Wednesday, January 31, 2007


A piece by Indiana Professor Alvin H. Rosenfeld, entitled "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism" has been causing a bit of a stir in some circles, apparently. The argument is that certain Jews, through unjustifiably virulent and vicious criticism of Israel, are feeding into a larger climate of anti-Semitism and thus deserve to be condemned. These Jews are "proud to be ashamed to be Jewish." Unsurprisingly, some of its targets have cried foul, claiming that the piece is designed to stifle harsh criticism of Israel. Rosenfeld, for his part, carefully draws his line between legitimate and illegitimate criticism at the claim that Israel should not exist as a state (coupled with equally vitriolic assertions that Israel is committing "genocide" or other such hyperbole).

Tony Judt responded that "I don't know anyone in a respectable range of opinion who thinks Israel shouldn't exist," so perhaps the theoretical gap between the camps is not as far as it is made out to be. Nonetheless, Rosenfeld does identify several Jewish writers have had made just such a claim, so perhaps we could all unify in condemning them at least, no? As usual, the poles should be clear: There is criticism of Israel (from liberal or conservative positions) that is not anti-Semitic, and there is criticism of Israel that is anti-Semitic. Determining what is legitimate and what isn't may be a controversial endeavor, but it cannot happen unless those two end-points are conceded.

For my part, I first want to draw attention to the quotation marks around "progressive" in the title, of which I wholeheartedly approve of. The people who would ask for the suicide of my people, condone violence against us as Jews, who wish to recreate our exile and insure our perpetual state of marginalization, are not progressives. They have no right to appropriate the term, and I refuse to yield it to them. Their claim of the label is an insult to those of us truly committed to the goal of freedom and liberation, and makes a mockery of the ideals humankind should aspire to. This, again, does not include every critic of Israel. It does include those whose response to violence against Jews on behalf of "anti-Zionism" is a resounding "Who cares?"

On the same story, Matthew Yglesias attempts to argue making "extreme or over-the-top criticisms of Israel" is completely unrelated to anti-Semitism, because it conflates Jews-as-a-people with the state. This exhibits almost willful blindness about the manner in which anti-Israel politics and anti-Semitic politics interrelate. Sometimes, the link is direct, as when critics utilize anti-Semitic slurs or stereotypes in their diatribes. This would include both more explicit references (the despicable "what if Hitler had won" poster at the UN anti-racism conference), as well as subtler moves (talking about the Zionist-controlled media, or Jewish wealth and resources being the only reason it gets support). But moreover, I think there disproportionate attacks create an indirect (but still salient) link to anti-Semitism as well. As a commenter notes, since Israel is the only Jewish-run state, disproportionate attacks on Israel vis-a-vis much worse human violators around the world (Zimbabwe, Sudan, China, etc..) can be seen as powerful prima facia evidence of anti-Semitism. To borrow from race theory, saying that the world's only Jewish state is the most brutal, vicious regime on the planet as (among other things) the Darfuri death toll ticks towards a million is "unexplainable but by anti-Semitism." There is no other possible motivating factor for such prejudicial blindness.

Again, this not only strikes me as intuitive, but is an argument that should be familiar to liberals from the race relations context, which is why it is so aggravating to watch Yglesias and his friends be always the first to assure their leftist buddies that there's no anti-Semitism to see here, continue on as normal. If saying that Jews who support Zionism are exhibiting "collective insanity" is not anti-Semitic, what qualifies? What would cross Yglesias' line? This is why I made my Yglesias/Clarence Thomas comparison in the last post. Yglesias doesn't usually indulge directly in the type of over-the-top Israel condemnation I'd condemn, but what he's doing is enabling, pure and simple. I have no doubt that he wants to see nothing but the best things for Jews, and his actually policies on Israel are not, in themselves, objectionable. But his primary contribution to the debate recently has been to serve as cover for non-Jews who don't want to grapple with how anti-Semitism may be informing their opinions on the Jewish state. And thus, his capper sentence attacking Rosenfeld is bitter irony indeed, "The idea, basically, is to scare the goyim who figure that while liberal Jews can take the heat, they probably can't, and had best just avoid talking about the whole thing." Fortunately, Mr. Yglesias is there, so that the next generation of Christians who want to call Israel the 4th Reich can have a ready-made shield against anti-Semitism: "I read Jewish bloggers--I can't be anti-Semitic!" "I have Black friends, I can't be racist!"

