I don’t know how old I was when my father gave me my first lesson. I was happily reciting the common playground rhyme you use for choosing up teams: “Eenie, meenie, minie mo, catch a … ” Well, you know the words that followed. My father stopped me right there: “Son, you must never say that. Never. Say ‘catch a tiger by the toe.’” So, from then on, I did.
My father, a New Deal liberal, taught history in high school. His heroes were Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His father, a tailor who had fled Belarus in 1905 to get away from pogroms and the tsar’s army, helped organize the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. In 1960, when I threw myself into left-wing politics, my father tried to talk me out of it. My views were sensible, he eventually admitted, but I shouldn’t act on them. To establish common ground, he confided to me that he had voted for the Socialist Norman Thomas for president in 1932—when he was 23—and attended a left-wing spiel supporting the Spanish Republicans. He had grown into a New York liberal, outgrown his youthful excesses—he was then 51. I should get on down the safe road, in his footsteps.
In time, experience wore him down, and his safe road led into quicksand. In the course of the Sixties, my father was not alone in his demographic in becoming more sourly tribal. Those were excruciating years for the tribe of New York Jewish liberals. Blacks and other people of color were growing obstreperous. By 1963, to my horror, as I was exulting, having just come from a meeting with SNCC’s Bob Moses and two young Mississippi Negroes—the preferred terminology of 1963—he launched into a tirade against black people. This, years before the Six-Day War—at a time when the movement was fervently nonviolent, and not an anti-Semitic peep had yet been heard from its precincts.
A couple of years later, when I was in an uproar about the Vietnam war, and he thought I was once again going too far, he expostulated: “What did the Vietnamese ever do for the Jews?” Ten years afterward, on my first trip to Europe, I saw, in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery, a monument recording the names of resistance martyrs. One of the names, I noted, was Vietnamese. Many years afterward, I came to learn he was one of a band of French Communists murdered by the Nazis.
I told my father that story later, but too late. By that time, he’d soured on all the left’s colorations. As a teacher and administrator in the largest high school in East Harlem, he had felt pincered. Just as New York Jews were increasing their power in the school system, digging out from under the city’s Protestant and Irish- and Italian-Catholic elites, here came the dark-skinned people demanding control—and power over Jewish teachers, whom they saw as white interlopers in their communities. No wonder New York Jews went wild, in 1968-69, charging the community control movement with harboring anti-Semitism—and the teachers went on strike.
The wounds festered on both sides. By 1977, when my father spoke up for Apartheid South Africa’s solution to “the racial problem,” I walked out of his house. In 1980, he wouldn’t tell me whom he was voting for, but he added: “it wasn’t Reagan, since I knew you’d never talk to me again.” About Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 he stood mute, and I didn’t ask.
The years since have been tailor-made for Jewish tribalism. The Six-Day War … the teachers’ strike and many ugly aftermaths … the failure or refusal of much of the New Left to resist a growing anti-Zionist obsession on the part of many radicals, including people of color … the “Zionism is racism” resolution at U.N. … and so on: Tribes, when embattled, tend to veer away from the ecumenical mood. They properly ask to know why solidarity often goes one way. Jews, in particular, know that the universalist tradition is cursed with its own shadow, the one brilliantly termed by the German Marxist August Bebel as “anti-Semitism, the socialism of fools.” Faced with a surge of Jew-hatred throughout the world, Jewish particularists as well as universalists reasonably apply themselves to Hillel’s third question: “If not now, when?” It’s a reasonable and important question, which shouldn’t be answered while standing on one foot.
Rather, in the spirit of opening a discussion that I intend to continue in subsequent columns, I offer another story:
Five years ago, I found myself in a room full of Jewish eminences, sponsored by the Jewish People’s Policy Institute. In that room were leaders of prominent Jewish-American organizations, university presidents, and Israeli entrepreneurs among others—charged with discussing economic questions in the wake of the last great financial meltdown. The author of the session’s background paper, a hedge-fund operator, delivered his report, which dwelt exclusively on the crisis for Jewish organizations after the depredations of Bernard Madoff and the financial meltdown. I asked why the paper was silent about the systematic breaches of ethics that had brought down the global financial system, causing avoidable and continuing misery everywhere? Did Jews, a people of ethics, have nothing to say to the world about what had gone so massively wrong?
A few people in the room thought this a reasonable question. In particular, the Israeli entrepreneurs thought so. But most vividly I remember a comment by probably the best-known man in the room, a leading lion of professional Jewish opinion. He said, “I think we made a big mistake when we started going on about ‘Tikkun Olam.’ ”
Thus spoke the voice of the inward-facing tribe, saying, in effect: Enough of this solidarity stuff! No more Mr. Nice Jew! Let the goddamned world go heal and repair itself! As if, in an extended emergency, the universalist stream of Jewish thought and feeling—thinking and acting as if what happens to others happens to ourselves—were a delusional luxury, to be tossed overboard.
After all, especially as Jew-hating pogroms and murders rage through Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, fueled by the latest Gaza war, prickly tribalism has no shortage of anecdotes to support its call to circle the wagons. Disgraces and crimes, committed against Jews as such, in the name of a highly selective go-for-broke “solidarity,” are nothing less than disgraces and crimes—damnable, inexcusable, never to be pardoned even as they are understood. They are not simply collateral spillover from Gaza, though they are surely magnified thereby. The undisciplined emotional responses to such events are dangerous to all sides.
After I spoke to a Harvard-Barnard-Columbia Hillel gathering on the eve of the huge People’s Climate March this month, one young woman from Harvard told me that Jews on the left there feel they undergo special scrutiny nowadays from the anti-Zionist-anti-Jewish spectrum. What should she do about that? I told her that rancid hate had to be fought, and that Jews had to defy whatever defensiveness they had been made, or invited, to feel. I told her to stick around and stand her ground. My father’s road to bitterness leads over a cliff.
But in the spirit of my father in his “catch a tiger” phase, I want also to address the anti-Israeli BDS supporters I know. I want to tell them: You’re acting like inverted tribalists, singling out one tribe to demonize. You’ve surrendered to the tribalist recoil, the tit-for-tat temptation, to tell “the other” to go fuck him- or herself (not to put too fine a point on it). I would say to them what I would say to Benjamin Netanyahu: Your self-righteousness is short-sighted, futile, and counterproductive. It offers no vision but endless war and slaughter. It offers the hatred that curdles the hater.
The young Hillel member needs all the support she can get. I was thrilled to see her on the Climate March, marching with some 150 Harvard students, alumni, and faculty urging Harvard to divest from fossil fuels—perhaps the most universalist cause there is. In the same spirit, I would turn it to some of my brethren on campus, the young and the not-so-young, who think the only war crimes committed anywhere worth censuring and punishing are those of Israel and the United States; who think the only nation worth boycotting and divestment and sanctions is Israel; who think that the touchstone issue of our time is the urgent need to dismantle the one nation-state that, in a world of theocracies and semi-theocracies, is officially Jewish. I would ask them to reconsider not only their view, but the angry, fervent assurance with which they hold it. I would ask them how it came to pass that a position on Israel—of all the many issues in the world that cry out for our attention—became a litmus test for the left.
This article is reprinted from Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. © Tablet magazine, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.