Panel: Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitism?

On 3 December 2002, Students for Peaceful Coexistence and the Global Voices Program at the University of Chicago hosted a panel on the Differences Between Criticism of Israel and Anti-Semitism.

The opening remarks of each of the four panelists are presented below in the order in which they were given as speakers sometimes referred to statements made at an earlier time. Click on the name of the panelist to go directly to his or her remarks. The four speakers were:

  • Professor Peter Novick, History Department, University of Chicago and author of The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin, 1999)

  • Ali Abunimah, writer and activist, co-founder, The Electronic Intifada

  • Rabbi Emeritus Arnold Wolf, K.A.M Isaiah Israel Congregation

  • Emily L. Hauser, American-Israeli writer and activist
  • Peter Novick, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago, Author of The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin, 1999):

    I was asked to make some general remarks on anti-Semitism in the USA in setting the stage for our discussion of current controversies about the relationship of hostility to Israel and anti-Semitism.

    “Anti-Semitism” is not a very precise term, being used for everything from murdering Jews by the millions to disliking the way I gesture with my hands when I talk. Insofar as it denotes any form of distaste for, or antipathy toward, Jews, it’s been around for a long time and is likely to be around for a long time to come. That’s too bad, but that’s life.

    Anti-Semitism in the USA never amounted to anything like anti-Semitism in other parts of the world, and I don’t just mean that it was never murderous. (Among other things, one might note that whereas in Europe there were significant political movements espousing an anti-Semitic program, there were never such movements in this country.) The fact is that, overall, Jews in the United States have never been an “oppressed group.” In the first half of the twentieth century there were various forms of discrimination against Jews. There were suburbs where Jews couldn’t live, there were various occupations that discriminated against Jews in hiring, and, at elite colleges, there were often discriminatory quotas which kept the number of Jews in the student body to around ten percent. (That was the case when I was admitted to an Ivy League college in 1951.) All of this stuff was irksome, even infuriating, and I don’t want to trivialize the impact of these various forms of discrimination, but the fact is that these barriers didn’t prevent successive cohorts of American Jews from ascending, not too long after their arrival in this country, to a relatively advantageous position—and, within a couple of generations, to becoming the best-off group in the USA. To repeat, there was a fair amount of antipathy toward Jews, and there were various discriminatory measures, but they didn’t do much to retard Jewish ascent.

    There are still lots of folks in this country who don’t like Jews, but it’s very difficult to say how many. Since World War II, when, as the saying goes, “Hitler gave anti-Semitism a bad name,” anti-Semitism rapidly became very unrespectable in the USA—the most unrespectable of ethnic antipathies. Anti-Semitism, like most beliefs, is a habit—and habits are something we’re usually socialized into when we’re young. The better socialized into approved ways of thinking and speaking one is—the better “acculturated” one is—the more likely one is to share culturally approved habits and attitudes.

    It seems pretty clear that the greatest amount of anti-Semitism is found among those who are least acculturated. One symbol of this is that in polling among Hispanics born abroad, and Hispanics born in this country, the foreign born are twice as likely to express anti-Semitic attitudes at the American born. And the same relationship to acculturation can be seen by looking at where, apart from the foreign-born, the pockets of strong anti-Semitic sentiment are: some southern Christian fundamentalists, some Great Plains militia folks, some ghetto blacks, and some old-style Joe McCarthy Irish Catholics like Patrick Buchanan. All of these among those most isolated from socialization into the American “mainstream.”

    Changes in attitudes often take place very slowly. The physicist Max Planck once observed that scientists don’t get converted from old theories to new theories. What happens, he said, is that those who believed in the old theories die out, and are replaced by those who believe in the new theories.

    Changes in social attitudes, it seems to me, operate from the top down, whether we’re talking about attitudes toward Jews, or blacks, or women, or homosexuals. First certain kinds of things can’t be said in public, then after a while—often much too long a while—they can’t be said in private, and after another interval it becomes even difficult to think them, because the vocabulary in which those thoughts are expressed has dried up.

