Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Now tell us what you really think

Read any mainstream thread on Gaza, and sooner or later you'll find a comment about how, in the US, one is not allowed to say anything bad about Israel, for fear of being seen as anti-Semitic. The same commenter, or one with the same politics, will then go on to criticize Israel (with a mix of valid and out-there critiques; exact ratio will vary) as well as the Jewish-controlled media that has brainwashed all Americans into siding with Israel, the Hitlerian regime that runs the Jewish state, and so on. (The comments to this piece are as good a place to start as any.)

Point being, you are allowed to say what you think about Israel, and about the Jews, so long as you first offer a disclaimer, 'This is about Israel.' As I've argued before, and as others seem to concur, the consensus that anti-Semitism refers only to Nazism makes it impossible to accurately label anything nowadays as anti-Semitic. One constantly hears the line, 'You can't criticize Israeli policy without being accused of anti-Semitism,' yet even Walt and Mearsheimer's most fervent critics by and large chose not to refer to "The Israel Lobby" (the book or the article) as anti-Semitic. Which both works plainly are. Are they examples of Nazism? No. Anti-Semitism? Absolutely. (To those who haven't read the book and think it's just a critique of US policy that's got nothing to do with Jews per se, I suggest reading the thing, but not, of course, purchasing it.) Frank Furedi, meanwhile, outlines the latest in European anti-Semitism, including Danish schools excluding Jewish students, because of course Jew=Israel=controversy.

The problem today is thus not overuse of the term 'anti-Semitism', but its under-use. The 'Jew-who cries anti-Semitism' is such a cliche that one rarely hears a Jew under 50 make reference to the ideology except as something from a faraway past. Since those of my generation are accustomed to thinking of a marginalized group as one that's stereotyped as not accomplished in the economic and educational spheres (i.e. why it was racist for Biden to call Obama "articulate"), we're not sure what to make of the fact that we're assumed all-powerful. How can we be insulted? But more importantly, all mobilization to fight back against anti-Semitism, if successful, is interpreted as yet another display of Jewish power. If one could only fight the ideology by offering up a movement of mediocre American Jews, with mediocre (if any) degrees and overpowering addictions to 'US Weekly', North Face jackets, and pot, things would be much, much simpler.

18 comments:

Petey said...

"even Walt and Mearsheimer's most fervent critics by and large chose not to refer to "The Israel Lobby" (the book or the article) as anti-Semitic. Which both works plainly are."

The work is most obviously not "plainly" anti-semitic.

You are certainly free to take the (badly mistaken, IMHO) position that it is anti-semitic. But if you say it is "plainly" anti-semitic, then you are saying that lots and lots of folks like Petey, Matt Yglesias, and Ezra Klein agree with most of the thrust of an indisputably anti-semitic work.

And that would be an odd thing to say.

Saying The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is plainly anti-semitic is a statement that makes sense. Saying The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is plainly anti-semitic is a statement indicative of either bad phrasing or bad cognition.

And I don't think your phrasing is at fault here.

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"The problem today is thus not overuse of the term 'anti-Semitism', but its under-use."

Given the reception of W&M's work, I'd say you are plainly 100% backwards on this one.

Phoebe said...

I like how a pseudonymous commenter ranks himself among well-known professional journalists as worthy of a special degree of respect. For all I know 'Petey' is 300 different people, some anti-Semitic, some not.

Look, I've read the book, and this was my reading of it, as I explained in the Doublethink piece and don't care to do once again in this comment. One can agree with the authors that the US-Israel relationship needs rethinking without agreeing to the anti-Semitic aspect of the authors' message.

Petey said...

"For all I know 'Petey' is 300 different people, some anti-Semitic, some not."

Given the low comment traffic on your blog, and given the lack of Fake Petey comments on lefty political blogs with much higher comment traffic, I'd say the odds that you are talking to one person are quite high.

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"Look, I've read the book, and this was my reading of it"

You are fully entitled to your reading.

And I've only read the article, which is why I kept referring to the "work" above. (Reading the book seemed pointless. I already know the gist of this stuff.)

"One can agree with the authors that the US-Israel relationship needs rethinking without agreeing to the anti-Semitic aspect of the authors' message."

But that's the thing.

I'm using "Petey, Matt Yglesias, and Ezra Klein" as a stand-in for the mainstream Jewish political left who don't have AARP cards.

And that's not our take on M&W. We don't think there is an anti-Semitic aspect to the work that we need to read beyond in order to see a larger policy message.

In fact, folks like us basically think people are calling anti-semitism on M&W in order to play a political card on a policy dispute.

So either we're crazy, or the anti-semitic aspect of M&W's work is not quite so plain to see.

Phoebe said...

Your point seems to be 'Reasonable people think X, you think Y, you're obviously wrong.' It's a clever but annoying way to frame your argument. It's entirely possible you, Yglesias, and Klein are all wrong on this, although to be honest, I have not been following what Yglesias or Klein have written on this topic, so I'm just assuming you're accurately portraying their arguments.

