Saturday, May 11, 2013

To Know is not To Understand

Reprinting a status update from David Hirsh, whose Engage organization is simply an indispensable resource for those concerned with anti-Semitism and are looking for an unabashedly progressive and unapologetic approach to combating it:
There is a huge reluctance amongst many antiracist Jews to see antisemitism; to understand it; to oppose it, to defend their fellow Jews, to educate their fellow antiracists. They have lost the ability to sniff antisemitism. They know, without knowing, that to do so puts them outside of the intellectual and political world in which they live. They know, without knowing, that to see, understand, sniff or oppose antisemitism is considered vulgar, selfish, dishonest, dishonourable, disgraceful; It is the end of them being considered progressive, intelligent, antiracist, engaged. The act of knowing is itself punished by exclusion, yet this fact itself does not help them to know.
I'm reminded of a story recounted by Steve Cohen (the British Marxist, not the Tennessee Congressman), who famously described himself as an "anti-Zionist Zionist" ("at least that should confuse the bastards"), about a review of his classic pamphlet "That's Funny, You Don't Look Anti-Semitic". If you click the link and/or read the pamphlet (which you should -- it's one of the most important works of modern anti- anti-Semitism ever written), it is evident immediately that Cohen is a sharp critic of Israel and Zionism -- to a far greater degree than I support, and in ways that I ultimately think are incompatible with Jewish and human equality. But despite this I've always considered Steve an ally, because it is very clear that he thinks critically about anti-Semitism and is unafraid to call it out and does not shy away from the fact that the existence of anti-Semitism does and should alter what sorts of political programs, tactics, and commitments are permissible. 

Anyway, Cohen publishes his pamphlet, which is quite open in its critique of Zionism in the midst of leveling an equally open critique of anti-Semitism amongst anti-Zionists. And the reviewer acknowledges his critique of Zionism, but dismisses it as hollow because he also criticizes anti-Semitism. The exact words were "It is not enough to trot out platitudes, as he does, about being against Zionism and in support of the Palestinian struggle.".And so Steve replied:
So I'm not allowed into the club even though I fulfil the entry requirements. I'm not allowed in because I recognise and oppose the existence of anti-Semitism on the Left—and this therefore renders all support for Palestinians a "platitude". Well it ain't me who's here confusing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
I encountered a similar situation a few years ago. I had been writing a lot on another blog about anti-Semitism, and a commenter asked me "no offense, but is there any criticism of Israel that you wouldn't automatically consider to be anti-Semitic?" And I told her, guess what? Offense taken. First, because caring about anti-Semitism should not give any inference about what positions I take on Israel (much less an unyielding one that cannot tolerate any criticism); second, because I'd spent considerable time documenting and explaining why I thought various things were anti-Semitic, and now I'm told that this some sort of "automatic," thoughtless, kneejerk expression; and third, because I had (at the time) a searchable blog that made it quite clear that I criticized Israel myself quite regularly. No matter -- opposing anti-Semitism itself was enough to render me a suspicious character in her eyes.

There's a saw about the modern right that it isn't so much "racist" as it is "anti-anti-racist." It doesn't really care one way or the other about racism, but it is very committed to attacking those who attack racism. I feel similarly about much of the left (Jewish and otherwise) with regards to anti-Semitism. It's not so much that they themselves are anti-Semitic (though some are), but they seem to positively recoil if anyone might think they could be so gauche, so (dare I say) provincial, as to actually fight against anti-Semitism. Combating anti-Semitism is viewed as a dead giveaway for all manner of mendacious positions -- an inability to criticize Israel, a desire to see Palestinians dispossessed, silencing of people of color, hatred of cosmopolitanism, outdated tribalism -- take your pick. And if, as in Cohen's case, those charges are manifestly untrue -- it still doesn't matter. The pretension at being progressive is but a platitude.

If I sound too harsh towards the Jews Hirsh is talking about, I don't mean to be. To be Jewish anywhere in the world (except that one place the existence of which non-Jews are so angry about) is to be ultimately at the mercy of others. Knowing how not to get kicked out of the club is a survival skill, and Jews know that talking too loudly about anti-Semitism (and for some, any talk is too loud) is a quick way to be shown the exit. The instinct they feel to duck is a perfectly sensible one. But as Hirsh says, the knowledge that to remain in the majority's good graces they have to sing the majority's praises is a sign of the fundamental inequality they experience. And when they promote the majority's narrative that combating anti-Semitism is a far greater problem and graver evil than anti-Semitism itself, they do damage to other Jews. They block the emergence of a serious, unflinching, and badly necessary conversation about anti-Semitism, and they contribute to the expulsion of those who labor so hard and so courageously to bring that conversation about in what remains deeply infertile soul.

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