    So far as most of the American population is concerned, I think that’s what’s happened with anti-Semitism, though of course, lots of what might be called “low level” anti-Semitism endures. In some cases, though, I’m not sure it should be called “anti-Semitism.” An Italian colleague once said to me: “Peter—you a-know what an anti-Semite is. It’s-a someone who dislikes Jews more than you’re supposed to.” There’s an interesting thought lurking behind what may seem a silly or tasteless remark. What Paolo was saying was that it’s a regrettable fact—but a fact—that most people have some sort of mild antipathy toward those who are different than they are. That when it’s Jews who happen to be the object of this sort of mild antipathy it doesn’t deserve a special label. It’s only when the antipathy reaches more than that standard mild xenophobic level—when you “dislike Jews more than you’re supposed to”—that it deserves to be called “anti-Semitism.”

    This is an appropriate place to point out that anti-Semitism in the USA was at its highest in the first half of the Twentieth Century, when there were the largest number of “foreign-seeming,” “not speaking English very well” Jews: lots of Jews who were very “other.” Nowadays Jews are a good deal less “foreign” than they used to be: are, in fact, mostly undistinguishable from other Americans, and that’s surely one of the things that’s led to the decline in anti-Semitic attitudes.

    IN ANY CASE, however much or little antipathy there is toward Jews in the United States, anti-Semitism in this country is “inconsequential” in the literal sense of that word: it doesn’t have any significant consequences for the life-chances of American Jews. All occupations are open to them; to the dismay of organized American Jewry, non-Jews are all-too-willing to marry Jews; Jewish political figures—mayors, senators, governors—are regularly elected in places with hardly any Jews. All of which is to say that anti-Semitism is “inconsequential” in this country.

    In recent months there has been a lot of talk about a great resurgence of anti-Semitism, both in Europe and in the USA. I think one ought to be very cautious with respect to such reports. In the case of Europe the focus has been on various attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and in some cases on individuals. So far as I can tell from both published reports, and inquiries among friends resident in Europe, most of these attacks have been the work of Muslim immigrants—a small minority of Muslim immigrants to be sure—who appear to be moved by rage against Israel, and—Israelis being hard to reach—are flailing out against European Jews. Given their target, it would be absurd to refrain from calling such violent attacks “anti-Semitic,” but it’s “anti-Semitism” of a very special kind, and within a very special community.

    So far as the USA is concerned, where the claim is that there has been a resurgence of anti-Semitism on college and university campuses, I am underwhelmed by the evidence I’ve seen. That there have been many instances of thuggish behavior—sometimes including anti-Semitic epithets—I don’t doubt. But the image of Jewish students cowering in fear in a hostile environment seems to me an artifact of the publicist’s imagination, rather than a reasonable representation of what’s going on in the real world. Certainly there’s a large gap between some of the claims I’ve seen about what’s gone at the University of Chicago, and what I and friends of mine with whom I’ve discussed the matter have observed.

    In various segments of American society—particularly among so-called “influentials” (high-income, educated people who take a considerable interest in the news)—there seems to have been a substantial shift away from the more or less reflexive support of Israel in the Middle East conflict which has been common for many years. At least this is the finding of a private poll commissioned by pro-Israel activists which was reported in yesterday’s edition of the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. It is probably as dismaying to pro-Palestinian activists as it is to those on the pro-Israeli side, but most “influentials” now see the two sides as (that dread phrase!) “morally equivalent.” From the Palestinian point of view, that’s a big shift in their direction. The number of those supporting American intervention if Israel were attacked has dropped considerably. Three-quarters of those polled believe that “Israel’s actions in the territories are raising a new generation of potential terrorists, who could attack the United States in the future”—suggesting that there are prudential as well as “disinterested” considerations at work in changing attitudes toward the Middle East conflict.

    To those for whom the position of the Israeli government is self-evidently the one that anyone except an anti-Semite would automatically support, this kind of shift in public opinion is going to be read as anti-Semitic. But that’s not self-evident to all of us.

    Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada:

    I want to start by telling you what I mean when I use the word “anti-Semitism.” What I mean is anti-Jewish racism, hatred of Jews because of their ethnic background, their religion, their culture, their perceived shared characteristics, whatever it is. An equivalent to hatred of people of African descent or any other kind of racism. All these forms of hatred have their consequences, and Professor Novick has just talked about anti-Semitism and its consequences, or not, in different situations. Certainly hatred of people of African descent has led to disasters — colonialism in Africa, slavery and continued discrimination in our society. And of course anti-Jewish hatred — anti-Semitism — has had its own path resulting in very disastrous and serious consequences in Europe, and some discrimination and negative consequences for Jews here in the United States. That’s what I mean.

