How Do We Expect Palestinians to Think?

This is a brief point-counterpoint taken by permission from The Third Narrative’s email discussion group.  It began with TTN’s editor, Ralph Seliger, commenting on an essay by Shaul Magid (pictured), a Jewish studies scholar at the University of Indiana from 2004 until 2018, now at Dartmouth, and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  Prof. Magid is also a rabbi, ordained in Jerusalem, who serves a congregation in the New York resort area of Fire Island.  

. . .  I was fascinated to read a longish but engaging piece at the Hartman Institute website, adapted from his Yom Kippur sermon, “Keep Jews Interesting: It’s Time to Stop Being Defined by Anti-Semitism.”  He both invokes Salo Baron’s famous critical reference to the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history, and critiques Bari Weiss’s popular new book on antisemitism.  

Baron’s remark is about promoting a more richly balanced perspective on Jewish history; on the other hand, Jewish history is unusually tragic and bloody.  If I’m not mistaken, every country where large numbers of Jews prospered turned very bad at one point or other, where great Jewish communities were expelled, persecuted or massacred.   Think Spain, Portugal, Germany, Poland, England, France.  One exception, so far, is the United States (or North America more generally).   

But I think Magid’s very correct that Bari Weiss’s advice to resist antisemitism by becoming more Jewish (“leaning into Judaism”) is NOT the answer.  He caustically quotes a colleague that her “grandparents in Europe leaned pretty heavily into Judaism and it didn’t turn out so well for them.” 

I also think he’s correct in saying that a Palestinian-American woman’s hatred of Israel is not the same thing as neo-Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville.  He asks, reasonably I think, how do you expect a Palestinian to think?      

(His exact words: “why shouldn’t she be [anti-Israel]?”)

This prompted the following response from TTN colleague Jonathan Zasloff (a law professor at UCLA):

“He asks, reasonably I think, how do you expect a Palestinian to think?”

Here’s how: I expect them to act as Black South Africans did during apartheid. This really isn’t asking too much.

I expect them to say, as the ANC did in the Freedom Charter, that Palestine belongs to all of its people, Arab and Jew, Christian and Muslim and Druze, secular and religious.

I expect them to understand that it wasn’t like a bunch of white people from northern Europe threw a dart at a map, saw that it hit the Middle East, and said, “hmmm…okay, we’ll colonize that place.”

I expect them to be self-critical and not assume the stance of passive innocent victims with no agency.

I expect them to at least try to understand the Jewish narrative without necessarily accepting it. I expect them to comprehend that the Jews have, at least in their own minds, come home, and that this isn’t some sort of false consciousness but rests on a 2,000 year old tradition.

This is not too much to ask – we demand the equivalent things of ourselves. And no, it is no answer to say, “well, we don’t have any power so we can’t be expected to do all these things.” They have plenty of power – especially highly privileged advocates in the United States and Europe, and certainly they have more power than did the ANC.

None of these require abandoning anti-Zionism; they simply require them to take their own promises seriously.

They have not done any of these things. And that speaks volumes.

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