An incident at Bloomfield Hills High School this year — in which a Palestinian-American guest speaker used a forum on discrimination to impugn the legitimacy of the State of Israel — prompted deep consternation among Jewish students and parents. Beyond the obviously necessary moment of reckoning for the school's poor vetting of the speaker and supervision of the assembly, the incident also revealed the importance of students and parents alike being able to parse and respond to such rhetoric and claims, not only passionately but intelligently and eloquently.
As satisfying as it might feel to shout down, dismiss and condemn such rhetoric in stentorian fashion, this is not the most effective reaction; a cogent, well-crafted response works better in the long run. In this sense, we can learn a useful and important lesson from the way our forebears in Europe responded to equally antagonistic rhetoric centuries ago.
In the world of medieval Christendom, the most pervasive and challenging anti-Jewish claims were largely religious in nature. They boiled down to a single underlying claim: Jews and Judaism are less moral, less rational, and hence inferior to Christians and Christianity. Among the Jewish responses to this troubling rhetoric are two very different texts that reflect two very different strategies for dealing with anti-Jewish polemical assaults.
The first, Sefer Toledot Yeshu [Life of Jesus] dismissed the very legitimacy of Christianity by recasting the story of Jesus as a fraudulent con artist who uses ill-gotten magic to perform supernatural acts. This tale circulated among Ashkenazic Jews with the aim of fortifying them against the theological mud-slinging by their Christian neighbors. Claims of Christian moral superiority were easier to ignore or minimize for a Jew who believed that the whole story was simply an invented farce.
The other text, the 13th century Sefer Nizzahon Yashan [Nizzahon Vetus in Latin, aka the ancient book of victory] challenged anti-Jewish claims more intellectually, polemically, and homiletically — and, one might say, in their own ballpark and on the their own terms. The first part of the book reviews every Christological interpretation of the Tanach — and refutes them one by one. The second part points out the recurring inconsistencies in the stories and teachings of the Christian Bible. In each case, the author begins by positing that Christian interpretations and beliefs are true and valid, but then asks, If this is true, how do you explain...
To cite one example, consider the author's rebuttal to the Christian interpretation of Jeremiah 31:31 (“And I [i.e. God] will make a new covenant with Israel and with the House of Judah”) as a prophetic legitimizing of Jesus and his New Testament. The author responds by citing a teaching of Jesus against this claim:
“The heretics defiantly say that Jeremiah prophesied concerning Jesus who, from the time of his birth, gave them a new Torah, baptism instead of circumcision, and Sunday instead of Shabbat. The answer is: with these words they contradict their own Torah, for it is written in their erroneous books that Jesus himself said 'I have not come to destroy the law of Moses or the words of the prophets, but to fulfill them … Whomsoever therefore shall destroy one thing of the words of Moses shall be called the least in the kingdom of Heaven.' (Matthew 5:17-19)."
Anyone who has engaged with a prostelytizing Christian would agree that a substantive, text-based rejoinder of this sort is more effective than merely decrying Christian beliefs as false or wrong and claiming Jewish ideas to be superior. You will likely not change this person's mind, but at least they will agree to disagree.
In retrospect, for Jews in search of relief from anti-Jewish rhetoric, Toledot Yeshu was undoubtedly the more emotionally satisfying of the two texts. Yet Nizzahon Yashan, insofar as it revealed the flaws in Christian claims about Judaism rather than merely dismissing and condemning them, was the more effective. Moreover, however successfully it helped Jews deal with missionary pressure, its arguments had the added bonus of helping Jews to take greater pride in their own beliefs and tradition.
Likewise, engaging present-day claims against Zionism and the State of Israel intellectually rather than simply dismissing, condemning and shouting at them — though more challenging — is similarly more effective. Consider, for example, how the following rejoinders to criticisms of Zionism and the State of Israel use the strategy of the Nizzahon Yashan. Note: this is not a comprehensive list of counter-arguments; others can be found in the excellent works of Noa Tishby, Micah Goodmanm and Robert Bunton.
1. Critics of Zionism have claimed that Zionism — and, by extension, the State of Israel since it is the brainchild of Zionism — are inherently racist, since both give privileged status to Jews, Jewish culture and the Hebrew language.
In response, we should argue: It is true that Zionism is a nationalist movement founded by Jews, and the State of Israel was created as a Jewish State. But this does not make either racist any more than the nationalist preferences of any other state for a people, a culture and a language make them racist.