    Now the charge that criticism of Israel, which is what we’re here to discuss tonight, is anti-Semitism per se has a long history. It has always been used against Palestinians and other supporters of Palestinian rights, particularly Palestinians, for a specific purpose. And the purpose is to provide an alternative explanation for the conflict we see between Israelis and Palestinians. The self-evident explanation for the conflict is the radical inequality in power between Israelis on the one hand, and Palestinians on the other, which is a direct consequence of the dispossession of the Palestinians by the Zionist movement and the decades since of continuing, unrelenting and worsening military occupation, brutality and human rights abuses. This cannot but produce conflict. It cannot but produce antipathy among Palestinians for their oppressors.

    But you need an alternative explanation, so you say Palestinian mothers feed their children anti-Semitism and hatred with their milk, Palestinian textbooks feed children hatred and then they go out and throw themselves in front of tanks. This is the best alternative that a lot of supporters of Israel have come up with. Not a particularly compelling explanation.

    Now, the role in recent months — we have seen the charge of anti-Semitism being used, I think, in the United States and particularly on campuses to try to silence all discussion of Israel, precisely for some of the reasons that Peter Novick pointed out, which is that Israel has been losing in the public debate . Palestinians haven’t been gaining, but relatively its a gain, and so if you can’t win the debate, the best thing to do is to try to stop it. And the best way to try to stop it is to try to make people too scared to indulge in it. And the way to do that is to tar any discussion of the topic with the specter of anti-Semitism, which of course, since Jewish history has become in a way sacrosanct in the United States, particularly with the focus on the Nazi holocaust, which is now taught in most public schools by law in many states in the United States. It has reached a level of sacredness which American history — the genocide of Native Americans, and slavery has not. I mean there is not equivalent, as far as I know, widespread laws mandating teaching the true history of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans as there is with Holocaust Studies. Now you can debate whether we think that’s a good thing or a bad thing, that’s another topic. But I think this is the purpose of the charge.

    Now of course, I think we as moral beings, as people in an intellectual community that espouses universal values have not just a right, but a duty to make far-reaching critiques of Israel. Israel is a country which receives billions of dollars from our taxes, and which is committing unspeakable crimes in the name of democracy, and freedom and being part of the “West,” so-called. We have a right and a duty to speak out about that, and that is not anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel, criticizing its policies, talking about what sort of future Palestinians and Israelis can have together, whether its one state or two states or three states or ten states is not anti-Semitism, its a right and a duty.

    Now I want to just read you a quote from a piece that was published in the Chicago Tribune on December 2 by Richard S. Hirschhaut, the regional director of the ADL, that’s the Anti-Defamation League. And what he writes is:

    “Israel, as a state in the community of nations, can be the object of legitimate criticism because of its policies, as can any other state.”

    So far so good. We agree. He goes on:

    “Yet the ugly specter of anti-Semitism is raised when Israel is singled out for unrelenting criticism because of claims of human-rights abuses or non-compliance with United Nations resolutions.”

    So, now, any criticism of Israel or its UN record is anti-Semitism. Hirschhaut continues:

    “At the same times, nations with far worse human rights records, led by iron-fisted dictators who repress their own citizens, are never mentioned. Anti-Semitism becomes part of the equation when Israel’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is described and criticized in a vacuum, with no mention given to the history of Palestinian violence, the numerous threats to its very existence that Israel has faced or the peace talks in which Israel has participated.”

    So, for a Palestinian to sit and tell their history, to tell their personal life story without also giving Israel’s side of the story, is an act of anti-Semitism according to the ADL. That’s exactly what it says. Not to give — in a vacuum — in other words, not to always provide an Israeli-sponsored version of the truth is anti-Semitism. Now this is interesting, this thing. It’s interesting for three reasons.

