Israel and "Anti-Semitism"

by Alexander Cockburn

Right in the wake of House Majority leader Dick Armey’s explicit call for two million Palestinians to be booted out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Gaza as well, came yet one more of those earnest articles accusing a vague entity called “the left” of anti-Semitism.

This one was in Salon, by a man called Dennis Fox, identified as an associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University of Illinois. Leaving nothing to chance, Salon titled Fox’s contribution, “The shame of the pro-Palestinian left: Ignorance and anti-Semitism are undercutting the moral legitimacy of Israel’s critics.”

Over the past 20 years I’ve learned there’s a quick way of figuring just how badly Israel is behaving. There’s a brisk uptick in the number of articles here accusing “the left” of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt varying strategies. Particularly intricate, though I think well-intentioned, was a recent column by Naomi Klein who wrote that “It is precisely because anti-Semitism is used by the likes of Sharon that the fight against it must be reclaimed.” Is Klein saying the anti-globalization movement has forgotten how to be anti-anti-Semitic? I don’t think it has. Are all denunciations of the government of Israel to be prefaced by strident assertions of pro-Semitism?

If this is the case, can we not ask that those concerned about the supposed silence of the left regarding anti-Semitism demonstrate their own good faith by denouncing Israel’s behavior towards Palestinians? Klein did, but most don’t.

In a recent piece in the New York Times Frank Rich managed to write an entire column puportedly about Jewish overreaction here to news reporting from Israel without even a fleeting reference to the fact that there might be some factual basis for reports presenting Israel and its leaders in a bad light, even though he found time for plenty of abuse for the “inexcusable” Arafat. Isn’t Sharon “inexcusable” in Rich’s book?

So the left gets the rotten eggs and those tossing the eggs mostly don’t feel it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land, oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves and in all likelihood ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas/Fort Worth airport between the third and fourth runways (the bold Armey plan).

Here’s how Fox begins his article for Salon: ‘”Let’s move back,” my wife insisted when she saw the nearby banner: “Israel Is a Terrorist State!” We were at the April 20 Boston march opposing Israel’s incursion into the West Bank. So drop back we did, dragging our friends with us to wait for an empty space we could put between us and the anti-Israel sign.’ Inference by Fox: the banner is grotesque, presumptively anti-Semitic. But there are plenty of sound arguments that from the Palestinian point of view Israel is indeed a terrorist state, and anyway, even if it wasn’t, the description would not per se be evidence of anti-Semitism. Only if the banner read “All Jews are terrorists”, would Fox have a point.

Of course the rhetorical trick is to conflate “Israel” or “the State of Israel” with “Jews” and argue that they are synonymous. Ergo, to criticize Israel is to be anti-Semitic. Leave aside the fact that many of Israel’s most articulate critics are Jews, honorably committed to the cause of justice for all in the Middle East. Many Jews just don’t like hearing bad things said about Israel, same way they don’t like reading articles about the Jewish lobby here. Mention the lobby and someone like Fox will rush into print denouncing those who “toy with the old anti-Semitic canard that the Jews control the press.”

These days you can’t even say that New York Times is owned by a Jewish family without risking charges that you stand in Goebbels’ shoes. I even got accused of anti-Semitism the other day for mentioning that the Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as recounted in a funny and informative book published in 1988, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler.

So cowed are commentators (which is of course the prime motive of those charges of anti-Semitism) that even after the US Congress recently voted full-throated endorsement of Sharon and Israel, with only two senators and 21 US reps (I exclude the chickenshit 28 who voted “present”) voting against, you could scarcely find a mainstream paper prepared to analyze this astounding demonstration of the power of AIPAC and other Jewish organizations, plus the Christian Right and the military industrial complex which profits enormously from military aid to Israel since Congress put through a law concerning US overall aid to Israel, to the effect that 75 per cent of such supplies must be bought from US firms like Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin, lobbying for Israel.

The encouraging fact is that despite the efforts of the Southern Povery Law Center to drum up funds by hollering that the Nazis are about to march down Main Street, there’s remarkably little anti-Semitism in the US, and almost none that I’ve ever been able to detect on the American left, which is of course amply stocked with non-self-hating Jews. It’s comical to find the left’s assailants trudging all the way back to Leroi Jones and the 60s to dig up the necessary anti-Semitic jibes. The less encouraging fact is that there’s not nearly enough criticism of Israel’s ghastly conduct towards Palestinians, which in its present phase is testing the waters for reaction here to a major ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, just as Armey called for.

So why don’t people like Fox write about Armey’s appalling remarks, (which the White House declared he hadn’t made,) instead of trying to change the subject with nonsense about anti-Semitism? It’s not anti-Semitic to denounce ethnic cleansing, a strategy which according to recent polls, around half all Israeli Jews now heartily endorse. In this instance the left really has nothing to apologize for, but those who accuse of it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They’re apologists for policies put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and in Sharon’s case, an unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct.

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