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January 31, 2007

Is Criticism of Israel "anti-Semitic"?
Posted by Rosa Brooks

The American Jewish Committee is showcasing a new report called "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism." The report, by Alvin Rosenfeld, rightly draws attention to the dismaying resurgence of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world (including increasing media stereotypes-- especially in the Islamic world-- of Jews as "a treacherous, conniving, untrustworthy, sinister, all-powerful, and inplacably hostile people," and an upsurge in assualts and vandalism against Jews in Europe and elsewhere).  But then it goes a step further, claiming that "one of the most distressing features of the new anti-Semitism [is] the participation of Jews alongside it, especially in its anti-Zionist expression."  Singled out for criticism are a wide range of Jewish scholars, writers, and activists, from Adrienne Rich and Tony Judt to Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.

The report stops short of calling Jews critical of Zionism anti-Semites, but only barely; in an interview with the New York Times, Rosenfeld, the author, was coy: "Jews thinking the way they’re thinking is feeding into a very nasty cause.” 

On some level, this is the Mearsheimer-Walt debate redux; we've also seen this played out to some extent in the very public attacks on Human Rights Watch and Tony Judt. But with this new report, the American Jewish Congress is upping the ante still more.  I have written elsewhere about baseless claims that Human Rights Watch's coverage of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict was "anti-semitic," but this latest controversy threatens to send my blood pressure through the roof. Here's what I think:

1) "Anti-Semitism" is dislike of, or prejudice against, Jewish people because of their supposed "essence." It's hatred of human beings for no reason except that they are, or appear to be, "Jewish," leaving aside for now the complex question of what it means to be "Jewish."

2) There is plenty of real anti-Semitism in the world. It's nasty, scary stuff, and it needs to be condemned, promptly and vociferously, by people of all faiths and traditions. 

3) Being critical of Israeli policies is not the same as being "anti-Semitic," any more than criticism of US policy should be construed as "anti-American."

4) Being critical of certain understandings of Jewish identity is not the same as being anti-Semitic. People who self-identify as Jewish are an exceptionally diverse group in every respect-- ethnically, religiously, culturally, linguistically, philosophically, and ideologically. No one-- not the Israeli government, not a particular group of rabbis, and certainly not the American Jewish Congress-- has a monopoly on understanding what it "really" means to be Jewish, just as no one individual, organization or nation has a monopoly on what it really means to be a Christian or a Muslim.

5) Being critical of Zionism or the "legitimacy" of the State of Israel is also not "anti-Semitic." Principles of democratic self-determination not-withstanding, there is no human right to statehood. The nation-state is a rather recent human invention, and not a particularly happy one. Questioning the value of a particular social-political unit-- which is all the state is-- should not be equated with questioning the right to exist of a particular group of people

To illustrate that last point, let me put it a little differently: the statement "I do not think Kosovo should become an independent state" is not, on its face, "anti-Kosovar," just as saying, "I opposed the division of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak states" is neither "anti-Czech" nor "anti-Slovak." And no, this does not magically change once a state is created: it is still neither "anti-Czech" nor "anti-Slovak" for a person to say, "I feel that the world would be a better place had the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic never been created out of the former Yugoslavia," or even, "I favor the  re-integration of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic into a single state." Any or all of those remarks may be controversial and they may even be stupid-- but there is no reason to consider them impermissible attacks on particular people or groups of people.

The same should be true with regard to Israel: people of good faith (Jews or non-Jews) who argue that the creation of Israel was a mistake or that the world would be better if the state of Israel ceased to be Jewish and became a "binational state of Jews and Arabs" (as Tony Judt has argued) are not automatocally anti-Semites.

Just to be clear: it is true that many anti-Semites make such arguments. But it does not follow that all those who make such arguments are anti-Semites.

On some level I feel that I am just stating the crushingly obvious. So why say it at all?

Well... Everything I have just said seems to me to be crushingly obvious. But in this political climate, it appears that this is not at all obvious to many people. I am hardly being controversial when I say that the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations is a huge source of global instability.  We need to be able to talk about this issue bluntly and candidly if we are ever to have a hope of finding a peaceful resolution.

