December 14, 2008

Lost in the blogosphere. JPost re-grinds the antisemitism ax

There use to be time when bloggers were seen as a kind of a growth on the back of "legitimate" journalism. These days are long gone. Yet even in these twilight of the newspaper industry, the Jerusalem Post exceeded itself by devoting a full article to discussing and citing at length what talkbackers wrote in the comment sections of various blogs in reply to Richard Silverstein's article about the terrorist attack on Mumbai.

O Tempora O Mores!! Can a newspaper become even more of a joke?
A poster named "Geary" posted sarcastic approval.... (The Jerusalem Joke...err, Post, December 13, 2008)
When this kind of "news" is "reported" in a "newspaper," (other than The Onion) you just know the end is near. Silverstein has a whole bill of complaints against the J Post, including that the Post failed to link to his blog or report that he condemned the attack. But seriously, when a newspaper devotes a full article to reporting snide talkbacks, isn't it time to just hold its hand and wait for merciful nature to take its course?

If the Jerusalem Post were really interested in coverage of "The Jewish world" it would have called Silverstein and asked for an op-ed. But enough with that right-wing rag and its definition of "the Jewish world". What was all the fury about?

Silverstein made a distinction between antisemitic (anti-Jewish) terror and anti-Israeli terror, based on "how the terrorists saw the target." According to Silverstein, the label 'antisemitic' is only applicable when the act is motivated by "global hatred of an entire religion."

I'm going to explain below that I consider Silverstein's arguments on this points muddled. Yet his faulty logic is driven by an intuition that I take to be fundamentally correct. The right wing Jewish establishment, in Silverstein's words,
NEED[s] to see the Mumbai attack as based in anti-Semitism....
The Jewish Zionist establishment is invested in an idea of antisemitism that is a mirror image of the antisemitic idea of "the Jew". Instead of the mythical, transhistorical Jew, Zionism today imagines the figure of the antisemite as the metaphysical evil that lurks behind everything and anything, without history and without cause other than the purity of the disease that possesses it. In doing so, Zionism recreates and justifies antisemitism--keeping it, if not alive, at least a living dead. Zionism produces, for the imaginary antisemite and through her, the very imaginary Jew that the antisemite needs to hate. (Worse! It produces that Jew sometimes for real.)

Given this deep investment in the boundless and amorphic nature of "antisimitism," it is not surprising that Silverstein's distinctions caused, as the Post described it, "a furious war of words." The torrent of words is the response to what is correctly perceived as a direct attack on the fundamental storyline of Zionism ("Throughout history, antisemites hate and persecute Jews. Finally, Jews become Zionists, create Israel, defeat antisemitism and live happily--but forever vigilantly--ever after). Fragmenting the historical relations, including instances of violence, between Jews and non-Jews denies Zionism the unity of its imagined Jewish narrative and identity. There is no reason to be surprised that a whole armchair brigade is involved in policing the discourse and ululating frantically towards any suggestion that there can ever be animosity between Jews and non-Jews that isn't "anti-Semitism."

Nevertheless, locating the distinction in the difference between an Israeli and a Jewish target is based on confusion.

First, antisemitism was not directed against the Jewish religion. The core gripe of antisemites historically has been the demand to exclude from the nation non-religious, secular, assimilated Jews such as Captain Dreyfus. Hence antisemitism is not the same thing as anti-Judaism or hatred towards the Jewish religion or religious Jews qua religious Jews. It is based on a racist/secularized religious identity (for both Jews and Christians). Only transferring antisemitism from the plane of history and into myth "assimilates" all history of inter-religious strife involving Jews into the modern phenomenon of antisemitism. Thus, by confusing antisemitism with "global hatred" for the Jewish religion Silverstein falls into the position he should be criticizing. (for more on this distinction, allow me to refer to myself)

Second, while "Jewish" and "Israeli" are not the same term, neither is the distinction airtight. Israelis as such are Jewish. Sure, there are Israeli citizens who are not Jewish, but most Israeli Jews do not consider them to be proper Israelis, because "Israeliness" is tightly linked to being Jewish.

Conversely, while many Jews are not Israelis, there is hardly any Jewish establishment worldwide today that isn't strongly identified with Israel. And of course all these Jewish Zionist establishments, TOGETHER with the official spokespersons of the state of Israel, insist on Israel being the Jewish state and demand from Jews everywhere loyalty to Israel. Chabad, for example, is an organization with strong Zionist links, including to the most rabid settlers. It is heavily involved in the colonial domination of Palestinians. If a terrorist wanted to attack an international civilian target as a proxy for Israel, the distinction between a Chabad center and an El-Al office for example on the account that one is Jewish and one is Israeli would probably not be high on his mind. And that is not because "antisemites" can't see the difference between Israelis and Jews, but because the distinction between these two terms is muddled, often intentionally, by Zionist Jews.

(***Since the armies of stupidity and mendacity are going one way or the other to interpret the previous paragraph as an endorsement or defense of the Mumbai terrorists, I'll make it explicit that it was no such thing. One doesn't need to be an antisemite in order to be bigoted and/or despicable, and the carriers of that attack in Mumbai were both. ***)

But I agree with Silverstein's intuition that they were not antisemitic. To make that statement, we need however some clear sense of how to define antisemitism.

