Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Is Anti-Israel Anti-Semitism Incidental or Structural?

In my civil rights roundup today I noted a post at Feministe by Girl Detective that talks about the link but anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Entitled "This is what anti-semitism looks like", it lists types of arguments made "against Israel" that the author thinks are infused with anti-semitism.

This is a topic I've written extensively about in various forms. A goodly portion of my thoughts were expressed in the comments of other Feministe posts, specifically this one and this one (Feminist Gal excerpted some of her favorite comments so you don't have to slog through). I've also written related posts asking Can Zionism Be Defended by Proxies?, and lamenting the tragedy of left-wing zionist advocacy.

I am thus very happy that this post was written. I think it is a conversation that the left definitely needs to have, and I applaud Girl Detective for getting the ball rolling. That being said, I think the way she frames this issue has significant problems and doesn't actually take seriously anti-semitism as a structural manifestation of power and subordination. Instead, it is extraordinarily deferential to the prevailing power structure, doing nothing to challenge anti-semitism as embedded within our modes of thinking about Israel and Jews, rather than an aberrant exception to our general liberal souls.

The structure of her post is to list a particular argument ("Israelis are just like the Nazis!") and explain what's anti-semitic about it. It's not that I disagree with her on any given point. But by grappling with specific claims piece-meal, she ends up presenting the problem as episodic -- individual incidents which are disconnected from the broader thrust of how Israel is discussed in both leftist and mainstream circles.

Framing the question this way invites arguments over the particulars of specific claims (as evidenced by the people in comments who seem very wedded to preserving the linkage between Israel and Nazis), rather than analysis about how the whole discourse is integrated within a broader structural condition which acts to subordinate Jews. Is the Israel lobby influential? Yes, clearly it is. But that doesn't mean that the discourse around it isn't influenced by the stereotype of Jewish hyper-power. Most pertinently, that AIPAC is influential doesn't mean that it represents the only avenue by which American policymakers hear about the Israel/Palestine conflict (it's not like our Arab allies are shut out of Washington), and it's not as if AIPAC's influence in DC extends globally (the UN is virulently anti-Israel). Arguing about it in isolation, however, allows folks to turn the focus away from the broader context in which pro- and anti-Zionist arguments are made in the public arena -- which includes not just US Congress but the United Nations, college campuses, the EU, and many others.

The incidental focus also sometimes means Detective Girl doesn't really seem to grasp get at the meaning behind certain types of arguments she does agree are anti-semitic. Here's DG's criticism of the "Israel = Nazi" claim:
The main reason this comparison is unproductive is that Godwin's Law doesn’t allow for much in-depth analysis. A description of the specific crimes that the Israeli government is committing should be more than enough to constitute a call to action; anyone who's not swayed by the facts on the ground probably isn't worth trying to sway. And, like condemnations of "the Zionists," comparisons of Israelis to Nazis also come directly from anti-semitic propaganda.

It's not so much that this is wrong as that it misses the major point. The reason "Nazi" is used against Israel as opposed to the myriad of other horrible regimes (Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Attila the Hun) is because of the perception that the Holocaust is critical to the legitimacy of the creation and maintenance of the Jewish state. Consequently, suppression of that experience is a critical part of anti-Zionist discourse. In the extreme case, this comes out in Holocaust denial. But the Nazi comparison serves roughly the same purpose -- it seeks to break the link between the Nazi extermination of the Jews and supporting Israel by depriving it of its unique horror (while at the same time, piggybacking on that revulsion to muster support for Palestinians). But that tactic is facially anti-semitic: it tries to suppress Jewish experience and fundamentally alter the nature of our history and reality. That's inherently wrong, but it takes on particular significance given that we're talking about an experience of blood and death: washing it out of the historical memory makes Jews more vulnerable by removing the impetus to fix the problem and weakens our vigilance looking out for signals of future anti-semitism.

