The issues of anti-Semitism and support for Israel reared their serpentine heads once again when major candidates either attended, or refused to attend, the yearly conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2016. AIPAC is seen by many as the single most important molder of public opinion regarding Israel in the US. Ben Norton wrote in Salon that Hillary Clinton “sounded indistinguishable from that of a neocon,” when she spoke before the AIPAC conference about Israel and the greater Middle East. Bernie Sanders did not speak at that conference, and has been the only major candidate with a critical stand on the issues surrounding the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Over the past several days, the Real News Network presented a three-part series, “The Occupation of the American Mind,” hosted by Paul Jay. The series examines how public opinion has been molded over decades so that billions of dollars in aid will freely flow to Israel. The program also analyzes how the mass media have been “controlled” in the US, so that the language around the issue of the establishment of a Palestinian state and the wars Israel wages against the Palestinian people are drawn in parameters acceptable to Israel. Israel is always the victim of aggression and Palestinian rockets are launched against Israel for no reason at all (this in no way is to be taken as support for aggression against civilians). Control the language and you control the narrative is an observation that I’m reasonably certain George Orwell would have recognized. The final interview in the series discusses how even a liberal commentator, Rachel Maddow, presents the Israel-Palestinian issue in language that portrays Israel as a victim.
How does anti-Semitism enter into the discussion of the issue of the establishment of a Palestinian state and aid to Israel? For many decades, the Israel lobby in the US and Israeli government officials have cast Jews who criticize Israel or Israel’s wars, embargo, and occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as self-hating Jews. In other words, if you’re a Jew and criticize Israeli policies, then you become an anti-Semitic Jew, a description and epithet that is ludicrous by its very nature. But it has been an effective propaganda tool in the Israeli arsenal to silence critics of Israeli policy in the US. Even dismissal from one’s profession is not an unexpected result of criticism of Israel in some academic settings and Israel’s reach extends far into academia in its ability to deny employment to its critics. In Israel, such criticism by a Jew can be very, very dangerous, leading to a life fraught with fear. The latter are examples of values and attitudes and actions that are diametrically opposed to the Jewish values of open discussion, scholarship, peace, and fair play.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) is an interesting case of how in academia it is more difficult for the Israeli government and the Israel lobby to control the speech associated with this effort to put economic and political pressure on Israel regarding the occupation, embargo, and colonization of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The BDS Movement is difficult to control because the college and university environment, where the BDS Movement makes significant efforts to raise these issues, has to allow debate, although the Israel lobby has been somewhat successful in attempting to control even this political movement by attempting to align the movement with hate speech toward Israel and contrary to Israel’s interests.
Anti-Semitism is a very real form of hatred. It reached its pinnacle during the Third Reich, but had significant impacts worldwide in lesser forms of intolerance, from denying people employment because of their religious affiliation and ideas, to denying people places to vacation. Anti-Semitism was a recognizable part of US society during the post-war period and its influence was most obvious during the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg on charges of espionage and their subsequent executions. Because of the political hysteria generated by the Cold War, being on the political left, or a Communist, was often conflated with being Jewish among a segment of the population and with some in government. No matter that members of the Jewish faith and secular Jews held positions in every profession and every occupation in the US and were members of every social class.
Anti-Semitism still exists in different forms in different societies. Recently, Jews in France began leaving that country because of an upsurge in anti-Semitism. On a personal level, and at the other end of the spectrum of seriousness, several years ago a “neighbor” said that “Hitler should have killed all of the Jews,” a statement made because I had asked the neighbor in a respectful manner to please curb his dog’s endless barking. In the mountainous area where I now live in Massachusetts, it’s quite common to hear people give voice to their disdain for New Yorkers, who populate the area especially during the summertime and of whom Jews are a significant part.
And the anti-war movement in the US has always carried with it, despite its enviable objectives, some hint of anti-Semitism. During the Vietnam era, it was fashionable to be highly critical of Israel, some of the criticism being justified, but some of that criticism spilling over into what I considered a form of religious intolerance.
In 2003, while attending an anti-war rally on the Boston Common, my wife and I left the rally after the first speaker, who identified herself as originally coming from a country in the Middle East that I cannot remember, repeatedly castigated “the Jews” as a primary cause, in her mind, for the many wars then being fought in the Middle East. I can understand a person’s condemnation of Israel’s policies in the Middle East and in regard to the establishment of a Palestinian state, but “the Jews” aspersion is an unacceptable criticism after decades of personally fighting for peace, and very often from a perspective of the Jewish values for peace and fair play.