My dearest friend Matt left a set of two comments on this post
arguing that my demand for a "critical" look at anti-Semitism in the context of Israel and Palestine is just so much obstructionist hand-waving. I reprint them in full before I give my response (sneak preview: he's wrong):
I think one reason why few of your peers have taken to heart your argument about the lack of serious Leftist engagement with anti-Semitism is that your "critique" of what you see as the dominant discourse never actually acquires a critical thrust. And I think this is chiefly because, whether you want to own up to this or not, in the status quo your side holds nearly all of the relevant chips. The US policy toward Israel makes the security of "Jewish bodies" (as you like to say, I have never understood why adding the word 'bodies' in to the mix makes your argument more critical, I guess it's the new 'erased') it's number one concern, and while it may at the end of the day have little to do with a cognizance of anti-Semitism and a whole lot to do with power politics, we have seen that if Israel claims that a whole bunch of Palestinian casualties is the cost of Jewish security, the US will nod along politely.
So question: what does it look like when the Left does take up your oft-issued challenge?
Let's take the bill at hand. If your interlocutor argues that we ought not support Israeli military activities because they are (a) extra-legal occupations and/or (b) involve killing innocent civilians which is an unjustifiable activity then you say... what?
Even if your interlocutor accepts that anti-Semitism is real, and tangible, and very very bad for Jews, how does this change the policy discussion? Your interlocutor is either right or wrong on the matter of international law, and increasing or decreasing their attentiveness to anti-Semitism does little to change that. And even a very robust appreciation for the precarious position of Jews should hopefully not lead an interlocutor who categorically rejects military justifications for civilian casualties to make an exception - Jews are oppressed enough that they get to kill civilians. Rebutting this position would probably require a tact that generally makes allowable some amount of civilian death, not one that specifically greenlights it with reference to the history of anti-Semitism.
What I'm getting at here, David, is that you have never, and never deign, to discuss what you expect would change in matters of policy debate if anti-Semitism were better recognized by the Left. Your arguments against policies favored by the pro-Palestine or anti-Israel or whatever you like to call them forces in the Left don't just depend on such a recognition, they depend on the reversal of many other positions. What you want isn't a heart-to-heart about oppression as a preface to policy talk -- and why should you, it would gain you nothing -- what you want is for people to support the policies you think are better for Israel. But you don't ever link such policies to your "critical" discussion of anti-Semitism. You just continually assert that anti-Semitism is real and people need to accept that.
I think the reason for this is, again, that you couldn't ask for a better policy situation for Israel in the US. All of your talk about "getting critical" comes up to smoke-and-mirrors because at the end of the day you ARE deploying this argument not to advocate for a substantive change in the status quo but to deflect arguments by people who do want to change policies.
To make your argument less of a waste of everybody's time, I would recommend:
1) Some rules of thumb for delineating anti-Semitism "fake outs" from real, structuralized anti-Semitism in Leftist dialog
2) Some considerations on how Leftist politics should change once anti-Semitism is better recognized. What does a pacifist opponent of Israel military policy do with a more profound appreciation for the history of anti-Jewish violence? Does appreciation HAVE to mean they renounce their pacifism? And if it doesn't then on what grounds CAN you assert that pro-divestment forces are actively anti-Semitic? Or are you making a claim that pacifism is totally wacky and we would only ever expect Jews to adhere to it because of structural anti-Semitism? And if that is your claim would you care to warrant it?
There's so little going on here, and that comes a little as a surprise to me as I think about this because you've been shopping this argument around for some time. But it never goes past: "Your critiques fail to take anti-Semitism seriously, so no dice." If the end result of your critical perspective is: discussion terminated, then I think it is valid to say you are curtailing discourse by using anti-Semitism as a rhetorical cudgel.
But prove me wrong: tell me where someone like me, who rejects the right of a state to kill civilians in the name of security, goes in his critique of a state that kills dozens every single year. You have indicated before that we "aren't that far apart" on this issue, but I feel that just about every time a critical move against current US support for Israel comes up, you break for and I against. So as someone who does take anti-Semitism seriously, what should I be re-thinking?
Or is this really just smoke and mirrors?
Okay, I've already written way too much, but I think an exchange you had with PG clarifies exactly why I am beginning to suspect that your pet argument is exactly the type of conversation-ending cop-out you say it isn't.
You say: We need a deep understanding of anti-Semitism when we talk about Israel and Palestine. Your examples include not calling Jews Nazis.
PG says: Can you give me an example of what would be against Israel but not anti-Semitic.
You: No. The whole discourse is fucked.
Problem - in this post, as in many others, you are defending the propriety of pro-Israel forces in responding to SPECIFIC POLICY ARGUMENTS (such as: we ought to divest from Israel) as being anti-Semitic. But when called out on how the discourse would look if people did critically engage anti-Semitism, you decline.
IF the point really is, we need to re-think the whole discourse, fine. But that can't serve to shut down specific arguments about policy. It is a very different think to say, "The issue of anti-Semitism is at hand here, and we need to make sure we're considering it," then to say, "Those who want to divest are pushing an anti-Semitic policy." Rejecting specific measures with a justification based on your dissatisfaction with the discourse in which they operate is total bait-and-switch.
For your argument to have a critical thrust it needs to follow like: X proposal is rooted in anti-Semitic idea that Y, therefore we don't cede to it. (And I think, also: a deep consideration of Y actually leads us to proposal Z). Just saying, "The tentacles of anti-Semitism have tainted this discourse! Boo, divestment!" Does nothing of the kind.
These were, in fact, long comments, and unsurprisingly I have a lot to say about them, the first of which has to do with burdens. The thrust of Matt's post starts by alleging, basically, that he doesn't understand the practical upshot of my call for a critical engagement with the issue of anti-Semitism vis-a-vis Israel/Palestine. Which, by itself, isn't the worst thing in the world: understanding the view of alternate perspectives doesn't come naturally, and I don't think it is unreasonable to ask for clarification when one isn't catching on to the point.
But Matt's argument really goes further and seriously crosses into "bridge over my back" territory, because he essentially alleges that until I provide some crystal-clear distillation of how in specific policy instances my theory plays out (naturally, in a manner satisfactory to him -- who holds the cards now?), not only is he going to maintain the discourse that he knows Jews loathe, but he's going indict us
for "curtailing discussion" with our "rhetorical cudgel". I don't think Jews are obligated to make the first move here though. Once we give notice that we have a problem with how we and our history and experience is being treated, the burden is on the gentile community to reach out to us
and try and engage with our community in a good faith way as to how to overcome the problem. But by forcing us to deal with these issues in isolation and aggressively suppressing talk about the surrounding structure, what really will happen, I suspect, is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole where we have to specifically knockdown every anti-Semitic manifestation of anti-Israel policy that pops up prior to anyone even giving us a hearing about the broader issues. The more fruitful endeavor, I'd forward, would be to get to the roots about what causes these arguments to show themselves in the first place, and
to explore how a radical reorientation of our mindset towards one that keeps the issue of anti-Semitism at the center might likewise shift the terrain of how we talk about this issue. Speaking generously, Matt wants the shift to come second, I want it to come first.
But whatever. Matt's thrown the gauntlet down and I guess it's my duty to respond. But his frame of discussion -- specific implementations in specific policy contexts -- is too narrow. I already indicated that I view anti-Semitism as structural rather than episodic
; the "explain how in this particular fact pattern anti-Semitism is operating" approach risks missing the forest for the trees. But also, Matt impermissibly restricts the field by defining the only "relevant" actor for the discussion as the US federal government. That's an odd choice not only because the policy context here is a divestment campaign in Seattle -- and neither Matt nor I really know, I wager, whether the city or population of Seattle has demonstrated a particular slant one way or the other on this issue -- but because when it comes to the policy of the federal government towards Israel I have actually been more skeptical of what passes for "pro-Israel". This past Friday I urged the Bush administration to take a hard line
against Israel constructing a new settlement. And in perhaps the most radically critical post I've written on the subject
was basically a prolonged attack about how the dominant "pro-Israel" narrative used by (among others) most federal governmental actors really was not to the benefit of Jews or Israel, in part because it did not leave room to critique it.
