Monday, October 15, 2007

The Trouble with Anti-Semitism

The comments in this Alas, a Blog post have hosted a roaring discussion about whether Jews ought to be considered a subordinated people for the purpose of left-wing critical theory. I staked out the original "yes" position, the hosts of the blog (Amp, joined by Mandolin and Maia) seem to disagree. It's going better than I had hoped -- I've garnered some support from other commenters, and it's generating a very lively debate. I certainly think I've gained ground as the discussion has progressed.

Yet, at the same time, it is very tiring. One of my allies in the comment section analogized the issue to "feminism 101" problems, wherein feminist bloggers are constantly forced to rehash the basic precepts of feminism because "well-meaning" outsiders simply don't know the first principles. My friend remarked that, to a large extent, we seem to be stuck at "anti-Semitism 001". At least with regards to feminism or racism, there is usually an admission (at least from, to quote Feminist Law Profs, "supposedly liberal doods") that misogyny or racism is a problem, and a preface of "I'm not a racist, but...." or its topical equivalent. With anti-Semitism, by contrast, we still seem to be stuck on whether or not the problem exists at all -- the post in this case was an unfortunately unremarkable essay deriding those who see anti-Semitism as anything but the most marginal part of anti-Israel discourse. Apparently, we're too quick to play the anti-Semitism card. For people whom, in other contexts, would be the first to demand that victims be allowed to define their own oppression, this is particularly frustrating. And all the other typical reactionary arguments were deployed as well, from the "I've got Jewish relatives, I can't be anti-Semitic", to "you're essentializing Jews and excluding those who disagree with you." When I noted that Jews face barriers in society when, for example, lobster is served at a state dinner, I stood accused of excluding non-Kosher Jews. Speaking as a Jew who keeps only a nominal version of Kosher (albeit one that doesn't eat lobster), I can assure my interlocutor that not keeping Kosher isn't the problem for me as a Jew. It's when I do engage in differential practices from the secular/Christian norm that I run into trouble. This is 101 material -- and it's particularly frustrating to have to run through it with people who I know know better.

In the wake of such conversations, my mood tends to follow a predictable pattern. At first, I want to fight fire with fire -- write the post-of-all-posts that will lay the issue to rest forever. A Critical Jewish Manifesto (in this case)! But very quickly, that mood dissipates, and I'm instead left tired and wanting. I don't know how to write a manifesto. I don't even know if one can write a manifesto by oneself (it feels so presumptuous to write "we demand" while being a single author). The problem is that I feel very, very alone in this endeavor. For every discovery of Albert Memmi (thanks Phoebe!), there are twenty more reminders that my cause is not well-represented among the people I want to call my compatriots.

For example, The Blog and the Bullet linked approvingly to my post on Martin Luther King, Why is the Only Good Civil Rights Leader a Dead One? Much obliged, and thank you. The Blog and the Bullet styles itself an aggregator of blog posts on a variety of critical anti-subordination issues. And if you look at their sidebar, they range quite the gamut of topics, everything from "Arab Issues" to "Caste" to "Anti-Feminism" to "Pacific Islander Issues" to "Transphobia." 88 categories in all, by my quick count. On religion alone, they have "Islam", "Hindu", "Sikh", even "Christianity." But do they have a topic on "Jews" or "Judaism"? Nope. "Anti-Semitism"? Nope. ("Occupation"? Of course). Is there really no critical blogging out there on anti-Semitism that is worthy of their time? Are we really that marginal to the overall struggle? A site search for anti-Semitism turns up nothing. Ditto, Jew, ditto Judaism. It is a complete, utter, and total annihilation. And I'm sick of it.

I was tempted to write a comment about it. But I don't want to be drawn in to yet another discussion about how my oppression isn't real, about how I'm just over-sensitive, how my quest for liberation is just so much Euro-American colonialism. Enough is enough. I shouldn't have to hold your hand -- it's time for the left to step up to the plate. Stop trying to silence our voices by accusing us of playing the anti-Semitism card. Stop running us together with White, European Christianity. Stop forgetting the unique issues, burdens, history, and violence that Jews have face and continue to face in an anti-Semitic world. Stop ignoring the presence of anti-Semitism as a structural, institutional phenomenon that shapes the very fabric of our society and infects the vision of all people at all levels of society. And most of all, stop acting shocked when Jews demand a vision of liberation that incorporates our needs and experiences too.


Anonymous said...


I just want to say that while you and I do not agree about Israel's being a kind of categorical imperative of Jewish liberation, I respect the intelligence and integrity you bring to your arguments.

soopermouse said...

Thank you for this post and or your understanding. I have found an attitude similar to that of Amp, whom, I do believe has a lot of great intentions, in a lot of Jews living in the USA and who tried to somewhat compromise "being Jewish" with "being leftie". I consider myself a leftie as well, but I refuse to folow the general left line that says "Israel is bad, Palestianins are good" from fear of being shunned. I also find it very sad to see that so many people fail to understand the whole concept of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and what it represents.

I am not the one who will sit and say "all is good in Israel". However, as a Jew, I know what it feels liek kowing that Israel exists, that when and if things will get bad again there is a homeland to go to from where nobody can kick me and my people out. This is , in my opinion, an essential part of the process of liberation of a people without a home for millenia, having the knowledge that there is a place where we are welcome.
I would have to be honest and say that I am envious of those who have been sheltered enough to be able to say that anti semitism does not exist anymore. Sadly, I am not that privileged. I can only hope that if I was in that situation at any point I would know better than to deny that oppression exists just because I don't experience it.

PG said...

I sympathize with your frustration at having Jews, a subordinated group everywhere in the world until maybe the last 60 years or so, lumped in with white Christians. However, the lobster dinner *really* isn't a good example. Sorry, but if you point to that as a form of oppression, that's an easy place for your opponent to point out how privileged you actually are. I definitely wouldn't try to emphasize the marginalization of Hindus by complaining about how oppressed we are by filet mignon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. This is really interesting and I think you should write that Critical Jewish Manifesto. I'm not convinced yet that anti-Semitism is a structural force of hierarchy and oppression like white supremacy (your analogy), but reading this post and your comments at Amp's blog have at least opened my mind to the possibility. A collection of facts and figures might be good. The point about Jews having the right to define their oppression is a strong one - so go ahead and define it and show us its scope, beyond lobster dinners and meals on the plane (not that those are totally insignificant - it's just that there are in fact degrees of oppression and feelings of alienation around diet options don't rank all that highly next to, say, the mass incarceration of African-American or embargo against Gaza.)

Also, I'm not sure that citing the genocidal words of Iranian politicians, as defenders of Israel's occupation are wont to do, helps your case all that much. Anti-Semitism does exist in Iran and these politicians are likely playing to a hard-line part of the electorate. This story about Iranian Jews turning down a cash offer to emigrate to Israel came to mind when you raised the point. The reality is that there appear to be Jews living in Iran who are happy to be there. The rhetoric of those politicians doesn't represent the Iranian citizenry, just like Osama bin Laden doesn't speak for most Muslims, Bush doesn't speak for most Americans, etc.. I seem to remember Ahmadinejad and Iranian officials being roundly condemned by the international community when they held their Holocaust conference, too.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the problem is that people have a caricature of anti-semites as being very obvious and Hitler like about hating Jews. It doesn't occur to them that even racists can make arguments to justify their positions.