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How Not to Be Anti-Semitic
There have been attempts to formulate official-type or canonical definitions of anti-Semitism. I have no interest in them and will not try to dissect any. I don’t need any guidance. Unfortunately, others do, including some of those currently protesting Israeli atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank. Including some on the Left.
The founders of Israel deliberately helped to generate the conflation of world Judaism with the state of Israel. The rulers of Israel continue to harp on this undesirable and undeserved identification.
Israel does not encompass the Diaspora – Jews living beyond its boundaries – and Judaism is not Zionism. Judaism has a lengthy and luminous history, much of which transpired nowhere near the Mideast, long before anybody had the notion of founding a modern Jewish state in what became Israel.
My own people came from Paterson, in northern New Jersey, which in the 1920s and 30s was a substantially Jewish city. It was the center of epic labor struggles in the garment industry, in which Jews were prominent, including my own father. That history well predates Zionism, which was barely a blip on the radar screen before 1940. This is the tradition of the Jewish Labor Bund.
The Bund’s roots were in the de facto Jewish nation in Eastern Europe with its own language, literature, theater, and centers of learning. I admit “nation” is a bit of an overreach. What existed was an archipelago of Jewish ghettoes and some cities dominated by Jews. I like the idea of a nation given the intensity of the culture, and its separateness from the surrounding, usually hostile non-Jewish populations, ruled over by corrupt autocrats. There was lots of Jewish secularism, in stark contrast to the overwhelming devotion to religious orthodoxy, with little in between.
In addition to Jews originating in Eastern Europe, known as Ashkenazim, there was an entirely different world of Jews around the Mediterranean, in predominantly Arab countries, and in Iran -- Sephardim.
In either case, Judaism is not reducible to religion, except, ironically, for evangelical Christians and fanatical Muslim fundamentalists. (Properly speaking, Islam shares roots with both Judaism and Christianity, the other two “Abrahamic” religions. We’re all in the Quran.)
Israel became a focus of Jewry after 1940 because there was nowhere else that Jews were able to go, for the sake of fleeing the imminent holocaust. Even the saintly President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in fear of domestic reaction, blocked their entry into the U.S. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, few Jews wanted to remain in Europe, among those who had acceded to if not participated in the transport and annihilation of their communities. For its time, Israel was essential as a place of rescue.
Israel’s founding was made politically attractive to the predominantly liberal and leftist Jewish community by the affiliation of its early leaders to a Jewish variant of socialism, namely “Labor Zionism.” From the earliest days, the ranks of Zionism included a faction of vicious fascists, known then as Revisionists. This group engaged in spectacular acts of terrorism, but the Labor Zionists were no milquetoasts either.
The descendants of the Revisionists have come to dominate Israeli politics, and their terrorist leaders –Itzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin – were eventually elevated to be heads of state. The followers of Meir Kahane – a vicious racist from Brooklyn – are respected members of the Israeli parliament and command important ministries today. Whatever its defensible origins, ideologically speaking, really existing Zionism has become something awful.
Given the priority of rescue after World War II, Jews of all types broadly embraced the opening of Israel to Jewish settlement. Little thought was given to the well-being of the Palestinian inhabitants, including after many of them were violently expelled in the early years. This story is told in excruciating detail by the Israeli historian Benny Morris in his epic Righteous Victims. (Morris has since become a complete pessimist regarding the possibility of any reconciliation between Israeli Jews and Arabs.)
The point is, Judaism whether in its religious or secular form is not Zionism. Even inside Israel, Jews are split roughly evenly between religious and secular. Anti-Zionism is a tenable, socialist position, including within Israel itself. Anti-Judaism is not. Mixing them up is political malpractice for socialists and moral idiocy for anybody else.
Let’s start with symbols. These get wide play, appearing on signs and in cartoons. They demand little deep consideration. The main point here is that use of representations of Judaism in a negative context, especially the Jewish star, connote anti-Semitism. Use of the Israeli blue-and-white flag, which contains a Jewish star, should not.
