October 4, 2022

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On Anorexic Jews and Virtue Signaling: Hasia Diner and Marjorie Feld, “Historians”


Somewhat predictably, Ha-aretz has published a piece by two American Jewish scholars on why they have “left Zionism behind.” Although they claim to be historians (and in their chosen fields they may be), their argument is much more based on myths – Palestinian myths – which they have allowed to colonize their minds, and which they regurgitate without any critical thinking at all.

Apparently being critical of one’s own people is enough to quality as “critical”, even when the assertions they make have virtually no grounding in any historical reality. On the contrary, what we seem to have is a blanket, counter-empirical application of a Post-Colonial paradigm and the “virtue signalling” that lets everyone know what good, “Righteous Jews,” they are, Jews who show their virtue by taking sides against their own people.

Part of what’s so shocking about their piece, which has already solicited four indignant responses, here, here, here, and here, is their open revulsion at Zionism and any Jew who supports Israel. Here we find a strong echo of what Edward Alexander calls “anorexic Jews” – Jews so ashamed of their body (politic), namely Israel, that they turn against their own corporeal self.

Fisking below.

We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind

Our connections to Israel flourished, faltered and finally ended even though we grew up, live and work in the heart of the American Jewish community.

Hasia Diner and Marjorie N. Feld Aug 01, 2016 11:46 AM

Hasia Diner: The Israel I once loved was a naïve delusion

When I was asked to run as a delegate on the progressive Hatikva platform to the 2010 World Zionist Congress, I encountered my personal rubicon, the line I could not cross. I was required to sign the “Jerusalem Program.” This statement of principles asked me to affirm that I believed in “the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem as capital” for the Jewish people. It encouraged “Aliyah to Israel,” that is, the classic negation of the diaspora and as such the ending of Jewish life outside a homeland in Israel.

That’s impressive, and impressively insecure. It’s not like it demanded Aliyah, just encouraged it. But somehow even that is too much (how dramatic is “my own personal rubicon [sic]”?). The idea that Israel and moving there, represents somehow a negation of the diaspora is an astonishing leap of logic. It sounds a lot like more like Diner’s notion of Diaspora (see below) is a negation of Israel. This is Judith Butler talk, nicely characterized by Edward Alexander as illustrative of

…Orwell’s view that some ideas—like the virtue of Jewish powerlessness—are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them.


The “Jerusalem Program” also asked me to declare that I wanted to see the “strengthening [of] Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state.” As to democratic, I had no problem, but the singular insistence on Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state made me realize that, at least in light of this document, I could not call myself a Zionist, any longer. Does Jewish constitute a race or ethnicity? Does a Jewish state mean a racial state?

No. Anyone who’s been to Israel knows how wide the variety of races (and that’s just counting the Jews). Reading “racism” in “Jewish State” is an internalization of the heinous accusation that “Zionism = Racism.” Any good historian with a handle on what real racism is (as presumably a historian of real Apartheid), would know what nonsense it is.

As for the questions mal posées – “Does Jewish constitute a race or ethnicity? Does a Jewish state mean a racial state?” – the answers are a) neither, and b) no.

The death of vast numbers of Jewish communities as a result of Zionist activity has impoverished the Jewish people, robbing us of these many cultures that have fallen into the maw of Israeli homogenization.

What is Diner talking about? “Vast numbers of Jewish communities dead because of Zionist activity”?  This sounds like a description of Nazi and Arab activity, not Zionist. How can historians make such stunningly wrong-headed assertions. And where is Ha-aretz’s fact-checking (or does that only kick in when the sentiments are counter the “narrative”)?

Israeli “homogenization”? Again, what does that mean, given the vast variety of life-styles, races, ideologies, and opinions that characterize this tiny state? If the previous statement sounds like a description of the Nazis, this one sounds like a description of the American academic scene today – much “racial” and “ethnic” diversity, appalling homogeneity of opinion.

The ideal of a religiously neutral state worked amazingly well for the millions of Jews who came to America.

As Havig Rettig Gur puts it so nicely:

Indeed. So it is unspeakably tragic that when millions of Jews needed refuge from annihilation, the doors to that ideal America were sealed shut.

