Israel and the Puritans: A Dangerous Historical Romance (p. II)
Jim Sleeper 15 April 2024
When English settlers came to the “new Zion,” they behaved much like Israeli Zionists today. What’s the lesson? This is the second part of an article originally published on Salon, on March 31st 2024. The first part can be found here.


Many Jews of my generation grew up with photos like this, not as historical curiosities but as reminders of what we might not have escaped had we been born a decade or so earlier in the Europe of our grandparents, instead of in postwar America. Jews who have facilitated but also challenged modernity’s dislocations have often become targets of others’ fear and resentment, thanks to what George Steiner called their role as “a moral irritant and insomniac” and an interlocutor “of the darkest impulses of man.”

Children with the Auschwitz Camp number on their arms in Haifa Port. Photo by Kluger Zoltan, from the National Photo Collection of Israel

Steiner considered that status “an honor beyond honors,” but some Jews who have been persecuted, or haunted by memories of persecution, resort to sinuous subservience to established powers, especially in times of populist frustration and backlash. The Jew as fixer or apologist for the powerful — suspicious and opportunistic, legally and commercially underhanded, contemptuous of detractors – has been a stereotype too often earned by those who believed that such behavior would serve them in societies hostile to progressive, humanitarian hopes.

And not only Jews. Consider Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, current chair of the House Republican Conference, a Roman Catholic who has become an energetic self-appointed alarmist against American antisemitism. Spearheading the now-infamous Dec. 5 House committee hearing on what she claimed was “the rot of antisemitism” in student protests against Israel’s attack on Gaza, Stefanik took liberties with her own constitutionally protected freedom of speech to accuse protesters of taking liberties with theirs. A con woman who grabs opportunities where she sees them, she demanded that university presidents at the hearing answer “yes or no” to a hypothetical accusation about campus protesters: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment?” She landed a politically decisive blow against the presidents of Penn and Harvard, but also against America’s civic-republican culture.

Protesters who shout “From the river to the sea” or “globalize the intifada,” or who hold Israel “entirely responsible” for Hamas’ violence, may be historically uninformed or politically immature. But they’re not “calling for the genocide of the Jews.” They’re accusing Jews of committing genocide. Stefanik likely understood that they have a plausible, if debatable, case, but flipped the script to make their intentions seem genocidal and their university presidents seem like enablers. Not incidentally, she also bolstered conservatives’ long-running campaign to blame liberal university leaders for ruining liberal education.

A more honest investigation would blame “free market” pressures on colleges that distort students’ expectations of higher education and incline its administrators and faculty to train them as indebted buyers and sellers, not as citizens who should be equipped to interrogate conventional arrangements rather than facilitating them. While twisting the meaning of “intifada,” which denotes “shaking off” or “resisting,” to make it seem genocidal, Stefanik implicitly twisted Donald Trump’s insurrectionary speech of Jan. 6, 2021, in the opposite direction, as if denying he had incited the riotous assault that tried to block the certification of his 2020 defeat.

When Harvard president Claudine Gay answered Stefanik’s genocide question by saying that although she found antisemitic speech “personally abhorrent,” Harvard would punish it only if it crossed the line “into conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, intimidation,” she unintentionally reinforced Stefanik’s charge that antisemitic speech always constitutes bullying, harassment and intimidation, and that Gay’s reluctance to say so was an unpardonable moral failure.

These attempts to scourge antisemitism, ironically enough, amount to a new “coddling of the American mind.” As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich cautions, the reflexive anti-antisemitism of meddlesome university donors, “many of them Jewish, many from Wall Street, could fuel the very antisemitism they claim to oppose, based on the age-old stereotype of wealthy Jewish bankers controlling the world.”

Much the same could be said of opportunistic politicians like Stefanik (Jewish or otherwise), whose quest for short-term tactical gains may spawn longer-term dangers: overreaching anti-antisemitism endangers our larger civic culture, already buckling under pressures that a Republican like Stefanik eagerly obscures.

As an undergraduate, Stefanik lived in Harvard’s Winthrop House, named partly for John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who organized its public celebration of the genocide of the Pequots. Two years before Stefanik urged a Harvard president to resign, she herself had been urged to resign from the advisory board of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics because of her support for Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, including her “public assertions about voter fraud… that have no basis in evidence, and… public statements about court actions related to the election that are incorrect,” in the words of the school’s dean. After Stefanik refused to resign and was removed by the board, she said it was a “badge of honor to join the long line of leaders who have been boycotted, protested, and canceled by colleges and universities across America…. The decision by Harvard’s administration to cower and cave to the woke Left will continue to erode diversity of thought, public discourse, and ultimately the student experience.”

