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What is Antisemitism?

What is Antisemitism?
By Michael Neumann
A Professor Of Philosophy At Trent University In Ontario, Canada
mneumann@trentu.ca [mailto:mneumann@trentu.ca]

June 4, 2002

Every once in a while, some left-wing Jewish writer will take a deep
breath, open up his (or her) great big heart, and tell us that criticism
of Israel or Zionism is not antisemitism. Silently they congratulate
themselves on their courage. With a little sigh, they suppress any
twinge of concern that maybe the goyim--let alone the Arabs--can't be
trusted with this dangerous knowledge.

Sometimes it is gentile hangers-on, whose ethos if not their identity
aspires to Jewishness, who take on this task. Not to be utterly risqué,
they then hasten to remind us that antisemitism is nevertheless to be
taken very seriously. That Israel, backed by a pronounced majority of
Jews, happens to be waging a race war against the Palestinians is all
the more reason we should be on our guard. Who knows? it might possibly
stir up some resentment!

I take a different view. I think we should almost never take
antisemitism seriously, and maybe we should have some fun with it. I
think it is particularly unimportant to the Israel-Palestine conflict,
except perhaps as a diversion from the real issues. I will argue for the
truth of these claims; I also defend their propriety. I don't think
making them is on a par with pulling the wings off flies.

"Antisemitism", properly and narrowly speaking, doesn't mean hatred of
semites; that is to confuse etymology with definition. It means hatred
of Jews. But here, immediately, we come up against the venerable
shell-game of Jewish identity: "Look! We're a religion! No! a race! No!
a cultural entity! Sorry--a religion!" When we tire of this game, we get
suckered into another: "anti-Zionism is antisemitism! " quickly
alternates with: "Don't confuse Zionism with Judaism! How dare you, you
antisemite!"

Well, let's be good sports. Let's try defining antisemitism as broadly
as any supporter of Israel would ever want: antisemitism can be hatred
of the Jewish race, or culture, or religion, or hatred of Zionism.
Hatred, or dislike, or opposition, or slight unfriendliness.



But supporters of Israel won't find this game as much fun as they
expect. Inflating the meaning of 'antisemitism' to include anything
politically damaging to Israel is a double-edged sword. It may be handy
for smiting your enemies, but the problem is that definitional
inflation, like any inflation, cheapens the currency. The more things
get to count as antisemitic, the less awful antisemitism is going to
sound. This happens because, while no one can stop you from inflating
definitions, you still don't control the facts. In particular, no
definition of 'antisemitism' is going to eradicate the substantially
pro-Palestinian version of the facts which I espouse, as do most people
in Europe, a great many Israelis, and a growing number of North
Americans.

What difference does that make? Suppose, for example, an Israeli
rightist says that the settlements represent the pursuit of aspirations
fundamental to the Jewish people, and to oppose the settlements is
antisemitism. We might have to accept this claim; certainly it is
difficult to refute. But we also cannot abandon the well-founded belief
that the settlements strangle the Palestinian people and extinguish any
hope of peace. So definitional acrobatics are all for nothing: we can
only say, screw the fundamental aspirations of the Jewish people; the
settlements are wrong. We must add that, since we are obliged to oppose
the settlements, we are obliged to be antisemitic. Through definitional
inflation, some form of 'antisemitism' has become morally obligatory.

It gets worse if anti-Zionism is labeled antisemitic, because the
settlements, even if they do not represent fundamental aspirations of
the Jewish people, are an entirely plausible extension of Zionism. To
oppose them is indeed to be anti-Zionist, and therefore, by the
stretched definition, antisemitic. The more antisemitism expands to
include opposition to Israeli policies, the better it looks. Given the
crimes to be laid at the feet of Zionism, there is another simple
syllogism: anti-Zionism is a moral obligation, so, if anti-Zionism is
antisemitism, antisemitism is a moral obligation.