As far as I'm concerned, the problem with W-M's book had less to do with their pointing out that American and Israeli interests often diverge (as it happens, I think it's a mistake for Israel to be defined or to define itself as emblematic of 'the West', so there go my neocon credentials) than with the fact that, to anyone familiar with classic anti-Semitic texts and tropes, the book reads as such a work. Yes, "plainly." In other words, my reason for calling the book anti-Semitic comes from my reading of it as such, not from the authors' policy argument. (A flaw in their policy argument, if I remember correctly, is that they speak of how close Israel and the US have become, without pointing out the corresponding distance and even hostility between the European countries and Israel, without which one cannot put the position of Israel or the US's attitude to it in perspective. This shows a lack of sympathy towards Israel, but not anti-Semitism.) I'd imagine others familiar with the history of modern anti-Semitism, whatever their stance on US-Israel relations, may have read the book as I did, but I can't say for sure.

Petey said...

"Your point seems to be 'Reasonable people think X, you think Y, you're obviously wrong."

No.

My point is that reasonable people think X, therefore not-X can't be plainly the case...

Petey said...

"I'd imagine others familiar with the history of modern anti-Semitism, whatever their stance on US-Israel relations, may have read the book as I did, but I can't say for sure."

Ross Douthat, a conservative I have some intellectual sympathy with - aka a black swan - has the same reading on W&M that you do.

Thus, reasonable people can think M&W anti-semitic, but I think those otherwise reasonable people wrong on this issue. And the idea that W&M's work is anti-semitic is certainly not an inarguable position.

Phoebe said...

You're not going to respond to the more important point, namely that my reason for calling the book anti-Semitic (plainly from what I could tell, subtly according to you and some others; to repeat the point I already made, because today anti-Semitism is so closely associated with the Holocaust, reasonable people are wary of calling any contemporary work or act, let alone person, anti-Semitic, which could well explain the reticence of those who see only hints of anti-Semitism in the book) had nothing to do with an attempt to challenge their policy suggestions? Granted a book being so anti-Semitic makes the reader conscious of such things more critical of whatever else the book contains, but that hardly means one uses 'the anti-Semitism card' to fight arguments with which one disagrees.

Petey said...

"You're not going to respond to the more important point, namely that my reason for calling the book anti-Semitic ... had nothing to do with an attempt to challenge their policy suggestions? "

Sure. I wished I had phrased my original comment slightly differently even prior to your challenge.

I originally wrote:

"And that's not our take on M&W. We don't think there is an anti-Semitic aspect to the work that we need to read beyond in order to see a larger policy message."

I wished I had written an additional sentence on the end:

"And that's not our take on M&W. We don't think there is an anti-Semitic aspect to the work that we need to read beyond in order to see a larger policy message. In fact, we don't see an anti-semitic aspect at all."

Petey said...

Is it anti-semitic to note that all the Captcha challenges on Blogger sound Hebrew to my (mostly) uneducated ears?

Phoebe said...

OK, here's another possibility. It could be that you agree so strongly with the policy portion of the W-M manifesto that you choose to brush aside its anti-Semitism, as many have done whenever a favorite thinker, artist, etc. has expressed unpleasant views. Either way, you still haven't addressed the fact that I call the book anti-Semitic not because I disagree with its policy implications (which is not to say I'm on board) but because it, well, is. You claim that the charge of anti-Semitism comes mainly from those who have a grievance against the book and wish to slander its authors. If the book reads as anti-Semitism to those familiar with the ideology's history, that seems unlikely.

lgm said...

I love reading your blog, but I have to take issue with this post.

You say: "The same commenter, .. will .. criticize Israel .. as well as the Jewish-controlled media that has brainwashed all Americans into siding with Israel,".

It is interesting that most Americans do not side with Israel. Opinion polls show Americans solidly on the Palestinian side. Amazingly, in that climate, politicians support Israel nearly 100%. Clearly politicians have influences other than their constituents.

I also take issue with: "even Walt and Mearsheimer's most fervent critics by and large chose not to refer to 'The Israel Lobby' .. as anti-Semitic". Read, for example, Jonah Goldberg.

I abhore Nazi comparisons for Israel, yet Israel seems to believe in collective punishment. If someone launches a (generally harmless) rocket into Israel, then Israel has the right to revenge by bombing whole villages to the ground. The Arab whose house they destroy or whose land they steal (in the west bank) is not the one who fired the rocket.

Phoebe said...

"Read, for example, Jonah Goldberg."

I didn't say no one called the book anti-Semitic, and it's possible Goldberg did. Whether or not he counts as a writer generally seen as 'respectable' is another story. Polemicists certainly called the book anti-Semitic... that is, unless they praised it for finally telling The Truth about how Jews Control Everything. Polemicists are like that, on both sides. When I looked into this a while back, I found that a surprising number of the commentators who disliked the book and from whom one might have expected an accusation of anti-Semitism made a point of stopping short of that term. The consensus I found among the book's highbrow critics, though, was that there was something off about the work, but because these are two respected professors with Jewish friends and whatnot, and because we're talking about contemporary America, the book couldn't *possibly* be anti-Semitic.

