Friday, January 16, 2009

It's Better To Speak To The Facts

The Guardian presents an editorial, a curious cross of self-pity and self-indulgence, that repeats two arguments that are inevitably presented every time Israel engages in an asymmetric battle with the Palestinians or Lebanon. First, the suggestion that to criticize Israel is somehow anti-Semitic. Second, that if you're not presenting equal condemnation of human rights abuses in other parts of the world, you are somehow suspect when you question Israel's actions.

Even acknowledging the continued existence of anti-Semitism in the world, and that some of Israel's critics (and defenders) are driven by attitudes that are reasonably characterized as anti-Semitic, both of those arguments are misplaced.
While I would prefer to equate the fate of the Palestinians with that of Israel – meaning, I'd like to believe we're all on the same side – I think that might be a difficult political fiction to maintain at the moment. And while I'd like to artificially separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism, like most American Jews, I'm not willing to make that false distinction: when there is more than one Jewish state, the world's hatred of Israel might become no different from its exasperation with any other country, but since Israel is the only homeland, and really it is nothing more than six million Jews living together in an area the size of New Jersey, I can't pretend that the problem with Israel is that it's a poorly located country that happens to be at odds with its neighbours and only coincidentally happens to be Jewish. The trouble with Israel is the trouble with Jews.
Here's the thing. Israel may be the "only" Jewish nation state, but that doesn't mean that it's the "homeland" of all Jews, nor does it mean that it speaks for all Jews, nor does it mean that all Jews support its policies, nor does it mean that criticism of its policies is criticism of Jews or their faith. More to the point, criticism of Israel's policies and combat operations can be profoundly pro-Jewish, both theologically and in terms of its role as a "homeland" or "safe haven". As the story goes, Hillel once advised, "The main idea of the Torah is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Everything else is commentary." How effective have Israel's policies been, either at making Israel a safe haven for the world's Jews or in walking the walk of Jewish theology? Unless we're talking "near perfection" in both areas, it's not anti-Jewish to suggest that Israel's policies haven't worked and aren't working.

Moreover, the author conflates Israel with Judaism, thereby lending credibility to the people she is supposedly opposing. There's no honest way to simultaneously argue, "Israel represents the world's Jews", and "You're anti-Semitic for suggesting that Israel represents the world's Jews."

The other argument,
But here is what I finally know: with all the troubles in the world, with the terrible things that the Chinese do in Tibet, and do to their own citizens; with the horrors of genocide committed in Darfur by Sudanese Muslims; with all the bad things that Arab governments in the Middle East visit upon their own people – no need for Israel to have a perfectly horrible time – still, the focus is on what the Jews may or may not be doing wrong in Gaza. And it makes people angry and vehement as nothing else does.
In reality, for the most part the Israel-Palestine conflict flies under the radar screen. There's little to no news coverage, no attention is paid to the plight of the Palestinians, and for people not directly involved life goes on as usual. During those times, protests occur in relation to other conflicts, such as the Iraq War, that don't look much different from the "angry and vehement" reaction the author purports is unique to Israel's military actions.

There are multiple problems with comparing the Israel-Palestine conflict to other conflicts, starting with the fact that it's not at all flattering to Israel. If the argument is that the conflicts are comparable, Israel is being compared in its conduct to China, Sudan, and Middle East tyrannies. If the argument is, "What they're doing is worse", look at the measure you're using for Israel's conduct. When a nation claims to be a member of the modern, western world, it's more than fair to say that it's conduct should be much better than that of a communist dictatorship or despotic state or kingdom.

The biggest problem here is that if you compare Israel's conduct to that of other western states, the people who criticize Israel also criticize similar acts by their own government or by the U.S. The author implicitly concedes as much when she whines,
Whereas it actually hurts my feelings when someone says something nasty about Israel, or even the United States, for Israelis, this is just the way of the world: they probably manufacture their flags to be flammable.
I recognize that some people like to pretend that criticism of the United States only arises out of "anti-Americanism", whatever that means, but that only serves to highlight the absurdity of the thesis that every anti-Israeli sentiment is anti-Semitic. If it hurts your feelings when somebody points out that your country has done something wrong or stupid, let alone criticizes another nation whose residents are largely unfazed by the critique, the problem may just be with you.
Excepting a business trip I took to England, Scotland and Ireland in early 2002, I have not been to Europe since 9/11. It's become an unbearable place to be, as the anti-American feelings in light of the Iraq war have mingled with antisemitism to a point where they are indistinguishable, the new phobias of the First World.
And you know what? I went to London and Paris last year, and was treated wonderfully in both places. Without discounting the fact that it's easier to imagine Europe as a boiling sea of anti-American and anti-Semitic sentiments if you don't actually go there, if what I experienced truly was anti-Americanism "mingled" with anti-Semitism "to a point where they are indistinguishable", life's pretty good.

An accusation of anti-Semitism is a sword best kept sheathed until you encounter bona fide anti-Semitism. Using that accusation shotgun style weakens it, angers people you wrongly accuse, and casts a shadow of doubt over everything else you declare to represent anti-Semitism.