What crimes? Even most apologists for Israel have given up denying them,
and merely hint that noticing them is a bit antisemitic. After all,
Israel 'is no worse than anyone else'. First, so what? At age six we
knew that "everyone's doing it" is no excuse; have we forgotten? Second,
the crimes are no worse only when divorced from their purpose. Yes,
other people have killed civilians, watched them die for want of medical
care, destroyed their homes, ruined their crops, and used them as human
shields. But Israel does these things to correct the inaccuracy of
Israel Zangwill's 1901 assertion that "Palestine is a country without a
people; the Jews are a people without a country". It hopes to create a
land entirely empty of gentiles, an Arabia deserta in which Jewish
children can laugh and play throughout a wasteland called peace.

Well before the Hitler era, Zionists came thousands of miles to
dispossess people who had never done them the slightest harm, and whose
very existence they contrived to ignore. Zionist atrocities were not
part of the initial plan. They emerged as the racist obliviousness of a
persecuted people blossomed into the racial supremacist ideology of a
persecuting one. That is why the commanders who directed the rapes,
mulilations and child-killings of Deir Yassin went on to become prime
ministers of Israel.(*) But these murders were not enough. Today, when
Israel could have peace for the taking, it conducts another round of
dispossession, slowly, deliberately making Palestine unliveable for
Palestinians, and liveable for Jews. Its purpose is not defense or
public order, but the extinction of a people. True, Israel has enough
PR-savvy to eliminate them with an American rather than a Hitlerian
level of violence. This is a kinder, gentler genocide that portrays its
perpetrators as victims.

Israel is building a racial state, not a religious one. Like my parents,
I have always been an atheist. I am entitled by the biology of my birth
to Israeli citizenship; you, perhaps, are the most fervent believer in
Judaism, but are not. Palestinians are being squeezed and killed for me,
not for you. They are to be forced into Jordan, to perish in a civil
war. So no, shooting Palestinian civilians is not like shooting
Vietnamese or Chechen civilians. The Palestinians aren't 'collateral
damage' in a war against well-armed communist or separatist forces. They
are being shot because Israel thinks all Palestinians should vanish or
die, so people with one Jewish grandparent can build subdivisions on the
rubble of their homes. This is not the bloody mistake of a blundering
superpower but an emerging evil, the deliberate strategy of a state
conceived in and dedicated to an increasingly vicious ethnic
nationalism. It has relatively few corpses to its credit so far, but its
nuclear weapons can kill perhaps 25 million people in a few hours.

Do we want to say it is antisemitic to accuse, not just the Israelis,
but Jews generally of complicity in these crimes against humanity?
Again, maybe not, because there is a quite reasonable case for such
assertions. Compare them, for example, to the claim that Germans
generally were complicit in such crimes. This never meant that every
last German, man, woman, idiot and child, were guilty. It meant that
most Germans were. Their guilt, of course, did not consist in shoving
naked prisoners into gas chambers. It consisted in support for the
people who planned such acts, or--as many overwrought, moralistic Jewish
texts will tell you--for denying the horror unfolding around them, for
failing to speak out and resist, for passive consent. Note that the
extreme danger of any kind of active resistance is not supposed to be an
excuse here.

Well, virtually no Jew is in any kind of danger from speaking out. And
speaking out is the only sort of resistance required. If many Jews spoke
out, it would have an enormous effect. But the overwhelming majority of
Jews do not, and in the vast majority of cases, this is because they
support Israel. Now perhaps the whole notion of collective
responsibility should be discarded; perhaps some clever person will
convince us that we have to do this. But at present, the case for Jewish
complicity seems much stronger than the case for German complicity. So
if it is not racist, and reasonable, to say that the Germans were
complicit in crimes against humanity, then it is not racist, and
reasonable, to say the same of the Jews. And should the notion of
collective responsibility be discarded, it would still be reasonable to
say that many, perhaps most adult Jewish individuals support a state
that commits war crimes, because that's just true. So if saying these
things is antisemitic, than it can be reasonable to be antisemitic.

In other words there is a choice to be made. You can use 'antisemitism'
to fit your political agenda, or you can use it as a term of
condemnation, but you can't do both. If antisemitism is to stop coming
out reasonable or moral, it has to be narrowly and unpolemically
defined. It would be safe to confine antisemitism to explicitly racial
hatred of Jews, to attacking people simply because they had been born
Jewish. But it would be uselessly safe: even the Nazis did not claim to
hate people simply because they had been born Jewish. They claimed to
hate the Jews because they were out to dominate the Aryans.
Clearly such a view should count as antisemitic, whether it belongs to
the cynical racists who concocted it or to the fools who swallowed it.

