Friday, August 17, 2018

When The Mask Comes Off ... What's Beneath Doesn't Look All That Different

The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, explains why he is "glad" to be called an antisemite.
“There is one race that cannot be criticized. If you are anti-Semitic, it seems almost as if you are a criminal,” Mohamad said in an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, denying that he disliked Jews, as such. “Anti-Semitic is a term that is invented to prevent people from criticizing the Jews for doing wrong things.”
“When somebody does wrong, I don’t care how big they are. They may be powerful countries but if they do something wrong, I exercise my right of free speech. They criticize me, why can’t I criticize them?”
Mohamad, an avowed anti-Semite, was sworn in as prime minister in May, nearly two decades after he last held office. He is well known for his anti-Semitic rhetoric, writing on his personal blog in 2012 that “Jews rule this world by proxy.”
He has also said, “I am glad to be labeled anti-Semitic […] How can I be otherwise, when the Jews who so often talk of the horrors they suffered during the Holocaust show the same Nazi cruelty and hard-heartedness towards not just their enemies but even towards their allies should any try to stop the senseless killing of their Palestinian enemies.”
This, of course, is rather naked. It speaks of Jews (although the de rigueur conflation with Israel is present), and it does not shy away from (indeed it actively embraces) the idea of antisemitism. In that sense, it is almost too easy of a case. And this is not remotely out of character for Mohamad either.

But where these passages may be of some use is in highlighting how certain antisemitic tropes work in a context where they are freely and openly attached to an antisemitic ideology, the better to spot them when they appear without such an overt gloss. Basically everything Mohamad is saying is something that, dressed up (a little) more nicely, is a common feature of discourse about Jews in global society today.

First, there is the claim that the real victims of antisemitism are those accused of it -- antisemitism is not (or is not primarily) a genuine form of oppression for Jews, but rather is a perk Jews enjoy to shield ourselves from critical review. Compare here Bruce Robbins "The real issue here is anti-Semitism; that is, accusing people of it" or Naomi Klein suggesting that some Jews "think we get one get-away-with-genocide-free-card."

Second, there is the argument that in taking on the Jews, he is taking on someone or something "big". Here he really dips between referring to "Jews" generally and "Israel" specifically (For the record, Malaysia has four times the population of Israel across a territory almost sixteen times its size). Of course, the perception of Jews as inherently "big" -- domineering, cabalistic, pulling the strings -- has deep pride of place in antisemitic rhetoric. Mohamad is appealing to a notion whereby antisemitism always is a form of "punching up", "a movement of the little people against an intangible, global form of domination".  This perspective has come to occupy a critical role in the narrative Corbyn supporters tell of Jewish outrage -- both in the view that Corbyn, in antagonizing the Jews, is tackling the powerful, and in the view that the Jewish backlash is itself attributable to some nefarious conspiracy

Next, there is the invocation of "free speech". Of course, this particular ploy should by now be familiar to anyone forced to endure alt-right trolling of college campuses -- when they choose to be racist, it's just free speech! And if you call it racist, you're suppressing their free speech! But this device makes its appearance regarding antisemitism too, and has done so for a very long time. Jewish Voice for Peace's old blog was titled "MuzzleWatch", and one of the major fringe groups backing the Corbynistas and opposing Jewish efforts to raise awareness of antisemitism in the UK is named "Free Speech on Israel". Glenn Greenwald has likewise dismissed the widespread adoption of the IHRA antisemitism definition as part of a "global campaign to outlaw criticisms of Israel as bigotry".

Then there's the comparison of "Jews" (represented through Israel) to Nazis -- we're all familiar with that play, and I'm glad to see it here if only for completion's sake.

But we'll conclude with the most striking bit, and the one that perhaps seems least applicable to more workaday antisemitic cases: where Mohamad says he is "glad" to be called antisemitic. Here one might say I'm actually being a touch unfair to Mohamad, for what I suspect he means is something more like "while antisemitism -- appropriately (and narrowly) defined -- is terrible; what is called antisemitic in public discourse are actually good, noble, and virtuous positions that one should be proud to hold." This is buttressed by the caveat Mohamad gave at the beginning, where he denies that he "dislikes Jews, as such."

Once again, this has parallels. Steve Bannon notoriously said that being called racist is a "badge of honor"; Steven Salaita's contention that antisemitism has become "honorable" thanks to Zionism plays on the same turf. In all cases, the claim actually isn't "it is good to hate outgroups"; it's something more like "what outgroups claim is hateful, actually is good". Now, to be clear -- that's still a BS response, partially because it is too clever by half, partially because it depends on an epistemic injustice directed against the outgroups whereby their assessments of their own experience of inequality is so unreliable that one should be "honored" if they feel threatened by you. But at least formally, it reduces down to a claim that "one can and should dislike X group insofar as they act in A B C bad ways, or support D E F bad policies."

Which actually circles back, strangely enough, to my Tablet Magazine article on Open Hillel's intervention in the SFSU antisemitism debate. In that article, I cited Bernard Williams for the proposition that virtually no form of racism holds itself out as being a product of raw, unadorned antipathy. It always comes attached to claims that are at least on-face about something that qualifies as a candidate for a reasonable position. Wrote Williams:
Few can be found who will explain their practice merely by saying, 'But they're black: and it is my moral principle to treat black men differently from others'. If any reasons are given at all, they will be reasons that seek to correlate the fact of blackness with certain other considerations which are at least candidates for relevance to the question of how a man should be treated: such as insensitivity, brute stupidity, ineducable irresponsibility, etc. Now these reasons are very often rationalizations, and the correlations claimed are either not really believed, or quite irrationally believed, by those who claim them. But this is a different point; the argument concerns what counts as a moral reason, and the rationalizer broadly agrees with others about what counts as such -- the trouble with him is that his reasons are dictated by his politics, and not conversely. The Nazis' 'anthropologists' who tried to construct theories of Aryanism were paying, in very poor coin, the homage of irrationality to reason.
So too here. I quoted Mohamad's words extensively because to my mind they represent an unquestionable case of antisemitism. But his caveat that he does not dislike Jews "as such" is one that Open Hillel's standard of antisemitism has great trouble grappling with. If Mohamad's point is that he doesn't dislike Jews-qua-Jews, only the bloodthirsty ones, the Zionist ones, the Nazi-like ones, the ones who are "big" and the ones who censor his free speech -- is that antisemitism? Cast in that light, Mohamad isn't actually all that different from the peers I've been comparing him to; perhaps just a little rougher around the edges.

And that, ultimately, is the real point here. One might think that Mahathir Mohamad represents what happens when the screen of respectability comes down and an antisemite simply says what he thinks. But it turns out that, when that happens, what one sees doesn't look all that different from what one sees when the mask stays on. Mohamad uses tropes and claims and devices that are common in discourse about Jews by people who have far more claim to respectability than Mohamad does. One would like to think that's an indictment of the respectable. But it just as easily can become a defense of what we otherwise would think of as undeniable antisemitism.

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