Monday, May 31, 2010

Anti-semitism versus anti-Israel sentiments

I think I can at least start on a note of agreement with most people reading this:  The situation in the Gaza strip is bad.  It has been bad for a while, and I don't think anyone has been acting particularly well.  Unfortunately, it got worse this weekend, when Israeli soldiers boarded a ship trying to break the Gaza blockade and, while apparently under attack (although likely with non-lethal force), fired on civilians aboard.  Nine people were killed, none of them Israeli.  The ship was attempting to navigate through a military blockade, which has been in place since 2007 when Hamas (which refuses to recognize Israel) took control of the Gaza strip, but it was also carrying humanitarian aid, not military paraphernalia. We still do not have all the facts, but I would say what is clear is that the Israeli military acted in a way that was strongly aggressive and poorly thought-out (sending a few soldiers to board a heavily populated vessel was a recipe for disaster), and that the handling of this incident does not seem consistent with the promotion of peace. 

But that's not what I want to talk about.  There will be plenty of people talking about this, and I think it is something we urgently need to discuss.  What level of military action against civilians is warranted?  Is it ever appropriate to cut off humanitarian aid to a country, even when at war with its leaders?  To what extent should a country's citizens, whether or not they support the government in charge, be liable for its actions?  I hope there will be many fruitful and interesting conversations in the coming days about justifiable military force, both on behalf of Israel and countries like the United States, who have set a higher limit on acceptable civilian casualties than I believe to be warranted.  I hope those conversations will both help us honor those killed today, and find a better way forward to a lasting peace.  But I'm no expert on that.

What I have, unfortunately, had to become an expert on is anti-Semitism.  And that's what I'd like to try to talk about today.  It may seem crass to discuss discrimination against Jews in light of the recent death of civilians at Israeli hands.  I'm sorry if the timing bothers you.  Honestly, I would first say that I don't think it's ever a bad time to talk about racism.  Secondly, this post has been on my mind for a while, but some things I saw on twitter in response to the #flotilla incident encouraged me to stop putting it off.  There were a couple predicating tweets, but one in particular stuck out: Someone tweeted the following "quote" from Hitler (I say "quote" because, while I'm sure the sentiment is accurate, it doesn't appear to be a direct translation), with the #freedomflotilla hashtag.  "I could've burned all the Jews, but I left some so you could see why I wanted them to burn."

I know there are lots of people saying lots of racist things on twitter, and I shouldn't get worked up about every one.  But, what bothers me here, as in so many other places, is the casual conflation of Israeli and Jewish actions.  I don't consider the military action against the flotilla a "Jewish" act, anymore than I consider every IED that goes off in Iraq a Muslim one.  Israel is a country.  It is a country with elected leaders.  These leaders sometimes make bad decisions.  But they are not "Jewish" decisions, and, if you believe them to be crimes, they are not "Jewish" crimes.  I will also add that this is true even though many members of the Jewish diaspora support Israel and defend its actions.  I say many, because it is certainly not all, and I'm not even sure if it is most.  But yes, many Jews express support of Israel, but this still does not make Israeli political or military decisions Jewish acts, nor does it make the American supporters of Israel a "Jewish lobby," as they are so often called.

This is important because I think that criticism of Israel without anti-Semitism is completely possible, and has been employed to devastatingly persuasive effect by people such as Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset and current advocate of a two-state solution and US political pressure on Israel to promote peace.  However, very often criticism of Israel is blended, often almost imperceptibly, with criticism of Jews as a people, and threaded delicately with anti-Semitic language.  I have come to understand, through hearing very progressive, informed people use shockingly anti-Semitic language, that many people do not understand why certain language is anti-Semitic or what the historical roots behind it are.  This is no excuse for using this language, just as I believe ignorance is no excuse for using any sort of casually racist language or imagery when discussing a political issue (see: all those "I didn't mean chimpanzee that way" defenses).  I believe the onus is on a person making a political argument to educate themselves as to how their language has been used to denigrate oppressed groups in the past.  Hopefully, this post will help some well-meaning people realize how their language wounds.

Last week, Nicholas Kristof tweeted a link (and laudatory comment) to an article in the New York Review of Books with the title "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment."  This article tries to make the point that the leaders of many prominent Jewish organizations, and in particular, the modern Orthodox movement, are growing increasingly out of step with the average opinion among Jewish young adults.  However, the piece is riddled with anti-Semitic language, so much so that it was difficult for me to read the entire thing.  The entire construct of a "Jewish Establishment" (Note: there is no "Jewish Establishment." Say, leaders of prominent Jewish organizations, or, better yet, name the organizations and the leaders specifically) is purposefully reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was a faked publication designed to rouse anti-Jewish sentiment by alleging Jews were conspiring to take over the world.  When people use the words "Jewish Establishment" or "Zionist Establishment," they are often deliberately invoking the same anti-Semitic sentiment appealed to when the Protocols was first published in 1903, under the claim that it was stolen from a secret Jewish organization.  Therefore, the words "Jewish Establishment" are anti-Semitic language.  Nicholas Kristof should have known better, and the author of the piece, an American Jew, certainly knew better.

The article further dabbles in anti-Semitic sentiments by appealing to the language of another famous anti-Semitic movement, that of Nazi Germany.  Hitler's propaganda machine tried to imply Jews were breeding like rats, soon to overrun the fatherland with their foul ways.  Turning a blind eye to the way this exact language was used to promote murderous rage against his ancestors, the author, Peter Beinart writes, "Because they marry earlier, intermarry less, and have more children, Orthodox Jews are growing rapidly as a share of the American Jewish population." As in, and they're breeding.

