By Vic Rosenthal
I went to the ADL’s Finding Our Voice conference in San Francisco on Sunday (see my earlier post). The conference was an attempt to bring together Jewish activists on the Left and Right – at least those who profess to support the continued existence of the State of Israel – to learn about ‘the new’ (i.e., left-wing) antisemitism and how to deal with it.
Most of the participants (at least the ones I spoke to) could be placed in the ‘moderate left’ (though they far prefer the appellation ‘progressive’); although the more extreme organizations did not co-sponsor the conference, there was some participation by their members. Almost universally they were upset about encountering antisemitism in their political activities. For example, they found themselves at a demonstration against the war in Iraq and encountered speakers and signs claiming that the war was a project of International Jewry.
Another issue, in which I was especially interested, was this one: when does anti-Israel expression become antisemitic? There’s no question that a lot of present-day ‘criticism of Israel’ is either veiled antisemitism itself, inspired by antisemitic motives, or imbued with antisemitic themes. Some of the discussion was about how to draw the line, which is often easy when traditional antisemitic motifs, such as the blood libel or the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ are employed. I’ve written about this here.
The currently popular argument that ‘any criticism of Israel is immediately silenced by a charge of antisemitism’ was discussed. The obvious point was made that there’s plenty of criticism out there that’s not silenced and in fact not called antisemitic. However, there is also plenty of antisemitism masquerading as legitimate politics.
Keynote speaker Anthony Julius said “the failure to take antisemitism seriously is a bigger problem than the antisemitism itself among the anti-Zionists”. The new antisemites are “in denial” about their antisemitism. One hears the bizarre argument that “antisemitism is impossible because real antisemitism would be racism, which is the oppression of a weaker racial or ethnic group by a stronger one, and Jews today are privileged”. In their opinion antisemitism died with Hitler. It should be clear that it’s impossible to define a concrete phenomenon – irrationally blaming, hating and hurting Jews – out of existence.
What I found most interesting, though, was not the formal presentations but the informal expressions of opinion by the overwhelmingly Jewish (including a number of rabbis) moderate-to-Left crowd about Israel and the conflict, both in the sessions and when schmoozing. There was a lot of talk about the need to ‘fight the occupation’, and to combat Israeli human rights violations, and to improve the situation of the Palestinians. All this does not necessarily move outside the boundaries of the pro-Zionist left. But the focus was almost entirely from the Palestinian point of view: rather than saying that the occupation was an obstacle to peace or had a corrosive effect on Israeli society, the main issue seemed to be the Palestinians’ rights.
One of the points made by Anthony Julius was that the Left underwent a major change after the fall of the Berlin wall, and one of the directions was to a ‘transnational’ point of view, highly suspicious of nationalism and nations and oriented to the human rights of individuals. So when I spoke to people from my Zionist (i.e., Jewish nationalist) perspective and said things like “but the fence is being built to protect Israel (the nation) against attack” they would respond that (individual) human rights were more important. It was hard to move the discussion to the question of the human rights of Israeli individuals, because of their – in my view incorrect – perception that the conflict was the powerful Israeli state vs. the individual Palestinians. In their view, only a state can violate human rights!
Unfortunately, despite a professed (and even actual) love for Israel by those who hold it, this point of view, which is fundamentally anti-nationalist, then becomes anti-Zionist as well. It is probably more helpful in this context to show how the State of Israel is an expression of Jewish self-determination and a construct to protect the rights of the Jewish people in the world.
Update [29 Jan 1931 PST]: Listen to Anthony Julius on KQED.