Thursday, July 14, 2011

Take 3

I am stunned, stunned, by how reasonable and intelligent commenters here have been, even though I ventured into that discussion. Perhaps because everyone is coming at the issue from roughly the same place - a belief that Israel has the right to exist, that there also needs to be a Palestinian state - everyone, myself included, seems willing to change their mind on specifics when presented with new arguments.

Myself, I'm not entirely sure where I stand on all the specifics right now, after a series of mini-shifts, but shifts all the same, in my position. But I might also add that I initially posted about this in a way that intentionally somewhat overshot the mark on the confidence I have in my conclusions on the matter. Not so much to provoke-as-shock as to jolt us out of our usual ways of thinking about the issue and thus reframe the discussion.

That discussion, typically, is, as we might all remember, about whether it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, whether this or that criticism of Israel does or does not count as such. We have all heard variants of this enough times, so I will not rehash how it generally goes down. My point, though, is how it generally does not go down: the identity of the person doing the criticizing is virtually always ignored, such that someone living in Jerusalem and some douche on his couch in London who's read three blog posts on the topic and is now highly informed are on equal footing.

When, however else you're looking at it, whether you're a David or a Britta, the fact is, if you are a Palestinian, you did not get to shuffle through a binder of trendy causes and pick your own. Sure, you get to decide how much of the blame you want to place on Israel vs. your own leadership or that of neighboring states, and whether you're going to blanket-condemn all Jews, just Israelis, or just the Israeli leadership. You get to take a stance on violence. But you don't opt in or out of the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, those who are not Palestinians do have that option, so we can, in some cases, read significance into their choice to opt in. Whereas this can never be done wrt Palestinians themselves. And a good bit of what can make some "criticism of Israel" anti-Semitic is precisely that disproportionate level of interest.

Now, the counterargument I'd anticipate here is, if Palestinians' complaints are legitimate, this is Truth, and the more voices backing them up, the better. The problem is - as is the case for the Israeli side as well, and to any side in any conflict - Palestinians' complaints are a mix of legitimate outrage and rhetorical (and indeed behavioral) excess. The role of the outside advocate is to provide calm(er) support. Anti-Semites, however, are coming at the conflict already feeling as though they personally have been exploited by The Jews, and it is this, not anything that's going on at any checkpoints, that fuels their rage.

Our priorities, I think, should be a) finding a solution to the conflict itself (which, granted, will not come from WWPD), and b) figuring out how to deal with the continued existence of anti-Semitism-proper, which is to say, of Jew-hatred based not on a real-life Jewish-state enemy, but on an idea of and obsession with The Jew (and here, WWPD might be of service). My sense, then, is and was that one possible way to make it socially acceptable to call out anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism - to, for example, Google someone who's posting online about the plight of the Palestinians and see whether that really is their concern, or, say, to do a close reading of The Israel Lobby, one that will, I promise, reveal that Jews, and not just American Israel policy, are the authors' concern - is to remove the stigma of actually being a Palestinian who's angry at Israel, and shift that stigma onto the anti-Semites among the Palestinians' allies. To do this is to suspend a bit of disbelief, to turn a blind eye, etc., when, to use Micha's example, blood libel is invoked. It's not, I'll concede, necessarily to declare that these are not anti-Semitic behaviors, whatever their root cause. I mean, who knows. It could be that my thought experiment here would be a more productive way of dealing with (b) than with (a).


eamonnmcdonagh said...

I still find your thesis unconvincing. As we both know, Palestinian leaders and preacher men constantly say stuff that reflects classic antisemitic tropes. Nothing in their situation - the reality of Israel’s power over them etc - requires them to do this. They could be savagely critical of the existence of Israel and all its works without ever resorting to such language. Indeed there was a time - not that long ago – when the Palestinian struggle was carried on without much resort to such language. Back then, a mishmash rhetoric of third wordlist revolutionary Marxism provided the discursive framework for the struggle.
Your view, if I understand it correctly, also fails to take Palestinians entirely seriously with their relative power inferiority in the I-P conflict absolving them in advance from having to understand the weight of their words and their consequences, consequences which include its usefulness to the loonier elements of Israeli society.
I still don’t get what’s wrong with seeing the Palestinian cause as basically just (in a two-state context) *and* holding Palestinians to account for what they say and the consequences of saying it.
Also, your argument be turned around and faced in the opposite direction, like this; their sensibilities dulled by decades of Palestinian terrorism and the struggle to defend their country from its neighbors, some Israelis can be heard using what, on the surface, appears to be racist anti-Arab rhetoric. While such language would indeed be racist in the mouth of a Jewish person (or any other, for that matter) comfortably ensconced in Boston or Buenos Aires it’s not so in the case of their cousins in Sderot who have to deal with Palestinian terrorism on a daily basis. In the case of the latter it looks and sounds like gross racism but it’s really something else

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I still find your thesis unconvincing."

