Media Watch: Who Is A ‘Real Jew?’


Pinocchio wanted to be “a real boy.” When he followed Lampwick to Pleasure Island and began smoking cigars, shooting pool and living the crude life until growing donkey ears and braying, was Pinocchio closer to being a real boy or a real donkey? At least Pinocchio had the decency to feel ashamed.

What is “a real Jew”? Real Jews don’t care if you think we’re real or not. Go to Brooklyn and tell a Satmar chasid that he’s not a real Jew and see if he gives a damn what you think. Real Jews, left or right, know who they are. Real Jews can’t imagine themselves as anything else.

The New York Times headlined a recent Roger Cohen column, “The ‘Real Jew’ Debate” (Dec. 10). Cohen focused on Ira Stup, 24, who was unnerved by an incident in Jerusalem. Stup and his friends were carrying a banner, “Zionists are not settlers,” when they say they were attacked by “a group of religious Jews” who were “screaming” that Stup and his friends were not “real Jews.”

Said Stup, “For me it was a turning point.” Not just the violence, that almost seemed secondary. “Nobody previously had said I was not a real Jew.”

Stup was oblivious to the fact that before anyone screamed that he was not a real Jew, his own banner “screamed” that settlers were not real Zionists. To a religious Zionist settler, for whom living on and reclaiming the biblical terrain is essential to his or her Judaism, being told you’re not a real Zionist is every bit as hurtful as it was hurtful to Stup to hear he is not a real Jew. Stup (or Cohen) didn’t “hear” his own banner. He only heard the response.

According to Cohen, however, this was not an isolated incident: “The view that American Jews supportive of Israel but critical of its policies are not ‘real Jews’ is, however, widespread.”

That is not true, writes Leonard Fein, a columnist in several Jewish papers and a member of J Street’s advisory council. “Whoa. I am not a fan of either AIPAC or the Presidents Conference,” writes Fein, “but in all the years I have interacted with both, sometimes in vehement disagreement, I have never ever caught even a hint that I am not regarded as ‘a real Jew’ — nor have I heard anyone else so characterized.” Dismissed as “enemies of Israel,” yes. “But not ‘real Jews?’ Blather.”

One can go up and down the J Street advisory council and find some beautifully real Jews, from Rabbis Art Green, Rachel Cowen, Rolando Matalon, to David Elcott, Fein and others too many to name. We know their lives, their Jewish dreams, we know their real Jewish passions don’t begin or end with opposing settlements. We can’t imagine these people as anything but Jews.

On the other hand, are all critics of Israel like that? Is anyone, no matter how assimilated, unaffiliated, Jewishly illiterate, with no overt joy or pride in Jewish praxis, with no sense of peoplehood, with no Jewish credentials, nevertheless a “real Jew” by virtue of criticizing Israel alone or advocating boycotts and divestment?

As Mel Brooks says in Moment (December), not every comedian who is Jewish is a Jewish comedian, even if their humor can be traced to the Catskills or Brooklyn. Increasingly, it should be called “New York humor,” says Brooks, “because it isn’t particularly Jewish in terms of Yiddishkeit.”

If real Jewish humor needs a foundation of Yiddishkeit, a real Jewish critique of Israel has to be grounded in Yiddishkeit, too, with a catch in the throat, a sense of yesterday, a sense of the dream. Maybe we have to say goodbye to the West Bank’s biblical heartland where Jews have lived for centuries, but does it break your heart to say so?

To look over his columns, Roger Cohen’s heart breaks for Israel’s critics alone. He is bitterly obsessive about settlements with no apparent concern for other factors in the region.

He is outraged by one Reform synagogue’s opting to rescind a speaking invitation to J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami. This, says Cohen, shows that debate is stifled. He says nothing about the attempt at Brandeis University, by J Street collegiates and others, to stop Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking.

“Middle East talks have just broken down again, precisely over settlements,” writes Cohen.

Except that not everyone thinks so, and not only on the right. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, said (Arutz Sheva, Oct. 31) that “What’s unequivocally wrong, in my opinion, is saying that settlements are the reason there’s not peace. … The reason we don’t have peace in the Middle East is because a large percentage, I would say the majority … of Palestinians and Arabs do not believe there should be a Jewish state anywhere in the Middle East. Period.”

In The Washington Post, columnist Jackson Diehl wrote (Dec. 8), “the settlements are mostly not material to a deal on a Palestinian state, since both sides accept that the majority of them will be annexed to Israel in exchange for land elsewhere. The issue has become an obstacle in large part because of Obama’s misguided placement of emphasis on it, which forced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to embrace a hard line.”

That the peace talks failed, writes Cohen, “is not merely a failure of the parties. It is a failure of U.S. politics and the way those politics are straitjacketed by an Israel-right-or-wrong mantra,” because the wrong Jews, Cohen is convinced, control Washington. When Cohen agrees with Washington, he calls it democracy. When he disagrees, he calls it a Jewish straitjacket.

Cohen writes, Stup “read in one newspaper that 53 percent of Israeli Jews would encourage Israeli Arabs to leave.” That 47 percent of Israelis wouldn’t is the real story.

Is that all that was in the papers? How about these headlines: 432 Palestinian rockets landed in southern Israel since the end of Gaza war nearly two years ago; there have been terror attacks or border “incidents” on the average of once every three days, on the southern border alone in 2010; the Palestinian Authority now claims that Rachel’s Tomb is a mosque and the Western Wall belongs to the Al-Aqsa mosque above it; on Al-Aqsa TV (Dec. 2), where Jews are regularly compared to pigs and monkeys, a puppet show for Palestinian children was given the catchy title, “The Criminal Zionists Are Plotting to Destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque”; another Palestinian television station declared that Haifa and other major cities were as “occupied” as the West Bank; and 11 Israelis died in 2010 because of Palestinian terrorists.

One was a real Druze; one a real Thai; one a real Christian; eight were real Jews. One Jew, Steve Averbach, died in his sleep after seven years of being completely paralyzed from the neck down after trying to stop a suicide bomber on a Jerusalem bus in 2003. The Palestinian bomber was disguised as an Orthodox Jew but he wasn’t a real Jew and Averbach knew it and tried to knock him out.

Averbach later said, “I saw the need and felt compelled to intervene.” He is mourned by his mother, father, wife, and four children. They remember that day in 2003. They’ll remember shoveling his grave in 2010.

The death of this real Jew was in the papers, too. I guess Stup and Cohen didn’t see it or didn’t think anything of it. n