The other thing the focus on particular instances of rhetoric does is that it externalizes the problem only to the extremes. Again, the amount of people who are invested in talk about Israel being Nazis shows that this isn't insignificant. But the trouble is that if the problem is Jewish anti-subordination on a structural level, it's incorporated in the very fabric of our discourse. It is interwoven into our basic assumptions and perceptions about the conflict. Anti-semitism is not only implicated when someone says "Israel is the Jewish vanguard of world domination", anymore than racism only occurs when someone says "all those n***ers should go back to Africa." Anti-semitism, to borrow from Taunya Lovell Banks, is often restricted only to "rabid hate and/or violence." But anyone who has seriously looked into anti-subordination studies knows that the mechanics which keep certain people in power and others down are rarely that simple. Put simply, DG sets the bar too low: it is way too easy to talk about Israel without being "anti-semitic" under her taxonomy, in ways that don't require the speakers to do any critical engagement with how their own lives and perceptions might be influenced by anti-semitism. Instead, she engages in soothing bromides about how Jews are, in fact, "paranoid" about anti-semitism -- as if the whole post is just to assuage our (totally unfounded!) fears on the issue. Talk about blaming the victims! There is certainly nothing approaching an analysis of "gentile privilege" here.

Anti-semitism doesn't occur (merely) as sporadic incidents of hate or extreme rhetoric. It is embedded in all of our perspectives of what Jews deserve, what their role is in the global community, and fundamentally who we are. A progressive praxis that is truly committed to liberation of all peoples has to be willing to listen to Jewish voices and Jewish stories about our own experience and history. When we tell you that we perceive something as anti-semitic, listen -- don't chide us about our paranoia in the wake of millions of dead Jewish bodies. When we tell you what we need for our freedom and security, take us seriously, and realize the burden ought to be on you, not us, to offer realistic alternative paths if you don't like the one we're travelling on now.

The gentile world has not earned Jewish trust. That it nevertheless demands that we defer to them, live under their rule, and substitute their judgment for ours is an expression of arrogance (I'd like to say unparalleled arrogance, but it sadly is quite reminiscent of how many privileged groups -- Whites, men, heterosexuals -- have treated those they keep under their boot). It is not something progressives can tolerate any longer if they wish to keep the name. We need to engage with anti-semitism beyond the superficial, and get down to the deep, deep roots it has laid in all branches of western and global society.


Mark said...

I started to read this and got to

That being said, I think the way she frames this issue has significant problems and doesn't actually take seriously antisemitism as a structural manifestation of anti-subordination.

And my parser shut down. It seems to me subordination (no anti-) is likely to be (in your view especially) a bad thing ... so anti-subordination therefore is likely good (google shows no definition for anti-subordination, so I'm guessing its something "against" subordination). So why connect "structural manifestations" of anti-subordination as something to identify as an example of antisemitism.

David Schraub said...

Yikes, bad typo. Thanks -- it's been corrected.

PG said...

Have you encountered any arguments that you consider anti-Israel yet not anti-Semitic? Such a beast seems to be rare but not impossible -- I would be interested in seeing an example.

Matt said...

This article at Racialicious is relevant. I'm actually surprised how successful the discussion has been.

Mark said...

An anti-Israel non-antisemitic argument seems straightforward if you think that the external creation of a state in Palestine by the Allied powers by fiat originally was unjust. All you'd have to do is propose that whatever solution you have is done to redress the original insult.

Anonymous said...


You make an excellent point about the deeper implications of the Nazi reference. However, a lot of activists (especially younger ones) say it for shock value, without any awareness of why it's become such a widespread trope. Those are the people I'm trying to reach out to.

What's really dismaying is your assertion that a woman "doesn't really seem to grasp" the way anti-semitism works simply because she took a different angle than you would have preferred. I welcome constructive criticism, but not sexism.

David Schraub said...

Perhaps "grasp" was too strong. "Didn't seem to get at" would be more accurate, since you're right that I don't know if you were unaware of what I conceive to be the actual problem with the Nazi analogy, or if you were aware and just chose to use what I still consider to be an inadequate framing.

I am, admittedly, confused by the sexism charge -- the sentence in question doesn't say anything about "a woman" not grasping such things. It was a rather individualistic statement -- I'm not sure how it came off as sex-linked, but since it did I do apologize.