Indeed, it was just the kind of visceral distaste for fellow Jews demonstrated here by Diner and Feld that dominated the “liberal” circles of American Jews who systematically ignored the plight of European Jews. Anyone who thinks that it’s uniquely the NYT that ignored the Holocaust, think again. As Ben Halpern put it:

The history of our times will one day make bitter reading, when it records that some Jews were so morally uncertain that they denied they were obligated to risk their own safety in order to save other Jews who were being done to death abroad.

—Ben Halpern, “We and the European Jews,” Jewish Frontier, August 1943

Now, behind the smokescreen of accusing the Jews in Israel of “harsh” treatment of people who embrace exterminationist anti-semitism, these American “Jews” replicate the sins of their not-too-distant forebears: sacrificing their fellow Jews for the sake of guaranteeing their “amazing” well-being as American Jews.

And not to pull an old chestnut out of the fire, but that sense of amazing well-being is just how the assimilated Jews of Germany felt in the early 20th century, and just how the same kind of Jews of France and England felt in the late 20th century. This is the kind of “Orwellian” romanticization of Jewish powerlessness that Alexander derided.

The socialist Zionism of the Habonim youth movement was central to my early years, providing my base during the 1970s when the Jewish settlement of the Occupied Territories began. I need not belabor the point that from that date on, the Palestinian land that has been expropriated for Jews has grown by leaps and bounds and that the tactics used by the State of Israel to suppress the Palestinians have grown harsher and harsher.

Here comes the uncritical adoption of the “Palestinian narrative.” The “expropriation” of “Palestinian land,” is a pre-emptive grant of that territory to “Palestinians” who have repeatedly rejected having that land at the price of giving up their claims on Israeli land. It’s a commonplace among “liberals” to imagine that if only Israel gave them the “Occupied Territory” (with a capital O and T), then everything would be okay – a fantasy that people in the diaspora are free to indulge in at no cost to themselves.

But what’s really going on here is the assertion of a four-dimensional Jew/two-dimensional Palestinian mentality. Jews are guilty of hurting the poor, innocent, Palestinian victims. The irredentist, vicious, racist, genocidal hatreds that Palestinian leaders – religious and secular – inculcate in their hostage-victim people, plays no role in this calculus. Not a moment’s thought to the sad reality that when Palestinians talk about “occupation” they mean the shore line not the green line.

There is here the strong odor here of what Manfred Gerstenfeld calls “humanitarian racism.” Palestinians have no moral agency: they are only victims of Israeli malevolence. They do not act, and especially, they do not act badly. Heaven forbid! How could a good Jewish progressive criticize POC (people of color)?

Nor do I need to say that the exponential growth of far right political parties and the increasing Haredization of Israel, makes it a place that I abhor visiting, and to which I will contribute no money, whose products I will not buy, nor will I expend my limited but still to me, meaningful, political clout to support it.

“Haredization”? What are they talking about? The increasing strength of religious Jews?

“Abhor”? What tolerant people! What an embrace of diversity!

Presumably, given the far greater religious radicalization of Muslim society, they would genuinely abhor visiting almost any Muslim country on the planet. Indeed, I don’t think they’d be comfortable anywhere but the NE Corridor and SoCal. Unless, of course, other people’s religious fundamentalism doesn’t produce a gag reflex, only her own, or as Seth Frantzman puts it so well: “they educated themselves to hate themselves and love what they hate about themselves in the other.”

I have read too much about colonialism and racism to maintain what I now see as a naïve view, that only the events of June 1967 changed everything. The Israel that I loved, the one my parents embraced as the closest approximation to Eden on earth, itself had depended well before 1967 upon the expropriation of Arab lands and the expulsion of Arab populations.

And just what has she been reading on imperialism? The anti-imperialism of fools? Has she read about Islamic imperialism? Is she aware that the population of the land between the river and the sea has increased tenfold since the Zionists have come? That the Arab population has more than quadrupled since 1900? Is she aware of how radically different from imperialist colonialism the Zionist settlement of the land? What other project of settlement is not preceded by a conquest?

The Law of Return can no longer look to me as anything other than racism.

Mind totally colonized by her people’s enemy’s propaganda, or as Jonathan Sarna puts it: she has “replaced utopian myths with demonizing ones.” Racism here is a completely inappropriate word. Religious discrimination? Perhaps. But nothing in comparison with the religious apartheid of the most implacable enemies of Diner’s people.

