Thursday, February 8, 2007

Are we all anti-semites now?

February 8, 2007 01:00 PM

The 'new' anti-semitism doesn't necessarily involve a bigoted view of Jewish religion, Jewish people, or Jewish anything else.

Matthew Yglesias

As a Jewish person with a not-so-Jewish last name who occasionally criticises the policies of the Israeli government (or, more frequently, the policies of the United States vis-a-vis Israel), I've been known to spend some time pondering how to work the fact that I'm Jewish into my writing. After all, you don't want to be called an anti-semite. The good news, then, is that the American Jewish Committee says I don't need to bother any more.

The group, one of the oldest, largest and most respected Jewish organisations in the America, recently published a pamphlet by Alvin Rosenfeld on the subject of 'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism - a shot across the bow of those of us who thought being Jewish might be a defence against charges of anti-semitism.

But, according to the essay, the distinguishing characteristic of the "new anti-semitism" seems to be that, unlike the old anti-semitism, it doesn't necessarily involve a bigoted view of Jewish religion, Jewish people, Jewish culture, or Jewish anything else.

It's not, in short, anti-semitism. Which perhaps explains why so many Jews - the essay names Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, historian Tony Judt, poet Adrienne Rich, and playwright Tony Kushner, among others - are guilty of it. How does the paper pull this off? By starting out with a transparent fraud: identifying anti-semitism - hatred of Jewish people - with anti-Zionism, or the belief that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state.

The latter view, while not something I agree with, simply is not anti-semitism. One could imagine applying the latter label to someone who proposed the physical destruction of the Israeli population. But the supposed sins of the "new" anti-semites don't even come close.

Judt's crime was simply to call for the creation of a single, binational, secular state encompassing all the territory west of the Jordan River. "Unrealistic" is a good label for this proposal. Anti-semitic is an absurd one. Cohen, for his part, went even less far, arguing simply that, in retrospect, the establishment of Israel was "a mistake" - and not even a mistake that should be undone.

Equating such sentiments with anti-semitism is perverse. The concept of Zionism was extremely controversial within the Jewish community when first proposed; it remains at least a little controversial today (especially in the retrospective form in which Cohen raised the issue); and it has nothing to do with hatred of Jewish people.

This idea, so quickly lost in discussions of Israel, is so easily grasped in other contexts. Those who oppose breaking up Belgium into separate Flemish and Walloon entities are not Flemish-hating racists, nor are those who advocate the breakup of the Belgian people animated by racist loathing of Walloons.

Quickly, though, Rosenfeld dances past this point to make an even less legitimate one, when he writes:

The Israel that emerges in [the highly critical book] Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers - a country characterised as "amoral", "barbaric", "brutal", "destructive", "fascistic", "oppressive", "racist", "sordid", and "uncivilised" - is indistinguishable from the despised country regularly denounced by the most impassioned anti-semites.

This point is simply a logical fallacy: agreeing with an anti-semite does not make one an anti-semite (all ducks are birds, but not all birds are ducks).

The writing that Rosenfeld condemns is simply strongly-worded rhetoric. In context, some of it may well be accurate. (Would it really be anti-semitic to observe that, say, Israel's efforts to bomb Hizbullah offices in the southern suburbs of Beirut last summer were destructive? Bombs, one assumes, are intended to destroy.) And some of it may be unfair. Every country, however, is regularly subjected to unfair or ill-informed criticism without anyone leaping to the conclusion that the critic is a racist.

One doubts that any actual progressive Jews will find any of Rosenfeld's argument persuasive. That, however, is hardly the point. Rather, the existence of strident Jewish criticism of Israel poses a threat to the taboo on non-Jews criticising Israel. After all, one might think, if Jews are saying it, surely a non-Jew can say it, too - and without being accused of anti-Semitism. Thus comes the AJC essay, a brief shot across the bow to warn the goyim that nothing will spare them from being smeared.

Click here for a full list of articles in the Independent Jewish Voices debate.

Matthew Yglesias is staff writer at the American Prospect and author of an eponymous blog. His writing has also appeared in Foreign Policy, Slate and the New York Times Magazine.

No comments: