‘Anti-Semitism,’ Israel and the Left

‘Anti-Semitism,’ Israel and the Left

‘Anti-Semitism,’ Israel and the Left

Who’s really behind the crude equation between Israel and “the Jews”?


The war on Iraq has unleashed some familiar conspiracy theories in recent months, on both the right and the left. Lyndon LaRouche laid blame for the coming war at the feet of “a nest of Israeli agents inside the US government”; then Pat Buchanan blamed the US invasion of Iraq on a “cabal” of Jewish intellectuals willing to “conscript American blood to make the world safe for Israel.” On the other side of the tally, Democratic Representative James Moran declared, “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war in Iraq, we would not be doing this,” while a Democratic New York City Council member, Robert Jackson, attributed opposition to a local antiwar resolution to Jewish colleagues who saw New York only as their “home away from home” and believed the resolution would “not be in the best interests of the State of Israel.” The idea that Jews loyal to Israel over America were driving the United States to war gained enough force to garner mention in the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and finally ended up at the feet of Colin Powell, who, in what was surely a historical first for a Secretary of State on the eve of armed conflict, was asked by a member of Congress to publicly disavow that a “cabal” was behind this war.

Somehow, though, despite the broad circulation–and broad denunciation–of this poisonous idea, only the left seems doomed to bear the taint of anti-Semitism. Why should this be so?

The furor over events in San Francisco leading up to the massive February antiwar marches is telling. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of Tikkun, claimed that he was excluded from a list of potential speakers at the Bay Area event because he had publicly criticized ANSWER, one of the sponsors, for being anti-Israel. What might have been a minor back-room squabble went public when a group of left writers (many affiliated with The Nation) circulated a petition on his behalf and Lerner himself detailed his charges in the prowar Wall Street Journal. His story, headlined “The Antiwar Anti-Semites,” condemned “anti-Semitism and Israel-bashing on the left.” Letter writers to the Journal responded with barely concealed glee at Lerner’s outing of the left, one opining venomously that “the American far left would no more tolerate criticism of its anti-Semitism than the Communists and Nazis tolerated criticism of theirs.” Since that writer has certainly not been threatened with removal to the camps or the gulag, we can take his letter for what it really is: an attempt to blackmail “the far left” into silence on a crucial issue.

This fraught accusation of “left-wing anti-Semitism” surfaces so regularly that before considering it, we need to remind ourselves what anti-Semitism–the real thing–has actually looked like over the centuries. It had (and has) nothing to do with Israel or Zionism, but was rather a prototypical racist stereotyping, by means of which the alleged traits of certain individuals–“money-grubbing,” “pushiness,” moral degeneracy–are transformed via the alchemy of paranoid fantasy into the collective persona of “Jews” or “the Jew.”

For the anti-Semite, as for all racists, these racial distinctions are always invidious, never just descriptive. This aspect of anti-Semitism has at times been disguised, since whereas for most other racisms the stigmatized group is alleged to be both morally and culturally inferior, anti-Semitism often combines an allegation of moral degeneracy or social inferiority with a paranoid fear of a dangerous superiority, or envy of supposed intellectual or economic attainment. Envy, though, is as unpleasant as disdain, especially in the form of litanies of what “your people” have so wonderfully accomplished. For the anti-Semite, then, the Jew is not just Jewish; he stands for something, and it’s always something bad. At the same time, a collective personality having been established–the desire for world domination and control of international finance at its center–it is also read backward onto individuals, so that for the anti-Semite every Jew is potentially both a bearer of the group character and a part of the conspiracy.

But precisely because that is the nature of classical anti-Semitism, we also have to insist that not every reference to a Jew or to Jews is by that token anti-Semitic; to be unable to distinguish ordinary political discourse from hate-mongering is to be willfully obtuse. Congressman Moran’s assertion about “the Jewish community” helps to make the distinction clear. Even devoid of hate-mongering (and followed by a sincere apology), this is a recognizable case of garden-variety anti-Semitism. Some Jews become all Jews, and their allegedly collective desire alchemically transmutes into domination of an entire nation’s policies–even though public opinion polls show support for the war to be the same or weaker among Jews than among the population as a whole (as Moran himself acknowledged in his apology).