I abhor violence, bombings, stabbings, or whatever hurtful means oppressed individuals resort to out of anger and frustration.

You know what’s coming after the obligatory throat clearing… But!

And yet, I am not surprised when they do so, after so many decades of occupation, with no evidence of progress.

So why are the Tibetans such laggards?

And since when is there no progress? Gaza is in the hands of Hamas, Area A in the hands of the PA, they control their educational system which they use to abuse their children. They have widespread international recognition. “No progress?”

All this assumes that the progress they seek is a state of their own to the East of the Green Line, and their frustration drives them to violence.

The lack of surprise here replicates the folly of the Jenny Tonge and Cherie Bler, both of whom have made the list of #ASSO21C (Astoundingly Stupid Statements of the 21 Century), namely the projection of Western positive-sum norms onto Palestinians (all they want is a state of their own) to justify their morally repugnant behavior (slaughtering civilians).

Implications are clear: Israelis are frustrating their “legitimate” desires, they, in desperation, react understandably. Reality quite otherwise: Israel frustrating their illegitimate desires to destroy it; their terrorism a reflection of their genocidal desires: Aspiration not Desperation.

I feel a sense of repulsion when I enter a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, “We Stand With Israel.” I just do not go and avoid many Jewish settings where I know Israel will loom large as an icon of identity.

Wow. This is an acute case of what some psychologists call “psychogenic paralysis, conversion disorder,” in which one’s own limb is experienced as alien and its attachment to the body terrifying. It’s what Alexander calls Jewish anorexia.

Marjorie N. Feld: The moment I began my reeducation

In all facets of my very Jewish upbringing I was immersed in Holocaust education. It was made absolutely clear to me that only Israel could prevent the concentration camps, right-wing anti-Semitism and genocide, from reappearing. Friends and I travelled throughout Israel on a summer high school program in 1988, hitting the Jewish tourist spots (Masada, the Western Wall) that reinforced both Jewish nationalist triumphalism and the co-constitutive invisibility of Palestinians, their history, the violence and ethnic cleansing that created the Jewish state.

More of the internalization of her people’s malevolent mythology. The ethnic cleansing (precipitated by massacres on a vast scale) was the goal of the Arabs who invaded in 1948. For someone attuned to the Holocaust, how could she miss the fact that this accusation – like the Nazi one about the Jews wanting to enslave mankind – was a projection? How could she be so fixated on white right-wing anti-Semitism that she missed brown, “left” (really right)-wing anti-Semitism.

I now call it my propaganda tour, but I learned this language only later. From non-Jews I met in liberal and left organizations in college, I first heard strong critiques of Zionism as Western colonialism, as a militarist project, as racism. Very smart friends of mine were articulating these critiques, and they made me terrifically uncomfortable.

A feminist scholar I met at a conference asked me directly if I considered myself a Zionist, and I gave an indirect answer. Her anger became palpable.

Here we go. The roots of the “left”‘s homogenization. Angry that someone disagreed.

She nearly shouted: “You’ve read Chomsky, haven’t you?” I had not yet read Noam Chomsky’s writings on Israel, I confessed.

Which are staggeringly bad – inaccurate, misinformed, dogmatic, and largely malevolent in the same way that Feld has become.

As I recall she turned away and didn’t speak to me again that evening. That might be hyperbole, or more likely my own sense of shame.

Precisely. The guiding motive here is shame, not guilt. The reason the left is ludicrously homogenous on Israel (like the Arab/Muslim world, if not worse) is because of the workings of honor-shame dynamics that work hard to maintain external conformity. This essay is, in fact, a good example of what I call an “Proxy Honor-Killing.”

I reeducated myself, stopping to look at all of the facts that I had bumped up against for years. The 1948 radio broadcast of the votes at the UN that declared the Jewish people had a home and would never face genocide again: I had listened to this recording and this interpretation dozens of times in the sites of my Jewish education. Now I interpreted it anew. The founding of Israel was the Nakba, the great catastrophe, for Palestinians, with ethnic cleansing, destruction, and no right of return.