The second problem with the comparison is that the nature of the conversation is different. If I were to go around the country angrily declaring, "What China's doing in Tibet is terrible - they're violating the Geneva conventions, they've committed war crimes, their leaders should be in prison," I would not get much of a reaction. I would probably have to attempt to intrude on a Chinese embassy before I inspired any strong reaction to my statements. Simlarly, "What Sudan is doing in Darfur is atrocious" - who's arguing? Or, "The despotic kingdoms and tyrants of the Middle East, and the pseudo-democracy in Egypt, need to stop oppressing their people, allow freedom of religion, democratize, allow a free press...." at what point does somebody rise up in anger and tell me that I'm being anti-Islamic? Heck, I could try that at a CAIR office, and they would probably agree with me. There's no debate, let alone angry debate, when virtually everybody is on the same page. Any outrage is directed at the powerful group acting atrociously toward the less powerful group.

In contrast, the unfortunate tendency of certain very loud voices in the Israel-Palestine conflict is to try to shut down the debate. They attempt to brand Jewish critics of Israeli as "self-hating Jews", and every other critic as an "anti-Semite" or at best reflecting latent anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, another set of voices spin the conflict, presenting skewed, self-serving histories, distorting or misrepresenting the facts, and complaining incessantly that the slightest criticism of their side's conduct represents "media bias". That happens on both sides of the debate but, at least in the United States and Canada, Israel's public relations efforts are far professional and far more successful.

Meanwhile, unlike any of the other conflicts mentioned, there's actual participation in the conflict by certain western nations. The "Quartet" and its British emissary, Tony Blair. The long role of the United States and certain European nations in trying to broker peace agreements. The role of the United States and Britain in shielding Israel from Security Council action and providing it with state-of-the-art arms. Billions of dollars in U.S. aid, every year. An obsequious Congress. Reasons exist why people in the west can perceive this conflict, and their own government's role in perpetuating what they see as an injustice, differently than they do with other conflicts where their own nation plays no meaningful role.

I have an invitation for the author. I'll post a scathing critique of the Arab world, in relation to this conflict, along with my feelings on Hamas and Fatah, their past and present leadership, and their role in creating and perpetuating this crisis. She can then argue the other side. No? Well, then, she can find me somebody who will provide a spirited defense for the other side. Or not.

Admittedly, she may be able to find somebody who tries to shout me down as being biased against Arabs and Islam. But then....


  1. On Anon Anon1/16/09, 3:58 PM

    Part of the "impugn the speaker" approach is to intimidate people into not speaking up when they know the facts, or have an interpretation of the facts that differs from the official story. I think that the effect of accusations of anti-Semitism, or fear of that accusation, has been diminished by the extreme measures taken by some of Israel's supporters (AIPAC, CAMERA) to try to shut down or shout down every dissenting voice. Eventually you accuse the wrong person and get an angry defense instead of quiescence - look at Joe Klein, for example. Or you create so much noise, your signal gets lost.

  2. The problem is that while criticism of Israel is not automatically anti-Semitic, anti-Semites invariably criticize Israel. And the anti-Semites are generally smart enough to insist that any criticism directed toward them is just playing the anti-Semitism card.

  3. And the response to that is, "Why make it so easy for them?"

  4. The parable is that of The Boy Who Cried Wolf! The problem isn't that there aren't any wolves. The problem is that if you make enough false declarations, you end up with nobody paying attention even as the wolves eat you alive.

  5. I disagree. The "boy" in the parable cited above acted the way he did out of childish ignorance. He just wanted to see the grown-ups get worked-up; he didn't think about the consequences of his actions. He didn’t have an ulterior motive.

    In the situation Aaron is describing I think you are seeing deliberate hypocrisy at work, not ignorance. The "state" of Israel (not every Jewish person, not even most or a significant number of the whole) has pretty clearly engaged in acts designed to at best marginalize and at most "ethnically cleanse" its "Palestinian Problem."

    To have a theocracy that allows citizenship to be determined by religious leaders while at the same time claiming to be a model of Western values and a victim of discrimination . . . "hypocrisy” seems like the right word to me. To have the defenders of that same theocracy use the charge of “anti-Semitism” to avoid having to discuss the way Israel treats its Arab citizens and the population of the occupied territories . . .


  6. And the response to *that* is whether or not you make it easy for them, there is a faction that's going to scream about Zionist oppression of free speech and playing the anti-Semitism card precisely to shut down opposition.

    Criticizing Israel's bombing of innocent civilians? Not anti-Semitic. Excusing Hamas's bombing of innocent civilians cuz, they're like, oppressed? Might well be anti-Semitic. Complaining that the Zionist lobby controls American and shuts down all dissent? If it looks like a duck...

  7. Recall the thesis of the editorial under discussion. In relation to the Gaza invasion:

    " It is not Israel's action, but the vitriolic reaction to it that has been disproportionate. There's only one explanation: antisemitism."

    We're not talking nuance here.

  8. Mythago, I have never met an anti-semite who was the slightest bit clever. They exist?


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