JEWS AND ISRAEL: Zionism and Anti-Semitism; A Strange Alliance through History

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JEWS AND ISRAEL: Zionism and Anti-Semitism; A Strange Alliance Through History

It has, for many years, been a tactic of those who seek to silence open debate and discussion of U.S. Middle East policy to accuse critics of. Israel of "anti-Semitism."

In a widely discussed article entitled "J'Accuse" (Commentary, September 1983), Norman Podhoretz charged America's leading journalists, newspapers and television networks with "anti-Semitism" because of their reporting of the war in Lebanon and their criticism of Israel's conduct. Among those so accused were Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, Nicholas von Hoffman, Joseph Harsch of The Christian Science Monitor, Rowland Evans, Robert Novak, Mary McGrory, Richard Cohen and Alfred Friendly of The Washington Post, and a host of others. These individuals and their news organizations were not criticized for bad reporting or poor journalistic standards; instead, they were the subject of the charge of anti-Semitism. Podhoretz declared: "...the beginning of wisdom in thinking about this issue is to recognize that the vilification of Israel is the phenomenon to be addressed, not the Israeli behavior that provoked it.... We are dealing here with an eruption of anti-Semitism."

To understand Norman Podhoretz and others who have engaged in such charges, we must recognize that the term "anti-Semitism" has undergone major transformation. Until recently, those guilty of this offense were widely understood to be those who irrationally disliked Jews and Judaism. Today, however, the term is used in a far different way -- one which threatens not only free speech but also threatens to trivialize anti-Semitism itself.

Anti-Semitism has been redefined to mean anything that opposes the policies and interests of Israel. The beginning of this redefinition may be said to date, in part, from the 1974 publication of the book The New Anti-Semitism by Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein, leaders of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

The nature of the "new" anti-Semitism, according to Forster and Epstein, is not necessarily hostility toward Jews as Jews, or toward Judaism, but, instead, a critical attitude toward Israel and its policies.

Later, Nathan Perlmutter, when he was director of the Anti-Defamation League, stated that, "There has been a transformation of American anti-Semitism in recent times. The crude anti-Jewish bigotry once so commonplace in this country is today gauche...Poll after poll indicates that Jews are one of America's most highly regarded groups."

SEMITICALLY NEUTRAL POSTURES

Perlmutter, however, refused to declare victory over such bigotry. Instead, he redefined it. He declared: "The search for peace in the Middle East is littered with mine fields for Jewish interests...Jewish concerns that are confronted by the Semitically neutral postures of those who believe that if only Israel would yield this or that, the Middle East would become tranquil and the West's highway to its strategic interests and profits in the Persian Gulf would be secure. But at what cost to Israel's security? Israel's security, plainly said, means more to Jews today than their standing in the opinion polls..."

What Perlmutter did was to substitute the term "Jewish interests" for what are, in reality, "Israeli interests." By changing the terms of the debate, he created a situation in which anyone who is critical of Israel becomes, ipso facto, "anti-Semitic."

The tactic of using the term "anti-Semitism" as a weapon against dissenters from Israeli policy is really not new. Dorothy Thompson, the distinguished journalist who was one of the earliest enemies of Nazism, found herself criticizing the policies of Israel shortly after its creation. Despite her valiant crusade against Hitler, she, too, was subject to the charge of "anti-Semitism." In a letter to The Jewish Newsletter (April 6, 1951) she wrote: "Really, I think continued emphasis should be put upon the extreme damage to the Jewish community of branding people like myself as anti-Semitic. …