Monday, July 11, 2011

The Palestinian cause vs. the Palestinians' cause

I realize that to even dip a toe into this territory-so-to-speak is to invite the following thread in the comments below: 'All criticism of Israel isn't anti-Semitism! The Occupation should be the #1 global concern. No, no, the Palestinians are in the wrong! Walt and Mearsheimer are big racists! No they're not, you didn't read the book! Did too! Not as closely as I did!' So I do ask that, should I be so honored to have commenters at all, they discuss the specific point of this post, and not use this as an opportunity to provide their at-the-ready generic rant about the Middle East. I'm trying to look at this differently, so bear with me.

In sum: I do not think even the Palestinians most radical about their cause are anti-Semitic. I don't think the Palestinian beef with Israel has anything to do with anti-Semitism. Unlike perhaps most of my fellow Zionists, and unlike Christopher Hitchens, I do not gasp in horror when Palestinians adopt the symbolism or vocabulary of sinister, old-school, Western anti-Semitism, or if they condemn Jews and not just Israel/Israelis. This is because I don't think the Palestinians' beef with Israel is fundamentally about anti-Semitism. The beef is about control of land, not about anything more nefarious or complicated, and the land issue is complicated enough. By the same token, I don't think the Israeli side of the conflict is about anti-Arab or anti-"brown" racism. The Palestinians could be ethnically Swedish, and they'd still be this group of people in competition for the same land. It's poor form and ultimately counterproductive (if, in the immediate moment, seemingly effective) when those on either side express themselves in "racial" language, but we shouldn't assume that they're doing so because they're either side engaging in a "race" conflict. What they're doing is trying to win allies on the outside among the anti-Jewish and anti-Arab, respectively.

It's both good and bad for the Palestinians that their enemies happen to be Jews. Good, because this wins them a whole lot of allies they wouldn't have if their enemies were whomever. It was a blow for anti-Semites that, after the Holocaust, one was asked to see Jews as victims and not conspiratorial, all-powerful oppressors. While (some, among the still-living) Jews bounced back, it was no longer socially acceptable, once the Holocaust was in the public eye, to fixate on Jewish "money," Jewish "overrepresentation," and so on, certainly not without coded language. So of course anti-Semites - who contrary to popular opinion did not cease to exist in 1945, or 'learn their lesson' - jumped at the chance to embrace the cause of some undeniable underdogs whose crap fate, all will agree, owes at least something to some Jews. And it even comes with a fashion-forward scarf! Bad, of course, because it's precisely these allies who've confused matters for liberal-minded sorts, Jews especially, giving the mistaken impression that there's something inherently anti-Semitic about being in a conflict in which your enemies happen to be Jews. Along the same lines, if claiming to be 'of the West' wins Israel some support among the Arab- and Muslim-phobic in the West... This I will need to expand upon in its own post, so sit tight.

To lower everyone's blood pressure for a moment, think of it like this. Imagine that two neighbors, one who happens to be Jewish, one who doesn't, get into an argument over... any number of ridiculous things people argue about that have nothing to do with their ethnic-religious origins. Someone's dog ripped up someone else's flower bed, whatever. We wouldn't say that the Jew's antagonist in this conflict is an anti-Semite. Sometimes Jews, like everyone else, get into disputes, and those disputing with them have whatever beef anyone has with anyone. However, if a bunch of strangers to both formed a committee to support the Jew's antagonist, while ignoring similar and worse conflicts in the town between non-Jews, we might wonder about the committee members. Now, if the Jew's antagonist, picking up on his likely source of support, throws a 'dirty Jew' in there, that's foul play and all, but that doesn't mean the original conflict was about anti-Semitism. It was about the flower bed.

Pro-Israel Diaspora Jews, along with centrist/independent-minded sorts in the West, as well as virtually everyone I agree with on other things having to do with this issue, all these folks need to stop thinking of the Palestinians' beef with Israel as being about anti-Semitism. The Palestinians didn't randomly pick the Jews as a scapegoat. They have a dispute with the Jewish state. This doesn't mean we should cease to condemn suicide bombings or, for that matter, the strategic-yet-idiotic appropriation of Protocols and similar. It's entirely compatible with telling it like it is when it comes to the Westerners who've picked the Palestinian cause of all the world's causes precisely because it allows them to bash Jews. For what I can only wish was the last time, it's easy enough to figure out which Western supporters of the Palestinians do and don't fall into this category by hearing what they have to say about Jews on topics unrelated to the I-P conflict. If the "advocacy" is really about anti-Semitism, 99% of the time there's some beef the person has with Jews at home/Jews in theory that accompanies and likely predates any attention paid to the Middle East. All it means, but this is significant, is that we not look at Palestinian terrorism as of a piece with pogroms, etc.


eamonnmcdonagh said...

This reminds me a bit of discussion about the NI conflict in the 70s and 80s. It was often argued that it wasn’t really a religious conflict, that it was really about power and discrimination within/the legitimacy of the NI statelet etc. All true enough yet here we are in 2011 and the two, ahem, communities are still separated by so-called peace walls

and when the long summer nights roll around they still devote considerable effort to baiting each other/rioting/parading etc and generally making a public display of their hatred for and superiority over the members of the other tribe.

So you can solve - in so far is it is possible to do so - the underlying political problem and the basic patterns of ethno-religious hate will still be there.
Turning more directly to your post; while I see what you mean about the dispute basically being about control over the land I think it’s pretty hard to deny that a lot of Palestinian rhetoric is antisemitic in nature - particularly but not exclusively, that from the Hamas side - and is based on classic antisemitic notions of global Jewish power and the special evilness of Jews. And before anyone else says it I daresay that there are racist elements in the Israeli body politic too. It doesn’t have to be an either/or deal, a dispute can be about control of a given territory and still be shot through with racism of one sort or another.
Of course I agree that it is idiotic to look at the conflict as being *only* about anti-Semitism.
Also, as I’ve said before here, in my view anyone who thinks that the Jews and only the Jews should not have the right to self-determination is an antisemite regardless of how exquisitely progressive their politics might be in other respects.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I think it’s pretty hard to deny that a lot of Palestinian rhetoric is antisemitic in nature - particularly but not exclusively, that from the Hamas side - and is based on classic antisemitic notions of global Jewish power and the special evilness of Jews."

This is where I disagree, even though I know perfectly well what rhetoric you're referring to. Where I disagree is... like in the analogy in the post. Some Palestinians, having picked up on the fact that the group they're for legitimate reasons at odds with happens to have a history of being hated for not-so-legitimate reasons, choose to reach out to would-be allies by alluding to/full-on reproducing old-school Western anti-Semitic rhetoric. While this behavior we should condemn, it's not meaningful to describe it as being really about anti-Semitism. It's a ploy to get allies, and anti-Semites are often enough ready to join forces on this. Anti-Semitism is about the idea of Jews, about Jews-as-symbols. For the Palestinians, the Jewish state can't exactly be a symbol, because its significance in their lives is plenty real.

Re: either-or, I think it kind of does amount to either-or, insofar as either the I-P conflict is about "race" or it's not. Unless we're using a very loose defn of race, only some disputes fall into that category. This one strikes me as only being about "race" insofar as outside observers sometimes choose a side on the basis of whether they'd prefer to hate Arabs or Jews. I tend to think there's more of the latter than the former, which, as I mentioned indirectly in the post, I'll expand on later.

"Also, as I’ve said before here, in my view anyone who thinks that the Jews and only the Jews should not have the right to self-determination is an antisemite regardless of how exquisitely progressive their politics might be in other respects."

Unfortunately, you'll rarely find anyone willing to admit as much. More often, you get people who claim the Jews have as much right to self-determination as American WASPs. So while I agree with you in principle, in practice I find it works best to just Google someone who seems to be coming from that position, and sure enough, if they/their pseudonym are/is Googleable, you find some more general holding-forth about The Jews.

David Schraub said...

The basic thesis of this post -- that because there is a bona fide conflict between Israel and Palestine, it is wrong to say that Palestinians are implicated in anti-Semitism, or Israelis in anti-Palestinian prejudice -- is very hard to support. I'm not sure why one can't affirm the existence of a bona fide conflict and still note that the parties can exhibit anti-Semitic or anti-Arab behavior that should be identified as such. The two propositions: (1) That there is a legitimate grievance between Israelis and Palestinians that would likely exist in absence of any prior prejudices between the groups, and (2) That the parties to the conflict display severely prejudicial attitudes towards one another, are not competitive statements. There are several ways this manifests.

(1) Even in a bona fide conflict, pursuing one's ends in a racist manner is still racist. A White prosecutor trying to convict a Blsck murder defendant certainly is in a bona fide conflict, certainly is legitimate in trying to see him convicted (assuming he thinks the defendant is guilty), but would still be racist if he pursued that goal via racist means (slurs, playing on racial prejudices in the jury, etc.).

(2) Even in a bona fide conflict, not every claim in the conflict is legitimate; to the extent certain more extreme and unjustifiable claims are pursued ancillary to the bona fide dispute, and those claims are traceable to racist hostility, it seems fair to call them out as racist. Israelis and Palestinians may both be legitimate in staking a claim to this or that acre of land, and hence that conflict may exist independent of any prejudice, but that does mean other, less defensible claims that are sometimes made (e.g., calling for each other's extermination) cannot be attributed to prejudice.

(3) Even bona fide conflicts can create racial hostility amongst the parties that is unjustifiable even where the underlying conflict is defensible. We like to think of prejudice as being so utterly irrational that it springs up out of a void, but often it is the outcropping of a legitimate conflict of interests that expands beyond its borders to create a more generalizable hostility towards groups associated with the opposing claimant. Hence, it is perfectly legitimate to note both that the conflict emerged due to a legitimate, non-prejudiced grievance, while noting that it has nonetheless created widespread prejudicial sentiments amongst the affected parties.

(4) To the extent that parties in the underlying conflict extend their hostility to members of the other party's group who are not themselves directly implicated in the underlying dispute, that would seem to be racist as well. Indeed, that helps mark off conflicts which happen to be with members of a particular group, versus conflicts with the group itself -- in the former case, it wouldn't occur to expand the playing field to include external group-mates as legitimate targets.

(5) Finally, to the extent that we define "anti-Semitism" not with respect to what is "in the hearts" of the "bad guys", but rather as a substantive question of what Jews are due in the world -- e.g., what state of affairs secures justice for Jews qua Jews -- then anti-Semitism is still relevant to the conversation even absent any malign intent whatsoever. That questions of anti-Semitism play out in situations where not everyone is a cartoon villain merely demonstrates that anti-Semitism is a more complicated question than simply rooting out Jew-haters. If one thinks anti-Semitism is a structural problem, then we should expect it to be at issue even when resolving legitimate, bona fide disputes, because addressing anti-Semitism likely will involve addressing more than overt haters and include significant restructuring of standard social operating practices.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


A few things overall, mixed in with your points individually. As might have been clear, I'm still thinking through these questions, and your criticism is helping me along with that... In 2 pts b/c Blogger says too long...

