American Jews and the Iran Accord: The Politics of Fear

Jews in America have moved massively to the Right since World War II, negating a proud historical record of humanistic radicalism/socialism and literary-musical-artistic achievement often reflecting radical themes, both currents symbolized by Aaron Copeland’s monumental anti-fascist Symphony #3 composed during the war. Only 9 at the time I instinctively drew my roots from that moment when to be Jewish was symbolically to link arms with Paul Robeson and Negro protest (yes, the term “Negro” was, and remains for me dear and deeply ennobling, when public-relations crutches were not needed to assert the dignity of a glorious people) and the tough, fearless CIO organizers, as well, of course, FDR when 90% of the time he got things right, and, among New Dealers, Henry Wallace and the ever gracious Eleanor. Communists, as a child and forever after, were not on my radar screen, not because of fear and wanting self-protection (in the 1960s I introduced Aptheker to a lecture audience at Yale Law School, and in the ‘50s at Harvard was part of a Marxist study group with Paul Sweezy), but because they were a stodgy, dogmatic bunch, harmless beyond words. Those experiences, a significant number of Jews still active in progressive causes, suggests I and others were not in a solipsistic religious bubble, a condition fast changing, as anti-communism intellectually saturated college campuses from which Harvard was not immune and Brandeis, despite Marcuse’s distinguished presence, was a path-setter. The intellectual cum loyalty crunch was on. Jews thought themselves particularly vulnerable, and all but a few—who remained steadfast radicals—buckled.

But let me go back to the earlier setting. Jews faced discrimination and worse in America. When my family moved to Miami Beach in 1939 we were confronted with signs on apartment entrances, “No dogs or Jews allowed,” an atmosphere which by the early ‘40s quickly changed, but in the country at large, even the situation facing Jewish veterans, job discrimination, ugly incidents, gang wars, beard-pulling, smashed windows of small businesses, if not quite a community under siege then certainly the tangible rifeness of anti-Semitism. In hindsight, it’s difficult to know whether postwar anti-Semitism was a special case of anti-communism or an independent expression of proto-fascistic feeling. Ironically, the nation that fought the war to save democracy quickly transformed itself into one which was in popular mood highly undemocratic. Why is this important to the present topic? Jews with good reason have always been sensitive to persecution. The question, here I am thinking of America, is whether they fought back, kept on an even keel, watchful yet confident, or, third, became demoralized and desperate for political-ideological respectability, clutching to an Americanism (conservatism) to ward off possible attack. By 1950 we begin to see the effects of that choice.

Anti-Semitism subsides to that extent that Jews prominently display their anti-communism, and, important to note, hide behind or openly identify with Israel, to an appreciative Christian nation that has a fundamentalist respect for religion as such, grounded in biblical sanction, and displays the warlike qualities vocally praised by Americans. Israel is a crowd-pleaser for American reactionaries, giving Jews in this country twofold incentive to abandon their prewar record of radicalism and, to some, equally subversive, their artistic achievement, in favor of absolute conformity to American ways: a grand enlistment in the Cold War. By the early 1950s I was intensely proud of Judaism as a religion and spiritual source of humanitarian ethics, yet with growing alarm feared its dissociation from its own heritage. The execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was a flaming sword across the sky, a pivot point in converting Jewish retreat from radicalism already begun to cowardice disengagement from the past and the wholesale embrace of American reaction and Israeli ethnic cleansing (although it wasn’t called that yet).

That in-between period, 1950-1965, before the Jewish community would even turn on its own who did not support US and Israeli policy down the line, saw the splintering process under the pressure of the Cold War and internal housecleaning of suspected subversives (Joe McCarthy had Cohn and Schine, a team rich in symbolic import), in which Judaism witnessed the conflict for its secular soul, i.e. its place in American society. There were still young people breaking down the color line and standing on the picket line. My own observations, based on widespread demonstrating, from lunch-counter desegregation, to Mississippi Freedom Summer, and beyond that, was the presence of large numbers of Jewish youngsters wholly involved (the murders of Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman, having symbolic import to the opposite effect) showed the division within the Jewish community was still real, many of the parents already edging into the Cold War consensus governing public opinion. Golda Meir could have been the latter’s spokesperson when she referred to blacks as schwartzes, which for her was extended to mean Palestinians.

After 1965 Jews had shelved their identity as cosmopolitan and sympathetic to progressive causes to a play-it-safe rigid mental posture celebratory of Judaism and Israel stripped of any radical content or implications. Dancing the hora became the American Way, the subtext being membership in the Republican party, and policies favoring confrontation, intervention, and support of dictators. To be expected, the Jewish community became the watchdog over American policies toward Israel, but to go the extra mile, and purge Jewish dissent, while endorsing every aggressive move in American foreign policy, is less expected. This is where we are now at, the pending issue, approval of the Iran Accord, bringing out the worst features imaginable of a people once thoroughly schooled in democracy. I have no apologies to make; from now on, when we pray over the Shabbos candles, I think of the victims of US and Israel, not the presumed godliness of Israel (by now, I hope God has given up trying to protect or justify the actions of America). No apologies because what has transpired is fully expected after a half-century and more of the two nations’ militarism and hegemonic goals set for themselves.