If progressives have to self-censor criticisms of Israel out of fear of being accused of anti-semitism, we're not going to get anywhere. And that will be a tragedy for all of us.

UPDATE: In the comments, Zathras notes that the creation of the state of Israel was a response to the deliberate slaughter of six million Jews. I agree that Israel statehood cannot possibly be evaluated without that context. But I don't think this alters the fundamental point, which is that questioning Zionism-- or the ongoing viability of the Israeli state in its current form-- is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. It can overlap with anti-Semitism, and unfortunately it often does, but it need not do so; from the beginning, Zionism sparked heated debates within the Jewish community.  Those debates continued throughout the 1940s and 50s, and they continue within the Jewish community today.

I do not mean, here, to take a particular position on these issues. But I am convinced that reflexively labelling as "anti-Semitic" everyone who articulates these positions-- regardless of their reasons, regardless of the context, regardless of whether they themselves are Jewish-- does a disservice to all of us. Just as we are appropriately outraged when the far right in the US accuses citizens opposed to the Iraq War of being "anti-American," we should be upset when kneejerk accusations of anti-Semitism are tossed out at any and all critics of Israel.

Global anti-Semitism is real and virulent, and needs to be fought. Let's not let the concept be watered down-- or discredited-- by those who prefer to use it as a handy way to avoid engaging the merits of good faith arguments.


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While we're on the subject of the crushingly obvious, the existence of the state of Israel was a direct consequence of the attempted and very nearly successful extermination of the Jews of Europe. For most people, the alternative to statehood is not extermination. One could certainly make a case that it isn't for the Jews anymore, either, Hitler (and, for that matter, Stalin) having died and all. But it would be an academic exercise. Among 20th century historical issues there aren't many more obvious than that one.

Having said that, I would expect an organization like the American Jewish Committee to be true to its name: American first, Jewish second. The United States does not ask a great deal of the many people it has given refuge from tyranny and barbarism, nor of the nations it has defended from the same. One of the things it is entitled to demand is respect for the primacy of American interests where these conflict with local causes or those motivated by esoteric religious ideas. I'm sorry to say that there is probably more understanding of this in Israel itself than among some of the most politically active Jews in the United States.

There is no American interest in Jewish settlements on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Such settlements are at the core of a protracted international controversy damaging to the international position of the United States. It is therefore the responsibility of Americans to, at a minimum, discourage the expansion of settlements. This certainly includes Jewish Americans aware of how much Israel owes to the United States.

I regret that the vacuum in American foreign policy thought that appeared after the Soviet threat collapsed has from time to time been filled in the minds of some people with passionate attachment to Other People's Causes. Who governs what part of the West Bank of the Jordan River is certainly one of these. It is not our cause and it is not our problem, except insofar as American interests might be served by some reduction in the level of controversy in that part of the world. The commitment America has made to Israel is to its existence and security as a Jewish state, not to its expansion and certainly not to bearing in perpetuity the burden in international politics of its expansion.

This had been the position taken, though rarely held with tenacity of every American administration before this one. Congress, acting on sentimental considerations and a certain irresponsibility with respect to American interests overseas, has frequently been induced to demand acquiesence to expansion of West Bank settlements. In the political reality of Washington this has usually had much less to do with fear of being called anti-Semitic than it has with the not-unjustified identification of Palestinians with the odious Arafat and with terrorism generally (in earlier years it didn't help that among the loudest champions of the most unreasonable Palestinian demands were even less sympathetic Soviet Communists).

In the wake of the Iraq adventure, though, we Americans cannot afford to be so casual about the identification and pursuit of our national interests abroad. Other People's Causes are not a luxury we can indulge as we have in the past. It looks very much as if much of the debate over anti-Semitism as a charge, or as an epithet, is being conducted by Americans who have not yet come to understand that our national interests can't be taken for granted anymore; what matters is not the things Israelis or Palestinians are doing to one another, or to themselves, but only how what they are doing affects us.