"I abhore Nazi comparisons for Israel, yet Israel seems to believe in collective punishment. If someone launches a (generally harmless) rocket into Israel, then Israel has the right to revenge by bombing whole villages to the ground. The Arab whose house they destroy or whose land they steal (in the west bank) is not the one who fired the rocket."

To address this would be to turn this into a generic Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Thread. Obviously those on the pro-Israel side a) do not see the rockets as benign, and b) see a difference between unintentionally hitting civilians and intentionally doing so. It's clear where you stand (especially from the 'Israelis aren't Nazis, but...' bit), and what the counter-arguments are, what the counter-counter-arguments would be... and I don't have any amazing insights on this particular conflict that will solve all this.

alex said...

lgm,

"It is interesting that most Americans do not side with Israel. Opinion polls show Americans solidly on the Palestinian side."

Not true.

Petey,

You wonder why many on "mainstream Jewish political left" do not perceive a "plainly anti-semitic" book as anti-semitic. The answer, or one answer at least, is given in the very post you are commenting on, which explains why some on the "mainstream Jewish political left" are reluctant to call almost anything anti-semitic.

Even though you probably disagree with the post in question, you must realize that if you do accept its arguments about the cliche of the Jew-who-cries-anti-semitism, there is nothing "odd" about the fact that you, Yglesias, Klein, etc don't want to call a book anti-semitic. So your objection doesn't chip away at Phoebe's argument at all.

David said...

1)It is bizarre to conduct a debate, as Petey attempts to do here, by making assertions about what "reasonable people" think. If someone has arguments to make, he should make them on the basis of evidence and logic, not by citing some vaguely-defined group of people whose opinions are for some reason supposed to be especially relevant to the rest of us.

2)I don't know how much the people making the "collective punishment" argument know about history (especially military history) but Israel's actions in response to the rocket attacks are *extremely* mild in comparison both with US/British actions during WWII (burning Hamburg and Tokyo to the ground, for example) and with our deterrent stance during the Cold War period, in which we stood ready to kill 100 million people at the turn of a few launch keys.

Petey said...

"OK, here's another possibility. It could be that you agree so strongly with the policy portion of the W-M manifesto that you choose to brush aside its anti-Semitism, as many have done whenever a favorite thinker, artist, etc. has expressed unpleasant views."

Sure. But I love Ezra Pound, and also think him anti-semitic. I love Leni Riefenstahl, and also think she was a Nazi.

Politically, I love Jesse Jackson, and also think him a bit of an anti-semite.

In other words, if I liked M&W's policy arguments but thought it also had anti-semitic aspects, I think/hope I'd be able to hold those two ideas in my mind at the same time.

But here is a reasonably short version of the M&W article.

And I just don't see the anti-semitism there.

The authors seem neither anti nor pro-semitic. If anything, they seem indifferent-semitic. Their interest in the piece seems not the Jews, but instead seems wholly about American foreign policy interests.

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"Either way, you still haven't addressed the fact that I call the book anti-Semitic not because I disagree with its policy implications (which is not to say I'm on board) but because it, well, is."

I don't know how to address that fact other than to say you are entitled to your reading.

Personally, I'm baffled as to how anyone without a political axe to grind on I/P issues would find it anti-semitic, but issues like racism are admittedly quite complex and subtle.

lgm said...

Just an observation that the best of times in Israel come during Democratic US Presidents who ask the most from Israel: Carter and Clinton. The worst times (in terms of violence and world opinion) come under Israel friendly Republicans, Bush and Reagan. The things Israeli politicians want to do are not ultimately in the best interest of the country (like the US).

As for the Israel lobby and its influence, Ezra Klein has a great post. Focused lobbies can control US policy in different areas, like sugar (the sugar lobby), Cuba (the Cuban lobby), and Israel (AIPAC). It's not anti-semitic to say so.

marcus said...

I didn't find Walt and Mearsheimer's article anti-semitic at all. I'm actually a bit puzzled as to how someone would, although perhaps the book had material not in the article.

I think an issue is that certain traditionally anti-semitic tropes (divided loyalty, outsize Jewish influence) are simply true in the case of Israel policy. It's not anti-semitic to point out a truth, even if anti-semites have previously claimed such a thing falsely. The exact same things are also true in the case of certain other ethnic groups -- e.g. Cuban-Americans -- but there is no "anti-Cubano" tradition to point to there.

Phoebe said...

Marcus,

In my Doublethink article I cite specific passages/arguments that made me conclude what I did.

Believe me when I say that I did not just take Abe Foxman and others of his ilk at their word re: what the book does or doesn't say.