Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Insufficiently Downtrodden

Phoebe makes a good point on the nature of anti-Semitism and why it sometimes doesn't get the attention it deserves on the left:
[T]he reason liberals today aren't shouting from the rooftops about anti-Semitism is the same as why they weren't long ago: Jews aren't, or more accurately aren't viewed as, marginalized. Being on the left has always been about supporting the downtrodden, and since anti-Semitism is and always was about accusing Jews of being insufficiently downtrodden, there are only these rare moments when the obvious left-wing position is to get worked up about anti-Semitism - moments when anti-Semitism's on-the-ground influence is so great (think the Dreyfus Affair, the Holocaust) that thinking of Jews as victims becomes uncontroversial.
Anyway. Ideally those on the left would see that anti-Semitism is an odd kind of bigotry that surfaces the most when its victims seem to be doing the best, i.e. when they seem the least underdog-ish. And there's no reason understanding this wouldn't be compatible with more straightforward social-justice advocacy, including for the Palestinians.

One of the things I think is important to reiterate about anti-Semitism (or any -ism, really) is that it is inextricably connected to what one thinks Jews are owed. If one thinks the Jews already have too much -- too much wealth, too much power, too much influence, too much security -- then it will hardly seem like anti-Semitism to urge stripping it away from them. That will instead seem like a return to fairness (compare complaints about gays seeking "special rights").

This is in part why anti-Semitism can't be reduced to simple questions about malign intent -- if one honestly believes that Jews only deserve X, but that they have X + infinity, then one won't think one's desire to return Jews to X is malicious. Equal rights, not special rights. Nonetheless, whether that position is justifiable depends on the propriety of X itself -- and that's a normative question that exists quite independent of the good or bad faith of the proponent.


Rebecca said...

I think this is Alice Walker's problem with Israel - remember her question about why it would be so terrible for Jews to be a minority in Palestine? It seems that for her, the fact that there is a Jewish state at all is the problem - Jews should be in minority status everywhere, without the disturbing exception of Israel, where Jews are a minority and hold power. Undoubtedly she would deny this, but I think that in a very secularized way, she is expressing classic Christian antisemitism. Because the Jews have been rejected by God, their degradation should be obvious - and the existence of a Jewish state obviously interrupts that Christian paradigm.

David Schraub said...

I think that's absolutely right. The problem, from Alice Walker's perspective, is that Jews have more than what she believes is their due -- and she thinks they are due only minority status at the sufferance of others. Anything beyond that (e.g., majority status and control of their own destiny) is illegitimate -- it's more than they deserve, and needs to be opposed.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Yes indeed - I just directed the first commenter to my post, who missed this, here, hoping your clarity on this point will get the message across. If we're looking for evidence of anti-Semitism in something like, are Jews' average incomes or SAT scores lower than average, thus indicating systematic oppression, then of course we end up with, aha, there's no anti-Semitism to speak of, and anyone who says otherwise is a whiner. But it's like, that's not what anti-Semitism is. And what it is kind of does require an explanation more on the level of what an Anti-Semitism Studies group could produce than anything I could toss succinctly into this comment.