Sunday, February 7, 2010

Anti-Zionism and antisemitism reconsidered

David Sacks has invited me to work up one of my recent posts, leaning on the Roth novel "The plot against America", into an article for the periodical Jewish Affairs. I enclose below a draft of the article for input - critical and otherwise. It goes over old ground of motivation and explanation for the unbalanced treatment of Israel in much of the Western media, but I hope it clarifies some points and maybe introduces a better understanding of the phenomenon. A couple more references will be added in due course and this draft will be posted on the site

kind regards
Mike Berger

I have occupied a fair amount of print space over the past few years examining the treatment of Israel in much of the Western media and, by extension, the role of prejudice (antisemitism and irrational anti-Zionism)1 in the kind of coverage Israel receives. In essence, I, along with many other commentators, have argued that the media coverage of Israel is seriously prejudiced and distorted and this continues in the face of rational argument and fact. The historical roots of antisemitism run deep but it is clear that its modern manifestation is the result both of deliberate propaganda as a component of a conscious strategy of stigmatization and delegitimisation and as the expression of more random forces within the global – especially Western - left.

These developments have forced Jews, both within and outside Israel, who would regard themselves as progressive, espousing universalist and humanist values, to confront their own relationship with Israel. Most see no deep contradiction between their support for Israel and their broad ideological commitments, and their disquiet with some aspects of Israeli policy and society does not necessitate a reorientation of their priorities. In fact, many find that their moral and political values impel them to support Israel especially strongly in view of the manifestly unjust barrage of criticism it attracts and the retrograde and frankly fascist practices of the regimes and political groupings which confront Israel both in the Middle East and elsewhere. However, a significant and vociferous section of Jewry have taken up openly antagonistic positions vis-à-vis Israel.

In this article I look at some issues around identity, social dynamics and prejudice in determining attitudes towards Israel. This is predicated on the view that political choice is a multi-dimensional process determined by both universal and personal psychological operations, by ideological (political) orientation, by intellectual disposition and by situational and interactional factors operating at the material, cultural, political and social levels2. These are all mutually interactive. Although such an analysis can slip easily into a rigidly determinist paradigm, I take the view that all individuals have freedom of choice and, along with Isaiah Berlin, that such freedom is extended by knowledge and self-reflection.3

It is widely recognised that identity, whether to an ethnic or religious group or with an ideological belief or some other collective ideal, plays an important role in determining political attitudes and choice – “Political identity emerges from a dynamic interplay between the psychological make-up of individuals, their embeddedness in particular political and social structures and institutions, and the major political experiences of their lives, which together influence their political ideologies and roles.”4 Identity may be fluid and multiple or more limited and fixed. I can think of no better way of conveying the essence of identity, than through an abbreviated quote from Philip Roth’s extraordinary novel, “The plot against America”: “Their being Jews issued from being themselves…” “It was… as fundamental as having arteries and veins…” “(They) needed no profession of faith or doctrinal creed…”.5 He was referring to ordinary middle class Jews, mainly immigrants or the children of immigrants from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe, living in the Jewish suburbs in mid-twentieth century USA. The quote captures the essence of deep identity in which the personal and the collective are indistinguishable and inseparable. This subjectivity is given more substance in neurocognitive studies which show that personal and social identity are processed in the same parts of the brain.

The quote is embedded in Roth’s fictionalised, but eerily plausible, account of the USA being stealthily led into pro-Nazi and insidiously antisemitic policies at the outbreak of World War 2 from which it was rescued only by the mysterious disappearance of Lindbergh, its shadowy and iconic President. What makes it relevant to our time and theme is how closely Western anti-Zionism mirrors the dynamics of the antisemitism of the mid-twentieth century as depicted by Roth.

A leitmotif throughout the novel is the question: where does paranoia, fear and parochialism end and true antisemitism begin? Do the bland, seemingly innocuous and apparently reasonable criticisms of Jewish cultural difference, exclusivity and failure to assimilate more thoroughly into the predominantly white, Protestant host population disguise a deeper and more sinister threat or are they to be taken at their face value, as some more “enlightened” members of the Jewish community would have their compatriots believe? In essence, according to the “enlightened” argument, the Jewish community should not be immune to rational criticism and serious self-reflection. To claim that such negative comment disguises antisemitic prejudice and evil intentions is precisely the reason why Jews are disliked by their host populations: using self-serving victimhood as camouflage, Jews license themselves to remain an exclusive, self-seeking community free to manipulate the good intentions and tolerance of their non-Jewish neighbours for their own ends.

