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Progressive Except for Palestine

My decades of activism—including vocal support for a Palestinian state—apparently don’t matter to my academic colleagues, who have cut me off for being a Zionist

Philip Berger
July 01, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

I have been excommunicated.

I am a Jewish academic physician at the University of Toronto. Since Oct. 7, I have been cut off by over a half-dozen younger progressive colleagues who considered me a mentor, and with whom I previously had regular or periodic contact. All because I am a Zionist.

It matters not that for a half-century I let my name stand with and energy flow to refugees, torture victims, gun-violence victims, people with HIV/AIDS, sex-trade workers, the LGBTQ2S community, people who are homeless, drug users, the poor, and victims of police brutality.

Nor have I been quiet over the decades about my support for Palestinian self-determination. In 1974, I published a letter in my local Winnipeg newspaper calling for an independent Palestinian state. It did not endear me to the Jewish community. Since then, I have publicly called for full civil and political rights of Palestinians in Israel, and opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In 2013, I instigated a campaign by Canadian doctors to press for the release of a Palestinian Canadian doctor who had been detained in Egypt on his way to Gaza. During the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict, I signed a petition to bring in 100 injured children from Gaza to Canada for medical treatment.

Still, I have been referred to as a PEP: progressive except for Palestine.

Despite being the physician for and fighting alongside people who have been persecuted by every level of government and their institutions, the only thing that matters now is my being Jewish—with Zionism being as primary to my Judaism as the Torah and Jewish cultural traditions.

Zionism is Jewish self-determination, and independence from the authority and yoke of regimes that mostly tried to annihilate Jews for millennia. Zionism is the right and the necessity of the Jewish people to survive, and it is the need for a Jewish state to ensure that very survival.

To my colleagues who have stopped communicating with me, I am the wrong kind of Jew.

I support Israel’s right to defend itself in accordance with international standards of warfare and consistent with those applied to other countries. In the minds of my anti-Zionist colleagues who yell “intifada” at protests and the dozens who have signed petitions denouncing Israel, I am therefore a Zionist. That is about all we agree on.

Zionism, as I define it, is central to my identity as a Jew.

As a Zionist, I have been public about my views on the response in Canada to the war in Gaza, the double standard inherent in the denunciations of Israel, and the antisemitism embedded in some of the anti-Israel protests. I denounced a National Day of Action called by the Health Workers Alliance for Palestine for health care workers across Canada to engage in direct action; the natural targets for such a group would be health care facilities and institutions. The alliance’s 33-page toolkit provided detailed instructions on how to establish sit-ins, occupations, and blockades, adding: “were you to break laws in this moment where a fascist settler-colonial government is ruthlessly murdering children, killing entire families … then we would absolutely understand why you or any human being with an iota of moral conscience would choose to do so.” After media coverage of the proposed National Day of Action, including comments from me, no action in fact took place.

I have decried the failure of the university’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine to openly repudiate antisemitic pronouncements by faculty, and have bemoaned the near absence of empathy from non-Jewish colleagues for Jewish and other victims of the Oct. 7 slaughter and the effect on the Jewish community in Canada. And I have derided the denials of antisemitism by pro-Palestinian activists after a 15-to-20-minute protest (which was part of a much larger demonstration) with screams of “intifada” at Toronto’s major Jewish hospital. This all has resulted in the suspension or termination of my relationships with colleagues, manifested through silence and noncommunication. This after regular lunches, coffee dates, emails, phone calls, and even a wedding invitation.

My first taste of dismissal from progressive colleagues came over 20 years ago with an admission by an activist colleague that he could not talk to me for six months after I co-authored an op-ed titled “No More Double Standard” in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. The op-ed challenged the left over its failure to confront the antisemitism that permeated its attacks on Israel and “our fears that antisemitism has emerged as a powerful force in the polemic.”

A few years ago, a senior non-Jewish colleague emailed me and asked, “Are you my kind of Jew?” He attached an anti-Israel prayer put out by an anti-Zionist Jewish group. I answered him that I am nobody’s kind of Jew. After a hiatus, we resumed our regular coffee dates with never a mention of Israel. But we haven’t met again since Oct. 7.

Now, my colleagues declare Israel to be an apartheid state. Countries that are governed under an apartheid system are illegal, and such accusations logically lead to the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. But, as abhorrent as is the discrimination endured by Palestinians, I do not subscribe to the description of Israel as an apartheid, or white supremacist state. All my reading and personal experience in Israel stand in contradiction to these claims.

