Parsing the (Odious) New Term, “Jew-Washing”

photo: Jewish Voice for Peace

Cross-posted in the “Forward Thinking” blog of the Jewish Daily Forward:

In his latest column, Philologos correctly parses the linguistic problems with Yitzhak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg’s invented term, “Jew-washing.” His political analysis, alas, fails miserably.

Philologos has it completely wrong when he speaks of the “anti-Semitism in boycotts of Israel.” To begin with, Santis and Steinberg did not use the term “Jew-washing” in reference to a boycott of Israel as a whole, but rather to a resolution recently brought to the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that called for divestment of their pension funds from three specific companies that profit from Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank.

Regardless, it is highly disingenuous for Philologos to accuse the Presbyterian Church of anti-Semitism. Our Christian friends’ response to the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), reflects their deeply held commitment to justice in a land their tradition also considers holy.

Philologos asks, “Have the Presbyterians considered boycotting China because of Tibet? India because of Kashmir? Russia because of Chechnya?” This, of course, is classic misdirection. The issue at hand is not global human rights, but a very specific call from Palestinian civil society for international support in ending their oppression.

The real question before them (and us) is not “what about Tibet, Kashmir and Chechnya?”  The question, rather, is: “will we or won’t we respond to the Palestinian call?” To this question, many members of the Presbyterian Church are courageously responding “we will.” So too are increasing numbers of Jews who believe that our legacy of anti-Jewish oppression leads us to stand with Palestinians being denied basic human rights in our name.

No, we are not being used as pawns by Christian partners to further some nefarious “anti-Semitic plot”. Rather, we are standing in solidarity with the oppressed, as the most basic of our Jewish teachings demand that we do.  What irony that other Jews should stand in the way of the Jewish imperative to end injustice. How heartbreaking that some in the Jewish community pervert this imperative by labeling the best intentions of our Christian friends as “anti-Semitism.”

We do, however, fully share Philogos’ distaste for the term “Jew-washing,” the coining of which is a sign of abject desperation that itself crosses the line of anti-Semitism, as blogger Jeremiah Haber pointed out last week. We predict that odious terms such as this will soon be relegated to the history books as part of a last, flailing effort by a fearful generation of Jewish leaders unwilling to recognize the moral urgency of the moment. It also reflects the short-sightedness of an establishment that continues to support war and occupation while deliberately alienating itself from the next generation of courageous Jewish leaders.

13 thoughts on “Parsing the (Odious) New Term, “Jew-Washing”

  1. yisraelmedadYisrael Medad

    If ‘Jew-washing” is semantically problematic, why not revert to an earlier term used to describe Jews who can’t stand other Jews and seek to elevate themselves and separate from them, as if pointing an accusatory finger and saying “they are not me”. And that is the Ostjuden phenomenon.

    1. emselinger

      So these young Jews inspired by postwar Western values (aversion to ethnocracy, universal human rights, one-person-one-vote, etc.) would be the Westjuden, and their brethren in the Middle East, the Ostjuden? A nice twist on the terms! I like it better than “token Jews,” certainly.

      As for the Jews who elevate themselves and seek to separate from others, I can’t help but think of the old joke about the Jew on the desert island: this is my synagogue, and this is the one I won’t set foot in. Or the one about the shul where half the congregation sits for the Shema, half stands, and they all fight.

      Such aversions and accusations are, themselves, a deeply rooted part of Jewish tradition. My great-grandfather wrote in his memoirs that back in his youth, in Poland, members of his own Hadisic sect would fight in the streets with members of others, and they’d both attack the Zionists. If we’re returning to discord now, perhaps that’s a sign of communal health and vitality, rather than something to lament.

  2. olivebranchannex

    What a pity that I, as an Israeli Jew, can not hold up a sign to express my view in your picture.

    As for “Jewwashing” I agree that it is not as mellifluous as “pinkwashing”. Perhaps we could call them ‘token Jews’, the few who consider that their minority opinion in favour of our enemies carries more weight than that of the many Jews who live the danger and will bear the result of their ‘brave’ display.

    The concept is valid though the sound may be discordant.

