Suddenly Jewish

According to a well-known Talmud philosopher, Zionism is an interesting experiment, but since 1967, it has distorted the spirit of Judaism. Does Zionism promise every Jew asylum?

A Jewish student at the University of California, Berkely, whom we will call D., found himself deeply offended a few weeks ago. During a demonstration, Muslim students from a number of countries shouted at him that because he is Jewish, he is not only part of the United States' violent policy in Afghanistan, but also an automatic supporter of Israeli colonialism and the murder of children. He, just like the Israelis, ought to return to Poland, they insisted.

D. was absolutely stunned. Until that demonstration, he had been convinced that Zionism was a tragic mistake. For years, he had devoutly pored over articles by Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and others. In the last month, he also purchased "The New intifada," a collection of articles with an introduction by Chomsky, a contribution by Said and an interview with Azmi Bashara. He was particularly impressed by the neo-Jewish thesis of Daniel Boyarin, a well-known and fascinating Talmud scholar.

According to Boyarin, Zionism is an interesting experiment, but since 1967, it has distorted the spirit of Judaism. From a society that throughout history displayed a feminine, subordinate, rounded essence which was very accepting of others, it has turned into a society that uses masculine, penetrating and aggressive power - while cruelly oppressing and occupying another nation. D. did not understand why he, as a Jew, had to bear this antihuman stigma.

Does Zionism promise every Jew asylum? Israel is not an asylum and certainly not the safest place in the world for Jews. California is far safer and more pleasant. Zionism committed itself to creating a new society, a Hebrew society and new Jew? America has supplied all of these for years.

But since October 2000, and especially since September 11, D. has been confused. The very well organized Muslim group is forcing him to identify with Israel. In order to deny this identification, he has to stand alongside the Muslims on campus and accuse Israel of every possible evil on the face of the earth. Perhaps even to scream that the Jews are behaving like Nazis toward the Arabs.

That is a little difficult for D. His Israeli uncle is a Holocaust survivor, and he has a cousin, with whom he is barely willing to speak, who serves in the occupying army, but D. understands his parents' concern for their relatives who constantly live in the shadow of the threat of terror.

A week ago, D. read an emotional article by writer Jonathan Rosen in The New York Times Magazine. The writer admitted that his Jewish identity has become stronger as he has watched Israel's ever less successful public relations battle being fought on the television screens and as he has felt America's sense of freedom and power taking a beating. Rosen recalled how his father used to listen to Hitler's voice on their little transistor radio, how he, as a child, hated the connection with the past and tried to erase it and become a free American, and how the new intifada and the attack on the Twin Towers came and pushed him back into the old Jewish corner.

Last week, when Hanan Ashrawi visited their campus, D. and his friends felt very frustrated. The Muslim coalition was celebrating. Ashrawi did not condemn terror organizations even by allusion, and the Jews, who usually loudly voice their condemnation of Israel, began to ask themselves new questions about their identity. Some said after the visit that perhaps Rosen was right in his claim that to question Israel's very right to exist - a subject that is routinely debated here - is absurd.

If so, asks D., what stand can liberal leftist Jews take towards Israel? Some of his friends are Reform Jews, some are Conservatives, and even the young Orthodox rabbi of the campus, a graduate of Yeshiva University and the yeshiva in Ma'aleh Adumim, would certainly be viewed in Israel as a strange liberal bird. D. himself was not at all clear about the agenda of the Israeli left, if it has one at all.

This week it seemed that the more the Muslim demonstrators pushed D. into artificial identification with the settlers, the more questions he and his friends have for Israeli society. They wonder about its future principles, the gaps between rich and poor, religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sepharadim, and about the connection between it and Jews. It is not only the demonstrators who define D. as a potential Israeli citizen. So does the Law of Return. From the left side in Israel, D.'s most natural interlocutor on these issues, D. has hardly heard any answers.