I read Darnell Moore’s response to Judith Butler with great interest. Like many people, I have profound respect and great fondness for this brilliant man. Darnell notes that anyone who speaks about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is entering a minefield. Some Jewish people react with fury to criticism of Israel, and try to block Israel’s critics from jobs and public recognition by conflating attacks on Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. How, then, can critics of Israel respond to charges of anti-Semitism and avoid the self-censorship or “ideological occupation of thought” that Darnell describes?
One simple solution is for critics of Israeli state policies to understand the history and character of anti-Semitic discourse. The only way to engage in a fight against the occupation of Palestinian territories that is thoroughly devoid of anti-Semitism, however, is to acknowledge that anti-Semitic discourse exists and has its own specific cultural and ideological power.
I am one of Darnell’s Jewish friends who has warned him about the “trap of anti-Semitic discourse….” I write this post because I realize that in the course of our many discussions, I never adequately articulated my concerns about this discourse. I do not believe, as Darnell summarizes, that any “testimonies about the occupation are coded indications of one’s disdain for Jewish people….” I do believe, however, that anti-Semitic discourse exists. It is deeply embedded in Christian culture; since the start of the twentieth century, it has had a powerful presence in the Muslim world as well. It bears ideological similarities to homophobia, racism, and misogyny, and distorts the thinking of anyone who partakes of it. There are also factual arguments that focus on the incontestable wrongs committed by the state of Israel, highlighting the ways that their ongoing military occupation violates international law. Pro-Palestinian activists should distinguish between the two types of arguments, so that they can repudiate the former. This would disarm their critics and strengthen the moral legitimacy of their critiques of Israeli state policies.
Instead, as Darnell’s essay notes, most anti-occupation activists assume that anyone who raises concerns about anti-Semitism simply opposes Palestinian rights. This assumption inverts right-wing Israelis’ insistence that anyone who challenges Israel’s suppression of Palestinian rights is an anti-Semite. Pro-Palestinian activists thus employ the same type of over-simplification that “pro-Israel” activists have long traded in. Both groups refuse to make a distinction between anti-Semitism and critiques of Israeli policy. This is a view that right-wing Israelis have cynically promoted, but one that pro-Palestinian activists who hope to win a moral argument cannot afford.
It should not be difficult to distinguish between these two camps. Pro-Palestinian activism entails critiquing specific policies of the state of Israel. Anti-Semitism is a 2000-year-old ideology that sees Jews as inherently corrupt and money-grubbing, as killers of the son of God and of Christian babies, and, more recently, as master manipulators who control global finance, communism, and the media. Anti-Semitic ideology views Jews as superhumanly clever people who are responsible for whatever goes wrong internationally. It predates the modern state of Israel by two millennia and given its flexibility and long history, will certainly outlive political contestations around the Israeli state.
Yet the two concepts are routinely muddled, particularly in the Middle East. The most common example is the claim that “Zionists” were behind the 9/11 attacks. This assertion casts Israel, the Jewish state, as a sinister force of almost supernatural ability and unlimited capacity for evil, bent on manipulating other nations in pursuit of its twisted self-interest. This belief is embraced by millions in the Arab world. I have met U.S. leftists who also believe this claim.
While many nations, including our own, engage in horrific behavior against other nations and against minorities within their own borders, the fact that Israelis are Jews means that their state violence, and theirs alone, can be understood in terms of a pre-existing, centuries-old anti-Semitic language. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement states that it is opposed to anti-Semitism as well as all forms of racism or anti-Arab language. While I do not doubt that most BDS activists abhor anti-Semitism, their claim to oppose anti-Semitism would have more force if they had a record of confronting allies over anti-Semitic language. They will not amass such a record, however, if they and other anti-occupation activists assert that anti-Semitism never surfaces in their movement, or that any charges to the contrary are simply covers for anti-Palestinian feeling. (In the one case I’m aware of in which BDS proponents soundly condemned an ally for anti-Semitism, the ally in question was himself a former Israeli Jew.)
Here is my advice for people who want to speak out against Israeli state policies but fear being labeled as anti-Semitic if they do so:
First, thoughtful critics of Israel must not feel “policed” or “silenced” by secular, Christian, or Jewish groups that construct “the image of a respectable Israel and ruthless Palestine,” any more than activists should feel silenced by secular, Christian, or Jewish groups that traffic in any simplistic and easily refutable idea — those that construct heterosexuals as perfect and homosexuals as degenerate, the U.S. as ideal and the rest of the world as inferior, etc. If activists were silenced by their opponents’ crude and unsophisticated arguments, there would be no activists.
