Monday, January 18, 2010

Roth, Hirsh and Antisemitism

I have not posted to this blog since June last year. I'm not entirely sure it serves a purpose but producing the occasional bulletin for distribution at least helps me clarify my own thoughts. So my newsletter has been coming out at rather irregular intervals without actually being posted to this blog. From here on I will make a point of ensuring that the blog is updated whenever I actually get around to putting pen to paper.

In the meantime it accumulated a few comments - 6 from David Zinn who is so incorrigibly abusive and compulsively one-track that I will no longer bother with him. There is enough abysmal trash on the Internet without adding more garbage.

There was a comment from Steven Robins which I will try to add here and address. If it does not appear it is because I cannot access it any longer. My apologies for that, but the post below actually addresses some of his issues - albeit indirectly.

I will continue to publish comments - supportive, analytical or critical - where I deem them to have merit. I will also either answer them personally or publish worthwhile responses from others.

Roth, Hirsh and Antisemitism

Those at the top of the celebrity food chain are painfully exposed to the fickleness of public opinion; Tiger Woods and Blair come to mind but the list is a long one. From hero to zero is not really a danger to those of us at the bottom of the celebrity ladder, but even we know that we get undeserved bouquets and brickbats at times. This is probably the reason Kipling called “success” and “failure” the two imposters.

Speaking from a personal perspective, the task of countering the persistent and insidious anti-Israel media bias, can lead to errors of fact, emphasis and judgement. Besides the failure of the media to provide a balanced treatment of the multi-faceted and convoluted conflicts which flourish within the Middle East hothouse, one needs to deal with more-or-less orchestrated campaigns from activists who for various reasons (psychological and ideological) and are committed to unending propaganda warfare against the state of Israel. Truly reliable facts are difficult to come by, space is immensely limited and the level of debate is generally polarised and abysmally low. Fatigue, the pressures of time and simple irritation compound the problem.

Thus I hope to occasionally use this newsletter/blog to bring to your attention some of the better articles and books pertaining to Israel or to Jewry more broadly and to raise issues which are neither suitable nor possible to deal with properly in the popular press.

It is important to frame this within the context of an Israel engaged in an existential war against those who like to destroy it altogether. Some of our co-religionists, who have arrogated to themselves the mantle of universal ethical spokespersons, would like to you to believe this assertion is paranoia or simply a device to silence criticism. It is neither. There is more than sufficient evidence ranging from the actual statements of those who make their ambitions quite plain all the way through to actions whose only consequence is in fact the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state. The fact that in narrow military terms Israel is considerably stronger than her enemies, does not make their intentions any less sinister. Nor is the military battlefield the only arena in which this conflict is being fought. As important are the arenas of demography, geostrategic resources and public opinion – to mention only some. In all of these Israel’s enemies are equal or superior with extremely important implications for Israel’s’ security, and indeed for the security of global Jewry.

Nor does the fact that Israel is engaged in an existential struggle absolve it from criticism. But it does make it imperative that those who claim to support it take great care not to become the handmaidens of Israel’s enemies – a topic I have discussed previously and do not wish to revisit here.

The first theme of this issue is the question of anti-semitism arising, strangely enough, out of a novel, which many of you may have already read, and I have belatedly got around to finishing. I’m referring to Philip Roth’s “The plot against America”. I came away overwhelmed by its extraordinarily ambitious scope – a combination of an acutely observed socio-political treatise on an adolescent and still raw America, a polemic, a scrupulous and partly autobiographical examination of character, all embedded in an imaginative and complex narrative rich in incident and unexpected twists. Despite its polemical undertone at no stage did this undermine the honesty with which Roth parades his vast cast of Jewish and non-Jewish characters before us; nor does he rub our noses in the lessons to be drawn from them but allows the reader to form his own conclusions.

A leitmotif throughout the novel is the question: where does paranoia, fear and parochialism end and true anti-semitism 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?

While Roth’s answer is indirect, it is also unequivocal. The ordinary Jew, reacting with horror, confusion and indignation to Lindbergh’s plausible and ambiguous pronouncements, is right on the money. In some way the ability to detect and decipher the true meaning lies within the Jewish psychological DNA, honed by centuries of uncertainty and oppression. Such gut recognition can be blocked by excessive education laced with ambition, vanity and arrogance, represented by the oleaginous and politically adroit, Rabbi Bengelsdorf - whose career of pandering and sycophancy comes to a satisfyingly nasty end by the end of the book.

Nor are the Jews the only ones who understand the code. The anti-semites and opportunists within the American population also understand the new licence to take out their prejudices on their fellow Jews. But 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 ethnic affiliations, none of which undermines the central insight: that anti-semitism can come cunningly disguised, perhaps especially to the anti-semite himself. This does not mitigate its profoundly sinister origins in the darker reaches of the human psyche or the dangers it holds for Jew and non-Jew alike.