The resemblance of this line of argument to the debate around Israel is striking. Robert Fine characterises the currently fashionable Western discourse as follows, “…the accusation of antisemitism (by Israel’s defenders) is now used to trash anyone who is critical of the policies of the Israeli government. …(As a consequence) - The struggle against antisemitism, once seen as central to the construction of a new Europe after the war, is increasingly disavowed since the charge of antisemitism merely serves to deflect or devalue criticism of Israeli occupation, Israeli human rights abuses, Israeli racism toward Arabs, and Israeli military force in Lebanon and Gaza.”6

Fine goes on to demonstrate the hollowness of this argument and, while Roth’s answer is more indirect, it is also unequivocal. The ordinary Jew, reacting with horror, confusion and indignation to Lindbergh’s plausibly rational and ambiguous pronouncements, is right on the money. Ordinary Jews were largely accurate in their perception that the Jewish community was being singled out and stigmatised, and correctly perceived such criticism would encourage antisemitism in the general population. More sinisterly, their suspicion of a larger agenda was probably correct.

Thus, according to Roth, the Jews were not the only ones who understood the coded messages behind the plausible words; antisemites within the American population took full advantage of the licence afforded by the new discourse to take out their prejudices on their fellow citizens. The DNA of racial stereotyping and exclusion from moral concern is universal and any individual (whether predator or prey) is alert to cues of ostracism and exclusion. It is important to note that Roth does not descend into a simplistic Manichean universe of innocent Jews surrounded by evil predatory foes. On the contrary, he invests his characters with the full gamut of human good and evil irrespective of their religious and ethnic affiliations.

Roth’s fictional narrative is acutely relevant to the issue of Israel. Just like the flawed Jews of America, Israel is imperfect despite its enormous successes. Corruption, especially within its political domain, is too frequent for comfort. Racism is prevalent amongst some sections of the population. Social and economic inequality has increased and education policy and funding, on which the future of Israel rests, is far from optimal. Fundamentalist religion exerts an unhealthy influence on Israel’s political and civil life and Israel needs to find ways of living more humanely and harmoniously with its unassimilated and often fractious minority populations. Above all, Israel hasn’t been able to disengage from its role as an occupying power, however reluctant and indirect, over an alien hostile population with all the consequences on its own social and moral fabric.

None of this should occasion any surprise given the history of Israel and the region in which it is embedded and the multiple antagonistic agendas it has to deal with, both within and outside its borders. Some of these are solvable by Israel alone and others depend on the cooperation of others. None are easy and some are utterly intractable.

But none of Israel’s failures, imperfections and transgressions can objectively explain the flood of obsessive and unbalanced criticism levelled at it. David Hirsh in his speech to the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism - Jerusalem, 25 Feb 08 – puts it this way, “Jews are involved in a real conflict in the Middle East ...When Jews are involved in conflicts there is a danger that the ways people think about those conflicts get mystified in the language of antisemitism. Anti-Zionism is not a reasonable response to the actual situation; it is a response to a narrative of the actual situation which has become mystified by antisemitism....Real human rights abuses are mystified as being genocidal like Nazism; institutional racism is mystified as being worse than apartheid; the occupation is mystified as being unique and as being a manifestation of a Zionist essence; Jewish power is mystified as an ‘Israel lobby’ capable of perverting the policy of the only super power on the planet against its own interest....contemporary antisemitism is not explicitly or obviously antisemitic. ... Antisemitism of this sort is not explicit, is not obvious, and is not self-aware. It is necessary to analyze and interpret a text to know whether it is antisemitic.”7

The problem is that antisemitism can be used in two related but distinct ways. One refers to objectively irrational and selective criticism of - or behaviour towards - Jews as a whole or a significant and core sector of Jewish society, Israel for example. The other usage refers to the emotion, conscious or unconscious, of outgroup hostility towards Jews or Israel/Israelis specifically. It is widely assumed that the former implies the latter, but need that be the case? Is it possible that a dominantly biased discourse (perhaps itself derived from conventionally antisemitic sources) compounded by simple ignorance, other ideological loyalties, identification with the perceived underdog, conformity impulses or more serious situational pressures, can produce an objectively biased (antisemitic) belief and action pattern while free of conventional antisemitic prejudice? And is this important? Does it really matter, in practical terms, whether biased behaviour is caused by faulty information processing and situational factors or by internal disposition?

