Thursday, January 19, 2012

J Street and the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" Theory of Anti-Semitism

As the debate over whether "Israel-firster" is anti-Semitic language flares up again, J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami appears to have stepped in it:
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a left-leaning voice on Israel issues, said he had no problem with “Israel-firster.”

“If the charge is that you’re putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States in the way you would advocate that, it’s a legitimate question,” Ben-Ami said.

Ben-Ami added that Jewish groups “should tread lightly” when they make accusations of anti-Semitism. “Because when they do need to use that word, people won’t take you seriously,” he said.

Ouch. Ben-Ami immediately backtracked, calling "Israel-firster" a "bad choice of words" and saying it was a "conspiracy theory that American Jews have dual loyalty [which] must be refuted in the strongest possible way." (Headline notwithstanding, this is not "expanding" on his morning comments so much as it is reversing them, but still, it is welcome).

I've noted before that, my general affinity for J Street notwithstanding, one thing I do not like is their "mushiness" on anti-Semitism. They really seem either uninterested or incapable of taking a strong stand on the issue, and it is really alienating. I've written about the serious problems with the "dual loyalties" charge even on a conceptual level, but in a sense I'm even more concerned about Ben-Ami's demand that Jewish groups "tread lightly" in talking about anti-Semitism.

This returns us back into How Would You Like Me To Raise It Territory, of course. As usual, I think it is wrong to imply that most claims of anti-Semitism are done in bad faith or otherwise are instances of crying wolf. But beyond that, I think that there's a descriptive misapprehension here -- simply put, there is no reason to believe that "anti-Semitism" is taken any more seriously when groups adopt narrow definitions and raise the alarm only in extreme cases, than when the definition is broader and more encompassing. Aside from being victim-blaming, it's not like these groups find themselves aroused from their slumber even in the "clear" cases (like Gilad Atzmon). Rather, it just turns out that nothing counts as "clear", and thus nothing is ever anti-Semitic. It becomes a wholly abstract concept (and thus quite easy to oppose, since opposition never has to be anything more than a theoretical commitment).

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

This discussion reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates repeatedly pointing out that statements that such and such is racist are also always denied - "we have no racists here." I think in part it's for the same reason - both anti-black racism and antisemitism have come to be identified with their worst expressions - slavery/segregation or the Holocaust - so that saying that something is racist or antisemitic is really an accusation that a person has committed horrible crimes. When actually they may have said something racist or antisemitic - and doing so doesn't make one a Klansman or a Nazi.

The other reason that people want to narrow the definition of racism or antisemitism so much is to score political points against one's opponents - so that for example Newt Gingrich can get away with making obviously racist statements without being called on it. It's a kind of preemptive strike against one's opponent.