PG said...

An anti-Israel non-antisemitic argument seems straightforward if you think that the external creation of a state in Palestine by the Allied powers by fiat originally was unjust. All you'd have to do is propose that whatever solution you have is done to redress the original insult.

But this is complicated because I do understand why, in the aftermath of hundreds of smaller pogroms and then the Holocaust, the Allies wanted to create a Jewish homeland. Where I feel some sympathy to the Palestinians & allies is their recurring complaint, "If this was done to redress a harm done to Jews, why was the burden not imposed on the people who had done the greatest harm?" That is, why not carve a Jewish state out of Europe, preferably Germany?

However, this alternative seems itself to be subject to accusations of anti-Semitism, because underlying it is the idea that Jews are people without a place who can be plopped down where it suits the conscience of their former oppressors. Jews themselves had been gathering in Palestine and had self-determined that this was where their homeland was.

The alternative also seems rather patronizing, because there is this idea of the Allies "giving" Israel to the Jews as a charitable benevolence to make up for the Holocaust, when in fact the Jews fought quite fiercely for it long before the Holocaust and then after when the British Mandate resisted the migration of Jews to Palestine.

This is all muddled but it comes down to the mixed status of Israel as being both 1) what Jews chose and to which they have a religious/ cultural bond, and 2) the historical redress aspect of creating a Jewish homeland. My sympathy for Israel comes more from the latter, partly because I am not religious myself and have seen the damage that the idea of a particular group's "homeland" can do in India, and partly because redress claims appeal to the lawyer in me. If Nuremberg had been a trial of the European peoples who acceded to the Holocaust instead of a trial of mere individuals, those peoples would have been obligated to pay the equitable relief of giving the Jews who survived a safe place.

PG said...

And this woman does not grasp the charge of sexism either, David, so you have company.

David Schraub said...

On your previous question, PG, as to what types of anti-Israel (by which I take you to mean anti-Israel-as-a-concept -- I surely think that particular critiques of specific actions can be okay, and have done so myself) arguments I would not consider to be anti-Semitic, part of what I'm trying to argue in this post is that's the wrong question. The totality of discourse around Israel exists in a context of Jewish subordination, so it's impossible to extract any argument (pro or con) from those waters.

When folks say they "can't criticize Israel without being called anti-Semitic", I'd prefer replacing that dynamic with "you can't discuss Israel and Palestine without discussing anti-Semitism." It has to be part of the discourse from front-to-back. I'm not saying every argument is "inherently" anti-Semitic (whatever that would mean, I'm saying that the conversation is always interconnected with the status of Jews in the world, and thus is intertwined with the question of anti-Semitism.

The analogy I would draw is to affirmative action, which also gets the "you can't criticize it w/out being called racist" treatment. To which I'd say, sure, one has to be able theoretically to argue against AA without being called a racist, but it makes zero sense to me to have a discussion about affirmative action that neglects to mention racism in America.

Mark said...

I fail to understand what your reply has to do with my offer of an anti-Israel argument that is not anti-Semitic. It is an argument for why Israel should be opposed (that it's creation was unjust by not respecting the local sovereignty of the people who dwelt there at the time).

For you to object to this argument (based on your request) you need to demonstrate that is either not a reason for opposing Israel or that the argument itself is antisemitic.

However, I'm not sure what your response in turn has to do with my attempt to provide an argument as requested. For the argument is has nothing to do with Jews qua Jews and hinges on national boundary and sovereignty and is therefore cannot be held as being antisemitic for it is at a different level of political abstraction. And it is an argument as well, so it meets the requirements of your request.

Whether you find it persuasive or not is irrelevant, which seems to be the substance of your reply.

Mark said...

Sorry if that was repetitious, I should have previewed before posting.

Barry Deutsch said...

When folks say they "can't criticize Israel without being called anti-Semitic", I'd prefer replacing that dynamic with "you can't discuss Israel and Palestine without discussing anti-Semitism."

Wouldn't it be better to say "you can't discuss Israel and Palestine without discussing anti-Semitism and anti-Palestinian racism"?