Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Status of German Anti-Semitism

The Central Council of German Jews gets a lot of anti-Semitic mail, as one might expect. Recently, some researchers dived into the cesspool and tried to discern some patterns. Their findings were fascinating:
Many would view the stream of vitriol, sent to German Jewry’s central communal organization between 2002 and 2012, as little more than raw sewage. But Monika Schwarz-Friesel, a professor of linguistics at the Technical University of Berlin, saw it as raw data. Together with Jehuda Reinharz, the American historian and former president of Brandeis University, Schwarz-Friesel has recently published a study of these letters. And their findings reaffirm one of the enduring, if still surprising truths about anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere.

More than 60% of the hate mail came from well-educated Germans, including university professors, according to their study, “The Language of Hostility Towards Jews in the 21st Century,” released earlier this year. Only 3% came from right-wing extremists.

The researchers know this partly from analyzing the language of the letter writers — but also because many of the authors of the emails in their sample gave their names, addresses and professions. “We checked some of them, [and] the information [was] valid,” said Schwarz-Friesel in an email to the Forward. She and her research partner were amazed that the writers were so brazen. “I don’t think they would have identified themselves 20 or 30 years ago,” said Reinharz.

“We found that there is hardly any difference in the semantics of highly educated anti-Semites and vulgar extremists and neo-Nazis,” said Schwarz-Friezel. “The difference lies only in style and formal rhetoric, but the concepts are the same.”

One of the research pair’s other main findings was that hatred for Israel has become the main vehicle for German anti-Semitism. More than 80% of the 14,000 emails focused on Israel as their central theme.

Schwarz-Friesel and Reinharz say they strove hard to distinguish emails that were critical of Israel — even those that expressed anger toward it — from those that were anti-Semitic.

“Only those letters were classified as anti-Semitic that clearly [saw] German Jews as non-Germans and collectively abused German Jews to be responsible for crimes in Israel!” she explained.
First, I would love to see this research replicated in the United States. I'd be curious to know if the distribution here was similar or not.

More substantively, that anti-Semitic abuse (a) comes from the highly-educated and (b) is overwhelmingly tied to "criticism of Israel" reminds me of a thesis I started to develop in two posts regarding anti-Semitism as status-production.

We don't often think about the "causes" of anti-Semitism or other "isms", in part because such an inquiry often can be mistaken for justifying it. But people wouldn't be anti-Semitic unless they derived some utility from it. The most common "rationale" for popular anti-Semitism may be that anti-Semitism offers an explanation for unfairness or injustice that otherwise would feel entirely unexplainable. The factors that explain why any given person is poor or unemployed or in inadequate housing or what have you are complex and impersonal, they can't be lashed out against. "It's the Jews fault" creates a concrete target and holds out the possibility, if not realistic than at least conceptually-conceivable, of change -- were it not for those people I wouldn't be in this situation.

This explanation undoubtedly carries weight. But it is incomplete. For starters, it focuses primarily on anti-Semitism amongst the downtrodden, but as this study confirms anti-Jewish attitudes are well-represented amongst society's elite. Second, it doesn't explain why anti-Israel rhetoric is the vehicle of choice: if I wanted to blame the Jews for my unemployment, I have access to plenty stereotypes and slurs which more directly play on the theme ("Take that Shylock!").

The status-production rationale fills this gap. All persons crave status. We want to feel valued and important in society; like we are making a contribution. One way of doing this is to join a movement, feeling like one is part of something larger than oneself, and is making a positive difference in the world. White supremacy, for instance was beneficial even to those who it did not seem to materially benefit (e.g., poorer Whites) in part because it located them within a broader narrative of social relations where they were told they were valuable and important. Even if it doesn't pay the rent or give a raise, White supremacy conferred status upon poor Whites -- and for folks who had very little status otherwise, that was enough.

But of course, the desire for status is not unique to the currently-marginalized -- everyone, elites included, desires to be valued and important by our peers. Hence, to the extent that participating in White Supremacy was status-raising activity, it was in the interest of Whites of all classes to partake in it -- and, more importantly, partake in it through the means that conferred status. Not every racist action was status-conferring. By the 1930s, for example, elite Southern Whites had become highly embarrassed by lynchings, which they thought made them look backwards and lawless. The decline in lynchings through this time (there were 130 lynchings in 1901 against only 3 in 1939) does not reflect substantial liberalization in the views of Southern Whites (lynchings were mostly replaced with show trials, after all), but it did reflect an alteration in the sort of behavior which was viewed as status-producing.

The status-production theory suggests that anti-Semitic attitudes will be both created and channeled to arenas in which there exists a status-conferring narrative (that is, a network of high-status individuals who view a particular sort of anti-Semitic activity -- or anti-Semitic activity taken in the course of other objectives -- as worthy of conferring status). Anti-Semitism can be created by status-production because it gives an independent incentive to be anti-Semitic in ways that confer status (status-raising is its own reward); anti-Semitism is channeled by status-production because it lowers the cost of expressing pre-existing anti-Semitic attitudes (instead of being roundly condemned, one finds oneself praised and lauded in some circles).

