To appreciate this inherent tension, consider Hillary Clinton’s words from the second presidential debate: “It is important for us as a policy not to say, as Donald has said, we’re going to ban people based on a religion. How do you do that? We are a country founded on religious freedom and liberty.” Here Clinton establishes a minimum standard of liberal decency that few American Jews would be inclined to deny. But she is not the incoming president. Trump’s willingness to reject this standard is now a cause for alarm among Jewish communities, along with those of other American minorities.
Yet insofar as Israel is concerned, every liberal Zionist has not just tolerated the denial of this minimum liberal standard, but avowed this denial as core to their innermost convictions. Whereas liberalism depends on the idea that states must remain neutral on matters of religion and race, Zionism consists in the idea that the State of Israel is not Israeli, but Jewish. As such, the country belongs first and foremost not to its citizens, but to the Jewish people — a group that’s defined by ethnic affiliation or religious conversion.
As long as liberalism was secure back in America and the rejection of liberalism confined to the Israeli scene, this tension could be mitigated. But as it spills out into the open in the rapidly changing landscape of American politics, the double standard is becoming difficult to defend.
That difficulty was apparent earlier this month at an event at Texas A&M University when Richard Spencer, one of the ideological leaders of the alt-right’s white nationalist agenda — which he has called “a sort of white Zionism” — was publicly challenged by the university’s Hillel Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, to study with him the Jewish religion’s “radical inclusion” and love. “Do you really want radical inclusion into the state of Israel?” Spencer replied. “Maybe all of the Middle East can go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?” Spencer went on to argue that Israel’s ethnic-based politics was the reason Jews had a strong, cohesive identity, and that Spencer himself admired them for it.
The rabbi could not find words to answer, and his silence reverberates still. It made clear that an argument that does not embrace a double standard is difficult to come by.
Right-wing politicians and commentators in the United States have been putting pressure on this double standard for years. In her 2015 book, “Adios, America,” the commentator Ann Coulter wrote:
Palestinians demand a right to return to their pre-1967 homes, but Israel says, quite correctly, that changing Israel’s ethnicity would change the idea of Israel. Well, changing America’s ethnicity changes the idea of America, too. Show me in a straight line why we can’t do what Israel does. Is Israel special? For some of us, America is special, too.
Coulter gets her dates mixed up. Palestinians in fact do not demand a “right of return” to their pre-1967 homes, but to their pre-1948 homes. In other words, the issue isn’t the occupation, which many liberal Zionists agree is a crime, but Zionism itself. Opposition to the Palestinians’ “right of return” is a matter of consensus among left and right Zionists because also liberal Zionists insist that Israel has the right to ensure that Jews constitute the ethnic majority in their country. That’s the reason for which Rabbi Rosenberg could not answer Spencer. But if you reject Zionism because you reject the double standard, organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Jewish Federations of North America would denounce you as anti-Semitic.
It is important to emphasize that in some crucial respects, the comparison between the alt-right’s white-Christian ethnic politics and the Jewish State is not just misleading, but sinister. The history of the Jews — a tiny minority that has faced persecutions, pogroms and the Holocaust — isn’t analogous to that of white Christians. This is an important qualification, and the reason for which, when Richard Spencer speaks of the alt-right as “a sort of white Zionism,” he is promoting a despicable lie. It must be possible to sympathize with Israel and show understanding of Zionism’s historical conditions but to refuse any sympathies to the alt-right. Unfortunately, anti-Zionist critics sometimes fail to be sensitive to this distinction.
But despite sympathy and solidarity with Israel — or better, because of it — any Jew who remains committed to liberalism must insist that nothing in Jewish history can allow the Jews to violate the rights of other ethnic and religious minorities, and that nothing in our history suggests that it would be wise for us to do so.
This is all the more true because by denying liberal principles, Zionism immediately becomes continuous with — rather than contradictory to — the anti-Semitic politics of the sort promoted by the alt-right. The idea that Israel is the Jews’ own ethnic state implies that Jews living outside of it — say, in America or in Europe — enjoy a merely diasporic existence. That is another way of saying that they inhabit a country that is not genuinely their own. Given this logic, it is natural for Zionist and anti-Semitic politicians to find common ideas and interests. Every American who has been on a Birthright Israel tour should know that left-leaning Israelis can agree with America’s alt-right that, ideally, ”Jews should live in their own country.”
Since this continuity is so natural, it has a long and significant history. Last April, Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, was embraced in Israel by top members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. Strache’s party now celebrates mostly anti-Islam and anti-immigration policies, but it was originally founded by former Austrian Nazis. Jörg Haider, a previous leader of the party, was infamous for showing sympathy for some of Hitler’s policies. Another case in point is Geert Wilders, the xenophobic far-right Dutch politician. This month, it was revealed that Wilders’s visits to Israel and his meetings with Israeli personnel have been so frequent that the Dutch intelligence community investigated his “ties to Israel and their possible influence on his loyalty.”
This phenomenon has been somewhat familiar also in the United States given the close ties between fundamentalist evangelical Christians — whose views on the Jews’ part in a larger messianic scheme is flatly anti-Semitic — and the state of Israel. But with Trump, this type of collaboration is introduced to the heart of American politics.
Nothing demonstrates this alliance better than the appointment of David Friedman to be the United States ambassador to Israel. Friedman, an ardent supporter of Israel’s occupation project, has argued that J Street’s liberal Zionist supporters, who are critical of the occupation, are “worse than Kapos” — the Jews who collaborated with their Nazi concentration camp guards. In fact, however, it is Friedman’s own politics — and the politics of the government that he supports — that’s continuous with anti-Semitic principles and collaborates with anti-Semitic politics.
The “original sin” of such alliances may be traced back to 1941, in a letter to high Nazi officials, drafted in 1941 by Avraham Stern, known as Yair, a leading early Zionist fighter and member in the 1930s of the paramilitary group Irgun, and later, the founder of another such group, Lehi. In the letter, Stern proposes to collaborate with “Herr Hitler” on “solving the Jewish question” by achieving a “Jewish free Europe.” The solution can be achieved, Stern continues, only through the “settlement of these masses in the home of the Jewish people, Palestine.” To that end, he suggests collaborate with the German’s “war efforts,” and establish a Jewish state on a “national and totalitarian basis,” which will be “bound by treaty with the German Reich.”
It has been convenient to ignore the existence of this letter, just as it has been convenient to mitigate the conceptual conditions making it possible. But such tendencies must be rejected. They reinforce the same logic by which the letter itself was written: the sanctification of Zionism to the point of tolerating anti-Semitism. That’s the logic that liberal American Jews currently have to fight, but it will prove difficult to uproot. Stern is memorialized in street names in every major Israeli town, and it is not unreasonable to assume that Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s son, whose father celebrated Stern as a mythical model of Zionist struggle, is called by Stern’s nom de guerre.
The comparisons between Trump and Hitler — more prevalent in pre-elections articles than today — will hopefully prove entirely exaggerated. But even so, the following years promise to present American Jewry with a decision that they have much preferred to avoid. Hold fast to their liberal tradition, as the only way to secure human, citizen and Jewish rights; or embrace the principles driving Zionism. In the age of Trump, insisting on both is likely to prove too difficult to contain.