Leslie Gelb, in the NY Times, says the following about The Israel Lobby:
But as my mother often said, “They [M & W] asked for trouble” — by the way they make their arguments, by their puzzlingly shoddy scholarship, by what they emphasize and de-emphasize, by what they leave out and by writing on this sensitive topic without doing extensive interviews with the lobbyists and the lobbied.
Speaking of asking for trouble: On page 167 of The Israel Lobby, M & W quote Elliot Abrams, in a book he wrote about American Jews and Judaism, as follows: “there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart—except in Israel—from the rest of the population.” M & W write that this shows that Abrams is “hardly objective” about Israel and that this is a “remarkable comment” from someone who holds a high-level foreign policy position. M & W strongly imply that someone who wrote something like what Abrams wrote should be barred from policy-making positions.
Apparently, they are thinking along the same lines as Huffington Post columnist (and Yale Sterling Professor of English) David Bromwich, who writes: “He [Abrams] certainly did not expect to occupy a position that would require him to weigh the national interest of Israel, the country with which he confessed himself uniquely at one, alongside the national interest of a country in which he felt himself to stand “‘apart…from the rest of the population.'”
But Abrams never says anything remotely like that he feels himself “uniquely at one” with Israel. And not only doesn’t say that he is oblivious to America’s national interest, on exactly the same page of his book he says precisely the opposite (you can look it up an Amazon reader to check for yourself). Abrams specifies that there is no conflict between adhering to the Abrahamic covenant and being loyal to one’s country. Indeed, I would add that many very traditional Jews are fiercely loyal to the United States precisely because it gives them the freedom to pursue their unique traditions, without, for the most part, having people like Bromwich question their loyalty and belonging.
Abrams’s comment is not, as Bromwich articulates and M & W seem to believe, about Israel, but with traditional Judaism’s belief that God has ordained that Jews are “a people who dwelleth alone” and who, to fulfill their religious obligations, must have a communal existence separate from the Gentile population. This isn’t exactly news to anyone familiar with traditional Judaism, or with the fact that Jews who follow tradition tend to send their kids to Jewish day schools, shop at kosher supermarkets, and otherwise necessarily maintain a degree of “apartness”, not out of hostility but out of the fact that traditional Judaism requires it–traditional Judaism is primarily a religion of actions, not beliefs, and mere belief in the precepts of Judaism doesn’t cut it if the communal institutions don’t exist to allow the religion to be practiced.
For decades, classical Reform Judaism fought this, partly on the basis that it prevented assimilation and led to unnecessary tensions, and partly in an attempt to stem the tide of Jewish converts to Christianity (10% of the Jewish populations in Germany, Hungary, Austria, etc. in the 19th century). The Reform argued that Jews should drop their distinctive traditions and be like everyone else, creating a Judaism primarily based on shared moral values, similar to liberal Protestantism except without Jesus, and with synagogue instead of church (some Reform congregations went so far as to switch the day of Sabbath services to Sunday, and until relatively recently if a worshiper put a kippah (yarmulke/skullcap) on in certain Reform synagogues, an usher would come by and ask him to remove it). But even the Reform have largely given up on trying to separate Jews from their peculiar ancestral traditions (and indeed their leaders are mostly encouraging a return to tradition).
Meanwhile, Abrams’ quote obviously doesn’t suggest dual loyalty–though if the Sterling Professor of English at Yale can’t see this, either it’s not as obvious as I think, or he isn’t trying very hard. The reference to Israel in the quote merely states the obvious–that in a country with a Jewish majority, where the schools teach a Jewish curriculum, kashrut is the rule by default in supermarkets and restaurants, Jewish holidays are national holidays, etc., Jews living in Israel don’t have any need to maintain any “apartness” to fulfill their religious obligations.
If M & W find Abrams’s quote so “remarkable,” I wonder what they would think about a Roman Catholic government official who had written a book on American Catholicism making an innocuous statement like that “to be faithful to the Church, Catholics must keep in mind that they must respect the authority of the Vatican.” Unlike Abrams’s statement, that one on its face does suggest dual loyalty, but anyone with a modicum of understanding of Catholic society would no better than to engage in such know-nothingism.
Continue reading by clicking below.
In short, it’s hard to think of a less remarkable, less controversial statement coming from a relatively traditional Jewish writer writing a book about Judaism in America.
So what explains M & W’s use of this quote? Several possibilities:
(1) Mearsheimer and Walt are largely ignorant of Jews and Judaism, and thus inadvertantly read a suggestion that Jews are a fifth column into a theological statement that says nothing of a kind.
(2) It’s malicious, either in the sense that M & W are purposely distorting the meaning of this quote because they want to discredit Abrams, or because they are anti-Semitic and are seeing a rather innocuous quote through the lens of their own prejudices. (Or perhaps they picked up the quote from a disreputable source that was misusing it, and didn’t bother to rethink it).
I think the most likely explanation is (1), and conscious anti-Semitism, or prejudice, the least likely, but none of these explanations would give those concerned about the welfare of American Jews much faith in M & W; at best, they are attacking the organized Jewish community, the largest component of the “Israel lobby” they identify, from a position of abysmal ignorance about Jews and Judaism, and at worst they are prejudiced. Either way, you’re not going to win a lot of Jewish fans when you suggest based on a misreading of an innocuous quote that if you adhere to traditional Jewish theology, you’re not competent to serve in high levels of government.
By the way, ignorance of Jews and Judaism is not confined to the M & W’s of the world. Many years ago, during Israel’s 1982 war with the PLO in Lebanon, I recall seeing George Schultz, by all accounts friendly to Israel, Israelis, and Jews, on Nightline. He was trying to explain Israel’s actions sympathetically, to an American audience. He said something like, “you have to understand that Israel is an Old Testament society, and believes in an eye for an eye.” It was an insulting, and inaccurate way to explain Israel’s actions. Inaccurate because Israel is not an “Old Testament society;” most Israelis are not religious, and modern Judaism is any event primarily Talmudic, not “Old Testament”, in nature. The Talmud itself interprets an “eye for an eye” as “let the punishment fit the crime,” not as a requirement of violent vengeance. Insulting because it suggests that Christian nations would react less violently than Israel’s Jewish society, an idea hardly supported by the history of violence among Christian nations and peoples, often acting in the name of Christianity (think the Thirty Years War, or the Crusades). Schultz, in other words, interpreted Israel’s action through a prejudiced, Christian view of Judaism. That someone of George Schultz’s stature could repeat such nonsense was very disturbing, it showed that the Secretary of State lacked even a basic understanding of Jews and Judaism. The difference between M & W and Schultz is that if you lack such an understanding and seem friendly to Jews, obviously your views are going to come under less scrutiny than if you seem unfriendly to Jews, and in particular if people think you are trafficking in longstanding anti-Jewish stereotypes for political reasons.