Sunday, December 11, 2011

To Bigotry No Sanction: Antisemitic Nutjob on Parade (by himself)

As the "Occupy" movement gained staying power and attracted both greater numbers of people and greater scrutiny, some observers began to express concern about antisemitic incidents. A minor debate ensued as to the representativeness of the cases in question (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). It seems to have subsided.  The Anti-Defamation League soon concluded, "There is no evidence that these anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are representative of the larger movement or that they are gaining traction with other participants." At the same time, it noted the historical connection between economic hardship and antisemitism, and urged vigilance, including forthright condemnation of any expressions of bigotry.

In any case, there were certainly no incidents of that sort here. Indeed, an orthodox Jew mingled happily with the others at the "Occupy" rally.

Participating? Proselytizing? Who cares. Be happy: it's Sukkot. (Occupy Jerusalem!)

Unfortunately, Amherst did have a first-class bigot on parade on October 16.

A dishonest or merely overzealous reporter might have made much of this. Fortunately, he was a parade of one, a legend in his own mind. He was not part of either the "Occupy" rally or the Tea Party counter-demonstration, both of which shunned him.

Instead, he merely attached himself, parasitically, to the events. Indeed, he seemed desperate to attract the attention of cars and passers-by who slowed to observe the events on the Common. 

desperately seeking someone

 He had other messages, too (though not really all that different).

Clearly, he wanted his fifteen seconds of fame.

I've decided to give them to him, but for my reasons rather than his.

I've been teaching my course on antisemitism, and we just wrapped up last week, with a consideration of the complex situation in the contemporary world.

Antisemitism in the United States has greatly diminished over the past century but certainly not gone away. In fact, contrary to what one might expect, Jews remain by far the most frequent target of hate crimes directed against a religious group; there was even an uptick in antisemitic attitudes in the last two years. But that is precisely why the poor deluded fellow pictured here is noteworthy: acts of overt hostility and hatred have become rare and confined to a disreputable fringe. Since World War II—for obvious reasons—antisemitism has become morally repugnant or at least unfashionable. This is an epochal and welcome change.  At the same time, it creates new problems. Antisemitism persists in many forms, but how do you define and combat it when almost no one admits to it anymore? (Traditional antisemites, at least, left no doubt as to where they stood.)

There is therefore a contentious debate over the existence of a so-called "new antisemitism." I'll spare you the lecture here, but basically, it turns (surprise) on the definitions of "new" and "antisemitism."

To adherents of the concept, it is the latest manifestation of a phenomenon that has evolved along with the place of the Jews in the larger world: For centuries, when the Church defined the Jews as the quintessential unbelievers, the Christian west kept them in a state of subjugation and eventually demonized them as the object of horrific fantasies. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the religious argument waned and Jews gained civil rights and established themselves in mainstream European society, they instead became the target of political and racial antisemitism, which regarded them as unassimilable aliens in the national body politic. Today, antisemitism tends to manifest itself primarily in the demonization of Israel and Zionism, the most visible manifestation of Jews and Judaism in the modern world (of course not to be confused with mere criticism of the policies of the State of Israel; no sensible person argues otherwise). One of the most useful and widely accepted definitions of antisemitism, developed by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia,  thus incorporates controversial contemporary manifestations arising from the Middle East conflict, while emphasizing the importance of evaluating the full context of any given statement.

Some of those who disagree find the phenomenon new but not antisemitic; some argue that it is neither. One should stress, however, that rejecting the label does not have to imply condoning some of the beliefs and actions that it denotes. The questions of classification and moral judgment are separable.

Obviously, the present case leaves no room for ambiguity with regard to either. The poor fellow and his sign are antisemitic in the classic sense of the term: He is a bigot. He is attacking Jews, as such, and as a collective, based on wild and imaginary fears. Still, it's worth taking just a moment in order to see why, and what else that can tell us.

• To begin with, of course, there is the language: using "Jew" rather than "Jewish" as an adjective (as H. L. Mencken—himself no paragon of toleration—noted nearly a century ago) is a venerable and offensive practice. (A parallel survives in the insulting Republican habit of using "Democrat" instead of "Democratic" as an adjective when attacking the rival party: e.g. "Democrat wars.")

As for the content:

• The sign portrays Jews as self-centered and concerned with their own interests. In the mild, "social" form of antisemitism, Jews are seen as "clannish," and "sticking to themselves." In the nasty version, here, they are driven by inherent and implacable hostility to non-Jews, causing and rejoicing in the suffering of others. This is one of the oldest themes, from the ancient pagan view of Jews as haters of mankind, to medieval fears of Jews as sadistic ritual murderers of Christian children. Elements of this view persisted in the modern era: a combination of their religious doctrines (supposedly as embodied by the Talmud) and centuries of warped socialization was said to teach scorn for and mistreatment of gentiles, for example, through dishonest business practices.

• Then there is another old chestnut: The charge that Jews control the media of journalism and entertainment dates to the nineteenth century and has been a staple of antisemitic discourse ever since. In the milder version, it is a matter of disproportionate representation or bad taste. In the nastier, one, it is a matter of nefariousness as well as numbers. Combine fantastic fears of hostility and domination, and it is but a short distance to conspiracy theories of the sort epitomized by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: the Jews engage in sinister plots to control the world.

• And why not? They are alleged to be devoted only to one another, not even to the country in which they live. The charge of dual loyalty is one of the oldest, in some ways a modernized and secularized version of the old religiously based denial of rights.

So far, so good. This is classic stuff.

