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Making Progressives the Enemy

Photograph Source: Ekinklik – CC BY-SA 3.0


A Reversal of Values

Up until recently, many Jews allied themselves with progressive causes. By progressive I mean causes that seek to improve the human condition: racial and ethnic equality, economic well-being, education and health care for all, and the like. This made (and still makes) perfectly good sense for the Jews. As a religious minority that suffered discrimination and periodic persecution, they could only benefit from the popularization of values inherent in tolerance, equalitarianism and human rights. Such values, reflected in the law, created opportunities for everyone within a safe public space. This was focusing on the “big picture.”

This dedication to progressive causes as a part of modern Jewish history is well documented, particularly in the United States. Take for instance the roughly 2,200 articles written on this subject by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). Through these we learn that after World War II the American Jewish Congress (AJC), among other Jewish organizations, “made common cause with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).” It is also true that the JTA coverage shows that support for the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. was not unanimous among American Jews. Some actually believed that civil rights was not a “Jewish issue.” This position ignored the importance of societal values and simply relied on an alliance with the power structure (the old idea of the “court Jew” exercising influence) as a more reliable route to Jewish community welfare. This was disregarding the “big picture.” Nonetheless, according to the JTA, “from the late 1940s … and continuing to the mid-1960s, the larger cause of civil rights was absolutely regnant on the American Jewish communal agenda.”

Unfortunately, identification with the progressive cause of civil rights, as logical as it was for the Jews, did not last. The turning point came in 1967 and the years immediately following. The “Six Day War” (June 5-10, 1967) was popularly, and uncritically, seen as a near disaster for Israel that miraculously turned into a great victory. Israel expanded out into Gaza and the West Bank and consequently came to rule over millions of additional Palestinians through the imposition of a harsh military regime.

The mood of exhilaration generated by victory in the war seemed to have prevented most American Jews from noticing that the progressive principles of civil and political rights were not extended to the Palestinians. However, many African-American civil rights advocates did notice and made their concerns known to their American Jewish allies. At that point, activist American Jews had to chose between supporting Israel, which was now revealing itself as a discriminatory state, or continuing to advocate for the progressive agenda of civil and human rights. American Jewish leaders and the organizations they led never really hesitated, for it seemed that blood was thicker than both good sense and good values. They abandoned the progressive cause and threw their support behind an Israel whose racism was increasingly obvious. Most ordinary Jewish people either followed their lead or managed to make their support for Israel an exception while maintaining their progressive orientation on other matters. These folks are now known as PEPs (progressive except for Palestine). Nonetheless, at the organizational level the whole process represented a breathtaking about-face!

Progressives become the Enemy

As it became clear in what direction the State of Israel was evolving, those Jews who did stay true to the universal application of causes as human and civil rights reacted. They spoke out against impending apartheid and eventually formed their own organizations which lent support to the Palestinians as victims of ethnic cleansing and other forms of oppression. This in turn caused a furious reaction on the part of Zionists—those who support a Jewish state in Palestine. Indeed, with the vehemence of someone who sees his adversary as a traitor, the Zionists have condemned as anti-Semites all who would stand against them—including progressives—be they Jews or otherwise. The Zionists have gone to great lengths in this regard. For instance, they have dreamt up the category of “self-hating Jews” and have attacked (with the help of the present administration in Washington) international law and international criminal courts that might condemn Israeli behavior. Once it got rolling, this process became hard to stop. Now, a breed of Zionist “intellectuals” has decided that all progressives, past and present, should be examined for the taint of anti-Semitism. For them, the progressive per se has become the enemy of Israel and its Zionist ideology.

So it was that on 11 March 2019 Manfred Gerstenfeld, an Israeli researcher attached to the decidedly rightwing Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, sent out a recruiting notice that began like this: “The academy needs a competent and ambitious historian to document the many instances of progressive perversity throughout the centuries.” Progressive perversity? What can that mean? Well, Gerstenfeld does point fingers: “topics to be examined should include the antisemitism of Erasmus of Rotterdam …  the French Revolution … Voltaire … Karl Marx … and the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, which was an iconic example of progressive perversity.” Actually, what Gerstenfeld is seeking is an “ambitious historian” to go on a fishing expedition that might turn up bits and pieces of data that he and his center can then exaggerate into a charge of ubiquitous “anti-Semitism” among progressives.

