For the past 17 years I’ve been struggling to understand a troubling phenomenon manifesting itself in American public life. For the life of me, I haven’t been able to understand why many progressive Jews in America express shame over the actions of Israel while so many young Arabs and Muslims in the United States — who drape themselves in the mantle of progressivism — are so confident and aggressive in their support for the cause of Palestinian statehood, which by most objective measures is one of the more retrograde movements on the global agenda today.
I say that as a pro-Israel Christian who hopes that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will ultimately be ended through the application of a two-state solution.
Given the events of the past two decades, which I’ve watched from my vantage point as a researcher for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, I could not understand why many, but not all, progressive Jews have proven to be so ambivalent in their support for Israel.
Israel is by no means a perfect nation, but it treats its own citizens, minorities, dissidents, and even its adversaries who seek its destruction, better than any other country in the Middle East.
I’ve also had a tough time understanding why pro-Palestinian activists have been so much more confident and frankly aggressive in their activism over the past few years.
This puzzlement came to an end on Thursday, June 24th, 2021.
This was the date when I was mobbed by a group of anti-Israel protesters at a rally organized and promoted by the UMass Boston chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, which is part of a network of anti-Israel organizations that have a well-earned reputation for inciting hostility towards the Jewish state and violence towards Jews on college campuses in the United States.
The details are straightforward. Two of my colleagues and I attended an anti-Israel rally organized by SJP that began on the steps of the statehouse and then went to the offices of the Anti-Defamation League and then the offices of the Jewish Community Relations Council or JCRC. It was at the ADL offices where I was mobbed.
It was caught on video. After I was singled out by two speakers at the rally, who both proclaimed their rights to free speech, I was the target of repeated chants of “Zionist go home” to which I responded with two or three iterations of “Am Yisrael Chai.”
In what I’ve called the longest seven minutes of my life, I was shouted at, spit at, had water thrown at me, and was shoved by a rally marshal who was ostensibly supposed to keep order at the event. The hate and hostility with which they targeted me was a profound and life-altering shock.
For one reason or another, I was able to keep my cool, stand my ground, and by doing nothing more than carrying a pen and a notebook, elicit a public and undeniable expression of the hate and hostility that has been part of the anti-Israel movement since its founding.
These folks weren’t about peace, or justice, but about inciting hostility on the part of their supporters and fear on the part of people who believe in the right of the Jews to have a state of their own. The hate was so manifestly ugly and virulent that only the most obtuse would say that the hate would be mollified by the dissolution of the Jewish state. This had to do with Jewish existence.
To be fair, a few people, heroes actually, stood in solidarity with me and tried to get the mob to settle down as people shouted at me, spit at me, threw water at me and shoved me. These people, angels, actually, called on the crowd to leave me alone. “He’s done nothing wrong.”
One Zionist is Not Worth It
Sadly, it wasn’t an appeal to people’s higher angels that was decisive in bringing the mobbing to an end. It was a young man who oddly enough, was wearing a kippah, who warned the crowd, “They will use this against us,” and declared “One Zionist is not worth it” that was able to get them to move on.
In the months since, my colleagues from CAMERA who were with me that day have joked with me, asking, “Sooo, how many Zionists would have made punching you ‘worth it?’ Would three have been enough? Five? How about 10?” It was a parody of Abraham’s argument with God over the number of righteous people in Sodom.
There is one more thing I must report. In response to my two or three chants of “Am Yisrael Chai!” the rally marshall, who shoved me, whose Facebook page indicates he is a member of the Nation of Islam, or in his words, “A soldier of Farrakhan,” told me I had insulted the crowd by merely saying the word “Israel.” Israel has been turned into an epithet.
In the days after the mobbing, I spoke to an Orthodox Jew. I told him about having been pushed, spit at, doused with water and verbally abused. His response was quick and brutal.
“Welcome to Judaism!”
I could only laugh sardonically in response. My spiritual director said about the same thing after I told him what happened, declaring, “It’s good that it happened because you have an inkling of what it’s like to be a Jew.”
But my status as a pariah lasted only seven minutes. I was assailed for my beliefs, which can change, but Jewishness is what Hannah Arendt called an “existential given.” It is not something that can be abandoned, even by those who want to.
This was something Jean Amery understood when he looked at the Nuremburg Laws passed by Germany while sitting at a café in Vienna in 1935. Amery, who lacked the cultural heritage and religious belief that would make him a Jew in his own mind, realized that by passing the Nuremburg Laws, Nazi Germany had, “formally and with all possible clarity […] just made a Jew of me.”
Having read the Nuremburg Laws, I was no more Jewish now than I had been half an hour earlier. My features had not become more Mediterranean or Semitic, my range of associates was not suddenly filled with Hebrew references, the Christmas tree had not been transformed in an instant into a menorah. The verdict society had handed down to me, if it had any tangible impact, could only mean that I was henceforth given over to death.
By mobbing me that day in front of the offices of the ADL in Boston, the crowd was sending a message to the Jewish community in the area. “We will suspend the death sentence that has historically been directed at Jews as Jews, but only if you abandon any hope of sovereignty and self-determination. We will tolerate your existence, but don’t expect to exercise any agency or power in our presence. Look what we can do to your friend with impunity.”