    First of all, what the ADL seems to be saying is if you don’t share our agenda, and our political goals and you don’t campaign against the same dictators we don’t like, then you’re by definition anti-Semitic. You’re anti-Semitic because you have your views and you don’t have ours. So for anyone to be concerned about Palestinian rights, and not as equally concerned about the rights of the Ogoni people in Nigeria, that person is an anti-Semite, according to the ADL.

    Secondly, the excuse that Israel is being singled out for unfair criticism is one that we have seen often throughout history, particularly in the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa. It’s exactly the same argument which was always used by supporters of Apartheid, to silence criticism of Apartheid. Why pick on South Africa? Look at blacks in the rest of Africa, aren’t they worse off than in South Africa? Why pick on South Africa? Just one example: our good friend the reverend Jerry Falwell, back in the news recently. I would summarize his CV as this: Muslim-hater, Jew-hater, Friend of Israel.

    In 1985, Jerry Falwell went to Apartheid South Africa for five and a half days, met with President Botha, came back to the United States, went on national television, called Bishop Desmond Tutu a “phony,” and said that South Africa was just great and everyone should stand by the Apartheid government. And according to the Washington Post of August 31, 1985:

    “He blasted “the terrible double standard of international leaders” who criticize South Africa while allegedly ignoring the plight of Marxist-controlled African nations, and he said because of South Africa’s rich mineral resources it is essential that the country be kept out of the Soviet sphere of influence.”

    Again, the same argument: you hypocrites, you’re not criticizing Idi Amin the same way you’re criticizing South Africa, and South Africa is our strategic friend and we should look after it. Countless examples of that throughout the 1980s.

    I want to end with a comment about some of these attacks which we’ve seen in Europe, which are reported. And again its hard to tell how much there has really been an increase and how much this is the phenomenon of shark attacks. A couple of years ago, you remember in the summer there were a few reports of sharks attacking swimmers off Florida, and everyone believed that there was a rash of shark attacks. In fact, the number of shark attacks was about the same as it’s always been. What happened though is that the media just started reporting every shark attack as breaking news. So we don’t know how much of it is because people are paying more attention to this, and how much there has been some increase, but let’s suppose that there has indeed been some increase.

    I think we have to understand that this is in part because of the success of Israel in convincing the world that Zionism and Israel and Judaism are equal. And Israel has adopted, and Zionism has co-opted the symbols of Judaism. Now remember that political Zionism is a modern, and originally completely secular and areligious philosophy which adopted the ancient symbols of Judaism, the Star of David and the Menorah. The Star of David, which is a traditional symbol which appears on almost every synagogue around the world, and the Menorah, which is the official seal of the State of Israel, and which appears behind Ariel Sharon every time he makes an official address — so that I think it is a result of Israel’s policy that some people have been confused and they do believe Israel’s rhetoric that it is acting in the name of all Jews and they take out their understandable rage at Israel’s horrible crimes, at Jews, which of course is wrong. But I think it is in part a direct result of their policy and we have to understand that if you cloak your warplanes, your F-16’s and tanks in the symbols of Judaism, and if your generals wear the Star of David on their shoulders when they justify war crimes, don’t be surprised if some people react against that.

    Rabbi Arnold Wolf, Rabbi Emeritus, Congregation K.A.M Isaiah Israel, Chicago:

    Mr. Abunimah has just worked a miracle. He has made me a friend of the Anti-Defamation League, after life-time of hostility, by misreading a document, which I think all of you could see transparently was not what he said it was. I’m inclined to debate with him, but that’s for later. Zionism was never, for example, entirely secular. It always had religious roots. It was always interconnected with the Jewish religion. Herzl called it the Sabbath of his life. A lot of ignorance going on. Most of all, what is going on is half the story — half the story, with which I, for a longer time than he, has been in complete agreement. But only half the story. And the other half is equally important. If you really think that its only Israel that had done the wrong thing, then the meeting is over. It’s only if we can agree, and say our side has done terribly wrong things, and the other side has done terribly wrong things, let’s try to correct them. That’s not apartheid. The analogy is despicable. The situation was never like it was in South Africa.

    ALI ABUNIMAH: It’s much worse.

    RABBI ARNOLD WOLF: Shut up! Somebody keep him silent as I was during his talk.

    MODERATOR: Gentlemen.

