What could Donald Sterling and Ben Gurion possibly have in common other than they are both Jewish?
Ben Gurion famously said: “When Israel has prostitutes and thieves, we'll be a state just like any other.” Ben Gurion’s vision of Zionism was the creation of a state for the Jewish people to bring about the normalization of the Jews. He and many other Zionists believed that as long as the Jewish people did not have a state of their own that they would be leading an abnormal existence. The solution to anti-Semitism was not to convince the Germans and the Poles that we belonged as Jewish citizens of Germany or Poland. Such efforts were doomed to failure. Only with a sovereign state would Jews be in a normal situation. Only a Jewish state would bring about the end of anti-Semitism as we became a people like every other with our own nation state. In this quote, Ben Gurion suggested a sign of normalcy would be that the State of Israel would have criminals just as every other country in the world.
Of course, there were other visions of Zionism. Some Zionists didn’t want a normal state but an exceptional state. For example, some advocated for a socialist state along the lines of the kibbutzim. However, the Ben Gurion Zionists, the practical Zionists, came to dominate the founding years of the state. Consistent with this view, Ben Gurion saw no future for the Jews of the diaspora and called for all Jews to make aliyah. He disparaged the Zionist organizations of America and their members for not coming on aliyah even after the state was founded. After all, he asked, was does it mean to be a Zionist when you can live in the state of Zion?
The irony is that Ben Gurion was absolutely correct — except about the wrong country. That’s where Donald Sterling comes in. I was not even aware for the first few days of the story about the racist comments by the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team that Sterling was Jewish. Eventually I noticed it was mentioned in both Jewish and regular press reports. What is remarkable is that is all it was — a mention. No different than saying he was born in Chicago. It was just a filling out of a newsworthy person’s biography age, birthplace, religion or ethnic identity etc. The fact that he was a racist character surrounded by mistresses and a wife was what made up the story. He happened to be Jewish just as Adam Silver the commissioner of the NBA happened to be Jewish. It wasn’t a Jewish story. No one interviewed a Jewish NBA player to find out the Jewish angle of the story. There was no implied subplot of the rich Jew persecuting the black players on his team even after Sterling contrasted his Jewishness and the way Jews help each other out “to the way blacks don’t help each other.” He was so out of step with America that no one really cared what he had to say.
And if you don’t think that was a sign of the normalization of Jews in America, let me give you an even better example: Bernie Madoff. I can’t tell you how many of my congregants told me during the Madoff scandal that this was going to be bad for the Jews in America. Madoff was the perfect poster child for anti-Semitism. Rich Wall Street Jew rips off millions of dollars from investors. Wall Street and greed are the classic stereotypes for anti-Semites. Certainly every news report made clear that Madoff was Jewish. Yet again, it didn’t matter. He was a terrible person and Americans rejoiced when he went to jail for the rest of his life but his Jewishness made no difference to the story or to how Americans perceive us.
The positive side of the Pew report is that Jews are accepted in America. We have become “normal” despite living in the diaspora. In surveys, Jews are the most favorably viewed ethnic group in American society. We have become normal and thus our thieves and racists don’t threaten our position in this society.
The terrible irony is that Ben Gurion was doubly wrong. Not only could Jews become “normal” in the diaspora but Israel didn’t bring an end to anti-Semitism. The tragedy is that the State of Israel has become the focus of anti-Semitism, not its solution. The Zionists thought that having our own nation state would remove the source for anti-Semitism — having the Jewish people living in a country not their own. Instead, the sources for much of the current expressions of anti-Semitism are feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that Israel bears responsibility for the anti-Semitism. By definition, anti-Semitism is an irrational response to what Jews or Israel is doing. What is true is that people are calling for boycotts of Israel not of Jewish businesses in America. Israel is portrayed as an oppressor or called apartheid, not Jews in general.
Let’s imagine for a moment that instead of the present situation, a real peace agreement would have been signed a decade ago. There would be no calls to boycott Israel because Palestine existed as a neighboring state. The United Nation hadn’t had a resolution about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in ten years.
All anti-Semitism wouldn’t be gone, especially in places like Hungary, where a long tradition continues unabated unrelated to Israel. Yet, the driving force behind contemporary anti-Semitism would have disappeared. We hope that such a day will come soon and that Ben Gurion’s vision of a normal state be fully realized. After all, Israel has already fulfilled the part of having lots of crooks especially in government.
In the meantime, as Jews in the diaspora our task remains two-fold. First to work toward the fulfillment of Ben Gurion’s vision. Second, to see our full acceptance here not just as a challenge related to assimilation but as an opportunity to create new forms of a vibrant Jewish life in a land of the free.
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld is the rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism , a Reconstructionist synagogue in Manhattan. He is the author of a number of books including A Book of Life, and with his wife, Rabbi Joy Levitt, A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah.