Saturday, September 20, 2003

Some thoughts on anti-Zionism & anti-semitism

[Update: April 2006]  For anyone who might be interested, here are some of my thoughts on the relationship (and interplay) between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism--a relationship which I think is quite complex, and quite fascinating from the perspective of the historical sociology of culture and political ideology. What I mean by “anti-Zionism” in this context is not “intellectual disagreement with Zionism” (which has long ceased to be its central meaning, any more than “anti-semitism” really meant “disagreement with semitism”), but rather systematic bias and hostility against Israel and Israelis and people who support Israel's right to exist, shading off into obsessive hatred and demonization that is often accompanied by far-fetched conspiracy theories about real or imaginary "Zionists". This is a pervasive phenomenon of the past half-century, and unfortunately it shows no signs of fading away.

Anti-Zionists and their defenders, among others, argue that anti-Zionism is not necessarily the same as anti-semitism. They are correct. True, their reasons for making this argument are often self-serving, misleading, and/or insincere; they sometimes overlook or try to obscure the fact that, in practice, there often are significant links between the two, and that genuine anti-semites may simply use "Zionists" or "international Zionism" as a transparent code word for "Jews"; and they rarely try to seriously confront the peculiar (and pernicious) character of contemporary "anti-Zionism" itself. But fundamentally, I have long thought that for the sake of moral and intellectual clarity it is important to recognize, and even insist, that there is a significant analytical distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, and that simply equating the two is wrong and misleading (though it's also important to pay attention to all the ways that they often are closely intertwined in real life).

My motivation for doing this is not to excuse, whitewash, or exonerate anti-Zionists. On the contrary, one reason that simply equating anti-semitism with anti-Zionism is not a good idea, aside from the confusions and blind spots this can cause, is precisely that doing so often lets anti-Zionists off the hook too easily. When they are confronted with their bias against (or hysterical demonization of) Israel and Israelis, they try to change the subject to whether or not they're anti-semitic (which, sometimes, they're not). The point is that anti-Zionism is itself dangerous and morally despicable—even if it’s peddled by Jews (which does happen) or by people who claim their best friends are Jews.

One of the distinctive features of our era is that, over the past half-century or so, anti-Zionism has emerged as an important and complex ideological formation in its own right, which is not always a direct product or expression of anti-semitism. Indeed, it sometimes happens that anti-Zionism helps promote anti-semitism almost as much as the other way around. Insisting on the analytical distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism is not a way of denying that there are ever connections between the two. It is an essential basis for understanding those connections and their dynamics—which are often complex and subtle (though at other times crude and direct).

Some of my thoughts on these matters are conveyed the two e-mail messages below, which I sent to friends of mine (one non-Jewish European and one Jewish American) during 2002 & 2003. (I've deleted their names, from privacy considerations.)

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

[This first message was part of an exchange with a non-Jewish European political sociologist, whom I will call X, in November 2003. Part of the background to our discussion was an article in the Guardian, "Anti-semitism: Our dulled nerve” (9/18/03). –JW]

[X] On the issue of anti-semitism I must admit to being skeptical about media reports. To put it another way: I believe indeed that there is a strong Anti-Israeli sentiment in Europe, which I share (that is, with respect to its governments). I know there is anti-semitism in the world, especially in Arab countries. I do not think that within Europe or in the US anti-semitism is more widespread than other sorts of ethnic prejudice. At least, one would have to be careful about differentiating between countries.

[JW] True.

[X] This brings me to my last point: In the West there is a great deal of prejudice. Its main victims, however, are not Jews but, rather, people whose skin color spans the brown to black spectrum. This includes indeed many Jews, but mostly it includes Mexicans, Arabs, Gypsies, Turcs, Africans in general, Indians, etc...

[JW] Yes and no. I agree that, on the whole, there seems to be a lot more popular prejudice against Arabs, Africans, Muslims, and so on in western Europe than against Jews. And, by all accounts, the great majority of actual physical attacks against Jewish targets in Europe seem to be carried out by young men from Muslim "immigrant" minorities and/or left- and right-wing sectarian loonies. In some parts of the world, as you note, there has been a startling upsurge in blatant and toxic anti-semitism reminiscent of the 1890s or 1930s (and this has been pervasive in the Arab world for some time). But from everything I know, this is not what's happening in western Europe.
The main problem in western Europe has been an increasing tendency to tolerate, excuse, "explain," or whitewash anti-semitism, and even to blame the victims more than the perpetrators. One of the after-effects of WWII and the Holocaust was that, to a historically unprecedented extent, open expressions of anti-semitism ceased to be "respectable" or acceptable, particularly in educated and "enlightened" strata, and such expressions were generally condemned. All this has been visibly eroding lately in western Europe. Blatant expressions of anti-semitism in other parts of the world, in international forums, and by local Muslims and radicals are increasingly tolerated, ignored, or even defended as "understandable" (e.g., the Jews bring it on themselves, after all, by defending Israel, or by making the US invade Iraq, or whatever); and various forms of disguised or "genteel" anti-semitism are becoming more respectable. Much of the time, of course, these go together with, or are disguised by, anti-Zionism (by which I mean not criticism of Israel or the policies of its government, which I engage in myself, but one-sided and hysterical demonization of Israel, which has become distressingly common in many sectors of European public opinion, including "educated" and "progressive" public opinion).

(If you think I'm exaggerating, do you recall the enormous outrage about the wholly imaginary "massacre" and "genocide" in Jenin in the spring of 2002? These fantasies were not confined to radical demagogues and lunatic-fringe websites. I read them in newspapers like the Guardian and Le Monde.) [See, e.g., here and here and here.]

But it's important to add that anti-semitism and anti-Zionism do NOT always, or necessarily, go together. Which brings me to your next point.

[X] And let's not turn anti-Israeli sentiment into antisemitic attitudes. I think it is wrong. It is also wrong to think that underlying anti-Israel attitudes are antisemitic attitudes. It may be so among some groups but I doubt it is the case with the majority of the population.

[JW] I very much agree--though I would draw different conclusions from the ones you imply. I don't see that we necessarily have to choose between condemning different forms of racism & bigotry, but it's true that we need to keep a sense of proportion. I also agree very strongly that it's a mistake to simply equate "anti-Israel sentiment" with "anti-semitic attitudes." Doing this confuses the issues in a number of ways.

In fact, for decades I have argued strongly and explicitly that it's very important to distinguish analytically between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, and NOT to automatically equate them. (In some cases, clearly, "anti-Zionism" really IS just a euphemism for anti-semitism ... just as the term "anti-semitism" was originally invented by the anti-semites themselves as a "modern" and "scientific" label for Jew-hatred ... but often it's not.) On the other hand, it's also important to distinguish between criticism of Israel & its policies, which can be perfectly legitimate, and anti-Zionism (by which, again, I don't mean "disagreement with Zionism" or any criticism of Israel, but systematic bias against Israel, shading off into hysterical and paranoid demonization, in a strikingly close ANALOGY to the kind of political anti-semitism that emerged in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, and has since been exported to the rest of the world).

Equating anti-semitism with anti-Zionism is wrong and misleading, not just on factual grounds, but also because it lets anti-Zionists off the hook too easily. Actually, the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism over the past half-century has been extremely complex and shifting. Anti-Zionism has been one of the most remarkable and significant ideological formations of our era, and it still awaits an adequate and systematic analysis. (For example, doesn't it strike you as interesting that, unless I am mistaken, precisely one country in the whole world has ever had its national movement condemned as inherently racist by the United Nations? Or that when Jacobo Timerman was being tortured by Argentine fascist soldiers during the military dictatorship, they believed that he was part of an Israeli plot to seize Patagonia? Or that an EU poll just found that European respondents, incredibly, named Israel as the #1 threat to world peace? Or that Ariel Sharon is a lot more hated in western Europe than Saddam Hussein?) Often anti-Zionism has roots that are independent of anti-semitism; and it is not uncommon for anti-Zionism to lead to anti-semitism as much, or even more, than the other way around. (This happened, for example, in certain tendencies within the German New Left in the 1970s and 1980s--which had the psychological bonus that they could stop feeling guilty about the Jews.)

To avoid any easy misunderstanding: I am not saying that all criticism of Israel, even harsh criticism, is necessarily equivalent to anti-Zionism (just as not all criticism of Idi Amin, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or Louis Farrakhan is necessarily an expression of anti-black racism). And, in fact, it is very important not to dismiss all serious, reasonable, and/or correct criticism of Israel by dismissing it as anti-Zionist bigotry. But anti-Zionism is a real and important phenomenon, and (in my humble opinion) it is a dangerous and morally despicable phenomenon in its own right--even when it is not combined with a more generalized anti-semitism ... and even, for that matter, when it is promoted (or excused) by Jews.

(Thus, I feel no contradiction at all in criticizing the lunatic and immoral policies of the Sharon government and criticizing anti-Zionism, whether in its blatant or more "genteel" forms. In fact, I feel very strongly that someone who criticizes one of them without criticizing the other has no moral or intellectual credibility. And the same is true for rabid anti-Zionists who, when confronted, try to change the subject and deny that they're anti-semitic. That's too easy. As far as I'm concerned, even if they're not anti-semites--sometimes they are, sometimes they're not--they're still wrong and ought to be ashamed of themselves.)

In the real world, as I said, the interconnections between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism are very complex. They are often more or less independent, though it is increasingly the case that the former promotes and/or excuses the latter.

This is a very big subject, which would require a book to explore adequately ... but just to convey some of my thoughts on the matter, you might be interested in looking at the message below, in which I responded to another friend who, I thought, had been too ready to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-semitism. (Although his intention was not to downplay the odiousness of anti-Zionism, as your remarks implied, but the opposite.)

=> More on this later.

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Just in passing, with respect to one other point you made:
[X] Probably, like with any other minority, prejudice increases with group presence.

[JW] Actually, not always. This often holds true, but with some interesting complications. Historically, one of the most intriguing features of anti-semitic ideology is that it can often flourish quite strongly even where there are very few Jews--or even in the absence of Jews. For example, at the time that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, Jews had been legally barred from living in England for several centuries (in fact, between the time of the Crusades and 1492, we were expelled from almost all of western Europe, except for the Netherlands, parts of Italy and a few other pockets). And how many Jews do you suppose live in Malaysia now? Almost none, but for decades Prime Minister Mahathir has been fond of anti-semitic outbursts that draw directly on themes from "classical" European political anti-semitism, and he also likes to distribute copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (For that matter, in the 1920s and 1930s less than 2% of the German population was Jewish.) For various reasons, we have always been disproportionately "conspicuous" in the imagination of some societies (and, during the past half-century, that has become true of Israel, too).

[The following is an exchange with a Jewish American friend, referred to here as Y. –JW]

Date: Sat, 02 Nov 2002 13:59:18 0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: Y
Subject: anti-semitism & anti-Zionism
I was going to make the point that this kind of anti-Zionism is just a respectable form of anti-Semitism...but in Jewish terms it doesn't really matter because Jewish law teaches that people should be judged by their actions and not their thoughts.
[JW] I understand what you're saying here, and to some extent I'm sympathetic to it. Along the same lines, I think Larry Summers's recent formulation--that some actions can be anti-semitic in effect, even if they're not consciously anti-semitic in intention--is essentially correct. Furthermore, it's obvious that in many cases "anti-Zionism" (by which I mean, not disagreement with Zionism, but systematic bias against Israel, shading off into obsessive hatred and demonization) is simply a euphemism, front, and/or excuse for straightforward anti-semitism (ranging from genteel to rabid). And one shouldn't be shy about pointing this out, when this is what's going on.

But the relationship between anti-semitism and "anti-Zionism" is often more complicated than that--ideologically, morally, and politically--and I believe that keeping the analytical distinction in mind is important for the sake of both moral and intellectual clarity. Contemporary "anti-Zionism" is to some degree a distinct phenomenon with independent roots--which, in our era, sometimes promotes anti-semitism as much as the other way around--and I have long believed that it's important to recognize this fact explicitly. This is not in order to excuse or whitewash anti-Zionists. On the contrary, I think it's important precisely to avoid giving them the opportunity to take an easy way out, by changing the subject to anti-semitism when the immorality of their rabid anti-Zionism is pointed out.

In fact, discussions of anti-Zionism often get too easily sidetracked into arguments about whether anti-Zionism = anti-semitism. Well, often it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it doesn’t, so what? This is not at all the only moral question involved, and most of the time this kind of discussion is often just a red herring. It needs to be made clear that "anti-Zionism" (which, again, in the real world means something different from "disagreement with Zionism," just as "anti-semitism" never meant "disagreement with semitism") is morally despicable in its own right. Failing to insist on this just makes life easier for anti-Zionists (and anti-semites).

(Furthermore, it goes without saying that criticism of Israeli policies, or of Israel more generally, doesn't necessarily or logically = anti-Zionism. But so what? Very often, in practical reality, it does amount to anti-Zionism.)

=> But the reasons for recognizing the analytical distinction between anti-semitism and "anti-Zionism" (which is precisely the starting-point for analyzing the complex interrelationships between them) go beyond questions of moral and political polemics. Facing up to this complexity is also important for understanding the historical, cultural, and political dynamics of the problem and figuring out how to confront its dangers in practical terms.

