Reclaiming Anti-Semitism

Those of us who are involved in activism around Israel/Palestine, and take a position critical of the standard American and Israeli views of the conflict are constantly peppered with accusations of anti-Semitism; or, in the case of Jews, we are told we are “self-hating”. Indeed, for Jews active on this issue, it becomes incumbent upon us to prominently and frequently argue that criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. It can get frustrating. Constantly engaging in the same argument is bad enough, but when that argument is over something that should be obvious — such as the right to criticize the actions of a state with one of the world’s strongest militaries, which has been in occupation of another people for 35 years — the argument becomes all the more tiresome. In fact, it can become so tiresome that many people, Jewish or non-Jewish, who have to deal with it can easily become so frustrated that they cannot or do not wish to hear about genuine issues of anti-Semitism. It is fast becoming the cry of “wolf” that can portend a horrible fate down the road. The argument has frequently served to be very disruptive to opposition to American policies in the Middle East, as has been demonstrated again recently in the very unfortunate flap over Michael Lerner’s absence from the invited speakers’ list at the anti-war demonstration to be held this Sunday in Iraq. (see JVP’s statement about this incident in this newsletter)


What is it we speak of when talking about anti-Semitism? The term itself is a source of some controversy. While the term “Semite” refers to a linguistic group which includes both Arabic and Hebrew, the term “anti-Semitism” was coined by a German Jew-hater, Wilhelm Marr, in the late 19th century. He coined the phrase to refer to a new form of Judeophobia, one which is based on purported racial characteristics. In order to have a term that was easier to pass along than “Judenhass” (hatred of Jews), as well as a new phrase for his theory and one which denied the European heritage of European Jewry, he took what was at the time an obscure linguistic term and applied it to his racial theory of Jews and his ideas as to why they were genetically pre-disposed to threaten European society. The actual term “Semite” is simply a way of grouping speakers of particular languages, including Arabic and Hebrew, and some other, mostly dead, languages. But anti-Semitism was, ironically, coined against Jews alone, despite the fact that, at the time, exceedingly few Jews spoke Hebrew. Even up to today, it has been many centuries since any Semitic language was the primary language of the majority of Jews worldwide. Arabs, on the other hand, are, by definition, Semites, but were beyond the racist consciousness of Marr, who never encountered them.


The Holocaust was the ultimate expression of Marr’s racial conception of anti-Semitism; all the more so because it was different in character and nature from the centuries of persecution on religious grounds that Jews had faced in Europe. The effects were devastating, even beyond the unimaginable death and torment the Nazi persecution caused (not only to Jews, it helps to recall; millions of others were slaughtered in the camps as well, though we were the primary targets). The trauma of the Holocaust for all Jews, and especially Europeans, remains very much with us to this day. The Holocaust represented the ultimate betrayal of Jewish hopes that the modern, secular ideologies of socialism, communism and liberalism would at last free us from the centuries of persecution. It convinced many Jews that we would always be at risk, that at any moment, no matter how good things seemed, the pogroms and exile would start all over again, and that the world does and would always hate us. Entire Jewish movements virtually died in the Holocaust (including several different non-Zionist nationalist movements). But there were other effects as well, different from what one might expect. Institutionalized discrimination against Jews in the West came under fierce attack as shame over what had been done in Europe spread. It was not an immediate process, of course; the practice of barring Jews from entry into various neighborhoods or clubs persisted in the United States in the 1970s. And today, with few exceptions, most Jews live freely without any significant social obstacles to work or finding homes. This needs to be cause for Jewish celebration. We must not forget the Holocaust, nor ignore the fact that some of our greatest historical tragedies have come on the heels of some of our greatest periods of prosperity. But the road to sustaining our security lies not in fear of a repeat of our greatest trauma, but in vigilance, consciousness and cooperation with our many allies in creating a world where all forms of hatred based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other innate characteristics has no power to threaten people.


Does this mean that anti-Semitism no longer exists? Indeed, not. In the United States, many white supremacist groups (the KKK, neo-Nazi groups, Christian Identity groups and others) continue their campaigns against Jews, along with women, GLBT folks and, of course, people of color. More and more, the relative success of Jews in the United States and some parts of Europe has spawned some reactionary rekindling of late 19th/early 20th century Jewish conspiracy theories, harkening back to the infamous Russian forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a Czarist era tract purporting to dictate a Jewish/Masonic program of global domination). Still, it must be understood that, as potentially dangerous and certainly disturbing as these

things are, they do not represent anything like the sorts of obstacles and threats in day-to-day living that many disenfranchised and oppressed people face all the time, and which we have been all too familiar throughout most of our history. Again, this should be a cause for celebration among Jews. While anti-Semitism, in its myriad forms, has ebbed and flowed over the centuries, few indeed are the periods in our history that match the level of security and prosperity Jews have found in the United States and Western Europe today. Yet, make mention of this, and many of us become defensive, as if the thought that things are so good for Jews, relative to our history, threatens to put us off our guard, so that if danger rises again we would not be prepared to meet it and survive. It is crucial for the long-term health of the Jewish people that we strike a much better balance between recognizing how good things are for Jews where most of us are living today and with being vigilant against the return of darker times.