There’s no question that Hamas’ intentions toward Jews are genocidal and nihilistic, and that it’s a despotic, destructive force for the Palestinians under its rule. That doesn’t cancel out the historical reality that Winthrop, Mather and other English settlers who founded Harvard and our republic were as genocidal as the biblical Hebrews they self-consciously modeled themselves upon. Condemning only one side’s bloodlust, or blaming American campus protesters for (allegedly) defending it, while ignoring the other side’s equivalent nihilism serves neither justice nor a civic-republican ethos that began on this continent with Puritan efforts to balance personal autonomy with strong community. Such selective outrage can only intensify the pathologies of Nakba-traumatized Palestinians and Holocaust-traumatized Jews who play fast and loose with Americans’ grievances and hopes.

What Adam Shatz has called “vengeful pathologies” inflame not only those tied ancestrally or materially to one or another side in this war but also those with no such ties or interests who protest it more passionately than numerous more devastating conflicts in recent memory. Thousands of American young people didn’t take to the campus quads to condemn the killing of approximately 100,000 civilians and more than a million combatants in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. Very few seemed to lose sleep over the murder of tens of thousands of Chechens in Russia‘s “counter-insurgency” war of the 2000s, which Human Rights Watch called “unparalleled in the area since World War II for its scope and destructiveness.”

These and other recent horrors are surely as hideous as the IDF’s killing of more than 30,000 Gazans, including many women and children, and the destruction of their homes, schools and hospitals. We should also note the unmatched sadism of Hamas’ body-camera footage depicting the murder of 1,200 or so Israelis, most of them civilians, some of whom were forced to watch family members killed or brutalized before being slaughtered themselves. Campus organizations, churches, labor unions and social justice advocates who mobilized against Israel’s retaliatory attacks have said very little about Hamas’ evident strategy of using thousands of Palestinian civilians as human shields.

Some explanations for this are plausible but not entirely convincing. One is that U.S. efforts on Israel’s behalf reflect the foreign policy establishment’s effort to manage largely unmanageable upheavals in the post-World War II order. Another is that globalized communications, commerce and finance have enabled a new regime of profiteering and power-grabbing by an array of bad actors: social media managers, demagogues, propagandists and lobbyists for authoritarian regimes. Those developments have undermined the promise of democracy that seemed to emerge during the “Arab Spring” rebellions of 2011. Authoritarians have adapted the new technologies to serve what William J. Dobson calls “The Dictator’s Learning Curve.”

A more plausible but still inadequate answer contends that young Americans protesting the Gaza war are indulging a form of politics that privileges their zeal to “find themselves” in moralistic posturing and ideological positioning. “This concern for the Palestinians is not a matter of anti-Semitism so much as it is a reflection of self-absorption,” Shatz wrote in The Nation in 2014. “Palestinians are for the radical Western left what Algerians were for Third World’ists…: natural-born resisters, fighting not only Israel but its imperial patrons…. Palestine is still ‘the question’ because it holds up a mirror to us. ‘Too many people want to save Palestine’ one activist said to me. But it could just as well be said that too many people want to be saved by Palestine.”

An “all-consuming preoccupation with America and Israel,” Shatz continued, has left some progressives “strangely incurious about the crimes for which the West can’t be blamed and the developments, such as the politicization of sectarian identity, that are shaking the region far more profoundly than the Israeli-Palestinian arena.” Why aren’t progressives who champion freedom of speech, conscience, sexual identity and reproductive choice chanting, “From Tehran to Tripoli, Muslims will be free”?

My criticism of the left is not meant to excuse the Zionist movement and Israel’s degrading treatment of Palestinians since at least the 1930s, when leaders such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky were unapologetically racist, or since 1967, when Israel conquered and occupied Gaza and the West Bank. But I also cannot condemn Israel uniquely, when it is invoked by Americans whose ancestors destroyed Indigenous peoples and enslaved millions of Africans. “Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical error, are essential in the creation of a nation,” noted Ernst Renan, the 19th-century scholar of Semitic languages and civilizations. Equally “essential,” it would seem, are demagogic leaders who safeguard their own nations’ false memories by ginning up moralistic condemnations of other peoples’ vengeful pathologies.