At the same time, the message of the sign dovetails in disturbing ways with the slightly subtler antisemitism of both the new nativist or crypto-fascist right and the anti-globalization left. With its allusion to current conflicts in the Middle East, it is actually a very revealing amalgam of old and new—akin to what in Europe is being described as "cross-front" or hybrid antisemitism.

Polls over the past half-century show that the focus of antisemitic stereotypes in the US has shifted from ethics to power and the personal to the political: whereas the main charge leveled against Jews was formerly that they were, say, unscrupulous in their business practices, it is now that they have too much power in the business world, which they wield on behalf of collective material and political interests of their own.

If someone tells us that there is a conspiracy in which Jews control the press in order to exercise a still more sinister control over the levers of government and dominate the globe, we dismiss that as crackpot raving.

If someone tells us that Jews, because of their political influence and devotion to Israel, shape government policies that endanger the United States, we may well just stop to listen.

Pat Buchanan put it this way on the eve of the Gulf War in 1990:
"’The civilized world must win this fight,’ the editors thunder. If it comes to war, it will not be the 'civilized world' humping up that bloody road to Baghdad; it will be American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and Leroy Brown." 
Translation: the Jews, who are not loyal to the country in which they live, and whose money runs the newspapers, will get the US into a war on Israel's behalf, paid for with the blood of white ethnics, Latinos, and Blacks. (the irony of bigot Buchanan pretending to express concern for minorities was priceless)

Still pretty crude.

Jumping ahead to the next US involvement in Iraq, it may (to some) sound a bit more plausible when put this way:
The list of Jewish neocons we came up with is a provocation, I’ll admit. And if it were a list of dentists or firefighters or stockbrokers, then that would indeed be very offensive. However, the neocons are no ordinary group – they are the most influencial [sic] political/intellectual force in the world right now. They have the power to start wars and to stop them. They are the prime architects of America’s foreign policy since 9/11 – a policy that is heavily weighed in favor of Israel and a key source of anti-Americanism around the world. So I think it is not only appropriate, but necessary to put them under a microscope. And if we see maleness, whiteness, Jewishness, Zionism or intellectual thuggery there, then let us not look the other way.

On the ethnic question: Is it not just as valid to comment on the Jewishness of the neocons as it is to point out that the majority of them are male or white or wealthy or from the Western world or have studied at a particular university? If half the neocons were Palestinians, would the US have invaded Iraq?
That's from a 2004 piece in the magazine of Adbusters, one of the antiglobalization organizations behind the "Occupy" movement. (For the record: the US forced Israel to stay out of the 1991 Iraq war, and Israel by no means pressed for war with Iraq in 2002, being far more concerned about Iran.) As Alana Goodman recently translated and summarized:
That’s not to say the Occupy Wall Street movement itself is anti-Semitic. But if the top organizer behind the Tea Party turned out to have published a blacklist of American Jews he claimed had dual loyalty to the U.S. and Israel, the backlash from the media would be massive.
Indeed. Here, it is worth citing Oxford's Brian Klug, an avowed man of the solid left and an authority on antisemitism who rejects the notion of a "new" antisemitism, which he considers both intrinsically too broad and politically problematic because it risks tarring advocates of the Palestinian cause with the brush of bigotry:
To an antisemite, Jews are a people set apart, not merely by their customs but by their collective character. They are arrogant, secretive, cunning, always looking to turn a profit. Loyal only to their own, wherever they go they form a state within a state, preying upon the societies in whose midst they dwell. Mysteriously powerful, their hidden hand controls the banks and the media. They will even drag governments into war if this suits their purposes. Such is the figure of ‘the Jew’, transmitted from generation to generation.

Where this fantasy is projected on to Israel because it is a Jewish state, or Zionism because it is a Jewish movement, or Jews in association with either Israel or Zionism: there you have antisemitism.
The latest Anti-Defamation League poll finds that 80 percent of Americans agree with the statement, "Wall Street and major banking institutions in our country operate in their own selfish interest and not in the interest of the American economy." By contrast, 19 percent "answered 'probably true' to the statement 'Jews have too much control/influence on Wall Street,' an increase from 14 percent in 2009." The same survey found that 15 percent of Americans hold "deeply anti-Semitic views."

Are those figures on bigotry high or low? In one sense, they are disturbingly high. Putting things in context, though, they represent a sea-change from the crisis era of the Great Depression and New Deal, when antisemitism was both rife and openly expressed in the US. The  "deeply anti-Semitic" figure is moreover down from 29 percent in 1964, when this series of polls began, though up from a low of 12 percent in 1998. Perhaps more revealing, then, is the fact that, over those nearly six decades, the number of Americans who believe Jews are "more loyal to Israel than to America" has held strikingly steady at around 30 percent (in Europe, it's much higher).

As both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Goodman are at pains to make clear, the point is not that the "Occupy" movement is antisemitic in origin or majority character. Rather, it is a matter of vigilance on the part of the activists and the rest of us. There are good ideas and reprehensible ones, and there are understandable sentiments couched in unfortunate terms or directed at the wrong target. It was not for nothing that the nineteenth-century German Marxists called antisemitism "the socialism of fools"—or that Paul Berman, more recently, called anti-Zionism the "anti-imperialism of fools."

Seeing the man with the sign as a deluded bigot is easy. Seeing the potential bigotry in more subtle statements, with whose underlying sentiments we may want to agree, is more difficult.

After all, isn't that the thing about the nature of bigotry?

If it were simple, it would not have remained a problem for so long.


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