First off, there's the issue of terminology. In any enemy situation, you'll find generalizations, prejudice, etc. That's not, I would say, the same as racism. Meaning, if someone outside the bounds of the conflict really just doesn't like Arabs, say, and decides on that account to situate himself to the right of Netanyahu, that's racism. If someone within the conflict is just really pissed, they may say nasty things about the other side, but it's coming from, I suppose, a more timeless place, not one with any particular relevance to modern racial pseudoscience. Saying you want your enemies dead is many condemnable things, but is only racist if you want them dead for racist reasons. (Is this item #3?) It's possible to say that a given actor is behaving in a way that's wrong, immoral, etc., without bringing in the question of racism.

To keep on the terminology theme, I'd say that "anti-Palestinian prejudice" - which of course also exists among Israelis, just as anti-Israeli prejudice does among Palestinians - is not some kind of subset of Western anti-Arab racism, nor is anti-Israel sentiment among Palestinians a subset of anti-Semitism. It gets confusing, because both groups are "races" insofar as outsiders are sometimes racist against them, but also enemies in a situation unrelated to race.

Anyway, I think we agree on some of this. Both some Palestinians and some Israeli Jews are "implicated in" these broader prejudices insofar as they've pursued common-enemy allegiances with racists in the West. So your jury analogy (item #1) makes sense, to a point (and I'll get to why not 100% in a moment). It's not necessarily that the lawyer is in his heart of hearts a racist, because he's pursued that strategy.

Next... racism, aside from meaning something more specific and more specific-to-modern-times than bigotry/prejudice/hate, also implies a power imbalance. In the usual sense of the term, racism occurs within a state, when one or more marginalized groups are discriminated against, either by the state or in society. Whether or not this is how you'd choose to define racism, this is how it's typically understood, which is why that 'ism' is generally brought into the discussion by those trying to make claims about one side or the other being the genuine, unquestionable victims in the conflict. Thus the 'Israel as apartheid' brigade, thus also the Jews-as-eternal-innocent-victims set. (I happen to see the former as more of a real-world problem, but anyway.) Even if you can make some case for racism being part of the conflict, above and beyond legit grievances, bringing that discourse into the conversation is rarely productive.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

#4: As fits with the rest of my argument, I'd say that if, in the context of involvement with the conflict, a Palestinian says nasty stuff re: Jews generally, an Israel Jew re: Arabs or Muslims generally, this can be lumped in with generic excesses of enmity. Meanwhile, if Mr. Western Outside Observer decides that Netanyahu's existence excuses saying nasty stuff re: Jews at home, or that a suicide bombing makes it OK to call Obama a secret Muslim, bingo, racism.

#5: Yes, "anti-Semitism is a structural problem," and the way I propose to address it is to separate it out from other situations in which people who are Jews are being maligned. Meaning, I think we (we-as-society, I think you and I are well on the case!) should be better about calling out anti-Semites who've latched onto the Palestinian cause as a socially-acceptable outlet for their prejudices, but that conflating a group of people who have legitimate grievances with the Jewish state - that is, not merely with some people who happen to be Jews, but with a group of Jews as such, although not of course with all Jews worldwide - is counterproductive.

Withywindle said...

I do think you should add Islamic Jew-hatred, distinct from anti-Semitism, to your analysis. (Likewise, of course, Christian Jew-hatred as a distinct category of analysis; but that's less relevant.) Palestinian support in the Islamic world presumably has a lot to do with Islamic Jew-hatred. And of course Palestinian Jew-hatred does embitter (apparently possible) hatred of dispossessors.

David Schraub said...

The reason I'm tap-dancing around the word "racism" is because, applied to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it tends to contribute to the erasure of Israel's non-White Jewish plurality. But I think the sort of prejudicial attitudes and conduct we're talking about here are best analyzed under a framework akin to that used for racism.

Which, as you observe, raises the important question of what "racism" means. I'm not as convinced as you are that the "prejudice + power" definition of racism is generally accepted (I don't think it has to be intra-state -- colonialism being an obvious example). It's kind of the rough and ready academic definition, but in the United States, the dominant definition on the ground (regrettably, IMO) is any public notice of race -- regardless of power dynamics, regardless of the existence of prejudice. Deviation from the color-blind principle, in other words. For my part, I've never really accepted the "power" part of the definition -- I think attitudes or behavior that would create racialized injustice if the proponent had the power to make them real are racist (though situations where they actually do have the power are obviously more immediate and critical threats). What leftist chits I lose by dropping the requirement of power I gain back by also dropping the requirement of intent -- the question is whether the attitude or behavior actually does or would create an injustice, not whether the actor consciously desires injustice. In any event, I think the situation of Jews and Palestinian Arabs is highly kyriarchal -- prejudice and bigotry against either latches onto very real and very meaningful vulnerabilities both possess -- so it makes sense to use the tag of "racism" (or its cousins) with the understanding that both groups are marginalized. The idea that bringing "racism" into the conversation forces us to decide that one group or the other is the consummate victim and the other the eternal oppressor is all-too-common, I agree, but should be easily dismissed by anyone who has heard of and does not want to engage in the oppression Olympics.


David Schraub said...

