Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Whenever a non-Jew uses the word 'goyim' to describe Jewish attitudes to Gentiles, look out."

A thousand years ago, for a publication that may or may not still exist, I wrote up something about the Walt-Mearsheimer book. You know, the one whose admirers insist that anyone who thinks the work is anti-Semitic clearly never read it. Every last thread, W-M's critics are accused of having devoted insufficient attention to this fine entry into their collective oeuvre. Well, I did read it, and that was the conclusion I came to, from the book itself, as in the actual text contained within. Not from a sense that anything accused of anti-Semitism is automatically guilty. No, from the unequivocally anti-Semitic, classically anti-Semitic, book I sat down and read. I mean, the thing's not Ulysses. It does not include an early scene involving a madeleine, and meander from there.

For reasons I no longer remember, it took more time than expected for this to go to print, and my article received exactly one comment on the site itself: "Wow, this review is on the cutting edge of 10 months ago." Insightful dude was, it turns out, not as clever as all that. It turns out that Walt and Mearsheimer's "lobby" argument hasn't gone anywhere, and has in fact infiltrated the discourse about Jews in America. It only gets more relevant with time.

In Tablet, Adam Kirsch explains:

[I]f The Israel Lobby has not changed American politics, it has had an insidious effect on the way people talk and think about Israel, and about the whole question of Jewish power. The first time I had this suspicion was when reading, of all things, a biography of H.G. Wells. In H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, published in the U.K. in 2010, Michael Sherborne describes how Wells’ contempt for Nazism went along with a dislike for Judaism and Zionism, which he voiced in deliberately offensive terms even as Nazi persecution of Jews reached its peak. “To take on simultaneously the Nazis … and the Jewish lobby may have been foolhardy,” Sherborne writes apropos of Wells in 1938.
The proper academic term for this is "yowza."

Kirsch also might have mentioned that Dan Savage - an otherwise progressive and brilliant sort who seems to have bought hook, line, and sinker the notion that the tiny Jewish minority has quite the grasp on American politics. Granted, Savage uses this as an example of how he wishes things went for America's LGBT minority, but I'm not sure what that changes.

The way the W-M book (that I surely didn't read, because I found it to be incredibly, nauseatingly, anti-Semitic) is written, it alternates between saying 'we of course aren't saying X,' and... saying X. It's sort of as if the expression, 'I'm not an anti-Semite, but' were expanded into book-length form. That's how they get around the accusation. The miracle for them is that most people just kind of nod along to that. But not Kirsch:
Walt and Mearsheimer, of course, fill their book with denials that they are talking about a secret syndicate: “The Israel lobby is not a cabal or conspiracy,” they write in the introduction. But the book itself, with its lists of Jewish organizations and journalists, and its tone of moral outrage, works to give exactly this impression.
This thing I'm writing here, it isn't a blog post, per se.

But this is where Kirsch really, really gets at the problem. This is his main argument, and what's worth taking away:
One of the central premises of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy is that it takes unusual courage to oppose the Jews, since they use their power to ruthlessly suppress dissent in both the political world and the media.
This! This is what has become socially acceptable in recent years. Anything negative one says about Jews is OK, no, heroic, because after all, it only serves to cancel out their stranglehold. Never mind that not all Jews support the Republican approach when it comes to Israel policy. Never mind that most Jews don't even vote Republican. Never mind that, by this calculus, Jews who go on having the left-leaning politics Jews have always had are in fact heroically sticking it to The Jews. Once this notion is accepted, it becomes impervious to reason.

Here's where the debate after the book went astray. People - W-M's defenders, but also, to some extent, their critics - have acted as though the book's controversial angle was that it dared question the sacred friendship between the U.S. and Israel, thus ruffling feathers, thus shattering a taboo. When in fact, if that had been the point of the book, it's not a book we'd have heard of, unless we were political science majors. Contrary to how they present it, it wouldn't have been the biggest deal in the world to question U.S. Israel policy, if done in a way that didn't seek to explain current policy in terms of basically a massive claw. Maybe a few fringe types still would have cried anti-Semitism, but otherwise? There'd have been a vigorous but level-headed debate in seminar rooms and journals among the Dry Topics Analysis contingent, and a good deal of support among the various Jews - including plenty of, ahem, Zionists - who wonder whether American aid as it currently exists is the best thing for American, but also for Israel, for American Jewry. No, the reason we know about the book is the Jewish-conspiracy angle. But the authors successfully managed to spin their controversy into a 'not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism' story. When, ugh, that's both true and quite beside the point.


David Schraub said...

My new rule of thumb is that while not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, diving behind that strawman whenever someone brings up the possibility of anti-Semitism certainly is.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Nice! That, along with the post title, a quote from Kirsch, can be the first entries in a collection of aphorisms that help sort out the I-P debate.

Micha said...

I've argued with people on the net who said something like "oh, I bet you are going to accuse me of antisemitism now," before I said anything or even intended to say anything or anybody else for that matter. The 'unfar' antisemitism accusation is presented as something that happened before somewhere else even when nobody said anything in the actual discussion taking place.

Another trick is to treat everything Jews say - whether it is a roudy anonymous comment in the Internet, a blog column by a Jewish pundit, a press release by one Jewish institute or another or a statement by the Israeli government as if it all comes from the same source.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

great stuff

David Schraub said...

Micha: I've had that happen too. Someone once asked me a "serious question" if there was any criticism of Israel I wouldn't call anti-Semitic. I noted that -- offensiveness of assuming that just because I write about anti-Semitism I'd even be inclined to adopt that position aside -- it's not like there isn't a publicly accessible archive of my opinions where one could very quickly verify that I have criticized Israel on a reasonably regular basis.

Matt said...

Next time you write this article, Chomsky's criticism might prove useful. At the end, "The thesis M-W propose does however have plenty of appeal. The reason, I think, is that it leaves the US government untouched on its high pinnacle of nobility, 'Wilsonian idealism,' etc., merely in the grip of an all-powerful force that it cannot escape." So the appeal then is in scapegoating Jews; yet, more than refusing to use call such scapegoating antisemitism, Chomsky was one of those congratulating W&M for their bravery and congratulating LRB for their openness to such a taboo subject.


Micha said...

"From a letter in yesterday's Guardian written by Karl Sabbagh:

Let it be said loud and clear - it is entirely possible to criticise Israel without being antisemitic. To deny this is to argue against freedom of speech.

Accordingly, loud and clear now, three things.
(a) To deny that it's possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic is not to argue against free speech; it is itself an exercise of free speech. It may be wrong in its content - see (b) - but freedom of speech permits people to say things that are wrong, and saying this particular thing prevents nobody from saying the opposite or whatever they like.

(b) It is entirely possible to criticise Israel without being anti-Semitic. Entirely possible and it happens plenty.

(c) It is also possible to criticize Israel and be anti-Semitic, or to do so in ways that at least invite the worry; and this too happens quite a lot."