[Landline] Simple Shmerel speaks
This Landline is a very focused post, and is not intended for everyone.1
It is directed towards my American Jewish friends — and for people who know them, who are wondering why more of us aren’t denouncing the atrocities that Israel’s government is committing in our name.
I’ve wrestled for weeks with the question of whether this newsletter is an appropriate venue for this sort of post, but… at this point, things have gone so far past intolerable that I feel compelled, as an American Jew, to use whatever platform I have to speak my conscience.
As always with Landline, I don’t know if what I have to share here will be convincing, comforting or useful, but as Andrew Weatherall famously said, “Fail we may/Sail we must.”
In my view, what is happening now is that the Israeli government is continuing down the path of Jewish ethnonationalism that really took hold when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995.
Remember that Rabin was murdered because he was engaging in a peace process with the Palestinian Liberation Organization—a process that had a peace treaty and Palestinian self-determination as its goals. Israel’s right wing, led by future (and current) prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposed all of that, with the most violent political rhetoric possible.2
In the 28 years since Rabin’s assassination, with a break here and there, the ideology that assassin held has become the ideology of the Israeli government.3
During that time, mainstream American Jews have continued to stand by Israel’s government, no matter how ultranationalist, pro-apartheid, anti-peace and (to the point) anti-Palestinian it’s become.
Some of us American Jews have broken with the mainstream American Jewish consensus of “Support Israel, through thick and thin, right or wrong.”
But not enough of us have made that break.
That’s partly because mainstream American Jewry has hammered the “Zionism is fundamental to Judaism”4 message to Jews—and to the general public, and to policymakers and culture people and so on—for decades now. Practically every reasonable criticism of Israel’s ethnonationalist government from left-wing Jews is met with a response from mainstream American Jewry of “You’re a self-hating Jew,” “You’re being naive,” “Your grandparents would be ashamed of you,” etc. Nine days ago the dependably reprehensible New York Times Op-Ed columnist Bret Stephens went further, writing that “organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace5… are being used as Jewish beards for aggressive antisemites.”
Beards or not, the Jewish left has continued to speak truth to power, sometimes even in the pages of the mainstream press. “There Is a Jewish Hope for Palestinian Liberation. It Must Survive” by Peter Beinert, published in the Oct. 14 New York Times, is especially good, as are two pieces in the same paper by Roger Cohen6.
But the sharpest, smartest, most concise, and yes, most righteous piece I’ve seen on mainstream American Jewry’s complicity in the ongoing horror in Israel comes from an anonymous American Jew, going by the name “Simple Shmerel.”
This piece was published ahead of this past Tuesday’s pro-Israel march in Washington, D.C. From its first line—”What would Israel have to do for us to say they have gone too far?”—this piece says everything much better than I ever could, and so, I reprint it here in full:
“A Letter to American Jews” by Simple Shmerel
13 Nov, 2023
What would Israel have to do for us to say they have gone too far?
In the past month, Israel has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, two out of every five of them a child. They have dropped some of the largest bombs in their arsenal into the middle of crowded neighborhoods in pursuit of a single Hamas commander. Their siege has made clean water scarce, and rates of diarrhea in young children are seven times higher than in a normal month in Gaza. The hospitals that still function have little electricity and few medical supplies. Doctors are performing surgeries without anesthesia, and using foil blankets to warm premature babies because there is no more oxygen for the incubators. Food supplies are low.
That is how things stand today for the two million people who live in Gaza. The American Jewish community, by and large, remains unconditionally supportive of the Israeli attack.
American Jewish opinion is not monolithic, and some American Jews have protested in favor of a ceasefire. But even as the Biden administration has begun to offer some mild rebukes of the Israeli military campaign, and more than half of Democrats say Israel’s response is excessive, there have been no notable denunciations of Israeli conduct by American Jewish leaders; no notable expressions of dissent by mainstream Jewish institutions.
Instead, on Tuesday, national Jewish groups are organizing a “March for Israel” on the National Mall, to “demonstrate our commitment to America’s most important ally in the Middle East.” All signs point to a large turnout: New York City’s Jewish federation alone has chartered a hundred buses, Jewish day schools are canceling classes. Virtually every notable Jewish group has said it will participate, including the notionally leftist J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
What is emerging is a vision of an American Jewish community that places no upper limit on the violence it will countenance in Gaza. That’s to be expected from groups like the Zionist Organization of America, which has made no secret of its sentiment towards Palestinians. What is startling is the posture of moderate and liberal leaders, people who had maintained that a humanistic, progressive Zionism remained possible, despite the realities of occupation and apartheid. Now that liberal Zionist veneer has been rubbed away, exposing a hard nationalistic core.
Today, when an expression of American Jewish communal outrage at conditions in Gaza could save Palestinian lives, we have instead adopted a posture of absolute support for the Israeli attack. American Jews are not responsible for Israel’s actions, but we cannot deny our complicity. What we believe matters, and what we say matters, and it matters that American Jews have turned away from the idea that even war must have limits.
We shouldn’t minimize how out of step this position is with the ideas and traditions of the American Jewish community. It’s true that American Jewish leaders have grown unwilling to allow daylight between themselves and the security policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, and it’s true that American Jewish domestic policy groups have increasingly confined themselves to Israel advocacy. That creeping particularism had all been layered, however, on an implied foundation of shared liberal values: a commitment to social justice, to civil rights, to democracy. Do we not owe our existence as a community to George Washington’s pledge to give “to bigotry no sanction”? Did we not conjure the colossus who lifts her lamp “beside the golden door”? Have we not liberated from Meir Kahane the Jewish Defense League slogan “Never Again!,” and given it new life as a universal promise applied to all peoples, a declaration of the sanctity of each individual human life?
We’ve left all this behind over this past month, in our shock over the horror of the October 7 attacks, and the ideological failure they represent.
Hamas’s ability to kill more than a thousand people in a border raid is more than a tactical and strategic failure on the part of generations of Israeli political and military leaders. It represents a failure of the Zionist promise that Jewish lives could only be defended in a Jewish state. On October 7, the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust happened not in New York, but forty miles south of Tel Aviv.
The attacks exposed a fundamental error at the root of the Zionist idea: Jewish power cannot indefinitely suppress the aspirations of the Palestinians. Jewish safety cannot exist in the context of occupation. Zionism was an experiment. On October 7th, that experiment failed.
For American Jews, that failure amounts to a spiritual crisis. American Judaism has since 1967 given over much of itself to Israel and to the Zionist idea, in the hopes that the dream of Jewish power might serve as a bulwark against assimilation. Decades of theological, political, educational, and organizational work have since then brought Israel and Zionism into the center of American Jewish life: Israel itself is a Jewish value, Zionism a central tenet. The failure of the core Zionist promise of Jewish safety, therefore, presents a direct threat not only to our politics, but to our identities; our senses of self. Adapting to a post-October 7 reality in which Zionism has been shown to be an inadequate answer to the problem of the Jew’s place in the modern world would mean rethinking the American Judaism that we have constructed over the last seven decades; how we explain what we believe, what we teach our children, how we order our lives.
When prophecy fails, however, the response of the true believer is rarely to reflect on where things went wrong. Instead, he commits himself even more fully to the vision of his fallen prophet. After Shabbetai Tzvi’s movement collapsed in 1666, his nearest disciples followed him into Islam, rather than face the world without the hope of imminent redemption. The same happened after Jacob Frank’s conversion to Christianity a century later. Rabbi Schneerson died in 1994, but you can still find yellow flags all over Crown Heights.
American Jewish leaders cannot face the ideological failure implied by October 7, and so instead are turning to the same old plays they’ve run a thousand times before: Attack Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine. Run leftists out of community institutions. “Name and shame” student activists. Raise a few million dollars for a new hasbarah campaign.
It’s time to stop. We don’t have the luxury of waiting a few generations for this particular failed prophecy to fade away. What American Jews say today and tomorrow matters for Palestinians, for Israelis, for the hostages, and for a world that faces extraordinary peril if this conflict continues to grow.
Don’t go to Tuesday’s march at the National Mall. Don’t tell Congress, the Biden administration, and the world at large that American Jews are comfortable with whatever Prime Minister Netanyahu and his generals choose to do to the Palestinians in Gaza. We as American Jews are entitled to our pain, our fear, our fury. But we are also obligated to recall the values we espoused on October 6: War has rules. All human lives have value. “To bigotry no sanction.”
Thank you, Simple Shmerel, whoever you are.
Peace, justice, solidarity and liberation for all,
The next Landline will be along shortly, and I promise will be a return to the regular format of good cheer.
Wikipedia: “Rabin was disparaged personally by right-wing conservatives and Likud leaders who perceived the peace process as an attempt to forfeit the occupied territories and a capitulation to Israel's enemies.
“National religious conservatives and Likud party leaders believed that withdrawing from any ‘Jewish’ land was heresy. The Likud leader and future prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Rabin's government of being ‘removed from Jewish tradition [...] and Jewish values.’ Right-wing rabbis associated with the settlers' movement prohibited territorial concessions to the Palestinians and forbade soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces from evacuating Jewish settlers under the accords. Some rabbis proclaimed din rodef, based on a traditional Jewish law of self-defense, against Rabin personally, arguing that the Oslo Accords would endanger Jewish lives.
“Rallies organized by Likud and other right-wing groups featured depictions of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, or in the crosshairs of a gun. Protesters compared the Labor party to the Nazis and Rabin to Adolf Hitler and chanted, ‘Rabin is a murderer’ and ‘Rabin is a traitor.’ In July 1995, Netanyahu led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and hangman's noose at an anti-Rabin rally where protesters chanted, ‘Death to Rabin.’ The chief of internal security, Carmi Gillon, then alerted Netanyahu of a plot on Rabin's life and asked him to moderate the protests' rhetoric, which Netanyahu declined to do. Netanyahu denied any intention to incite violence.”
Wikipedia: “Due to the ultimate failure of further progress on the Oslo Accords, there is a popular view of the assassination that regards it as having been highly ‘successful’ if not the ‘most successful’ political assassination in modern history in terms of achieving the political goals of its perpetrator.“
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, as told to NYT Op-Ed columnist Charles Blow (New York Times, Nov. 16)
I’m a proud member of Bret Stephens’ (brêt noire?) Jewish Voice for Peace.
“A Shaken Israel Is Forced Back to Its Eternal Dilemma” by Roger Cohen (New York Times, Oct. 8)
“Peace, a Forgotten Word, Renews its Claim in the Holy Land” by Roger Cohen (New York Times, Oct. 22)