Most of my anti-anti-Israel discourse has not been waged against what Matt considers to be the "relevant" player, but rather has focused on how Israel is treated in leftist circles, or at the UN, or at colleges and universities, or in specific localities (such as Seattle). And I think that's quite okay. The US Federal Government is not the only community I reside in, and is not the only one that matters to me. By defining only what the US Federal Government is doing as "relevant", Matt would have me look past the localized context even when I'm not addressing the USFG but the city of Seattle, or the commenters on Feministe
. That's just argumentative hegemony. Saying that I can't critique leftists being too anti-Israel because the US federal government is too pro-Israel (or, as I'd argue, pro-Israel in all the wrong ways) fundamentally misunderstands how we conceptualize ourselves in relation to communities beyond the state. I've said this before: this ground matters to me
, and it's not Matt's prerogative to tell me which forums are important and which ones are not in our struggle to create the community, policy, and nomos that is most just to all peoples. Even under the most cynical interpretation, surely Matt would not argue with me if I said that I thought the progressive community holds the most fertile terrain for coming up with just solutions to the conflict, and thus it is important for me to work in that community to make sure it actually is representing the needs and interests of all parties?
But again, let's play Matt's game here. And again, the choice of divestment manifests itself as an odd place for Matt to make his stand, because it's a case where I think pro-Israel folks have been very clear about what makes it (and its cousin, boycotts) anti-Semitic. Namely, that if the motivating force behind the divestment campaign is an ideological commitment to pacifism ("categorically reject[ing] military justifications for civilian casualties"), there are a lot
of countries that need to be grouped into that campaign. Matt cannot have not heard this response ("What about Zimbabwe? What about Syria? What about Iran? What about Burma? What about China?"), and I think it is a legitimate one. The two rejoinders I've heard to it are (a) Israel is a Nazi-like state that is genuinely the worst of the worst (and I'm sure Matt can understand why we don't find that
a compelling disclaimer against anti-Semitism) and (b) the complete opposite claim, that Israel as a relatively liberal democracy is more likely to be persuadable than Saudi Arabia is. Of course, sanctions are objectively less a form of "persuasion" than "coercion", but even granting the point, it isn't empirically warranted that divestment is the best way to convince Israel to do anything, if it's about "making a statement" then the justification for not making similar "statements" towards China falls off the map, and (to be blunt) it feels totally pretextual. And of course, given the not insignificant numbers in camp "a", I think that camp "b" at the very least has an obligation to denounce their compatriots in far harsher terms than I've yet to hear, rather than relying on them for mobilization and support.
To turn a full circle, though, I'd like to address how my call for a "radical reorientation" of the discourse might affect Matt's pacifist community. He asks if they'd be required to give up their pacifism. Well...I don't know. Gandhi's pacifism led him to urge that Jews go willingly to their mass extermination in the Holocaust. Understandably, Jews were less than keen upon this course of action. The implied critique of those who engaged in the Warsaw uprising is an implication that I think pacifists have to grapple with. The legacy of mass extermination and genocide that the Jews have faced, and continue to face, needs to be faced forthrightly by pacifists. Richard Rubenstein's post-Holocaust writings
cannot be dismissed as barbarism or belligerence. And if pacifists look at the Holocaust, imagine if Hitler hadn't invaded Poland
, and still come back to Gandhi's conclusion, then I would submit that we have reached a rupture upon which Jews and pacifists cannot cross. And at that point, I would say that pacifists can no longer lay claim to anything approaching a serious commitment to the liberation of all
peoples, in which case I'd say it's they who must set sail from the progressive movement.
So I would say a re-centering of our discourse in a way that takes seriously Jewish experience and history would require pacifists, when making their claim, to say "yes, Gandhi was right" or "yes, we should not have rescued the Jews in the camps (or at least prolonged the war to do it)" or "yes, Jews should submit to a barrage of rocket attacks without response." Or (preferably) re-evaluate their stance in the light of the Jewish counter-narrative. But if they do maintain their current stance, then they can't act all shocked when Jews consider themselves to be irredeemably at odds.
Matt doesn't want to have this discussion, because it'd be awkward. He'd rather pretend that there is nothing in Jewish experience that his community needs to engage with -- that might require a reversal or shift or a hard bit of self-reflection. I'd submit the opposite -- that it doesn't make sense to have a conversation about issues related to Jews without bringing the issue of anti-Semitism into it (anymore than we could rationally talk about affirmative action without talking about race). Without that really basic step, the discourse is
fucked. So, to reiterate: step one is for y'alls to stop fucking the discourse, not for me to absolve you of your obligation to talk about anti-Semitism by assuring you you're a good person.