A man leads chants from atop a utility box during a demonstration for Palestinian Land Day, Washington, DC, March 30, 2024. (Photo by Allison Bailey / Middle East Images via AFP)

A wiser and more effective strategy might begin by acknowledging that no nation’s emergence has ever been morally innocent, and by seeking honest explanations and answers, even when they’re painful. Several courageous American Jewish writers have tried to do this.

Former liberal Zionist Peter Beinart has said that Israel is committing a sin in Gaza and the West Bank that “cannot be atoned for,” and has held instructive public conversations with young Palestinian activists and thinkers such as Ahmed Moor. New York Times columnist Ezra Klein has held reflective, informative conversations with Palestinian and Israeli thinkers such as Amjad Iraqi and Yossi Klein Halevi. Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, has explained why changes in the nature and dimensions of war have ended its plausibility as a “solution” to conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Shatz’s account of Frantz Fanon’s personal life and political work, The Rebel’s Clinic, rescues Fanon’s advocacy of anti-colonial violence from the reductionist mischaracterizations of his Western fan club.

These and other Jewish writers exemplify another irony: the ancient, axial, proto-cosmopolitan breakthrough drives even secular, liberal Jews who are passionate about America, not just because their own forebears escaped the European nightmare but also because the Hebraic emphasis on a communal covenant has figured so decisively in the American republic’s own history. Free of Calvinist preoccupations with personal salvation, and also largely free of rabbinical constraints, they are more “Jewish” than ever, in the sense that they strive to strengthen a covenant that entwines personal renewal with public progress.

William Faulkner famously observed that “The past is never dead; it’s not even past.” From the biblical Abraham breaking Ur’s idols to Abraham Lincoln forcing a bloody “new birth of freedom,” and from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for a “New Covenant” to Barack Obama’s “Change we can believe in,” America’s political culture has repeatedly invoked a past whose threads we need to re-weave somehow, if the republic is to be kept from dissolving into a neoliberal free-for-all or tumbling into the Trumpian abyss.

Such a re-weaving might acknowledge that the vagaries of finance capital and intrusive consumer marketing have hollowed out the civic-republican culture planted by the Puritans, which sustained what G.K. Chesterton would later call “a nation with the soul of a church,” one that relies on citizens’ deep spiritual faith without imposing any particular ecclesiastical doctrine.

But whenever religion presumes to rule with state power, as the Puritans did and as today’s Christian nationalists intend to do, it becomes odious no matter what its Grand Inquisitors say in its defense. Yet without a faith deeper than legalism, our society will wither and die. As we deplete the stored-up moral capital of the Hebraic-Calvinist covenant, we risk losing the old civic faith which taught that resistance to tyranny is obedience to God. Let’s give the biblical authors credit for taking the sublimity of our loss straight up instead of chasing false consolations. Our best hope of transcending realities that seem too much to bear may come from bearing them and seeing them for what they are, not for imagining them as we wish them to be.



Cover photo: Illustration of the departure of the pilgrim fathers, for America. Dated 1620 (Photo by Ann Ronan Picture Library / Photo12 via AFP)

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2 thoughts on “Israel and the Puritans: A Dangerous Historical Romance (p. II)

  1. Kurt Roeloffs says:

    There is a lot to like in this article insofar as it makes clear that “no nation’s emergence has ever been morally innocent”. Unfortunately, the description of Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Governor Winthrop as organizing a celebration of the genocide of the Pequot is a highly distorted characterization. His colony was not even the main combatant. The Connecticut and Rhode Island colonists were the main English combatants. Winthrop’s celebration was in respect to the defeat of combatant enemies–not genocide. This is not to say the Pequot were not thereafter decimated. Survivors were enslaved and scattered throughout English colonies as far as the Caribbean. Yet the genocide was only complete with the outlawing of the use of the Pequot name. It wasn’t the actual war that resulted in the genocide of the Pequot. It was the “terms of peace” that resulted in the Pequot’s true genocide. It is a bit of a pity that the author missed that particularly bitter irony.

    • Jim Sleeper says:

      Kurt Roeloffs objects to my applying the word “genocide” to the massacre of those Pequots, but the New England colonies were united in killing indigenous peoples en masse, not only in defending themselves against attacks. John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony and William Bradford’s Plymouth Colony celebrated the event that Roeloffs refers to — the burning alive of an entire encampment of at least 400 Pequots in Connecticut, many of them women and children, and selling some of the survivors into slavery — because the Puritans’ intentions had become genocidal. Plymouth’s Bradford wrote that “it was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same,” but he and other Puritans characterized those deaths as a “sweet sacrifice,” and, as I noted, they saluted one another “in the Lord Jesus” for perpetrating it.

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