At the same time, it is not anti-Semitic to say, as Moran perhaps intended to say and as is often said on the left, that “the Jewish lobby is one of the biggest obstacles to a rational American Middle East policy.” That statement is arguable, and hyperbolic, but at the same time perfectly reasonable in its broad outline–reasonable judgments are often arguable or hyperbolic. The main point is that there undeniably is a pro-Israel lobby in Washington composed in great part of the representatives of several major Jewish organizations, and if those organizations had their way American policy would always tilt unequivocally toward Israel: just as if the Irish political elite in Massachusetts had had their way policy would for many years have tilted toward Irish Republicanism; or would have tilted toward Mussolini in the 1930s if the major Italian-American organizations had had their way. As Michael Kinsley pointed out in Slate, one of the strongest claims ever made for the power of this lobby can be found on the website of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

But even this bit of self-inflation does not convict AIPAC’s members of “dual loyalty,” a charge that is still more likely to be raised by nationalists of the right, such as Buchanan, than by internationalists (or antinationalists) of the left. Ethnic identification with the homeland has always been central to American life, and has often had significant political consequences; any American history textbook that didn’t mention it would have to be scrapped. When someone is Jewish, and acts upon the assumption that being Jewish carries with it certain interests and an obligation to defend those interests (as in the defense of Israel), the identification is not only relevant but even called for. This is especially true for those many Jews who feel that organizations like AIPAC do not speak for them, and thus choose to raise the specter of “the Jewish lobby” in order to critique it. One might avoid any implication of stereotyping to say, euphemistically, “the pro-Israel lobby in Washington,” but it would also be pointless and obfuscatory.

In American politics, “Jewish” has a concrete, identifiable meaning, as any Democratic or Republican activist could tell us. It is only in extensions of this commonplace observation, such as Buchanan’s hint of the ancient blood libel, or his and LaRouche’s traditional and inflammatory anti-Semitic language of “cabal” or “nest”; or Congressman Moran’s initial failure to acknowledge that Jews are as diverse a group as any other; or Councilman Jackson’s implication (“a home away from home”) that dual loyalty has become disloyalty, that a line that ought to be drawn is clearly crossed over.

A fair-minded person, in short, looks for explanations of phenomena; the racist “explains” them by attaching them to his favorite race. So to “explain” American policy solely as the result of machinations of “the Jewish lobby,” without mentioning oil, water, or expansionism; or the interests of the military-industrial sector; or the electoral and ideological utility of substituting guns for butter; or the way in which permanent crisis serves the interests of the Republican Party, is indeed to engage in anti-Semitism. Conversely, it is misleading to mention all those factors and then, for fear of appearing anti-Semitic, omit all mention of “the Jewish lobby” or of the right-wing ideologues, who are also strong supporters of Israel, in key policy-making positions in the Bush Administration.

On the face of it, however, none of this has anything to do with the specifically anti-Israel sentiments that are indeed shared by many people on “the left,” or in the antiwar movement. Therefore, when Michael Lerner alleges that the left engages in both “anti-Semitism” and “Israel-bashing,” one looks for some examples of the former, let alone for any notable exemplars of it on “the left,” considering that many of its most prominent voices signed an open letter opposing Lerner’s exclusion from the rally. But one looks in vain. It may indeed be true–though how will we ever know?–that the San Francisco coalition would, as Lerner also suggested, have bent over backward not to exclude a black or gay person who wanted to speak, and yet was willing to exclude a Jew. But then the strength of this argument, if it has any, rests on the fact that in the United States people of color and gays can still quite reasonably claim the status of victimhood, with all that entails in our victim-conscious society; and Jews no longer can, to nearly the same extent. It should make Jews very happy, after all, that a “gentleman’s agreement” among real estate agents or a redlined mortgage application will hardly ever be applied to them today, and that Jews as such are unlikely to be discriminated against in the courts, or to be beaten up as “Christ killers.” There is still more than enough anti-Semitic attitude around; and it may still, all in all, be historically insensitive for non-Jews, having welcomed Jews into the club, to assume that they can now be insulted as freely as anyone else; but it is not anti-Semitic. In any event, Lerner’s case fell apart when subsequent reports satisfactorily established that he was excluded not because he’s Jewish or a Zionist–there were, it turns out, already two rabbis with similar politics on the program–but because the rule about not having speakers who had publicly criticized sponsoring organizations had been put in place well before his name even came up.

