I worry a lot about anti-Jewish sentiment on the US Left, even though many of my Jewish friends assure me it is not a significant factor, for example, in the dizzyingly disproportionate attention we pay to the Israel/Palestine conflict. But I’m not sure I agree. Even though I have been at least as guilty as nearly anyone of over-focus on Israel/Palestine, and I don’t think I’m prejudiced against Jews, I still can’t help wondering based on what I’ve heard over the years. Most of my evidence is drawn from nuance in conversation with non-Jewish leftists, most of whom are too smart to offer any real tells that they are suspicious of Jews as a people. But then there are others, who I encounter mostly on the Internet, that seem intent on providing me with an anecdotal basis for my concerns.
This week, I had an email/blog exchange with a Palestine-solidarity activist (or blogger) named Sophie, who is explicitly anti-Jewish. I should note that her critique of imperialism and such general topics is quite left, until she gets to the topic of Jews and Arabs. The fateful exchange started when I received the following email from her, which she sent to a list of folks:
Lots of picture for you to look at, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. A people who would not cease to tell us about their 60-year old holocaust never would think twice about savagely terrorizing the Palestinian community who happen to be totally innocent in whatever took place between the Germans and the European Ashkenazi Jews. I am asking you to please pass the pictures to your email list; the pictures look nice and orderly, but it takes me a lot of time to get them organized that way.
I fired back an email, which read:
"Whatever took place between the Germans and the European Ashkenazi Jews"? You actually expect people to take you seriously when you deny the Holocaust?
I have lived among Palestinians and risked my life to protect theirs, and I’m not Jewish, but what you wrote in this email, which you sent to me for whatever reason — is just totally disgusting.
Stop bringing down the anti-zionist movement with your racist hatred, whoever you are.
Admittedly, my missive was a little bit off-the-cuff, as were my follow-ups. You can see that this is a sore spot for me; it just drives me nuts when people use anti-Jewish bias to fuel the anti-Zionist cause.
Sophie posted an extensive response to her website/blog, after snipping the part from my email where I insist I am pro-Palestinian. A lot of it, of course, was very sensible argument about the situation, but a few more turns of phrase bugged me. For instance, she wrote:
The Arabs are a very proud people and they don’t like to be spat on by a people who claim to be victims but turned out to be such bestial and lethal victimizers. If these horrible tormentors of Palestine were any other group besides ‘the Chosen people’, I do believe even you -B- would find your voice to be very critical of such bestiality.
And why must the Palestinians pay so dearly for the ‘Jewish Holocaust’? Why didn’t the Europeans find a European solution for the ‘Jewish question’?
I also read elsewhere on Sophie’s site that she believes Palestinians are "the real victims of Hitler."
Now, I understand that modern Zionism and modern "Jewishness" are very closely tied together, and I wouldn’t really fault someone for noting that Jewishness, if one can identify its broad ideological strands, incorporates a high degree of anti-Arab sentiment and belief in the righteousness of Israel. I’m not sure what the value of noting this is, but I realize it is an accurate description, at its essence. But aren’t we against prejudice even when the “trends” they are based on are more or less accurate? Do not, in fact, exceptions disprove rules when it comes to sweeping statements against any people?
It is the tie-in to the fairly widespread belief that "Jews own the US media" and "the US is a puppet of Israel" and "the Jewish lobby controls US policy" and other such nonsensities that starts to raise my ire. When you throw in belittlement of Jewish suffering under the Nazis, that pretty much clinches my case that at least some American "leftists," if they deserve the label, harbor dishonorable motives for their opposition to Israeli policy — as if there aren’t plenty of honorable motives without the bias against Jews.
So I responded to Sophie’s response:
Sophie, I read your response and I agree with nearly all of it. Most of your statement is very sensible. I just don’t understand why you need to be so dismissive of what European Jews suffered. I worked on PRCS ambulances as an EMT in 2002 during some of the worst fighting. I saw the horrors of the occupation. I worked in Jenin and Hebron. I get it. But it doesn’t really compare to what the Nazis did to the Jews, no matter how you try to distort it.
You write "Why didn’t the Europeans find a European solution for the ‘Jewish question’?" THEY DID! It was the Holocaust. How can you be so cold? Why not phrase it as "the problem of how to protect Jews from persecution, or compensate them, etc."? It should have been dealt with differently. No shit. But that doesn’t mean we should now be dismissive of the horrific, mass-scale suffering they (and others) underwent at the hands of the Nazis.
Also, I get that there have been many holocausts. I really do. That has nothing to do with the fact that you are trying to downplay one very big one, for whatever reason. It doesn’t help your argument — only hurts it.
(I should note about the above that "the Jewish Question" is an old term that bounced around Europe for many decades predating the rise of Hitler. It was largely an anti-Jewish "question," to be sure, but Hitler really hijacked the whole debate in order to scapegoat Jews, as we all know. Hence my assertion that Hitler’s "Final Solution" was Europe’s answer to "the Jewish Question.")
