Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Hasn’t the Anti-Semitism Charge Been Trivialized Enough?

Is calling somebody an “Israel Firster” anti-Semitic? Is accusing somebody of “dual loyalty” anti-Semitic? Does it smack of anti-Semitism.to refer to Israeli “apartheid”? 

Of course not, unless you want to trivialize anti-Semitism beyond belief, or unless you want to put very reasonable and widely held beliefs beyond the pale of discussion. Heck, I know personally  a lot of supporters of Israel who are “Israel first”-ers. I know them; I pray with them;  I have them in my classes. In fact, I know a lot of “Israel only”-ers,” I certainly have had students who are US citizens, who would never consider volunteering for the US army, but who have served in the Israel army, even without being an Israeli citizen. (Full disclosure: I have dual loyalty to the US and to Israel because I have dual-citizenship.) I have prayed  in modern orthodox synagogues where the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel has been said, but not the prayer for the welfare of the United States;  or where congregants stand for the former and sit for (or mumble) the latter. I don’t agree with this practice, and I criticize such synagogues, but pointing that out doesn’t make you an anti-Semite. And by the way, if you ask people why they are more concerned with Israel than with America, they often answer that Israel is more threatened than America. Or that they love Israel more because they are Jewish. Is it anti-Semitic to point that out?

If you think that using these terms make somebody an anti-Semite or a bigot – a charge that  Zionist-leaning organizations like the ADL or the AJC or members of the Zionist rightwing blogosphere (for links, see here) have recently leveled against some bloggers at the Center for American Progress, then perhaps you yourself are an anti-Semite – or at least a bigot.

You see, when somebody says what a Jew can or cannot say, when somebody says that certain discourse is considered to be hateful or insensitive and, as a result, censors or chills that speech – and when that speech is not conceptually connected with anti-Semitism -- then the person who is making that discrimination is anti-Semitic, if a Jew is involved, and bigoted if a non-Jew is involved. Because the same terms said with the same intent cannot be considered anti-Semitic only when a non-Jew says them. I don’t deny that certain terms are more inappropriately said by outsider groups – the N-word comes to mind. But “inappropriately said” is a far cry from anti-Semitic.

Who decides what speech is anti-Semitic? Is there a Pope of anti-Semitism? Who are the experts? According to Commentary’s Alana Goodman, the Anti-Defamation League is “considered by many media outlets to be the final word in all things anti-Semitism” – which, by the way, is the sort of grandiose and unsubstantiated assertion that readers of Commentary may be used to, but I certainly am not. Who appointed the ADL? And do they consider Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak, and a host of Israeli commentators anti-Semitic, when they refer to Israeli apartheid? Perhaps Israeli politicians are allowed to be bigoted? And even if the term is inaccurate, what does that have to do with anti-Semitism?

Nobody can beat Prof. Robert Wistrich’s credentials, both as a rightwing student of the so-called “new anti-Semitism,”  and as a Zionist historian of anti-Semitism.I mean, I can adduce other scholars of anti-Semitism who are not as rightwing as he is, such as the  most careful writer  on anti-Semitism and its various shades of meaning today, the philosopher Brian Klug of Oxford. Klug runs rings around not only the ADL but most of the rightwing historians of anti-Semitism because, as an analytically-trained philosopher, he zeroes in on the nuances of conceptual distinctions much better than most historians. But let’s leave Klug aside – even Wistrich admits that anti-Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism, although he goes on argue for  “continuity” or “convergence” between radical anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism (using arguments that I believe Klug and others have answered quite well.) According to Wistrich,

…[A]nti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are two distinct ideologies that over time (especially since 1948) have tended to converge, generally without undergoing a full merger. There have always been Bundists, Jewish communists, Reform Jews, and ultra-Orthodox Jews who strongly opposed Zionism without being Judeophobes. So, too, there are conservatives, liberals, and leftists in the West today who are pro-Palestinian, antagonistic toward Israel, and deeply distrustful of Zionism without crossing the line into anti- Semitism. There are also Israeli "post-Zionists" who object to the definition of Israel as an exclusively or even a predominantly "Jewish" state without feeling hostile toward Jews as such. There are others, too, who question whether Jews are really a nation; or who reject Zionism because they believe its accomplishment inevitably resulted in uprooting many Palestinians. None of these positions is intrinsically anti-Semitic in the sense of expressing opposition or hatred toward Jews as Jews.