But let’s be clear, the animus toward Jewish sovereignty is ultimately about Jewish existence. As Amery wrote in 1969: “Anyone who questions Israel’s right to exist is either too stupid to understand that he is contributing to or is intentionally promoting an über-Auschwitz.”
The Role of Fear
I can’t help but think that some people conclude that I am somehow in the wrong and that while the crowd did some bad things, the people at the rally can be excused for what they did. I get the impression that some people believe that by attending the rally and introducing myself to one of its participants, I somehow invited the abuse heaped upon me.
People would not arrive at these conclusions out of moral or ethical reasoning, but out of a quick calculation of who represents a greater threat to their well-being: the eccentric looking guy with the pen, notepad and three-day beard wearing a New England Patriots cap, or the mob of young people in keffiyehs and traffic vests heaping abuse on him.
For people whose lives are governed by such calculations, and they do exist, it’s better to ignore the event altogether and when forced to address the issue, concoct, and promote a narrative in which the less threatening party is culpable for the disruption to peace and tranquility. Blame the weaker party because it’s the safer thing to do.
That is how many people analyze the Arab-Israeli conflict and threats to Jews in general — through a lens of fear and a misguided sense of self-preservation. They look at Israel and they look at Jews and see that the Jewish State and the Jewish people are the more reasonable party and less likely to perpetrate acts of violence against them than their adversaries.
The jihadists who attack Jews in Israel and elsewhere in the world are more likely to engage in acts of violence against people outside the region than Israeli and diaspora Jews.
Consequently, it’s easier and safer to lambaste the Jews and their state for the continued existence of the Arab-Israeli conflict than it is to hold the Palestinians accountable for their misdeeds and condemn them for their decade-long attempt to deprive the Jewish people of their sovereign state. As I have said many times before, make Jews unhappy, they’ll send letters. Offend the sensibilities of Islamists and you might get killed.
People are frankly less afraid of Jews and Israel than they are of the people who attack them. People implicitly know that standing in solidarity with Jews makes them a target for hostility which helps explain why we see a softening of support for Israel on the part of young Jews in the United States.
It also explains why we see a lessening of support for Israel on the part of young people in Evangelical Protestantism in the United States. In short, when it comes to changing people’s opinions, violence, intimidation and the threat of isolation work.
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann wrote about this process in her book, The Spiral of Silence. In this text, Noelle-Neumann writes that fear of isolation is one of the primary drivers of public discourse. When people perceive a threat to their well-being and safety as a result of their political opinions, they will stop expressing those opinions in public. In sum, people are more afraid of being isolated than they are of being wrong. And when they choose safety over truth, they will rely on propagandists to give them the misinformation they need to kid themselves and others into thinking that they are in the right. When people experience isolation and intimidation as a result of their beliefs, they fall silent.
The impact of Noelle-Neumann’s spiral of silence can unfold quickly and dramatically. In 1976, Jean Amery reported:
Only a moment ago, it seemed natural to support the Israelis’ right to their own state. Suddenly one is struck by the fact that this support has become a veritable test of courage. Indeed, tomorrow it might well be considered offensive.
Tell me about it.
In light of the mobbing, I have concluded that the dictum that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is simply false. The quality of life that we enjoy and the life circumstances enjoyed by the people who live after us is largely a consequence of the purpose, courage and agency that we show in the face of the historical challenges we face. We don’t have absolute control over our circumstances, but if we behave properly, with prudence and courage, we can expect things to be well for ourselves and our children.
But if we behave in a fearful and unprincipled manner, the quality of life we enjoy, and the quality of life enjoyed by those who come after us will decline.
It will deteriorate.
There is no guarantee, providential or otherwise, of human life improving and moving upward in a positive, blessed spiral.
The notion that it does is simply a lie, a nice pious lie that contradicts a Biblical truth, “Where leaders lack vision, the people perish.”
Now I Get It
The upshot is that I no longer have any difficulty understanding why many young Jews and Christians in the U.S. are starting to distance themselves from Israel.
They have been bullied and intimidated into remaining silent. When that crowd shouted “Zionist go home,” they were sending a message to anyone, Jew or otherwise, who would dare to speak in defense of the Jewish state in their presence.
But it won’t end with Jews or Israel. Just as lies about Israeli use of force against the Palestinians have been used to portray the Jewish state as an evil country with no right to exist, lies about American history have been used to justify the same message about the United States, with terrible effect.
In response to this dishonest narrative, elected officials have struggled to maintain the monopoly on force in American cities with disastrous results for the people who live in these cities regardless of their skin color. Murder rates have sky rocketed in large cities throughout the country, which has been destabilized in part by attacks on the Jewish people and their institutions in the U.S.
One week after I was mobbed, I sat in the lobby of a police station in Boston to talk with a detective about what happened. As I waited, I got a text from my wife telling me that a Chabad Rabbi had been stabbed across the street from the Shaloh House in Brighton.
The attack was perpetrated by an Egyptian national who was in the U.S. on an educational visa. This attack generated a huge outcry on the part of the powers that be in the metro-Boston area, which is reassuring.
But this attack, and the many others that have taken place since last June, have driven home a troubling reality: we are confronting a pinch point in American public life, with Jews at the center.
Jews are at the center of that pinch point, but the destiny of our republic is right in there with them.