(Jewish) Extremists and traitors

Extremists & traitors


Noah Millman has an odd, and disturbing, post up on the American Conservative website titled “Extremists in the Family” which deals with the intra-Jewish conversation on Israel/Palestine. It begins:

The subject came up at lunch recently, apropos of a writer for Mondoweiss who is apparently the son of people some of our guests knew. The young fellow spent some time in Gaza and has become a professional pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli (not necessarily the same thing) activist. There was much clucking around the table about the shame, until someone asked the question: well, would it be better or worse to have a son who became an extreme left-wing anti-Zionist – versus having a son who became a right-wing settler?

I would not describe the people around the table as right-wing in general, nor right-wing within the specific spectrum of Jewish opinion about the “situation” in the territories. In the American context, these were liberal Democrats; in the Israeli context, these were probably Yesh Atid types with no love for Netanyahu. But the immediate answer of the bulk of the group was: the settler would be obviously preferable. He would, after all, still be “family” in some sense, even if wayward.

But the mere fact that the question could be asked suggests that, on some level, the group understood that the settlement project as a whole occupies extreme ground. That a “settler son” was the appropriate hypothetical to compare to the “traitor son.” And how do we really decide when, and in defense of what, or whom, extremism actually is a vice? And what are we supposed to do then, when the extremist is “in the family?”

Putting aside the outrageous premise of comparing writing for this site with this, the piece is striking sociological reporting.  The fact that the people at this particular lunch would understand a settler as an “extreme” yet welcomed member of the community and a critic of Zionism as an irredeemable “traitor” is just another indication of the degree to which Zionism serves as the connective tissue of the American Jewish community. Whereas the litmus test for this son might once have been his religious practice, or who he chose to spend his life with, he is now outcast over his relationship to Jewish nationalism.

The writer in question is Max Ajl and his mother wrote the best response in the comment section to the post:

The writer you are speaking about is not ” in some sense, family.” He is family. He is my son. His father and I are immensely proud of him. He was raised in a Jewish household and went to a pluralistic Jewish day school. His sense of ethics and morality came from his very Jewish background.

Your are audacious in calling him the”traitor son.” He is acting on his convictions. He is a voice among many who speak for the voiceless. He has traveled to Gaza and seen defenseless people shot on their own land. He has watched the settlers build illegally while the Israeli government looks aside.

He is not a ” nice Jewish boy” . He is a man that I am proud to have raised. He is a Jew that needs to be listened to. He has something extremely important to say.

I applaud her response and of course agree with it in a sense. But I also wonder if writers like Ajl and myself are in fact traitors, if not to our immediate families then to our broader Jewish communities that have embraced the extremist over the critic?

Marc Ellis refers to Jewish dissidents in the community as Jews of Conscience, yet the concept of the race traitor feels appropriate to me, rejecting and challenging the ethos of the broader collective. I don’t consider myself an extremist, but I am clear I stand against the tide in the Jewish community. I take positions in support of Palestinian justice, equality and freedom that are considered heretical within the Jewish mainstream. At no point has my motive been to “betray” the community I was raised in, but I am aware that much of my writing and advocacy breaks community norms and is perceived as betrayal. If this community brands me a traitor for holding these beliefs, does it matter if I say I’m not?

I’m aware there are Jewish activists that will say it’s possible to square this circle, to reject Zionism and “stay in the family” or remain engaged in the community. My own feelings on this question change almost daily, as well as my desire to even attempt to do so. Regardless of where I might fall on this I am also aware that this decision is not necessarily up to me. Extremists are debated and begrudgingly accepted. Traitors are expelled.

The lunchtime chat Millman reports on reflects a debate that was been swirling around Zionism for decades, and is endemic to any community swept with nationalist fervor. It comes down to the question – is he for us or for them? The settler is forgiven because, even violence aside, he is seen as working to advance the cause of our people, while the anti-Zionist has switched sides.  I’m reminded of the famous correspondence between Gershom Scholem and Hannah Arendt following the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem where Scholem castigates Arendt for lacking Ahabath Israel or “love of the Jewish people.” Arendt’s response rings true for me today and perhaps still serves as an indication of where one line is drawn in the Jewish community – putting the love for people over the love for People. Arendt wrote:

You are quite right — I am not moved by any “love” of this sort . . . I have never in my life “loved” any people or collective — neither the German people, nor the French, nor the American, nor the working class or anything of that sort. I indeed love “only” my friends and the kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.

And for this she was branded a traitor.




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