How to define any -ism? The logical place to begin would be with the historical birth of the term.

Antisemitism emerged as political tendency in 19th century Europe. There were people at the time who called themselves antisemites, proudly so! Their main argument was that Jews were foreigners in Europe, and should not therefore be counted as enfranchised citizens in their various countries of residence. They further claimed that denying civil and political rights to Jews would make European societies better and solve many of their social problems.

I think we can all agree that these people fully deserve to be called antisemites. So let's define that as antisemitism (1), or antisemitism in the strict sense.

Now, it makes sense not to limit the scope of the term to only these self-described antisemites. Why? One reason, for example, is that now that the term carries stigma, some antisemites would most likely try to dissimulate and hide their antisemitism.

Another reason is that we tend to extend other terms in similar ways. You don't have to be a member of the British Liberal party to be called a liberal. Nor is "fascist" uniquely applicable to card carrying members of Mussolini's party.

We're looking therefore for something I would call here antisemitism (2), which is a term with a broader scope than antisemitism (1).

Such a term has to be useful. We want to use it to name, and thus identify and help eradicate something that we find objectionable. But not everything can fit. We might object to people spitting on the pavement, but it makes little sense to call that antisemitism.

How to proceed? I would suggest that we write down a list of the main historical properties of antisemitism (1). Then, we could define antisemitic (2) as an attitude/belief/action that bears significant enough resemblance to a subset of these properties.

Below is a quick suggestion for such a list of properties of antisemitism (1):

1. negative attitude towards Jews as such
2. directed against a (vulnerable) Jewish minority in a larger non-Jewish society
3. uses the exclusion of the Jews as a way to advance a Volkish/organic or classless idea of the nation/citizenry
4. imagines the Jew as a satanic metaphor of evil: corrupting, infecting, powerful, devious, alien, etc.
5. uses the Jew as metaphor for the social ills associated with capitalism and industrialization

Others can come with other lists or with additional list elements that could make sense. But any such list must be based on the actual record of antisemitism (1).

Choosing the preferred list, or deciding how big a subset would be enough for qualifying someone as an antisemite (2) cannot be an exact operation. It also cannot be apolitical. The choice has to be driven by practical and inherently political considerations about that which we want to identify and delegitimize. Therefore, I am not trying to provide a definitive definition, but rather to expose and explicate the politics of choosing the scope of the word in different ways.

The definition of antisemitism (2) that is often thrown around (e.g. by the EUMC), inspired by Zionist politics, is effectively based on taking property #1 above as sufficient all by itself. Any case including #1, negative attitudes towards Jews, even if it happened 2,000 years ago, even if it happens in a place where Jews are the oppressive, jackbooted majority, would then qualify as antisemitism (2).

Since this is a definition, one cannot argue that it is inherently mistaken. But one can judge it by its effects. And I for once consider these effects reactionary and unacceptable.

The first effect of this choice is to dehistoricize both antisemitism AND Jewish identity. Because of the essentialization of both Jewishness and antisemitism, a second effect is to promote the very Volkish idea of nation/citizenry that antisemites (1) did. Yet a third effect is to trivialize antisemitism (2) by making it so easy to qualify as one. Antisemitism (1) was an epoch making political tendency that resulted in infamously horrible outcomes. Yet defining antisemitism (2) as broadly as preferred by the Zionists make being an antisemite (2) as trivial as having a prejudice against men with moustaches.

The most important effect of this overboard definition however is to stigmatize the non-Jewish side in any collective conflict that opposes non-Jews to Jews, regardless of the specific context and actual relations of power. Needless to say, this is utterly convenient for Zionists.

In contrast, my preferred definition of antisemitism (2) would be an attitude/belief/action that exhibits a subset of the above properties, such that it includes property #1 and #2 as the bare minimum, and at least one, preferably two of the other three properties.

That is clearly a political choice and I am not pretending otherwise. I require the inclusion of #2 because understanding social phenomena outside of power relations seems to me inherently misguided. For example, a gang of policemen shooting a black youngster in Detroit and a gang of black youngsters in Detroit shooting a policeman are both objectionable violent acts. But they do not belong to the same category. The violence cannot be abstracted from social context of white supremacy and racism. The same logic must apply to antisemitism. German police watching as party cadres smash up the fronts of Jewish shops is not in the same category as an alienated youth in Paris (or indeed in Tel-Aviv) drawing up a Swastika in the dead of the night, even if both are objectionable.

Finally, I would like evidence for #3 and #5 because I think racist phenomena must be analyzed in terms of the political strategies they enable rather than as an abstract lexicon of hatred (although semantics, as the inclusion of#4 shows, does matter).

In conclusion, let's examine the Mumbai attack. Was it antisemitic?

#1 is present. But #2 is absent. Jews were not targeted as a minority in India. They were targeted for reasons that have very little to do with the place of Jews in Indian society.

Regarding #3, #4, and #5, my sense is that there is little to justify assuming them, but I don't really know. However, the absence of #2 is enough to decide the issue.

Hence: horrid, despicable, but not antisemitic.

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