Alex Stein was anxious. Condemning leftist Jewish pundits for publicizing Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik’s affinity for Zionism, the Tel Aviv-based British blogger cried anti-Semitism. “Those on the left who use the arguments outlined above are seeking to demonize whole communities for the crimes of one murderous wing nut,” Stein thundered in The Forward, four days after the Oslo attacks. “While it is true that Breivik clearly identifies with the ideas of a number of right-wing thinkers,” he argued, “this does not mean that those are responsible for what happened in Oslo, anymore than Chomsky was responsible for 9/11.”
Citing the writings of such high profile progressives as New York journalist Max Blumenthal, Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner, and Seattle blogger Richard Silverstein, Stein’s complaints reiterated a familiar Jewish concern about what’s safe to fight about in public, in earshot of the Goyim, for whom discretion, especially in Israeli matters, is always advised. Annoyed by his argument, I nevertheless found myself looking forward to reading the exchanges it was bound to provoke. The first racially-motivated mass killing in Western Europe since the Holocaust had just taken place. It was inevitable that the tragedy would push Jewish buttons. Would we be able to transcend the expected reflexes? I was eager to find out.
Stein reserved his harshest criticisms for Richard Silverstein. Well-known for his disapproval of Jewish neoconservatives and the occupation of Palestinian territories, the former Guardian editorialist is an especially obvious target. Portraying Silverstein as an apologist for Islamic terrorism because he argued that a 2006 attack on the Seattle Jewish Federation was due to the instability of the Pakistani-American gunman rather than anti-Semitism, Stein was harsh. He suggested that Silverstein was guilty of a double standard, since Breivik had been called unstable by his attorney: why couldn’t he show the Norwegian the same consideration he had given a Muslim?
This was the logic of Alex Stein’s riposte. His charges could have levied many times over, against any number of progressive Jews. They were entirely predictable. Nor was there anything new about the opinions he was taking to task. The same criticisms of a right-wing affinity for Zionism had been made just as effectively prior to Breivik, though perhaps less brutally. Nonetheless, everyone reprised their roles. Leftists said their piece. And the right reacted, not by debating the merits of what the leftists were saying, necessarily, but whether the left had the ‘right’ to take such positions publicly. In other words, it was a typically Jewish exchange.
The repetitive nature of such arguments can be numbing. Especially if you pay attention to them with any degree of frequency, like professional community activists mobilized around the Israel/Palestine issue. It is one of the reasons debates about Israel in the Jewish Diaspora can be so alienating. The patience required to sit through them is enormous, and there is rarely any payoff. Though my politics are progressive, I was hoping that Oslo might inspire the Jewish right to help us interrupt this cycle, not the left. Yes, it was important for the latter to broadcast Anders Breivik’s affinity for Zionism. But nothing new was going to come from another reiteration of a threadbare argument. With the right, at least, there was the possibility of a breakthrough. This is why I thought I’d make a close reading of Alex Stein’s article.
Jews who espouse the kinds of anxieties expressed by Stein — specifically, the concern that Jews who speak openly about their political differences will only cause Jews more problems — remain closer to Europe in their thinking than those who don’t preoccupy themselves with such matters. This explains why the individuals Alex Stein charged with allegedly endangering the Jewish community were Americans, not Israelis or Europeans. Despite the predilection of US Jewry to be conservative in matters concerning Israel, there is also, conversely, a typically American willingness to jettison the conventions and reflexes of European Jewish life. Discomfort with Zionist orthodoxy is one such response, albeit a more recent one.
In offering such formulations, I don’t mean to imply that European Jewry is more conservative, especially about issues of security, than its American and Israeli counterparts. What sets it apart is its proximity to the physical experience of anti-Semitism. Not in terms of personal experience, with a few post-1989 exceptions, but historically, as Jews who did not make Aliyah to Israel, or move to the US, but remained in Europe after the Holocaust. Being closer to the site of the Nazi genocide, whether it be in southern Europe, or the United Kingdom, has its own effects. They do not necessarily compel a move towards the right. But they do at least help to explain Jewish fear better. In this sense, as Zionist ideology is wont to assert, location is everything.
The challenge of the Oslo killings for Jews, is to understand this, so that we might leverage European Jewish experience differently than we have in the past. Thus, instead of simply admonishing one another to shut up, so that more gentiles do not learn that aspiring young Nazis like to read the work of Jewish conservatives like Melanie Phillips, how about taking the time to articulate what’s dangerous about Phillips’ work? Because it’s her argument that’s the problem, not her ethnicity. Emphasizing this crucial distinction, as opposed to seeking to bury Phillips like something unpleasant, because she is, like us, Jewish, would be far more constructive. It might even combat the stereotypes which conflate Jews with right-wing politics.
Photograph by Joel Schalit