  3. boris furman

    “The real question before them (and us) is not “what about Tibet, Kashmir and Chechnya?” The question, rather, is: “will we or won’t we respond to the Palestinian call?” ”
    Why is “what about Tibet, Kashmir and Chechnya?” not a real question? Why is it not before them? Why support them for addressing the Palestinian call and not condemn them or yourself for that matter for not putting those questions on their agenda? Aren’t there a lot more people affected in those areas than in Israel?
    As a human being don’t you feel a moral urgency to stand with other human beings who are being oppressed in your name?
    In the first week of this month 110 people were killed in terrorist attacks in five different countries none of them Israel. The Israeli government is not oppressing Palestinians in your or my name. It is doing its best to protect Israelis and Palestinians from terrorist attacks.

  4. Charles Jacobs

    But of course the question is ´”why not Tibet?” or better yet Sudan, where Arab Muslims have black Christian slaves, or Egypt, where the Christian minority faces a daunting future. Of course the question is “why only love the enemies of the Jews?” and of course the answer — for the Jews who line up with these enemies…. is cowardice…as it always was…..

  5. Vicky

    It’s interesting that Sudan should be mentioned, as several years ago the General Synod of the Presbyterian Church in the USA voted to divest from Talisman Energy because it was profiteering through the mass slaughter in Sudan.

    The American Presbyterian Church’s ethical investment policy was drawn up in 1971, and it is meant to be used as a litmus test for each and every one of the Church’s investments. Given its track record with divestment, it is impossible to say that companies profiteering from Israel’s occupation are being singled out specially, because they quite clearly aren’t.

    Palestinian civil society is different from the other countries mentioned here in that it has issued a specific call for BDS, after much consultation between different organisations representing a broad cross-section of Palestinian society. Such a call has not yet come from Tibet, Kashmir, or Chechnya. If they were asking for BDS as a means of fighting injustice, I would expect there to be a response, but as yet the people leading the justice struggle in those countries haven’t chosen to adopt this as their strategy. Tibetan campaigners have pressured international organisations to divest from certain Chinese companies that profiteer from the occupation of Tibet, although they haven’t issued a total BDS call – and this is also reflected in the Presbyterian Church’s business dealings. At the General Synod in 2007, a motion was raised to divest from Fidelity (a company involved in retirement provision) because of its holdings in PetroChina, which exploits Tibetan natural resources and is also complicit in the situation in Sudan. The General Synod responded by offering individual church members alternative retirement provision from six ’socially screened’ funds. The debate over these investments has followed pretty much the same pattern as the debate over settlement investments in Palestine.

    So, to all those people asking, ”What about Sudan?” or ”What about Tibet?” it seems that these questions have already been on the agenda at the Presbyterian General Synod (and they were being asked before the Palestinian BDS call had even been made). Unless you follow activist media on these issues, you probably won’t have heard about these things. If the only time you ever talk about Tibet, Sudan, or any other country facing injustice is when you want to provide a convenient smokescreen for Israel’s actions in the Occupied Territories, you definitely won’t have heard about these things. But that is not the problem of the Presbyterian Church. The USA Presbyterian Church has got several articles about Tibet on its official website, so it’s obviously an issue of concern to them. The same can’t be said for people who invoke Tibetan suffering as a way of deflecting attention from Palestine.

  6. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author

    Boris and Charles,

    I’m going to do the best I can to sharpen my point of view on this issue. I don’t do so with any expectation that I will change your minds – but I do want to be very clear about my views on an issue that is obviously of such concern to so many in our community.

    Clearly there are a myriad human rights concerns around the world. Many faith groups, such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) and my own denomination, the Reconstructionist movement, have done much to shed light on and protest these injustices in a variety of ways. Certainly they are all worthy of our outrage and action. Certainly no one people’s oppression is more deserving of our concern than any others.

    When sorting through all of these issues, it is fair to ask why some get more attention than others. I believe Israel/Palestine gets its share of attention for a number of reasons. One is that, unlike the causes of the peoples of Tibet, Kashmir, Chechnya, et al, there is a significant grass-roots based Palestinian civil society call for solidarity in the form of non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions that has been sent out to the international community. There is simply no comparable grass-roots movements on the part of Tibetans, Chechnyans, etc, that have organized similar calls for support in such a way and on such a scale.

