There are no simple answers in the Mideast

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Back in the autumn of 2000, in the midst of an unfolding tragedy in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, my daughter Karen, then 26 years old, phoned me to give voice to her anger and frustration.

“Dad, have you seen the daily advertisements which Jewish groups have been placing in The New York Times? Not a single organization has shown any understanding of the Palestinian point of view. I am deeply disappointed at the failure of American Jewish leadership to accept complexity.”

In large part, I agreed with my daughter, but I did feel the need to point out to her that the Arab leadership was equally culpable in its failure to accept the complexity of a situation that was extremely messy and spinning dangerously out of control. 

Ariel Sharon, the blustery retired general who was then the leader of Likud’s opposition in Israel’s Knesset, had made an irresponsibly provocative “visit” to the Temple Mount, while Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in an equally irresponsible manner, went out

of his way to fulminate bloody and often obsessive violence against “the Zionist enemy.”

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Almost 20 years have passed since my daughter’s phone call. It is still true that the conflict between Arab and Jew is not a battle between absolute good and absolute evil; it is not a war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness. Nevertheless, as long as Arab and Jew refuse to see the complexity in the anguished face of the other, as long as Arab and Jew insist upon demonizing each other, the entire Middle East will remain sickened by the poison of hatred.

President Donald Trump’s Dec. 11, 2019, Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism – however well-intentioned it might be – represents yet another example of a failure to acknowledge the complexity of the current situation. This executive order is designed to address “in particular … anti-Semitic harassment in schools and on university and college campuses.” 

The order goes on to say, “Discrimination against Jews may give rise to a Title VI violation when the discrimination is based upon an individual’s race, color, or national origin.” This is not to deny that in America, Jewish identity is primarily religious, but to affirm that Jews are frequently perceived by others – and by themselves – as having marked ethnic characteristics. 

Trump’s executive order quotes the working definition of anti-Semitism adopted on May 26, 2016, by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed towards Jewish or non- ewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

In a Dec. 12, 2019, op-ed page in The New York Times, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, his father-in-law, explains Trump’s executive order, by insisting: “The Remembrance Alliance definition (of anti-Semitism) makes clear what our administration has stated publically and on the record: Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. The inclusion of this language with contemporary examples gives critical guidance to agencies enforcing Title VI provisions.”

What our country does not need at this time are such simplistic, misguided statements as “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.” I will concede that some anti-Zionists are also anti-Semites in both word and deed – but it does not follow that all anti-Zionists are anti-Semites. 

Adding to the complexity of this issue is the indisputable fact that there have been, and still are, many varieties of Zionism. Consider the varying, even conflicting, views of such pre-Israel Zionists as Ahad Ha-am (1856-1927), Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), and Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940).  Or consider the competing worldviews of three of Israel’s prime ministers: David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1995), and Benjamin Netanyahu (1949-).  When we label someone an anti-Zionist, which form of Zionism is that person condemning?

And, of course, the Dec. 11 executive order is pregnant with all kinds of free speech issues – who is to decide what forms of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist statements are constitutionally protected and what forms are anti-Semitic and therefore illegal? 

During the eight years that I taught part time at Connecticut College, in New London, I had the privilege of several times teaching a one-semester course on Zionism. In one of the texts I assigned, “The Making of Modern Zionism,” written in 1981 by Shlomo Avineri, the author describes the much-revered Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky as a fascist. Does assigning a text that portrays Jabotinsky as a fascist make me an anti-Zionist and therefore a rabbinical anti-Semite? Trump’s Dec. 11 executive order is a gateway to pedagogic and legal confusion.

We live today in a world that is growing increasingly complex – especially in the troubled Middle East. In such a world, we need men and women who possess the courage, the moral intelligence and the capacity for nuance which will enable us to confront the challenges posed by political, social and economic complexities. 

Simplistic and tendentious sloganeering cannot save us from our sound-bite selves.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is the rabbi emeritus at Temple Ha bonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.