When it comes to the issues around Israel, the question of anti-Semitism takes on much greater importance. Much is made of growing anti-Semitism in the Arab world. In Arab countries there are exceedingly few Jews, in most none at all, and all the Jews most people in those countries see are Israeli leaders, soldiers and settlers, and occasional American Jews who voice views at least as hawkish. Still, it is easy to see why people would see such a phenomenon as proof that the Arab view of the conflict with Israel is motivated not by dispossession or concern over Western domination of the Middle East, but by the hatred of Jews. When a group of people are absent from one’s life, and one sees only frightening images of them, this provides the most fertile soil for bigotry. Little reason is given for Arabs to distinguish between the actions of the Israeli government, of which they see only the very worst, and the Jewish people, who are purportedly represented by the Jewish State. Thus, the proliferation of sales of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and the occasional quotes from some Arab leaders, both official and popular, which are eagerly picked up by the mainstream media that reflect great hostility to Jews. Of course, there were those who had antipathy for Jews well before the state of Israel and even the Zionist movement were established, but it is a historical reality that, although Jews did not generally enjoy legal rights equal to Muslims in most of the Arab and Muslim world, our experience there was far better, far more free from persecution, than our experience in Europe. It might not have been a paradise of equality, but in the context of the times, the Jewish experience in the Muslim world was far better than the experience of Jews and other minorities elsewhere.


The question in the US is made even more complicated by the presence of real anti-Semites on both sides. Dispensationalist Christian evangelicals, such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson promote their end-of-days vision – which depends on a fulfillment of the prophecy of a Jewish return to Zion – where Armageddon will see the Jews all converted or destroyed, by a fanatical support of Israel. It is worthwhile to remember that this branch of right-wing Christianity is the source of much of the power of the incorrectly-named “Jewish lobby”. The Christian Right is what gives pro-Israel lobbying its voter power, generates stacks of letters to representatives and pressures editorial boards with potential loss of circulation. There just aren’t enough Jews on the planet to have that kind of impact, and, anti-Jewish rhetoric notwithstanding, the greatest concentration of power continues to rest in the same hands it has for centuries. Right-wing Christian support for Israel, motivated not by love of Jews but antipathy for us, is a threat that must be confronted, yet the major Jewish organizations have steadfastly refused to do this, because of their support of Israel. One need only recall, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was in high gear and Bill Clinton exerted some pressure on Netanyahu to compromise with the Palestinians (eventually leading to the Wye Accords, hardly a major compromise for Israel), Netanyahu responded by coming to America and visiting his “good friend” Falwell before greeting the US President. Mere weeks later, Falwell gave a speech in which he stated that the anti-Christ would be a Jew. Obviously, Falwell is a man with the best interests of the Jewish people at heart. This is only one small example of a much greater problem.


Some White supremacists, such as David Duke, have adopted a pro-Palestinian façade in order to promote their hatred of Jews. Although these characters have remained on the periphery of the movement for Palestinian rights, some of their thinking has gained more and more momentum within the movement. This is reflected in an alarming increase in the belief that Israel controls the US in regards to the Middle East, an assertion that falls apart in the face of the facts (among many good works on this point, Stephen Zunes’ recent book, “Tinderbox” is one of the best, as is much of the work on this subject by Noam Chomsky) and does harken back to the sorts of Jewish conspiracy theories discussed earlier, although in many cases, people who believe this theory may be acting out of a lack of facts rather than antipathy for Jews. There is no doubt that the lobby that supports Israel is very powerful in Congress and the media activism of Israel’s supporters has been remarkably effective. It is also true that, while the Christian Right may provide a lot of the financial and people-power of this activism, the Jewish groups are providing the public face and most of the leadership. it is crucial that we keep in mind that it is not always easy to know the motivations of others. Thus, it is imperative that we attack ideas of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy as anti-Semitic while being very judicious about confusing those who are misled but are truly working for what they see as justice with those who truly wish to harm Jews simply because we are Jews.


For many, Jews and non-Jews as well, all of this means seeing anti-Semitism everywhere. For some, it creates the perfect climate to shield Israel from all criticism by equating all such criticism with anti-Semitism. The process is not always so simple. Many allow certain criticisms, but draw a line beyond which lay only anti-Semitism. It is not always easy, or even possible to know what motivates the opinions of others. But whatever one’s views on the question of Israel and Palestine, elemental reason dictates that opposition to Israel’s policies, including the occupation as well as its rejection of all claims against it by the Palestinian refugees that resulted from the conflict dating back to 1948 and its laws that give Jews rights above non-Jews, can and often are based on rationales that have no basis whatsoever in antipathy for Jews. The debate and discussion is a fair one to have. The situation in Palestine/Israel, while it has many elements in common with other conflicts, is also different from most in that the powerful group can easily see itself as the victim, as Jews have been for so much of our history. Progress toward reconciliation has been consistently stalled by rhetoric and name-calling. As Jews working for a future where Palestinians and Israeli Jews live together, in mutual respect, peace and security, as well against the effects of institutionalized bigotry of all kinds, it is high time that we took the fight against anti-Semitism from those who use it to legitimate policies and actions that oppress others and use it to stifle legitimate debate over issues that touch millions of lives. We do this by confronting anti-Semitism where it really exists, whatever the source, and by confronting with equal vigor those, whether Jewish or not, who would dishonor the millions of people and centuries of persecution of Jews by cynically manipulating this issue for their own ends to defend policies which are antithetical to the justice and universal equality that is necessary for Jews and all other historical victims of oppression to exist in peace and security.

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