, and others have no formal position on BDS,” the groups wrote. “We all affirm the current call for BDS as a set of tools and tactics that should not be defined as antisemitic.”

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

In the past, a Jew who was unhappy with his identity would convert to Christianity or Islam. People have a profound yearning to belong to something bigger than themselves and need to feel accepted by some sort of community of fellow believers. Religion always served that purpose, and then, when secularism took hold in the West, the nation-state did. Both are out of favour amongst progressives today.

What is most distasteful about anti-Zionist Jews is their flagrant exploitation of their nominal status as Jews[2], in promoting this and other left-wing causes, insisting that their principles align with Jewish texts and the liturgical precept to “repair the world,” rendered in Hebrew as “tikkun olam.” The Tikkun Olam movement, now pandemic throughout the educational infrastructure of liberal Judaism, is eviscerated by Jonathan Neumann in his new book, To Heal the World: How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.

Neumann’s theme is that tikkun olam, is now simply the Jewish version of “social justice.” The movement, Neumann says, “was conceived by Jews who had rejected the faith of their fathers and midwifed by radicals who saw it as a pretext to appropriate Jewish texts and corrupt religious rituals – such as the seder (which to progressive Jews is never just the Jews’ story of liberation; it is every oppressed people’s story) – to further political ends.”

As the scholar Hillel Halkin puts it: “Judaism has value to such Jews to the extent that it is useful, and it is useful to the extent that it can be made to conform to whatever beliefs and opinions they would have even if Judaism had never existed.”

In 1920, when Leon Trotsky, a Jew, né Bronstein, headed up the Red Army, Moscow’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Mazeh, begged him to command the army to protect Jews from further pogroms. Trotsky reportedly replied: “Why do you come to me? I am not a Jew,” to which Rabbi Mazeh responded: “That’s the tragedy. It’s the Trotskys who make revolutions, and it’s the Bronsteins who pay the price.”

Thematically – thankfully not literally – pro-Israel Jews on university campuses are today’s Bronsteins and the BDS movement today’s Cossacks. The revolutionaries are the progressive Jews who must ignore anti-Semitism in order to remain progressives in good standing.

They don’t have much choice. Progressive dogma insists on the intersectionality of oppression, and Jews do not make the cut as victims. A pro-Israel progressive today is akin to a pro-life feminist. It doesn’t compute. Feminist Jewish women who attempted to square their Zionism with their feminism under the rubric of “Zioness” have been shunned and marginalized by the Sisterhood.

I am less ashamed to acknowledge tribal association with Trotsky – ideologically consistent and hypocrisy-free – than with the opportunistic, virtue-signaling Jewish fellow travelers with BDS, who tolerate or even approve the pathological altruism expressed by Jewish anti-Zionists like Jewish Voices for Peace.

In 2009, in the course of an Aug. 19 conference call with 1,000 or so American rabbis, Barack Obama urged them to use their High Holiday sermons to “tell the stories of health-care dilemmas to illustrate what is at stake.” Rather creepily, he added — imagine if it were George Bush intoning these words to 1,000 evangelical ministers — “we are God’s partners in matters of life and death.”

(The call was meant to be off the record, but at least three rabbis happened to be tweeting as they listened.)

A symbolic moment and potent words. With all due respect to Medicare, a universal health system is not a “matter of life and death” to the Jewish people. Defending Israel is. What were these rabbis thinking, taking their holy day sermon orders from the state?

It’s almost as if these rabbis no longer make any distinction between their religious vocation and their political leanings. It’s almost as if Obama were a religious colleague rather than a political figure. It’s almost as if they could no longer distinguish between Judaism and the Democratic party.

The great American writer Cynthia Ozick, reflecting on how she came to find her literary voice, wrote about how she began her writing career by adopting the universal perspectives of Henry James, whom she passionately admired. But it didn’t feel right and it wasn’t her voice.

Eventually, she realized she must write from her Jewish soul and only then did her work gain the power and the eloquence that brought her to international attention and respect. As she put it, when you blow into the big end of the shofar, no sound emerges. But when you put your lips to the tiny end, you can create a powerful sound. The anywhere are blowing into the big end of the Shofar. The somewhere are blowing into the little end. Which makes the most sense for Jews?

[1] “Many BDS supporters have ulterior motives, poll show,” CJN, Nov 1, 2018, by Ron Csillag

[2] Names: Judith Butler (fond words for Hamas and Hezbollah and who was presented with  an Honorary Doctorate by a Jewish Chancellor), Judy Rebick (grandmother), Naomi Klein, Michael Lerner (Tikkun – calls himself a “post-Zionist”, presented an award to the author of the Goldstone Report, Falk), Tony Kushner, Noam Chomsky