(By the way, there were many Jewish opponents of Zionism who did not fit the categories above, not to mention the majority of Jews outside of Eastern Europe who were neither anti-Zionists nor Zionists.)

But of course, the CAP bloggers did not write anti-Zionist tracts. Let’s face it. The anti-Semitism charge is the first refuge of rightwing Zionists today – many of whom are themselves “Israel firsters” -- who want to squelch debate over Israel’s policies by demonizing and delegitimizing their opponents’s discourse. It is nauseating, and it is past time to call them on it.

Goodman, who criticizes the Truman Project for cutting ties with the lobbyist Josh Block who first raised the “anti-Semitic” canard against the CAP bloggers, ends her article by asking, what would President Truman think? The question is a good one. May  I frame it slightly differently: what would the the author of the quote below say of  somebody who plays the “anti-Semitic” card when criticizing a critic of Israel?

The Jews, I find are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[ersons] as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog. Put an underdog on top and it makes no difference whether his name is Russian, Jewish, Negro, Management, Labor, Mormon, Baptist he goes haywire. I've found very, very few who remember their past condition when prosperity comes.
I don’t know whether Goodman considers the author of the quote, President Harry Truman, to be an anti-Semite or not. I do know that Abe Foxman did:
    While President Truman's personal thoughts about Jews are in some sense a reflection of those times, it is shocking to learn that this great American leader and statesman was afflicted with the same disease of anti-Semitism that was mirrored by larger society
But what I find more shocking is Foxman’s next paragraph:
    Nothing in his statements, however, changes Truman's steadfast resolve to aid in the resettlement of Jews and other refugees in the aftermath of the war and the Holocaust. Regardless of his personal beliefs, President Truman will be remembered for his support and recognition of the homeland of the Jews, the State of Israel.

For Abe Foxman, one can forgive or overlook – or not remember – Truman’s anti-Semitism because of what he did for the State of Israel. So an anti-Semite who helps the State of Israel is better than a decent person who is a critic of the State of Israel and calls its policies on the West Bank apartheid.

Should we add another sin to the Israel-right-or-wrongers the trivialization of anti-Semitism?

Thank goodness that Nahum Barnea, Israel’s most popular commentator, has criticized Elliot Abrams on his reckless and pernicious use of the “A-word” against Joe Klein and Tom Friedman.


pabelmont said...

Thanks for the scholarship and, as always, cogent argument. repeat this essay -- or this theme -- from time to time, as you recently sort-of promised.

This topic never dries up, as we learn from the continuing misuse of the term "anti-semitism".

Nir E said...

It is indeed past time to call these people on their BS. It was only after I spent several years in the States as a graduate student that I came to understand just how effectively (and completely unabashedly) Jewish organizations wield the "antisemitism" weapon.

One instance that comes to mind was the organized attack by ZOA, a particularly rabid rightwing Jewish organization, on a planned talk by a speaker from "Shovrim Shtika" (Breaking the Silence) in the Bay Area. Not only did these ZOA people - in typical chickenhawk fashion - pretend to know better than actual IDF veterans what goes in Hebron and Nablus (they accused the organization of contaminating young Jewish-American minds with false propaganda and lies), they absurdly accused Breaking the Silence of... antisemitism. That Yehuda Shaul, the speaker from Shovrim, is an observant Jew did not, of course, give the ZOAsterians pause. Why should it? Criticize anything about Israel and you are ipso facto an antisemite!

So a bunch of us Israeli grad students banded together and published a response letter to zero effect. This tactic is too useful and backed by too much money for us to be able to make a dent in it.

In sum: the spectacle of "pro-Israel" discourse in the U.S., nauseating as it is, does not seem to be going away. Moreover, if real antisemitism does reemerge in the U.S. (the kind of antisemitism you see in the first decades of the 20th century) it will probably be as a consequence of the bullying tactics of AIPAC and ZOA.

Good post.

Joachim Martillo said...

