Wednesday, July 26, 2006

How do you know an anti-Semite when you see one?

I’d like to address the thorny issue of Israel and anti-Semitism. It has often been noted that a lot of conservative ideologues tend to dismiss any criticism of the Israeli government’s actions as motivated by a secret or not-so-secret hatred of Jews. This is regrettable. For one, it seems to me that large swaths of the American right-wing have comparatively little interest in peace in the Middle East and/or security for Israel. No, their main interest lies—as usual—in intimidating their foes and justifying the incompetence of their party and their leader. By accusing their adversaries of bigotry, they’re trying to shut down any constructive discussion of the issue that develops upon lines contrary to their ideology while, simultaneously, trying to expunge their own reputation for—how shall we put it?—taking less-than-valorous sides on racially-charged domestic issues (their anti-immigrant hysteria, their post-Katrina ghoulishness, their longstanding success in exploiting white fear for electoral gains, etc., etc.) Throughout all this, they seem oblivious to the fact that, by toying so promiscuously with the charge of anti-Semitism, they end up mucking around in the same dismal swamp as the repulsive Jew-haters think they’re taking a brave stand against: they mistake “the Jews” for “the Israeli government”. In this scheme, what the IDF does is exactly coterminous what the Jewish people do. Therefore, to support it is to support Judaism and to oppose it is pretty much the same as despising all Jews.

But this is stupid. It is possible to support the state of Israel and respect its right to self-defense and, at the same time, deplore its government’s actions towards the people of Lebanon. It is possible to, in good faith, advance an argument that successive Israeli administrations have treated the Palestinian people poorly at best and criminally at worst. These are not blanket condemnations of Judaism or sinister, veiled pleas for Israel’s destruction. They are, like any statement of opinion, open to debate and prone to challenges from other perspectives, however. And, put simply, it is this debate that the American right-wing prefers to keep at a low level, one that involves a lot of thunder and name-calling and little actual progress.

That these waters are so muddy, of course, isn’t entirely the fault of conservatives. There are countless shitheel anti-Semites out there, and there are a whole bunch of scary motherfuckers who’d like to kill as many Israelis as they can. No one worth listening to would dispute that. Furthermore, it would be foolish to claim that there aren’t some serious anti-Semites on the fringes of the left. There are, and they’re batshit crazy. Like far-out fanatics anywhere, they obsess over their chosen enemy, ascribing all the evil in the world to it, ignoring and/or rationalizing away the evidence that doesn’t confirm their worldview, and generally making major-league asses out of themselves. They should be, and generally are, ignored. When right-wingers take reasoned criticism of the Israeli government’s conduct and conflate it with these sad people’s rantings, they only succeed in pulling off a shabby trick, the kind they vociferously bitch about when applied to them. Well-meaning conservatives, naturally, don’t like it when they get compared to the KKK just for raising questions about affirmative action. In a perfect world, they’d even get angry at being shoehorned in with the Minutemen simply because they oppose illegal immigration, although nowadays many right-wingers seem to think the comparison does them some sort of credit.

It is a strange twist to our postmodern era that bad intentions often hide themselves within benign opinions. Now that most forms of racism and bigotry have been stigmatized, the “smarter” racists and bigots have learned to adopt a language with broader appeal. There are people who hate all those from different tribes but speak only in soaring rhetoric about justice and freedom. Similarly, there are those who fear and loathe Jews, but have learned to conceal this character defect underneath language acceptable to those who don’t share the prejudice. Nowadays, when bigots speak in public, they usually speak in a kind of code that gives a veneer of deniability to the disgusting implications and intentions beneath. These people do not deserve our consideration. They pollute the discourse and corrupt anyone they manage to sucker. Any peace movement deserving of the name ought to make it a point to understand this dynamic and avoid the sort that will co-opt their cause for bad ends. That many organizations and alliances fail to do this is one of the reasons that I seldom want anything to do with them.

Regardless, the fact that a ragtag assortment of idiots hates Israel should not drive thoughtful people away from thoughtful debate just because they fear being associated with that pack of impotent scoundrels. It is, to me, shameful and irresponsible when the self-proclaimed defenders of Israel stoop so low to fend off criticism. Anti-Semitism is a serious charge, after all, and it is cheapened when it is hurled about promiscuously or used as a club to batter your ideological opponents. I know a great many people who are, like me, concerned or appalled by the course the Israeli government has chosen. None of them are anti-Semites. Now, we may be mistaken or misinformed, but–if so--that is a matter for argument and evidence to clear up. It isn’t grounds for name-calling or the pre-emptive use of untenable accusations.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The American right-wing’s support of Israel often strikes me as a pretty hollow thing. Sure, they’ll get outraged on it’s behalf, but—let’s face it—professional conservatives are pretty sluttish with their outrage. When the time comes (and I sure as shit hope it comes soon) for a forthright, humane and binding peace process, that whole armchair infantry will have moved on to their next cubicle and cul-de-sac campaign to save civilization. They are trivializers. They make every debate they join more obnoxious and less enlightening. To far too many of them, support means smearing and cheerleading is the same as courage.