Some colleagues on the Palestinian side deny Jewish indigeneity in the ancient Jewish homeland. Such denial means that Jews have no claim to Israel as it now exists. That, too, logically leads to calls for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state, putting nearly 7 million Jews at peril—making such pronouncements, in and of themselves, antisemitic. But denying Jewish indigeneity cannot erase over 3,000 years of uninterrupted Jewish presence in the land, with distinctive language, culture, and religious practices and liturgy that persist to this day.

The destruction, suffering and death in Gaza is a cataclysmic catastrophe, but I reject the allegations that Israel is committing genocide or “plausible genocide” in Gaza. At the end of April, Joan O’Donoghue, president of the International Court of Justice when it made its order in South Africa’s case alleging Israel is committing genocide, confirmed that the ICJ “did not decide that the claim of genocide was plausible.” She said that “this is something where I’m correcting something that’s often said in the media.”

Hamas has much agency for the misery in Gaza. I abjure the grotesque pronouncements that Israel is to blame for Hamas’ genocidal attacks on Israeli civilians and foreign workers. Genocide is attributed to Israel on both counts and too naturally leads people to call for the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

I am definitely not the right kind of Jew for my colleagues. Their judgment of me lies entirely in the manifestation of my Jewishness with Zionism at its heart, and nothing else. That judgment extends to many of my Jewish colleagues. Last November, 555 Jewish physicians affiliated with the University of Toronto signed an open statement proclaiming their Zionism and their right to be free of public ostracism, recrimination, exclusion, and discrimination in the university’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

My non-Jewish, anti-Israel colleagues are provided moral cover by the right kind of Jews: those who denounce and vilify Israel. Seeking protection from accusations of antisemitism, these non-Jewish activists hide behind their anti-Zionist Jewish colleagues, who themselves hide behind Judaism’s universal values of justice and their family histories of persecution (“I am the child of Holocaust survivors,” say some) in their relentless attacks against the Jewish state.

To my colleagues who have stopped communicating with me, I am the wrong kind of Jew. It is impossible to say whether our connection will or can ever be reestablished. I am ready, but doubt that they are. Their accusations on the streets and in petitions are too harsh, the vitriol too unrestrained, and the attacks on Israel as a settler-colonialist state too personal.

I know antisemitism when I see and hear it. My Russian maternal grandparents lived through and fled pogroms. I heard all about it. My dad, who was born and raised in Estevan, Saskatchewan, fought his way through school against antisemites. After graduating from medical school, he could not secure an internship position because of the quotas against Jews in Canada. I heard all about that, too. My Uncle Jack, who jumped off a train heading to Auschwitz and lost his wife and two daughters in the camp, woke up screaming every night for the rest of his life.

I personally have experienced physical and verbal antisemitism on over two dozen occasions that I can remember in my life, including being pulled out of a Winnipeg junior high school in 1963 because “we burn Jews here.”

My colleagues’ spurning of me constitutes classic antisemitism, whether unintentional or deliberate antisemitism, in which Jews—simply for being Jewish—were boycotted, forced to convert, expelled from their homes, tormented, and killed in cyclical genocides. It has been going on for millennia. In my case, the punishment of professional and social ostracism is infinitesimal compared to the persecution of Jews over the ages.

I feel antisemitism viscerally, in my guts, in my bone marrow. My entire body reacts with fear and dread, which began as a child, whenever I anticipate or encounter antisemitism. I feel a physical apprehension. I know what is coming and have rarely been wrong; it is like radar detecting a storm. The sense of danger has stayed with me, and I remain on high alert. It has recurred again and again with the actions of my colleagues and what I see on the streets and university campuses across Canada and the United States.

My family and personal history is typical of intergenerational trauma, a term created by a Canadian Jewish psychiatrist in 1966 in reference to Holocaust families. That trauma is actually 100 generations old. That is why the existential fear of annihilation is inbred into most Jews, as if there is a specific genetic code passed on through generations.

Trauma was not the only characteristic passed on across three generations in my family. My grandparents had been Zionists since the early 20th century, as were my parents, and myself after them.

When I was in my early teens, a group of Jewish friends and I were harassed and threatened by a similar size group of antisemitic youth. We all ran, except for my closest friend. He stayed, fought alone, and got beaten up. I vowed that I would never run away again.

I am a Jew; therefore, I am a Zionist. Attack me as a Zionist, you attack me as a Jew. I write this not to insulate Israel from criticism but to assert the centrality of a Jewish state to my Jewish identity. This time, I am not running away. I am going to stay and fight. I will loudly proclaim my Jewishness and my Zionism, both of which are inseparable from each other, and from my progressive values.

Dr. Philip Berger is an Officer of the Order of Canada and an Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto.

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