Judaism: Nationality or Religion?
Last Wednesday, a day after a deadly shooting at a kosher supermarket in New Jersey, President Trump signed an executive order advising the Department of Education to consider controversial definitions of anti-Semitism when “vigorously” enforcing anti-discrimination law in schools and on college campuses.
Several friends have asked about my point of view.
Here’s the issue: The order is based on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. To use Title VI to fight discrimination against Jews, Jews would have to be defined under that law as a nationality or a race, since Title VI does not address discrimination against religious groups.
The problem is that Judaism is neither a nationality nor a race. It is a religion. Even more so, for many relatively non-practicing Jews, it is a more a heritage and a moral compass.
I was born in Brooklyn, New York and I’m Jewish. But I’m an American, as were my Brooklyn-born parents. Their parents were born variously in Belarus, Poland or Ukraine. They were Jews who became naturalized American citizens. So, they too were Americans whose religion was Jewish.
According to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, senior advisor and Orthodox Jew, the order recommends language put forth in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Kushner recently wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, “…the alliance defines ‘the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity,’ and those who deny ‘the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor’ or those who compare ‘contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis’ as examples of anti-Semitism.”
Kushner continued, “The Remembrance Alliance definition makes clear what our administration has stated publicly and on the record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism (emphasis, mine). The inclusion of this language with contemporary examples gives critical guidance to agencies enforcing Title VI provisions.”
It goes without saying that I abhor anti-Semitism. There is no place in this country, there is no place in this world for anti-Semitism. But anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.
But what is this term, Zionism, that we throw around so freely?
It is the movement of the Jewish people that espouses the re-establishment of, and support for, a Jewish state in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel. The creation of Israel in 1948, long dreamed of but finally born from the horrors of the Holocaust, is one of the great achievements of the 20th Century.
The citizens of Israel, are Israelis. There are 8.7 million Israeli citizens. 74% are Jewish, 18% are Muslims, about 4% are Christians or Druze and about 4% other/unknown.
I love Israel. But I don’t necessarily agree with all the policies of the Israeli government; in fact I am sometimes vehemently opposed to those policies. That does not make me an anti-Semite, despite the fact that some might describe me as an Israel-hater and a self-loathing Jew.
Similarly, I don’t necessarily agree with all the policies of the U.S. government (more so now than ever). But that does not make me unpatriotic, despite that fact that some people would suggest that I’m not a patriot if I disagree with my government.
As Paul Waldman writes in the Washington Post, “Trump regularly asserts that Jews do and ought to have unquestioning loyalty to Israel.” He also refers to Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister.” Nope, not true. I’m an American. I’m Jewish. But I’m not an Israeli. And Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly not “my prime minister.”
This all this gets very complicated on American college campuses where the B.D.S. movement is very strong. B.D.S. (The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is “a Palestinian-led campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets what the campaign describes as Israel’s obligations under international law, defined as withdrawal from the occupied territories, removal of the separation barrier in the West Bank, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and ‘respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.’”
This is a very difficult for me. While I agree with some of the issues B.D.S. addresses, particularly withdrawal from the occupied territories (but only a rational, negotiated one), I don’t think B.D.S. is the answer. And I don’t agree at all with the false equivalence, picked up by Jared Kushner, that opposition to Zionism is, by definition, anti-Semitism.
As Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt said, “I do think that the B.D.S. movement, at its heart – when you see what is really behind it, and the people who have organized it – is intent on the destruction of the State of Israel. If you look at the founding documents of the groups that first proposed B.D.S., they called for a full right of return, and, essentially, in practical terms, they’re calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. I think the ultimate objective of B.D.S. is not B.D.S. itself. If that were the case, we would all have to give up our iPhones, because so much of that technology is created in Israel. I think the objective of B.D.S., and especially the people who are the main organizers and supporters, is to make anything that comes out of Israel toxic, and I think they have had some success. So, I see that, but I do not think that any kid who supports B.D.S. is ipso facto an anti-Semite. I think that’s wrong. It’s a mistake. And it’s not helpful.”
Let me finish with one last thought. If anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are equivalent, Jews have a real schizophrenia problem as this, from the Jewish Virtual Library, would suggest:
“Jews who criticize or oppose Zionism are usually Orthodox and maintain that Israel can only be regained miraculously. They view the present state as a blasphemous human attempt to usurp G-d’s role, and many actively work to dismantle the secular State of Israel. However, unlike many gentile anti-Zionists, Jewish anti-Zionists usually firmly believe in the Jewish right to the Land of Israel, but only at the future time of redemption.”
Isn’t it ironic then, that the the balance of power in Israeli politics, the ultra-Orthodox, the “Jewish anti-Zionists,” are actually the ones who, in Trump’s and Kushner’s view, are the anti-Semites.