Sophie seemed to appreciate this response and, in her own reply, praised me as "a genuinely decent guy who cares about humanity." But she followed that up with more, harsher belittlement of Jewish suffering under the Nazis:
If you grew up in America, the Jews’ Holocaust was drilled into the deepest layers of your psychic. You cannot escape it, day in and day out, the American public is reminded of the suffering of the Jews. ‘Never again’ are they going to forget their holocaust as they continue to holocaust the innocent Palestinians.
Despite the fact that I hardly think Americans "cannot escape" reminders of the Jewish Holocaust, what really bugs me about this viewpoint is the suggestion that what the Nazis did to the Jews in the 1930s and ’40s really compares to what Israel has done to Palestinians since that time. We need to keep a sense of proportion about such matters, lest we discredit ourselves. Hitler and his system were fundamentally and drastically worse than Israel and all of its governments since 1949. Part of this was due to Germany’s position of power, but most of it can be attributed to the difference in ideologies and forms of governance. Though there are strong genocidal currents even in the mainstream of Israeli politics, there is no significant advocacy of an extermination campaign. And in the meantime, whatever the conditions in Gaza and the West Bank, the worst of them do not fully compare to historical counterparts under the Nazi empire. As I noted in a response to Sophie, the settled sector of the Palestinian city Hebron looks a lot like the Warsaw Ghetto, but deplorable as the situation there is, it is most certainly not the same. It would be a stretch, for instance, to believe that the Palestinians there are at significant risk of being shipped off to extermination camps. We critics of Israeli policy need to be careful – we can draw parallels between modern Israel and Hitler’s Germany (they do very much exist), but we should shy away from true comparisons.
Sophie doesn’t even seem to care about the Nazi Holocaust. Scale is not a factor for her:
You said that I was "trying to downplay one very big one, for whatever reason.‘ My response is that one innocent person’s death is one too many. How many Jews died during World War II? I don’t know and that is the most honest answer that I can give you. I do understand that the expression, ‘six million’ is a constant reminder to garner sympathy for the Jews who have no sympathy for their colonized inferior people.
It occurs to me that the estimate of 6 million Jews who perished at the hands of Nazis should indeed garner sympathy for the direct or cultural descendants of those victims, whether those descendants sympathize with Zionist/Israeli policies toward Palestine or not. The reaction of the oppressed once "liberated" — or while under oppression — need not belittle the oppression. The horrific state of affairs in places like India or South Africa once the leaders of the oppressed took power does not delegitimize the oppression that existed before power-structure changes. By that token, the deplorable use of retail terrorism by some Palestinian factions, with broad sympathy among Palestinians, should not be used as an argument that Palestinians are any less deserving of freedom for the tactics some choose to employ and many choose to support. And if the Arab world were to actually retaliate against Israel for its invasion and occupation of Palestine and somehow “drive Israel into the Sea,” that wouldn’t mean the Palestinians were not severely and reprehensibly oppressed by Israel for the preceding 60 years.
Then Sophie’s argument gets weirder still:
Jews do own the media. See footnote 1. One of the most repugnant creatures on the face of the earth, Bill O’reilly wrote in one of his books that he had been churning out to fatten his wallets that ‘those who own the children own the future’. Wrong! Those who own the media own both the children and the future. As long as the media remains firmly clenched within the hands of Jewry, your great-great-great grand children will be drilled about the Jewish holocaust just as you were growing up.
Again, I don’t recall this supposed drilling during my youth, but maybe that’s because the "brainwashing" Sophie elsewhere stated I’ve undergone was thorough enough to erase all memory of the act itself. Anyway, Footnote 1 linked to a bizarre document claiming to prove that "Stunning Jewish Success Dominates American Media." Far from the exclusive ownership implied by the statement "Jews do own the media," or even majority or really significant ownership, this document merely lists 87 Jews who are involved in the US media in some way. It starts with lots of executives, publishers and owners, but it also includes numerous columnists, reporters and editors, who can hardly be presumed to "own" the media they work for. In fairness, such a list could probably have been much longer, were it not for the presumed lack of resources (or laziness) of its creator. But it still wouldn’t prove anything about Jewish ownership of the US media, which is a decidedly minority share, as implied by the hundreds of executive, publisher and owner slots NOT listed in the document.
The weakness of the evidence aside, there’s something else that is overlooked by such assertions. I fully expect that if no Jews were in positions of power in the US media, that media would still provide horrific coverage of US/Israeli and Israeli/Palestinian relations. I doubt the US media need Jews on staff to correlate their coverage and opinion to that of Washington, and limit the debate to that taking place on Capitol Hill or at the major think tanks. The media have restricted themselves thusly in countless conflicts where Jewish involvement was peripheral or totally insignificant, such as the civil wars in Central America during the 1980s (and since), when media coverage was deplorable despite the lack of a Jewish ax in need of grinding. This absence of valuable analysis, traded instead for anecdotal "evidence" of Jewish influence as the key factor, so weakens the argument as to render it silly. And that’s important: when you use an argument that is so ridiculous as to be deserving of scorn or dismissal, you weaken the broader case, which may (as here) be extremely strong without the introduction or assumption of ethnic prejudice.