In my view the short answer is that one cannot easily generalise about the sources of irrational anti-Zionism in individual cases and, secondly, it probably doesn’t much matter. Given the multi-dimensional processes whereby political choices are made, the individual pathway can vary from one individual to another. In some cases the mechanism may be obvious: some are clearly motivated by old-fashioned antisemitism revealed by the virulent tone and abusive content. This can infect Jews and non-Jews alike and are marked by the significant presence of the following cues: fixity of belief and resistance to contrary evidence, obsessiveness, a low trigger threshold to expression of hostility, excessively emotive language and choice of metaphor, stereotyping and essentialising, a tendency to select, exaggerate and misrepresent and, of course, unambiguous statements of hatred and threats of destruction. All these gradations are apparent in considerable portions of the Western media and on the Internet.

In other cases the cause may include a mix, in varying proportions, of “detribalisation”, ideological commitment, social pressures, personal ambition, idealistic identification with the perceived underdog, a contrarian streak or resistance to change, a search for relevance and meaning – or indeed simple arrogance and vanity. In Roth’s novel the character of Rabbi Bengelsdorf, Lindbergh’s tame Jewish apologist, is depicted in unflattering terms as ambitious, vain, arrogant and detached from the run-of-the-mill Jew. As summarised in Laura Miller’s excellent short review8 of the novel “Bengelsdorf is a marvelous creation, part object lesson in the perils of collaboration and part meticulous parody of self-important men everywhere…”.

While of great interest to various academic disciplines, the individual motivations underlying objectively irrational anti-Zionism is, arguably, of less importance than its prevalence (and hence potential for social spread) and its political and military impact. It must be remembered that the diplomatic and media campaigns are partly driven by a deliberate strategy to use “public opinion” as an offensive weapon to undermine, psychologically, economically and diplomatically, the capacity of Israel to resist. The provocations of Hamas and its approach to its military action are components of this strategic agenda. A prime example on the diplomatic-public opinion front is the Goldstone Report which, on a host of objective criteria, is a plainly prejudicial and politicized document intended to stigmatise Israel.

At the same time, it would be perverse to believe that the flood of anti-Zionist comment pervading much of the Western media does not result in secondary antisemitism of the conventional variety. It would imply a compartmentalization of rational thought and emotion for which no evidence exists and which is contradicted by the very content and volume of the critical comment, by the mass meetings and inflammatory placards and slogans, by the spike in antisemitic acts in many Western countries and by the abusive and clearly antisemitic tone of large number of contributions to Internet threads. This occurs despite still significant normative prohibitions on the public expression of antisemitism in the classical sense in most Western countries. The reality is captured in the following quote “It has often been asserted by left authors (for example, Noam Chomsky) that the link between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is a tenuous one. Chomsky asserts that the linkage is a device used by Zionists to squash dissent. Yet the linkage would not be possible—or at least would be much more difficult—if there was no past or current demonstration of anti-Semitism among Israel’s opponents. Simply stated, while it is absolutely true that all anti-Zionists are not Jew hating bigots, anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic in intent.”4 And, I would add, as an outcome.

As shown in numerous studies, pervasive social prejudice is internalised by the exposed population and by the targets (specifically here, Jews and Israelis) themselves. The overt response to such an assault on self-image varies between individuals and according to situational factors. Not surprisingly, it has driven many Jews into an ultra-nationalist stance in which Israel figures as a paragon of virtue in a sea of evil and hostility. Many others have been impelled into a more moderate, but equally obdurate, resistance to the programme of stigmatisation and delegitimisation. At the very least, few Jews for whom the Zionist project represents something positive and admirable, are eager to add their tuppence worth of criticism to the malevolent chorus and thus keep their counsel when otherwise they may have been willing to publicly chastise their brethren.