But each post has a different thesis. I hope I'd made that clear. In this one, I'm not asking anyone to say that it is logically impossible for a Palestinian to be racist against Jews. So the first bit of your comment... I'm saying, we know that this is the case, but that, for reasons I get to in the post, we might want to turn a blind eye.

"I still don’t get what’s wrong with seeing the Palestinian cause as basically just (in a two-state context) *and* holding Palestinians to account for what they say and the consequences of saying it."

To summarize what I wrote, the issue is that we're always looking at this question in terms of which criticisms are anti-Semitic. We can, fine, draw up a list of which are and are not, with some coming from the Palestinians themselves, some from their outside supporters. This ignores the difference between being in a situation and having opted to participate. A good amount of the anti-Semitism we should be concerned about wrt this issue is at the level of certain outsiders even selecting this as their cause. If this makes more sense to you, think of it as, it's not about not taking Palestinians who do/say something that's rhetorically consistent with anti-Semitism to task. It's about focusing on that less, and on anti-Semitism among those who are not in fact Palestinians more.

"Also, your argument be turned around and faced in the opposite direction"

Yes, I've been saying that all along. I'm not sure what that's supposed to change. You're right, I don't think we should be worrying overmuch about anti-Arab "racism" or racism in Sderot.

Micha said...

I might come to a similar conclusion from a different POV that might sound harsh.

I take it for granted that antisemitism is very prevalent in the Arab world, moderates included. I view it as a constant and as something that cannot be changed in the near future. since Israel has to deal with Arabs (Palestinian or otherwise), it has to ignore this antisemitism for pragmatic reasons in order to pursue Israel's immediate interests: peace (if possible), ceasefire (at least), ending the occupation and self-defense (when necessary).

That said, anybody who wants to pursue these goals in Israel has to show that he or she is aware of this kind of antisemitism and is not covering for it or excusing it or even justifying it. Unfortunately. Many in what used to be the Israeli peace camp allowed themselves to be maneuvered into exactly that position.

I understand the idea of being critical of people from outside involving themselves in the conflict who bring their antisemitism with them. I share the feeling. But frankly, I view them as equally inevitable. In principle I believe in dealing with criticism of Israel on a case by case basis, while erring on the side of caution. Because these 'critics' have been able to play a trick on us. They have set a very low bar for criticism of Israel. It doesn't matter of the criticism is untrue, insensible, unfair, ignorant, hypocritical, self-righteous, biased, hate-filled, and many other bad things, so long as the critic can say: "hey, what do you want from me, I'm not an Antisemite." From this POV it might be better to avoid accusations of antisemitism completely and focus on the other issues. However that's also not possible. It is not something that's easy to ignore.

In general I'm not sure it is possible to disentangle the issue of Antisemitism and the issues involving Israel. The important thing, I suppose, is not to try to separate the issues so much as trying to make sure the other issues (occupation, peace, security) are not lost because of too much focus on antisemitism.

a note on something that was said in the previous post. It doesn't seem to me sensible to restrict the term antisemitism to hatred of Jews in 19th-20th century Europe anymore than it makes sense to restrict the term flu to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919(?). Using the term antisemitism for all forms of anti-Jewish sentiments throughout history does not prevent us from being aware of the differences occurring in different places and time periods, while making sure to also note the connections between the different occurrences.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"It doesn't seem to me sensible to restrict the term antisemitism to hatred of Jews in 19th-20th century Europe anymore than it makes sense to restrict the term flu to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919(?)."

This is something I'm not fully decided on. It definitely shouldn't be restricted to that which occurred in specific places at those times. But should it have a narrower defn. than that-which-is-anti-Jewish? There I'm not sure.

As for the rest, still thinking it all through, so don't confuse a lack of full response for anything more than that. I will say that I was struck, in the thread I link to in the post above, by the extent to which my post (and I) received such fury for having even dared link the questions of pro-Palestine activism and anti-Semitism, this despite my having made perfectly clear (as it seems we all must), whenever this comes up, that I don't think all criticism of Israel/all support of the Palestinians is anti-Jewish. Granted, this particular thread was very angsty-15-year-old-sounding, but I do think it's common enough that on the left, to even use the term "anti-Semitism" in the same document as one uses "Palestinian" is to set forth that predictable chorus of, "Not all criticism of Israel is [...]" till the cows come home.

My idea is really about finding a way to sympathize with those who have genuine beef with Israel, and to take volume away from those who have beef with Jews and use Israel as a pretext. But no, for the reasons you and others have given, I'm not entirely convinced that it would work.