Thursday, May 23, 2019

Why is This Antisemitic?

This was discovered in a bathroom at San Francisco State University this week.

For those who can't see an image, it is a swastika labeled "San Francisco State University", with a Star of David in the middle. Below it, the author wrote "Free Palestine".

Most people have condemned this as antisemitic. I agree. But I want to actual go through the steps. In particular, I want to challenge some of the antisemitism skeptics -- the people who think too much is called antisemitic, particularly in the "criticism of Israel" subspecies -- why this is properly deemed antisemitic (or, perhaps, for them to forthrightly assert that it is not).

In doing so, I want to insist on keeping the focus on the graffiti being a case of antisemitism. Certainly, it is vandalism, and therefore is a crime regardless of whether it is specifically antisemitic or not. Likewise it might be described as rude, uncouth, overwrought, insensitive, or any number of other bad things that nonetheless are distinct from antisemitism. David Hirsh describes this pivot as "pleading guilty to the lesser charge" -- admitting that a challenged piece of conduct is wrong in some way while holding the line that it was not antisemitic. I fully accept that many people will agree that this graffiti was "wrong", in some way, but I want to concentrate on establishing it specifically as an antisemitic wrong.

We spend a lot of time insisting that "criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic", which is true. We spend considerably less time establishing that criticism of Israel is not necessarily not antisemitic either. Yet both are important; and in particular, it is useful to test whether our proposed demarcation lines between what is antisemitic and what is not can capture cases such as this.

So, why is the above antisemitic? Here are some candidates:

  • The phrase "Free Palestine". But surely this can't suffice on its own, at least if the "pro-Palestine =/= antisemitic" formulation is to have any legs at all. The fact that the speaker claims to desire a "free Palestine" would not, on its own, establish antisemitism.
  • The Star of David. This is perhaps the clearest hook that the target is Jews, not Israel -- but then, we know that some say it is being used not as a Jewish symbol but an Israeli symbol (this was the justification for expelling the Jewish marchers from the Chicago Dyke March -- their Rainbow flag with a Star of David was coded as "an Israeli flag superimposed on a rainbow flag"). One can certainly imagine the "artist" here making that case -- after all, by saying "Free Palestine" they at least implicitly cast their target as being Israel, specifically.
  • The swastika. Again, we might think this suffices to establish the drawing as antisemitic. But note that the swastika could be symbolically representing two different things here. One possibility is that it is meant to evoke sympathy for Nazis (the artist saying, in effect, "I am a Nazi; I am making a Nazi point"). In that case, the antisemitism becomes pretty undeniable. But the other possibility is that the artist is intending to saying "Israel is a Nazi state, and Nazis are awful" (the artist is putatively making an "anti-Nazi" point, while associating Israelis or Zionists with the terrible Nazis). Is this formulation antisemitic? Note we just went through this, to some extent, with Eli Valley and the "kapos" controversy (and before that, with David Friedman) -- many people are very insistent that it is perfectly fair game, or at least not antisemitic, to compare Israelis or Zionist Jews to Nazis.
If we think that this scrawl was antisemitic, we implicitly reject at least some of these defenses. We have to commit to the position that using the Star of David to denote a group that you hate is antisemitic, or that comparing Israel to Nazism is antisemitic. And that, in turn, should constrain us come other cases. The fact is, if we think this was an antisemitic act, then we can't be so blithe in asserting that other perhaps more elegant acts whose alleged antisemitism rests on similar presuppositions (e.g., that Israel = Nazi comparisons are antisemitic) are mere "criticism of Israel". And, by contrast, if we want to hold the line and say that it is not antisemitic to compare Israel to Nazis, then we are far harder pressed to agree that even an act like this is an antisemitic act.

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