Monday, March 16, 2009

On choosing words carefully

Since it's clear that certain discourse strikes some but not all as anti-Semitic, what makes those who think it is so sure? Is it that certain American Jews want to see a certain policy in the Middle East, and find it especially effective to hurl unwarranted accusations of anti-Semitism at those who want to see different policies? Let's go with 'no,' given that accusations of anti-Semitism come from those who do and those who don't support, say, the settlements. In nearly all cases, it's about something else altogether: Certain key words alert members of a minority group that, in brief, something might be up. Where oversensitivity ends and a realistic assessment of out-group animosity begins varies, of course, but to lump all cases into the 'oversensitivity' category would be, I think, to miss the point.

Think about it like this: every time a black person is called 'articulate,' or a variant of the same, by someone who isn't black, he is caught between the possibility that the term was meant as a compliment one might give anyone well-spoken, and that it was meant with an implied '... for a black person.' It happens often enough that an ignorant non-black person means the latter that black and non-black people are aware of the danger of using the word 'articulate' in reference to someone black. This is true, even though looked at outside of any historical context, there's no reason it should be problematic to call anyone well-spoken, and indeed sometimes that's the best way to describe someone, of any race. (Say, a president whose whiter-than-white predecessor couldn't form a sentence.) But there's always a historical context - plus it's not as though the bigotry that made 'articulate' offensive in the past has disappeared altogether - so 'articulate' must be used with caution.

It's much the same with criticism of Israel. Jews, even Zionists like this one, agree that Israel has flaws, but also realize that 'I'm anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish', is sometimes, not always, code for something more.* Coded language expressing bigotry is always ambiguous, leading some to cry 'racism' where there was none, not so as to cry wolf but out of genuine confusion. Why is this so difficult to understand?

But the better analogy isn't so much 'criticism of Israel' in general terms - after all, the stakes are high; a volatile region of the world will not suffer if one well-spoken black person is not praised as 'articulate', whereas it might if political correctness were preventing constructive criticism of Israel - as the appearance of certain rather concrete tropes, known to those familiar with the history of anti-Semitism (often but not always Jews) and less so to others. These include but are not limited to: a cabal of world domination; thirst for the blood of Gentile children; general warmongering tendencies; disloyalty to country; immense wealth; and finally, shady dealings with money. The key words - blood, money, power - are like 'articulate' in that they place members of a minority group on alert.

All that I ask is that the well-meaning hordes always ready with a knee-jerk, 'Why can't you criticize Israel without being labeled an anti-Semite?' actually engage with that question. They should accept that certain words are loaded when used in reference to Jews, just as 'articulate' is loaded in reference to blacks, for reasons people have to be educated** to understand. Someone who'd never had someone tell them, "Shh, you're not supposed to call blacks 'articulate'" might do so without meaning to be racist, but might nevertheless be racist in doing so. In the same way, someone referring to "Jewish money" might think they're innocently providing shorthand for 'wealth obtained by Jewish philanthropic organizations' but will seem, and might be, anti-Semitic in that instance. For it is not merely some historical sense of insult making blacks 'paranoid' about the word articulate, or Jews 'paranoid' about a phrase like 'Jewish money.' These expressions often but not always reflect something sinister in their present-day usage as well.

* Endlessly irritating is the tendency of the very same people who complain of anti-Israelism being conflating with anti-Semitism holding forth, often in the very same remarks, about how dreadful they find Jews. Not Israelis, Jews. Case in point, from a NYT commenter who helpfully notes, "I have a number of Jewish friends [...]" Of course you do.

"Given the amount of Jewish money behind many of the non-profit arts organizations in New York City I doubt this piece will ever see the light of day this side of the Atlantic….and it’s not fair to label anyone who is sympathetic to the Muslim community as an anti-semite!"

So totally unfair! Why stop at being "sympathetic to the Muslim community," something no reasonable person would oppose? You should be able also to call money "Jewish" and to hint at a conspiracy without being labeled an anti-Semite.

** Why education? The ignorant comment of the, gosh, the history of I-P commenting? goes to this fellow, same thread: "Why is Israel always referred to as The State of Israel? Is it a separate nation, or is it a state of the US?"