The other thing which I think is relevant in this conversation is the idea of "mixed motive" discrimination. In employment discrimination law, this is basically where the underlying motivation for an adverse employment action combined a legitimate reason (he was constantly late) with an illegitimate one (he was Black). In effect, the fact-finder determines that, though firing someone for being late is okay, and that was the reason the person was fired, he wouldn't have been fired but-for the fact that he was Black. This is actually closer to my #2 -- though there I was thinking more where a boss who wants his employee to show up on time (legitimate) also starts making additional illegitimate requests that are attributable to the fact that the employee wronging him is Black. Still, the point is that both legitimate and illicit motivations can be in play simultaneously. And to the extent race is the but-for cause of the hostile act (the firing or the unreasonable extra demands), we can still call that racist even if the legitimate conflict is also a but-for cause.

So if a Palestinian wants an independent state (legitimate), and also wants all Israelis dead (illegitimate), the critical question is whether, absent prejudicial attitudes towards Jews, he'd have developed the latter position. It's not whether, absent the underlying grievance, he'd have developed it -- that's just letting one but-for cause launder another (and this cleansing power of anti-Zionism can be used just as well by non-Palestinian "outsiders").

Finally, I think it is weird to declare an "excess of enmity" targeted at group-mates of one's adversary doesn't constitute "racism". That, to be me, is a billowing red flag for it -- as I said, it's one way one distinguishes between a conflict between someone who happens to be X, and one fueled at least in part by anti-Xism. If I'm embroiled in a land dispute with my Black neighbor, and say "that John Smith can't be trusted!", that may or not implicate racism. If I say "Black people can't be trusted -- just look at John Smith!", I think that's pretty clearly racist. Again, that's true even if my exclamation flows out of legitimate grievance with John. Indiscriminate prejudice in response to discrete harms is a classic symptom of racism.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


This is a tougher question, which is why I left it out of the post (which was, conveniently enough, long enough as it was). There's absolutely a history of anti-Jewish discrimination in Muslim countries, and it's worth remembering that the whole, everything was delightful till Israel first appeared narrative (one I heard recently from someone descended from N Afr. Jews, oddly enough, but who admitted to be not very read-up on the history) isn't accurate. Obviously, given Nazism, anything the Islamic world produced, Jew-hate-wise, ends up seeming relatively unimportant, but relatively is key.

So, that established, where does this fit in with the discussion at hand? Leaving aside the question of what various Arab nations could or could not do or have done for the Palestinians... I suppose I don't think, if someone identifies ethnically/culturally with the Palestinians, but is actually from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc., that this is in the same category as a left-wing Brit of British ancestry up and choosing the Palestinian cause, or if a Real American (or any other Westerner) has it in for Arabs and supports Israel by default. Of course, to stop the leaving-aside, it could be that other countries' neglect of the Palestinians in practical terms (and this bit of the history I'd need to refresh my memory on) stemmed in part from some combination of a history of indigenous and imported anti-Semitism. And the choice of the Palestinian cause over any number of others involving Muslims could also be suspect. In short, I have to think more about this. Till then, I think it sounds simpler than it is.

Sigivald said...

Anti-Semitism is about the idea of Jews, about Jews-as-symbols. For the Palestinians, the Jewish state can't exactly be a symbol, because its significance in their lives is plenty real.

Can't it also be a symbol? It seems like the Jewish State, in hostile Arab-market analysis, stands for a lot more than mere possession of land.

(Also, what Withywindle said.)

I do think I get what you're saying, but I'm not sure the distinction matters when the Hamas types are calling for killing all the Jews, for being Jews, even if at some level the original dispute is/was about tenancy.

It might not be "about" anti-Semitism at the original level, but it's damnably hard to tell a difference, functionally or operationally, isn't it?

Might it just as well have turned into anti-Semitism, despite the origins being mostly prosaic?

(It seems like the rest of the Arab World, government-wise, has tried its damnedest to help that along, since The Jew As Enemy is very helpful for distracting the local population from what The Native Ruling Family is doing.

At some point, can't that become real anti-Semitism, of a cultural sort, despite the original "core" grievance being about land?)

PG said...


It seems like the Jewish State, in hostile Arab-market analysis, stands for a lot more than mere possession of land.

But I don't think Palestinians should be conflated with all Arabs/Muslims. It fits fine with Phoebe's thesis to say that, e.g., a Pakistani's placing the Israel/Palestine conflict as the most important in the world, and Israel as the most evil-doing country, might be indicative of anti-Semitism in the Pakistani's motives, without its implying any in a Palestinian's. (Really, a Pakistani who has bigger gripes with Israel than with India practically bears a rebuttable presumption that he's motivated by anti-Semitism; he's prioritizing prejudice against the Jewish state over prejudice against a country that's in direct conflict with his own. I'd consider the folks who planned and perpetrated the Mumbai attack to have some anti-Semitic motives, as otherwise why single out a not-very-busy Jewish center in a city teeming with Hindus who could be murdered more efficiently?)

Also, from what I understand of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world prior to the establishment of a Jewish state, it doesn't seem to have reached even the non-Holocaust extremes it did in Christian countries, nor were Jews singled out for worse treatment than other non-Muslims (Christians, Hindus). Moreover, when it came to how Muslims treated Jews once territory was getting divided up, I doubt it could have been much worse than how Muslims treated Hindus (and Hindus treated Muslims) in India's Partition.

