Wednesday, November 25, 2009

You've Got (Hate) Mail! (and why this drivel isn't as far from mainstream discourse as you might hope)

I was trying to recall whether this is the first occasion on which I have received anonymous hate mail. Now that I stop to think about it, I guess I have, on a couple of occasions (obviously, I must not have paid it much attention), and it was standard neo-Nazi stuff.

This item reached me in late September, but more pressing matters kept me from posting about it. At any rate, I walked into the main office one day and found only one item in my mailbox. The battered and opened envelope, bearing both San Francisco and Springfield postmarks, had been sent to two other addresses—one of which incorrectly identified me as working at the University of Massachusetts—before reaching me at Hampshire.

It contained the usual pseudo-scientific Holocaust denial material, charging that eyewitness and subsequent accounts of the extermination process and sundry atrocities were implausible fabrications:

Two things were noteworthy:

1) I evidently earned a place on this mailing list by virtue of teaching a course on antisemitism. NB: The official one-paragraph catalogue entry did not even mention the Holocaust by name. It did, however, include a reference to the contemporary Middle East. (The longer description of the course, which discussed both in a nuanced manner, was not even posted at the time.)

2) Unlike most such screeds, this one was written from a pseudo-left-wing perspective, for it connects US denazification efforts and purported disinformation with anti-communism and denounces the Holocaust as "a late-colonialist myth" whose only purpose in to justify Israeli expansionism and brutality:

It never occurred to me that, by teaching about the undeniable existence of an extermination facility at Treblinka more than half a century ago, I might harm someone on the other side of the globe today. Then again: obviously, these are crude ravings; in that sense, they are insignificant.

What is not as obvious but in fact highly significant is that the anti-Israel rationale embodied in this form of Holocaust denial merely lies at the extreme end of a broad continuum of discourse—but a continuum nonetheless—that stretches well into the realm of respectability. Mind you, not all manifestations of the discourse are necessarily antisemitic. However, the extent to which this particular discourse of anti-Zionism and criticism of Israel recapitulates or echoes classic antisemitic themes should give us pause. Designing and teaching my new course has provided a welcome opportunity to think through some of these issues. I’ll try just to sketch the rough parameters of the continuum here.

What unites the deniers and others on the fringe with many mainstream critics of Israel is the disturbing and increasing tendency to introduce references to the Holocaust into debate primarily in order to denounce the existence or actions of the state. There are several basic arguments, each of which has “hard” and “soft” variants.

Certainly, no right-thinking person would accept the hate-mailer’s claim that Zionists fabricated the story of the Holocaust in order to obtain their state. However, many otherwise decent and rational people readily assent to one of several arguments to the effect that Israel and its supporters illegitimately or excessively invoke the Holocaust in order to enrich the state, justify its policies, or shield it from criticism. The harder variants see this practice as deliberate or even quasi-conspiratorial in nature, whereas some of the softer ones regard it as an understandable but unacceptable reaction to historical trauma. By often charging that there is an attempt to silence debate, however, both may end up echoing classic antisemitic tropes regarding Jewish “power” and influence over government and media.

Whereas likening Israelis to Nazis was a practice once largely confined to the cruder “anti-Zionist” propaganda of the USSR and its clients, that taboo has vanished in the past two decades (just try googling "Zionazi" for a start). Even many people close to the mainstream no longer scruple at the comparison, which European, British, and US government bodies now include under definitions of potentially antisemitic discourse. Because the analogy can still generate controversy, however, some groups avoid it out of principle or pragmatism. Rather than invoking the Nazis, they speak of “ethnic cleansing" and "apartheid," which deliver almost as much anti-racist moral firepower, but lower risk of provocation and unintended injury to the user. The softest version is the claim that Israelis have failed to learn the “true” lessons of the Holocaust and cannot see that they have increasingly, although perhaps inadvertently, come to resemble their former oppressors. They, “of all people," we are told—apparently with sympathetic regret, but in fact with condescension—"should know better.” This reproach in fact recapitulates the venerable Christian anti-Judaic trope of Jewish "blindness" to the truth of their own history and tradition. As a result, this version is equally popular in the churches and among postmodern types who relish "irony."

Perhaps the newest argument involves a sort of buyer’s remorse that I have referred to as "the new discourse of regret": the idea that the world made a fateful mistake in creating the State of Israel. It is actually the most insidious argument because, even as it uniquely delegitimizes a member state of the United Nations, it appears to be the most humane and non-judgmental: we’re all victims. It begins by acknowledging that the shameful tradition of European antisemitism and world passivity in the face of Nazism led to the tragedy of the Holocaust. When the world then nobly sought to make amends by creating a Jewish state, it in fact acted precipitously and overcompensated for its own guilt, failing to recognize that it was doing an injustice to the Arabs. There’s plenty of victimhood to go around in this model: tragically, the Jews were in fact victimized twice, first by suffering genocide at the hands of the Nazis and then by being given a state that was doubly cursed because it both turned them into oppressors and thereby failed to bring them the promised permanent freedom from violence and hatred. The Palestinians are then the chief—and NB: only entirely blameless—victims, being forced simply to pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. And as for the Europeans and other outsiders, even they are in some sense really just victims of their own excess of empathy and good intentions. Now they can congratulate themselves on having seen the error of their ways, so that they are free both to wallow in their guilt and to revel in their new-found rectitude. It all sounds perfectly plausible and uplifting. I almost shed a tear myself.

None of this is to deny the legitimacy of even harsh criticism directed against Israel. The aforementioned studies on contemporary antisemitism all make that clear.

The point, rather, is that this is all bad history as well as bad politics. It manages to make several terrible mistakes at once.

• It trivializes the Holocaust by focusing exclusively (and superficially, at that) on its presumed consequences in isolation from its course and causes.

• Instrumentalizing the Holocaust in this manner—above and beyond the fact that this is precisely the mistake of which critics accuse Israel—thereby risks losing any real grasp of both the particular and the universal significance of the catastrophe, which must be understood as a properly historical phenomenon in its own right.

• The fact that the Holocaust, of all things, is now used so frequently as a club with which to beat the Jewish state should set off alarm bells. It betokens a casting off of inhibitions and thus erodes the barrier against open antisemitism.

• The association between the Holocaust and the creation of Israel—or better: Palestine Partition, for we should remind ourselves that the actual UN vote foresaw creation of two states, Arab and Jewish—was genuine, but complex: antisemitism, Zionism, Arab nationalism. and the “question of Palestine” all existed well before 1947. To reduce the tragic Arab-Israeli conflict to a botched quick fix of a mess arising from the Holocaust is to distort the past in ways that make solving the problems of the present all the more difficult.