Anti-Israel anti-Semitism is status-producing. Anti-Israel statements -- whether anti-Semitic or not -- come wrapped in the language of human rights, universal justice, anti-imperialism, and like terms; rhetoric which people like associating themselves with and are status-raising compared to people who are allegedly opposed or indifferent to such things. Unlike anti-Semitism that is expressed solely in economic terms ("Jews are moneygrubbers"), which is viewed as at least jejune if not utterly condemnable, to be "anti-Israel" makes one a bold truthsayer, a crusader for justice, a brave rebel against the forces of darkness. Of course it doesn't have this effect in all circles, but it doesn't have to -- so long as some circle of privileged persons create a system where such views are considered salutary and laudable, some people (especially those whose personal networks are closely entwined with the particular actors conferring status on this ground) will be attracted to attaining that status. Hence, we should expect anti-Semitism to come primarily in the form of anti-Israel rhetoric -- why wouldn't it? To do so is the best way of minimizing the backlash and maximizing the status that the statement elicits. In short, anti-Semitism is expressed in the idiom of the dominant narratives of its time. If it the narrative is Christianity, Jews will be attacked for being non-Christian, if it is nationalist, Jews will be attacked for being foreign, and if it is human rights, than Jews will be attacked as oppressors.

Where does this leave the Israel critic, and, in particular, does it mean that "all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic [status production]"? First, we must state clearly that "Israel critic" is an incredibly broad term that probably encompasses every single person who has ever had an opinion on the subject -- including Israel's defenders. I am a defender of Israel, I am also a critic of Israel. Caring about something means having opinions about it, it would be a remarkable coincidence if my opinions about Israel (or any other country, or institution, or person) perfectly tracked Israel's actions. ZOA is a critic of Israel, as it has every right to be. The point being, first and foremost, that those who adopt the mantle "critic of Israel" are in reality a narrow and provincial subset of the class, who should not be allowed to insist that the vast majority of Jews are mindless zombies "incapable of criticism of Israel." Viewed in this way, it is clear that the vast majority of criticisms of Israel pose no serious threat of engendering anti-Semitism. We are talking about particular forms of criticism whose position seems considerably more fraught.

But speaking to that subset in particular, and stipulating arguendo that they do not want their views to enhance the status of anti-Semites, there are two things that must be said. First, one has to engage in the conversation -- if one isn't willing to consider as even potentially legitimate Jewish criticisms that one's statements are or engender anti-Semitism, one can't act surprised if they don't give your own criticisms much weight or attribute them to hostility. After all, it seems quite likely that a person whose immediate response to Jewish objections is "as usual, Jews are lying/suppressing free inquiry/insane" is someone who in fact does harbor inegalitarian views towards Jews. Privilege -- gentile or otherwise -- means that one can always choose to maintain the primacy of one's own perspective on matters affecting the marginalized group. A very large part of anti-oppression analysis is about convincing the privileged to at least suspend that outlook and recognize that it is possible -- maybe even likely -- that the marginalized person is epistemically more credible on the subject, and that our own view -- even if honestly arrived at, even if fervently held -- may be suspect after all. Persons consistently unwilling to engage in that "quietude" towards Jewish voices cannot claim any presumption of egalitarian views vis-a-vis Jews.

Second, even if one's own heart is beyond reproach, speaking and acting in a political and social system permeated by prejudice means that it isn't all about you. Persons can be held accountable not just for their intent, but also for their predictable effects -- concern for justice means becoming attuned to how one's behavior plays out systematically and working to mitigate its malign consequences. Where particular modes of speaking or activism carries a high risk of reinforcing systems of violence and oppression, heightened obligations are triggered. As I wrote earlier.
[I]ntention is not a necessary component to creating this effect, nor does lack of intention necessarily absolve moral culpability. I believe criticism of a state can be detached from criticism of that state’s citizens; I am less optimistic that criticism of a state can be detached from that state’s supporters. Placed, willingly or nor, in a morally salient relationship with supporters (particularly Jewish supporters) of Israel, the critics have an obligation to be mindful of the known and predictable effects. When they are reckless with the lives affected by their speech, they bear some measure of responsibility for the consequences.

Again, there may be no intention to “green light” anti-Semitic violence. But because the perpetrators have already received the message that they are engaged in a morally righteous struggle, the muted reaction against their behavior — and the unabated continuance of the messages which led them to believe that their acts were heroic to begin with — is easily interpreted as consent or support. Focusing nearly exclusively on defending their words, policies, and procedures from the possibility that they are anti-Semitic, or might produce, ratify, legitimate, or sustain it, the purveyors of criticism as moral hatred unintentionally but dramatically weaken the ability for committed anti-racists to break the connection between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitic activity. Focusing on intent, they are blind to effects. And by refusing to allow even the barest interrogation into the connections between what they are saying and doing, and the historical and current manifestations of anti-Semitism worldwide, it is impossible to create a competitive counternarrative based on principles of justice, fairness, or progressivism; as these terms are all monopolized by the very actors who are unwittingly undermining them. In this world, the only space for a counterstory is on the right, and that is a world I refuse to accede to.

This is one of the many reasons why I am so fervent in speaking up on behalf of those who in good faith speak out against anti-Semitism on the left. Until it is affirmed that interrogating the potential anti-Semitism (in intent and in effect) of progressive speakers (on Israel and on other topics) is a fundamentally legitimate activity for progressives to engage in, it will be impossible to battle against the wave of anti-Semitic violence which seeks status through a perverted pursuit of justice.
I characterized this as a duty to mitigate, not refrain, and that is an important qualification: particular ideas cannot be off-limits only because uncontrolled third parties with terrible views claim status from them. But it is fair to impose an obligation to be mindful of these effects and work to mitigate them, in part because doing so sharpens and clarifies the actual content of the critique, but in part becuase it is generally good that people operating in fraught moral terrain be obligated to think constantly and critically about how their views relate to and are impacted by important moral questions. After all, if we can't figure out how (or can't motivate ourselves) to draw clear conceptual distinctions between our own views and those we purportedly condemn, then maybe the views themselves need reassessing.

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