Monday, June 07, 2010

Parsing the "Anti-"s

Read no further if you're not willing to consider the possibility that "anti-Israeli state policy" claims are NOT tantamount to "anti-Semitism."

The recent deadly attack on an aid-bearing flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip has re-stoked the fires at home and abroad over Israel's continued blockade of Gaza. That blockade has been in effect since June 2007, following the election of Hamas to the Palestinian government, and has resulted in what practically every international aid organization recognizes as a full-blown humanitarian crisis. According to the politically-neutral American Near East Relief Association (ANERA), the ugly details of life in Gaza under the blockade are undeniably tragic. And yet, regrettably, the basic humanitarian dimension of this crisis continues to be eclipsed in domestic and international political discussion NOT by debates over what constitutes permissable or impermissable state-sponsored actions on the part of Israel, but rather by debates over what constitutes allegiance to or enmity towards the state of Israel itself. And so, again, critics of Israel's actions in the most recent flotilla incident find themselves on their heels, forced to elaborate the distinction between "criticizing the policies of a particular state" and "rejecting the right of a particular state to exist" over and over. And over. Of course, the suggestion that a particular state might not have the right to exist is an especially thorny one in Israel's case, but the tendency of organizations like AIPAC to suggest that all actions of the Jewish state are themselves representative of Jewish values only makes a thorny issue exponentially thornier. The elision of "anti-Israeli state policy" and "anti-Semitism," which dominates all considerations of the Israel-Palestine conflict, is an old (and increasingly dated) interpretive frame that just won't go away... and which, for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians alike, desperately needs to go away.

Let's just review, for a moment, the facts surrounding the recent Gaza flotilla incident. The explicit aim of the activists aboard the flotilla was to deliver embargoed goods to the residents of Gaza, of course, but it could be argued that the actual delivery of those goods was incidental to their mission. That is, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that a chief aim of the flotilla activists was simply to break the Israel blockade, full stop. Perhaps those flotilla activists were nothing more than humanitarians, perhaps they were conscientious objectors in the long tradition of civil disobedience, perhaps they were lawbreakers plain and simple. Whatever one may think about the legality or illegality of Israel's blockade and the morality or immorality of the flotilla activists' disregard of that blockade, it requires a gross and terribly prejudicial denial of the facts on the ground to claim that what is happening in Gaza today is not still a humanitarian crisis and that Gaza residents were not in dire need of the embargoed goods. So, the question is: why did Israel respond so violently to the renegade aid-deliverers?

Here is where an interpretation of the facts gets considerably murkier. Israel claims that its blockade was originally instituted, and has been subsequently extended, in an attempt to curb the terrorist threats (and actual assaults) of Hamas, which is the democratically-elected representative of the Palestinian people and which refuses to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. But we should remember, as M.J. Rosenberg persuasively argues, that "Israel does not need permission from anyone-- let alone Hamas-- to exist. All it needs from Hamas is an end to violence and that is precisely what Hamas is offering, in exchange for lifting the blockade." Hamas has, in fact, offered Israel the promise of an indefinite cease-fire in exchange for lifting the blockade several times. And Israel has accepted that offer, then refused to live up to its end of the deal, several times. Assasinations, attacks, and political posturing of both the literally and figuratively violent sort have continued from both sides. Who is suffering the most in the interim?

The people of Gaza.

What seems beyond debate--outside of the echo-chamber of reductively pro-Israel talking heads-- is that the Gaza blockade is primarily intended to inflict collective punishment on the people of Gaza, regardless of their sympathy or lack thereof toward Hamas. A closer look at the details of the blockade (below), published earlier this week in The Economist, demonstrates exactly how needlessly obstructionist the blockade really is.
It's hard to look at those details and NOT think that the Israeli attitude toward Gaza residents is little more than "we intend to make your lives miserable by whatever means necessary." What is the strategic reasoning at work behind this blockade? Israel is both an occupying force in Gaza and controller of its borders (and everything that passes through them). For just a moment, let's put aside the question of the "right" of Israel (or Palestine) to exist. Let's put aside questions about settlements, reciprocal recognition, two-state solutions, or who counts as a terrorist organization. Do we have any reason at all to presume that every single resident of the Gaza Strip is a member of Hamas and wants to see the legitimacy of the state of Israel obliterated from the face of the planet? Is the blockade really fueled by the spirit of anti-anti-Semitism?

Quite simply, no. It is not. But the more (morally and politically) questionable Israeli state actions become, the more it becomes necessary for advocates of Israeli state policy to mask those actions in the protective garb of anti-anti-Semitism. The discussion between Peter Beinart and Steven Rosen on NPR this past weekend ("Criticizing Israel, Outside of Israel") is an excellent study in the nuances of "anti-Israel-state-policy" vs. "anti-Israel" vs. "anti-Semitic" positions. Beinhart, exhibiting a graciousness and patience well beyond that of his interlocutor, repeatedly emphasized that his own position, which is highly critical of Israeli state policy, ought to be considered of a kind with other pro-Israel advocates. He placed himself and other critics of Israel state policy squarely within the noble tradition of conscientious objectors, who realize that sometimes the very best expression of one's love for a country is to criticize it when it seems to have gone astray. Rosen countered with the (highly-suspect) proposition that one is either a "friend" of Israel or her enemy, and to be a "friend" of Israel means to back her actions, warts and all. Rosen stopped short of outright accusing Beinart of anti-Semitism, but the very strong inferences that could be easily drawn from his argument were all but an accusation.

