Reclaiming the Covenant of Fate

The broken window of a synagogue in Cottbus, Germany, that was vandalized in November, 2015. (credit: Patrick Pleul / dpa via AP)
As American Jewry’s Zionist consensus crumbles, we must learn to address one another across communal divides.

By Peter Beinart | Jewish Currents | Sept 20, 2021

American Jews of all ideological stripes need shared spaces, based on mutual respect, which encourage the kinds of conversations that aren’t possible on Twitter.

This spring and summer, as violence engulfed Israel-Palestine and antisemitic attacks in the US made media headlines, some hawkish Jewish commentators began using an arresting phrase to describe Jews who oppose the Jewish state. In a tweet in May, UCLA professor Judea Pearl proposed that just as Jewish leaders in the 17th century excommunicated the followers of the false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, it was now time “to proclaim Jewish-born Zionophobes: ‘Ex-Jews.’” That same month, in an article in the Orthodox publication Cross-Currents, Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, scrolled through his own roster of historic turncoats—“the Pablo Christianis and Johannes Pfefferkorns who reinvented themselves as Christians to find fame and money”—before declaring that Bernie Sanders, who “devotes his energies to undermining the largest Jewish community in the world,” is an “ex-Jew.” In June in Tablet, historian Gil Troy and former Soviet dissident and Israeli cabinet minister Natan Sharansky improvised on the theme: They labeled Jewish anti-Zionists “Un-Jews.”

The assumption behind these arguments is that to be considered a Jew, you must demonstrate communal solidarity. You must show a special devotion to other Jews. As more and more left-leaning Jews abandon political Zionism—the belief in a state that favors Jews over Palestinians—there’s a mounting sense on the Jewish right that Jewish critics of Israel are failing that test, that opposing a state and an army devoted specifically to Jewish self-protection means abandoning one’s people. Most Jews on the left will find such sentiments offensive and absurd. But they have real-world consequences. Since right-leaning Jews control American Jewry’s most powerful institutions—from AIPAC, to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to the Federations that direct Jewish philanthropy, to the Hillels that serve Jewish students on campus—the collapse of American Jewry’s Zionist consensus will leave more and more American Jews outside the boundaries of legitimate disagreement, as defined by their communal leaders. More and more people will be treated as “ex” or “un” Jews.

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