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Israel’s defenders, increasingly besieged, increasingly proclaim that antisemites hide behind criticism of Zionism or Israel. This is quite true, but what sort of ‘hiding’ is involved? Antisemites do not literally hide out of sight, like a murderer in a dark alley. They’re more like a robbers casing bank and posing as a ordinary customers, or pedophiles posing as child care workers. They disguise themselves, striving to look like respectable critics when in fact they are nothing of the sort. Their racism shrouds itself in criticism.
What does this say about critics of Israel? Why is this such a good disguise? Why have antisemites increasingly flocked to this strategy?
The answer lies partly in how disguise affects us. Bank robbers hiding as customers don’t make us think there’s anything creepy about being a customer. That’s why the pose remains a good disguise. And if pedophiles do, perhaps, cast some suspicion on the role of child care worker, that’s almost tragic. Real child care is a very necessary, honorable and laudable calling. We need such people and they deserve our respect.
Even if every single bank robber masqueraded as a paying customer, and every single pedophile masqueraded as a child care worker, we’d have to keep one vital fact in mind. The more-than-overwhelming majority of bank customers are not robbers and the more-than-overwhelming majority of child care workers are not pedophiles. It is not merely out of fairness, but for the good of everyone that we never forget this.
These obvious truths help explain why criticism of Israel has become such a popular disguise among antisemites.
It didn’t used to be. After all, for a long time there was no Israel. Before its existence, many antisemites didn’t bother to disguise themselves. When they did, it was usually as ethnic nationalists: "I’m not antisemitic, I’m pro-German". Today, white racists often say something similar: "I’m not anti-black, I’m pro-white". This is no longer respectable, though, oddly, "I’m not anti-Arab, I’m pro-Jewish" would probably still pass muster. Certainly "I’m not anti-Arab, I’m pro-Israel" would do the trick.
Why the change? It’s partly because, when ethnic nationalisms (except maybe Zionism) lost their respectability, they could no longer protect antisemites. But, for decades, neither would criticism of Israel. "I’m not antisemitic, I’m anti-Israel" (or ‘anti-Zionist’) wouldn’t have got you very far in, say, 1948 or 1967. Back then, being anti-Israel might sound good to many Middle Eastern people, but not to Americans or Europeans. Israel was plucky, Israel was sacred, Israel was good. Back then, Jewish UN officials like Richard Goldstone didn’t find Israel guilty of war crimes. International heroes like Desmond Tutu didn’t tell us that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was worse than apartheid.
These admirable, unimpeachable testimonials were a turning point. Antisemites have flocked to criticism of Israel precisely because criticism of Israel is so amply justified. Criticism of Israel isn’t a great disguise because the critics are sleazebags. Quite the contrary: it’s a great disguise because criticizing Israel is not only correct, it’s the right thing to do. The more-than-overwhelming majority of those who criticize Israel are genuine humanitarians, genuine enemies of oppression and ethnic nationalism, genuine fighters for justice. The more obvious this has become, the more antisemites get on board.
How then, can we unmask these posers? Not, clearly, by attacking the genuine critics. We don’t unmask pedophiles, one dearly hopes, by vilifying child care workers. That would be crazy, a great loss to our society and indeed to the world.
Those who unmask the antisemitism of the white supremacist site Stormfront show us a saner, better approach. It is to provide evidence that for antisemites, concern for the agonies of the Palestinians is not, as it is for the likes of Goldstone or Tutu, a priority. It is an afterthought. Stormfront was founded by a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a member of the American Nazi Party. It espoused antisemitism long before it became pro-Palestinian. For Stormfront, championing the Palestinians is like Big Oil wanting to save the whales. It’s the cynical exploitation of what more and more people see as a noble cause.
And so it is with other antisemites. Ernst Zundel, David Irving and their ilk have no track record of horror at Israeli crimes, or of sympathy with the Palestinians. They were blatant antisemites before they criticized Israel. And if we suspect a critic of Israel might be antisemitic, we should ask: did they seem antisemitic before they were critics? Did they rail against Jews in some other context, perhaps with dark references to Jewish ascendancy ‘in Hollywood’, or ‘in the banks’? Yes, antisemites very frequently masquerade as critics of Israel. We should take great care to unmask them, so that the genuine critics can continue their valuable work.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university. He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel. He also contributed the essay, "What is Anti-Semitism", to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org