A few years ago, during a trip back to my old college town, I saw signs everywhere saying, “Fight Anti-Semitism in Our Community!” and “Anti-Semitism Cannot Be Tolerated!” in stores, restaurants, and bus stops. I didn’t know what they were referring to, and figured this was yet another example of someone being stupid and thinking that spray painting a swastika was cool.
But then I got a call from my friend Maria, asking if I wanted to go to protest the anti-Semitism protest. I was confused – until she explained that the “anti-Semitic” graffiti the signs referred to was actually pro-Palestinian graffiti. Stuff like “Free Palestine” and “End the Terrorist Israeli State.” So, out of curiosity, I went. About twenty people gathered in a small park to listen to speeches and condemn this “anti-Semitic hate crime.” I was surprised. How could these seemingly reasonable people equate criticism of one country’s government with criticism of a major, global religion?
Since then, I’ve seen many more examples of this sort of logic. As support for the Palestinians grows (helped, in part, by Ariel Sharon’s ridiculous tactics, including building a wall to separate Palestinians from Israelis), cries of anti-Semitism are increasing. Some conservative Jewish organizations are warning that we are witnessing a shocking increase in anti-Semitism, and have equated it to the beginnings of Hitler’s Germany.
The Politics of Anti-Semitism, a new collection of essays by CounterPunch editors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, looks critically at this “rise of anti-Semitism” and disputes the idea that the current levels of anti-Semitism are dangerously high. The book features over a dozen activists, historians and writers, including historian Norman Finkelstein (who has gained much notoriety for his controversial and fascinating book The Holocaust Industry), journalist Robert Fisk, and the recently deceased intellectual and pro-Palestinian activist Edward Said.
The book comes at an important time. As Uri Avnery writes in his essay “Manufacturing Anti-Semitism,” “For many years, Israel enjoyed the sympathy of most people. It was seen as the state of the Holocaust survivors, a small and courageous country defending itself against the repeated assaults of murderous Arabs. Slowly, this image has been replaced by another: a cruel, brutal and colonizing state, oppressing a small and helpless people. The persecuted has become the persecutor, David has turned into Goliath.”
This is a fascinating and important subject – and one that most activists are afraid to touch. Said’s essay “Dignity, Solidarity and The Penal Colony” is the sort of straightforward yet polemic writing readers of Said would expect, and stands out as the best essay in the collection. He disputes the popularly held notion that both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are equally to blame, and are engaged in a never-ending “cycle of violence.” He writes, “Once in awhile, we ought to pause and declare indignantly that there is only one side with an army and a country: the other is a stateless, dispossessed population without rights or any present way of securing them.” Although Said condemns suicide bombing as a tactic that “does much more harm than good,” he refuses to equate the tactics of the two sides.
However, other essays seem intent on disproving anti-Semitism by going too far in the other direction, repeating myths about Jewish involvement in 9/11, dismissing or downplaying the Holocaust, and arguing that anti-Semitism in the Arab world exists just because of Israel. In Michael Neumann’s essay “What is Anti-Semitism?” he writes, “I think we should almost never take anti-Semitism seriously, and maybe we should have some fun with it. I think it is particularly unimportant to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, except perhaps as a diversion from the real issues.” He further downplays the anti-Semitism prevalent in the Arab world, writing, “Undoubtedly there is genuine anti-Semitism in the Arab world: the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the myths about stealing the blood of gentile babies. This is utterly inexcusable. So was your failure to answer Aunt Bee’s last letter.”
The other essays meander somewhere between these two, discussing everything from death threats the actor John Malkovich made to a prominent journalist covering the conflict to the history of U.S. involvement in Israel.
This issue desperately needs to be addressed in the American Left. Unfortunately, although The Politics of Anti-Semitism includes some gems, it also meanders around the topic, overstating some points and downplaying others – like the Arab responsibility for a great deal of anti-Semitism. If you’re obsessed with this issue, I’d check out this book. Otherwise, pick up some books by Edward Said or Norman Finkelstein instead. –Maddy (CounterPunch/AK Press, 674-A 23rd St., Oakland, CA 94612)