The wellspring of hatred has burst, a veritable gusher of vituperation loosened on the heads of Jews, by Jews, on the grounds of not following orders laid down by Israel. Negotiations must fail. Iran must be destroyed. The poisonous attack on fellow Jews may be without precedent, one orchestrated by pressures groups possessing seemingly unlimited funds and implementing what amounts to a right-wing ideological agenda, for after Iran, then what, each, Israel and America, taking on their respective further enemies and evils? Iran, in reality, is a litmus test of geopolitical proportions for the US and Israel. Sadly, the Obama policy so virulently opposed by Israel and, in the main, American Jews, is a half-hearted step toward a fair settlement, punitive in attitude and the retention of some sanctions, typically oriented to regime change, meant to be humiliating, etc., yet somehow too “soft” for its opponents. This is instructive of how far the political-ideological spectrum in Israel and America has shifted to the Right.

Ironically, we see Jewish anti-Semitism practiced by those who make the charge: in practice, Jews are forced to recant their critical sensibilities; to be acceptable, they must conform to categorical allegiance to Israel and deny community standing to any who challenge the anti-Accord policy and strategy mounted against its supporters. You are for us or against us, no middle ground, no discussion. Crudeness, in best totalitarian fashion, trumps dialogue. We’ve seen this before, most recently, with respect to the Israeli assault on Gaza, criticism of the Settlements, and, as in the crackdown on Israeli dissent, the growing militarization of the society. Intimidation replaces Torah as the touchstone of being Jewish. One might hypothesize a massive guilt feeling for violations of Torah, as in the formation of in-group superiority against the putative outsider, a combined xenophobia and ethnocentrism as a textbook example of Theodor Adorno’s Authoritarian Personality; the attitudinal framework also characterizes much of the American Jewish community, in both cases, communities turning their backs on Judaism to identify with militarism as the road to certitude.

The Iran Accord is not life-threatening. Making it so is the work of warped minds. In both Israel and America, Jews have lost their capacity for empathy and an appreciation of suffering. When Gaza was being shelled, Israelis took to the Siderot hillside to eat munchies and cheer, while not a peep in America during the “shock and awe” bombing campaign at the start of the Iraq War. Why bloodless in the face of self-created human misery? I see only tragedy and further destruction ahead. And to fill out some of the above I turn now to Jonathan Weisman and Alexander Burns’s New York Times article, “Iran Deal Opens a Vitriolic Divide Among American Jews,” (Aug. 28), which documents, as the title suggests, venomous attacks made against fellow Jews. The case in point, Jerrold Nadler, an Orthodox Jew, Yeshiva educated, supporter of Israel throughout his congressional career, and now supporter of the Iran Accord. The reporters write: “The animus is hard to miss. On his Facebook page, Mr. Nadler has been called a kapo: a Jew who collaborated with Nazis in the World War II death camps. One writer said he had ‘blood on his hands.’ Another said he had ‘facilitated Obama’s holocaust.’”

What kind of twisted minds spout such extremism? Example: “Dov Hikind, a New York State assemblyman, rented a double-decker bus this week; plastered the smiling face of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on it; and parked it in front of Mr. Nadler’s office. On Wednesday, he took six Auschwitz survivors to the office to condemn Mr. Nadler.” Even the Anti-Defamation League thought this overly much, to which Hikind sarcastically replied, “’This immature, babyish, childish whining? Stop. I’m just getting started.’” I fear American Jewry, in firm alliance with an increasingly reactionary Israeli government, is also just getting started.

My New York Times Comment on the Weisman-Burns article, same date, follows:

Not surprising; since the 1950s most of American Jewry have been super-patriots, super-conformists–possibly out of fear of what happened to the Rosenbergs, but also a postwar conservatism adopted so different from Jews’ prideful affirmation of radical and humanistic causes prior to World War II: civil rights, labor, toleration in general.

I am an anti-Zionist Jew; there are more like me worldwide but intimidated into silence. The fox-and-lox, canasta, safe, respectable syndrome operates smoothly, justifying repression and discrimination at home, intervention, war, regime change abroad. So let me speak out: Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its foreign policy from Day 1 is a desecration of Judaism, a caring, humane, world religion having made a disproportionate contribution to science, letters, world peace. And now? Petty fascists in Israel, people and leaders alike, and in US a morbidly rigid base of support, self-righteous, drawing inward, clannish, denying Jewish cosmopolitanism.

To me, contemptuous weaklings on the wrong side of history. Obama, from a Left perspective, is a farce, imposter, etc., so that even the Iran negotiation was punitive and still predicated on force. Yet in real-world terms the best we can hope for. I support the Treaty. Much of the Jewish community does not, its response to supporters that they are anti-Semites dramatically showing their moral cowardice and bankruptcy. Judaism will outlive its frightened members.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at