Indeed, Gerstenfeld goes on to give his own examples of the information he seeks, just so any “competent” historian will know what sort of research he or she is applying for. They consist of decontextualized quotes which are supposed to be proof of virulent hatred of Jews. For instance, there are snippets of letters taken from a biography of Erasmus, the 16th century humanist, in which he has some disparaging things to say about this or that Jewish person. But what does this really prove?  Erasmus was a famous satirist (take a look at his famous work In Praise of Folly) and for every example of a negative opinion of Jews, or of Muslims for that matter, we can find even more remarks disparaging aspects of Christian belief and behavior. Gerstenfeld plays the same gambit with Voltaire, the 18th century Enlightenment thinker. It is true that Voltaire had some nasty things to say about Jews. He too said nasty things about Christians and Muslims. But then again, Voltaire had even more positive things to say about “tolerance, freedom of speech, and the dangers of religious fundamentalism.” The point is that whatever the occasional remarks Erasmus or Voltaire might have made about Jews, their overall aim was to promote a world governed by moderation, fairness and toleration—a world in which Jews, and others, could thrive. Alas, Gerstenfeld misses, or perhaps chooses to just ignore, this point.

Up till here, Gerstenfeld has disparaged those who can honestly be identified as progressive for their time. But now, as is often the case with ideologues obsessed with their adversary, he begins to slip into the realm of the absurd. Here are two examples.

Gerstenfeld identifies the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia as a “progressive” event. But really, this is at best a confusion. Whatever might have been the original hopes of the early Russian communist leaders, the end product was the overthrow of an authoritarian regime and its replacement with a totalitarian dictatorship. There is obviously nothing progressive about this. But Gerstenfeld has a hidden agenda and so he lists some of the Jews that Josef Stalin had murdered while insisting that the regime this dictator ran should be labeled progressive—ergo, yet another instance where progressives prove to be anti-Semitic.

Gerstenfeld is not done. If the communist regime of Stalin can be deemed a “perverse” form of progressivism, so can Hitler’s National Socialism. He notes that the Nazis put into effect regulations against cruelty to animals, and that these were supposedly “precursors of current animal protection movements that are usually considered progressive.” This is the equivalent of saying that a psychotic mass murderer is a progressive because he was kind to his dog (as Hitler was reported to have been). It is an obscene suggestion.

This is what happens when you have reduced your world to a single, truly perverse ideology that sharply defines all friends and foes. You can’t see the rest of the world in any clear fashion and you certainly can’t see your own assertions and actions in an objective way.

The Method Behind the Madness

Why is Gerstenfeld denigrating progressives, some of whom have been dead for 500 years? The answer lies in the fact that his effort is part of a larger attack on the post-World War II attempt to rein in state behavior through enlightened and forward-looking international laws. More specifically, these laws seek to criminalize the imperialist and colonialist practices of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The attempt includes such measures as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), international treaties and laws such as the one that makes apartheid a crime against humanity (2002), and the International Criminal Court system (1998).

The problem for Gerstenfeld and his Zionist fellows is that these measures set standards for international behavior that conflict with Israel’s ongoing conquest of Palestine and the ethnic cleansing and/or racist subjugation of the Palestinian people. Modern progressive standards judge this sort of behavior as criminal.

Thus Israel, among other states, can be identified as a country out of step with modern norms of behavior. Obviously, this upsets the Zionists who envision Israel as Western civilization’s foothold in the Middle East. There are only two ways they can respond: either (1) Israel gives up the racist practice of a state for Jews only and instead embraces a form of democracy accessible to all its people regardless of religion or ethnicity, or (2) Israel must attempt to sabotage modern progressive international laws and force the world to once again accept at least some of the colonial discriminatory practices of the pre-World War II era. Gerstenfeld’s effort is part of the latter strategy.

You might think that Israel and its Zionist supporters are fighting a losing battle here. However, don’t be so sure. So far, Israel has only been emboldened by the support it receives from the United States and the feeble response to its crimes coming from Europe. No serious effort has been made by other states to pressure Israel, as was done in the case of white-ruled South Africa, to reform its apartheid system. That effort is being made by private organizations and individuals such as those supporting the boycott Israel movement. Zionists are pushing hard to have this effort criminalized.

The truth of the matter is that the Zionists are hell-bent on moving the world backwards: back to the days when racist conquest was mistaken for the spread of civilization, when efforts to institutionalize standards of human and civil rights were seen as impingements on sovereignty, back to the days when no one gave a second thought to oppressed peoples (including oppressed Jews). Yet who is there to say that such a retrograde effort is horribly wrong? Well, there are any number of past and present progressives. The Zionists now seek to defame such people, and promoting this effort is one Manfred Gerstenfeld, an Israeli researcher attached to the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who is looking to recruit a “competent and ambitious historian.”

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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