22 February 2007 – The taboo of anti-antisemitism
Radical Israel-hater Norman Finkelstein spoke tonight at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as the guest of the Palestine Awareness Committee, the Alliance for Justice in the Middle East, Justice for Palestine, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Arab Caucus and the Society of Arab Students. His topic: “Is Jimmy Carter Anti-Semitic? On Palestine and Apartheid.” Sigh.
Why do pro-Palestinian groups insist on inviting the most divisive speakers? Last October the same coalition hosted Daniel Machover, a lawyer who tried to arrest an Israeli general for war crimes in the UK. I went to the talk, and when I calmly pointed out during the discussion that the arrest warrant had been revoked, Machover began shouting for security. So much for free speech and academic debate!
Finkelstein has written in support of Carter’s apparent thesis (apparent, since he hardly addresses apartheid at all in his book) that Israeli policies are comparable to apartheid. Unlike Carter, Finkelstein believes Israel itself—even within the Green Line—is an apartheid state. He claims early Zionists sought “. . . an apartheid-like regime in Palestine while exploring the prospect of expelling the indigenous population.”
This plan, he claims, continued after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Finkelstein cites a slew of Israeli critics who have used the term “apartheid” to describe their country’s policies, as well as several South Africans who have used the analogy. (The Israelis he cites were speaking metaphorically, often to create alarm; the South African sources have a history of anti-Israel prejudice.)
Finkelstein describes an Israel quite different to the one that actually exists—a secular parliamentary democracy with equal rights for all of its citizens. But never mind. The hook on which he hung his discussion at Harvard is the claim that Jimmy Carter has been called an antisemite. Some people have certainly done so, but that is hardly the only basis on which Carter’s book has been criticized.
Looking at the responses to Carter’s book, it is clear that most of them actually attack him on the facts, not on his inferred prejudices or motivations. But even if the accusation of antisemitism had never arisen, Finkelstein would probably have conjured it up. That’s the currency he deals in—minimizing antisemitism and the Holocaust, claiming that both are drummed up by Jews in order to serve Israel.
Dershowitz—Finkelstein’s arch-nemesis, and very likely the prime target of tonight’s lecture—has offered a $15,000 reward to anyone who can find a serious supporter of Israel who claims that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic. No one has claimed it. Nevertheless, it’s worth looking closer at Finkelstein’s claims—which are also (partly) echoed by Walt and Mearsheimer and a host of other critics of Israel.
Antisemitism is the irrational hatred of Jews. It is—theoretically, at least—taboo. So accusing certain ideas, or the people who express them, of being antisemitic is a way of trying to remove them from public discourse, or at the very least to undermine their credibility. In a few cases—such as the conspiracy theory that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks—such treatment is well-deserved and necessary.
But the power of taboo can also be abused. When taken to extremes, it makes rational political debate impossible. If all criticism of Israel were equivalent to antisemitism, after all, then many Jews and most Israelis would be antisemites. In addition, when the power of taboo is invoked too often, it tends to lose its effect and provoke a backlash. So the taboo should only be invoked when absolutely necessary.
It is sufficient to deal with most opponents of Israel by attacking them on the weakness of their arguments, rather than accusing them of antisemitism. What critics such as Finkelstein, Walt, Mearshimer, Kasrils and Carter have in common is that they cannot prove what they allege about Israel. When subjected to serious scrutiny, their claims fall apart—which is precisely why they try to avoid debate.
Increasingly, it is these critics themselves who invoke the taboo of antisemitism. Walt and Mearsheimer, for example, claim in their infamous paper on the power of the “Israel lobby”: “Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro‐Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy—an influence that AIPAC celebrates—stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti‐Semite.”
This claim—which has become boilerplate among opponents of Israel but cannot be substantiated—is itself a familiar Jewish stereotype: the hysterical Shylock, a villain claiming victimhood in order to manipulate public sympathy. “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (The Merchant of Venice III:i)
By claiming that all criticism of Israel is bound to be labeled antisemitic, opponents of Israel hope to shield themselves not only from accusations of prejudice but from attacks on the quality of their research or the merits of their arguments. Put differently, they shift the presumption of prejudice onto their critics and undermine their credibility. They have created a new taboo: the taboo of anti-antisemitism.
Finkelstein is the master of this occult rite. Back in 2005, Israeli historian and Ha’aretz journalist Tom Segev wrote a humorous critique of the Dershowitz-Finkelstein controversy. “Israel and the Palestinians are secondary characters; the main protagonists are Dershowitz and Finkelstein themselves,” he wrote. “Their egos overflow on every page. It's embarrassing and funny - and worth every cent.”
Dershowitz seems to have taken the article in stride. Finkelstein, however, took it personally, posting several letters on his website by his supporters attacking Segev and his piece. One wrote: “‘The only place I have ever been where all the Jews are stupid is Israel.’ The Israeli Jew Tom Segev seems rather determined to prove the American Jew Philip Roth (author of the above) correct in his assessment.”
The other letters are in a similar vein, betraying both ignorance about Segev’s background and primitive prejudice against Jews. Finkelstein, who has built his career on attacking the “abuse of antisemitism,” is clearly prepared to make use of it. (He also refers constantly to the fact that his parents were Holocaust survivors, exploiting that tragedy in the way he accuses Jews of doing to support Israel.)
For tonight’s event, I helped organize a protest—leaflets and such—but I didn’t stick around, because I attend a swing dance class on Thursday nights with my girlfriend. Hearing Finkelstein speak and challenging his arguments might have been a good way to warm up for my debate next week. But life shouldn’t stop simply because an intellectually marginal propagandist shows up on campus to stir the pot.
A lot of people I know who get involved in debates on the Middle East—on either side—become obsessed with the topic. Having other interests helps you maintain a sense of perspective. Hedonistic attachments in particular remind you of why peace is worth struggling for. It’s more than just existential fulfillment. For most people, peace fundamentally means the chance to enjoy the world more than they do now.
And so I have learned to apply what I call the “barking dog” principle: just because a dog barks at you doesn’t mean you have to bark back. It’s important to challenge ill-conceived and hateful views, but doing so should not mean allowing yourself to be tormented by them. Some simply don’t deserve a platform; others might be good to expose to the harsh light of public scrutiny. Above all, you have to keep your head.