    When I write “The real question before them (and us) is not ‘what about Tibet, Kashmir and Chechnya?” I do not mean to imply that these are not valid and important causes. My point is that unlike in these specific cases, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society has put out a call for solidarity through a specific form of non-violent direct action. Pointing to other oppressed peoples, in my opinion, is simply not a fair or proper response. The more appropriate response for an institution such as PC (USA) is to choose whether or not they will respond to the Palestinian call. Some members within PC (USA) have decided, in good faith, that their church should indeed respond by divesting their pension funds from three individual companies that make significant profit from Israel’s oppressive occupation (through actions that have nothing to do with Israel’s security).

    There are other reasons why I believe the plight of Palestinians has attracted the attention of church groups like PC (USA). One is that as Americans, they see themselves as implicated in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians because Israel is far and away the most significant recipient of unconditional military aid from our country – and to date, our leaders have been unable or unwilling to hold Israel to account for its actions. Another reason: Israel/Palestine is not simply another country for Christians – it is their Holy Land and the birthplace of their faith as well. It is only natural that they would have a special interest in what transpires there – particularly as it impacts on the Palestinian Christian community.

    Again, I don’t expect to sway your opinion with these thoughts. All I can hope is that you understand that I arrive at my opinions in good faith, just as you do yours.

    1. boris furman

      “My point is that unlike in these specific cases, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian civil society has put out a call for solidarity through a specific form of non-violence direct action.”
      CBN reported last August that a poll of Palestinians showed that 80% support Hamas.
      Does that mean that Christian organizations should support Hamas? My answer would be no. What’s the difference between supporting Hamas and supporting BDS? They both are popularly supported political movements dedicated to the advancement of Palestinian rights. Hamas is hoping to gain political power through free elections in the PA. They have been prevented from doing so.
      Even so, something in my gut prevents me from advocating support for Hamas. Just as something in my gut tells me not to support boycott of companies that do business with the Israeli Army.
      Also, what is the point of putting your opinions out in public if you don’t hope to sway other people? I understand that you arrive at your opinions in good faith which is why I bother to respond to your blog at all. I would hope that what you read on the comments to your blog would have a chance to change your opinions. If it doesn’t, publishing them would be in bad faith.

  7. Black Pete

    I was introduced to your blog through Reb Rachel Barenblatt’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi, and find that there is much here to learn from. I am a member of the United Church of Canada which is meeting in Ottawa for its General Council, and as I write this, is debating a report concerning the Israeli occupation and Palestinian rights (and a lot else). Thank you for your perspectives, Reb Brant–I’ll visit often.

  8. Hilel Salomon

    How disingenuous to see ones self as “standing for the oppressed,” and “not lending my voice to any anti-Jewish actions.” Israel is a tiny little blip of land surrounded by implacable enemies whose words, actions and desires all call for the destruction of that country and the killing of Jews everywhere. If you or any of the Jews who lend their voices to these attacks on Israel were really champions of the “underdog,” you would rally to the side of those who support that tiny, beleaguered country. Many Western Europeans are delighted to hide behind their “concern for the Palestinians” as a means of washing off the stench of their WW II complicity.
    Look carefully at the faces of those church leaders who call for limited and unlimited boycotts.
    If, for a moment, you stop patting yourself on the back and complimenting yourself on your objectivity, you might see their real intentions and the “respect” they have for you.

      1. hewhotypes

        There are about a billion Muslims in the world and hundreds of millions of Arabs. By and large, they would be more than willing to see Jews killed en masse and the entire state of Israel eliminated. This generates some anxiety on the part of many Israelis.

        There is no true underdog here, this is a clash of titans.

        But in any case, it is simply wrong to side with the poor and weak regardless of their behavior, and the Torah forbids it. See Shemot 23 (Exodus 23). The whole concept of favoring the poor as a form of justice is simply un-Jewish, or anti-Jewish. Especially in view of the many Biblical commandments to occupy the land, even in the face of armed opposition.

        Charity is commandment in Judaism, but such generosity does not extend to permissiveness toward the sort of rampant violence we’ve been seeing from the Arabs since the 1920’s.

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