Monday, 21 June 2010

Left antisemitism - Augean Stables

Post-Modern Antisemitism: Leftist Anti-Zionism

By Richard Landes -

The exception to the rule for my reading of anti-Semitism [largely a “right-wing” phenomenon from people opposed to the liberal impact of Jews on prime-divider cultures] comes when I try to explain the anti-Zionism of progressives. According to my analysis, those who favor the humanistic commitments of civil society – government responsible to the people, freedom of expression, treating the life of commoners as a valuable social good, broad empowerment of populations, both as individuals and as groups, women’s rights, etc. – should side unequivocally with the Israelis. Indeed this is the common cry of Israelis when they appeal to the West for support.

And yet the opposite has happened. Rather than the morality tale I describe above, a radical inversion has occurred in the retelling of this story in modern progressive (leftist) circles. The toxic imperialism and fascist nationalism with genocidal tendencies so prominently on display in the Arab world, appear now as Israeli traits. The Zionists are an imperialist settler colony like the Boer in South Africa or the pilgrims in America. Israel, in this narrative, represents only the latest of that vicious imperialism and nationalism that Europeans and Americans, as they increase their commitments to civil values, come more and more to regret – slavery, genocidal policies that killed millions of natives, ruthless suppression of indigenous culture. The Palestinians, in this reading, represent the oppressed people trying valiantly to free themselves from European-style occupation.

The difficulties of such a reading are immense. They necessitate:
• Romanticizing of the past in which the Arabs of the region were living in an egalitarian society (rather than being occupied by their own elites), in which Muslims and Jews got on famously
• Reversing the vectors of action in which the Israelis initiate the aggression and the Arab violence is a reaction to that aggression
• Viewing the aggressors in the conflict as innocent by virtue of their loss, and the defenders as guilty by virtue of their victory
• Ignoring, or lightly condemning all of the immensely depraved actions of the Arab leadership (killing their own “dissidents”, imprisoning and immiserating their “refugees”, suicide terrorism) as “understandable” given their frustration and “lack of hope” while criticizing every Israeli act against these deeds as inexcusably disproportionate aggression.
• Accepting the statements that Arabs make in English as an index of their intentions, and ignoring what they say in Arabic, thus dismissing any possibility that they still harbor desires to wipe out Israel. (As one confident analyst put it on NPR: “Any Palestinian with a three-digit I.Q. knows that Israel is here to stay.”)

Such readings are possible. Indeed there is a whole academic literature dedicated to just such analyses, and a press that generally covers the events essentially from this framework, and a large body of left-wing and pro-Arab ideologues who assume it is true. It results in a widespread consensus that views events in an “even-handed” manner, one in which both sides have reasonable positions (even if the Palestinian position must be attributed to them in order to make it reasonable), both have done reprehensible things, and both should just sit down and work this out in negotiations. Such thinking, generous in its belief in the good intentions of both sides, results in astoundingly inaccurate and harmful analyses. By failing to distinguish between a shame culture dominated by a political prime-divider on the one hand, and a guilt culture, organized by the principles of a civil society – indeed projecting onto both sides the same liberal values and commitments – progressives undermine the very forces they believe they strengthen.
• they systematically misread events, assuming that, for example, the Israelis must be guilty of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian refugees, since who would imagine that the Arabs would do this to their own people.
• they fall prey to the use of Western liberal language by people who have no commitment to it, believing, for example that the Palestine Liberation Organization is dedicated to freeing the Palestinian people, not destroying the Israelis
• they adopt the demonizing narrative of the Arab elites, reinforcing their grip on the populations that they victimize in the name of fighting the Zionist imperial entity
• they abandon one of the rare independent cultures that share their progressive values, excoriating them for their lack of restraint precisely where they demonstrate a level of restraint no Western country has ever shown
• they justify behavior (terrorism, especially suicide mass murder) as “legitimate expressions of frustration” that set a catastrophic precedent for the dangerous and delicate task of globalization that faces us in the coming decades and centuries.
• They label as racism any attempt to point out the violent, hate-mongering racism of the Palestinians and Arabs.