There is only one way to guarantee that the term "antisemitism" captures
all and only bad acts or attitudes towards Jews. We have to start with
what we can all agree are of that sort, and see that the term names all
and only them. We probably share enough morality to do this.

For instance, we share enough morality to say that all racially based
acts and hatreds are bad, so we can safely count them as antisemitic.
But not all 'hostility towards Jews', even if that means hostility
towards the overwhelming majority of Jews, should count as antisemitic.
Nor should all hostility towards Judaism, or Jewish culture.

I, for example, grew up in Jewish culture and, like many people growing
up in a culture, I have come to dislike it. But it is unwise to count my
dislike as antisemitic, not because I am Jewish, but because it is
harmless. Perhaps not utterly harmless: maybe, to some tiny extent, it
will somehow encourage some of the harmful acts or attitudes we'd want
to call antisemitic. But so what? Exaggerated philosemitism, which
regards all Jews as brilliant warm and witty saints, might have the same
effect. The dangers posed by my dislike are much too small to matter.
Even widespread, collective loathing for a culture is normally harmless.
French culture, for instance, seems to be widely disliked in North
America, and no one, including the French, consider this some sort of
racial crime.

Not even all acts and attitudes harmful to Jews generally should be
considered antisemitic. Many people dislike American culture; some
boycott American goods. Both the attitude and the acts may harm
Americans generally, but there is nothing morally objectionable about
either. Defining these acts as anti-Americanism will only mean that some
anti-Americanism is perfectly acceptable. If you call opposition to
Israeli policies antisemitic on the grounds that this opposition harms
Jews generally, it will only mean that some antisemitism is equally
acceptable.

If antisemitism is going to be a term of condemnation, then, it must
apply beyond explicitly racist acts or thoughts or feelings. But it
cannot apply beyond clearly unjustified and serious hostility to Jews.
The Nazis made up historical fantasies to justify their attacks; so do
modern antisemites who trust in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. So
do the closet racists who complain about Jewish dominance of the
economy. This is antisemitism in a narrow, negative sense of the word.
It is action or propaganda designed to hurt Jews, not because of
anything they could avoid doing, but because they are what they are. It
also applies to the attitudes that propaganda tries to instill. Though
not always explicitly racist, it involves racist motives and the
intention to do real damage. Reasonably well-founded opposition to
Israeli policies, even if that opposition hurts all Jews, does not fit
this description. Neither does simple, harmless dislike of things
Jewish.

So far, I've suggested that it's best to narrow the definition of
antisemitism so that no act can be both antisemitic and unobjectionable.
But we can go further. Now that we're through playing games, let's ask
about the role of *genuine*, bad antisemitism in the Israel-Palestine
conflict, and in the world at large.

Undoubtedly there is genuine antisemitism in the Arab world: the
distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the myths about
stealing the blood of gentile babies. This is utterly inexcusable. So
was your failure to answer Aunt Bee's last letter. In other words, it is
one thing to be told: you must simply accept that antisemitism is evil;
to do otherwise is to put yourself outside our moral world. But it is
quite something else to have someone try to bully you into proclaiming
that antisemitism is the Evil of Evils. We are not children learning
morality; it is our responsibility to set our own moral priorities. We
cannot do this by looking at horrible images from 1945 or listening to
the anguished cries of suffering columnists. We have to ask how much
harm antisemitism is doing, or is likely to do, not in the past, but
today. And we must ask where such harm might occur, and why.

