David at The Debate Link has responded to my post on Chomsky and Holocaust Denial. Although David is a nice guy and one of my favorite bloggers, I think his response misses the target, both factually and persuasively.
Since my response is a bit long, I will split it into two parts. But before I get started, it’s important that I describe what I mean when I write “anti-Semitism.” As I use the term, anti-Semitism refers to:
1. Animus against Jews and Judaism.
2. Belief in degrading stereotypes about Jews and Judaism.
3. Support for rules, laws or principles that discriminate against Jews (i.e., “country-club anti-Semitism”).
There’s a overlapping-yet-distinct concept, which I’ll call “gentile-centrism.” Gentile-centrism refers to worldviews and institutions which assume that everyone is a gentile, thus marginalizing or making invisible non-gentiles, including Jews. So, for example, if a school gives everyone Christmas and Easter off but schedules final exams on the first two days of Passover, that’s gentile-centrism.
Definitions done, let’s respond to David.
Part 1. Chomsky, Chomsky, Chomsky.
David admits that Chomsky is no Holocaust revisionist, but writes:
I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the holocaust. Nor would there be anti-Semitic implications, per se, in the claim that the holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence.
That’s a shocking quote – indeed, years from now someone might point out I “defended” this quote to prove I’m an anti-Semite. (Wouldn’t be the first time; I’ve been compared to a Nazi for some of my cartoons which criticize Israel). Nonetheless:
1) David implies that this quote came after Chomsky said “we lose our humanity if we are even willing to enter the arena of debate with those who seek to deny or underplay Nazi crimes.” Actually, the “I see no anti-Semitic implications….” quote came about a decade before the quote about the Holocaust.
2) Chomsky’s point (as he has explained it) was, as a matter of strict logic, Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are distinct. So, for example, “if a person ignorant of modern history were told of the Holocaust and refused to believe that humans are capable of such monstrous acts, we would not conclude that he is an anti-Semite.” That seems like rather cold logic to me – but Chomsky, a professor at M.I.T., is known for cold logic.
3) David’s quote comes from private correspondence to a Chomsky critic, published without Chomsky’s permission. This is usually considered an unfair practice, for good reason. When writing in private, most people don’t write as carefully or defensively as they do when writing for publication, because of time constraints and because of the good-faith assumption that the quote will never have to be understood apart from full context.
This is typical of how criticism of Chomsky works. Every word Chomsky says or writes – and Chomsky is ridiculously prolific – is fine-combed for evidence of anti-Semitism and (when they can’t find that) for evidence of having failed to criticize anti-Semitism. When a quote that makes Chomsky look bad is found – even from a dubious source, like an out-of-context snippet from decades-old private correspondence – it is republished thousands of times. If one conference speaker out of hundreds of conferences Chomsky has spoken at is an anti-Semite, that is taken as proof of Chomsky’s guilt. Every word that indicates the opposite – no matter how much more fair or clear – is dismissed, as David himself dismisses what Chomsky has actually said about Holocaust denial.
This is actually quite similar to how Al Gore was smeared as a pathological liar and race-baiter, or how Catherine MacKinnon has been smeared as a man-hater. No one who says and writes billions of words in public can possibly match a standard that says “if you ever say something that can be twisted when quoted out of context, that proves you’re a bigot.”
David, however, advocates an even harsher standard for Chomsky, writing “To be fair, the evidence seems mixed–but really, is this an issue where there should even be mixed signals?” So if a fine-tooth comb search of a lifetime of work comes up with two or three instances of “mixed signals” (such as defending the free-speech rights of an anti-Semite) , according to David, that’s proof that Chomsky allies himself with Holocaust deniers.
To answer David, yes, we should require more than “mixed signals” before we slander someone with this most serious of accusations. Ticking-bomb scenarios aside, there is no reasonable standard that says “the more serious the accusation, the less important it is to find clear evidence.” We do not, for instance, require less evidence to find someone guilty of murder than of jaywalking, on the grounds that murder is so important an issue that even mixed evidence should be enough.
Why has Chomsky been the subject of so much venom? I suspect it’s partly because Chomsky is a Jew who criticizes Israel. David, explaining why he objects to blacks calling other blacks “race traitor,” once wrote:
Similarly, the attempt to paint Chomsky as an ally of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial is an attempt by pro-Israel Jews to make Jewish critics of Israel into non-Jews. As David went on, in that earlier post:
So for blacks to call other blacks “race traitors,” based on political disagreements, is an unfair and terrible thing. But when Jews say (or at least, strongly imply) that other Jews support Holocaust-denial and anti-Semitism, based on a political disagreement about Israel, that’s okay?
David denies he’s trying to expel Chomsky and other Jewish critics of Israel from the Jewish community – but when the exact same techniques are used in the black community, he labels that “stripping them of their blackness.” Yet there is no logical distinction between the two acts.
Part 2. Anti-Semitism in the U.S. Today.
In the post David is replying to, I wrote (emphasis added):
Here is David’s response (emphasis added):
David has made an interesting rhetorical move here. I mentioned Pappe to show that supporting a boycott is not by definition “anti-Semitic or supporting Holocaust denial.” David says I must be wrong, because Pappe is not (in David’s opinion) “pro-Israel” and “pro-Jew.” See how David changed the target? David’s slip – whether David intended it or not – implies that to not be anti-Semitic, one must be pro-Israel; and that not being pro-Israel is the equivalent of being anti-Jew and a Holocaust denier.