Classic replacement of utopian myths for demonic ones. The term “Nakba” was only briefly used by the refugees to refer to the catastrophe brought upon them by the Arabs who promised them victory and failed to deliver. It has become an indictment of Israel in subsequent decades as a propaganda tool, designed to equate it with the Holocaust. As the Hamas guides for journalists put it:

Avoid entering into a political argument with a Westerner aimed at convincing him that the Holocaust is a lie and deceit; instead, equate it with Israel’s crimes against Palestinian civilians.

In fact, the Nakbah is above all a catastrophic humiliation for the Arab world. They publicly announced to the world they’d wipe out the Jews – a people with no history of warfare for almost 2000 years, the bottom of the honor-shame ladder – and they lost, bigtime. Here Feld is, in the words of the Left she so identifies with, the “running dog” of Arab ego failure.

In short, I no longer found common ground with those who saw an anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist bent, or even conspiracy, on the left. I saw that that Israel fit neatly into my broader understanding of Western colonialism. How could Israel be the antidote to genocide when it was the product of imperialism and ethnic cleansing?

Like Hasia, I often feel marginalized. I travel across several towns, driving past many other synagogues, to my synagogue precisely because I too refuse to enter to any institution that flies the “We Stand with Israel” banner.

Not surprisingly. You’ve brainwashed yourself to hate your people and you’re surprised they don’t particularly like you?

‘Before’ and ‘after’ Zionism in the U.S. Jewish community

Our journeys from “before” to “after” identifying with Zionism have been painful, and we’ve searched for allies and institutions. We have both found Jewish Studies a difficult space in which to criticize Israel, to stand against the Occupation or even Zionism.

Try being an Arab Muslim and supporting Israel. On the other hand, there are lots of folks in the Jewish “scholarly” community who cheer you on. Try the Jewish Studies Department at Vassar who co-sponsored Jasbir Puar’s vicious rant against Israel, and after hearing the PoMo-PoCo anti-semitic lunacy, had nothing to say. Try Berkeley’s Daniel Boyarin, or Indiana University’s Shaul Magid. The list is almost endless.

Though we certainly do not claim to speak for all American Jews, as scholars we know we are a part of something much larger, something that, we assert, should be shaking the foundation of American Jewish leaders.

In other words, you want to speak for all Jews. As scholars you participate in the massive failure of information professionals in the 21st century: the substitution of one (malevolent) myth for another (life-giving including Palestinians) myth, or as Edward Alexander puts it so eloquently:

…the creation of the State of Israel was one of the few redeeming events in a century of blood and shame, one of the greatest affirmations of the will to live ever made by a martyred people, and a uniquely hopeful sign for humanity itself.

You, on the other hand, belong to that elite company of self-loathing “Jews against themselves,” who resemble the Israeli intelligentsia described by Aharon Megged:

Since the Six-Day War, and at an increasing pace, we have witnessed a phenomenon which probably has no parallel in history: an emotional and moral identification by the majority of Israel’s intelligentsia with people openly committed to our annihilation.

You think you’re the moral cutting edge, you’re actually more like what Alexander calls “anorexic Jews,” ashamed, cutting your body (Israel) to signal your virtue to people who rejoice in your suicidal folly.

Closing down all conversations on Israel/Palestine, demonizing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, marginalizing or silencing those who dissent from the Zionist “consensus”: there is a growing gap between these leaders and the people for whom they claim to speak.

If anyone is shutting down dialogue here, it’s the folks who get angry and revolted when their own people defend themselves against the malevolent violence of enemies with whom they perversely side.

And you call yourselves historians, when you’re just own-goal propaganda hacks.

Hasia Diner is a professor of American Jewish history at New York University. She is the author of “We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust” (NYUP, 2010).

Marjorie N. Feld is professor of history at Babson College and the author of “Nations Divided: American Jews and the Struggle over Apartheid” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Bibliographical Addendum: Articles responding to this piece.

Haviv Rettig Gur, “When ‘Israel” matters – but Israelis don’t,” Times of Israel, August 1, 2016

Jonathan Sarna, The American Jews Who’ve Exchanged Their Utopian Myths About Israel for Demonic Ones, Ha-aretz, August 2, 2016

David Wolpe, “Anti-Zionist Historians Are Wrong about Israel, Time Magazine, August 2, 2016

“Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg stirs storm after tweeting he might stop reading Haaretz,” Jewish Telegraph Agency, August 2, 2016

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