Having been offered no evidence for the charge of anti-Semitism, then, we return to the original question of the relationship, if any, between anti-Semitism and “Israel-bashing,” the only genuine point of departure for the right’s (and Lerner’s) imputation of “left-wing anti-Semitism.” Certain things are obvious. Israel is a Jewish state. This is not a matter of controversy or denigration, but of proud self-assertion. It is a state to which Jews anywhere in the world have an unalloyed “right of return”; it is a state in which, at least in practice, Jews and only Jews are first-class citizens; it is a state governed almost entirely by Jews, in which every government in recent memory has included at least one explicitly Jewish party. The point is not that Israel should be criticized because of these facts but rather that one can’t criticize anything about Israel without criticizing Jews. But then the crucial question becomes: Is a state or its policies above criticism merely because it or they are composed of or made by Jews?

The clear answer that the left’s ideological enemies want to give to this question is yes: If you criticize Israel, you’re criticizing Jews, and therefore you’re an anti-Semite. That thousands of those critics, including many of the most distinguished (Noam Chomsky, for example) are Jews themselves doesn’t bother the right-wing polemicists, who know they can always count on some conservative Jewish ally to talk about “Jewish self-hatred,” a self-serving ideological concept without any clinical content at all, akin to the infuriating psychiatric notion that if you disagree with the analyst’s interpretation of your motives you’re merely displaying “resistance.” We can just as properly assert the contrary position, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm has done. He argues that the achievement of political rationality begins at home, so the first duty of a Scots intellectual is to oppose Scottish nationalism and the first duty of a Jewish intellectual is to oppose Jewish nationalism; just as, some of us might add, the first duty of a Jewish-American intellectual is to oppose American nationalism–or both nationalisms, for those who identify equally strongly as American and Jewish.

If we consider the practical effect of these two positions, the simple nationalistic equation of “Israel” and “Jewish” has a lot to answer for. To the extent that self-anointed Jewish spokespersons, with the opportunistic assistance of the right, have worked to make Israel and Jewishness synonymous, it is they–and not the left–who have sown the dangerous seed of new waves of anti-Semitism. This is all too clear in Europe today, where the nationalist, ideological equation has helped to inflame the Arab youth who commit most of the anti-Semitic outrages attributed by American propagandists to “the French”–among whom, contrarily, it is chiefly the student left who participate in marches against anti-Semitism. On the other hand, the anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen actually sympathizes with Israel against its Arab enemies, not only because the latter are the more aggressive intruder into his version of a purified “nation” but also because in institutionalized Zionism he recognizes and appreciates a good, traditional European-style nationalism when he sees it.

The sad truth, in other words, is that since the foundation of the State of Israel, Jews can no longer claim to be the “Jewish nation,” wandering helplessly across the diaspora in search of a home. We–that is, those among us who want it–have a home now; but that home turned out to be a nation-state, and a state is just a state, founded (as most are) in violence, monopolizing (as all do) the means of repression. It is not a moral entity, but just an institutional means of organizing some people in a geographical area and excluding others, by force if necessary. Nationalism, be it that of Irish Republicans or Anglo-Protestants, Israelis or Palestinians, is no better or worse than the actions committed in its name; no nation-state is better or worse than what it does to its own inhabitants, or in the world at large. In the case of Israel, as long as there are Palestinians clamoring to be allowed to return as full-class citizens to their (or their ancestors’) homeland, and being denied that possibility, and killed in large numbers because they refuse to accept that denial, then their dispossession will be a constant and embittering source of enmity for Israel among those who sympathize with them. That Zionists insist that the land of Israel is actually their historical homeland changes nothing; in the eyes of a disinterested observer, dispossession remains dispossession, no matter what the excuse for it.

