January 31, 2007
By PATRICIA COHEN
The American Jewish Committee, an ardent defender of
Israel, is known for speaking out against anti-Semitism,
but this conservative advocacy group has recently stirred
up a bitter and emotional debate with a new target:
An essay the committee features on its Web site,
ajc.org, titled " 'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the
New Anti-Semitism," says a number of Jews, through their
speaking and writing, are feeding a rise in virulent
anti-Semitism by questioning whether Israel should even
In an introduction to the essay, David A. Harris, the
executive director of the committee, writes, "Perhaps the
most surprising --and distressing-- feature of this new
trend is the very public participation of some Jews in
the verbal onslaught against Zionism and the Jewish
State." Those who oppose Israel's basic right to exist,
he continues, "whether Jew or gentile, must be
The essay comes at a time of high anxiety among many
Jews, who are seeing not only a surge in attacks from
familiar antagonists, but also gloves-off condemnations
of Israel from onetime allies and respected figures, like
former President Jimmy Carter, who titled his new book on
the Mideast "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid." By
spotlighting the touchy issue of whether Jews are
contributing to anti-Semitism, both admirers and
detractors of the essay agree that it aggravates an
already heated dispute over where legitimate criticism of
Israel and its defenders ends and anti-Semitic statements
The essay, written by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, an English
professor and the director of the Institute for Jewish
Culture and the Arts at Indiana University in
Bloomington, castigates a number of people by name,
including the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony
Kushner, the historian Tony Judt, the poet Adrienne Rich
and the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, in
addition to a number of academics.
Mr. Judt, whose views on Israel and the American
Jewish lobby have frequently drawn fire, is chastised for
what Mr. Rosenfeld calls "a series of increasingly bitter
articles" that have "called Israel everything from
arrogant, aggressive, anachronistic, and infantile to
dysfunctional, immoral, and a primary cause of
A historian at New York University, Mr. Judt said in a
telephone interview that he believed the real purpose of
outspoken denunciations of him and others was to stifle
harsh criticism of Israel. "The link between anti-Zionism
and anti-Semitism is newly created," he said, adding that
he fears "the two will have become so conflated in the
minds of the world" that references to anti-Semitism and
the Holocaust will come to be seen as "just a political
defense of Israeli policy."
The essay also takes to task "Wrestling With Zion:
Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" (Grove Press), a 2003
collection of essays edited by Mr. Kushner and Alisa
Solomon. Mr. Kushner said that he and Ms. Solomon took
great care to include a wide range of voices in their
collection, including those of Ms. Rich, the playwright
Arthur Miller and various rabbis.
"Most Jews like me find this a very painful subject,"
Mr. Kushner said, and are aware of the rise in vicious
anti-Semitism around the world but feel "it's morally
incumbent upon us to articulate questions and
Over the telephone, the dinner table and the Internet,
people who follow Jewish issues have been buzzing over
Mr. Rosenfeld's article. Alan Wolfe, a political
scientist and the director of the Boisi Center for
Religion and American Public Life at Boston College,
said, "I'm almost in a state of shock" at the verbal
assaults directed at liberal Jews.
On H-Antisemitism (h-net.org), an Internet forum for
scholarly discussions of the subject, Michael Posluns, a
political scientist at the University of Toronto, wrote,
"Sad and misbegotten missives of the sort below make me
wonder if it is not the purpose of mainstream Jewish
organizations to foster anti-Jewishness by calling down
all who take from their Jewish experience and Jewish
thought a different ethos and different ways of being as
Others have praised Mr. Rosenfeld's indictment and
joined the fray. Shulamit Reinharz, a sociologist who is
also the wife of Jehuda Reinharz, the president of
Brandeis University, wrote in a column for The Jewish
Advocate in Boston: "Most would say that they are simply
anti-Zionists, not anti-Semites. But I disagree, because
in a world where there is only one Jewish state, to
oppose it vehemently is to endanger Jews."
Although many of the responses to the essay have
referred to its subject as "Jewish anti-Semitism,"
Mr. Rosenfeld said in a telephone interview that he
was very careful not to use that phrase. But whatever it
is called, he said, "I wanted to show that in an age when
anti-Semitism is resurgent, Jews thinking the way they're
thinking is feeding into a very nasty cause."
In his essay he says that "one of the most distressing
features of the new anti-Semitism" is "the participation
of Jews alongside it." Like others, Mr. Cohen of The
Washington Post complained that the essay cherry-picked
quotations. "He mischaracterized what I wrote," he said.
"I've been critical of Israel at times, but I've always
been a defender of Israel." He did add, however, that a
wide range of writers were named, some of whom have
written inflammatory words about Israel. "He has me in a
very strange neighborhood," Mr. Cohen said.
The dispute goes beyond the familiar family squabbling
among Jews that is characterized by the old joke about
two Jews having three opinions on a single subject.
Bitter debates over anti-Israel statements and
anti-Semitism have entangled government officials,
academics, opinion-makers and others over the past year,
particularly since fervent supporters and tough critics
of Israel can be found on the right and the left.
Mr. Wolfe, who has written about a recent rise in what
he calls "Jewish illiberalism," traces the heated
language to increasing opposition to the Iraq war and
President Bush's policy in the Middle East, which he said
had spurred liberal Jews to become more outspoken about
"Events in the world have sharpened a sense of what's
at stake," he said. "Israel is more isolated than ever,"
causing American Jewish defenders of Israel to become
On this point Mr. Rosenfeld and Mr. Wolfe are in
agreement. "It's going up a notch or four or five,"
Mr. Rosenfeld said in an interview. "One of the
things that is clear," he said of anti-Semitic and
anti-Israel attacks, "is that what used to be on the
margin and not very serious is becoming more and more
Mr. Rosenfeld, who has written and edited more than
half a dozen books as well as other publications for the
committee, emphasized that policy disagreements were
natural and expected. Opposing Israel's settlement of the
West Bank or treatment of Palestinians "is, in itself,
not anti-Semitic," he writes; it is questioning Israel's
right to exist that crosses the line.
But Mr. Judt said, "I don't know anyone in a
respectable range of opinion who thinks Israel shouldn't
exist." (Mr. Judt advocates a binational state that is
not exclusively Jewish, something that many Jews see as
equivalent to dissolving Israel). He contends that harsh
complaints about Israel's treatment of Palestinians are
the real target.
Last year Mr. Judt came to the defense of two
prominent political scientists, Stephen M. Walt at
Harvard and John J. Mearsheimer of the University of
Chicago, after they were besieged for publishing a paper
that baldly stated (among other things) that anyone
critical of Israel or the American Jewish lobby "stands a
good chance of being labeled an anti-Semite."
David Singer, the committee's director of
research, said the attention Mr. Rosenfeld's essay had
drawn was not unexpected. "We certainly thought that it
would raise eyebrows in some quarters," he said.
"I think it's an act of courage" on the part of
the American Jewish Committee and the author, he added.
"It obviously deals with matters of great