Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Sum of All Fears

This is a very interesting Tablet Mag piece on whether there remains a place for Jews in the UK Labour party. I'd have thought the article was hyperbolic -- not the least of which because a Jew is currently the head of Labour -- but it certainly is provocative. I had no idea that Jews were already voting at nearly 60% for the Conservatives.

All that said, I think the most important pull quote comes from a young English liberal explaining his reticence to link up with Labour:
“Some people on the left, educated people, are so quick to use the word Holocaust against Israel, almost with a grin because they think they legitimately can. Don’t get me wrong, Israel does a lot I don’t agree with, but I don’t find myself criticizing them to anyone who isn't Jewish because I don’t want to be associated with people who freely use words like holocaust and ethnic cleansing.”
Both sides of that resonate with me. I've definitely met people who love to use Holocaust-talk to describe Israel and do so with a smirk -- they're temperamentally identical to the folks who call Obama a "slave master" -- and I have the same recoil to them. They call Israel "the new Nazis" because they know it wounds Jews, and because they know in their circles they'll get away with it, and probably because they think it is so so unfair that Jews "get" the Holocaust and want to take it away from them.

And as for the second half -- well, that rings true too. Some people worry about criticizing Israel because they're afraid they'll be called anti-Semitic. Other worry because they're afraid that they'll give succor to people who are anti-Semites, or be associated with persons they consider to be anti-Semitic, or reinforce worldviews that are promoted by anti-Semites. One hears a lot about the former but much less about the latter, but the latter seems to be a more worrisome problem. After all, there is no entitlement to be free from the vicinity of anti-Semitism claims. But it is the case that we can't control the cultural meaning of the words we speak, and hence a world suffused with a certain type of anti-Semitism will and should act as a constraint on what sorts of statements people are comfortable making even if, out of context and in isolation, those statements would seem to be innocuous or even salutary. The problem, in that case, isn't that one is "worried about being called anti-Semitic" (a worry I'm not particularly sympathetic to), the problem is that one is worried about one's words reifying anti-Semitic attitudes or institutions even if that wasn't your intent (a worry I'm quite sympathetic to).

Of course, perhaps the reason one hears a lot about the former but much less about the latter is that the former instructs us to care less about anti-Semitism and what Jews have to say, and the latter demands that we be more attentive to anti-Semitism and what Jews have to say. But I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

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