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Anti-Semitism, Real and Imagined
Posted: Monday, April 29, 2002

by Tim Wise

Watching former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to Congress a few weeks ago, I must admit, I was almost sucked in. No, not by his distorted version of reality in the Occupied Territories, nor by his opportunistic and transparently disingenuous comparisons between Yasir Arafat and Osama bin Laden. Nor by his insistence that there is no political solution to terrorism, but only a military one: a claim, the absurdity of which is evidenced by the fact that after decades of trying to bring peace by way of tanks and guns, most Israelis feel less secure than ever. (It is also disproved by the fact that such military actions have themselves amounted to terrorism, but that's another story for another column).

However, after only a few minutes of his sales pitch -- a plea for the U.S. to give the green light to whatever slaughter is deemed necessary by Israel in the West Bank -- I did find myself overcome by an emotion that was both unhealthy and deeply disturbing. And that feeling was a profound shame and revulsion at the fact that this man and I share a faith tradition; a common religious heritage; a kinship of sorts. And as he spoke -- not only for Israel, but to hear most American Jewish leaders tell it, for Jews everywhere -- I felt the pangs of collective guilt rising up in me in a way I had never felt before.

And that of course was tragic. Who, after all, was this meshugganah to speak for me? Who appointed him, or for that matter any Israeli leader, the "spokesperson of the Jews?" Who deemed Zionism to be synonymous with Judaism, and decided that to be Jewish means to support the evisceration of Palestinian rights, the slaughter of innocent children under the rubric of stamping out terrorism, or the IDF's firing on ambulances to ensure that those wounded by their actions will die slowly, rather than receive the emergency assistance to which they are entitled under international law and all notions of basic human decency? Who was Netanyahu to make me feel guilty as a Jew?

The answer, unfortunately, to all of these questions, is that an ironic combination of overt Jew-haters and pro-Israeli Jews are the ones who have inculcated the above-mentioned beliefs in so many. Neo-Nazis, for example, insist that all Jews are Zionists and support the actions of Israel: a claim that allows them to weave their hateful narratives of Judeo-inspired evil, undisturbed by critical thought. But on the other hand, the blurring of the lines between Judaism (a religious and cultural tradition stretching back over five-and-a-half-millennia) and Zionism (a political and ideological movement less than a century-and-a-quarter old) has also been perpetrated by much of the organized Jewish community itself.

It is this community that has sought to silence Jewish criticism of Israel and the Zionist enterprise with cries of "anti-Semitism" or "self-hate." It was the head of the New Orleans Jewish Federation who, in the early 1990's, suggested I be removed from my position in the main anti-David Duke organization because I had written a column criticizing Israel for its support of South Africa's apartheid governments. To the person in question, a criticism of Israel made me little better than Duke himself: a man who has said Jews should "go into the ashbin of history," held birthday parties for Hitler in his home, and called the Holocaust "bullnuts."

To Zionists and Nazis alike, it is one for all and all for one so far as the Jewish community is concerned. To attempt to decouple the concepts of Zionism and Judaism, or anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, are seen as lost or ignoble causes by both groups. As one writer in Commentary recently explained: "To defame Israel is to defame the Jews."

But it is indeed necessary to decouple these concepts: to demonstrate that one can oppose Zionism without prejudice towards Jews as Jews, and also to show that one's support for Israel doesn't necessarily insulate oneself from the charge of anti-Semitism. Indeed, such support often goes hand in hand with a deep antipathy for Jewish people. Consider the words of Billy Graham, who has been exposed in a taped conversation with Richard Nixon exclaiming his love for Israel while simultaneously ranting about the "Jewish-controlled media" and their pernicious behind-the-scenes political machinations.

Indeed, most fundamentalist Christians profess their love for Israel, all the while propagating the belief that Jews are destined for a lake of fire unless they accept Jesus as their personal savior: in other words, unless they cease to be Jews. Their Zionism is opportunistic at best: based solely on the hope that once the Jews return to Israel, the Messiah will soon follow, damning the Jews to hell in the process. Their goal of conversion is itself intrinsically hostile to Judaism, irrespective of their "love" for the Holy Land: after all, to convert the Jews to Christianity would be to complete an act of spiritual genocide; to end Judaism altogether. The fact that these fine folks might plant trees in Israel or say prayers for her survival hardly compensates for their desire to eradicate Judaism just as surely as Hitler sought to do so. And yet, few in the organized Jewish community have condemned Billy Graham, nor do they speak much at all of the anti-Semitism so embedded in evangelical Christianity, as mentioned above. Perhaps they're too busy trying to garner acceptance from the majority, or being grateful for their support of Israel to notice.