Good for you. Good for you.


Anonymous said...

There are no doubt some nasties on the left as well as the center and right and some of these lefties are pretty vocal.

The thing is antisemite has been used so reflexively and unfairly, that it has lost meaning. For example Holly on the Moderate Voice called anyone who questioned Israel's attack on Lebanon an anti semite.

It wasn't about fighting Hezbullah, Israel was afraid to go in and fight. It did leave cluster bombs all over the south, something we are saying is illegal use of weapons we provided , it did hurt the whole country and set the stage for a Hezbullah coup now in play.

To think that it was poorly done and caused mostly mischief is not being an anti semite.

Nor is Israel's refusal to honor our thirty year requests not to build settlements necessarily a good thing, so to say we need to defend them is not anti semite.

Israel does not face any existential threat in the medium term and in the long term it will probably be destroyed if new attitudes are not found on many sides. The balance of power and fanaticism is against it.

I think many Arab groups are responsible, they are pushing the situation to extremity, but some of the directions Israel may take, no matter how understandable, do destroy the beauty of the "jewish vision" and turn it into something else.

There is a very questionable middle east policy with which some elements in Likud seem allied that many find questionable, dangerous and so far catastropic.

We have been told questioning this is anti semitic, that no matter what the actual technical capacity of Iran or it's real balance of power, that to support anything less than war is to surrender to it's big mouthed, relatively powerless president who is as bad as Hitler, and if we think this policy questionable, we are anti semitic.

I fear the alleged supporters of Israel are sending their cause to the same place the Limbaugian right is going, the rhetoric and bullying will at some point backfire.

I would worry more about this than goofy leftists who act to strengthen the value of Israel in the eyes of those in the middle. Most of us want it to succeed, we have a fondness for it and it is closer to us than the surrounding states; but this cult like condemnation of any doubts does alienate.

Pragmatically Israel may not be worth the cost and if people like Holly continue to call them antisemitic, then they might look to their interests. Israeri just destroyed the cedar revolution, it makes things difficult with states essential to American's dinners.

And each year it loses more and more of the people we so admired. It is becoming dominated by eastern Jews who think to much like their neighbors and Russians with the racism so common there.

The incompetence of it's military which couldn't stop rockets or take terrorist positiions, but could destroy a civilian infrastructure, has taken a little more of the romance away.

And to be told that we are anti semitic for not saying how wonderful this stupid operation was diminishes our respect more.

Anonymous said...

"There is criticism of Israel (from liberal or conservative positions) that is not anti-Semitic, and there is criticism of Israel that is anti-Semitic. Determining what is legitimate and what isn't may be a controversial endeavor, but it cannot happen unless those two end-points are conceded."

I agree entirely. So now, David, name me ONE critic of Israel who you think ISN'T anti-Semitic. Shouldn't be hard, since you've appointed yourself the judge of these matters.

Also, did Matthew ever actually write that "the world's only Jewish state is the most brutal, vicious regime on the planet?" If not, why did you include that line in the post?

David Schraub said...

One critic of Israel who is not anti-Semitic. How about...Matthew Yglesias?

Re-read the post: I said that Yglesias was enabling anti-Semites (by having an absurdly far horizon for calling something "anti-Semitic"), but his personal criticisms are very much in-bounds.

Speaking of rereading the post, the "most brutal" line refers to the critics identified in Rosenfeld's article, whom Yglesias is defending from charges of anti-Semitism (but is not part of himself).

Anonymous said...

Oh. I very much admire your blog and when I read-

"There is criticism of Israel (from liberal or conservative positions) that is not anti-Semitic, and there is criticism of Israel that is anti-Semitic. Determining what is legitimate and what isn't may be a controversial endeavor, but it cannot happen unless those two end-points are conceded."

--I thought "now *there's* the argument in a nutshell." So I eagerly read on, but I have to say the rest of the post wasn't real clear--in fact, I seem to have missed the point entirely. I'm hoping you continue on the topic, though.

Captain USpace said...

Excellent post, very well laid out, it's in and you're linked, thanks!

absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
never debate moonbats