Now more than ever, the force of this rhetoric needs to be explicitly rejected. Back in 2002, then-President of Harvard University (currently, Director of the White House National Economic Council for Barack Obama) Larry Summers caused a bit of a stir when he said:

Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent.

In response to Summers' claim, (progressive intellectual) Judith Butler published an essay in the London Review of Books entitled "No, it's not anti-semitic", in which she tried to make the case for the separation of Zionism from Jewry, the separation of the state of Israel from the Jewish diaspora, the separation of political critique from hate speech. Butler wrote her piece in the context of what she viewed as a threat to academic freedom on the campus at Harvard, but her words extend beyond the bounds of Cambridge. From Butler:

Here, it is important to distinguish between anti-semitic speech which, say, produces a hostile and threatening environment for Jewish students – racist speech which any university administrator would be obliged to oppose and regulate – and speech which makes a student uncomfortable because it opposes a particular state or set of state policies that he or she may defend. The latter is a political debate, and if we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship.

A couple of years later, Butler revisited this same issue in the fourth chapter of her excellent book Precarious Life, in which she argues that one (among many) casualties of the prohibition against criticisms of Israeli state policy is our ability to "mourn" Palestinian lives. That is, the formal or informal restriction of our ability to criticize Israel compromises us as members of the human community, effectively blinding us to the suffering of a certain segment of that community. What is, perhaps, the most regrettable and offensive dimension of this censorship is that it exploits one people's historical suffering to justify the exploitation of another's.

The public shame that we have learned to associate with anti-Semitism since World War II is a legitimate and earned one, but its current deployment in the service of deflecting any and all criticism of Israeli state policy is itself shameful.

8 comments:

Allen said...

It has always amazed me that people associate support for Israel with support for Judaism and vice versa. If we were to criticize a government legally recognized as a "Christian nation state" like Georgia, it would not be perceived as an attack on Christianity. Similarly, the Vatican is under a lot of fire right now for its policy decisions FROM GOOD CATHOLICS. The criticism is not directed towards the faith but the contemporary policy makers.

I do think it is important to note that the Israeli situation is mirrored in the Muslim world. Often, an attack on the Government of an extremely conservative Islamist state like Iran (our Israel counterpart) will be perceived as an attack on the Muslim faith, even by intellectuals in more moderate countries like Turkey, Egypt, and even the U.S.

Chet said...

Beinart's piece in the NYRB was really good. It incited a response from someone in the ADL that was interesting.

So do you think Helen Thomas' comments were anti-Semitic? And if so, why? I am curious. I suppose I could see it both ways. But there are commentaries on the Washington Post that are very critical of her, presuming that she had no idea of the difficulties Jews had returning to their homes after WW2.

anotherpanacea said...

Check this out: http://opiniojuris.org/2010/06/02/why-is-israels-blockade-of-gaza-legal/

Basically, blockades like this one are legal in wars between sovereign nations. They are not, however, legal if used against one's own citizens. By claiming that the blockade is a legal response to rocket attacks, Israel grants that it is occupying Gaza as a hostile power and that Hamas is a lawful military combatant requiring Geneva Convention Rights, rather than terrorists.

DOCTOR J said...

@Chet: [Heaving a reluctant sigh as I type this...] At the risk of making an already controversial bog-post even more provocative, let me say that I think the response to Helen Thomas' remarks are a bit overblown.

First-- and not to be all age-ist here-- Helen Thomas is EIGHTY-NINE years old... that is to say, perhaps not always at her sharpest. (For that reason, I think she should have been removed from the White House press room a while ago.) Her remarks were clearly off-the-cuff and, in my view, taken a bit out-of-context.

I don't see any problem at all with her response (to the question "Any comments on Israel?"): "Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine." I mean, if that's a reason to dismiss someone from his or her post as a journalist, a lot of heads are going to roll. The problem, obviously, was in her subsequent comments. Thomas said: "Remember these people [Palestinians] are occupied and it's their land. It's not Germany and it's not Poland."

The reporter, obviously "baiting" her, then asked: "Then where should they go?"

To which Thomas replied: "They should go home."

Here's where things get sticky, I think. It's seems obvious to me that Thomas was making (an admittedly over-vague) reference to post-WWII Jewish "settlers" in the state of Israel, who are treating the land as if it was not already occupied.

So, when the reporter re-phrased her comment for her, and asked: "So you think Jews should go back to Germany?"... well. to be honest, I think that was playing fast and loose with a little old lady.

Now, I'll admit, Helen Thomas is about as far as one can get from a stereotypical "little old lady." And perhaps her own history as a hard-hitting, tough-questions, shoot-from-the-hip reporter earned her the treatment she's gotten in this case. But I think-- again, given her own history-- it's more than a bit disingenuous to assume that she meant her remarks in the way they have been subsequently taken up. At the end of the day, it's her fault for not parsing her words more carefully, but anyone who has seen the clip of those remarks can surely tell that there's a lot of wiggle room there for a more sympathetic interpretation.