Baloney. There has been no vacuum. The US has consistently sided with Israel for many years in the face of dozens of UN condemnations and censures of the repeated Israeli aggression directed against Palestinians and Lebanese, because US politicians have been bought and paid for by Israeli agents who are also involved in spying against the US. The result of this, and other odious US actions, is the current well-earned disrepute we currently enjoy in the Arab and Muslim communities.

What the Zionists are doing to the Palestinians who were evicted from their lands with our support, and what they do to Lebanon with our bombs and aircraft may not matter to us, but it should.

"the creation of the state of Israel was a response to the deliberate slaughter of six million Jews."

The creation of the state of a Jewish homeland was the constant goal of the Zionist movement since 1890. Certainly the extermination of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Germans helped to enable that cause, but only by hurrying along what had been up until then a slower process—colonizing Palestine with mostly European Jews.

The Germans and other Europeans have also tried to exterminate the Roma, but nobody has advocated that we set up a Roma homeland in India for them—the very idea is absurd when you really think about it.

As a person who is of Slovak nationality - I don't really understand the meaning of comparing Czechoslovakia with Israel. Please, do some more background check of the Czech and Slovak history.

It's an analogy—it's not meant to be a literal comparison.

I am aware of the fact that it is meant to be an analogy - BUT, how can you possible relate something which doesn't have anything in common?
It is like using analogy with apples and bananas.
Please if you write about something -> at least write about something you understand. Or be viewed as an ignorant American (or whatever you are)

They used Czechoslovakia in the same way they used the United States when they said "Being critical of Israeli policies is not the same as being 'anti-Semitic,' any more than criticism of US policy should be construed as 'anti-American.'"

It was NOT a comparison of Israel and US in any way, it was simply an analogy.

"It is like using analogy with apples and bananas."

The phrase you're thinking of is "It's like comparing apples and oranges." You don't compare apples and oranges. But you most certainly CAN make analogies with the two.

l'm an American of German Jewish and Croatian descent, not that it's remotely relevant to this conversation.

But certainly one could conjure up a notion of "anti-semitism" when reading the Mearsheimer-Walt effort in the London Review of Books.

It's one thing to suggest that perhaps American and Israeli foreign policies are not exactly working in sync all the time.

It's quite another to suggest that the reason why is because of a capital-L "Lobby" of Jews who suborn the issues of the US for those of Israel.

When I read Mearsheimer-Walt, and listen to their various and sundry comments on CSPAN and other fora, I see and hear what appears to me to be not a small amount of caricature and (why be polite?) hatred of Jews in the strained Walt and Mearsheimer polemic.

Sure, less pedigreed Jew haters use the same arguments. But sometimes what appears in Walt and Mearsheimer (hardly regional experts) still adds up to a slur against Americans who are Jewish.

Or you can just read what Jonah Goldberg wrote in LAT about Wes Clark's latest foot-in-the-mouth moment.

It's making me review my earlier -- albeit tepid -- support for Clark as a major Democratic thinker.


SOOI, do you have any reason to imagine there is not a zionist lobby trying to suborn US issues for israel? Whyever would you think that?

Would you think there isn't a irish lobby? A greek lobby? A cuban lobby thring to suborn US issues in opposition to the current government of cuba? A taiwan lobby?

It's absurd to argue that there's no zionist lobby. Simply absurd. To make that argument you have to assume your listeners are idiots.

As to how scared US politicians and bureaucrats are of the zionist lobby, whether they go along with things they know are against US interests in favor of israeli interests (as perceived by the israeli lobby), that's something we guess at from evidence. But certainly it isn't illegal for interest groups formed of US citizens to lobby for whatever they want. To the extent that we have an antisemitic lobby or an anti-arab lobby or an zionist lobby, they all have the right to do as they wish right up to the point they're about to pass military secrets to foreign governments. And it stops there.

People who get upset about things like Mearsheimer/Walt and who try to prevent discussion in the USA about how far our interests converge with israel's, are - well -- part of the zionist lobby.

And if they want to pretend they don't exist and can't stand to argue the issues, that does give the impression maybe they think they're working against US interests.

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