Thursday, October 09, 2008

Who Can Speak The Word?

In a post this weekend, I inquired as to how I ought to raise the issue of anti-Semitism in discussions about Israel, or religious liberty, or Jews in general. Since on the one hand so many people seem to believe that the issue is raised as a distraction or canard, and on the other hand it's clearly a very important topic that needs to be investigated thoroughly, attempting to set some ground rules seemed like a good idea.

But upon further reflection, I feel like I was missing something important. The assumption behind my "how would you like me to raise it" is that there is a split between the substantive merits of the claim "that is anti-Semitic" (or "there is an issue of anti-Semitism that needs to be discussed"), and procedure by which it is raised. I still think that's true, but now I also think there seems to be a third angle: who is allowed to raise the issue of anti-Semitism? My intuition is that much of the reaction I've experienced in trying to raise the issue of anti-Semitism doesn't come because I've used the wrong words or timing. Rather, it's due to an entrenched belief that Jews don't have the right to raise the issue at all -- we are marked and tainted by our Jewishness, and are not objective arbiters.

The cynical person, after all, who thinks that anti-Semitism is a serious problem would likely believe that the refusal to consider anti-Semitism is evidence that the objectors do not care much about anti-Semitism at all. But that doesn't seem quite right to me. If they didn't care, they wouldn't have a reaction upon being called (or feeling like they're being called, or being within a mile of being called) anti-Semitic. On the fringes, you do get people who are either proudly anti-Semitic, or say things like "given the scope of Jewish power, it's reasonable and necessary to be a little anti-Semitic." But most people are not like that. Most people seem to vest a considerable amount of weight in their self and social perception as not anti-Semites.

From this framework, people create rules of discourse which help regulate which claims of anti-Semitism are considered to be worthy of response. An effective way to manage one's own image (to oneself and to society) on the anti-Semitism issue is to derail, prior to the merits, as many threatening accusations of anti-Semitism as possible. One way of doing that is via the procedural objection -- the anti-Semitism charge is being raised in bad faith, or at an inappropriate time in the conversation. Another is by challenging the party raising the claim. Since Jews are presumably the most attuned to anti-Semitism and most likely to feel its effects, a facial rule discounting Jewish claims of anti-Semitism yields great benefits to the Gentile population which does not want it to be seen or see itself as anti-Semitic.

This framework, I think, helps elucidate a continuum of responses that one sees from people who are charged with anti-Semitism, or racism, for that matter. On one end of the continuum are those who take the charge to be one which must be grappled with seriously. That doesn't mean they ultimately agree, or immediately acquiesce, it just means they recognize the right of the speaker to bring the charge and the correspondent duty to engage it. Some liberal minded White people, upon being called racist (or any other permutation -- asked to discuss racism, told there are racist implications to an issue area) by a person of color, react this way. I suspect a somewhat higher proportion would react this way if racism is brought up by a White person, but still a minority.

In the middle is the defensive reaction. Defensiveness is a mixture of guilt and dismissal. The guilt stems from the belief that the speaker has a right to bring the charge. The dismissal, though, is a denial of the duty to engage -- presumably based on a claim of epistemic superiority: I know I'm not anti-Semitic, so I have no need to grapple with your argument saying it's an issue in our interaction. While it recognizes, at some level, that it is meaningful that the charge has been brought (hence the guilt), it does not extend beyond that. Rather, the objection is procedural, claiming fault with the form or method or sufficiency of the instigating event, derailing the discussion before reaching the merits: "You have not (and probably cannot) show what I think is necessary to be shown before I will engage the topic of racism. So I won't, and don't have to." Most liberal Whites, and some conservative ones, respond this way to racism charges. Some Gentiles (of all political stripes) also respond this way to anti-Semitism charges.

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum is the disdainful reaction. Disdain mixes contempt with dismissal. The contempt comes from the idea that the speaker is for some reason, e.g., social position, barred from making the claim in the first place. The allegation of "the race card" is an expression of contempt by people who do not recognize in the first instance that Blacks have a right to talk about racism. The dismissal works the same way as above -- knowing oneself, there is no need to engage in what anyone else (certainly, any minority) has to say on the subject. Most conservatives respond to race charges in this way. It is also my experience that many Gentiles react this way when Jews bring up anti-Semitism. They don't look guilty, they look disdainful: "Oh, there they go again."