Alongside the simplicity of symbols, we have the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The vagueness of this formulation is treacherous, since it is possible to read radically different things into it. To many Jews, the slogan sounds like a threat to remove Israeli Jews entirely from their current homes, an ethnic cleansing. More palatable interpretations envision a democratic, secular state with equal rights for all.
I can’t resist interjecting that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reference to Amaleks in the Old Testament is much worse than the “river to the sea” ditty. It is much less ambiguous:
"Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass," --1 Samuel 15:3.
Any wrong foot made in defense of Palestinian rights can always be offset by something much worse from the Israeli side. The Israelis have their own “river to the sea” vision, known euphemistically as “transfer.” There are lots of Arab countries. Just expel all the Arabs to any of them. As we speak, something along those lines may be in the cards for the two million residents of the Gaza strip.
Getting back to the bad slogans, a good analogy is the slogan “Defund the police.” There are those for whom the slogan means the utter abolition of police departments and prisons. More practical sorts would like to see a reallocation of resources from law enforcement bodies to social services, and reforms in the manner in which police departments function. Of course, the Right invokes the least practical, most sensational version for its own political purposes.
No matter which interpretation you favor, the vagueness of the slogan amounts to leading with your chin. It’s bad political practice. So too with “From the river to the sea,” unless your objective is to threaten Israelis. The threatening connotation of the slogan bothers Jews outside Israel as well. If Jews become non-persons in Israel itself, what would be the fate of those elsewhere?
In the face of the fascist state that Israel has become, the militant impulse underlying the river to the sea trope is understandable. It is undeniable that the homes of many Palestinians have been and are being stolen or otherwise taken by force, so the slogan also appeals as payback. It’s still bad politics. Israeli Jews aren’t going away. Accommodation must be found. I’ve argued that the two-state solution is dead, but it remains cited often in the list of unrealistic options. At least as rhetoric, it’s better than allusions to ethnic cleansing of either population.
After symbols and slogans, there are anti-Semitic tropes of long standing. Perhaps the most pernicious are the “blood libel” accusations, stemming from the charge that Jews slaughtered Christian babies to drink their blood. These vile, medieval legends long pre-date Israel’s founding in 1948. Allusions to them, as to “the Jews” killing Christ, are anti-Semitic. Use of the term “the Jews” connotes all Jews, past present and future, in keeping with the Biblical curse, “His blood be on us and on our children.” (Matthew 27:25).
A contemporary example of blood libels was the whole “PizzaGate” fable. Also the Qanon slanders about Democrats kidnapping and molesting Christian children. It lives on in the local attacks on public schools for “grooming” children, or for so-called “abortion at birth.” Blood libels are a major feature of Republican Party politics these days, a trend launched by Newt Gingrich decades ago when he taught conservative activists to adopt the most extreme terms of opprobrium possible for criticizing Democrats.
Finally, we have references to prominent Jews in negative contexts, where the context does not actually point narrowly to the parties in question. For instance, references to the rich in the persons of rich Jews, as if there are not also many more rich non-Jews, is anti-Semitic. Not to say ignorant.
These days, the billionaire George Soros often comes up often in right-wing diatribes. It’s true that Soros is an active philanthropist to liberal causes, but so are many others. The vitriol against Soros is a little ironic, not to say suspicious, since he was a central figure in supporting anti-Soviet activities in Eastern Europe. Soros is associated with the “defund the police” slogan, as well as with support for the handful of progressive district attorneys in the U.S., by right-wing hysterics.
Shrill radical outcries, whether the work of agent-provocateurs or sincerely enraged youth, retard progressive politics. Those that run afoul of anti-Semitic implications incur the additional reaction that the proponents are not merely political naifs, but morally suspect.
I’ve written that the language policing around Gaza protest can be excessive, but sometimes protesters do go over the top. The weight of current events and historic sensitivities makes friction and hyperbole inevitable.
In any case, there is quite enough ammunition to uphold Palestinian rights without symbols and slogans that facilitate the Israeli state’s efforts to use the Diaspora of world Jewry as human shields.