Lelyn R. Masters said...

I don't think it would be anti-semitic in itself to suggest that Palestine is occupied by a foreign power. There are many hard core fundamentalist Jews who would say the same thing that Helen Thomas said: “go home,” because in their religious view the children of Abraham aren't supposed to rule Jerusalem until the coming of the Messiah, and their “home” is to remain in exile.
Again, fundamentally, Jewish does not mean Israeli, nor does it mean Zionist.
The reason to accept the existence of Israel is not because they have any right to be there, but because they had very little choice. The Jews that Europe didn't kill, they actively forced into exile in Palestine. At that moment there was every expectation that the holocaust would soon flare up again, and these suspicions were confirmed when Stalin led his Pogrom beginning in 1948. French Jews returning to Paris from the death camps would often find a gentile family had taken their home, and there was no legal recourse.
There are lots of reasons Israel doesn't trust the international community, or necessarily feel as though they have to follow the UN's rulebook. And it's nothing new: in 1960 Mossad abducted a Nazi War criminal, Adolph Eichmann, who was living in Argentina who didn't want to extradite him. The world ignored that international law had been broken because a nazi war criminal had been brought to justice. But you can see how this encouraged Israeli officials to believe that they were above international law.
Ironically, it was the Middle East's, and Islam's, acceptance of the Jews that made the region appealing to Zionists. Antisemitism was unknown throughout North Africa and the Middle East until 1948.
What is done is done, but it is grotesque in the extreme not to acknowledge the deep wrong that has been done to the Palestinian People, from 1948 to the present. That was their land, and their parents and grandparents died there or were run off. It is refreshing to hear someone in the American press give a damn.
And the idea that Jews should return to Germany and Poland? I can't really defend that, except to plead surprised old lady.
But let's give a little thought to our reaction to this idea of Israeli's going "home." Is it because we have qualms about uprooting Jewish people, or is it because we can't see them being welcome in Poland?
How could any Israeli really believe that things would be different this time if they did "go home"? One's answer might depend on one's family history. Some of the outrage over what Mrs. Helen Thomas said must be a screen for Jewish suspicion of Europe. “Go back to Europe! Are you crazy?!” Is that fear warranted? I don't know, maybe. If you want to know if anti-semitism is alive in Europe, you could look at the anti-Arab sentiment there. It is the same French (et al) supremacists who hate Arabs who also hate Jews (though they know when to shut up about the Jews). (I can't recommend Mark Kurlansky's "A Chosen Few" highly enough-it's a history of the Jews who stayed in Europe after WWII.)
Are the grandchildren of death camp survivors afraid to have international Polish/Russian/French/German forces inspecting cargo ships that come directly into Gaza? It seems one could understand the fear, but does that make it right?

Lorenzo said...

This thread seems to ignore the group these discussions normally ignore: Jewish refugees from Arab lands. The difference between Jewish refugees and Palestinians is that Israel accepted the Jewish refugees as citizens--so they have become a non-problem: indeed, a forgotten phenomenon. By contrast, the Arab countries preferred to keep Palestinians as stateless sticks to beat Israel with, so we get third, fourth, fifth generation "refugees".

I think your interpretation of Helen Thomas's remarks is far too kind. The word "settlers" could have been used at any time, for example, and was not.

Criticism of Israel only wanders into anti-Semitic territory when people put emotional angst into denouncing Israeli sins that is much greater than comparable sins elsewhere. Unfortunately, there is a fair bit of that about.

Israel's policy does seem to show a mixture of the arrogance of success and the self-righteousness of grievance. Still, if the Palestinians choose to elect a government that explicitly denies Israel's right to exist, they are on weak grounds to complain if Israel's response is less than phlegmatic. Palestinian rhetoric, education and tactics is all to often not such as to encourage Israeli positive engagement. The contrast with, say, Nelson Mandela's tactics is instructive.

autoegocrat said...

I'm a bit late to this party, but I just want to point out how ridiculous it is to call Helen Thomas anti-Semitic, regardless of what you think of her remarks. She's Lebanese. She is semitic herself.

That term gets used way too much. To my mind, it's the equivalent of Godwin's Law. Once someone uses it in an argument, they've already lost the argument.

Lorenzo said...

autoegocrat: your position is deeply silly. First, 'Semitic' is a construction of European racial theory. If Jews and Arabs do not recognise it as a common identity (which they typically do not) then the claim that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because they are Semites is simply ridiculous. The term 'anti-Semitic' means 'Jew-hatred' and that is rife in the Arab world.

Secondly, as for invoking Godwin's law, why do accusations of Jew-hatred get ruled out when I take it that accusations of racism against blacks do not? Unless one is to bar all accusations of racism and ethnic hatred your position begins to look at bit, well, anti-Semitic.

On my previous point about complaints against Israel displaying a level of angst not seen against other countries, Eve Garrard has a good example of the pattern here.