Monday, March 14, 2011

Anti-Semitism and the Conflict in Israel

I submitted the following article to "The Rutgers Observer" a couple of weeks ago. However, after they kept requesting that I modify its contents (basically insisting that I change it from a personal opinion piece to a survey of the views of faculty members), I decided that I would (a) withdraw it and (b) no longer contribute to their newspaper. While I respect the right of editors to make legitimate adjustments to op-ed pieces (i.e., cutting down on length so that they abide by a predetermined word limit, removing profanity and other offensive language), some become so wrapped up in their own egos and personal ideological agendas that they stop being editors and instead become tiny tyrants within their self-proclaimed literary fiefdoms.

It's a shame, too, since I actually thought this piece was pretty good.

Sometimes a point can be best illustrated, or at least introduced, by starting with an anecdote.

While attending a history department luncheon, I was involved in a conversation in which a casual reference was made to the fact that I’m Jewish. Almost immediately, a stranger who overheard my comment sauntered over to our corner of the room and asked, with a polite but unmistakably accusing tone, “So you’re Jewish? What do you have to say for Israel?”

To better understand the implications of this challenge, imagine some comparable situations:

What if someone walked up to a random Arab and demanded to know, “What do you have to say for the PLO?”

Or approached a random Muslim and queried, “What do you have to say for the Ground Zero Mosque?”

Or confronted a random black person with the question, “What do you have to say for Barack Obama?”

If you think that only a bigot would ask those questions of someone simply because he or she is Arab, Muslim, and/or black, you are absolutely right. It is bigoted to assume that an entire group of people is directly or indirectly answerable for, or at least in some way connected to, individuals and institutions that share their ethnic or religious background. Unfortunately, many of the people I know who agree with that conclusion for other groups believe an exception should be made for Jews. In their minds, Jews are different.

How exactly are they different? Some say it’s because Jews are disproportionately supportive of Israel, and as such can be held answerable for Israel’s human rights violations – but, of course, Arabs and Muslims in this country are just as disproportionately supportive of anti-Zionist causes, and yet the “Jews are different” crowd would rightly protest if it was claimed that all or most Arabs and Muslims could be connected with the words and deeds of the various terrorist groups in the Middle East. Others assert it’s because Jews have a great deal of sway in Washington, given the presence of several dozen Jewish congressmen and powerful lobbies like AIPAC – yet, once again, even though the president is black, and lobbying groups like the NAACP remain well-funded and influential, the people I know who believe “Jews are different” would never argue that all or most African-Americans can be connected to the policies of those people and groups.

No, ultimately, the “Jews are different” argument is rooted in one source alone: anti-Semitism.

This isn’t to say that anyone who speaks out against Israel or its Jewish supporters is anti-Semitic. Indeed, when the label “anti-Semite” is affixed to critics of Israel and Zionism who haven’t displayed prejudice in their motives, from liberals like Jimmy Carter to conservatives like Ron Paul, it serves to intimidate thoughtful dissent and stifle public debate. Just as it is wrong to accuse everyone who opposes Obama or Park51 of being a racist, it is also wrong to brand all opponents of Israeli and Zionist policy as anti-Semitic.

At the same time, a binaristic oversimplification has now emerged, one which holds that either all detractors of Israel are anti-Semitic or else none of them are. The reality is much more complex. While many of the people who speak out against Israel aren’t prejudiced, others use criticism of Israel as a vehicle for hate which they eventually extend to the larger Jewish community. In the last decade alone, this has resulted in anti-Semitic outbursts from England, France, and Sweden to Canada, Argentina, and New Zealand.

So what do I have to say for Israel? Here is a better question: Why do you ask?

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