Monday, July 4, 2011

Anti-semitism is less of a problem today than it used to be, and we should acknowledge that

The award for the worst thing I've read today goes to this Slate article by David Greenberg, who asks:
How did a concern with anti-Semitism, whether scholarly or political, come to be seen as the province of the right? How did liberalism—historically the philosophy of toleration and equal rights—come to be so squeamish about confronting Jew-hatred in its contemporary forms?
Now, this doesn't strike me as a particular difficult question. It seems clear to me that the reason concern about anti-semitism has waned is because anti-semitism has ceased to be a cultural force in the West. Some strains remain, but they're a far cry from the insidious vein of intolerance that was once pervasive in society.

Greenberg's own examples demonstrate this. For instance, he points to one particularly conspiratorial view of the Iraq War -- a view that I, frequent visitor of all manner of liberal outlets though I may be, have never actually heard expressed -- which absolves most of the Bush administration and places the blame squarely on Wolfowitz and other Jewish neocons. (As if the left could ever not blame Dick Cheney for something.) He cites a few decidedly un-PC comments from cranky old men. He talks about the Muslim Brotherhood. And he, of course, looks with suspicion at the prevalence of anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian sentiment on the left.

None of the first three examples is wrong, exactly: certain conspiracy theories are uncomfortably fixated on the Jewish religion, Jews are not terribly popular with the Muslim Brotherhood, and, well, old people sometimes say things that we all wish they hadn't. But none of these examples is quite what Greenberg makes them out to be, either. Rather than indicating some deep-seated undercurrent of virulent anti-semitism, they are, at worst, the branches and offshoots of a previous era's hatreds. They're the vestiges of an era when Jews couldn't live in certain neighborhoods, weren't welcome in certain occupations, and were generally excluded from certain spheres of society. But today, the ideas behind this sort of thinking are strange and jarring to most. And then there's anti-Semitism in the Arab world, which is something else entirely: the result of a particular set of historical conditions and pressures.

The mistake Greenberg is making here is in conceptualizing anti-Jewish prejudice as a single homogeneous entity, which either exists or does not exist. When he finds any indication of anti-semitism in any quarter of society, he concludes "It still exists!" Well, yes, it does. But not in the form that made it such a potent source of discrimination and in the past. The particulars of these things matter.

And then there's Israel.

Greenberg pays lip service to the obvious truth: that support for Israel should not be a precondition for anti-anti-semitism ("Yes, yes: Criticism of Israel isn't necessarily anti-Semitic. Everyone agrees about that."). But he clearly doesn't believe it. Two paragraphs later:
Those epithets reveal just how much the right has come, at least in American journalistic discourse, to own the terrain of supporting Israel and calling out anti-Semitism. [emphasis added, obviously]
Greenberg betrays his hand here -- despite protestations to the contrary he simply is unable to divorce a person's opinions about Israel from their opinions about the Jewish faith. For him, support for Israel and "calling out anti-Semitism" pair naturally.

And then there's the passage at the end, where he echoes Stanley Fish's observation that, on college campuses, "anti-Israel sentiment now flourishes and is now regarded more or less as a default position." He attributes this shift to the slowly shrinking memory of the Holocaust. Regardless of whether this is true (support for Israel among Americans is extremely high, and has risen in recent years) it highlights the error in Greenberg's thinking. In his view, support for Israel chiefly serves as a referendum on the Jewish religion itself -- or at least, ought to. Declining support for Israel is the worrying sign of growing acceptance of anti-semitism.

What seems to never cross Greenberg's mind is that support for (or opposition to) Israel could be the result of current events in Israel and the Middle East. Most people who oppose Israel's actions don't do so because of a tenuous logical chain that leads them from "hating Jews" to "opposing Zionism" to "supporting Palestinians," but a rather short logical chain that leads from "Israel's policies are destructive" to "I should oppose them."

If anything, the decline of anti-semitism facilitates opposition to Israel. It unclouds what had been previously a murky question. It removes a distorting layer that had been laid over the debate. Opposing Israel isn't problematic among the left because there are so many perfectly acceptable reasons to oppose it -- and the individual who instead chooses to root their opposition in irrational hatred is rare and strange indeed.

It's irritating, then, to see Greenberg to attempt to walk us back in the other direction. And it undermines his ostensible concern with anti-semitism. By forcing people to adopt a certain set of geopolitical views in order to support Jewish people, he only increases the likelihood that anti-Semitic views would find some currency among people otherwise unconcerned with Jewishness altogether.

In a way, it's Greenberg himself who is downplaying anti-semitism. There was a time when anti-Jewish bigotry was a pervasive force. No longer. But by weaving together its few remaining threads, and casting aspersions at well-meaning critics of a troubled nation, Greenberg is working hard to keep the bogeyman of anti-semitic thought hanging over our head for as long as possible. Equating the obstacles faced by Jews today with the obstacles faced by Jews in the past does little but cheapen the latter. A person who reads his article may come away convinced that anti-semitism is a problem today, just as it's always been -- but they're also more likely to think it was never that bad in the first place.

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