The American Jewish Committee has endorsed an article by Indiana University professor Alvin Rosenfeld linking "progressive" Jewish thought to a rise in anti-Semitism. The article pointedly castigates Jewish critics of Israel 's policies, and argues that such criticism questions the very right of Israel statehood. All this, Rosenfeld -- and the AJC -- insist, fuels anti-Semitism. It is a false proposition.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that to be or not to be is not the question, but how to be and how not to be is the essential one. The AJC's view is that criticism of Israel is tantamount to denying Israel's right to exist, and that makes you an anti-Semite.
Anti-Semitism has many sources, but the spring of critical "progressive Jewish thought" is a mere trickle. Indeed, there are lonely voices on the left and right who question Israel's existence -- and yes, some are Jewish. A voice here, an article there, by an American Jew criticizing Israel, and the AJC trembles.
The AJC's real targets are "progressives" -- which is their shorthand for Democrats and opponents of George W. Bush's dubious adventure into Iraq. Along with its favorite stable of commentary writers, the AJC has been an ardent advocate for the Iraq war, fixed with a vision that it would bring forth a new Middle Eastern order. But the war and the vision have failed, and, ironically, at some cost to Israel's interests.
Israel's right to exist is not a serious question dividing Jews. But if Jewish criticism of the Jewish state made such Jews anti-Semites, then the world of anti-Semitism would be significantly enlarged. Criticism of the Israeli occupation puts you in the company of a significant portion of the Israel population. Those folks -- many of whom are descendants of Israel's "pioneers" -- at best are amused by such an equation. American newspapers have been critical of the occupation, with some significant ones being Jewish-owned. And this has stoked the fires of anti-Semitism?
The recent Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon failed and provided a boon for growing Hezbollah power and influence. The war and its unintended consequences was further exacerbated by the US response -- or, rather, the lack of one.
The bombing and the de facto American encouragement have been an embarrassment, let alone a disaster for Israeli aims and influence. One can be an Israel supporter, yet not remain silent on the bombing -- as did Condolezza Rice, then playing midwife to "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." New, indeed, and a more dangerous neighborhood than ever -- again, both for Israel and the United States.
The American Jewish Committee's history reveals a convert to Zionism, one filled with the worst of proselytizing zeal. Before 1947, the AJC was a powerful divisive force precisely because it so adamantly opposed the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Its founders would marvel at the AJC's evolution. Adolph Ochs of The New York Times regularly targeted and castigated prominent Zionist luminaries such as Justice Louis Brandeis, and Rabbis Abba Hillel Silver and Stephen Wise. Finally, the AJC changed course in 1946, as its membership expanded with a substantial number of East European Jews and their descendants.
Historically, to be sure, the AJC has been an effective advocate for religious tolerance and Jewish cultural identity. But its present political leadership, along with AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, now have bankrolled vigorous support for the Bush administration's Middle Eastern policies.
They do not have the only microphone to speak for American Jewry. Opinion and voting polls show them at odds with the majority of American Jews who remain "progressive" on an array of social issues, including Israeli policies -- and, more to the point, of US behavior in the Middle East. Meanwhile to hold Israel's Jewish critics accountable for growing anti-Semitism is irresponsible, if not ridiculous.
Stanley I. Kutler has taught and lectured at Tel Aviv and Hebrew Universities. He is the author of "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes."
Copyright 2007 Boston Globe