My point stands untouched by David’s response. Pappe does not display animus against Jews; nor has Pappe, a Israeli Jewish historian, ever denied the Holocaust. David didn’t even attempt to show any anti-Jewish animus or denial of the Holocaust on Pappe’s part. Indeed, David cannot show any, because none exists.
Faced with an inability to support his argument with logic or evidence, David sidestepped the issue: Pappe is not “pro-Jew” and “pro-Israel,” because Pappe favors a binational solution for Israel and Palestine.
(What is a “binational solution,” you ask? From Wikipedia: “Proponents of a binational solution to the conflict advocate a common state in historic Palestine shared between Jewish and Arab populations. All of the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be annexed to Israel, with their Palestinian Arab inhabitants given citizenship and an equal status to the Jewish and Arab citizens of present-day Israel. The new state would have a secular character rather than being dominated by Judaism or Islam.”)
A lot of people – including Chomsky, incidentally – have argued that a two-state solution (meaning two separate states, Israel and Palestine) is better than a binational solution, and that the dream of a binational state simply won’t work. Regardless, it doesn’t logically follow that believing Jews and Arabs can share a state in peace and harmony – which is what Professor Pappe advocates – means being “anti-Jew.”
Nor does suggesting that Israel should stop being “a Jewish state” make a speaker anti-Jewish. (I don’t think that any state should have an official religion, nor give special legal rights to any group based solely on race, ethnicity, religion, or cultural background [*]; does that make me anti-Islamic and anti-Christian, as well as anti-Jew?)
David’s argument conflates disagreement about Israel with anti-Semitism; he is, to coin a phrase, “defining anti-Semitism down in order to make it a political tool.” If David and others succeed in this task, the effect will be to make it impossible to take “anti-Semitism” seriously; once anti-Semitism just means criticism of the Israeli government, rather than animus against Jews, then what on Earth is wrong with being anti-Semitic?
David’s formulation makes sense only if one assumes that society has been static for the last 60 years. But society is not static; David ignores how the growing revulsion and disgust at the Holocaust, in the decades following the Holocaust, led to a widespread rejection of anti-Semitism among many Americans. The fact that the Holocaust happened 60 years ago does not, in and of itself, prove anything one way or the other about US society today.
Is there pervasive and structural anti-Semitism in our society, like there is with racism? Only in the broadest sense: that is, racism exists, and anti-Semitism too exists. But it doesn’t mean that the two are at all the same. The reason progressives of my generation are, by and large, less concerned with U.S anti-Semitism than with racism is because U.S. anti-Semitism is a comparitively minor problem.
Which isn’t to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter. I see implicit anti-Semitism (or at least, gentile-centrism) in a lot of anti-New York rhetoric; in the absence of Jewish characters on big and small screen, and in the prejudice against Jewish characters who look and sound like my relatives (which is to say, who are identifiably Jewish); in the way that Jews, although considered suitable for many powerful positions, are – it goes without saying – not viable candidates for President; in the flat-nose blond-hair pale-complexion standard of beauty that still has too much currency in our society; in the mindless belief that Hanukkah is “the Jewish Christmas”; in a dominant religion that says all Jews will burn in Hell, and that’s justice; and so on.
But let’s face it, the harms anti-Semitism has done to my generation of American Jews are generally small. I’ve run into a few anti-Semites (defined as expressing animus towards Jews, or endorsing anti-Semitic myths) in my life, mostly online. I’ve pined for the lack of recognizable Jews on TV and in movies. I have facial features (hook nose, full lips) which, even if I were “acceptably” thin, would prevent me from being considered very handsome. That’s about it.
Let’s contrast that with earlier generations. My father told me that as a kid he was beaten by gangs who were angry to have a Jew in their school. My grandfather was expelled from college for being a communist at a time when “communism” and “Jewish” were considered synonymous. And my grandparent’s generation faced the Holocaust – let’s not forget that even in the US, there were plenty of mainstream, ordinary Americans who thought Hitler had a point about “the Jewish problem.”
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. anti-Semitism is vastly reduced from what it was.
David wrote that “anti-Semitism is the central issue in the Israel/Palestine debate”[**] – that is, the central reason Western academics criticize Israel is anti-Semitism. David is assuming what is at issue. Putting the particular example of Chomsky aside, at the core of our disagreement is the question of whether or not anti-Semitism is the prime reason lefty academics criticise Israel; David doesn’t prove anything merely by stating his conclusion.
Unfortunately, David doesn’t say much to support his idea that anti-Semitism is central to Western academic criticism of Israel. The only real argument I could make out in his post was a reference to the old “only an anti-Semite would focus criticism on Israel” chestnut, which I think I adequately responded to in this post from 2002.
It’s also worth noting that if you define anti-Semitism to mean animus against Jews and belief in anti-Jewish stereotypes, the least anti-Semitic place in America is a college campus. I wonder how David reconciles that fact with his belief that anti-Semitism runs wild among Western academics who criticize Israel?
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[*] Does that mean I oppose affirmative action? No. Affirmative action is not motivated by racism per se, but by the desire to remove the effects of historic and ongoing racism; just as a surgeon cutting open a stabbing victim is distinct from the criminal who stabbed the victim, affirmative action is distinct from racism.
[**] In a later post, David allowed that Palestinians “on the ground” might consider some other issue – presumably, the human rights of Palestinians – central. David neglects to explain why it’s inconceivable that academics in the U.S. might consider the human rights of Palestinians central, as well.