The historical model seems to have been that a Muslim ruler who found Jews useful would allow them to settle in the country; once their usefulness had been exhausted or outweighed by other considerations, they were advised to make themselves scarce, though there still were enough of them in these countries that the Muslim world's reaction to Israel's establishment resulted in a significant Jewish emigration. But I'm not familiar with a pre-Israel custom of pogroms in Muslim countries.

Withywindle said...

Talking about Arabs being anti-Semites still is goofy on some level. Which is one reason why I prefer "Jew-hatred".

Britta said...

I basically was going to say what PG said. I thought that Jews and Christians as "people of the book" got slightly better treatment then other religious minorities, but still were treated fairly poorly. Jews were more of just another minority group instead of the Eternal Other the way they seem to have been in Europe. I pretty much agree with Phoebe though. The Palestinians have had it pretty shitty for a very long time, and it makes sense they would like those who supported them (whatever unsavory motives that party might have) and dislike those who are directly oppressing/disenfranchising them. By attributing Palestinian motives to anti-Semitism, we're being Eurocentric and refusing to see things from the position of the Palestinians. e.g. Much has been made of Palestinian leaders' historical support for Hitler, but Hitler was offering them liberation from British colonialism. If Nazism =anti-colonial liberation, you'd probably be more positive about it too. Of course, we can see that Hitler's motives were anti-Semitic and anti-British, and that the primary reason Hitler liked Arabs and supported independence movements there was because he hated Jews and he wanted to fuck with British and French colonies, but I'm not sure the actual colonial subjects should be held responsible for that.
As for Arab Jew-hatred, it seems like Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities coexisted peacefully at the end of the Ottoman/beginning British Mandate period, so I'm not sure that the Palestinians just naturally hated The Jews before legitimate grievances developed.

On some level, I feel more comfortable with the use of racism, but as David points out, it doesn't break down to Israelis are all racist. It makes sense that German and Russian Jews etc, being from Germany and Russia, would bring European racism with them. Because of that, I don't think it's inappropriate to consider some of the actions or attitudes held by Ashkenazic Jews as racist. Of course this racism isn't all directed against Palestinians, but also Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, etc. (For example, I heard on NPR that it has become common for Mizrahi women to bleach their hair blonde to avoid being mistaken for being Palestinian). For these non-Euro Jewish communities, I would agree that the simple label of "racism" is not really appropriate. I would also agree that being in a protracted guerilla war with certain groups of Palestinians also contributes to policies that would be "racist" in a vacuum, but are not in context, just as certain actions of the Palestinians might look "anti-Semitic" out of context.

I do think that there is a fundamental similarity in how Palestinians and Jews are viewed by Europeans, in that if they are both victims somewhere Not Here, there is an outpouring of sympathy, but at the moment these groups of people stop being doe-eyed victims, the love fest evaporates. People who like to protest for Palestinian freedom aren't exactly welcoming Palestinian refugees into their home countries, and certainly have no tolerance for pro-Palestinian violent agitation in their home countries either. While we're worrying about rising tides of anti-Semitism in Europe, Europea is actually experience rising tides of anti-Muslim prejudice, and general xenophobia. (Denmark, the Netherlands, and France all opted out of the Schengen agreement (which allows free movement around W. Europe), my guess is in part to keep immigrants from circulating, and in part because they'd be worried about Schengen expanding to include Eastern Europe (I know Scandinavians view Eastern Europeans as unskilled, uneducated, and violent.) Plus, Nothern/Southern European relations seem to be at their all time post-war low.) this is really getting off topic, so I'll stop.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"(I don't think it has to be intra-state -- colonialism being an obvious example)"

But colonialism is still intra - what France was doing in Algeria largely depended upon Algeria being France. I suppose one could look at economic exploitation - where is that H&M made? - as racism, but that strikes me as being more about the exploitation of poverty than any theory of racial superiority.

"so it makes sense to use the tag of 'racism' (or its cousins) with the understanding that both groups are marginalized."

Again, I think we agree with most of this, but not on terminology. I'd vote to use "cousin" terms when discussing the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, and how they feel re: each other, and to save "racism" for describing the involvement of (some!) outside parties.

Re: the second part of your comment, I think to analogize re: black-white relations in the U.S. is to take it as a given that the I-P conflict is at its heart about race. I think this because, with the examples you give, the basic piece of info one needs to make sense of them is the history of racism and racist violence in the U.S. and specifically against African-Americans. The issue of "excessive" doesn't carry over, because if a white American feels any enmity to blacks-as-such, this is already racist. Whereas if an Israeli considers the Palestinians an enemy people, or vice versa, but never says anything off-color-so-to-speak re: Arabs or Jews, respectively, there's no racism to speak of.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The issue is that anti-Semitism is about something more specific than wishing ill upon Jews-as-such. I know that sounds counterintuitive, so I'll try to explain. Anti-Semitism is about having an idea of Jews, based on resentment or what have you, and about holding views of The Jews that bear no particular relation to real-life Jews. So, if you happen to be in a very real-life conflict with a self-proclaimed Jewish state, your hatred of Jews, however condemnable, especially if it extends beyond Israel, isn't properly understood as anti-Semitic. It's not that there's something magical about the Palestinians, such that under other circumstances, hundreds of years after some theoretical peace, some among them couldn't qualify just as well as anti-Semites. It's that as long as it's about actual behavior done by Jews as Jews, it needs to go by some other name.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK, lunch, let me try to get to the rest...