From Esau’s Tears by Lindemann, pp. 331-332:

The pervasive belief in the 19th century that Jewish “reform” would cause non-Jews to cease hating Jews proved to be naive, if not completely without foundation; it has been replaced with the no-less-imperfect but equally confident assertion that anti-Semitism has nothing whatsoever to do with Jewish behavior or the nature of real Jews.

Donald said...

Great post. (And I would have welcomed you back to posting a week ago except that I forgot my google account password and was too lazy to go through the process of getting a new one. Until now.)

Personally, though, as someone who is critical of Zionism and the lobby and sympathetic to the Palestinians and so forth, I think it is a mistake when people on my side of the issue use the "dual loyalty" charge. I don't think there is anything wrong with dual loyalty as such. The problem is that Israel supporters of the Abe Foxman variety have such a twisted view of the rights and wrongs of the I/P conflict. Let them have multiple loyalties, so long as they have a consistent moral stand on human rights and don't lie to themselves and others about what Israel has been doing.

-sf said...

I think the NAACP are Africa-firsters, and I'm not a racist for saying so.

YC said...

South African Judge Richard Goldstone, writing in The New York Times in October 2011, said that "in Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute." Goldstone noted that Arab citizens of Israel are allowed to vote, have political parties, and hold seats in the Knesset and other positions, including one on the Israeli Supreme Court. Goldstone wrote that the situation in the West Bank was more complex, but that there is no attempt to maintain "an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group", and claimed that the seemingly oppressive measures taken by Israel were taken to protect its own citizens from attacks by Palestinian militants.

Jerry Haber said...


I wasn't arguing that accusing Israel of apartheid is correct, only that it isn't anti-Semitic. Nothing that Judge Goldstone has written suggests otherwise.

Joachim Martillo said...

Goldstone was intellectually dishonest. Apartheid SA indeed had legislative councils and voting for non-whites that had SA citizenship. Blacks were not given voting rights under the fiction that they were actually citizens of bogus African homeland nation states.

In truth South African apartheid was generally milder than the apartheid that Israeli Palestinian citizens experience and much milder than the apartheid that non-citizen Palestinians suffer.

nahida -Exiled Palestinian said...

We, Palestinians and our supporters worldwide are sick and tired of the excessive, inappropriate, malevolent and false use of the accusation of anti-Semitism, as apolitical tool, and if the situation continues, and if no sense come to those who manipulate such a term, such misuse and abuse will backlash out of control:

Did the Age of Enlightenment never occur?


Anonymous said...

I saw Block's comment and critique of the term 'Israel Firster', or at least his follow-up. I didn't see him call any of the people he called it with antisemitic - just that 'Israel Firster' bordered on it. I really doubt people who use it are antisemitic or 'self-hating Jews'. But they might want to stick clear of using a term that accuses Jews - and anyone of any group - of holding loyalty to a foreign power or leader, such as what Rosenberg says here regarding 'Netanyahu-Firsters:' http://tiny.cc/i6788. You can argue the merits and many, many, (many) failings that those he criticizes have - but there are some things that are going to raise hackles. If I called someone a 'Abbas Firster' for advocating Abba's positions, what kind of reaction would I get from you?

It might not be antisemitic, but I think it can be disquieting. Then again, I might just be 'trivializing the charge of antisemitism'.

Jerry Haber said...


If the charge is accurate then it can be used, especially if represents an ideology that you think is pernicious. There are want the US to bomb Iran because they consider (wrongly) Iran to be an existential threat to Israel. If they are more concerned for Israel's welfare than for the repercussions to the US, they are Israel firsters.

By the way, if you called all Jews "Israel firsters" because you think that Jews only care about themselves, then that belief would be anti-Semitic.

Now, you may say that it is not the most civil discourse to use "Israel firsters", that one can make the point in a more nuanced way. I would agree with you there.

Jerry Haber said...



Anonymous said...

I believe we have differing views on the matter of the pro-Iranian faction/backers/whatever. I don't consider those who wish to wage war are necessarily (or entirely) motivated by a overwhelming desire to protect Israel - if anything, that attitude reminds me of those who wished to wage direct conflict against Communist regimes/governments during the Cold War. Israel can't be discounted as a factor, but it may tie in to strategic matters in general.

