Anti-Semitism is a part of the life of every Jew. While this may not sound surprising, it is noteworthy that, in order to have a grasp of what it means to be Jewish (today or at any other time in history), one must know that the mere fact that a person is Jewish has been used as a reason to do violence to them, in word or deed. However, Jews alive today are also exceptionally fortunate on this front, as anti-Semitism, at least in the West, has become politically taboo. As with many taboos, simply to be accused of being an anti-Semite can be career suicide, and is therefore avoided at (almost) all costs. I want to explore how this has played out, both positively and negatively, by citing a few examples.
The comic above illustrates an important distinction that I think must always be made by those who are loudly critical of Israel’s policies. The first thing that a non-Jewish commentator on the Middle East must do, if he or she wishes to show sincere interest in the conflict to the (Diaspora) Jewish segment of their audience, is to make absolutely clear that the critique applies to the state qua state, and has nothing intrinsically to do with its Jewish character. This would not normally be necessary (for example, no such measure is needed when critiquing a law put forward by a Jewish member of Congress), except that, in highlighting the plight of the less powerful, those who critique Israel may leave the impression that they care more about Palestinians than Israelis, which is one step too close to anti-Semitism for many in the Jewish community to stomach (I readily acknowledge that there are a growing number in the Jewish community for whom such a focus on the Palestinians does not carry the whiff of anti-Semitism, myself included, but in speaking about the fear of being tarred an anti-Semite, it is necessary to speak of the mainstream Jewish community).
To be clear about why one, in commenting publicly about the Middle East, would wish to make clear that they harbour no ill-will towards Jews as Jews — moreover, that they support the existence of a Jewish state — I need go no further than the current debate about appointing Chuck Hagel as the new US Secretary of Defense. I will refer you to this excellent synopsis, as Mr. Rosenburg’s credentials speak for themselves.
This is simply the latest illustration of how the fact that the West has equated anti-Semitism with the vilest forms of racism can be taken too far. In societies that celebrate freedom of speech, it can be extremely difficult to draw a line beyond which the law ought to consider a publicly expressed opinion hate speech. I think that it is imperative that overt anti-Semitism be placed in that category. I think it equally imperative that criticism of the State of Israel, incidental to her Jewish character, not be in such a category. The Jewish community, enjoying more power that our grandparents could ever have dreamed of (not to mention Jews living before 1900), must be concerned about turning into the boy who cried wolf. A charge of anti-Semitism is an extremely serious one to make about another person, especially one in public office. To equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in any and all cases is to do a disservice to the term.
This, I believe, is why many people have little patience for charges of anti-Semitism when they come from recognized Jewish bodies like AIPAC. Having precious few lived examples of real anti-Semitism, as most of us born in the last fifty years in the West have, it can seem bordering on outrageous to use the same term for Noam Chomsky as for French army officials in 1894.
A nuanced argument for why this is so prevalent goes beyond taking advantage of having popular support in the West against anti-Semitism, as Professor Ira Chernus argues. It ties into what it means to be a Jew today, dating back to the beginning of Zionism in the late 19th century. I urge those interested to read the three-part argument here.
Warning: this account overtly calls into question the dominant Jewish narrative post-1967. As was the case for me, parts of this argument can be uncomfortable to read. I take it as an exercise in hearing another narrative, the way modern Jewish political history looks from the outside, which is crucial in creating a world in which we can live together in peace.
Update: To read more, see this discussion.
Image credit: Mr. Fish, published here