But for a significant minority, for whom Rabbi Bengelsdorf of Roth’s novel stands as a partial representative, the ideological assault on Israel has had a different effect. Psychological and sociological research - and simple observation - attest to the fact that the individual may resist such stereotyping - or may succumb. In the latter case we expect, and see, a spectrum of graduated responses ranging from disengagement to the role of actively hostile internal critic. Underlying some of the critical comment directed at Israel from within idealistic segments of Jewry, especially the younger generation, is the inappropriate intrusion of middle class guilt, historically naïve and unrealistic ideals and decontextualised analysis into the historically and politically fraught territory of the Middle East. In extreme cases, we encounter Jews who strenuously compete with the most bitter antisemites in the unrestrained expression of hostility towards Zionism and Israel.

For the majority of individuals, especially in democratic cultures, identity is fluid and multidimensional. It is thus possible to be simultaneously adamantly supportive of Israel while subscribing, perhaps more in hope than expectation, to the universalistic ideal of a community of peoples. Defenders of Israel need not descend into the traps of stereotyping and essentialising their opponents and should not close the doors to understanding, dialogue and incremental improvement. The common ground of universal global membership can be kept available for reconciliation and compromise when, and if, the context warrents it. Every situation requires balance between the stark (sometimes subtle) imperatives of reality and the ideal. Our ability to adroitly navigate these treacherous waters may the be key to the survival of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state for all its peoples and even to a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict.

Mike Berger

1. I use the words antisemitism and anti-Zionism in this article in different ways. Anti-Zionism is hostility towards Israel that goes beyond criticism of one or more specific acts, social features or policy decisions, but is a systematic and encompassing critique of the country and Israeli society. In some instances, this may arise from a variably rational view which sees the Zionist project as misguided or even partaking of colonial and imperialist characteristics. At some ill-defined point such anti-Zionism passes over into what I term, in places, “irrational anti-Zionism” in which Zionism is essentialised as an evil movement fascist in spirit and intent and comparable to other widely condemned movements like apartheid or Naziism. Antisemitism, as pointed out in this article may have, at least, two meanings. One is the conventional antisemitism expressed by significant sectors of Christian Europe and much of the Muslim world in which Jews as a people are depicted as inherently evil, treacherous, devious, cruel, cowardly, greedy and aesthetically repugnant. Clearly the intensity and virulence of such feelings vary. Antisemitism may also be applied to the excessive and selective criticism of Jews or prominent aspects of of the Jewish world, eg. Israel, which is relatively unaccompanied by pan-Jewish prejudice but derives from other sources, like ideology, conformity, ignorance and so forth. Much antisemitism, both conventional and unconventional, is expressed in the form of anti-Zionism, especially irrational anti-Zionism – but the two terms are not identical in meaning. Nevertheless, irrational anti-Zionism, irrespective of its origins, can be defined as objectively antisemitic even where its motivation does not arise from conventional antisemitic prejudice.

2. See for example: The new synthesis in moral psychology. Jonathan Haidt, et al.Science 316, 998 (2007); Collective psychological processes in anti-semitism. Avner Falk Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2 (Spring 2006); Spontaneous Inferences, Implicit Impressions, and Implicit Theories. James S. Uleman, S. Adil Saribay, and Celia M. Gonzalez In Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 59: 329-360 (2008); Political Psychology: Situations, Individuals, and Cases, by David P. Houghton. Publ. Routledge, December 2008, (ISBN: 978-0-415-99013-4).

3. From hope and fear set free. Isaiah Berlin in The Proper Study of Mankind: an anthology of essays. Eds. Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer, Publ. Farar, Straus and Giroux, NY, 2000.

4. Leaving the Radical Left: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and Jewish Response (Part Three, Draft 1). From the New Centrist Blog at

5. The plot against Ameica: a novel. Philip Roth, Publ. Vintage Intnl. Sept 2005

6. Re-membering the Holocaust. Robert Fine at .

7. Speech at Global Forum for Combating Anti-semitism, Jerusalem 8 Feb 2008. David Hirsh see ENGAGE

8. Review of “The plot against America: a novel” (Philip Roth) by Laura Miller, 8 Oct 2004 at

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