Last night, I had my first (but inevitable) "criticizing Israel always gets me called anti-Semitic" discussion in someone else's room. When I was at Carleton, I always vaguely wondered if we were different from other places, not because we didn't care about the issue, but because it was a lot more keyed down. I didn't encounter much serious anti-Semitic action there -- particularly in the classic sense where I'd label the speaker a "bad person" (as readers know, I'm interested in pushing the boundaries of what we mean by anti-Semitism to encompass structural accounts of privilege, as we do on other identity axes). And at the same token, the Jewish community at Carleton rarely, if ever, talked about anti-Semitism. The experience made me skeptical that the contours of the debate were as bad as both sides made it out to be -- but I also figured that some of it was an outgrowth of Carleton's rather chill personality.
Anyway, one of the folks I was talking with, a Barnard alum, raised the case of Nadia Abu El Haj as an example of pro-Israel forces on campus (primarily, she noted, American rather than Israeli Jews, who she claimed tend to represent a broader spectrum of ideas on the issue) as an example of how some Jewish organizations are trying to squelch opposing views. That's not entirely unfair, although she implied Professor Abu El Haj did not receive tenure, when in fact it was awarded in 2007, and I noted that at least some of the opposition was motivated by scholarly concerns. Moreover, as my new friend admitted, the Columbia University's faculty lineup in the field of middle eastern studies is not lacking for anti-Israel representation -- it's more a battleground than an area where pro-Israel groups have carried the day.
But it was the other person in the room that really got to me. After also forwarding the standard "my anti-Israelism is not anti-Semitism" charge, he basically asserted that Israel gets away with whatever it wants because the Jews have the world bought off. When I raised the specter of the UN, he literally said "Look at where it was built! Rockefeller!", referring to the fact that the land for the United Nations building in New York was donated by the Rockefeller family. He proceeded to note the Vice Presidential debate and how candidates had to pledge they supported Israel, "or else nobody will give them any money." Then he went off on a rant about Jews had achieved "hegemony in the original sense of the word" in the field of middle eastern studies (at which point I rolled my eyes -- this guy is a Chemistry Ph.D student, and I'm supposed to believe he can quote Gramsci chapter and verse at me?) because they're disproportionately represented in the field. Of course, Jews are disproportionately represented in academia (a point which he said didn't matter -- it's "fine" for Jews to teach in physics, but middle eastern studies are apparently a different matter), and it would make more sense, not less, for us to have concentration in an area which is kind of historically and contemporaneously important to us.
It was like Walt & Mearshimer on steroids. And I said if your thesis is that there is too much waving of anti-Semitism on the subject of Israel, don't make your primary mode of attack "the Jews own the world and use their massive financial power to crush anyone who gets in their way." That's not one of my "expansions" of anti-Semitism, that fits very neatly under the classic model. And yet, he still was quite quick to assert "I'm no anti-Semitic!" If he can do it, anyone can do it.