Seeing as how I derailed my comment with natter, I'll actually address your reply. You're right about labeling all Jews as 'Israel Firsters' would be antisemitic. However, even if the label is implied to a Jewish individual or group, it will still disquiet others, and not just the overenthusiastic 'mad dog' defenders of Israel.

As for polite discourse, I decided long ago that it was rarely worth it to debate those who are pro-Palestinian/pro-Israeli. Several blogs have are completely acrid when attacking the 'other', and the comments are irritating to read. I find myself fortunate that, despite having differing viewpoints, we can debate this in a civil manner.

Apologies again for the natter,
Benjamin H.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

I drop by here occasionally. It reminds me a bit of meetings of reformists whites in S. Africa or Alabama in 1955: a discussion about rather than with the other central character in the play. The post ends with the defense of a conservative against the attacks of a reactionary. So nu?

Thomas Friedman:


But one of the comments gives me an opportunity to make an obvious point that's too often ignored.

"I think the NAACP are Africa-firsters, and I'm not a racist for saying so."

No. The NAACP are a civil rights organization not a black nationalist organization. Marcus Garvey and Elijah Muhammad were black nationalists.

Black nationalism represents the parallel to Jewish nationalism.

It's obvious but I'm sure it surprises you to be told it flat out.

You don't have to make the argument that Zionism is racism to accept the simple fact that it is ethnic nationalism and that ethnic nationalism by definition is never liberal.
And for all the discussion of Apartheid on the West Bank there's no discussion of Jim Crow in Israel itself. The Zionism of Judah Magnes was gentrifying Zionism, but that's a discussion for another day.

D. Ghirlandaio said...

I posted a comment an hour or so ago. It may or may not appear. Either way it was a bit unfair to the author of this blog. I shouldn't have lumped him together so glibly with others much more worthy of criticism. Apologies for that.

David de Bruijn said...

One ironic thing here is that the Truman quote is, quite uncontroversially I would reckon, bigotted (at least in unwarrentedly stereo-typing and generalizing over ethnic groups). What if I said that 'I find black people quite selfish, and [insert worst-ever slave-persecutor] has nothing on them when they find themselves in power'? That'd be considered bigotted, and would presumably not be tolerated on this blog.

jhamnesty1 said...

I agree that honest criticism of particular folk for lopsided support of Israel, or disloyalty to America, or for supporting immoral Israeli policies, is not anti-Semitic.

But I can’t agree that the same is true of leveling such criticism (“honest” is irrelevant) at the Jewish community, or at someone (as Walt&Mearsheimer do) because he’s a Jew or married to one. The most prominent wielder of the “Israel Firster” epithet did, in fact, accuse the American Jews, in general, of fomenting the second Iraq war. Never mind that it’s false – most US Jews opposed it, and even the Likud government, while pretending to support it, quietly lobbied against it.

Suppose, per impossible, there were some truth in it. Or suppose I had general critiques of the Jewish community – let’s say I lamented a Jewish “Gashmiyus” or “materialism” for what I called the “Madoff Mentality” which led Jews into corrupt corporate practices . Would I be anti-Semitic? Suppose I made this complaint in a column in the Washington Jewish Week or some such. Would I be a self-hating Jew? I think no – it’d be honest criticism of my community.
But I feel like if a non-Jew said this, I’d be livid – because I’d think it anti-Semitic.

In other words, of course it matters whether the critic is Jew or non-Jew, and of course it doesn’t matter whether the charge is true (otherwise, we’d have to forgive bigots who sincerely and responsibly believe their bigotry). What matters, I’m suggesting, is whether they’re connecting their criticism with merely being a member of a certain ethnic community. To accuse “American Jews” or “the Jews,” or someone because she’s a Jew, of…anything is, in fact, anti-Semitic. Or else nothing is.

jhamnesty1 said...

This post assumes that an accusation can't be anti-Semitic if it would be acceptable for Jews to make and true. Both these assumptions aren't sustainable, for the same reason: they leave almost nothing to count as anti-Semitic. That's because, first, the boundaries are fairly liberal for legitimate self-criticism. We can accuse the Jews of being too insular and self-directed, along Truman's line, if we ourselves are Jews. And second, all the worst bigotry is believed true, with earnest sincerity, so even false bigotry would have to be forgiven as an innocent mistake.