At the just completed conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the same persons who criticize anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism gave a rousing ovation to right-wing Congressman, Tom Delay. And why? Because he said that Israel was entitled to the West Bank, which he called by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria. That he also said earlier this month that Christianity is the "only viable, reasonable, definitive answer" to life's key questions -- a statement dripping with contempt for the very Jews about which he claims to care so much -- apparently matters less to some than his messianic support for "Eretz Yisrael."

Of course, this all has a certain logic to it. After all, the early Zionists cared only about acquiring land, and had no problem with anti-Semitism, per se--and in the case of Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weizmann actually claimed to understand and even sympathize with it. As I have noted previously, it was Herzl (the father of Zionism) who issued the ultimate in self-hating, anti-Semitic pabulum when he noted that anti-Semitism was "an understandable reaction to Jewish defects."

The continued blurring of the lines between Zionism and Judaism is of course actually dangerous for the Jewish community. So long as Zionists insist on the inherent linkage between the two, it will only become more and more likely that some critics of Israel will also blur the lines, transforming a righteous condemnation of colonialism, racism, and imperialism, into a condemnation that includes anti-Jewish bigotry as well.

In recent weeks there have been desecrations of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, apparently carried out in protest of Israel's latest incursions and depredations, and these have occurred in places as far flung as Tunisia, France, and Berkeley, California. Anti-Semitic propaganda, like the Czarist hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- which professes to "prove" a Jewish plot for world domination -- is popping up throughout the Arab world, with snippets of its poison even finding space on otherwise left-progressive websites like Indymedia. In the understandable rush to condemn Israeli actions, at least one pro-Palestinian listserv operated by ostensible left/progressive radicals, has distributed one of David Duke's commentaries on the conflict: a column filled with anti-Jewish invective, which of course undermines the credibility of the sender and the righteousness of their insights on the struggle for Palestine.

To be sure, we who criticize Israel must unequivocally condemn all such anti-Jewish actions: not only because they are hateful on their own terms, but because they help perpetuate the lie told by the government of Israel and its supporters: that they are the Jews and the Jews are they. And this is an idea that both weakens the struggle against the Occupation -- by making all criticisms of it suspected of anti-Jewish bias -- and puts the Jewish community at greater risk, as they (we) become increasingly seen as Israel Firsters, instead of people committed to principles of peace, justice, and fairness: those concepts that I learned in Hebrew School were paramount to my people.

What's more, tolerating anti-Semitism within the movement for justice in the Middle East is especially risky for the very Palestinian people we seek to defend. The more that anti-Jewish rhetoric and imagery animates the struggle against Israeli occupation and brutality, the more that Ariel Sharon can transform his maniacal drive for power and land into a fight for survival of the Jewish people. And the more successful he is in casting the debate in these terms, the more Israeli Jews and their U.S. supporters will accede to ever-intensified levels of violence, ever more death and destruction wrought upon the victims of Israeli colonialism.

Let it be made clear that Zionism's problem is not that it is Jewish nationalism, per se, but rather a form of ethnic supremacy in thought and action. And more than that: a form of European supremacy to boot. After all, there were Jews who had remained in and around Palestine continuously for millennia, without substantial conflict with their Arab and Muslim neighbors. Likewise, many Jews lived under Muslim rule in the Ottoman Empire, where they received a generally warm reception--far better indeed than the treatment received from Christian Europe, which expelled them from one place after another.

These Jews, unlike the European Jews who sought to displace said Arabs from their land, lived there peacefully and sought no grand designs for "Greater Israel." They did not create Zionism, nor lead the charge for the development of a Jewish state. For that, it took a decidedly Western, European and frankly white Jewish community. The Jews who were most indigenous to the land of Israel, or those of Africa, or the rest of Asia Minor -- in short those who were most directly Semitic peoples -- were never the problem. Nor indeed was their faith. A decidedly colonial mentality, itself an outgrowth of European thought and culture from the late 1800's forward, was the fuel for the Zionist fire. Zionism's problem is that it is a form of white supremacy and Western domination.

And like all derivations of white supremacy, it neglects one of the most obvious ironies of all: namely, the close genetic relationship between the dominant and the dominated; the reality that the oppressor is oppressing family. As recent research has demonstrated, there is no significant biological difference between Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East. Any Jew with Semitic roots is, in effect, Arab--for whatever that's worth. All of which is to say that Zionism and its effects, by virtue of its immiseration of the Palestinians, is perhaps the most profound and institutionalized form of anti-Semitism on the planet today.

Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, lecturer and activist. He can be reached at

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