The Debate on Jew-Washing—Beyond Ideology
According to Emily Hauser, our coining of the phrase “Jew-washing” was disingenuous and part of a nefarious “McCarthy-esque” plot. Peter Beinart referred to the term as an addition to the “right wing Jewish lexicon” targeting “Progressive Jews”. In The Forward, Brant Rosen and Alissa Wise, from the Rabbinical Council of the Jewish Voice for Peace, proclaimed “No, we are not being used as pawns by Christian partners to further some nefarious ‘anti-Semitic plot’. Rather, we are standing in solidarity with the oppressed, as the most basic of our Jewish teachings demand that we do.” In sharp contrast, The Forward’s Philologos wrote, “Using Jews to obscure antisemitism is wrong.”
The intense debate that “Jew-washing” triggered is a sign that the issues, more than the specific term, are significant and warrant in-depth examination.
For Rosen, Wise and others who defend themselves as Jewish truth-tellers, the highest expression of Jewish morality is fighting against Zionist sins by supporting boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS)—a global campaign which opposes accepting Israel as the sovereign homeland of the Jewish nation.
But in our conception of truth, morality and human rights, the singling out and demonization of Israel, falsely accusing it of “war crimes,” and erasing the record of terrorism against its civilians (as in the discredited Goldstone report) is fundamentally immoral.
Incompatible with any ethical code are those Christian groups who promote BDS by mixing these smears with antisemitic theological tropes. For example, Sabeel uses anti-Jewish supersessionist theology that claims Zionism is a misinterpretation of “true” (read Christian) biblical understanding. Add to this Sabeel’s imagery of deicide which compares Palestinians to Jesus on the cross, claiming that they were put there by the Israeli government’s “crucifixion machine.” It’s as though they’ve resuscitated medieval “teaching of contempt.” Despite all of this, JVP’s Rabbinical Council declares, “As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of Sabeel.”
In this context, opposing BDS and criticizing its Jewish enablers is not part of an ultra-nationalist rightist agenda—it is a moral imperative and non-ideological common sense.
To leftist Zionist critics of Israel who object to our naming and shaming of those who use token Jews to legitimize BDS, we ask a simple question: Where do you draw the line between legitimate disagreement and sinat chinam—unjustifiable hatred? When does Hillel the sage’s directive, “If I am not for myself, who am I?” become operative? Which alliances are beyond the moral pale, in which the ends no longer justify the means? Why do Zionist critics of Israel, like Beinart, attack us for condemning JVP’s role? Has he changed his mind about JVP since he canceled an event in Oakland when he learned JVP was the sponsor?
Instead of addressing these complex questions, Beinart cites “the vast numbers of Jews who rejected Zionism in the first half of the twentieth century” to make the uncontested point that they were still Jewish. Ideology aside, surely he acknowledges that they were on the wrong side of history, to an unfathomably disastrous scale. Likewise, the fringe anti-Zionist Jewish defenders of BDS, like their counterparts in the anti-Zionist Soviet Yevsektsia (Jewish Section), are also on the wrong side of morality and history, regardless of their rhetoric.
Indeed, the principled opposition to BDS during July’s Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly displayed a rare unity among politically diverse Zionists. Left, Center, Right and ideologically cynical Zionists (probably most of us) joined in condemning this form of political warfare wrapped in a theological halo. On borders, peace, etc., there are passionate differences, but our common ground is that delegitimization of Jewish sovereign equality is unacceptable and immoral.
In contrast, within Presbyterian, Methodist, and other denominations in North America and Europe, there are hard-core and influential groups promoting BDS, who draw succor from a Jewish fringe. Groups such as JVP knowingly provide the BDS movement a token shield. Indeed, prior to the PCUSA gathering, JVP posted a page on its website explaining, “The churches pay particular attention to the voices of Jews. We will need your help telling your stories, and when possible, speaking directly with church delegates in your area.”
Dismissal of this strategy of using token Jews as a cover—a “Jew-wash”—is no longer an acceptable moral or political option. We all have the obligation to speak out strongly, and oppose this malevolence, without compromise. While the term “Jew-washing” is an ugly expression, the practice is not only much uglier, but extremely dangerous to real Jewish lives.