Friday, May 09, 2014

Innocent Until Proven Nazi

I've been reading with interest the saga of Vassar College's Students for Justice in Palestine branch, which recently has posted a series of material from various White supremacist websites. Rebecca Lesses, a professor at a fellow New York liberal arts college, initially posted about it here and has since written several follow-up posts.

Suffice to say, Vassar SJP is not backing down. They concede that their source (Occidental Quarterly) "is a white nationalist publication, that doesn't mean everything they say is invalid though!" "If the idea is alright, who cares where they come from?" (The idea here, in case you're curious, is that the intertubes are infested with "Zionist internet trolls" -- the electronic cohorts of "fifth columns in foreign governments who subvert national policies to serve Israel"). They contend that linking to OQ "does not mean we support white nationalist ideology; rather, we found this particular article’s description of those behind zionist propaganda campaigns and how they operate to be a helpful articulation of problems many organizations like us face." In short, "we're not white supremacists, but they sure do have it right about the Jews!"

In a sense this is almost too easy. If you call yourself an anti-racist but find yourself nodding along with neo-nazis, maybe that's a sign that your anti-racist bona fides aren't quite what you think they are. Clearly they don't view themselves as anti-Semitic, but one wonders what exactly would be evidence to these students that this self-appraisal isn't reliable? In large part, this discussion is about Jews who are describing their oppression and gentiles who call us crazy for doing so. Once you're far enough down the rabbit hole, there is no threshold of evidence that makes the Jewish claim credible. The louder we speak, the crazier we are. But most people are not so far gone as to be unable to understand what it means when one starts unapologetically parroting white supremacist slogans. Demonstrating the overlap between "left-wing" anti-Semitism, which clothes itself in anti-racism discourse, and its "right-wing" counterparts is a way of validating the claim -- we can feel confident that these students are anti-Semitic because they're essentially waving its flag. "You shall know them by their fruits" indeed.

But in another sense I find this very frustrating (aside from the obvious reasons, of course). Suppose Vassar SJP had posted the exact same material, only it wasn't attributable to an avowedly white nationalist website? Would the reaction have been the same? For some of us, sure: we know anti-Semitism when we see it. But for others, it seems that the Nazi link is a crutch -- without it they find it very difficult to even raise the prospect of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has symbology but no content. Ideas, policies, statements, actions, and motives are not anti-Semitic -- only associations are. We saw this with Jenna Delich too -- it wasn't what was said, it was that David Duke was saying it, that was the smoking gun. You are anti-Semitic to the extent you can be tied to Nazis. If you can't, you're in the clear.


Jonathan Marks said...

The reaction would or should have been similar because the idea they think is "alright" is that Zionists are a "fifth column" (i.e. traitors). That's part of the quotation they put up there, and it would be an anti-Semitic trope even if it did not come from an anti-Semitic publication. Once you start using anti-Semitic tropes, the excuse that "but I'm only talking about people who favor the existence of Israel as a Jewish state as traitors, not all Jews" loses whatever force it may have had, just as if they had said that Zionists (but not all Jews) use Christian baby blood to make matzo.

David Schraub said...

"Should"? Yes. "Would"? Doubtful. That's the point -- as a society we have very little confidence calling anything anti-Semitic based on content alone. We need the association as a crutch because we lack any agreed-upon substantive definition of anti-Semitism, even in relatively extreme cases such as this.

PG said...

To give an example of the lack of agreement:

Given the dearth of other groups that have been accuse of using non-group members' blood for any particular purpose, the "Christian babies' blood to make matzo" is inarguably a specifically anti-Semitic smear. I'm not sure the phrase "fifth column" is quite so much; see eg Andrew Sullivan using it after 9/11 to describe every leftist on the East and West Coasts, by which I'm pretty sure he meant to include many non-Jews.

David Schraub said...

I don't know what you mean by this. An attack can be deployed against multiple groups and still leverage specific histories of bias and oppression with regard to a particular group.

For example, "beast" or "brute" language may be deployed against all manner of people we view as violent and uncontrollable, yet when deployed against African-Americans particularly it draws upon specific racist tropes that make it considerably more dangerous.

PG said...

But there's a specific very long history of whites' referring to Africans as a group as beasts and brutes. (I actually am not immediately recalling any instances of referring to African-Americans as beasts, though I can think of several where they were called brutes.) So yes it has a particular resonance there that doesn't exist for groups without such a long history.

But from what I understand, the phrase "fifth column" can't have a terribly long history for any group because it originated in the Spanish Civil War to refer fascist Franco sympathizers (and was used similarly in WWII in the US about fascist Nazi sympathizers). I understand there's a general anti-Semitic smear of assuming Jews not to be truly of the nation and thus traitors, but it's not attached to the phrase "fifth column." For one thing, it long predates that term.