19 January 2009

19 January 2009 - The hypocrisy of the anti-Israel Jewish left

In response to a post at It's Almost Supernatural (referred to earlier) in which blogger Steve Magid criticized the alliance between Muslim antisemites and left-wing anti-Israel Jews, Nathan Geffen of the South African Human Rights Delegation (SAHRD) accused Magid and IAS of "anti-semitism" [sic] and "defamation."

Geffen went further, circulating a letter in which he accused Magid of "us[ing] lies to discredit members of the community."

Here is my response (to which Geffen has not replied), followed by a few additional comments.

Dear Nathan

Your attempt to accuse Steve Magid of "us[ing] lies to discredit members of the community" is disgusting.

On his blog, "It's Almost Supernatural," Steve has provided a forum for open debate in the South African Jewish community and beyond for the past several years.

Yesterday he commented on an attempt by the Muslim community to organize a boycott of Jewish businesses. Because members of your group were explicitly exempted from the boycott, he commented that persons wishing to get themselves off the boycott list should contact you.

In return, you accused him of "a much more dangerous and insidious form of anti-semitism [sic] than most other kinds in existence today"--a ridiculous charge on its face, and an especially ironic one, since you and your group have constantly excoriated the Jewish community for allegedly using accusations of antisemitism to defend Israel. (Source) You and Doron Isaacs are now attempting to intimidate Steve into taking down his post, using veiled but empty threats of legal action for defamation.

In my view, Steve's accusation was fair comment--especially given your relentless campaign against the leadership of the South African Jewish community and against Jews in general, which has gone far beyond legitimate criticism and has certainly contributed to anti-Jewish hostility.

Last year, for example, after returning from your trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories, you acknowledged antisemitism and Holocaust denial within the Muslim community, but declared: "the failure from within my own community is far more severe." (Source) It is an absurd claim, since South African Jews have never attempted to march on Muslim Judicial Council headquarters, attack the Islamic faith or praise the murder of civilians, while leaders of the Muslim community have endorsed terror groups and engaged in vicious anti-Jewish rhetoric. In retrospect, your unsubstantiated contention that Jewish behavior has somehow been worse certainly opened the door to the open condemnation of Jews, as Jews.

Furthermore, in an open letter published in December 2008, you accused the worldwide Jewish community as a whole of supporting "the crimes committed or sanctioned by the state [of Israel]" and "the dehumanisation of Muslims and Arabs." (Source) In language reminiscent of the worst antisemitic conspiracy theories, you accused the organized Jewish community of forming a "particular system that has created the conditions that have led to this pogrom [in Hebron] and the many other less newsworthy atrocities that take place daily in the occupied territories." You specifically invited the public to consider "the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the SA Zionist Federation," as well as independent supporters of Israel such as Mike Berger, part of this "system" and hence guilty of atrocities against not just Palestinians but Arabs and Muslims in general.

Even in distancing yourself from the latest boycott, you refer to the chief rabbi as a "fundamentalist." That is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but in communication with a member of the Muslim community who is clearly given to antisemitism it amounts to incitement.

For the past several months, Nathan, it is you--yes, you!--who have engaged in a campaign of lies, falsely alleging conspiracies among Jews and Jewish organizations in South Africa and around the world to support "crimes" in the Middle East and beyond. It is not a far leap to conclude that your acts and speech have encouraged South African Muslims to see Jewish organizations and businesses as fair targets for boycott, protest, and--who knows?--even worse. You have never been satisfied merely to criticise Israeli policy. You have set the demonisation of Jews, Jewish organizations and Jewish leaders at the very top of your agenda.

Your response to the boycott campaign appropriately flags it as antisemitic and destructive. It is well past time, however, that you examined your own rhetoric and behavior rather than accusing your critics of being liars and antisemites.

Steve Magid is to be commended for drawing you into a debate in which your intolerance of criticism has been revealed and you will finally have to defend your own views rather than simply accusing others of aiding and abetting "crimes."


Essentially, what Geffen and his comrades believe is that Jewish leaders and organizations--and even individuals like myself--facilitate antisemitism by supporting Israel.

In crude terms, that amounts to blaming the victim. Viewed more charitably--in light of a history that I'm not even sure they are fully aware of--their view is a distant echo of the opinion of those Zionists, like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who supported a Jewish cultural revival in Palestine but opposed Jewish statehood. They took that position not merely for practical reasons but for ideological ones: they believed that political sovereignty was anathema to the "true" essence of spiritual Judaism, which was to connect human beings to the universal and not to stand for yet one more version of religious particularism. To them, political Zionism was a form of antisemitism.

That view led them to further absurd conclusions and positions. Buber and Magnes blamed Jewish immigration into Palestine for the conflict between Jews and Arabs there, minimizing the role played by Arab leaders in inciting violence and religious hatred. So fervent was their belief in this one-sided fallacy that as Nazis were persecuting Jews in Europe, Buber and Magnes rejected a proposal by the socialist Jewish organization HaShomer HaTzair for a binational state that would allow for unrestricted Jewish refugee immigration into Palestine while facilitating a joint political arrangement between the Jewish and Arab communities there. They refused to see the practical consequences of such restrictions, as well as the hypocrisy of demanding that the door be shut after they themselves (Buber in particular) had found refuge.

Today, Israel not only provides Jews with a safe haven from persecution; it has also bolstered the institutional strength and self-confidence of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. It is partly for that reason that Jewish organizations and Jews support Israel in its various conflicts. Other principles also sustain that support, including not only close religious connections but also shared values of democracy and human rights--as against the anti-humanistic ethos of Israel's autocratic neighbors and the fanatical terror groups that threaten Israel and the west alike.

It is, theoretically, possible to oppose the existence of Israel without opposing Judaism as such. That is the position taken by some groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews (including some living in Israel itself), as well as radical communists or anarchists who view all nationalism with equal suspicion. However, most forms of anti-Zionism today blend with explicit or implicit hostility towards Jews. Even left-wing "post-modern" opposition to Israel is at a loss to explain why the Jewish state should be the first to give up its identity. Such antisemitism is rife in some of the groups that Geffen, Isaacs and the SAHRD have chosen to align with. That is not to say they are necessarily complicit in Muslim antisemitism, but Geffen's particular history of accusations aimed at the organized Jewish community shows, at the very least, a casual disregard for the possible consequences of his inflammatory and unjustified claims.

What Geffen, Isaacs and the SAHRD are entitled to demand is an open discourse within the Jewish community in which they can air their views and challenge those of the Jewish mainstream. What they are not entitled to demand is that their views be given unique protection, right or wrong and regardless of facts. And for all the attention they demand from the community, they are rarely willing to debate their views or learn from past exchanges. (Note that the SAHRD website limits comments to delegation members only.)

Instead, they have resorted to attacks on the community, its leaders and institutions. That is not the way to build bridges, either within communities or between them.

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