First, let me begin by saying that anti-Semitism in itself is certainly not a hoax. There are centuries of evidence supporting the existence of virulent Jew-hatred. Anyone with a Twitter account knows that such anti-Semitism exists. I’ve recently highlighted it at Mint Press News, a publication to which I contributed for over a year. So anti-Semitism, though largely an enterprise of the far-right, exists on the left as well. Fighting anti-Semitism is a laudable goal.
But here’s where I part company with the institutional Jewish community. If you were to poll Jews about their priorities in life and issues that most concern them, anti-Semitism would be very far down the list.
Of course, members of all religions react with great concern to threats to their co-religionists. That is understandable. But Jews aren’t the only religion under threat: true, Jews have been attacked by Islamists in Europe and places like Turkey. But Coptic Christians were attacked by ISIS in Egypt this week and Rohingya Muslims have been ethnically cleansed by Burmese Buddhists for several years. Jews in today’s world don’t have a monopoly on victimhood. But the organized Jewish community acts as if it does. As if they own the field of religious hatred and are the only victims, or at least the only ones who really matter, because of our past suffering in the Holocaust.
Exaggerating the significance of anti-Semitism also tends to distort Jewish life and identity. If you define yourself as a Jew as someone fighting against anti-Semitism, rather than fighting for a rich, positive, substantive Jewish identity–you don’t have much substance on which to base your Jewishness. That’s a significant part of my quarrel with groups like the ADL and AJC, whose existence and financial wherewithal is predicated on anti-Semitism.
Jews obsessed with anti-Semitism do offer what they see as a positive model of Jewish identity: Israel. I wrote about this in the essay, The Closing of the American Jewish Mind, my contribution to the newly published Israel and Palestine: Alternative Models of Statehood. There I noted that Israel has become a substitute for the Jewish culture, traditions, art, and even religious practice that used to be at the heart of Diaspora Jewry. Wealthy Jews like Sheldon Adelson, Michael Steinhardt and others have bet hundreds of millions of dollars that while Judaism may wither on the vine, Israel will not. That’s why they’ve funded Birthright as their primary response to assimilation.
But what happened to Torah, Talmud, religious ritual, Biblical prophecy, Kabbalah, Zohar, Yiddish culture, language, and song, among many others? If you posit anti-Semitism and Israel as the sole arbiters of Jewishness, it leaves nothing of what sustained us over centuries and even millenia. It is a poor substitute for what we’re losing. And I can’t say that I blame any Jewish youth who rejects this tepid porridge they’re offered as a substitute for Jewishness. This also explains why the Pew poll found that the younger generation is rejecting their parents’ generation and its single-minded near-obsession with Israel to the exclusion of almost all else.
It goes without saying that if you offer Israel as the New Jewish Religion, that you view any threat to Israel as a threat to the Jewish people. That is why the Israel Lobby has worked so diligently to insinuate criticism of Israel as a primary tenet of anti-Semitism. That is why the current far-right Israeli government repeats the smear that BDS is not just anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic.
These are, of course, radical revisions of the traditional definition of anti-Semitism as expression of hatred toward Jews. If you believe there is no difference between Israel and Jews, then this may make some sense. But if you conflate the two then you fall into a morass of internal contradictions. If you reject the notion of dual loyalty, then how do you combat the claim by anti-Semites that Diaspora Jews must be disloyal to their homelands because they retain sole loyalty to Israel? How do you stand against acts of terror by Islamists aimed at Jews, when the terrorists believe that in attacking Jews they are also attacking Israel? How do you embrace the claim by the Likudist far-right that Iran aims to destroy not just Israel, but the entire Jewish people? Especially when the Iranians have never made such a sweeping claim?
Which brings me to the current efforts by legislators in the U.S. and UK to legislate a radical revision in the definition of anti-Semitism. Recently, the U.S. Senate passed almost unanimously the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which employs the following definition and examples:
- Calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
- Demonizing Israel by blaming it for all interreligious or political tensions
- Judge Israel by a double standard that one would not apply to any other democratic nation
Few will have any argument with the first two definitions, but the second two are so vague and broad as to be meaningless. Under this problematic rubric, reporting that Israeli Jews kill Muslims because of their religion is anti-Semitic. Criticizing Israel for fomenting political discord in the Middle East also appears anti-Semitic. And criticizing Israel before criticizing every other democracy which engages in bad behavior is also anti-Semitic. In fact, such an approach makes most Jews themselves anti-Semites because most American Jews are critical, some highly critical of Israel and its policies.
Such definitions have one major goal: to silence, rather clumsily, political speech regarding Israel. They are intended to “box in” the BDS movement and other forms of “delegitimization” by defining legitimate political discourse as off-limits. Such efforts must be seen for what they are: bald-faced attempts to stifle debate and suppress dissent. Democracies are antithetical to such notions. They are strong precisely because they permit, even encourage the free flow of ideas. That is how the best ideas develop and how we keep such societies strong and vital. Suppressing speech, as the Israel Lobby seeks, is anti-American and anti-democratic.
The British parliament stands ready to pass an equally noxious anti-Semitism bill which the media have largely misreported as a milquetoast affirmation of the basic decency of Jews in the face of mindless hate. This Christian Science Monitor report sounds innocent enough:
…The British government hopes the new definition will offer a more concrete and clearer notion of anti-Semitism, to be adopted in as many circles as possible. Proponents believe that the clarified definition will prevent vagueness that may lead to anti-Semitic crimes going unreported or unacknowledged. The definition is part of an international effort to end hate crimes against Jewish people as well as combat Holocaust denial in all its forms.
Until you read the fine print on the website of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance which the Parliament relied on in crafting its own definition:
- Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews
worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
- Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence
of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
- Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
- Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
These examples themselves are deeply problematic. The State of Israel is racist. It’s policies are racist. The structure of its society is racist. By noting and criticizing such racism prevalent in Israeli society I by no means “deny Jewish people their right to self-determination.” In fact, I strengthen Israel in doing so.
The “double standard” theory is bogus as well. Holding Israel to the standards of international law is not “applying a double standard.” In fact, the three main demands of BDS (ending Occupation, return of Palestinian exiles, and offering fully equality to Israeli Palestinians) derive from the heart of democratic traditions.
As for the “Nazi analogy,” I’d be a lot more comfortable with this one if the Israel Lobby wasn’t so free and easy to call Israel’s critics and opponents Nazis and the like. Not to mention that there are clear elements of Israeli policy that echo those of the Nazis, just as there are elements of Trumpism which do so as well. Why should the former be labelled anti-Semitic? A clear, carefully articulated analogy based on historical facts cannot be.
Finally, you can’t call “holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel” anti-Semitic if Israel’s leaders themselves refuse to make such a distinction. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
These efforts to redefine anti-Semitism for the convenience of the Lobby and as a buttress against criticism of the noxious polices of the State of Israel are worse than a waste of time. They are a radical departure from established consensus both among moral philosophers, historians and Jews themselves about the definition of the noxious concept of Jew-hatred. We are about to see such a radical departure from consensus here in the United States as Donald Trump takes office. It will lead to great ugliness and distortion of the great traditions of American democracy. Let’s not do the same to the concept of anti-Semitism.