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[The review, filed Thursday, Nov 13.]
You’re Either Against Us, or You’re Not For Us
By Jason Sherman.
The Politics of Anti-Semitism
Edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair
AK Press, 178 pgs. (US$12.95)
The New Anti-Semitism The Current Crisis and What We Must Do About It
By Phyllis Chesler Wiley, 305 pgs, $38.95
It doesn’t take much to get yourself called an anti-Semite these days. A few years ago I wrote a play that questioned some cherished notions about Israel. My “self-hating Jew” badge arrived in the next edition of the Canadian Jewish News. Not that I was surprised. After all, Noam Chomsky once wrote that “Left-liberal criticism of Israeli government policy since 1967 has evoked hysterical accusations and outright lies.” Oppose the Israeli occupation and its treatment of the Palestinian people, he noted, and you risked being labeled “a supporter of terrorism and reactionary Arab states, an opponent of democracy, an anti-Semite, or if Jewish, a traitor afflicted with self-hatred.”
As two new books make clear, little has changed in the last 35 years, except perhaps that the mud is thicker, the slinging fiercer, the cry of “anti-Semite!” louder (and less credible) than ever. Muckraking journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair co-edit a newsletter and website called CounterPunch (I visit the latter daily, and twice on Sunday), from the pages of which they have gathered eighteen brilliant essays on the Middle East. It’s a sort of greatest hits package, called The Politics of Anti-Semitism. Among its short, sharp blasts are those by Robert Fisk, foreign correspondent for The Independent, a fierce critic of authoritarian rule wherever he finds it, who expresses genuine disgust over the hate mail he regularly receives (“Your mother was Eichmann’s daughter” is among the most pleasant); American writer Norman Finklestein, whose trip to Germany to promote his controversial book The Holocaust Industry leaves him not a little soiled; and American economics professors M Shahid Alam, whose call for a “moral stand against the oppressive and unjust behaviour of Israel” leads the Boston Herald to claim: “Prof Shocks Northeastern with Defense of Suicide Bombers.”
The editors contribute a couple of memorable pieces. Cockburn, easily the sharpest and funniest political commentator around (among other things, he regularly makes mincemeat out of the pompous Christopher Hitchens), recounts the morality tale of Cynthia McKinney, a black congresswoman who made the mistake of calling “for a proper debate on the Middle East,” after which “American Jewish money [was] showered upon her opponent.” St. Clair’s brilliantly retells the tale of the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which killed 34 Americans and wounded 174 others, and which more and more evidence suggests was not an accident but a deliberately planned operation ordered by war hero Moshe Dayan, and covered up by American Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
St Clair’s is one of many pieces that look at Israel’s influence on American politics. This is not an issue over which every contributor agrees. Jeffrey Blankfort, a radio show host at KPOO in California (would I make that up?) does something, for example, that not every leftist does: he takes on Chomsky. 95% of Chomsky’s critics seem to think he goes too far in his arguments. Blankfort argues that Chomsky doesn’t go far enough, at least when it comes to assessing the power of the famed Jewish lobby. (Chomsky prefers to go after the corporate elite, no matter their faith.)
Blankfort seems obsessed with proving that the Jews, and ultimately Israel, control America’s wealth, media, and policy decisions. He is joined by Kathleen and Bill Christison, former CIA officers, who point fingers at a Bush administration “peppered with people who have promot[ed] an agenda for Israel often at odds with existing US policy.” There’s no question that the American administration is full of “Israelists” (the Jerusalem Post recently named deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz its “Man of the Year”), and it’s important to discuss the underpinnings of the US-Israeli relationship, but it’s quite a leap to suggest that the man behind the curtain wears a felt hat and yarmulke and wants all the world to dance the hora.
Just when the collection is beginning to sag under the weight of some arcane arguments, two pieces bring it to a powerful close. Israeli peace activist Yigal Bronner’s memoir of helping to bring food and medicine to a Palestinian village does more than a hundred essays in evoking the tragedy of the Middle East war. And no other essay quite rises to the level of Edward Said’s angry and hopeful j’accuse about what has happened to his people, and what may yet become of them: “The official Israeli policy, no matter whether Ariel Sharon uses the word ‘occupation’ or not or whether or not he dismantles a rusty, unused tower or two, has always been not to accept the reality of the Palestinian people as equals or even to admit that their rights were scandalously violated all along by Israel. Whereas a few courageous Israelis over the years have tried to deal with this otherwise concealed history, most Israelis and what seems like the majority of American Jews have made every effort to deny, avoid, or negate the Palestinian reality. This is why there is no peace.”
Phyllis Chesler begs to differ. In The New Anti-Semitism (a phrase she claims to have coined, though it’s been around for decades), the American psychotherapist and author of Women and Madness sets out to warn the world about “a virulent epidemic of violence, hatred and lies that are being touted as politically correct.” Touted by who, she doesn’t exactly say, except to point to an amorphous group of “Islamic reactionaries and western intellectuals and progressives.” (Everyone in the The Politics of Anti-Semitism would make her list.)
Perhaps this “epidemic” explains the “fever [that] burned” in Chesler as she wrote: “Everything had to happen at once: reading, supervising the research, writing.” There’s little evidence of any of that in these overwrought pages: it’s poorly researched and horribly written, sounding for the most part like an earnest book report by an over-achieving fourth grader. “The world–including many people in the Jewish world–still seems to have one standard for Jews and for the Jewish state (and it’s a high standard) and another, much lower standard for everyone else,” she laments, without resorting to facts to support her argument, and failing to recognize that she herself holds Israel and the Jews to that very high standard. But don’t take my word for it, take hers (please, take hers). Certain “Arab-Muslims,” she writes, are “barbaric and primitive; they do not hide their joy when they kill but I do not think that most American or many Jews delight in the death of their enemies in quite the same way.” That’s us, still chosen after all these years.