Is there not, though, a double standard operating here? Palestinians kill innocent people in the name of their nationhood, and seem to retain worldwide sympathy; when Israelis kill innocent people, they incur moral condemnation. In large part, this is because of the logic of the moral equation I’ve just described. Palestinians lost a home; Jews gained a state. By and large, people give more sympathy to the homeless than they do to states, especially when representatives of the state that expelled them from their homes now talk recklessly of achieving ethnic cleansing by making the expulsion total and permanent. But there is an even more critical factor operating against Israel as well, at least on the left–and here we come to the crux of the matter.

It is often said, angrily and truly, that Israel seems to occupy an exceptional place on the left’s political hit list: Where is the critique of the Russians in Chechnya, of Turkey in Kurdistan, of China in Tibet? Actually, there has at times been quite a bit of such critique on the left, not to mention of Saddam Hussein himself. However, it does not seem of major relevance at a moment when the issue for Americans is the brutally one-sided assault we are witnessing in Iraq; and when even some of that assault’s strongest supporters admit that it cannot achieve its purported aim–to bring “peace” and “democracy” to the Middle East–unless a mutually acceptable settlement on Palestinian rights is achieved first. Thus if there is a double standard here, Israel is not its primary object.

The truth is that the primary element in almost all left foreign-policy positions today is, and long has been, opposition to American imperialism. No doubt, this opposition has sometimes led elements of the left to romanticize the Third World and to exculpate its grossest tyrants, including those in Arab states. Such bending over backward to support any and all opponents or victims of the United States is a political and moral error, but again, it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or “Israel-bashing.” Whatever critique we ought to make of tyrants such as Saddam Hussein or opportunists such as Yasir Arafat, it remains the case that Israel is both the chief benefactor of American imperialism and its most visible outpost–our “most-favored nation.” Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians takes place under the umbrella of American protection, with arms paid for or supplied by the United States, with the unquestioning support of both major political parties. And more than any other nation today–unless one counts Tony Blair as a nation–it has hitched itself to the bandwagon of American belligerency.

These two conditions–the asymmetrical moral equation and the relationship of Israel to the United States–are what left-wing “Israel-bashing” is all about; they explain its occurrence satisfactorily. That is not to say that they excuse it; an explanation is not necessarily an excuse. For despite my earlier reference to the acceptance of Jews in the contemporary United States, there is still a terrible subtext here. Though Zionism originated as a response to nineteenth-century European anti-Semitism, it was finally given its material basis by the Holocaust. The State of Israel was thus born out of a terror at least as great as any people has ever had to undergo, and so the hideously destructive conflict between Palestinians and Jews over one of the smaller pieces of politically bounded land on the planet is one of the great historical tragedies of all time. Critics of Israel (I include myself among them) too often fail to see this tragic dimension; too often are capable of coldly forgetting, or seeming to disdain, this history when uttering our criticisms, or treating all of Israel as though it consisted of nothing but followers of Ariel Sharon. This constitutes a failure of human sympathy, though the failure is in no way idiosyncratic. Left, center–and nowadays especially right–people who are in the grip of ideological rigidity regularly forget the humanity of their opponents and view innocent people as only “collateral damage” arising from some policy or other. In the case of American policy-makers today, this is not an exception but the absolute core of their doctrine. As a member in good standing of the left, however, I like to think that we could do better than that.

But as for the political content of the criticism of Israel, finally, no invocation of anti-Semitism is necessary to explain the intellectual and emotional outcome of the obvious facts I have stated. Left spokespersons, including Jews, say what they mean, and they hardly ever say “Jews” when they mean “Israel” or “the Israeli government.” We do not think political attacks on France imply hatred of French people, or that attacks on the “axis of evil” imply hatred of Iranians, Iraqis and Koreans. Only with “Israel” and “Jews” is this crude equation being made, and it is not being made by Israel’s critics, or even Israel’s haters; it is being made by its apologists. It is a shame that in his understandable anger Michael Lerner, who is not one of those apologists, should have lent his voice, if only momentarily, to the blowhards and bullies of the right.

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