Banishing the Heretics

Bradley Burston writes this week about the hunt for heretics within Judaism -- not religious heretics, but political:

The opening shot was fired this month by the former chairman of the Governing Board of the World Jewish Congress, Isi Liebler, who declared it "our obligation to confront the enemy within - renegade Jews - including Israelis who stand at the vanguard of global efforts to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state."

"Such odious Jews can be traced back to apostates during the Middle Ages who fabricated blood libels and vile distortions of Jewish religious practice for Christian anti-Semites to incite hatred which culminated in massacres," Liebler wrote in the Jerusalem Post. "It was in response to these renegades that the herem [excommunication] was introduced."

Now it is true that there are indeed Jews in the world today who have made themselves enemies of their people; the Hezbollah advocate Norman Finkelstein comes to mind. But Liebler and others seem to think that Jewish critics of Israeli policies -- not Jewish critics of Israel's existence, mind you -- are also heretical. This debate is very much about J Street, an organization about which I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I come out of a left-Zionism tradition -- Hashomer Hatzair, for those of you keeping score at home -- and I believe in a two-state solution, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, more-or-less the whole program. So I'm comfortable in many ways with J Street's basic worldview. On the other hand, I don't think the group has put forward a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like. This might be because, in addition to having progressive Zionists as members, it also has anti-Zionists (these are the types who are happy with Stephen Walt's tragic endorsement of the group) and it's obviously very hard to put forward a positive vision of a Jewish Israel when some of your important supporters -- Bernard Avishai comes to mind -- don't even believe in the idea of a Jewish state.

But it is inaccurate and Jewishly wrong for J Street's right-leaning political adversaries to argue that the group as a whole represents some sort of manifestation of Jewish self-hatred. I have very serious doubts about the willingness of Arabs to make peace with the Jewish state, but I also know that certain Israeli policies make the cause of compromise even more difficult. It's not self-hatred to acknowledge the obvious: That the settlement movement, and its supporters, overemphasize the sanctity of land in Jewish theology, and neglect other aspects of Judaism. Land, love, social justice, an intolerance of idolatry, the law as a whole, abhorrence of cruelty -- all these things together make up Judaism. (This is why a balanced Jewish life is so hard to master.)  It is unfair to call a Jew a self-hater simply because he'd rather see Hebron under Arab rule than an Israel that, in keeping Hebron under Jewish rule, betrays other Jewish values.