Instead of argument, Chesler prefers to intuit her way through a debate. After citing a Chomsky essay which quotes Moshe Dayan saying that Palestinian refugees should be told they will “continue to live like dogs,” Chesler decides that the attribution “does not sound right or in context to me.”
She proves equally adept at trying to take down the rest of her targets, which include Said, the American and European Left, refuseniks, the media, feminists–all of them out to get little Israel, that David among Goliaths.
Not wanting to leave any doubt in the minds of her readers, the feckless Chesler resorts to an argument as old as the Jerusalem Hills to prove, once and for all, that the Jews have the ultimate claim to Israel, for “God promised the land to the patriarch Abraham and to all the other Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs.”
At this point, I began to understand just how high a fever Chesler must have had when she scribbled this nonsense; automatic writing, from God’s mouth to her hand. A book like this always ends up biting the hand that writes it. Everyone is an anti-Semite–including, it would appear, Phyllis Chesler herself. Pg 245: “Anyone who does not distinguish between Jews and the Jewish state is an anti-Semite.” Pg 209: “Each Jew must think of himself or herself as the most precious resource that Israel has at this moment.”
I tell you, this new anti-Semitism, no one is immune from it.
Jason Sherman’s plays include Reading Hebron, The League of Nathans and, most recently, Remnants.
[E-mailed response from the book review editor:]
Sent:2003/11/18 Tue PM 05:17:25 EST
To:’ Jason Sherman’
Subject: Re: review
Hi Jason: I have some real problems with your piece, largely because it seems more like a lecture from someone who is parti pris than it does any sort of moderately objective review. And it’s not because I suspect that I disagree with you about some aspects of the Middle East. for the record, I think Sharon is almost every bit the disaster for Jews (and not just in Israel) that Arafat has been for the Palestinians, that the palestinians deserve a viable state, that the settlement policy is egregious and that one has the right to be as critical of israel (but not more so) as of any other state, person or institution.. But I do not feel these two books, especially the Cockburn book, have really been reviewed, For one thing, the title is very misleading; it’s not about anti-Semitism, but what seem like a series of exculpatory screeds about anti-Israel criticism being labelled as anti-Semitism. It also seems, partly because of your set-up, that you are predisposed to like the first book, indeed came at it with a some predetermined position, and to dislike the Chesler. (As far as I can tell, you’re probably right that it’s hysterical, but sarcasm is not evidence, and I doubt whether her entire focus is, as you seem to suggest, on Israel and its critics/enemies). I have no sense that the first book really engages the issue of anti-Semitism at all, other than to brush it off as a cynical political tool. Yet there’s no mention at all of the anti-Jewishness worthy of the volkische beobachter now being taught as gospel in Arab schools, or of fundamentalists making no distinction between Jews and Israelis (witness the synagogue bombings in Turkey) or of the preoccupation of people such as Fisk with Israel to the virtual exclusion of other issues. And then there are Fisk and Finkelstein. From your throwaway mentions of their travails, a reader would have no sense that Fisk is, to put it mildly, a very contentious figure (and I think at least arguably anti-Semitic; why else the Jenin obsession when it’s clear there was no massacre). Finkelstein is trotted out by Arab media as a “good” Jew, son of a Holocaust survivor. But you’d get no sense in the review that he serves that role or that he is opposed to the existence of Israel. There is a real “usual suspects” element to them. Finally, I have no sense that you have really broached the topic of anti-Semitism, no sense of whether it’s a worrisome trend outside the jaunndiced (in some ways, perhaps rightly jaundiced) purview of the out of the same litter contributors to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. best wishes martin.
From: Jason Sherman
Sent:Tuesday, November 18, 2003 5:33 PM
Hi martin. You forgot to mention that I’m a self-hating Jew. Yours,
Sent:2003/11/18 Tue PM 05:35:34 EST
To:’ Jason Sherman’
Jason: Did I say that? I don’t even think it.
[My response, sent Thursday, Nov 20:]
You’re right, it wouldn’t make sense to call me a self-hating Jew, but it would be in keeping with your other ad hominem attacks-against not only Fisk and Finkelstein, but against me as well (ie, that I was “predisposed to like the first book, indeed came at it with a some [sic] predetermined position, and to dislike the Chesler,” a ludicrous charge. My review is based on what I read, not on what I wanted to read. But your response is very illuminating, and tells me that what you were really hoping for was an ideologically correct review that would have unequivocally condemned those “out of the same litter contributors to The Politics of Anti-Semitism.” (Surely not a sign of a predetermined position on your part?) You say you “do not feel these two books, especially the Cockburn book, have really been reviewed.” You then demonstrate what a proper review would have looked like. It would have included a denunciation of Fisk as “arguably anti-Semitic,” without a shred of evidence, and a personal attack on Finkelstein as a favourite “son” of the “Arab media.” In fact, Martin, I did review the two books. I did “broach” the topic of anti-Semitism-as defined and explored by the works under consideration. So why, then, did you decide to kill the review? I won’t question your motives, as you have mine, but I find it telling that you haven’t read either book yourself, yet feel free to write about them as though you have-which, curiously, is an approach to criticism you share with Chesler. You might want to ask yourself which of us delivered the real “lecture.”
Alexander Cockburn writes,
Dear Jason, Thanks so much for this. Amazing how the venom suddenly seeps from his letter. Your responses are excellent. Of course we’d love to publish this on the website, but probably you don’t want to burn all boats with Globe and Mail, right? If you are in boat-burning mood, all the better for us.
On Wednesday, December 3, 2003, at 07:27 AM,
Jason Sherman wrote:
Dear Alexander, I think the Globe scuttled those boats. So please publish away.