Sunday, October 09, 2022

The Endless Futile Quest for "Incontestable" Antisemitism

It's never good when "Jews" are trending, the saying goes, and the latest trend has been some pretty nasty antisemitism from celebrity rapper Kanye West. What began with a "White Lives Matter" shirt, continued with a Tucker Carlson interview where he claimed Jared Kushner promoted the Abraham Accords in order to make money, and concluded with a series of social media posts decrying Jewish "control" ("Ima use you as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me"; "On JEWISH PEOPLE ... You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda").

It was obvious antisemitism. And yet, if one wanders around social media spaces, you see plenty of people denying the obvious. All the usual permutations are there -- from the "Full Livingstone" to "false accusations only diminish the true antisemitism" -- to the shock of many Jewish and non-Jewish commentators who cannot fathom how this isn't the clearest of cases.

I think there's an important lesson here, and it's something I talk about in my Epistemic Antisemitism article. As any Jew knows, antisemitism allegations are regularly met with pushback -- claims that the allegations are false, smears, bad faith, or political opportunism. Arguing against such retorts takes up tremendous time and energy, and is deeply depressing to boot. Moreover, the fact of contestation leads to second-guessing and doubt -- is this a real case of antisemitism? Or am I being unfair, too sensitive, too trigger-happy, too censorial. 

Hence, there is a deep desire for incontestable cases of antisemitism -- the cases that everyone agrees are antisemitic and thus will circumvent this pushback. These cases are ones we can be absolutely sure are antisemitic precisely because there is universal agreement about their antisemitism. Said agreement validates the initial judgment and so avoids that process of recrimination and second-guessing that plagues antisemitism discourse generally. By contrast, the fact of contestation is thought to at least potentially raise the specter that the charge is unfair, subject to dispute, and not a fair target for being called antisemitism.

But here's the problem: There are no incontestable cases of antisemitism. From my article:

[W]ith no single agreed-upon definition of the phenomenon of antisemitism itself, no antisemitism allegations can ever be truly “incontestable,” leaving all of them open to accusations that they are in bad faith. Or, put differently, there might be some truly “incontestable” cases of antisemitism—but if they’re actually uncontested then we don’t need any regulative principles governing how to deliberate over them. It is only where there is a dispute, where some people are denying—perhaps passionately denying—the antisemitism claim, that it matters that we “take seriously” Jewish claims (167-68).

The fight against antisemitism has to be willing to call things antisemitic even when others deny it. The fact of contestation cannot be enough to defeat the claim. All antisemitism claims that are the subject of controversy will, by definition, be contested. There are no universally agreed-upon cases, no matter how obvious they might be. Someone will always be there to say its actually legitimate discourse or an arguable point, and that the accusation is unfair, goes too fair, is silencing, or is a slander.

This doesn't mean that every accusation of antisemitism must be accepted on faith either. Rather, it means there is no getting around the hard work -- that to fight against antisemitism means engaging in critical appraisals of antisemitism even in cases where there are very loud voices screaming "HOW DARE YOU CALL THIS ANTISEMITIC." Because that will be all cases. The quest for the incontestable will never be fulfilled.