By Dr. Phillip Berger Special to The Jewish Post & News
When I was ten years old in Winnipeg, a classmate asked me, “Why don’t you leave the old man alone?” He was referring to Israel’s prosecution of Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust. As a Jew, I was being held accountable for the actions of Israel.
Twenty years ago, I was interviewed on CBC national radio about hundreds of examples of antisemitic graffiti that I had seen during a visit to the Polish city of Lodz. A few days later, a Marxist colleague asked me why I, a Jewish physician, and a leftist, was talking about antisemitism when I should be talking about the Nazi-like Israeli soldiers. My colleague had gone one step further than my classmate. Not only must I, as a Jew, label Israeli soldiers as Nazis, but as a leftist I must subordinate concerns about antisemitism to condemnation of Israel.
To him and to other leftists, Jewish and non-Jewish, it seems that progressive Jews as a group must denounce Israel because of the Israeli government’s actions and positions toward Palestinians. To me personally, some of those actions and positions are debatable, others are reasonable and justifiable in the circumstances, and others are to be criticized. None are simple. The same is true of Palestinians’ actions and positions toward Israel. Yet one person sent me a communication from an anti-Israel Jewish group urging Jews on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, to repent over the treatment of Palestinians by Israel generally. The exhortation represents the imposition of a collective political responsibility on Jews simply because they are Jews. The notion should be anathema to any leftist.
Indeed, how can Canadian Jews be held accountable for and have any obligation to denounce Israel simply because they are Jewish? They have no control as to Israeli government policies or conduct. They are Canadians. Do we really expect Canadians of Chinese ethnicity to denounce China, simply because of their ethnicity? Or Canadians of the Muslim faith to denounce the conduct of Islamic nations, just because these Canadians are Muslim? We all saw the widespread racist attacks against Muslims as they were being held accountable for the actions of a handful of Muslims on 9/11. Good people fought back against blaming all Muslims for 9/11. Assigning collective responsibility was seen to be wrong then, and it was. The situation should not be any different for Jews.
Of course, some will argue that the progressive part of the equation, not the Jewish part, should determine the response of Jewish leftists to Israel’s actions. Leftist Jews must reflexively reproach Israel, no matter their Jewishness. Yet the Left does not make the same demand of members of other religious, national, ethnic, or cultural groups. Only with the Jews apparently.
Some religious Jews and others claim that G-d punishes Jews who do not prevent or speak out about the sins of other Jews. Anti-Israel Jews on the Left then utilize such expectations of collective responsibility to justify the demand that progressive Jews must damn and boycott Israel. It is doubtful that rabbis over the ages ever contemplated that their religious enunciations would be used in this misanthropic manner to urge Jews to harm and undermine the only Jewish state.
The Left expects progressive Jews to forfeit consideration of their history and the defence of Jewish interests in favour of unconditional fidelity to Palestinian solidarity. Some Jewish groups have followed that route, in the tradition of Jewish dissent. But many Jewish leftists have deep and excruciating concerns about the numerous threats to the existence of Israel and to the survival of the Jewish people. When faced with the conflict between their politics and their Jewishness, these Jewish leftists choose the latter. That does not mean they feel less anguish over the suffering and deaths of Palestinians than they feel over the suffering and deaths of Israelis. It means that at the end of the day, they choose Jewish survival, above all.
Progressives are walking a cynical and unprincipled path when they demand of their Jewish compatriots that because they are Jews, they must denounce Israel. Such expectations are racist at their core. It is even worse when it is only Jews who are singled out for such collective responsibility. Leftists everywhere should know better and should reject such lines of thought outright.
Philip Berger was a member of the Canadian Jewish Congress Board of Directors and is an Officer of the Order of Canada