Many years ago I knew a self-deluded entrepreneur who claimed to have invented a compression algorithm that could take a novel and reduce it to a few words. Well, anyone could. Just throw away most of the words. Here is “War and Peace”— Prince Andrei, Pierre, the Battle of Borodino, Freemasons. The trick is in the decompression. You can’t actually reconstruct an entire novel from a few words. My acquaintance thought you could and he was wrong.
Or so I thought, until this week. It turns out that with just two words that seemingly refer to the actual crimes of two people you can reconstruct the entire history of European antisemitism. The educated man who demonstrated the use of this decompression algorithm earlier this week is Matt Seaton. Observe the master at work. On Monday, Matt Seaton, an editor of The New York Review of Books (and earlier at the Guardian and the NYT opinion page) laid down the law in response to a tweet by Ali Abunimah—
“This one gets reported for blood libel anti-Semitism. Bye bye, Ali”
So Ali Abunimah must have said something really terrible. Judge for yourself. In response to the Israeli election, where Benny Gantz’s party won more seats than Benjamin Netanyahu’s, Ali Abunimah said this —
“What’s to celebrate? He will be replaced by another cold-blooded butcher of Palestinian children. Netanyahu’s replacement represents precisely zero progress for Palestinian rights.”
As was quickly pointed out by numerous people, he was right. Netanyahu and Gantz are both responsible for the deaths of hundreds of children in Gaza. Seaton doesn’t dispute the facts. So where exactly is the antisemitism? Fortunately, Seaton, who by his own reckoning is highly educated in these matters, decided to respond—
You’re probably not asking in good faith, but I’ll act as if you are. “Butcher,” in a Jewish or Muslim context, invokes ritual slaughter. “Children” added to that refers to the medieval anti-semitic myth (the blood libel) of Jewish ritual sacrifice of (Christian) children. 1/2
It’s a completely obvious trope, familiar in similar forms from scores of anti-semitic cartoons depicting Jews as bloody child-killers. That comes under the IHRA definition as “Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews.” 2/2a
If you don’t know the tropes of anti-semitism, then you don’t understand anti-semitism. And if you don’t care to take trouble to know them and recognize them, then it probably means you don’t actually care about anti-semitism. 2/2b
So, as his questioner pointed out, it all comes down to two words— “butcher” and “children.”
That twitter thread is full of people who try (with varying degrees of politeness that gradually shade into ridicule) to point out the absurdity of this argument to Seaton. He won’t have it. He knows what he knows. Sure, Netanyahu and Gantz might be war criminals guilty of killing hundreds of, let us say, Palestinians who are not yet adults. One of these two war criminals might yet again become PM. Seaton doesn’t bother to dispute the point. What he cares about is this—many times in European history innocent Jews were falsely accused of the ritual slaughter of Christian children. So because of this, if two officials in the self-proclaimed Jewish state actually are guilty of killing children, you can’t use the word “ slaughter” and you can’t use the word “children” near that word “slaughter”, because only a vicious antisemite would ever do such a thing.
So it’s a trope. If you want to criticize the premature deaths of not yet fully grown Palestinians caused by the actions of officials of a particular state you had better do it in a way that avoids using any word ever used in a false accusation against Jews by antisemites.
This is going to be difficult. The problem is that antisemites often did accuse innocent Jews of terrible crimes, so what are you supposed to say if someone Jewish actually commits a war crime in reality?
Incidentally, as someone in the thread pointed out, here is Ali Abunimah criticizing Obama and his aide Ben Rhodes for helping the Saudis— wait for it— “ slaughter” Yemeni “babies”. Is there no end to his vicious trope usage?
Is that why you and Obama helped your non-ally Saudi Arabia slaughter Yemeni babies?
Seaton has dug himself in so deep only a very big man would be able to apologize for it at this point. He may convince himself that he is simply more educated and sensitive than his Twitter critics. The larger point is this. Look at his career. This man is a gatekeeper. If you want to know why anti- Palestinian racism in Americans who support Israel is never called out, while antisemitism (both real and imagined) is often made central in discussions of Palestinian rights, look at Seaton’s mindset. How long can one criticize Israel in the terms it deserves before someone claims the criticisms are antisemitic? And once that happens, the subject of Palestinian human rights simply vanishes, as if by magic.
Look at all the people of color in the past few years who are accused of antisemitism because in part of their stance on Palestine — Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Ilhan Omar, Alice Walker , Elijah Cummings, and Marc Lamont Hill. There are quite a number of them (though there is some justice in the case of Walker).
Now try and name someone on the pro Israel side who is arguably guilty of anti-Palestinian bigotry and has been the center of controversy because of it? Just look at the New York Times, which published four pieces defending Israel’s shooting of Palestinian demonstrators last year. Where was the controversy over that editorial decision? Nowhere, so far as the mainstream press is concerned. When you see Matt Seaton’s attitude, you get a glimpse into the thinking behind this glaring bias.