Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Nazis, Nazis, everywhere, nor any stop to think: On the flotilla, historical argument, and evolving antisemitic discourse

Predictably but regrettably, the recent fighting over the "Gaza Freedom Flotilla" brought forth a tidal wave of criticism of Israel.  It's not the criticism that is to be regretted, but its tone and thrust.  One can argue that the IDF acted illegally, immorally, unwisely, or just incompetently.  For that matter, one can argue that it acted justifiably and with restraint considering the circumstances.  Those are all positions on a legitimate spectrum of opinion, which can be defended or refuted on their merits.

What was dismaying was the animus, which led critics to assume the worst, maintain that stance even as countervailing evidence accumulated, and cast the criticism in terms that in many cases either went Godwin or echoed classic antisemitic tropes.

There was so much to keep track of that I didn't even attempt to survey it all.  In any case, analyzing everything in detail would be redundant because what we find are primarily clumsy and minimal variations on a crude theme (not exactly the political equivalent of "The Musical Offering.")  One can most easily track the degeneration of the discourse via sites that monitor hate speech on such prominent forums as the Guardian's "Comment is Free" (1, 2) and Huffington Post.  And we already have some preliminary analyses of general coverage of the crisis and its aftermath (1, 2).

That Fidel Castro even crawled out of retirement to issue a special denunciation was a sign of either how big the issue was or how deranged the discourse had become:
"The hatred felt by the state of Israel against the Palestinians is such that they would not hesitate to send the one and a half million men, women and children of that country to the crematoria where millions of Jews of all ages were exterminated by the Nazis," the ex-Cuban leader said.

"It would seem that the Fuehrer's [Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's] swastika is today Israel's banner" . . . .

"With these outrageous comments, Fidel Castro shames his old-time companions and the ideals he always pretended to serve. Che Guevara must be spinning in his grave," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in Jerusalem.
(Almost more striking than Castro's hateful harangue are the Foreign Ministry spokesman's words of praise for Che and the ideals of the Cuban Revolution. Impossible to imagine them coming from the mouth of a high US official.)

Caricatures in the Arab press were predictably harsh and often crossed the line into bigotry. The only novelties were those details occasioned by the maritime setting—images of pirates, sharks, octopi or sea monsters—which crowded out otherwise common Nazi motifs but could easily be adapted to fit other antisemitic stereotypes.  An Egyptian cartoon managed to touch all the bases:

As I sifted through and reflected on the coverage in the western media, what struck me was the disturbing extent to which the Nazi analogy, even when it is not openly part of the discourse, nonetheless now implicitly defines and shapes it. (I am of course aware of and impatient with the cruder versions of the postmodern argument to the effect that "the absence of" topic x "really proves" its implicit presence. That is not what I am talking about here.)

The  pattern involves several elements:

(1) Easy recourse to a stereotype of wanton brutality.  What unites the more moderate and most vicious versions of the criticism is the apparently unshakable conviction that Israel and the IDF have no regard for the lives of others.  This once marginal but now distressingly widespread view received the imprimatur of the  Goldstone Commission report, which asserted that, in Operation Cast Lead, the IDF "carried out direct intentional strikes against civilians" and "that disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians were part of a deliberate policy"—accusations that Moshe Halbertal determined  to be "false and slanderous."  Obviously, the Nazis epitomized brutality toward soldier and civilian alike, but did not invent and have no monopoly on it, so what distinguishes the charge here is the assumed historical context.

(2) The corollary (and this is arguably the most important element) is that Israel has "failed to learn the lessons" of the Holocaust, a charge repeated ad infinitum, whether in sorrow or in anger,  in opinion pieces and talkbacks. Insofar as the implication is that the oppressed have become oppressors, this is really just the "soft" version of the Nazi analogy, here made salonfähig—fit for respectable company.

This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that it is not the sort of charge leveled at other nations. Did the French carry out a war of savage repression in colonial Algiers because they had so quickly forgotten the depredations of Klaus Barbie's Gestapo in Lyon?  When the Soviets, who lost nearly 27 million citizens in World War II, applied their brute force in Afghanistan, did anyone charge that this was because they had “failed to learn the lessons” of the even more brutal Nazi occupation?

The rationale is central to the criticism of Israel because Nazism is seen as central not only to the national experience, but also to the origins of the state itself. The “failed lessons” argument is thus one of the linchpins of what I earlier termed "the new discourse of regret.” If support for the creation of Israel was in essence only the result of excessive and misplaced European guilt, then Israel's new crimes have the paradoxical effect of partially absolving Europeans of the original sin of genocide (the victims were not pure, after all), while simultaneously saddling them with an even greater moral debt—more burdensome and more infuriating because it was incurred under false pretenses—for all the injustices done to the Palestinians from 1947 to the present. The only way to break this chain of interest slavery is to repudiate the original debt and make restitution by channeling the bulk of the remaining capital of sympathy to the real or more deserving victims of the Middle East conflict.

