Friday, January 27, 2012

Oy, Those “Anti-Semitic Tropes”!

A few weeks I wrote a post in which I claimed that using terms like “Israel-Firster” or “Israeli Apartheid” does not make you anti-Semitic. Those who think otherwise are trivializing anti-Semitism and/or trying to delegitimize the views of their opponents.

The discussion has now shifted from the question of the attitudes of the person using the terms to the terms themselves. Granted that you can use the term “Israel-Firster” without being an anti-Semite – but is it appropriate to use a term that has been used by anti-Semites, or which is reminiscent of anti-Semites, etc., or which was popularized by anti-Semites – I am told?  

Let’s look at this carefully. There may be tactical reasons to avoid using certain terms. You may think that what Israel is doing on the West Bank is sufficiently close to apartheid to call it just that. But you may not wish to use the term in a debate, because that is an invitation to a theoretical exploration of how similar or dissimilar it is. Or not. I am just saying that you may not find it a helpful term, and “Israel-firster” may be one of those.

People should also be careful about using terms that have a history of bigotry associated with them, even if they don’t intend to use them in a bigoted manner. That’s my viewpoint, anyway. I don’t mean to be issue a blanket prohibition, just an admonition to be careful. “Israel-firster” is a pejorative term. That’s no reason not to use it, but it clearly assumes that this is not something good. And so, again, it may not be helpful to use it.

Yet there may be good reasons to use a term despite its being considered offensive by some. Many Americans, mostly Christian, are squeamish about using the word “Jew” or “Jews”; they prefer to say “Jewish” or “Jewish people”. In the famous “anti-Dentite”  Seinfeld episode, the priest asks Jerry, “And that offends you as a Jewish person?” and not “And that offends you as a Jew.” This preference of “Jewish person” for “Jew” is due, ultimately, to pejorative associations of the word in the English language (“to jew down a price”), and excessive (and barely conscious) sensitivity of the negative associations.

I use this example because “Jew”, unlike the N-word, is not commonly felt today to be offensive. Likewise, most people who hear “Israel-firster” are entirely ignorant of its pedigree (if indeed that pedigree is not cherry-picked from websites.)

It seems to me that those people who believe that certain Americans, Jews and non-Jews, who see everything through the prism of, “Is it good for Israel” can be legitimately called ‘Israel-firsters.”  It doesn’t matter to me that these people view as a given  the convergence of Israeli and American interests.  So, like my colleague and friend, Phil Weiss, I have no problem.

Again, I may eschew the term for tactical reasons, but I am more interested in the phenomenon than in the label for it. Many Jews argued against the founding of a Jewish state precisely because of the problem of dual loyalty. It is not as if this was invented by anti-Semites.

To imply that somebody is an anti-Semite today is a far greater sin than calling somebody an “Israel-firster,” even if you find the latter offensive. Why? Because bigotry against Jews is considered a greater vice than excessive loyalty to your tribe. So I would expect somebody who decries “Israel-firster” on the grounds of its insensitivity and offensiveness would be sensitive towards throwing the anti-Semite accusation around.

Enter Spencer Ackerman, who, after castigating his fellow leftwing Jews for using “Israel firster,” writes.

By all means, get into it with people who interpret every disagreement Washington has with Tel Aviv as hostility to the Jewish state. But if you can’t do it without sounding like Pat Buchanan, who has nothing but antipathy and contempt for Jews, then you’ve lost the debate.

That last sentence implies, quite clearly, that Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite. Ackerman, who peppers his post with links, doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the fact that he doesn’t provide a source for the accusation.

Sorry, my own hyper-sensitivity here reads Ackerman as saying, “Leftwing Jews shouldn’t use terms that notorious anti-Semites like Buchanan would use.” And I find that patronizing and offensive: first, because of the implicit ingroup/outgroup distinction on a relatively benign term like “Israel-Firster” (we are not talking about “Zionist scum”); and second, because I have no reason to believe that Pat Buchanan is anti-Semitic. Surely nothing that the ADL cherry-picks here would lead inexorably to that conclusion. I am open to being convinced otherwise, but I have it on very good authority that the accusation is baseless – unless you adopt the ADL’s Zionist interpretation of anti-Semitism

Here is another definition. An "anti-Semite" is somebody who protested the Israel Lobby before it became fashionable to do so.

