Sunday, February 19, 2017

Thinking About the Structure of Antisemitism

A Lebanese-Canadian writer, Mila Ghorayeb, has written a wonderful post on the interaction of leftist politics and antisemitism. It is a tremendous example -- albeit (by design) a first step -- of how to take seriously antisemitism as an important feature in thinking about Israel and the Israeli/Arab and Israeli/Palestinian conflict while still maintaining a significant critical perspective on Israeli governmental policy. It is particularly timely given McGill is currently being roiled by at least two germane antisemitism controversies -- a student officer who tweeted "punch a Zionist" (and has resisted calls to resign) and a policy by the McGill student paper to no longer publish columns with a "Zionist" perspective (one wonders whether Mila's piece would qualify).

One way I would parse Mila's excellent meditation -- and this is something I've sought to develop in pieces like Criticizing Israel without it Seeming Anti-Semitic is Hard (and That's a Good Thing) and Anti-Semitism as Structural and the Iran Deal Debate -- is that we need to break out of the binary mode of thinking which treats "is this [criticism of Israel] antisemitic?" as the sole operative question. Certainly, that's sometimes a relevant question, and one that we should ponder seriously. But it is a subset of a larger point, which is that antisemitism is part of the set of social conditions which significantly and materially effect Jewish life and institutional practices. Hence, if you're talking about a Jewish institution or practice (e.g., Israel or Zionism), then one of the things you should be thinking about is antisemitism because antisemitism is part of the overall set of social circumstances which create the environment and atmosphere in which those institutions/practices exist. And so I wrote:
Anti-Semitism is an extremely important facet of any discussion regarding Israel. Any discussion of Israel is a discussion, in part, about what Jews are at liberty to do, how the political institutions that govern them can justly be structured, the sort of self-determination they are entitled to, and the epistemic status of Jewish versus non-Jewish perceptions of Jewish behavior and moral claims, among other things. In all of these discussions, matters of anti-Semitism should affect our analysis considerably. These are not the only things that matter, of course, but they do matter, and if one talks about Israel without having these considerations foregrounded in your mind, you're talking about Israel poorly.
Note that this paragraph does not say that "all criticism of Israel is antisemitic." What it says is simultaneously much narrower and much broader: it says "antisemitism is substantially relevant to all discourse about Israel." Not the only thing that is relevant, but an important relevancy, such that if we excise it from the conversation or table it save in cases where it is indisputable (when is it ever?), what will result is a considerably stilted and malformed conversation. This was the point of the analogy I drew to discourse about affirmative action:
Consider as a parallel discussions about affirmative action, which also suffer from the oft-heard claim that "one should be able to oppose affirmative action without being 'racist.'" Now, I'm a strong supporter of affirmative action. Nonetheless, I recognize that there are important debates to be had about the propriety and legitimacy of affirmative action programs, and critical positions can be held by persons who have perfectly egalitarian views towards racial minorities. It is important to have these debates, and we should have these debates. But it would something else entirely to say that we could even have an intelligible, let alone productive, discussion about affirmative action without the issue of racism entering into the picture at all. Yet as with anti-Semitism, people seem to feel they have an entitlement to talk about affirmative action without having their particular position's compatibility with racial equality called into question. The "debate" they want to have about affirmative action -- one where one is not permitted to consider the impact and continuing salience of racism or assess the validity of particular positions against the metric of racial justice -- is no debate at all; it would be incomprehensible gibberish. Keeping "racism" at the forefront of affirmative action debates ensures that an important element of the conversation which people very much would rather ignore stays at the center of the analysis. That's a very good thing.
Note here, too, that the main question isn't and shouldn't be "is this criticism of affirmative action racist or not?" It is entirely coherent -- and I'd argue necessary -- to say both that a particular criticism might not be racist in of itself but that to be legitimate it nonetheless must grapple seriously with the fact of racism. A criticism of affirmative action that refuses to even address racism would just be nonsense (yet how often do we see attempts to do just that?). Likewise, it is conceptually possible for one to issue a criticism -- even a cutting criticism -- of affirmative action that is attentive to and responsive towards the reality of racism, and which accepts that racism is an essential part of the social milieu which sets the parameters of the debate (and, to a large extent, explains why we have it).

So too with Israel. Some criticisms of Israel are antisemitic and some aren't, and we figure out which is which by careful analysis to separate the wheat from the chaff. But even a non-antisemitic criticism of Israel might still be ill-formed to the extent that it fails to adequately account for and grapple with antisemitism as a relevant feature of the social world which should condition our views on Jewish institutions and practices. A good critic pays attention to such germane elements of conversation, and it is reasonable to demand that critics be good at their jobs (and, by extension, when critics are unreasonably resistant to incorporating this particular dimension into their analysis we might fairly wonder whether that refusal is fairly characterized as a form of antisemitism).

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