February 07, 2009

Must Jews speak out?


I'm following on David's post below. Jonathan Freedland wrote that left rhetoric implies that
if Jews refuse to dissociate themselves from Israel, then they are fair game for abuse and attack until they publicly recant.
There are a few deep flaws in the arguments leading to this conclusion. First, to be clear, this is not left rhetoric. And it is not Muslim rhetoric. These are wrong and defamatory accusations and Freedland's examples do not build a case against any organization or speaker. Comparing Jack Straw and Galloway is ridiculous. Straw attacked a dress code associated with Islam. Galloway attacked an army committing enormous crimes. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that racist rhetoric exists on the fringe of demonstrations against Israel and that people do act on it. There is a tendency to see racist expressions directed at Jews as blowback coming from Muslim communities in Europe. But the rise in racist, anti-Jewish occurances that followed the eruption of the Second Intifada in France reveals that things are not so simple. Studies show that only a third of these anti-Jewish cases in France are attributed to members of immigrant communities, while two thirds were committed by people of white French background. This is important, and shouldn't really be surprising. The issue is less inappropriate expression of Muslim rage than white racists taking advantage of Muslim rage.

Al-Quds hospital, Gaza City, following Israeli shelling by ISM PalestineIn any case, this should be condemned. Jews should not be blamed for the crimes of Israel. And they should not have to dissociate themselves from these crimes. Until proven otherwise, we ought to assume about every human being is a decent human being. And decent human beings do not support massacres and a war against people whose crime is to refuse to disappear. Decent people don't support what you see in these pictures (and don't blame me for posting "incendiary" pictures. We should never forget that these discussions are not abstract).

But what is your obligation when your identity is stolen?

A week after Israel murdered over 400 children in its quest for uncompromising dominance, The World Jewish Congress, claiming to represent Jewish communities in over 80 countries, congregated in Jerusalem and passed a resolution of "solidarity with the people and state of Israel." The resolution blamed Hamas for the death and devastation in Gaza, described Israeli operations as "pinpoint strikes" against military targets, and recognized "the centrality of the State of Israel to contemporary Jewish identity." There wasn't even mild criticism.

The fact of the matter is that the World Jewish Congress doesn't represent Jews. It doesn't hold elections, and it never asked me if I wanted to be represented by it. Its mission however is "to represent the interests and needs of Jews and Jewish communities throughout the world." It also claims to be "the representative body of Jewish communities and organizations in over 80 countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe across six continents." The sentiments expressed in this latest resolution are shared by a significant and powerful minority of Jews. This is a real problem. It is a moral problem, because these sentiments are built on racism, xenophobia, hatred and ignorance. To the extent that they express a genuine Jewish identity, and they unfortunately do, they lead Jews towards moral and spiritual suicide. Furthermore, while the WJC claims to work to "secure the rights and safety of Jews and Jewish communities around the world," and "cooperate with all peoples on the basis of universal ideas of peace, freedom and justice," in fact it does the opposite. Its politics are committed to exacerbate the manufactured "clash of civilizations," which is the latest facade in the centuries old commitment of the West to looting the planet and subjugating its people. In addition to being immoral, this self-positioning is not wise. These organizations seek to position Jewish communities at the front of a war against the vast majority of humanity, and they do it in the most visible way possible. They put Jews, both Israeli Jews and Jewish communities elsewhere, in a position that is globally analogous to the one the Belgian colonial rulers put Tutsies in in Rwanda. History isn't going to repeat itself, and I am not sounding any alarm about the safety of Jews. They are safer today than most. But however things turn out, this can only end badly for a large number of people.

We should note that the looting (i.e., our global economic system) is not going very well (thank God!). It got to the point the planet itself and human life as a whole is menaced by the domination of the looting spirit. Thus even a large and growing number of people inside the privileged West are grasping that this looting of the planet and of the majority of its people must end. Racist incitement against the victims of Western rapacity is the looters' last ditch defense of what President Obama calls now "our way of life". And as much as I wish otherwise, we should consider that they might win. We begin to see the old choice resurface, between socialism and barbarism, and barbarism, as always, is the option preferred by those in power. This is today the standard Jewish organizations csuch as the WJC chose to carry. Are they sure that the barbarism they help unleash will spare them? Perhaps the plutocrats have nothing to worry. They will always be defended by the best defense money can buy. What about the rank and file? Even out of purely parochial concerns, Jews need to speak out against these organizations. Even Jews whose only loyalty is to their family connections in Israel ought to be alarmed and moved to action by a leadership that leads Jews to fulfill exactly the role that antisemitism invented for them.

The incidence of racism against Jews is much lower than advertised. Nevertheless, there should be a commitment to educate against racism, including against Jews. And many do act on such a commitment. Both leftist leaders and Muslim leaders have condemned these instances of racism. Fighting racial hatred however isn't just an issue of enunciating a principle. It is also a practical question. All our efforts will end in failure unless we stop the slide towards barbarism. And let's be clear, that means stopping Israel and stopping the WJC. Wagging fingers against some of the less informed demonstrators is good and neccessary, but it is a bit like standing in front of a gushing fire hydrant with a blowdryer. Freedland is completely in the wrong blaming heated rhetoric. When children burn, asking people to calm down and take it easy is simply offensive. The comparison between the Nazis and the Zionists is overblown on many levels, and as I wrote earlier, it is often but not always demeaning to the victims of both. But behind some of the hyperbole there are acute feelings of impotence and the understanding that no hyperbole measures up to the anguish in face of mass murder. Incendiary rhetoric doesn't match up against incendiary bombs.

Freedland's words reveal another core problem with the Nazi analogy, which isn't what he thinks it is:
Now what, do you imagine, is the effect of repeating, again and again, that Israel is a Nazi state? Even those with the scantest historical knowledge know that the Nazis are the embodiment of evil to which the only appropriate response is hate. How surprising is it if a young man, already appalled by events in Gaza, walks home from a demo and glimpses the Star of David - which he now sees as a latter-day swastika - outside a synagogue and decides to torch the building, or at least desecrate it?
Was it O.K. then to make racist assumptions about Germans in 1943 because the Nazi state was indeed, without a doubt, a Nazi state? Was it moral to firebomb Dresden? Would it have been right to desecrate churches if they belonged to German congregations in the U.S.? Was it fine to intern German-Americans because Nazi Germany was indeed as bad as Nazi Germany? Freedland implies that yes. And that is very wrong. That hypothetical young man Freedland invokes did wrong, but that had nothing to do with whether Israelis are or are not as bad as the Nazis. He did wrong because he dialed the wrong number. Perhaps the best remedy would be that liberals stop demonizing Nazis. Let's dispense with the language of "the embodiment of evil". The notion is demonological, and liberals ought to ask themselves why they need a demonology. Nazism committed horrible crimes, but these crime are not as unique as the liberal demonological catechism presents them. Horrible war crimes were committed by the allied armies as well. The crimes against humanity the Nazis committed had a unique character. But that uniqueness pertains mostly to the methods and especially to the rhetoric of mass murder. In terms of outcomes, the genocide against the Jews and the Roma was no more horrible than what Americans did to the indigenous people of North America and to the Africans they enslaved. The U.S. killed more people in Vietnam than died in Auschwitz. The U.S. (and Britain) are responsible for more deaths in Iraq than died in Auschwitz. Think about these numbers. The differences are real. I don't mean to say that rhetoric and ideas and method don't matter. There is a qualitative difference between taking pride in exterminating people as the Nazis did, and pretending these people aren't dead, as the "coalition" does in Iraq. There was something particularly odious in the Nazi absence of a guilty conscience. There was something particularly odious in an industry that produces dead bodies as its main "product", as the Nazi death machine did, compared to an industry that produces a roughly equal amount of dead bodies, but as an out-of-sight economic "externality," the way the Western military-industrial complex does. But the difference is exaggerated by a liberal discourse that uses Nazism as a way of displacing the knowledge of its own demons. When "even those with the scantest historical knowledge" know history with such uncommon clarity, we are obviously touching a society's core ideological conceits.

Finally, the key question that Freedland raises is this: Do Jews have a moral obligation to disassociate themselves from these wretched "representatives"? Yes they do. Not all Jews, but at least all Jews that have anything to do with the organized institutions that speak like the WJC. The issue is not proving that they are "good Jews." Nor are they morally required to prove that they don't support Israel. It is a racist assumption that a person supports Israel's brutal assault on Gaza because they visit a synagogue, just as it is a racist assumption that someone supports al-Qaeda because she wears a veil. The issue is best understood through a simple analogy: identity theft. When someone steals your credit card or other elements of your identity and uses them as tools to commit a crime, you are not automatically liable for the crimes committed in your name. But neither can you just go on as if nothing happened. You shouldn't have to prove your innocence. But you do have to take reasonable precautions to minimize damage to others. You have, for example, to notify your credit card company or your bank as soon as you are aware of the facts. The WJC and similar institutions are using the history of antisemitism in the West as a cover to advance the cause of barbarism. They are using the concern, responsibility and deference that many people in the West accord Jews, and for good historical reasons, to harm Palestinians. As humans, not as Jews, we have an obligation towards Palestinians not to allow that use of our Jewish identity. Freedland's comparisons with Muslims is therefore misplaced. Al-Qaeda never abused any special deference towards Muslims. It acted in the name of Islam. But no Muslim institution used that fact to justify British of American government support for al-Qaeda. And had anybody made that argument, it would have had no consequences. Thus calls on Muslims to denounce al-Qaeda are indeed an illegitimate demand that they prove their innocence. British and American Jews have no special obligation (i.e. beyond basic decency) to dissociate themselves from Israel and no special need to prove their innocence (special beyond the need that every U.S. and British taxpayer has). They do however have a special obligation to dissociate themselves from Jewish organizations that use the deference accorded Jews in Western societies as cover for Israeli crimes.

Most of the Jews who actually speak out against Israel have other, deeper reasons for taking a public stand. While nobody can be faulted for not going the extra mile, publicly telling Jewish institutions you are connected with, "not in my name," is indeed a moral obligation.



0 comments:

Post a Comment