    RABBI ARNOLD WOLF: Some years ago, I was invited to talk to the United Nations on the subject of Israel and Palestine. There’s a standing committee on Palestine and the rights of the Palestinians. And I began by saying, with those who do not believe in the right of a secure and independent Palestinian state I have nothing in common, and I was widely cheered, wildly cheered. And then I said, and with those who do not believe in the right of the people of Israel, the Jews of the world to have a state which is secure and independent, I have nothing in common, and I was booed. And that is precisely the problem. You can tell half the story, and we do over and over and over again, and we hear only the other half, and not the whole story from the other side.

    I met with three important leaders of the PLO in the seventies, when it was dangerous to do so, especially for a rabbi who was trying to keep a job. Two of them were assassinated by their own enemies in the PLO, one in London and one in Belgium. And I thought, at least this could never happen to us, but of course it did.

    ALI ABUNIMAH: Of course, Naim Khader was assassinated by the Mossad in Brussels, not by the PLO. I remember it, I was there, we heard the gunshots near our home. I am sorry, but I must correct the record.

    RABBI ARNOLD WOLF: We found out that an advocate of Peace Now could be assassinated. We found that innocent Muslims in a mosque could be assassinated. We found out that the prime minister of Israel, a tough general, who was in favor of deep concessions and peace, could be assassinated, and no one was safe on either side. It is perfectly possible to go on that way. Each side has its rights. Each sides has its rights violated, and that way lies disaster for Israel, Palestine and perhaps for the whole world, in terms of the possibility of an atomic war.

    The strange thing is that Zionism came about in order to keep Jews safe around the world, and it has succeeded not only in making Arabs unsafe, but in making Jews unsafe wherever they live. And as long as Jews are unsafe, there will be no peace. As long as either people is threatened in its deepest nature, there will be no solution and there will be endless violence one against the other. Of course that means that Israel has to end the occupation, now applause. And, that there must be no violence against civilians from the other side. Can you applaud that?

    I have no solution beyond the obvious, and the obvious has been obvious for a long time. The only possibility and it is more remote now than it was in the seventies, is a two-state solution in which recognizing each other, and defining each other with not just the right to exist but the necessity to exist that can bring a kind of rapprochement if not a full shalom, salam. I hope that tonight we will move closer to that possibility and not farther from it even in this isolated academic institution which I so admire and from which I have not received enough degrees. Thank you.

    Emily Hauser, Israeli-American writer:

    Does anti-Semitism exist? Of course it does. There are now, as there have always been, people who object to our peculiar religion, or our peculiar noses, or both. People who believe that we are by nature sneaky, power-hungry, evil. In fact, I would go further and submit that those Gentiles who believe that Jews are by their very natures smart, or godly, are also guilty of a kind of anti-Semitism - because philo-Semitism ultimately has as little to do with actual Jews as does anti-Semitism, it’s just more pleasant.

    Sadly, in face of the fact that anti-Semitism is undeniable, the fear of it has become one of the Jewish people’s very few unifiers. We have long since stopped agreeing on how to worship God - or even if one must believe in God to be a Jew. We don’t agree on how to educate our children, and we certainly don’t agree on how to treat the women among us. Just about the only two positions over which most Jews are anywhere near agreement are: 1) the Holocaust demonstrated, conclusively, that Jews are never entirely safe, anywhere, and 2) Israel is Good. For those who might waver in the second proposition, the first is referenced as corroborating evidence. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, we are left in a position wherein ethnic anxiety has become virtually the only proof of authenticity - and since we are, as Simon Rawidowicz diagnosed, the ever-dying people, our only hope is to fight back every possible threat. To be seen as doing otherwise is interpreted as betrayal, not just of today’s Jews, but of all those massacred in the past. And a threat against any of us, is a threat to us all.

    Yet, does this mean, can it possibly mean, that any criticism of any Jew is, by definition, anti-Semitic? The term assumes baseless hatred, and allows us to summarily reject anything tainted by it. Yet, if I do wrong, and someone points it out, isn’t the wrong still mine, even (and this is very important) even if that someone hates me?