"Really, a Pakistani who has bigger gripes with Israel than with India practically bears a rebuttable presumption that he's motivated by anti-Semitism; he's prioritizing prejudice against the Jewish state over prejudice against a country that's in direct conflict with his own."

Good point.

Re: Jews' status in the Muslim world, what you say overall sounds about right (being forced to wear special outfits, walk on certain parts of the sidewalk, etc., not = pogroms), the difference wrt other minorities, esp. Christians, was that Christians had allies elsewhere in the world, what with all the Christian countries. It's been too long since I was studying N. Afr. Jewish history for me to remember precisely how this difference manifested itself there, but I vaguely remember - and it would make sense - that there was a difference.


"By attributing Palestinian motives to anti-Semitism, we're being Eurocentric and refusing to see things from the position of the Palestinians."

This precisely. Thank you.

"It makes sense that German and Russian Jews etc, being from Germany and Russia, would bring European racism with them. Because of that, I don't think it's inappropriate to consider some of the actions or attitudes held by Ashkenazic Jews as racist."

You're right re: the stigmatization of being "Arab," even if just Jewish from an Arab country, in Israel. That would, I think, count as racism. (My point is certainly not that being Israeli or Palestinian makes it impossible to hold racist views!) But in terms of bringing European racism to Israel, Jews from, for example, any country colonized by France in all likelihood would have brought those in their luggage as well. Not only that, but traditionally, in France and (I think, would need to check) other parts of Europe, Sephardic Jews were considered, by Jews and non-Jews, to be the elite but in a good way, to be more appealing all-around than Ashkenazi Jews, even if presumably, then as now, Ashkenazi Jews would have looked more "white" in terms of pallor.

Anyway my sense is that the most recent shift, with Jews of Russian ancestry - long considered the lowest rung in East and West - now joining ones of German ancestry as the "whites" of Israel, is due far less to any notions of Arabs deep in the European subconscious, and far more to do with Israeli Jews associating Arab-ness with the Palestinians and with their neighboring countries. That doesn't make it any less racist for Israel Jews to discriminate against one another on the basis of an assumed bond that, I suspect, Jews from Arab countries themselves do not feel with the Palestinians.

David Schraub said...

France didn't always have control of Algeria, and it seems very weird to say that "civilize the savages!" rhetoric isn't racist until the imperial power actually gains political control over the target, at which point it becomes racist until the date of independence, at which point it stops being racist again. The intra-state requirement just strikes me as a very strange distinction.

I'd vote to use "cousin" terms when discussing the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, and how they feel re: each other, and to save "racism" for describing the involvement of (some!) outside parties.

I still don't understand this. As I noted, I think "racism" might be an inappropriate label because the conflict isn't actually amongst distinct races. But I don't think it has anything to do with the insider/outsider problem (and it doesn't indict using "anti-Semitism" at all). And if we are willing to say that it is distinct races, then I don't think the existence of a genuine conflict between the parties means that its removed from the field of "racism".

Again, I think the key problem here is the presumption that "racism", or "anti-Semitism", or whtever, comes into play only when there is no bona fide conflict between the parties (and more broadly, it implicitly buys into the notion that -isms only can exist in those who have a depraved heart vis-a-vis the victim class). When there is one, that conflict effectively launders the "-ism" out, because we attribute all the negative feelings to the conflict and not the -ism. I think that's (a) empirically dubious -- -isms can still influence thoughts and behaviors even when the "big issue" is a legitimate one, (b) incomplete -- unjustifiable -ism beliefs often grow out of conflicts which, on their terms, are legitimate; that doesn't mean the -ism is any less -ismy, (c) definitionally flawed -- to the extent that an "ism" is at least as much about securing the rights and social standing due to the victimized group, as it is about searching the hearts the supposed wrongdoers to purge them of evil thoughts, it doesn't matter what "caused" them to have the beliefs they have.

This is also why I'd strenuously object to Britta's "eurocentric" claim. I'm skeptical of it on its own terms for all the reasons above -- it presumes that anti-Semitism can only stem from some sort of irrational mania and can't be part of a legitimate conflict -- but I'd also object because it adopts a perpetrator-perspective of what anti-Semitism is. It defines anti-Semitism by what is in the heart of the supposed perpetrator (and indicts us for imputing a "European" worldview onto a non-European group), rather than defining it based on the perspective of the victim (looking at what Jews deserve as a group and whether or not they are being accorded it).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"it seems very weird to say that "civilize the savages!" rhetoric isn't racist until the imperial power actually gains political control over the target"

Fair enough. But I think there's a difference between prejudiced views about a far-off land that one has no particular involvement with and the kind of systematic impact racism has when the regime/society in power is acting out of that racism.

"it presumes that anti-Semitism can only stem from some sort of irrational mania and can't be part of a legitimate conflict"

Britta can speak for herself, but this is, to an extent, how I would define anti-Semitism. There may be some remote basis in fact - yes, the Rothschilds were/are rich, and yes, Jews were among the Alsatian moneylenders - but for anti-Jewish discrimination to be racist discrimination, I tend to think it does require a level of irrationality beyond what a Palestinian could possibly feel re: Israel, given the legitimacy of the concerns - and of course same goes re: Israelis' attitudes towards Palestinians.

"It defines anti-Semitism by what is in the heart of the supposed perpetrator (and indicts us for imputing a "European" worldview onto a non-European group), rather than defining it based on the perspective of the victim (looking at what Jews deserve as a group and whether or not they are being accorded it)."

