Every time I face a rabid right-winger on TV, I get phone calls after the fact that break down predictably by gender. Women tell me I’m courageous; men say I’m a blithering disgrace. But the menacing tone of the male voices is what I notice most. And no topic—not even homosexuality—produces as vehement a response as Israel does.
Whenever I square off against some righteous hawk, male callers describe me as a bad Jew, and an egregiously pushy one, at that. “Don’t go on television anymore,” one guy commanded after a dustup with Alan Keyes last week. “And don’t say anything bad about Israel.” He made no threat, but it struck me as a stage-one warning and reminded me of how fraught speaking out against Israeli policies can be if you’re a Jew.
The threat isn’t just external. Nothing makes me feel guiltier than criticizing Israel. I have to fight against the feeling that I’ve violated my greatest obligation as a Jew, which is to ensure the survival of my people. But for that very reason, I’m willing to run the risk of self-loathing—and worse. Better that than silence in the name of solidarity with policies that could lead to the destruction of the Jewish state. This is how I approach the great second-Holocaust debate.
So far, it’s been a typical Jewish american tsimmes: a series of polemical exchanges, some of them brilliant, others way over the top. I’d put Ron Rosenbaum’s geshreis in both categories. Borrowing a phrase from one of Philip Roth’s darkest meditations, Rosenbaum tapped into a deep vein of Jewish thinking now by raising the specter of a second Holocaust. In a series of columns for The New York Observer that blazed with the Jewish passion for unsparing exegesis, Rosenbaum made his case: “This is the way it is likely to happen. Sooner or later, a nuclear weapon is detonated in Tel Aviv, and sooner, not later, there is nuclear retaliation—Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, perhaps all three. . . . It’s coming sooner or later; it’s not ‘whether’ but when.”
Not long after Rosenbaum’s piece appeared, New York magazine published a rejoinder by Amy Wilentz, a progressive who described herself as a “little fool” still hoping for peace. In the Jewish community’s apocalyptic mode, Wilentz wrote, any suggestion that Israel bears some responsibility for its situation is inadmissible. The occupation, the settlements, Ariel Sharon’s role in sparking the current intifada (via his “descent on the Temple Mount”): None of this can be addressed. Rosenbaum reacted much as my male callers do: by going berserk, albeit in a less menacing way.
It will be interesting to see whether he responds as splenetically to the cover story in last week’s New Republic by Leon Wieseltier, a fully credentialed zaddik (wise man). In his eloquent repudiation of “the Jewish panic,” Wieseltier describes a very prosperous diaspora community sunk “in the imagination of disaster. . . . There is a loss of intellectual control. Anxiety is the supreme proof of authenticity. Imprecise and inflammatory analogies abound. Holocaust imagery is everywhere.”
So it is, in part because it corresponds to the mind-set of eternal insecurity that serves as a solace for many Jews, especially deracinated ones. When I summon up my gravitas to tell a Jewish friend that “history isn’t finished with us,” I’m motivated not just by an intellectual conviction but by the weird thrill of bonding with another yidl over the prospect of impending doom. This sort of interaction makes me feel intensely Jewish, and I suspect it’s the same for many Jews of my generation, especially those who were never religious and who no longer subscribe to the radical politics that once functioned as a Talmud. Apocalyptic thinking can make such Jews feel closer to their fathers—and to all the fathers, back to the patriarchs. The specter of annihilation is the major remnant of a tribal identity.
Yet even as I acknowledge this ulterior motive, I’m also aware that the idea of a second Holocaust is more than an emotional conceit. It’s a real possibility. Certainly the will to kill Jews exists in the world today. Too many Muslims are being taught things that lay the groundwork for genocide. And the capacity of Europeans to resist this temptation, so central to their history, is suspect. The burning of synagogues, the eruptions of Jew hating, the facile conflation of Zionism and racism—it’s possible to assemble these pieces into a proclamation that we’re living in 1938, especially if you have no way to measure the moment because you’ve never known real danger. As Wieseltier wrote, “We are the luckiest Jews who ever lived.” How compelling to conclude that the awful events of the past year are déjà vu all over again.
But let’s go to the videotape. Europe reacted forcefully to anti-Semitic outbursts. The left has its share of bigots, but they don’t dominate progressive discourse. The Islamic world has many tendencies, including a history of tolerance toward Jews. To point this out is not to deny the danger, only to insist that, as Wieseltier put it, “The bad is not always the worst.” A normal existence, he wrote, “is an existence with many causes.” And the causes of the current crisis make it different from the Holocaust in nearly every respect.
Europe’s Juden were not citizens of a sovereign Jewish nation with the power to retaliate against its enemies. The fact that Israel is one of the world’s most heavily armed states may not guarantee its survival, but it certainly changes the equation—as does the presence of several million Arabs within and around its borders. A nuclear Armageddon will come only if the region explodes in such a paroxysm that the mass destruction (of both Jews and Palestinians) seems plausible. That could happen, especially if the U.S. creates its own atrocity, say, in Iraq. The idea that a second Holocaust might be triggered by the blunders of America, Israel’s closest ally, is one of the ironies that make this metaphor useless. Unless your aim is to suppress dissent.
I’ve yet to see Rosenbaum—or for that matter Nat Hentoff—attack the Jewish groups threatening to boycott American newspapers whose coverage of Israel isn’t to their liking. You have to be hopeful in order to break ranks, and these two Jews are not. For Rosenbaum, the second Holocaust is a tragedy in the making. As he writes, “The definition of tragedy—or one definition—is a conflict without a solution.” This feeling of implacability is what allows some Israelis to believe it doesn’t matter what they do, since the whole world hates Jews in any case.
Only hindsight can say whether hope is more prudent than despair. But when it comes to Israel, hope and American power are one and the same. No one else can break the vortex of violence or enforce a peace agreement. America’s Jews can play a major role in making this risky enterprise possible, but for that to occur we need a real debate—not about the inevitability of a second Holocaust but about how to prevent it. That’s why I speak my mind about Israel. It’s the best I can do for my people—and myself.