Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Cleansing Power of Anti-Zionism

The Livingstone formulation runs as such: "For too long, any criticism of Israel has been unjustly demonized as anti-Semitism." When applied to a specific bit of speech, this formulation can generate several sub-debates. It can go to the facial elements of the claim: Did the critic actually call you anti-Semitic? Was your criticism actually of Israel and not Jews? The assumptions underlying the Livingstone also can be called into question: Does anyone actually believe that all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic? Has anyone actually forwarded that as a serious intellectual position? And on the other hand, the fact that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic doesn't mean that X particular criticism isn't -- it still very well might be. The debate is really a tempest in a teapot: Some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, some isn't, and the question is whether this particular falls into column A or column B.

But Norm Geras believes that we may be seeing a subtle shift. For a substantial segment of the public commenteriat, he argues,
It doesn't matter if criticism of and attitudes to Israel are anti-Semitic, so long as they are also anti-Zionist.

And he cites to several reactions to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Geneva speech which effectively concede that it was anti-Semitic while simultaneously arguing that it was wrong to protest or walk out on them because it distracts from the "real issue", namely Ahmadinejad's purportedly accurate view of Zionism and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

This is a subtle distinction, but a significant step in the wrong direction (albeit also a significant step in the direction of honesty). The old debate tried to hermetically seal off "anti-Semitism" from "anti-Zionism", as if it were impossible for the two to overlap. The new claim concedes that anti-Zionism can take an anti-Semitic form, but argues that this doesn't matter -- the anti-Zionism takes precedence over and effectively washes clean the anti-Semitism.

The upshot of this view is the adoption of the Michael Neumann (Prof. of Philosophy at Trent University) view of anti-Semitism, namely, that it is "inexcusable", but only to the degree that failing to answer your Aunt's last letter is -- Neumann says the goal "is not to excuse genuine antisemitism; it is to trivialize it." Or to quote more extensively from Prof. Neumann:
In short, the real scandal today is not antisemitism but the importance it is given. Israel has committed war crimes. It has implicated Jews generally in these crimes, and Jews generally have hastened to implicate themselves. This has provoked hatred against Jews. Why not? Some of this hatred is racist, some isn't, but who cares? Why should we pay any attention to this issue at all? Is the fact that Israel's race war has provoked bitter anger of any importance besides the war itself? Is the remote possibility that somewhere, sometime, somehow, this hatred may in theory, possibly kill some Jews of any importance besides the brutal, actual, physical persecution of Palestinians, and the hundreds of thousands of votes for Arabs to be herded into transit camps?

The persons Geras is quoting are making this precise same argument -- one based on precedence. Opposing Zionism is more of a moral imperative than opposing anti-Semitism is, hence, it is a greater affront to progressivism when the admittedly anti-Semitic anti-Zionist is shunned than when he is welcomed.

Prof. Neumann says that everyone has the responsibility to determine their own moral priorities. I agree. However, it is not unreasonable for me to view someone who explicitly considers my social and political equality to be of subordinate (indeed trivial) value as my enemy. The honesty of Ahmadinejad's defenders is that they have chosen a side: They are in favor of the Palestinians and, insofar as that commitment pits them against a social sphere which provides fairness and security to the Jews, they are avowedly anti-Jew. If they want to take that position fine. But
True progressives understand that desiring liberation for any group only makes sense as part of a broader commitment to liberation for all. Otherwise, it is mere partisanship and self-interest, and that is no basis for making normative claims. Commitment to human equality means breaking the dichotomy between "struggle" and "surrender", and pursuing a third way: listening, cooperation, respect, and co-existence. Jews and Palestinians alike (and their allies) have an obligation to pursue their liberation in a way that is respectful of and makes room for the equal humanity, dignity, independence, and self-determination of the other. Anything else is dressed-up chauvinism.

Again, this is all their prerogative. I merely ask that it not be considered left.


Barry Deutsch said...

Who is the final quote from, please? (I googled without success.)

David Schraub said...

Me, from my In Struggle and Out post linked to above it.

ansel said...

Ahmadinejad removed a passage questioning the Holocaust from his address in Geneva:

Have you actually seen/read his speech? He calls Israel a cruel, repressive, racist regime. He says Zionism is racism. And that's about as harsh as it gets. I don't think it was an impressive or productive speech on any level, but was it anti-Semitic? I'm not sure it was.

David Schraub said...

I don't give Ahmadinejad a cookie for refraining from public Holocaust denial, and I am baffled by people who cite this omission as if it is something worth praising (or even, frankly, noting).

He says Israel was created under "the pretext" of Jewish suffering (Para. 9), which is kind of denialist language (at worst, it is denial -- pretext meaning fiction; at best, it is manipulative -- pretext meaning a reason that, even if technically true, masks the real reason). That is intricately tied into a strong anti-Semitic mythos that views the Holocaust as either an outright Zionist plot (plenty of crazies love to go off on benders about how Hitler coordinated with the Zionists) or, "at best" the Jews as shameless opportunists.

He then proceeds to blame the "Zionists" as being behind Iraq and Afghanistan, "possessors of wealth and power [pressuring] to expand their sphere of influence." (paras. 10-12)

Then he basically calls Zionist Jews Godless (Paras. 17 & 22). Then he talks about "the conspiracies of some powers and Zionist circles against the goals and objectives of this conference." (Para. 24)

And throughout he continually references Israel as "the most cruel" regime, "genocidal", "the most serious threats against international peace", etc. -- statements that are only remotely plausible, in my view, when refracted through anti-Semitic goggles.

The anti-Semitism of the speech is simply not a tough call. It's vitriolic demonization alone is indicative of a prejudice best explained by anti-Semitism, and that doesn't even require us look at talking of the Holocaust as a "pretext", or "Zionist conspiracies", or Zionist control of the American government.

PG said...

"statements that are only remotely plausible, in my view, when refracted through anti-Semitic goggles."

The "most cruel" and "genocidal" are plausible if you only care about harms done to Muslims by non-Muslims.

David Schraub said...


Although, it isn't a huge defense that Ahmadinejad's bigotry is a broader spectrum, and it just happens to be landing on Jews all the time (mixed, of course, with the more narrowly tailored bigotry that does specifically target Jews and their "Zionist conspiracies").

PG said...

Uighers frankly don't seem to be treated all that worse than the ethnic Chinese themselves. You rebel against the Chinese government and get stomped? Gosh, that never happens to ethnic Chinese!

In contrast, there's a significant gulf between how the Israeli government treats its Jewish versus Muslim population, particularly in the Territories.

Rebecca said...

Seconding David on the anti-Semitism in Ahmadinejad's speech. There's a point where legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line, and the "Zionist conspiracy" is a trope older than Israel itself.

Barry Deutsch said...

Thanks for your answer back in comment #2, David.

I agree that walking out of the speech was appropriate; that he may have said some true things doesn't rescue the anti-semitism. Nor is there something so unique and rare about criticism of Israel that we have to accept it from Ahmadinejad; it's not like we can't find critics of Israel who aren't also famous holocaust deniers.

Does anyone know what the process of choosing him for a speaker was?

David Schraub said...

I'm pretty sure Ahmadinejad was given the prerogative as the only head of state who offered to give a speech -- diplomatic niceties dictate that heads of state take precedence over ministers and other officials.

I thought Sec. Gen. Moon's response was very nice. Still, I'd have preferred to see some less rhetorical responses. Revoking Ahmadinejad's credentials would have been a step in the right direction (after all, they revoked the credentials of the protesters, but Ahmadinejad's speech was admitted by Moon to be completely at odds with the goals of the conference).