Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Wave Away

I firmly take no position on whether it was proper to award former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many Jewish groups are "deeply disappointed" (to use AIPAC's language) with the decision, citing Robinson's involvement in the Durban I debacle and her time heading the UNHRC. I'll discuss their case in a moment, but I want to stress again that I am neither endorsing it nor rejecting it.

Rather, my objection is to this Matt Yglesias post on the controversy, which I find appalling on several dimensions. Really, there is almost nothing right about it. First off, he cites to Abe Foxman's reaction:
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, today issued a statement saying that Robinson has “anti-Israel bias” and calling the decision to bestow America’s highest civilian honor upon Robinson as an agent of change “ill-advised.”

Yglesias led into that quote by saying "Naturally, Abe Foxman sees an insidious plot against the Jewish people." Because Foxman had the temerity to say "ill-advised"? Yglesias (of course) makes the by now extremely cliched argument that for many "criticism of Israel amounts to anti-Israel bias" (at least he didn't say anti-Semitism). But what this is really indicative of is how even relatively tempered criticism ("ill-advised"! "deeply disappointed"!) of any critics of Israel is blown up into a massive threat to the entire project of democratic deliberation. Yglesias analogizes this dispute to the spat over Human Rights Watch -- ironic, because there too he waves aside the entire issue of anti-Semitism without pause.*

Yglesias is also extremely dismissive of the idea that Robinson's performance at Durban might have been even remotely problematic, saying "it takes a pretty serious case of narcissism to reach the conclusion that this bill of particulars ought to outweigh a person’s entire career." (I also take exception to the patronizing lead-in here: "You see, back in 2001". Ancient history!). Now, nobody, including Robinson herself, disputes that Durban involved vicious anti-Semitism. Indeed, Robinson powerfully denounced it early in the proceedings, declaring "I am a Jew" in response to anti-Semitic cartoons distributed by the Arab Lawyers' Union. The question is whether she did "enough to prevent [the anti-Semitic atmosphere] – or speak up loudly enough after the debacle."

On the former, some, such as the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), thought she did not. As to the latter, Robinson's refrain is been that overall, Durban was a good thing -- including on the middle east -- which leaves me wondering why so many seem to consider it acceptable (if not obligatory) for Jews to take in the teeth for the sake of everyone else's human rights discussions. What heartens me is that Robinson has been quite clear that she recognized the going-ons as anti-Semitic. What troubles me is that Robinson seems to buy into a growing norm that something can be a "success" from a human rights standpoint even if it viciously promotes hatred and bigotry against the Jewish people.

But as far as Yglesias is concerned, all this can be collapsed into the unfair targeting of critics of Israel. And the most absurd part is that the most salient area of critique isn't her supposed "bias" against Israel, but her insufficient response to anti-Semitism. Contrary to the popular refrain, nobody serious argues that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But there does seem to be a growing equation that says criticism of anti-Semitism is anti-Palestinian.

* The cause isn't helped, obviously, by David Bernstein's "start with the kitchen sink and work backwards" approach to attacking HRW. Still, the particular problem Goldberg noted was a serious one and one that deserved more searching scrutiny -- scrutiny that Yglesias didn't give because at this point he is ideologically committed to the notion that anti-Semitism is mostly a red herring.

UPDATE: By contrast, Marty Peretz's slam on Robinson is well-worth condemning, though Peretz is arguably too easy a target.


PG said...

What do you think of his evaluation of Desmond Tutu as an anti-Semite?

David Schraub said...

I think Tutu has been extremely vitriolic in his criticisms of Israel. I highly doubt he is an anti-Semite. Has he said anti-Semitic things? Quite potentially, but these are separate matters.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to the popular refrain, nobody serious argues that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. But there does seem to be a growing equation that says criticism of anti-Semitism is anti-Palestinian.
I just want to say, thank you for writing this. I have been active in the progressive blogosphere for several years, and I feel I have been losing it lately. Reduced to tears really. My fellow "progressives" do spin wildly over AIPAC tales and sometimes comments will smack of "international Jewish cabal" and "Jewish media blackout." Right now, commentary on Sibel Edmonds' "revelations" is spinning in that direction. If I call someone out on it, I am treated as though I am halting "the dialogue", or in need of remedial education because of my "heritage." I do not condone bombings of Palestinian civilians, or any civilians whatsoever. I do not support corrupt politicians whether they be Jewish or not Jewish. Nor do I identify with the Israeli government. I am hopelessly American.
Over and over again, I have felt the need to press my fellow progressives to make distinctions between the little people who are Jewish- whether they be Israeli or American- and the governments. I feel I am losing that fight, and I am ready to throw in the towel, because it’s just too damned ugly. Sometimes I feel that too many people have this deep-seated bias which makes them think every person with Jewish background is part of this “tribe” that thinks and talks in sync as if we’re not individuals, but invaded by body snatchers.