Supposedly there is great danger in the antisemitism of the Arab world.
But Arab antisemitism isn't the cause of Arab hostility towards Israel
or even towards Jews. It is an effect. The progress of Arab antisemitism
fits nicely with the progress of Jewish encroachment and Jewish
atrocities. This is not to excuse genuine antisemitism; it is to
trivialize it. It came to the Middle East with Zionism and it will abate
when Zionism ceases to be an expansionist threat. Indeed its chief cause
is not antisemitic propaganda but the decades-old, systematic and
unrelenting efforts of Israel to implicate all Jews in its crimes. If
Arab anti-semitism persists after a peace agreement, we can all get
together and cluck about it. But it still won't do Jews much actual
harm. Arab governments could only lose by permitting attacks on their
Jewish citizens; to do so would invite Israeli intervention. And there
is little reason to expect such attacks to materialize: if all the
horrors of Israel's recent campaigns did not provoke them, it is hard to
imagine what would. It would probably take some Israeli act so awful and
so criminal as to overshadow the attacks themselves.

If antisemitism is likely to have terrible effects, it is far more
likely to have them in Western Europe. The neo-fascist resurgence there
is all too real. But is it a danger to Jews? There is no doubt that
LePen, for instance, is antisemitic. There is also no evidence whatever
that he intends to do anything about it. On the contrary, he makes every
effort to pacify the Jews, and perhaps even enlist their help against
his real targets, the 'Arabs'. He would hardly be the first political
figure to ally himself with people he disliked. But if he had some
deeply hidden plan against the Jews, that *would* be unusual: Hitler and
the Russian antisemitic rioters were wonderfully open about their
intentions, and they didn't court Jewish support. And it is a fact that
some French Jews see LePen as a positive development or even an ally.
(see, for instance, "`LePen is good for us,' Jewish supporter says",
Ha'aretz May 04, 2002, and Mr. Goldenburg's April 23rd comments on
France TV.)

Of course there are historical reasons for fearing a horrendous attack
on Jews. And anything is possible: there could be a massacre of Jews in
Paris tomorrow, or of Algerians. Which is more likely? If there are any
lessons of history, they must apply in roughly similar circumstances.
Europe today bears very little resemblance to Europe in 1933. And there
are positive possibilities as well: why is the likelihood of a pogrom
greater than the likelihood that antisemitism will fade into ineffectual
nastiness? Any legitimate worries must rest on some evidence that there
really is a threat.

The incidence of antisemitic attacks might provide such evidence. But
this evidence is consistently fudged: no distinction is made between
attacks against Jewish monuments and symbols as opposed to actual
attacks against Jews. In addition, so much is made of an increase in the
frequency of attacks that the very low absolute level of attacks escapes
attention. The symbolic attacks have indeed increased to significant
absolute numbers. The physical attacks have not.(*) More important, most
of these attacks are by Muslim residents: in other words, they come from
a widely hated, vigorously policed and persecuted minority who don't
stand the slightest chance of undertaking a serious campaign of violence
against Jews.

It is very unpleasant that roughly half a dozen Jews have been
hospitalized--none killed--due to recent attacks across Europe. But
anyone who makes this into one of the world's important problems simply
hasn't looked at the world. These attacks are a matter for the police,
not a reason why we should police ourselves and others to counter some
deadly spiritual disease. That sort of reaction is appropriate only when
racist attacks occur in societies indifferent or hostile to the minority
attacked. Those who really care about recurrent Nazism, for instance,
should save their anguished concern for the far bloodier, far more
widely condoned attacks on gypsies, whose history of persecution is
fully comparable to the Jewish past. The position of Jews is much closer
to the position of whites, who are also, of course, the victims of
racist attacks.

No doubt many people reject this sort of cold-blooded calculation. They
will say that, with the past looming over us, even one antisemitic slur
is a terrible thing, and its ugliness is not to be measured by a body
count. But if we take a broader view of the matter, antisemitism becomes
less, not more important. To regard any shedding of Jewish blood as a
world-shattering calamity, one which defies all measurement and
comparison, is racism, pure and simple; the valuing of one race's blood
over all others. The fact that Jews have been persecuted for centuries
and suffered terribly half a century ago doesn't wipe out the fact that
in Europe today, Jews are insiders with far less to suffer and fear than
many other ethnic groups. Certainly racist attacks against a well-off
minority are just as evil as racist attacks against a poor and powerless
minority. But equally evil attackers do not make for equally worrisome
attacks.

