Disentangling Criticism of Israel from Anti-Semitism

If you’ve only read Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post and Eli Lake in the Weekly Standard over the past couple of weeks, you’d have to conclude that there was one thing that New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, US Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman, Secretary of Defense Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama had in common: they’re all anti-Semites!

Never mind the fact that some of the members of this esteemed club are Jewish. But all of them made the mistake of criticizing the policies of the state of Israel or highlighting the very real power that the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has on American foreign policy.

It’s high time to disentangle anti-Semitism from criticism of Israeli government policy or AIPAC.

Gutman made the mistake of saying that some manifestations of anti-Semitism are “born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.” His statement was largely vilified and misrepresented in Israeli media and on the US GOP primary trail.

Popular Israeli columnist Glick, in an article in the Jerusalem Post, says that Gutman “effectively denied the existence of anti-Semitism in Europe” and that he, Obama, Clinton and Panetta all engage in “classical anti-Semitic behavior.” Never mind that the Obama Administration backed Israel at the United Nation and has given billions of dollars in unconditional annual aid to the Israeli military. Glick concludes by saying that the United States under Obama is an ally of Israel no more, yet the Israeli Defense Forces don’t seem to be in a hurry to return the money.

Friedman was harangued for the following quote in his December 13th column, “Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir”:

"I sure hope that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."

Never mind that Friedman is Jewish, an unabashed supporter of the Jewish state and a donor to pro-Israel causes. As MJ Rosenberg said in subsequent article, “If Tom Friedman is an anti-Semite, there is no such thing; the charge has simply lost its meaning.”

Friedman later backed down from his comments slightly. “In retrospect I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to. It would have helped people focus on my argument, which I stand by 100 percent.”

Friedman’s comments and ensuing disparagement are particularly problematic when AIPAC does have undeniable influence in the American body politic. This is not because it’s a Jewish organization, but because in the plutocracy that is 2011 America, Congress is beholden to any number of special interests from the Cuban lobby, to the NRA and from Exxon-Mobil to Goldman Sachs.

Should Friedman have rephrased his comment in a more sensitive manner? Probably. It is unhelpful to say Jewish or Israel lobby instead of AIPAC. But this is a matter of semantics which highlights the hypersensitivity of recent accusations of anti-Semitism which border on absurdity worthy of a Vaclav Havel play.

A similar case study can be found with Time columnist Joe Klein (another Jew) commenting that he didn’t want Americans to be sent to war in Iran to destroy Tehran’s nuclear program. “It’s another thing entirely to send American kids off to war, yet again, to fight for Israel’s national security,” says Klein.

Friedman and Klein’s statements have come under intense scrutiny, and articles in Commentary Magazine by Jonathan Tobin and in the Weekly Standard by Lake regard them as “the new anti-Semitism,” full with references to the blood libels and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This tendency to use the anti-Semite label so frequently is deeply troubling. First of all, it prevents legitimate and necessary questioning of Israeli government and AIPAC policy. Secondly, calling Tom Friedman or President Obama anti-Semites is nothing short of charity to actual anti-Semites. The accusation is becoming cheapened and thoroughly adulterated.

On September 23rd, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke in front of the United Nations General Assembly “On behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.” This may not seem very strange but many people would raise an eyebrow, or gasp in horror, if any person claimed to speak on behalf of the entire world’s Christians. Netanyahu, Glick and Lake would have a heart attack of anyone truly spoke on behalf of all of the world’s Muslims.

This highlights a peculiar phenomenon in which Israel and the Jewish people are one, yet dissent professed by American Jews is intolerable.

It is also peculiar that in the United States, civil disobedience, questioning of government decision-making and criticism of politicians is considered a patriotic virtue. In the end, Israel is a state, Netanyahu is a politician, and AIPAC is made up of human beings. None of them are infallible. One should be able to question the decisions the Israeli government makes without worrying about being slandered as an anti-Semite.

This is particularly distressing in the cases of Friedman, Klein, Rosenberg and Gutman. All of them are Jewish (remember, Netanyahu is speaking on their behalf) and are still being accused as new anti-Semites. Give me a break.

Anti-Semitism is real. It still exists. Yet it becomes more difficult to regard it as a threat when everyone and their mother is considered a Jew-hating bigot.

There is also a tendency to say that anti-Semitism is a unique and exceptional type of racism. It has festered for thousands of years since the death of Christ. It has followed Jews into the Diaspora and taken many forms, from conspiracy theories about control of banks, to the Protocols, to blaming the Jews for the Black Death, right up to the Holocaust and the present day. The argument goes that most forms of racism knock down the victim, to make them feel inferior, while anti-Semitism attributes great power to the Jews.

Yet every form of racism or hate has its particular idiosyncrasies, stereotypes and manifestations. Anti-Semitism isn’t any more exceptional than anti-black racism or homophobia. All of the individual wells of bigotry and discrimination connect to the same aquifer of hate in the depths of the world.

Audre Lorde, a Caribbean-American writer and activist put it perfectly in her essay “There is no Hierarchy of Oppressions.” Lorde—who is black, female and homosexual—said that she “cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of only one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

The charges of anti-Semitism leveled at President Obama (who also takes flak for being Pro-Zionist, a Nazi, and a socialist, depending on the hater), Friedman, Klein, etc. obscure cases like the murder of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew who was stalked and kidnapped because he was presumed to be rich, or Mordechai Molozhenov, a Yeshiva student stabbed and wounded for his religious faith in August 2005 in Kyiv by attackers who were later charged with being guilty only of “hooliganism.”

Perhaps Glick, Lake, Commentary and the Weekly Standard’s biggest crime has been to make the accusation of anti-Semitism almost irrelevant. If their concern was about discrimination and justice instead of their unconditionally pro-Netanyahu agenda, they’d mention Halimi or Molozhenov, or any number of other genuine victims of other forms of racism, discrimination or oppression. There is too much real suffering in the world to level such trumped up charges at journalists and politicians.

Meanwhile, the State of Israel continues to make some of the Jewish people it speaks in behalf of ashamed of its conduct.  It launches ad campaigns questioning the Jewishness of American Jews, encouraging them to immigrate to Israel, as it slams European allies of being “irrelevant” and meddling in Israel’s affairs.  Discrimination against women on religious and secular grounds is all over the headlines. Its Foreign Minister has hailed the fairness of Russia’s recent elections and isn’t even trying to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israeli Knesset bills are trying to silence human rights organizations which receive funding from the United Nations and the European Union. The list goes on. And of course, as 2012 rolls around, the occupation will enter its 45th year.

Criticism of the State of Israel, which after all, is a government run by human beings, must be disentangled from anti-Semitism. If it makes me an anti-Semite for saying so, so be it.


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