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New York Notes: The Quirkiness of the Israel-Free-Jews

by Shmuel Rosner

February 18, 2014 | 3:30 am

Photo by Reuters

The press loves the outlier, the anecdotal, the out of the box exception to the rule. The 'man bites dog' story that makes the paper interesting rather than the 'dog bites man' story that makes the paper, well, a chronicle of the mundane. That’s the reason for writing pieces like the much-talked-about story by the New York Times about observant Jews who are also very critical of Israel and, in fact, oppose Zionism.

It was a good story – about four-five outcasts. Some of them, such as Prof. Daniel Boyarin of Berkeley, are well known critics of Israel, others less so. “While there have always been anti- or non-Zionist Jews, today they cluster on the less observant end of Judaism, among secular or religiously liberal Jews”, wrote Mark Oppenheimer in his story. That is true, unless you count in some of the ultra-Orthodox groups that are non-Zionist and even fervently anti-Zionist. In fact, what happened to the ultra-Orthodox is not that far from the process through which the Reform Jewish movement had to go through. On principal, the rabbis and leaders were against Zionism. But as they began to lose their constituency - more infatuated with the actuality of Israel than troubled by ideological inconsistencies in their religious philosophy – the leaders had to reconsider and moderate their stance or, in some cases, reverse it.

That is really what makes the story about the “observant” Israel-weary Jews quite unimportant overall. The views expressed by those Jews – as coherent and as idealistic as they might be – don’t correspond with the reality of Jewish life in the 21st century, of which Israel is the center. And yes, I know, some good Jewish Americans don’t quite accept Israel as the center and prefer to call it a center. So be it – a center. Still, considering the centrality of Israel to Jewish life today, deciding to be an Israel-free-Jew is like deciding to be a bible-free-Jew or a Passover-free-Jew. Doable - but more bizarre than admirable. I’m sure it is possible to construct a hefty argument against celebrating Pesach. And if there are any Jews out there who want to do such a thing, they might even be rewarded with an article by an important paper. But the fact that for Jews Passover is a very (if not the most) important holiday will remain. The opposition will be a quirky nugget of interest rather than a real Jewish alternative.

Prof. Charles Manekin, one of the heroes of Oppenheimer’s story, is the living proof of his own negligibility. He is an Israeli citizen, and “spends about half the year in Israel, where his children and grandchildren live, so he is hardly boycotting the country with his own dollars (or shekels)”, as the article drily notes. However, “since 2007 he has regularly offered criticisms of Israel on his blog”. So here you have it: on the one hand, he lives in Israel, spends money in Israel, has grandchildren - one's investment in the Jewish future – in Israel. On the other hand, he writes a blog.

Naturally, I’m the last person who has the right to mock other people's blogging habits, and I'm also the last person who has an interest in suggesting that blogs aren’t, well, that important. Blogs can be important, they can be interesting, they can have influence, they are a place for debate and contemplation of many topics. They are, however, less important than actual action. If Prof. Manekin is so heavily invested in Israel, the fact that he writes a blog that isn’t really supportive of Zionism seems to me to be of minor importance.

Last week, following the publication of the NYT article, Manekin wrote on his blog: “don’t the Jews have a right, like other peoples, to a state of their own? No they don’t, and neither do other peoples. Self-determination, yes; statehood, that depends”. Depends on what – I’m not sure, and frankly, I don’t really care. Manekin is entitled to believe that nation-states are immoral. He is entitled to believe that Israel as a Zionist enterprise was a mistake. He is entitled to do all this while still benefiting from the special privilege of having his Jewish grandchildren growing up safely in a Jewish state – a privilege that most Jews, in most eras, would consider miraculously great. The most interesting thing about Oppenheimer’s article, though, isn’t that some Jews, even some observant ones, don’t find the idea of Israel appealing; it is the fact that these Jews today are the equivalent of the man-bites-dog story. Within just a few of decades, opposing the Zionist enterprise has become something so rare and so out of the ordinary that it is worthy of an article.  

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