    When we conflate criticism of Israel’s government with anti-Semitism, we think that we’re being hard-nosed realists, but the truth is, we’re taking the easy way out. If any and all criticism of Israel comes from a place of baseless hatred (or, in the case of those few Jews who stray beyond the Pale and express it themselves, typical self-loathing) then we need not consider it. We need not hold it to the light and examine its contents, weigh the facts and examine our souls. The accusation of anti-Semitism thus consistently serves to paralyze thought within the Jewish community, much as McCarthyism did within American society half a century ago.

    Much as I can’t believe that as a loyal American, I am not allowed to criticize the American government, I also cannot believe that as a loyal Israeli, I am not allowed to criticize, or brook criticism of, the Israeli government. Being in a state of war doesn’t mean that governments are incapable of error, nor does war itself justify each and every action a government takes. When we elevate Israeli politicians and generals to the kind of infallibility that assumes that any criticism can only be made with evil intent, we remove them from history, from reality, from the very normalcy to which Ben-Gurion is said to have aspired. To say, as many people do, that Israel is held to a higher standard than the rest of the world, is equally ahistorical - humanity and Western foreign policy have never been anything but inconsistent in judging or supporting friends and foes, and Israel has always been held to standards higher than some, and lower than others. The question should not be: Are we being treated fairly? Are we allowed to be as bad as the next guy? But: How do we do good? How do we behave with fairness?

    And here I come to a particularly touchy point. I will agree that some of Israel’s critics are flat-out, flaming anti-Semites, for whom we could not possibly do any right, because we are Jews. I think, however, that we, Israelis and diaspora Jews alike, waste our precious time and all-too-little energy in trying to sort these out from the non-anti-Semitic critics, and I don’t have that much time to spare - the fish my people have to fry are far too big to waste even a moment, to my mind. But the bigger truth is that some of the people who criticize us from a place of hatred aren’t anti-Semitic - they just plain hate us.

    It is very popular, in Israel and among Jews elsewhere, to talk about official anti-Semitism taught in Palestinian schools. The enduring appeal of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (and its recent use in a popular Egyptian mini-series) is cited time and again. In the wake of the suicide bombing at Hebrew University, for instance, many Jews, Israeli and other, pointed out that most of the Jews killed that time around weren’t even Israeli - the target was Jews, qua Jews, they say.

    And yet. Isn’t there a difference between, say, an American holed up in Montana who blames “the Jews” for all the world’s ills, and a Palestinian - who has been told over and over and over again that Israel is a Jewish State, meant for all Jews, everywhere, eternally - blaming “the Jews” for the ills he and his countrymen suffer? Is it baseless hatred - or hatred based in 35 years of my boot on his neck? Why do so many of us want to believe that the Palestinians wouldn’t notice how badly we have treated them, if no one were to point it out? Do we honestly believe that they hate us so much for our peculiar religion that they would rather die themselves, than see us live?

    It is true that this hatred, the kind born of war and probably found in every conflict ever launched between any two groups of people, often takes on classically anti-Semitic expression among Palestinians, and Arabs generally. It is further true that if Palestinians and other Arabs hope to ever reach a true reconciliation with Israel, they will have to begin to respect our legitimate sensitivities in this matter, recognize them as genuine (after all, 2000 years of persecution don’t just go away) and find a new vocabulary. To continue to draw any comparison, for instance, between Israel and Nazi Germany is not only ghastly and repellent, it also frees us up to utterly reject anything else the speaker may have to say.

    In all honesty, personally, I don’t care if the people who find fault with Israeli policies are anti-Semitic or not. I don’t care if the Europeans, or the Americans, or the Palestinians like me - in fact, at this point, I’d be surprised if the Palestinians did. I don’t even care if my countrymen like the Palestinians very much - again, I can’t blame anyone who doesn’t. As an Israeli, what matters to me, what must matter to me, is the morality of my country’s actions, regardless of personal feelings of pique. We need to examine our history fearlessly and honestly, and find a way to right the many wrongs it seems clear to me we have committed. Rather than hide behind our fears, I want to have the strength to do the right thing.

    Following the opening remarks, there was more than an hour of general discussion in which panelists and audience members challenged and rebutted each other on many points.

    The above proceedings were prepared from texts of their remarks supplied to EI by Novick, Abunimah and Hauser, and a live recording made by EI.