(3) What is most insidious is that the aforementioned charges have deep roots traceable to the classic soil of antisemitism.

One staple of that thinking posits a Jewish sense of superiority to the non-Jew—whether arising from the arrogance of “chosenness” or more nefarious causes—whose manifestations range from passive “clannishness” to active hatred, represented at its extreme by fantasies of medieval “ritual murder” or modern “world conspiracy.” This prejudice draws sustenance from a Christian theology whose invidious canon of binary oppositions asserts the moral inferiority of the “old covenant” to the “new”: a religion of particularism vs. universalism; external rituals vs. inner faith; letter vs. spirit of the law; retribution vs. love. The anti-Judaic polemics in the New Testament moreover present the Jews as blind to the truth of their own Scripture, as a result of which they reject and persecute their prophets and ultimately commit the supreme sin of deicide. The punishment, one cannot fail to mention, is exile from their land until they collectively see the error of their ways and acknowledge the New Dispensation, which is to say: cease to exist as Jews.

To this extent, then, the charge of willful brutality uncomfortably echoes traditional theological prejudices against a Jewish religion of “vengeance.” (One need but consider the frequency with which the biblical doctrine of “an eye for an eye" is misinterpreted in commentaries on the Middle East conflict.) And the new political discourse of “failed lessons” of the Holocaust—in which Palestinians supplant the Jews as the embodiment of innocent victimhood—is in turn just a secular recapitulation of the old theological discourse of “supersessionism” or “replacement theory,” according to which, after the Jews fail to understand the message of salvation through Christ, the Church becomes the new or “true” Israel (“verus Israel”) in the eyes of God.  Not coincidentally, this pernicious doctrine, which mainstream western churches had begun to repudiate in the final decades of the last century, has now reappeared in a number of church documents specifically addressing their relationship to Israel, Jewish interpretation of the Bible, and the role of the land of Israel in Jewish religion and history. (See, for example, these critiques of the "Kairos" document and recent deliberations by UK Methodists and US Presbyterians.)

Two recent cartoons from the Guardian further illustrate my point.

In the first, an Israel Navy patrol boat flies a flag in which the Star of David is made of human bones and the stripes of barbed wire, signifying that Gaza is a “concentration camp" and the IDF are its guards.  Inhumanity and murder thus literally become the emblems of the state itself:

The second is, frankly, ill-conceived and inane, but revealing for all that.

One need not go so far as to see here an echo of deicide (the dove traditionally representing one of the three persons of the Trinity), or even to point out that the IDF here attacks literally the entire endangered population of the planet.  No doubt, the inept artist didn't really think things through this thoroughly (if the earth is flooded and all human and animal life is on the ark, why is there still an Israel with an army and what in the world are they blockading?).  He was simply groping for some readily comprehensible way to depict absolute violence versus absolute innocence—and instinctively found those opposites in Israel and the symbol of salvation.  It suffices to point out that the wanton murder of the dove of peace, long a topos in anti-Israel caricatures (other recent examples1, 2), is given an implicitly religious as well as political dimension.

In these two cartoons, then, the pattern is complete: Israel acts cruelly and immorally because it has failed to learn the lessons of both its own religion ("Bible stories retold") and its own recent history (from the inmates to the keepers of the camps)—and thus, the principles of universal humanity, as well.

It’s just hard to have any sympathy for people like that.

Like fascism in its day, this deceptive new discourse of demonization did not arise in a vacuum or find an audience only on the margins of society. Both were able to establish themselves because they drew upon deep-rooted elements of “respectable” mainstream culture—and the support and prestige of intellectuals and other elites.

As chance would have it, one of the more culpable of these enablers recently passed away.  Most obituaries of Jose Saramago understandably focused on his literary achievements and status as a Nobel Prize laureate. However, it was worthwhile to be reminded that the man who was so sensitive to the nuances of ideas and language in his creative life displayed no comparable discernment in the political.

Here, all the pieces fall into place. Not only did he equate Israel’s actions during the Second Intifada with the death camps. He knew the reason:

• The Israelis are like Nazis
• because they have failed to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, which is in turn
• because their religion itself teaches them arrogance, hatred, and exploitation.
“[I]n Palestine, there is a crime which we can stop. We may compare it with what happened at Auschwitz.” (April 2002)
“Living under the shadows of the Holocaust and expecting to be forgiven for anything they do on behalf of what they have suffered seems abusive to me. They didn’t learn anything from the suffering of their parents and grandparents.” (October 2003)
“[C]ontaminated by the monstrous and rooted ‘certitude’ that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God … the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner. Israel seizes hold of the terrible words of God in Deuteronomy: ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will be repaid.’” (April 2002)
There you have it.

Saramago is gone, but all too clearly, his legacy lives on. 

Fortunately, as memory of the recent fighting faded, the World Cup got underway.  There's still sports to bring people together:

[updated image files]

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