This is not just language of distaste or of discrimination.  It is language that has consciously been used to paint the Jewish people as an enemy of the state and of humanity.  It cannot be wielded casually because it comes still stained with the blood of the pogroms of Russia, the Spanish Inquisition, and this century's Holocaust.  It is deadly language, and Beinart is far from the only author to casually invoke it in a major American publication.  This month, the New Yorker featured a piece on Power Rangers pioneer Haim Saban.  The piece is about Saban's large political contributions to pro-Israeli causes and candidates.  The article's author and magazine editors chose a typical tact to discredit a Jewish subject, relying on the old familiar "Jews with money" trope.  This construct is a descendant from the Elders of Zion breed of anti-Semitism, and posits that Jews are not oppressed at all, they are actually rich and powerful, and aim to use their money and power to pull strings in their favor all over the world.  And so Saban is pictured looking menacing in an armchair, equipped with an evil stare, in an image that could easily accompany a reprint of the Elders of Zion pamphlet.  And so his net worth is juxtaposed with his political inclinations; the monetary heft of his donations described in great detail without any context as to their relative influence on Israel-related versus other causes; his attempts to purchase news outlets (and control the media with his Jewy-jewness!) are explicitly detailed.  And this sentence is used to describe him: "Perhaps Saban’s greatest asset over the years has been his remarkable ability to cultivate, charm, and manipulate people."  They have money, they are breeding, and they are manipulative.  Liberal American publications are suddenly writing text appropriate for voice-overs for National Socialist propaganda videos.

The "Jews with Money" construct is as powerful as it is destructive.  And it's practically as old as Judaism itself.  In the 15th century, Spanish Jews were ordered to renounce their religion and embrace Catholicism. Many complied, hoping to find equality at last. Unfortunately, their conversions were met with resentment rather than acceptance, as the switch to Catholicism allowed previously marginalized Jews to begin owning businesses and participating in the political process.  Jews were suddenly powerful, wealthy, and yet still different, argued upset Spaniards.  They must have achieved this through unholy activities!  Spurred by anger among it constituents, the church called the converted Jews out as heretics. They were tortured into admitting their sins in order to attain true purification. Once they did, they were executed for their crimes.  It is unpopular to beat up on a broken people.  And so anti-Semitism is a dual agenda of painting Jews as a powerful group and appealing to racism against them.

In no place is this easier than the United States, where many Jews have achieved economic and political prosperity.  Moreover, as many of us recognize, many members of the Jewish diaspora experience several forms of privilege: white privilege, developed-country privilege, and the privilege of superior military power.  Many of us try to peer over this privilege, and practice Tikkun Olam, the duty to repair the world by helping those less fortunate.  We should be able to have a reasonable discussion about Jewish privilege, Israeli politics, and the intertwining between the two.  We should be able to talk about why some American Jews support Israel, and the moral implications of this choice.  We should be able to take Israel's leaders to task if they have committed crimes or acted unjustly.  I want to have all these conversations.  But I can't do that when anti-Semitism is the language of the discussion.  I can't hear you when you're being racist, I want to yell to the authors of the New Yorker and NYRB pieces. 

So please, let's take words like "Jewish lobby," "Jewish establishment," "Jewish money," "well-connected Jewish network," "Powerful Jewish allies," etc. out of our vocabularies, and let's try to have a real conversation.  Let's not promote racism while we ask for peace.


  1. Thank you very much for this post. As a progressive American Jew, it is such a difficult and frustrating subject. I am not okay with the flotilla attack at all, I am not okay with a lot of the things Israel does...but I am also not okay with completely dismissing Israel and I remain concerned with the fact that there are plenty of people who have as their end goal the complete erasure of all Jews everywhere. I want peace badly, and I want both sides to calm down and work towards it together.

    And yes, it is so hard to discuss these things with people who seem to tuned out to the anti-Semitism creeping into their words. When you go from "the Israelis" to "the Jews", that's when I stop wanting to talk to you. And yet some people take that as some sort of Zionist declaration, which is most certainly is not.

    Thanks for articulating all of this. It is very much appreciated.

  2. I find the timing of this article in very poor taste, and offensive. I’m an Australian reader of Femonomics, and I have read Australian, British and American media reports on the flotilla attacks. I have seen no evidence of anti-semitism in these reports. In fact, considering the actions of the Israeli military and the response from the Israeli government, the response has been quite muted. The image of Israel from my perspective in Australia is not as a country that anyone wants to erase, or deny the right to exist, but an extremely powerful country that can do whatever it wants.

    I understand that you are looking at nuance of phrasing, mostly in one particular article. But this seems beside the point when a government is callously killing anyone who gets too close to opposing it.

  3. from my perspective in Australia

    Goodie. Israel shall now construct its foreign policy based on your observations from Australia, which of course reflect a profound understanding of the political, religious, and economic conditions in this corner of the world.

    Yeesh. Saying that no one wants to erase or deny the existence of Israel shows such profound ignorance that I don't even know where to start. And I'm saying this as a left-wing liberal Israeli, who's against the occupation and thinks the flotilla incident is a perfect example of the violent and nationalistic blindness that is slowly dragging this country into fascism.

    - Gillian

  4. Found this article while googling.

    I must say - what a load of self serving tripe! To justify Isreali imperialism and murder is nonesense. And, to attempt to make any discussion of Isreal politically incorrect is inane.

    Shame on you.


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