Instead, good people silence themselves out of concern that they might inadvertently engage in speech that is bigoted. To address this worry, inform yourselves about how anti-Semitic discourse operates. Then you will recognize it as readily as you recognize and resist racist, misogynist, and homophobic discourses. If you learn the tropes, you won’t use them yourself, and will feel confident critiquing them when you see them used by others. While such care will mean nothing to the most ardent defenders of Israeli policies, it will ease your own conscience and enable you to speak.
Here is a concrete example of the way that pre-existing anti-Semitic discourses (and actions) complicate pro-Palestinian activism. Some who oppose the occupation, which goes against international law, also oppose the legitimacy of the state of Israel – and no other nation. They thereby cast the Israeli state as uniquely sinister. First, it isn’t true. Many states engage in violent suppression of minorities, neighboring communities, or inhabitants of distant nations. There are many nations whose origins entailed the displacement of populations, including our own. Second, depicting Israel as a uniquely evil state that has no right to exist aligns too neatly with the centuries-old depiction of Jews as a uniquely evil people who have no right to exist. Pre-existing anti-Semitic discourse thus adds an ugly charge to a political critique that is logically suspect to start with. Jews who are sensitive to the history of anti-Semitic thought note these resonances, as should anyone who engages in such discussions.
Activists wishing to avoid charges of anti-Semitism should be knowledgeable enough to understand that some Jews will find it hard to distinguish between calls for Israel’s destruction that are violent and overtly anti-Semitic, and arguments against the legitimacy of Israel that are based on progressive credentials, anti-colonial politics, and “holding Israel to a higher moral standard.” The longer history of viewing Jews as uniquely evil can illuminate why BDS activists’ determination to overturn what they see as Israel’s uniquely flawed ideological foundation could be read as anti-Semitic.
Some activists resist the label of anti-Semitism by highlighting Israeli malfeasance. The idea is that if the Israeli state’s violent, illegal or racist behavior is thoroughly documented, this will prove that attacks on the state’s legitimacy are fair and not based on anti-Semitism. This doesn’t work, since it does not address – and indeed, can aggravate – the foundational idea of anti-Semitism, which is that Jews are uniquely evil and illegitimate. The fact that amassing evidence against Israel cannot fully free one from charges of anti-Semitism might seem unfair to activists who, for whatever reason, are concerned with oppressive acts by Israel and not with similarly oppressive acts by other states. It remains the unfortunate ideological reality of the situation, however – one that cannot avoid being shaped by anti-Semitic ideologies that long predate the modern Israeli state.
Activists should not be silenced by false charges of anti-Semitism that have long been leveled against critics of Israel. At the same time, activists deny 2000 years of history – and display a great deal of naiveté about the cultural power of ideology — if they assert that anti-Semitism has no influence whatsoever on perceptions of the “Jewish state.” To craft a critique that does not inadvertently feed into anti-Semitic rhetoric takes conscious, deliberate thought. This will never happen as long as Americans who support Palestinian rights simply assert that anti-Semitism has no influence in the world today, and hence no impact on international reactions to Israeli policies.
One possible way out of this bind is to be consistent. If you are opposed to theocracies, inform yourself about other state theocracies. If Israel is immoral because it denies certain rights to minorities, learn about other nations that engage in similar behavior. If Israel is illegitimate because of “disappearing villages/ languages, re-ordering geographies,” etc., go beyond mentioning that such activity is to be opposed “wherever these acts might occur in the world….” Instead, name and condemn the states that engage in such acts.** Otherwise, Israel’s critics will be open to the charge that they are holding Israel to a unique standard, and calling for the state’s dissolution for reasons that are less than straight forward. If activists find that near identical acts of state violence undertaken by nations other than Israel has less of a charge, think about why. Activists win when they know their subject inside and out. A call for consistency is not too much to ask.
** See Stephen Zunes, “Divesting from All Occupations,” Foreign Policy in Focus, July 25, 2012. Zunes describes the near-exact parallels between Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The sufferings of the people of Western Sahara are largely invisible and have no particular charge or resonance.