Err, no, it's because "Israel" referred, long before the creation of the modern state, to either the ancient people of Israel, or to the Jews, generally and worldwide, past and present, and one is trying to point out that one is referring to the modern-day nation-state, and not to one of the other entities. The prayer, "Hear oh Israel"? Might have slightly predated 1948. But only slightly. But that shouldn't stop you from making oh-so-clever 'Israel's the 51st state' remarks on the Internet.


PG said...

It seems particularly important for those of us who favor the pre-1967 borders to refer the State of Israel, so as not to get confused about the larger geographic area historically and religiously called "Israel" but that does not belong to the state of Israel under international law. For people like me who are are wary of the religious aspects of the Jewish state, the rhetorical demarcation is very useful.

Phoebe said...

True enough 'the land of Israel', used today, implies a belief that Israel's borders should remain the same if not expand.

I'm also wary - more than wary, even - about the role of religion in (the state of) Israel, but I don't think there's any way to understand the state's existence without keeping in mind that it owes its birth in part to a religious idea historically and to an extent still shared by Jews worldwide, that of (the land of) Israel as the point to which all Jews dream of a 'return'. Otherwise, the state could have been anywhere. (The idea behind, say, the Uganda plan.)

lgm said...

I'm torn by your quote

Given the amount of Jewish money behind many of the non-profit arts organizations in New York City I doubt this piece will ever see the light of day this side of the Atlantic

The sad state of affairs (speaking as a Jewish resident of New York City who sees Jewish charities from the inside) is that there is a grain of truth in this. Many Jewish organizations indeed are controlled by people who equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Thanks for your post. The more Jews who call them out on this, the better.

Phoebe said...

Do you not see how the use of the phrase "Jewish money", rather than 'money from Jewish philanthropic groups', might (no, does) come across as sinister? Because if not, I failed, as that was kind of the point of this post.

lgm said...

The two wordings may seem different to a lawyer, but psychologically they mean about the same thing. What could "Jewish money" mean other than "money donated by Jews"? Do we use different currency at those Seders where we perform demonic rituals? (Do we always talk in questions?)

It reminds me of a story: I was with my young son at kids play hour at the public library off Carmine Street. He was playing with blocks on a table. I was reading the good parenting signs on the wall. One said parents should speak to children in the positive rather than the negative. To practice, I said to him: "Try to keep the blocks on the table." He didn't answer and the blocks kept falling. I asked him: "What did I just say?" He answered: "Don't drop the blocks on the floor." People hear what you mean, not what you say.

Phoebe said...

Insist if you will, but I'm most definitely not a lawyer, and I see a huge difference. One is about the money of certain organizations. The other is about the money of The Jews, as though a unified entity with its money all kept together, perhaps for sinister purposes. Because of historical associations of Jews with money, the phrase "Jewish money" is more loaded than, say, "French money." It just is.

lgm said...

You're right that "Jewish money" sounds worse than "French money". I wish people would take the time to word it more sensitively, as you say. At the same time, I don't thing a more sensitive wording would have much impact -- people hear it the same way.

But your articulate post disturbed me in another way. There aren't that many Jews in America and it's common for people not to know any. This makes the actions of "bad Jews" like Madoff, Abramoff, and Wolfowitz particularly damaging -- they reinforce stereotypes. They embarrass me.

This brings me back to Jewish organizations like AIPAC and the ADL. You could forgive a typical Iowan for thinking they speak for the Jews of America. How would she know that these organizations are on the fringe of what Jews in America, and even Jews in Israel, really believe? She has no way to know that most American Jews wish Israel would dismantle all settlements and return to the 1967 borders and lift the blockade of Gaza.

Phoebe said...

I suppose one expects of all reasonable people, including Iowans, the ability to differentiate between the leaders of a group and its individual members, even if one has never met any of the people in question. Particularly when the group in question is the sort one is typically born into. (I.e. it's different to say Abe Foxman speaks for members of the ADL than to say A.F. speaks for The Jews.)

An Iowan who'd never met a Jew (and for all I know there are Jews all over Iowa, but let's assume there are not) might nevertheless have felt ashamed of actions of, say, the Bush administration, and would thus understand the principle of a leadership not representing the view of all it claims to represent.

Anonymous said...

You make an excellent point, something that I had not previously thought about. Unfortunately, I think many who refer to "jewish money" are using what amounts to a laziness of speech, as we know that we are referring to "organizations that give money to." And I like how you understand that one can be racist, or anti-semitic, without intending to be, given the historical context. Great post.