Of course, this analysis is acutely relevant to the issue of Israel. Just like the Jews of America, Israel is an imperfect society despite its enormous successes. Corruption is rife especially within its political space. Racism is prevalent amongst some sections of the population. Social and economic inequality is becoming worse and education, on which the future of Israel rests, is far from optimal. Fundamentalist religion exerts an unhealthily excessive influence on Israel’s political and civil life and Israel needs to deal more humanely and effectively with its minority populations. Above all, Israel hasn’t solved the problem of ruling, however distantly and indirectly, over an alien hostile population with all the consequences on its own social and moral fabric.

None of this should occasion any surprise given Israel’s history, the neighbourhood 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 remotely justify the obsessive and unbalanced criticism leveled at it. These, like the anti-semitism of Lindbergh’s America, reflect the psychological twists and political agendas of Israel’s critics rather than an objective view of Israel itself. The carefully calibrated and disguised criticisms of some of its more sophisticated enemies are clearly and correctly understood both by the ordinary Jew and by those who wish Israel harm as threats. Only those blinded by some combination of denialism, internalised and unexamined anti-semitism, free-floating guilt, vanity, ignorance or simple ambition and greed can believe otherwise.

Some of this is put extremely well by David Hirsh in his speech to the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism - Jerusalem, 25 Feb 08, and I quote extensively from it below..

Jews are involved in a real conflict in the Middle East where not all the rights and wrongs are on one side, where neither nation has always acted wisely and where in the absence of peace, things can only get worse.

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.

In Britain we have dealt a fairly heavy blow, for the moment, to the boycotters. In my view the main manifestation of antisemitism in the near future is going to be conspiracy theory.

The kind of antisemitism which really worries me is the kind which is difficult to spot. Governments can imprison those who commit racist assaults and they can ban hate-speech. But we cannot shut down the Guardian newspaper or my
trade union or the Green Party.

Why not? Because contemporary antisemitism is not explicitly or obviously antisemitic.

We can respond that according to the EUMC working definition this or that piece in the Guardian is in fact antisemitic, irrespective of what people think. But the counter-response will be “of course, you wrote it”.

I am not against bringing legal or bureaucratic power to bear against antisemitism when that is possible – interestingly the boycott in my own union was ended with the help of a combination of the two. But we have to lead with a political fight, by making and winning arguments.

We should not base our strategy on the assumption that the powerful in the world - or in America - will be prepared to oppose antisemitism. We should not act as though the "lobby" rhetoric was true. It isn’t. Moshe Postone tells us that antisemitism can appear to be anti-hegemonic. But we shouldn’t act as though antisemitism was in fact anti-hegemonic.

We don’t aim to change the mind of Ilan Pappe or Saumas Milne but we do aim to change the mind of those who may be influenced by them. Yesterday John Mann said that the boycotters are afraid of us. And I think they are. They’re not afraid of being denounced as wild-eyed leftists or as antisemites or as self-haters. They love that.

But they are afraid of coming up against people who have a chance of influencing their own followers or of sewing (sic)doubt amongst those who they aim to influence. This is a difficult job. ...

The contemporary way of doing antisemitic conspiracy theory was given a stamp of professorial legitimacy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in 2006. They created a vocabulary which one could use to express conspiracy theory and which did not seem to be antisemtic.

Conspiracy theory is nearly always, today, articulated using the Livingstone Formulation, which claims that Jews play the antisemitism card in bad faith in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. In this way, anyone who raises a worry about contemporary antisemitism already stands accused of doing so maliciously; and they stand accused of doing so as part of a common plan with others. Livingstone’s formulation also denies the distinction between criticism and demonization.

Thursday’s Guardian had the rhetoric and the images of antisemitic conspiracy theory running through it, from the front page to the inside pages, to the leader. 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

I will leave this theme here. The message is to all of us is that it is not necessary to believe Israel is perfect or wholly right to support or defend it. It is not necessary to believe or claim others are intrinsically evil or that they have no legitimacy in order to oppose them. The story of Israel and the Palestinians contains hurts suffered and wrongs committed by both sides. But until the Palestinians can free themselves from the narrative of endless victimhood, the ideologies and anti-semitism of the Western left and the Muslim world, the medieval visions of Jihadi Islamism and the corrupt gangsters ruling over them, their ability to find creative solutions to their existential problems will remain stillborn.

Israel, hopefully, will continue to avoid that trap as they have managed so far at least partially. They have a recent history of heroic achievement to provide them with the confidence to get beyond their own fears and prejudices and fulfill their destiny.

I would be interested in other people’s perceptions of the issues discussed in this post.

Mike Berger