The Journal of Jewish Identities just published my most recent article, "The Epistemic Dimension of Antisemitism." Basically, the article looks at antisemitism through the prism of "epistemic injustice" -- wronging Jews in our capacity as knowers. This is distinct from more "traditional" forms of antisemitism like overt hatred or disdain (though obviously they can be related and support one another).
To give an example: One can (and many antisemites do) view Jews as a world-dominating cabal that controls critical social enterprises like the media, Hollywood, and the financial industry. Unsurprisingly, those who hold that view often also are affectively antagonistic towards Jews (few think Jews run the world and are thankful for what a bang-up job they think we're doing). But it's also likely that someone who holds this view will take certain stances about Jewish credibility. They're liable to think that Jews cannot be trusted, that we're always working the angles, that our testimonial offerings are likely in service of a deeper game. Even if, for whatever reason, they do not have an explicitly hateful attitude towards Jews, they might be distinctively mistrustful or dismissive towards Jews when we venture opinions in the public square -- even, or perhaps especially, if those opinions are on matters that are central to Jews' own experience.
The essay, of course, goes into more detail. But as it happens, an incident that occurred almost simultaneously with the publication of the essay provides a solid real-world illustration. In an interview with the pro-Palestinian website Mondoweiss, Miloon Kothari, a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council's special commission into Israel and the Palestinian territories, made several remarks which generated a swift backlash from American and Jewish diplomatic officials.
In particular, Kothari alleged that the "Jewish lobby" controls social media to the detriment of his work:
“We are very disheartened by the social media that is controlled largely by – whether it is the Jewish lobby or specific NGOs, a lot of money is being thrown into trying to discredit us.”
(Elsewhere, he appeared to question the validity of Israel's membership in the UN -- we'll leave that part aside).
Unsurprisingly, these comments were, to say the least, not well received in the Jewish community. But Kothari's colleague Navi Pillay, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, rose to Kothari's defense and claimed that he was the victim of a "deliberate" campaign to misquote and falsify what Kothari actually said. Kothari's comments, Pillay argued, were "deliberately been taken out of context" and Kothari was "deliberately misquoted to imply that 'social media' was controlled by the Jewish lobby."
Kothari's comment about "the Jewish lobby", expressing frustration by and antagonism towards what he takes to be the "Jewish lobby's" ability to "control" social media, seems an easy case of antisemitism under traditional articulations. Pillay's defense of Kothari, by contrast, sounds in a epistemic dimension. She dismisses the testimonial offerings of Kothari's critics who claim antisemitism by claiming they are engaging in a "deliberate" campaign of falsification. The purpose is to sabotage the basic testimonial validity of those claiming antisemitism by declaring the allegations to violate basic norms that undergird legitimate discourse (e.g., honesty and sincerity).
For starters, Pillay does not actually identify, or even attempt to identify, any misquote or missing context that has undergirded those criticizing Kothari. To the contrary, most of the media sources I've seen reporting on the story have quoted Kothari verbatim. They haven't, for instance, just said something like "Kothari attacked the 'Jewish lobby'" and left readers to wonder what the relevant sentence actually said. They have by and large included most if not all of the above block quote. Meanwhile, the quotations themselves were taken from Mondoweiss, an outlet which is supremely unlikely to have misquoted Kothari or taken him out of context in a manner that would assist pro-Israel commentators. Pillay's claim of false testimony is not just unsupported, it does not even gesture at anything that might support it. So how could she possibly think her contentions will carry any credence? The most likely answer is that she thinks -- and she's probably correct -- she can draw on a reservoir of epistemic antisemitism where people are predisposed to believe that Jews and those advocating on our behalf are liars, manipulators, cheats, and bad-faith actors. Only in a world where such epistemic beliefs about Jews are taken for granted could such naked and obviously unsupported complaints about misquotes be thought to stand a chance of success.
All of that would be bad enough. But there's also on top of this Pillay's choice to say that these alleged-but-not-demonstrated falsifications were "deliberate". This is a charge Pillay repeats, so it is no stray bit of rhetoric. Supposing, for sake of very strained argument, we did think there was something to the notion that Kothari was being taken out of context. That still hardly would establish that Kothari's critics were acting deliberately. Even if, for some reason, one thought there was a perfectly innocent explanation for what Kothari said, surely it is not unreasonable to think that Jews could in good faith perceive that passage about "the Jewish lobby" as being problematic. The most likely explanation for the divergence between how Jews interpreted what Kothari said and how Pillay does so would be such good faith disagreement.
But Pillay refuses to allow for anything other than conscious malice. It is not just that Kothari's critics are wrong, they are intentionally wrong, they are lying, they are smearing. In my article, I make the following observation:
[A]ntisemitism allegations are divided into a sharp binary: those which are incontestable and those which are in bad faith. In this binary, there can be no such thing as an antisemitism claim which one, personally, doesn’t agree with but which is accepted to lie within the legitimate boundaries of argument. Every instance of supposed antisemitism that is disputable must be invalid altogether. The “zone of contestation,” where we agree to investigate claims under a posture of open receptivity, because we concede we’re not immediately sure of the right answer, implodes because there’s never actually any controversy: either a claim is so obviously true that it smacks us in the face or it is so obviously false that it can dismissed out of hand.
Pillay defaults to making unsupported, and unsupportable, claims of deliberate lies because the architecture of epistemic antisemitism assumes that the only reason Jews would ever level a claim of antisemitism that one might disagree with is because they're lying about it. Pillay thinks Kothari is not antisemitic, therefore, anyone arguing otherwise simply must be lying. The false allegations of misquotation or missing context flow naturally from this.
Certainly, I don't mean to set up a sharp dichotomy between "traditional" and "epistemic" varieties of antisemitism. One sees elements of each in the conduct of both Pillay and Kothari -- one could easily view Pillay as expressing not just mistrust but antagonism towards the (Jewish or Jewish-coded critics) whom she cavalierly smears as liars, and Kothari's claims about the "Jewish lobby's" outsized influence on social media obviously has epistemic implications about the validity of their discursive contributions to debates over Israel and Palestine. Nonetheless, this incident I think does a decent job of highlighting the distinctive nature of the epistemic strain. It is unfortunate, but not surprising, to see UN officials at the center of such a story. But nobody should be under any illusions that Turtle Bay or Geneva is the only location where it occurs.