Saturday, October 04, 2008

How Would You Like Me To Raise It?

Apropos of my discussion last night, as well as this interesting piece on the "Livingstone formulation" (extracted from this statement: "for far too long the accusation of antisemitism has been used against anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government"), I once again return to the subject of discussing anti-Semitism in the context of discussing Israel. And specifically, how to address the Livingstone formulation, seeing as it came up last night, from the standpoint of someone who thinks that anti-Semitism is an important axis of discussion to be had in any conversation regarding Israel and Palestine.

My stock response to people who pull a Livingstone is to remark that, while assuredly it has to be possible to criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic, I am skeptical that it is possible to discuss Israel in any sort of normative depth without (at least in the background, or as a set of shared assumptions) having discussed anti-Semitism. The analogue is to the conservative complaint about affirmative action: "I can't criticize it without being called racist!" Well, if so that's assuredly unfair. But certainly, it is fair to state that it would be rather absurd to discuss affirmative action while leaving the issue racism completely out of it, for doing so would make the resulting conversation simple non-sense. My experience, though, is that in both its race and religious forms, the Livingstone formulation extends beyond its terms as a mechanism to prevent the discussion, not just the accusation, of racism or anti-Semitism as a pertinent part of the conversation. And that's illegitimate -- just as it has to possible to criticize Israel without being said to be anti-Semitic, so does it have to possible to note potential anti-Semitism in particular critiques of Israel without being met with a Livingstone.

But part of me wants to be more charitable. Perhaps my standard response isn't as good as I think it is at illustrating my point, and perhaps my interlocutors are more willing to entertain the notion that anti-Semitism is a relevant element to our conversation that my intuition is telling me. At which point I raise the following question, which my readers are free to answer: Suppose I genuinely think that a given statement or topic raises the issue of anti-Semitism. How should I introduce it in the conversation, without being accused (or coming off as) "playing the anti-Semitism card"?


PG said...

The obvious thing is not to say the word "anti-Semitic" in reference to your interlocutor or anything she has said, even if she starts talking about neocon Jews and the *supposed* dominance of Jews in banking (sure, you guys still have the names on the companies, but they're all run by Indians now -- I eagerly await "The Protocols of the Elders of Hindutva"!). Instead, you should use it only in reference to the reasons for Israel's establishment.

For example, if someone says Zionism is a form of racism, you can say a) you disagree, but also b) even if is "racism" like affirmative action is called "reverse racism," you believe a little racism is justified in the situation given the background history of anti-Semitism and continued antagonism to Jews qua Jews. In other words, though Jews may appear powerful, there is a proven historical record that such power can be stripped from them at any moment in nations where they are the minority.

Then ask this person to make her argument about what is wrong with Israel's action, while keeping in mind this historic fundamental powerlessness.

Matt said...

I really like your point that it's necessary to have discussed antisemitism to have a real discussion on Israel. I think most people tend to get caught up in trying to establish our willingness to criticize Israel, and it takes us off point. And some people give in to a lot of antisemitism trying to establish cred.

But I'm not sure of a good way to do what you ask here. I just had a terrible experience (some of which was in personal communication) with someone with whom it's easy to be charitable over a clear case of rabid antisemitism.

PG said...

And then maybe you need to treat it as "anti-Semitism without the anti-Semitist" -- even when what he's saying sounds blatantly anti-Semitic.