I am being ironic.


Donald said...

I think I would leave Pat Buchanan out of this--there were some pretty weird comments in that ADL list, assuming it's accurate. The one about Hitler being brave for instance. It's like saying that Jack the Ripper might have had some issues with women and really wasn't the sort you'd want dating your sister, but man, he could whip up a mean souffle and why don't we ever read about that in the history books?

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, Buchanan 'protested' the Lobby. I guess his cribbing Holocaust denial material(1), an apologist and revisionist for Hitler(2), blatant bigotry to other groups (shown on the ADL site you link to), and encouraging Raegan to stand up to 'the Jewish media'(3) were just some of the tactics he used. But hey, it's like those incidents could give a hint into his world view, right?

Dual loyalties might be a new euphemism, but accusing Jews of betraying their host nations isn't. The 'Stab-in-the-back legend' and Protocols of Zion both come to mind. But hey, I might just be 'hyper-sensitive'.

But overall, I'm glad you're not going to use the term 'Israel Firster' for tactical reasons; it displays sensitivity.

Oh, and I was reminded of a quote reading the last line of your post:




Jerry Haber said...

Donald and Benjamin. I didn't say that Buchanan wasn't an immoral schm-ck. I didn't say that he wasn't an apologist for Hitler, or a Holocaust denier. I didn't say that he wasn't a bigot.

I just said that none of those cherry-picked quotes pins the anti-Semite charge on him. Find me something where he says that the Jews are trying to take over the world, or that they exist to cheat goyyim, or that the Protocols is not a forgery, etc. I mean, I want some evidence that this guy has "nothing but antipathy and hatred for the Jews."

Donald said...

Jerry, you have a pretty high bar there. I suspect most people reading your post wouldn't know that you meant that a person could be a Hitler apologist and still not meet the criteria needed to be called an anti-semite. Maybe in in some weird way it's possible, but it honestly never would have crossed my mind. I couldn't figure out why you weren't convinced by the ADL quotes (unless they were somehow out of context).

Anyway, I agree with the main point of your post--there are people who sure seem to put Israel first, but given how the phrase "Israel firster" might sound to some, maybe it's a good idea to avoid that particular language, while not backing down from pointing out the existence of people like Adelson.

Anonymous said...

What, his Jew counting in regards to the Senate and Supreme Court don't signify his 'hostility and hatred' for Jews(1)(2)? For the record, I don't -quite- consider him an antisemite, or at least one on-par with the major types of Jew hatred in modern times. Rather, he's a fossil that wants to bring back the 'gold old days' when white's were dominant and the minorities knew their place.

'Israel Firster' may be 'a relatively benign term' to you, but I'd doubt calling a Muslim an 'Ummah Firster' would pass well with you. I'm fairly positive that most of the people who use the term don't hate Jews. But when you use a term that's reminiscent of antisemitic terminology, people are going to be upset.

Here's the quote that reminded me of yours ('To imply that somebody is an anti-Semite today is a far greater sin than calling somebody an “Israel-firster,'):

"Anti-Semite no longer means someone who dislikes Jews...It now means someone whom the Jews dislike."

-Joseph Sobran


pabelmont said...

"“Israel-firster” is a pejorative term. That’s no reason not to use it, but it clearly assumes that this is not something good. And so, again, it may not be helpful to use it."

Well, whether or not it is pejorative should depend on context, not on the words themselves.

Used inside Israel regarding an Israeli it might be praise, if a bit unusual or redundant.

Used in the USA of someone pushing a war with Iran on the basis of arguments of Israel's presumed benefit and with a brush-off of any and all concern for resultant dangers to the USA and its interests (cost and availability of oil to name one), it may be both pejorative and startlingly accurate.

evets said...

' It doesn’t matter to me that these people view as a given the convergence of Israeli and American interests.'

I'd say about half of those called 'Israel-firsters' view things this way. They have truly divided loyalty and feel a need to conflate Israeli and American interests in order to avoid cognitive dissonance. Most secular neocons fall into this category. But there are others, generally religious, whose first loyalty is simply to Israel. Some will freely admit it in private. They're not particularly troubled by the need to make two loyalties one, though the issue of living in one country and feeling more tied to another may cause its own dissonance.