The Finkler Question

June 14, 2012 by  
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The great strength of the Finkler Question is that its depiction of what are called “ashamed Jews” so closely matches the reality we all know: There are in Australia and elsewhere a small group of anti-Zionist Jews, who hate Israel, who hate the vast majority of Jews who support Israel, and who often reserve a special venom for the many other Jews on the Left who are not ashamed of Israel…Philip Mendes@Limmud-Oz.

Personally, I have experienced defamatory letters sent to my University and numerous other public misrepresentations of my views and opinions – nearly all emanating from anti-Zionist Jews (sometimes backed up by “useful idiots” in local non-Zionist organizations such as AJDS) who wish to censor and silence left-wing Jews who think Israel has a right to exist.

This group of anti-Zionist Jews seem to have increased in numbers in the last decade. The question is why? Some of the obvious factors include the advent of the Internet which has made it far easier for minority groups to promote their views independent of mainstream media, the increased acceptability on the Left of expressions of ethnic and other forms of minority group identity, and the massive shift within mainstream Jewish organizations to support for a two-state perspective which has opened up major new spaces for Jews of diverse opinions to articulate a range of strategies to promote that outcome.

But most significantly it seems to me that everyone wants to be part of a community. Anti-Zionist Jews are generally excluded from the mainstream Jewish community because the views they hold are considered offensive by the majority who mostly regard them as Uncle Toms. It is, however, perhaps a grey question as to whether they are overtly excluded because the majority are intolerant of their views, or rather they exclude themselves because they are intolerant of any views on Israel other than anti-Zionism.

Many find an alternative home in the Left community. Some are happy with this because their political views have little or nothing to do with their Jewish background. But others still feel a need to express their Jewish identity even if only on political issues. Hence the formation of alternative groups or communities with titles such as Independent Jewish Voices or Jews for Justice for Palestinians. These communities appear to give them a sense of belonging and mutual support that was denied to them in the mainstream Jewish community.

None of this means that a degree of opportunism or expediency is not involved. Some as noted in the Finkler Question only claim a Jewish identity as a convenient means of bashing Israel, and deflecting allegations of antisemitism. The most offensive use of a pseudo Jewish identity arguably occurs when Jewish anti-Zionists (including some of the most extreme BDS advocates) highlight and exploit the Holocaust survivor background of their parents or family in order to justify their attacks on Israel (see, for example, the flier promoting Avigail Abarbanel’s book). Yet any serious survey of Holocaust survivors and their families would almost certainly find that the vast majority furiously reject these statements, and offer strong support for the State of Israel.

But others to varying degrees genuinely seem to believe that Jewish values or teachings underpin their political beliefs as is evident from the two recent sympathetic (and mostly uncritical) books on Jewish anti-Zionism from Avigail Abarbanel and David Landy.

This attempt to develop a Jewish (as opposed to solely political) anti-Zionist identity poses a number of questions which remain largely unanswered:

1)     What if anything distinguishes their anti-Zionist beliefs from the views of anti-Zionists who aren’t Jewish?
2)     What it is about their Jewish experiences that has lead them to express views diametrically opposed to most Jews on Israel?
3)     How can they apply Jewish social justice teachings exclusively to the Palestinians, and completely ignore the national and human rights of the approximately six million Jews who live in Israel?
4)     Did their anti-Zionism only develop after they joined far Left groups? This is an important question as we know that many Left groups today and historically have compelled Jewish members to conform to an anti-Zionist position.
5)     Can anti-Zionist Jews be viewed in any way whatsoever as promoting Jewish concerns and interests? Do they campaign against forms of antisemitism that are not related to the Middle East conflict? What events if any would lead them to show their solidarity with other Jews?

Address to Limmud Oz Panel 11 June 2012 in Melbourne by Associate Professor Philip Mendes

(Associate Professor Philip Mendes is the Director of the Social Inclusion and Social Policy Research Unit in the Department of Social Work at  Monash University, and also holds an adjunct appointment with the Monash Centre for Jewish Civilisation. He is the author or co-author of seven books including Jews and Australian Politics, Sussex Academic Press, 2004, and is currently preparing Jews and the Left: The rise and fall of a Political Alliance for publication in late 2013:


3 Responses to “The Finkler Question”
  1. Philip Mendes approaches these complex issues, as usual, in a manner best suited for discussion. As is said, sinae ira et studio, the short list of so called “unanswered questions” would, in fact be well knwon, implicitely well answered by Mendes, The “challenge” once taken invites a few comments:

    say point “4” – concrete experience: I said it before but most befitting here, that I come from a long line of ultra Orthodox Rabbis and a very short line of communists. Within my wonderful parents’ circle of well sellected friends cum comrades, I witnessed the convoluted transitions of Jews from Orthodox background into ultra left, communist, activism, including underground illegal membership, to Zionist sympathies as alloed by the Party, turning, as political events commanded, to vigurous anti Zionism. As the left abandoned its Jewish contingent on nationalistic vectors, large numbers of disheartened left dedicated Jews suddenly returned to the Jewish “comforts”. This is proof that Jewish identity is not disolved into a distinct ethos. It acts , however, in manners determined by circumstances and it could be as varried as one would, for instance, compare an Arthur Koestler with a Noam Chomsky. The other syndromme I call the ” Moishe Weiss ” syndromme. A real name, a real case. Moishe Weiss born in Transylvaia in an ultra Orhodox family. Becomes a communist at 19-20, suffers anti Semitic fascist persecution, his entire family perishes in the Shoah, After the war is incorporated in the Romanian communist infrastructure. By 1960 the Romanian communists turn into radical nationalists and “epurate” the Party admin. of most highly placed Jews, including one Comrade Waldmann, my incredible Father. By the Six Day War I was a history student at Bucharest Univ. and a mad Zionist. Legions of Jewsih communist intellectuals from my family circle, including Moishe Weiss – who , actually had changed his name into a Romanian sounding one anyway – tried, prior to the actual war, to convince me that I was terribly misguided. Seven days after the war started Moishe Weiss came to me radiating with excitement almost screaming ” Did you see what OUR boys have done !!!”.
    Moishe passed away long time ago and I miss him imensly. His daughter married in Israel and still lives happily in Jerusalem three times a Grand Mother. Comarade Waldmann Pal’s Grandson, Felix, mentioned with passionate affection my Father at his Bar Mitzva at the Sephardi Schule and he keeps a kosher life these days, proud of his herritage.

  2. gabrielle says:

    Excluding them from talking to Limud Oz was a big mistake. If you confident of your views you should be able to debate them.

    They are not ashamed Jews, as they clearly stated on the ABC-Late Night Live program. They just have a different opinion about Israeli politics. Confront them, argue with them, don’t be a gatekeeper don’t lock them out.

  3. Rita says:

    The most offensive use of a pseudo Jewish identity arguably occurs when Jewish anti-Zionists (including some of the most extreme BDS advocates) highlight and exploit the Holocaust survivor background of their parents or family in order to justify their attacks on Israel

    In view of the age of many in this category, I sometimes wonder if it could be “hormonal” …

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