Let me put this in a historical-sociological framework. I have been struck for decades by the remarkable analogies between two of the most potent and far-ranging international ideological currents of the past century and a half: (a) the strain of political anti-semitism developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (the term "anti-semitism" was, of course, invented by the anti-semites themselves, as a way of re-defining the object of Jew-hatred) and (b) the world-wide "anti-Zionist" movement of the second half of the 20th century. Part of this parallel is the set of analogies between the symbolic roles played (a) by the Jews in "classic" political anti-semitism (e.g., the power, influence, and threat of the Jews was wildly inflated for the sake of demonizing them, while they were in fact simultaneously a small and vulnerable target, which made them useful scapegoats for larger, more threatening, and/or more abstract and impersonal threats) and (b) the symbolic role of Israel (and "Zionism") in the ideological structure of contemporary anti Zionism.

(To repeat myself, this is a different matter from the more usual discussions about whether "anti-Zionism" is simply an expression of, or euphemism for, anti-semitism. Often it is, and let me reiterate that I don't want to deny that for a moment; but the relationship is often more complex than that. In our epoch, in fact, I think that "anti Zionism" often leads to anti semitism as much as the other way around. A historical sociologist several centuries from now, who's trying to make sense of the political and ideological pathologies of our era, should be struck by the symbolic, ideological, and socio-political ANALOGIES between these two ideological formations.)*

In some important ways, the political "anti-semitism" that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was not, fundamentally, just "about" the Jews; instead, the Jews were used as a symbolic focus for a whole range of grievances and anxieties about modernity--capitalism, socialism, urbanism, industrialism, secularism, sexual emancipation, decadence, and so on--which had the additional advantage that anti-semitism could be used as an ideological bridge between movements and constituencies with very different, even contradictory, concerns. This demonization of the Jews was, among other things, one symptom and symbolic expression of a larger civilizational crisis.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of parallels to contemporary "anti-Zionism." In the Arab world, for example, the obsessive demonization of Israel (and the use of Israel as an iconic symbol for imperialism, colonialism, western domination, and the misery and impotence of Arab societies) is one symbolic expression of a larger civilizational crisis. There are millions of Arabs (as well as sympathizers elsewhere) who sincerely believe that Israel and "Zionism" are somehow the source of their problems (not just the problems of the Palestinians, but of their problems); but, of course, this world-view is delusional. Instead, the fact that Israel is defined as the central problem, both within the Arab world and in so much western discussion, is itself a problem and also, as I just noted, a symptom of some larger problems.

(As I'm sure you know, the 19th-century German socialist August Bebel memorably described left-wing anti-semitism as "the socialism of fools." As Paul Berman pointed out a few decades ago, during the 1970s and 1980s left-wing anti-Zionism increasingly emerged as "the anti-imperialism of fools." Now we're seeing a resurgence of all that.)

However, even though political anti-semitism had more to do with the anti-semites than with the Jews, it did succeed in largely destroying the European Jews in the process. Likewise, the Arab obsession with, and demonization of, Israel (along with the larger "anti-Zionist" movement of which if forms a part) is not, in the end, mostly about Israel. But in the long run, it's quite possible--indeed, I'm afraid I think it's more likely than not--that it will help bring about the destruction of Israel (without, in the process, solving any of the real problems of Arab and Islamic societies).

I've thought more than once of writing something about this subject, but after 1989 I was lulled into a false sense of security or complacency, since the situation seemed to be improving in a number of ways. On the level of world politics, "anti-Zionism" was one key symbolic cement of the three-way coalition between the Soviet bloc, the Arab world, and the rest of the so-called Third World (particularly, but not exclusively, in Africa). With the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the whole international Communist movement, among other developments, many of the foundations for anti-Zionism outside the Arab world seemed to have collapsed as well (symbolized by the repeal of the UN's infamous Zionism-is-racism resolution). And the period of the alleged "peace process" brought an enormous boost in international acceptance of the legitimacy of Israel's existence. So I thought that the virulence and political significance of "anti-Zionism" had drastically decreased. During the past two years, it has become clear that the disease was simply in remission, and that it's now starting to return in force (and, here again, there are analogies to the historical rhythms of the older political anti-semitism).

=> More on all this another time ...

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

(* Incidentally ... this analogy, and its significance, was first brought home to me by reading an article by Ruth Wisse back in the early 1980s. She didn't frame the problem in precisely this way, but some essential insights were there, and when I pondered them a bit, a lot of things that I had been puzzling over since the mid-1970s suddenly fell into place. Unfortunately, Wisse's analyses are always spoiled to some extent by the Likudnik political conclusions she draws from them--which strike me as wrong and pernicious--but there's always a lot in them that's penetrating and illuminating.)