It was in Europe that some decided to up and create an entire ideology based on Jews being the source of all the world's woes. Anti-Semitism, as it's traditionally understood, involves falsely attributing a massive amount of power and significance to Jews. The Palestinians are accurately assessing that the Jewish state plays a huge role in their lives, far more important than that 1% of the Jewish 1% of some population are rich bankers.

Anyway, I'm going to write a follow-up post that will, I hope, clarify all of this by reframing it. Stay tuned!

Britta said...

Pretty much what Phoebe said. Modern anti-Semitism is a belief system that arose out of the unique conditions of 19th century Europe, and I don't think it's generalizable to the entire world, unless you assume that the entire world shares those same beliefs and social conditions from which arose anti-Semitism. If you do make that assumption, I think it's fair to say that's Eurocentric.

Secondly, I guess I fail to see why the Palestinians should view anti-Semitism from the perspective of the victim. Shouldn't they view it through their own perspective? I'm not sure why anti-Semitism is so important Palestinians should consider it above and beyond their own immediate or historical problems, such as being colonial subjects. Why should what Jews "deserve" matter to anyone but Jewish people themselves? I mean, people can be against oppression in general, and thus think that Jews should be treated like everyone else, or they could feel bad about past and current oppression in their own country, and thus take an interest in how Jews are treated, but I don't see why the plight of the Jews and what they deserve needs to be at the forefront of everyone's mind, particularly people who have their own issues to deal with.

Finally, I don't totally disagree with you on racism/other isms being about consequences and not just intention, seem to be getting pretty close to claiming that beef the Palestinians have with people who happen to be Jewish is anti-Semitic. If that's the case, what should the Palestinians do? Say, "it's ok, we have no desire to return or be fairly compensated for our land, because you've traditionally suffered more?" I mean, there has been real harm done to Palestinians with the creation of Israel, and they have real grievances. If you can't address those grievances in different ways because of some unique quality of your opponents, then how is that (particularly when combined with needing to see things through the lens of the Jews) not imparting a sort of Jewish exceptionalism, which is (IMHO) the flipside to hostile anti-Semitism? I personally believe that any and all ethnic groups has the right to view themselves as special, but they don't have the right to demand that others view them as special.

Conversely, if you do think the Palestinians have a right to be angry and agitate for land, then would you say that some forms of anti-Semitism are ok? That seems like a very slippery slope if you ask me.

David Schraub said...


As I hope I had made clear, I define anti-Semitism not as a "belief system that arose out of the unique conditions of 19th century Europe", but rather as the conditions wherein Jews aren't accorded fair worth, dignity, treatment, and opportunity. You claim to not disagree that it is about consequences and not intent, but then you craft a definition that exists solely as a state-of-mind.

Similarly, I'd say "racism" is not a belief system arising out of unique conditions of 19th century slaveocracy, but rather the actual state of affairs where members of certain races aren't accorded fair worth, dignity, treatment, and opportunity (a state of affairs that persists today even as the 19th century belief structure that perhaps birthed this has largely withered). Obviously, what constitutes fair treatment etc is open for contestation, but to me that's where the action ought to be. Anti-Semitism is a relevant lens in any context where there are Jews, since Jews, as human beings, have the right to stake political claims and argue that they are not being accorded fair worth, dignity, etc..

I also think that any account of racism should take due accord of the victim's perspective. Jews shouldn't view Palestinian suffering solely through Jewish lenses -- they should try to engage with the Palestinian perspective on things. And vice versa. Nor do I consider this competitive with Palestinians also thinking and agitating about their own problems (or Jews theirs). Unless Palestinian aspirations are flatly incompatible with a state of affairs wherein Jews are accorded fair treatment, etc., which I don't believe is and sincerely hope is not the case, there's no reason why they can't do both. And to the extent that Jews might have to modify their political desires out of due accord for Palestinian rights, or vice versa ... well, yeah. That's part and parcel of justice -- sometimes, you have to modify what you want because other people have rights too, and those need to be taken into account. In that sense, yes, Jews do have a right to demand other people concern themselves that Jews are treated fairly, because that's a right possessed by people generally. It is true that, since we don't interact with "other people" in the abstract, but specific others, fair accord for the rights and interests of others means being attentive to the specificity of their history and experiences -- hence why one needs to look at Jewish specificity to determine whether Jews are being treated fairly. But that's true of any group, and again is part and parcel of trying to secure just social arrangements in a pluralist, socially-differentiated world.


David Schraub said...

Your final point is simply a massive strawman. At no point did I ever say, imply, or say anything that could be reasonably construed as implying that Palestinians cannot press legitimate grievances against their happens-to-be-Jewish interlocutors. Nor did I claim that the requirement that one take account of the rights and dignity of the other is a right solely given to Jews -- there was no claim of a special Jewish right to have one's perspective listened to.

