The Politics of Anti-Semitism

Article excerpt

Books The Politics of Anti-Semitism By Alexander Cockburn & Jeffrey St. Clair (eds), AK Press, 2003, 178 pp. List: $12.95; AET: $10.

"There's no more explosive topic in American public life today than the issue of Israel, its treatment of the Palestinians and its influence on American politics. Yet the topic is one that is so hedged with anxiety, fury and fear that honest discussion is often impossible." -Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.

There has been a concerted effort in the United States to block critical debate about what is happening in Israel-Palestine, and a pervasive last-ditch attempt to stifle criticism of Israel by smearing those who dare to raise their voices. This book is a collection of articles dealing with how the insidious slur of "anti-Semitism" has been used for political ends. The articles range from a philosophical examination of the term "anti-Semitism" to a survey of the topics that are not covered in U.S. discourse because of self-censorship induced by fear-fear of being labeled an anti-Semite or fear of being targeted by pro-Israel groups. The consequences of this fear are evident for all to see: an uncritical acceptance of interminable U.S. wars, the generalized misery of the Palestinian people, bloated arms budgets, and massive U.S. resources siphoned off to Israel. To break the silence and allay fear over these topics requires critical appraisal of what anti-Semitism actually means and to tackle the taboo that it represents.

The philosopher Michael Neumann analyzes the term, discussing alternative definitions and examining their implications. Making the definition too broad cheapens the term, creating its own problems. If the definition is too narrow, however, the accusation loses its political significance. Neumann points out that "there is a choice to be made. You can use anti-Semitism to fit your political agenda, or you can use it as a term of condemnation, but you cannot do both."

His is a superlative discussion, with important lessons for all.

Scott Handleman criticizes the way "anti-Semitism" has been portrayed in recent books: i.e., the claim that anti-Semitism is something evil out there, irrational, and the responsibility of others. He offers an alternative appraisal of anti-Semitism by suggesting that the responsibility of its victim should also be taken into account. Again, this is an important discussion to place the various sanctimonious books on the topic into perspective.

There are several Israeli perspectives on the issue, including a significant one by Uri Avnery. Citing several Zionist myths, the Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member discusses how Israeli actions contradict those myths. Whereas Zionists claimed that Israel was needed as a refuge from anti-Semitism, he points out, the contradiction has arisen that Israel's policies are actually causing much anti-Semitism. "For Jews, this creates a dangerous vicious circle," Avnery explains. "Sharon's actions create revulsion and opposition throughout the world. These reinforce anti-Semitism. Faced with this danger, Jewish organizations are pushed into defending Israel and giving it unqualified support. This support enables the anti-Semites to attack not only the government of Israel but the local Jews, too."

Avnery also makes the important point that Zionists should consider the implications of their actions, taking into account that their project may go awry.

Self-censorship also affects people from whom one otherwise would not have expected it. …