February 25, 2020

Our New Marranos

Three years ago, in a column in this journal, I argued for the formula, “Anti-Zionism = Racism,” instead of the standard claim that anti-Zionism is a cover for anti-Semitism. My aim was to empower pro-Israel students with a more potent intellectual weapon to fight back the rising anti-Israel campaign on college campuses. 

The logic in the new formula was based on three simple axioms: Anti-Zionists deny Jews what they grant to other historically bonded collectives — the right for sovereignty; anti-Zionists and their drive to dismantle Israel commit the most vulnerable part of the Jewish people to a dangerous, potentially genocidal experiment; and, finally, anti-Zionism attacks with impunity the most cherished symbol of Jewish identity — Israel. 

While the logic was impeccable, the verdict was harsh. Having positioned themselves as the righteous guardians of the oppressed, anti-Zionists are not used to assuming responsibility for their words and actions. A formula that reminds them that ideologies have consequences, that consequences may endanger lives, and that those lives deserve a moment of reflection, can be a traumatic experience for any self-righteous activist. 

Additionally, anti-Zionists are used to accusing others of racism, oppression, brutality, discrimination and other moral misdeeds; a formula that burdens them with guilt, let alone the guilt of racism, is hard to accept. 

Jewish anti-Zionists took special offense at the idea that their ideology can be criticized on a moral ground, since they have come to believe that they are the true carriers of prophetic Judaism. Any criticism of their anti-Israel mission is decried as erecting a moral barrier between them and mainstream Judaism. 

I would like to refer to these Jews as “our new Marranos” because, like the Jews who were coerced into conversion by the Spanish Inquisition, many anti-Zionist Jews have abandoned and denounced their historical identity to gain social acceptance after facing a vicious wave of anti-Israel propaganda. Keeping this in mind, I have always felt a warm spot for our new Marranos, regardless of how painful their rhetoric and deeds, for I know how hard it must be to resist the harshness of peer pressure and the tempting comfort of intellectual surrender. 

However, these lost brethren of ours now demand equal voice in mainstream Jewish life, and, accordingly, they feel offended, muzzled and marginalized by any characterization that points to the consequences of their actions. 

“They [Zionists] seek to limit the discourse, to erect walls that delineate what can and can’t be said,” Ben Ehrenreich complained in the Los Angeles Times (March 12, “Zionism is the Problem”) after stating that South African apartheid was charitable compared to Israel’s.

“In insisting that anti-Zionism is pernicious,” Rachel Roberts, an active anti-Zionist student at UCLA, wrote in the Daily Bruin, “Pearl denies Jews who disagree with his view the right to define ourselves according to our own beliefs and circumstances” (March 12, “Professor’s opinion offensive to both Jews and Palestinians”).

I have no qualm with the dishonesty of these complaints. Blinded by wishful victimhood and self-righteousness, these writers probably do believe that the abusive language they have been hurling at Zionists in the past few decades has been a friendly invitation to enlightened discourse. Some idealists have infinite capacity for self-delusion, and idealists are badly needed in our world. 

The qualms I do have concern their demand to be treated as mainstream Jews who just happen to have a minor disagreement with the community at large and merely wish to define themselves according to their “beliefs and circumstances.”

This juxtaposition of Jews who wish to define themselves one way or another, and anti-Zionists who insist on telling everyone else how they ought to define themselves, was what caught my attention in their writings. 

I first asked myself: Why not? Why not treat anti-Zionist Jews like a new brand of Judaism. After all, our history has known many fierce debates before: Chasidim and Mitnagdim, Karaim and Shabtaim, Prushim and Tsdokim, Conservative and Reform Jews; why not embrace anti-Zionist Jews as another brand of Judaism? 

Asked in this way, the answer was immediate: Zionism does not deny any segment of the Jewish people the right to engage in a debate about how they should express their Jewishness, whether they wish to do so in the land of the Maccabees or in the land of George Washington — it is up to the individual to decide. It is, however, pernicious for any group, Jews and non-Jews, to deny another group the right to sovereignty in their historical homeland, especially when this sovereignty is embedded in a secular, democratic, inclusive, multi-ethnic and peace-seeking state like Israel. 

Moreover, it is pernicious, if not plain racist, for any group to join forces with organizations committed to the destruction of another people’s homeland, be it through verbal defamation, boycotts, divestment or direct physical violence. Anti-Zionists do engage in these activities, and this is what distinguishes them from other Jews, both Zionist and non-Zionist, who merely try to redefine themselves. 

To the best of my recollection, and my history books are truly dusty, I do not believe the old Marranos demanded acceptance as equal players in Jewish education and the Jewish community life of 16th century Europe. They could have easily argued that their newly acquired religion was the true carrier of the spirit of biblical Judaism, hence they should be equal partners in the ongoing debate on Jewish identity. But they did not. Instead, they spent their energy pretending that they were better Christians than their Christian neighbors and concealing any association with Judaism that might raise suspicion of infidelity. In concealing their identity our new Marranos excel, indeed; their anti-Israel diatribes, loaded with comparisons to Nazi Germany and South Africa, are second only to Hamas’. Yet, contrary to the old Marranos, they now demand a seat in the modern-day synagogue — our universities. 

To obtain academic credentials, anti-Zionist Jews attempt to position themselves as continuing a long historical debate about the role of Eretz Israel in Jewish life, supposedly an important question that Jews have been debating for centuries and which continues to this very day. 

There was indeed such a debate, a short- lived one: For two millennia, our ancestors prayed three times a day: “And He shall walk us in sovereignty back to our country” (Birchat Hamazon) and felt no need for debate. The debate started in the late-19th century and ended with clear winners and clear losers. The Balfour Declaration, the Shoah, the establishment of the State of Israel and the refocusing of Jewish education in the Diaspora around Israel’s culture, needs and accomplishments have turned the old debate into an irrelevant wrinkle in the dustbin of history. Still, there are probably some Jewish professors who are excavating that dustbin with great hopes of discovering a shred of an idea that would be relevant today. Such discoveries would empower our new Marranos with an illusion of academic continuity and embolden their demands for equal voice in Jewish education. 

I do not believe we should yield to those demands as long as Israel is dear to our heart.

Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004).