Some folks have tried to get me to admit that anti-Semitism is worse on the left than on the right. That has not been my experience. Rather, my experience is that both leftward and rightward responses to my talk on anti-Semitism has come with disdain. Conservatives are no more likely than liberals to react thoughtfully (or hell, even guiltily) when a Jewish interlocutor notes anti-Semitic implications in their argument. Sometimes, if you hit at just the right moment, you can get them to skip a beat, but that's usually about it. And I genuinely do not think that there is that same resistance to the claim from Christian speakers. A Jew who goes to a Evangelical congregation and says "they way you treat us and talk about us is wrong and hateful" isn't going to be taken seriously. A fellow member of evangelical community will. A mainstream Christian, I believe, is more likely to listen to an atheist or Hindu critic on the subject than he is a Jew.

So, for the most part, neither camp recognizes the right of Jews to speak on the issue. Neither sees the Jewish view as one with which they need to engage, and neither even feels particularly bad when faced with the knowledge that the Jewish community finds them hostile to their interests and liberation. Both make noises about how they're really all about helping and supporting everybody, and thus are bona fide friends of the Jews. But neither wants to hear nor cares about the Jewish perspective on what being our friend means -- indeed, they think our views on the subject are fatally defective and thus can be dismissed on face. As far as I'm concerned, then, the methodology of silencing is essentially identical on both sides. The first step towards remedy is a stated recognition that Jews have the right to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, at our discretion, and command the right to engagement on it. As I noted, that doesn't require capitulation. It does require a serious effort to figure out where we're coming from and understanding our argument.


Jack said...

David, how exactly are you using "gentile". If you are just referring to someone who is not Jewish is there some reason to prefer the term "gentile" over "non-jew"? Or are you talking about the Christian majority?

I find my self somewhat uncomfortable being referred to that way. Am I a gentile in the same way that I am white? I certainly don't understand myself in that way at all especially since I usually feel totally left out of religious discussion altogether. A gentile-Jewish distinction seems really problematic since the axis of religious and ethnic identification is so multipolar- and I'm on that axis (well the religious one, anyway) only in a very strange and mostly oppositional way.

Am I being ignorant?

p.s. My experience with raising the claims about the exclusion of atheists (anti-atheism?) has, with the exception of highly educated, contemplative jesuits, been met with consistent dismissal and often suspicion. I find it routinely assumed that somehow deep inside I REALLY AM a theist. The view among most Christians, even non-evangelicals is that atheists are assaulting the "Judeo-Chrisitian" values of America and so, any atheist claims of marginalization can be prima facie dismissed. This is true even while vocal atheists are routinely discriminated in housing and atheist children have been driven out of schools for their beliefs. The only reason its not a bigger issue is that its so easy for atheists to stay in the closet (and many do for fear of how their friends and family will react).

Jack said...

Oh: the other reason discrimination against atheists is that atheists widely intersect with wealthiest, most educated and least oppressed in other spheres. Its definitely a weird dynamic.

Cycle Cyril said...

I certainly believe that Jews can bring up the claim of anti-Semitism, where appropriate, without hesitation. While I would accept the possibility of such a claim being more "acceptable" if brought by a third party I would not hesitate to bring up such a claim myself if and when necessary.

The reason why some are loath to accept such claims is their sense that such claims of anti-Semitism are over blown and a function of Jewish fears rather than reality.

I personally think, considering the history my own parents went through in Europe during WWII let alone the problems the Jews in Israel face in the Middle East and what Jews experience elsewhere in the world (such as the Argentinian attack on a Jewish Community Center some years ago or the attack on a Seattle Jewish Community Center more recently), that we are not overly sensitive.

What I find more than anything else is a tendency to minimize anti-Semitism rather than highlight it among Jews. This is perhaps an outgrowth of the historically weak position of Jews politically and militarily. You see this going on in France where the attacks on Jews by Muslims are regular and deadly to the point where they are leaving France. The Jews there do not feel that they are able to complain and get their issues addressed.

My daughter has a friend, originally from Morocco, who is now living in Paris and is now planning, after her marriage this fall, to move to Israel (or possibly to the US) because these attacks are continuing, getting worse and not addressed by the French media let alone the French criminal justice system.

I am one of those who believe that the left is more anti-Semitic than the right. They dress it up often as anti-Zionism but this is simply a charade in my opinion. When you compare images of demonstrations from both the left and the right you see far more anti-Zionism/anti-Semitic images from the left than the right.

Matt said...

Good post, David. A few points: (1) I don't think the left is more antisemitic than the right, but I think there are good reasons for being more worried about left-antisemitism. I think it probably mainstreams more easily, and it deprives us of allies. Also many Jews are left/liberal and experience left-antisemitism more directly. (2) Regarding silencing, I'm not sure what you mean. (3) I agree with Cyril that there's a terrible tendency to minimize antisemitism - and a history of viewing Jews as too neurotic to take seriously.