It is not Jews who live most in the shadow of the concentration camp.
LePen's 'transit camps' are for 'Arabs', not Jews. And though there are
politically significant parties containing many antisemites, not one of
these parties shows any sign of articulating, much less implementing, an
antisemitic agenda. Nor is there any particular reason to suppose that,
once in power, they will change their tune. Haider's Austria is not
considered dangerous for Jews; neither was Tudjman's Croatia. And were
there to be such danger, well, a nuclear-armed Jewish state stands ready
to welcome any refugees, as do the US and Canada. And to say there are
no real dangers now is not to say that we should ignore any dangers that
may arise. If in France, for instance, the Front National starts
advocating transit camps for Jews, or institutes anti-Jewish immigration
policies, then we should be alarmed. But we should not be alarmed that
something alarming might just conceivably happen: there are far more
alarming things going on than that!

One might reply that, if things are not more alarming, it is only
because the Jews and others have been so vigilant in combatting
antisemitism. But this isn't plausible. For one thing, vigilance about
antisemitism is a kind of tunnel vision: as neofascists are learning,
they can escape notice by keeping quiet about Jews. For another, there
has been no great danger to Jews even in traditionally antisemitic
countries where the world is *not* vigilant, like Croatia or the
Ukraine. Countries that get very little attention seem no more dangerous
than countries that get a lot. As for the vigorous reaction to LePen in
France, that seems to have a lot more to do with French revulsion at
neofascism than with the scoldings of the Anti-Defamation League. To
suppose that the Jewish organizations and earnest columnists who pounce
on antisemitism are saving the world from disaster is like claiming that
Bertrand Russell and the Quakers were all that saved us from nuclear
war.

Now one might say: whatever the real dangers, these events are truly
agonizing for Jews, and bring back unbearably painful memories. That may
be true for the very few who still have those memories; it is not true
for Jews in general. I am a German Jew, and have a good claim to
second-generation, third-hand victimhood. Antisemitic incidents and a
climate of rising antisemitism don't really bother me a hell of a lot.
I'm much more scared of really dangerous situations, like driving.
Besides, even painful memories and anxieties do not carry much weight
against the actual physical suffering inflicted by discrimination
against many non-Jews.

This is not to belittle all antisemitism, everywhere. One often hears of
vicious antisemites in Poland and Russia, both on the streets and in
government. But alarming as this may be, it is also immune to the
influence of Israel-Palestine conflicts, and those conflicts are wildly
unlikely to affect it one way or another. Moreover, so far as I know,
nowhere is there as much violence against Jews as there is against
'Arabs'. So even if antisemitism is, somewhere, a catastrophically
serious matter, we can only conclude that anti-Arab sentiment is far
more serious still. And since every antisemitic group is to a far
greater extent anti-immigrant and anti-Arab, these groups can be fought,
not in the name of antisemitism, but in the defense of Arabs and
immigrants. So the antisemitic threat posed by these groups shouldn't
even make us want to focus on antisemitism: they are just as well fought
in the name of justice for Arabs and immigrants.

In short, the real scandal today is not antisemitism but the importance
it is given. Israel has committed war crimes. It has implicated Jews
generally in these crimes, and Jews generally have hastened to implicate
themselves. This has provoked hatred against Jews. Why not? Some of this
hatred is racist, some isn't, but who cares? Why should we pay any
attention to this issue at all? Is the fact that Israel's race war has
provoked bitter anger of any importance besides the war itself? Is the
remote possibility that somewhere, sometime, somehow, this hatred may in
theory, possibly kill some Jews of any importance besides the brutal,
actual, physical persecution of Palestinians, and the hundreds of
thousands of votes for Arabs to be herded into transit camps? Oh, but I
forgot. Drop everything. Someone spray-painted antisemitic slogans on a
synagogue.

* Not even the ADL and B'nai B'rith include attacks on Israel in the
tally; they speak of "The insidious way we have seen the conflict
between Israelis and Palestinians used by anti-Semites
[http://www.adl.org/presrele/ASInt_13/4084_13.asp]". And like many other
people, I don't count terrorist attacks by such as Al Quaeda as
instances of antisemitism but rather of some misdirected quasi-military
campaign against the US and Israel. Even if you count them in, it does
not seem very dangerous to be a Jew outside Israel.
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