By this latter definition of racism, every country in the world, with the possible exception of Switzerland, is racist. Moreover, both the architects of Zionism (from Ben Gurion to Jabotinsky) and the State of Israel embraced full equality for all of its citizens, regardless of race, ethnicity, origin, faith and gender; and there are members of every race on the planet who are Zionists and citizens of the State of Israel.
In addition, for the last half-century or more, most Israeli Jews are people of color from the Middle East or North Africa. While it is true that there have been Zionists, Israelis and members of the Israeli government who are clearly racist and espouse racist policies and laws, most Zionists and Israelis regard them (the racist laws they have fashioned) as betraying the principles of Zionism and the core values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and Democratic state.
Finally, the notion that Zionism is racist is built on the problematic assumption that Zionists themselves were white European Jews who subordinated a non-white indigenous population. This assumption fails to grasp that, even though most Zionists were Europeans and most European Jews looked white, European racism regarded Jews as the quintessential non-European outsiders
Unlike in the United States, racial difference in Europe was not defined primarily by skin tone (since there were comparatively few people of color in Europe prior to the twentieth century) but rather by other differences in physiognomy — the Jewish nose, chin, hair, physique. European Zionists were the targets and victims of European racism, racist policy and racist violence; they regarded the creation of a sovereign Jewish state as their only refuge.
2. Critics of Zionism have claimed that the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel are inherently colonialist, since, like other forms of European colonialism, both consist of European Jews displacing an indigenous Arab population of Palestine in the name of building and later expanding a Jewish state at the expense of a non-European people.
In response, we should argue: while it is true that, since the 1880s, the Arab population of Palestine was displaced by the construction of new Jewish settlements, condemning this as colonialist is a misuse of the term. "Colonialist" typically refers to one country or one people expanding into regions that heretofore were not part of its historical homeland. There was, for example, no pre-existing British connection to Uganda or any part of Sub-Saharan Africa and no pre-existing French connection to French West Africa or South East Asia.
Thus to define Zionism as colonialism ignores the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel that dates back at least two and half millennia and the ubiquitous nature of this connection in Jewish life since then, e.g. Jews have always facing during prayer, just as Muslims face Mecca. Jews have yearned for the Return to Zion since ancient time, and the continuous Jewish presence in the Land of Israel has been a focus and concern of every Jewish community in the world since antiquity.
3. Critics have claimed that the Israeli occupation of the West bank has transformed the State of Israel into an Apartheid State, owing largely to the fact that Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank have been governed by two different systems of law for more than a half-century.
In response, we should argue: while there is no doubt that the dual system of law in the West Bank epitomizes the deeply problematic nature of the Occupation and the pressing need for it to end, to infer from this that the State of Israel is an Apartheid state akin to apartheid South Africa misunderstands and misplaces the term itself.
Apartheid South Africa was a country in which the ruling regime not only segregated and subordinated one of its minorities but also denied each and every member of this minority any and all access to the rest of South African politics and society. South African Blacks were denied not only equality under the law and the opportunity to live in white areas but also access to education, to most occupations and professions, and even the right to marry someone white. (See Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime.)
By contrast, there are Palestinians who are full citizens of Israel, who serve in the army, who have access to education, occupations, and professions, and who live in most Israeli cities and towns. Palestinians and Israelis are allowed to marry and raise families. The challenges these families encounter is a product of racism among individual Israelis and Palestinians more than any government policy. The can vote and serve in the government.
Arabs serve as judges and even on the Supreme Court, and Arab parties are currently part of the Knesset and, last year were, for the first time, part of the governing coalition. It should be noted: if government policy in Israel continues to trend in the direction driven by the (anomalous) current governing coalition, if the more disturbing, racist, exclusionary aims of some of the members of this coalition are fully realized, the state could become an apartheid state. Thankfully, and thanks to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose such aims, this is not the case.
This is the knowledge that we should impart to our children whether they attend public schools like Bloomfield Hills High School or a private or public college or university. Fortified with knowledge like this, they will be prepared to engage the free market of ideas which has always defined, and will continue to define, public life in America at all levels. Sefer Nizzahon Yashan helped Jews withstand the pressure of Christian polemics. A new version, tailored to the increasing complexity of embracing and defending and Zionism and the State of Israel, will do the same.