I did say that the existence of such legitimate grievances does not necessarily act as a cleansing agent for potential anti-Semitism. And I noted four ways by which anti-Semitism might still be relevant even where there are legitimate grievances: (1) Where those grievances are prosecuted using anti-Semitic means (e.g., publishing blood libel cartoons to build support); (2) Where in addition to legitimate grievances (e.g., "we want compensation for refugees"), anti-Semitism causes the party to stack illegitimate claims as well (e.g., "all Jews should be slaughtered"); (3) Where the failure of the legitimate conflict to resolve itself to satisfaction creates racist hostility to Jews qua Jews; and (4) Where the proposals rendered for resolving the conflict, even if offered in good faith, do not in fact present conditions which would respect dignity, rights to fair treatment, etc.. And I could make a precisely similar list for Jews relating to Palestinians. But recognizing the validity of all or any of those situations in no way requires Palestinians (or Jews) to not state any claims of grievance at all against Jews (or Palestinians). It simply requires them to do so in ways that are duly attentive and consistent with the other's equal human dignity. To the extent you think that these are mutually incompatible, that's genuinely distressing, but that's your dichotomy, not mine.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Britta, David,

Allow me to jump in here and find your common ground, something it's certainly in my interest to do, as you appear to agree for the most part with both each other and with me on these issues. But also, I think these two ideas - anti-Semitism as 19th-C-Eur-specific and anti-Semitism as anti-Jewish racism - can be reconciled.

So. First, David, re: the specificity argument, this comes up even for people studying 19th C Eur Jewish history! As in, we can't, without making a real case for it, refer to anything prior to Marr's coining the term as "anti-Semitism," and that includes anti-Jewish writings that look rather strikingly like the later version, but that are in fact from the mid-century. And there's no doubt in my mind that 1840s France produced ideologies much closer to "anti-Semitism" than anything coming from the Palestinians. Point being, the current definition of anti-Semitism, in academia at least, is not a straightforward, 'this is what we call racism against Jews' one.

However, Britta, there is the issue of, if we don't call all racism against Jews anti-Semitism, what do we call it? (I still don't think it's valid to think of the Palestinian cause as having anything to do with anti-Semitism *or* racism against Jews, so we're agreed on that, but moving on.) Too much precision, and we're left with basically no way to describe modern-day anti-Jewish hate, whatever the source, because rarely does it take precisely the same form as in 1886, let alone 1936. Consider PG's Pakistani example - so perhaps "Eurocentric" isn't precisely the term. So there's a case to be made for acknowledging the imprecision, but using the term anti-Semitism to refer to all racism against Jews, at least all racism against Jews occurring after that term was first coined.

Next, David, there's the issue of anti-Semitism, like all bigotries, having a specificity, not in time, but in form. Meaning, homophobia, for example, is not merely the hatred of gays, but also the belief that gays corrupt children, that homosexuality is a choice that can be unchosen, etc. With anti-Semitism, it's not merely that Jews are hated, but that they're assumed to control finance and the media, that they act not as individuals but in concert (thus the issue with "overrepresentation"), that they're secret puppeteers running the show. This is what anti-Semitism, even before it was called anti-Semitism, was about. (The Jew-hatred that preceded modernity, that was, often, not always, religious in nature, was not about who edits the NYT, for example.) It has always been about a huge disparity a) between the power attributed to The Jews, and that of Jews, and b) between the unity of The Jews, and that of Jews as a population. The Palestinians are dealing with a self-proclaimed Jewish state. It is not anti-Semitic for them to view Jews as forming a nation, or a powerful one at that. In their own lives, Israel is immensely powerful. However! In the lives of Mr. or Ms. Palestinian Cause somewhere in the West, or, PG, in Pakistan, that's not the case. There, Jews' power can be radically exaggerated, as can Jews' unity, b/c anti-Semites will intentionally include non-Israeli Jews in their condemnations, because frankly this is who they were interested in hating in the first place.

So basically, David's right that anti-Semitism needs to be the term used for anti-Jewish racism, even in contemporary and non-Western instances, while Britta's right that it's an inappropriate term for describing the Palestinians' situation. Now, let's move this party to the post where I've reframed the question...

Jimbo said...

I am afraid that, for various reasons, I cannot write in as much detail as those above. I'd just like to contribute a haepennyworth, which I wrote on Engage.

In origin, Christian and Islamic anti-Judaism, 'anti-Zionism' (an anachronistic metaphor I use for 'hostility to a large scale Jewish presence in the land, challenging their state of fundamental dispossession for their sins') and antisemitism (even if it is not the fully evolved 19th-20th century variety), where inextricably linked.

Jews were exiled and dispossessed for rejecting Jesus and the prophets, and that was largely how they were to remain. Jews clung to an inferior and outdated revelation, which they promulgated in a clannish and tribal manner.

I think modern antisemitism should be seen as a pole, a zenith of development, rather than as a complete break with the past. Palestinian Arab Christians and Muslims were not responsible for the Holocaust. But, in a sense, they didn't have to be. For, if the Holocaust was the zenith of 2000 Jews of Jewish statelessness and dispossession, the creation of Palestine, replete with Palestinians (and Christians are the first in history to so call themselves), was the beginning.

Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians are part of that history. They are not strangers, or an alien species from Mars. They shared in, and benefited from, sundry imperial Christian and Islamic regimes that, to varying degrees, still excluded or discriminated against Jews as a people inferior and punished with large scale dispossession. I am not sure, practically speaking, there is much difference between 'exclusion' and 'discrimination', for it was precisely by discrimination that Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims had rendered Jewish habitation in the land as viable or possible only for few e.g. the expulsion of Ashkenazi Jews from Jerusalem in the 18th century for near 100 years.

To put it in more practical terms, I think that meant, as Matt intimates, Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians were not among those in the world least obliged to grant Jews a refuge, at least from genocide, but among the most (never mind side with or promote that genocide for Jews generally); not least because, for most of Palestinian Christian and Islamic history, Palestinian Christians and Muslims have been perfectly happy to regard exile and dispossession as nothing less than Jews deserve.