This exchange went on a bit, but I’ll spare you the rest. You can read the second and third rounds in their entireties on Sophie’s website. But I did want to include my final response, which it appears Sophie does not intend to print, just to get it into the record:
Sophie, feel free to print these words as well.
Do I say "the Germans," or do I say "the Nazis"? Are you really so unable to engage in reasonable argument that you would overlook the fact that I ACTUALLY WROTE "the Nazis" and insinuate that I would say "the Germans"? And even if I ever did say "the Germans" by mistake, and you pointed that out, I would say — huh, you’re right, I should have said "the Nazis". I would not, as you have in the other case, make a big point of how most Germans were complicit in the extermination of European Jews. Nor would I belittle the efforts of the brave, relative few who did what they could to avert the Nazi Holocaust.
It’s this kind of irrational argument that does you in. I have no patience for people who group entire races (or nationalities) and condemn them with such wholesale language.
I’m not sure the existence of a Jewish Holocaust museum is sufficient to condemn an entire race, ethnicity or religion. I just don’t even understand the foundations of that logic…
There is a Holocaust museum at Auschwitz. Maybe you should go check it out before denying its relevance.
Do you really think there are only 15 Jewish anti-Zionist activists? Really? Cuz I can name at least 20 off the top of my head. Hell, I met about 15 in Palestine (I wasn’t even working with ISM or anything). That line of reasoning is just silly.
Yeah, most Jews seem to sympathize strongly with Israel, to say the least. But I’m not sure "most" deserve the treatment of "all." I’m pretty sure that’s called prejudice, and my brainwashed brain finds prejudice troubling.
[... redundant section re media removed... ]
To say that Noam Chomsky has ignored Israel’s crimes is similarly bizarre. I went to Chomsky.info and searched "Israel" and got 263 hits — more than the "two or three instances of the word" you erroneously claimed. Perhaps you did something wrong there? Have you read "The Fateful Triangle"? Have you even just seen how thick it is? He has actually written scores of articles about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Go to ZNet and search for ZNet and Z Magazine articles by Chomsky that mention Israel. You’ll find dozens and dozens and dozens of hits, and I doubt any of them have kind words for Israel. Your claims to the contrary are really quite absurd. There are books claiming that Chomsky is a Nazi because he has been so critical of Israel. Chomsky has written far more critical words on the matter of Israel than I suspect you ever will, even if you keep blogging about it for years.
Which isn’t to say I agree with everything he has written (for instance, I favor a one-state solution), but it is to say that you have some serious blinders on if you want to deny that Chomsky has paid tons of attention to the matter.
Worst of all is the fact that you seem unwilling to admit that the Nazi Holocaust was a tremendous crime against humanity. I don’t want to speculate as to your reasons for denying it, but it is really quite frightening. You say you believe that I truly care about humanity. It seems you only care about non-Jewish humanity, which is really just a very sad thing indeed.
I see on your site you say the Palestinians are the "real victims of Hitler"? Do you seriously believe that? The Jews and Roma and queers and communists and anarchists and partisans that he had slaughtered aren’t REAL victims? They’re either not victims, or they’re phony victims, in your mind?
I have one last entreaty for you. If you really care about humanity, and you don’t just have an anti-Jewish ax to grind, why don’t you spend 100 times as much ink on the US invasion and occupation of Iraq as you do the Israeli invasion/occupation of Palestine? I suspect you are a US citizen (correct me if I’m wrong), so that means your OWN country is committing a horrific crime. And the scale is simply incomparable. The US war on Iraq has been far more violent, far less restrained, and carried a far higher cost in lives — by some massive factor, even by the most conservative estimates. So why is it that you are going after Israel with such a fervor but not your own country?
Okay, before you all comment and ask why I wasted my time on this exchange, and then also took the time to blog about it, when surely this person is just a wingnut who doesn’t deserve the time of day… back to my original thesis, I guess I still harbor concerns that a bias against Jews forms part of the foundation of left criticism of US/Israeli policy. I realize how easy it is to take that argument too far, but I also think ignoring it is a sign of the Left’s weakness in terms of house cleaning. I don’t see a lot of non-Jewish radicals willing to point out that, among us, there is a spectrum of bias against Jews that we tend to deny rather than confront. I’ve only confronted an easy case here, but let’s be wary of the more-subtle cases I suspect are all around us, weakening the true resolve of reasoned opposition to the Occupation of Palestine.