One might ask, why such self-destructive behavior? Why attack those who represent the very cutting edge of the culture you have worked so hard to create? Why side so enthusiastically with people who despise you and your culture, and want nothing more than to dominate you? Why empower a narrative and an elite that treats its own with such merciless cruelty?

At one level, one can analyze this as an honest mistake, one that systematically underestimates the difficulty of achieving a civil society, and assumes that such “rational” behavior lies within the grasp of any culture. Thus, the Palestinians would love to build a civil nation if only the Israelis would leave them alone (end the occupation), and as soon as the Israelis make enough concessions, the Palestinians will respond accordingly. Similarly, Arabs value the lives of their children just as much as Israelis do, or, in Ted Koppel’s words, “I refuse to believe that Palestinian mothers mourn their dead children any less than Israeli mothers.” Indeed to suggest otherwise would be racist.

This of course means that one must look away from the behavior of mothers who, their daughters killed by their husbands and sons for having “shamed” the family, insist that they do not mourn. They may indeed mourn as Ted Koppel (and I) suspect, but the public culture demands that they do not, and they comply. When we look away from such profoundly different cultural phenomena, we fail to ask such pertinent questions as: If these violent men will kill their own children for shaming them, what would they do, could they, to the Israelis for shaming their culture and religion? Similarly, when reporters do not know about honor killings, they cannot understand the attitudes of families toward suicide “martyrs.”

The result becomes profoundly superficial and subtly racist. When, as many will profess in an almost off-handed way, suicide bombers are the expression of hopelessness – “what else can they do?” – one assumes two terrible things about the antagonists. First, one assumes that the Jews are as evil as the Palestinians present them, ruthless, genocidal killers who throttle any decent desire for independence among Palestinians; and second one assumes that Palestinians have so impoverished a moral culture that they have no choice but to engage in the most depraved and vicious form of child sacrifice in the recorded history of mankind in order to get their way. Deconstructed, such banal remarks underscore the poverty of such off-hand sympathy for the “poor Palestinians.”

Nowhere does the intellectual and moral failure of even-handedness appear more blatantly than on the question of racism. Jews and Israelis often accuse the Arabs of being anti-Semitic. No, reply the Arabs, for we too are Semites, so how can we be anti-Semitic? Facetious, perhaps, but nonetheless an argument that seems to carry weight. Rather than accept the argument, however, it should then shift our attention from the specifically racist quality of late 19th and 20th century antisemitism to the more general demonizing hatreds of medieval and early modern antisemitism.

Rather than moving in such a direction however – again a desire to avoid the unpleasantness of accusing a whole culture of hatemongering – the discourse then takes a stunning turn. Not only are the Arabs not antisemites, the Israelis are racists. This accusation, which is patently false – no country in the world has as much racial, religious, and cultural diversity as Israel – and even wrong where the Israeli’s treatment of their Arab Muslim and Christian minorities are concerned (our society would, as Scott Andersen recently admitted on NPR, have produced vigilante groups to intimidate any group that dared to attack our civilians in the manner of the suicide bombers, who get a 80% approval rating among their fellow Arabs).

And yet the accusation carries great weight, not only in organizations like the UN which voted in 1985 under the presidency of a former and unrepentant Nazi, Kurt Waldheim to condemn Zionism as racism, but also in the widespread parallels drawn between South African apartheid and Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The appalling logic here came to a stunning climax just after the second Intifada, in the summer of 2001 at Durban, a conference supposedly dedicated to fighting racism around the world, but which spent most of its time dealing with Arab denunciations of Zionist “racism,” and ended with condemnations of the Atlantic slave trade (i.e., historical European trade) and no mention of the Indian Ocean slave trade (i.e., current Arab trade). The fact that the Arabs demonized the Jews should not have surprised anyone who follows the narratives that dominate Arab press, academic, and political discourse, but the acquiescence, even the enthusiastic support of NGOs, the self-appointed bastions of civil society around the world, deserves pondering. Even liberals with enough sense to see the excessive nature of the attack, preferred to regret the excess as an “unfortunate distraction,” than focus on the revealing contradiction of demonizing racists successfully accusing others of racism.


I have certainly been guilty of this - out of ignorance and a desire to be "even-handed". A mistake, in practice: mea culpa.

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