Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Freedom of speech

If I were more awake, I'd respond to this, this, this, and (gag me) this. The Nation's Philip Weiss does not disappoint. But I'm most intrigued by this petition, set forth by one Juan Cole, entitled "Freedom of Speech on the Israel Lobby," demanding the following:

This petition calls on the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to forthrightly condemn the castigation of Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt as anti-Semites for their academic paper, "The Israel Lobby and American Foreign Policy."

Doesn't "freedom of speech on the Israel Lobby" mean that Walt and Mearsheimer are free to write whatever they want about Israel, and that those who found Walt and Mearsheimer's assertion that the Jews control the American government to be anti-Semitic are free to call Walt and Mearsheimer anti-Semites, and that Cole is free to say that no, Walt and Mearsheimer are not anti-Semites, or at least ought not to be castigated as such? Cole is free to create a petition telling people not to say this, that, or the other, because he is not the American government, and the presidents of major American Jewish organizations are free to agree with Cole and his supporters, to disagree with them, or to ignore them entirely.

The confusion here seems to be that calling the authors of a possibly (I would argue definitely) anti-Semitic document anti-Semites infringes upon these authors' freedom of speech. But how? There is freedom to claim that a Jewish/pro-Israel lobby is mysteriously and nefariously controlling US foreign policy, and there is also freedom to point out that this particular theory is merely an update of a centuries-old ideology, namely anti-Semitism. Which makes Walt and Mearsheimer anti-Semites. Perhaps not self-identified anti-Semites, but anti-Semites all the same. Since Walt and Mearsheimer do not refer to themselves as anti-Semites, it's up to the reader to decide whether or not their argument is anti-Semitic in nature.

When an author who sees himself as liberal writes an article in favor of banning abortion, bringing prayer to public schools, and lowering taxes, one would presumably call this author a conservative, as these were his most recent words, and not just refer to him as having written a piece that could potentially be seen as conservative. One would say this even if said author had prefaced each argument with, "but remember, I am a liberal."

It's true that anti-Semitism holds more of a stigma than either liberalism or conservatism, so referring to someone as an anti-Semite is potentially more damaging. But let's put things in perspective. Anti-Semitism does not refer only to racial, pro-genocide anti-Semitism--those with no particular issues about noses and so forth may nevertheless believe that the Jews as a group--not a race, just a group--are in fact an evil cabal set to destroy all that is sacred. Just because Walt and Mearsheimer do not express a specific wish to rid the world of all with Ashkenazi or Sephardic blood does not mean that they are not anti-Semites. It's entirely possible to be an anti-Semite, to subscribe to time-worn theories of anti-Semitism, and to be horrified at the Holocaust and to be a firm believer in "never again." Do all homophobes wish to see genocide destroy the gay population? Certainly not. As long as they stay away from little boys, the priesthood, the institution of marriage, and all locales other than Chelsea, Provincetown, or the Castro--most homophobes would have it--the gays can stay.

The problem with being just a regular, run-of-the-mill anti-Semite these days is that anti-Semitism has been ruined. While most groups can take a bit of tug and pull, some insults here, some pride there, Jews were so recently almost wiped off the planet that the assertions Jews could toss aside in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s no longer seem quite as innocent. Jew-hatred is still such a strong force around the world that inciting it cannot be taken lightly. Walt and Mearsheimer even seem to understand this, and are in a sense asking why the U.S. would align itself with such an unpopular table in the global middle school lunchroom. So maybe there ought to be a name for anti-Semitism that wishes to disassociate itself from genocide, thus freeing anti-Semites to refer to their ideology with more precision, and thus making charges of anti-Semitism less about being "charges" and more about being descriptive terms. Because that would sure solve everything.

6 comments:

Petey said...

"While most groups can take a bit of tug and pull, some insults here, some pride there, Jews were so recently almost wiped off the planet that the assertions Jews could toss aside in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s no longer seem quite as innocent. Jew-hatred is still such a strong force around the world that inciting it cannot be taken lightly."

OK. Now I finally understand how you can assert W-M are anti-semites.

You seem to have defined anti-semitism as anything which produces bad publicity for the Jews.

Mia Farrow's accusations against Woody Allen? Anti-semitism.

EPA report alleging worse air quality in NYC than Provo, Utah? Anti-semitism.

W-M's report laying out how a lobby of American Jews and American fundamentalist Christians has kept US foreign policy in the Levant biased toward an expansionist Israel and allied with the right wing of Israeli politics? Anti-semitism.

The truth or falsity of a claim is irrelevant. The motivation behind a claim is irrelevant. If a claim runs any risk of "inciting Jew-hatred", then it is anti-semitic.

Phoebe said...

It's not about a claim, true or false, that could potentially lead to one Jew or Jews in general being hated. It's about a theory, popular throughout the ages, that Jews control not just some things but just about everything, that Jewish power is unlike all other sorts of power in its ability to dupe the innocent gentiles, and so on.

Petey said...

"It's about a theory, popular throughout the ages, that Jews control not just some things but just about everything, that Jewish power is unlike all other sorts of power in its ability to dupe the innocent gentiles"

Sure. And W-M's claims certainly do raise echoes of this historical slur. But even so, shouldn't W-M's motivation and the truth of what they're saying matter?

David Duke hears about W-M and reacts in terms of the historical slur as a supporter. You hear about W-M and react in terms of the historical slur as a detractor. But by using W-M's paper as an occasion to fight over a historical slur, both of you are ignoring what W-M are actually saying.

There is historical slur that people of African descent are not capable of intellectual achievement. There is also the fact that black American students average lower test scores than white American students. Inevitably, any attempt to address the test score gap will produce some echoes of the historical slur. But that just means it's important to take any such attempt on its merits, and not reflexively denounce it as racist merely because folks of bad faith will be able to use it to reinforce their belief in the historical slur.

Phoebe said...

http://oxblog.blogspot.com/2006/04/anti-semitism-at-harvard-judge-for.html

"Judge for yourself" indeed.

Patrick said...

Unfortunately (or fortunately), this whole discussion is moot since M-W never once write that the Lobby "controls" American foriegn policy. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Sure. And W-M's claims certainly do raise echoes of this historical slur. But even so, shouldn't W-M's motivation and the truth of what they're saying matter?


Their paper is researched so poorly, who can say what the truth is? See for example this link and the links within it.