The Accusation of Anti-Semitism as Moral Blackmail: Conservative Jews in France and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

By Cohen, James | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

The Accusation of Anti-Semitism as Moral Blackmail: Conservative Jews in France and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict


Cohen, James, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


The topic I wish to examine here is not anti-semitism in itself, as illustrated by those who engage in it, but anti-semitism as brandished as a charge against real or alleged offenders. This approach is indispensable, I would argue, for a fuller understanding of how the notion of antisemitism operates in political discourse and action.

I want to speak in particular of the accusation of anti-semitism in cases where it can be shown that the behavior targeted is at least in part, and sometimes in great part, imaginary and constructed. The effectiveness of this ascribed anti-semitism depends, as we shall see, on the capacity of those who construct it (precisely in order to denounce it) to make it appear plausible by connecting it, however indirectly, with tangible antisemitic acts or declarations. I will explore a few cases from recent French experience in which the connection between what is denounced as anti-semitic discourse or activity and what has actually occurred is often tenuous, overblown, or, at the least, highly debatable. In such cases anti-semitism is constructed in an essentializing and a-historical manner, in such a way as to lump together disparate groups and individuals into a supposed current or milieu or nebula, portrayed in conspiratorial terms.

ISRAEL RIGHT OR WRONG, IN THE NAME OF THE JEWS

The particular sort of essentialization at work here combines ethnicity, religion and politics (national and international) because it invokes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to create, or to radicalize, an effect of polarization within France by postulating an opposition between "the Jews" as such (for whom the accusers claim to speak) and all those who express an opposition to Israeli policies and are accused as a result of being anti-semites or, at the least, highly suspect tolerators of anti-semitism.

In its most elaborate and strategically mediated forms, this kind of discourse smacks of clash-of-civilizations reasoning because it is calculated to stir up suspicion with ethno-national and ethno-religious connotations and thereby to subsume under ethnic and religious categories a conflict whose material coordinates have much more to do, I would argue, with control over land, water and other resources than with identity issues alone. It presents itself as the authorized discourse for an entire community, wilfully ignoring the enormous diversity in the degree and character of ethnic, religious and political affiliation among those who define themselves, in one way or another, as Jews. Thus it is also a discourse of power, which instrumentalizes the notion of community belonging in order to assert the authority of those who claim to speak in the name of the entire Jewish "community."

The discourse I am describing stigmatizes anti-semitism, not in its usual historical forms in France, but rather as it is supposedly embodied by a broad spectrum of groups and individuals whose common characteristic is their opposition to Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Some of these groups and individuals identify themselves as "anti-Zionists," others do not (I will leave aside the always vexed discussion on this issue). All are presented, whatever their differences, as working together: Arabs and Muslims suspected rightly or wrongly of being tempted by a violent brand of politicized Islam; ordinary Arabs and Muslims who are said to be potential victims of this "virus" and in danger of mutating into a new kind of anti-semite referred to as "Judeophobic" (1); but also, and crucially, lumped together under the same heading: left-wing groups and intellectuals, anti-imperialist and antiwar groups, Palestinian solidarity groups, as well as global justice groups who are said to have been seduced by the sirens of extremist political Islam and who seek the destruction of Israel. All of the above are said to be contributing, together, to a rising tide of antisemitism in France--sometimes compared with the rise of Nazism in Europe in the 1930s. …

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