Anti-Semitic Forms of Anti-Zionism

Imagine for a moment any of the following events taking place in some possible world:

  • The California Board of Regents (the governing institution for the University of California system) passes a resolution that included language that could be interpreted as tepid criticism of the Jewish state.
  • A state legislature creates a sub-committee to study whether a different sub-committee should begin researching state investments as they relate to the Middle East conflict.
  • A single college president says something that, artfully interpreted, could be construed as supportive of one tiny element of the BDS agenda.

If even one of these ever occurred, the Internet would detonate with shrieks of triumph that would pour in from San Francisco to Cambridge to Oxford to Riyadh.  Omar Barghouti himself would be Facebooking hourly from his Tel Aviv flat as the world’s most subtly named Twitterer, “@IsraelBombsBabies,” flooded the #BDS hashtag with demands that we all bow down before BDS’s historic triumph and unstoppable momentum.

Given the BDSers tendency to declare imminent victory over their Zionist foes whenever they can get a group of hapless student council members to do their bidding after an all night browbeating session (and following years and years of these same councils voting down previous motions), one would think that the genuinely staggering momentum of political condemnation of the entire BDS program might at least warrant a moment of self-reflection on their part.

But, as we all know, self-reflection is in non-existent supply on Planet BDS where the very entities (school administrators, government officials, etc.) the boycotters have been lobbying for years finally casting BDS votes – to condemn it – are being interpreted as yet another demonstration of BDS victory.  Why, after all, would the people they’ve been begging to join their cause instead come out swinging against it if they did not fear the boycotter’s phenomenal success?

One of the ironies growing out of the asymmetrical psychology vis-a-vis Israel’s opponents and detractors is that our side avoids shrieking in everyone’s face the moment we land a win (like the recent string of legislative sanctions votes targeting BDS) while also longing to give the BDSers a taste of their own medicine.

It’s hard to imagine our side raising Israeli flags, bursting into song and screaming that “The campus is ours!” whenever a student council vote goes our way (never mind Congressional action).  At the same time, I know that many (including me) enjoy a certain amount of glee when a situation unfolds that requires the boycotters to slink away in defeat or burst into impotent rage as a salve for political humiliation.

But might our tendency to approach these matters thoughtfully, rather treating our victories as emotional rushes, actually be an asset?

After all, getting people involved with civic institutions (from student councils and food coop members to governors and Presidents) to pay attention to you requires treating them civilly and honestly.

Boycotts are all but dead in the food-coop movement, after all, and this defeat can be attributed to the fact that – unlike the BDSholes – Israel’s friends do not treat members of those organizations as means to a political end.  Similarly, the reason local, state and national lawmakers are more inclined to listen to us vs. the boycotters is that we have a history of showing them respect, rather than showing up waving photos of bloody babies and insisting everyone has no choice other than to do what we say.

Even principled argumentation within our ranks can be a source of strength.  For example, there exist a number of critics (including me) who question the use of government power (either legislative or judicial) to settle political matters, such as those surrounding boycott and divestment debates.  But reasonable arguments against this position, especially ones addressing the anti-Semitism being introduced into campus life by groups like SJP, have helped our side sharpen our points and hone our positions, giving us better arguments going into the next debate.

The recent vote by the UC Regents provides a good case in point, given that they had to struggle with where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and its government and hatred directed against Jews (both inside and outside the Jewish state).  The phrase they came up with to square this circle: “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism,” while possibly emerging from compromise, actually creates a useful category when debating those who insist that no attack on Israel (no matter how virulent, hateful or dishonest) can ever be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

This might seem like a small point (not to mention a lot of words on my part used to celebrate just a handful of them created by the Regents).  But remember that the propaganda war being waged against the Jewish state is taking place on the landscape of language.  And like other phrases that put our opponents on the defensive (such as “The Regressive Left”) “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism” accurately describes concrete reality that cannot be ignored away or shouted down – no matter how much the boycotters are likely to be doing both in the months and years ahead.

Bigger Picture – The Big Ugly Defined

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Big Picture (9 parts)

In my last piece, I introduced some of Ruth Wisse’s ideas that explain why so many people avert their gaze from the true nature of the Middle East conflict (the very popularity of that generic, even-handed term, vs. Wisse’s more accurate “Arab War Against the Jews” demonstrating the phenomenon she talks about).  And in a previous posting, I discussed her concept of anti-Semitism as a full-blown political ideology, vs. just another form of bigotry.

But for purposes of this series, we need to take a look at why the ruthless (as described by Lee Harris) seem to find organizing in opposition to the Jew (either as a religion, a people or a nation) such an irresistible choice.

To explain why so many ruthless tyrants either begin their careers steeped in hostility towards the Jews, or pick up the meme during their reigns, we need to take a look at the notion of power, specifically the gap between the imagined vs. genuine power of the Jews and their state.

For in the mind of the anti-Semite, the Jew is all-powerful.  To the religious among them, Jews are allied with dark and arcane forces (including the devil himself), providing them a mystical strength which they use for self-serving and evil ends.  To the racial anti-Semite, instincts for covetousness and manipulation have been bred into the Jew, to the point where entire societies are threatened by the sinister plots the Jews are genetically driven to scheme and execute.

For today’s Israel haters, descriptions of the Israelis control of world events quickly degenerate into condemnations of “The Jewish Lobby” for manipulating the US to act against its own interests.  And from there, it’s a quick hop, step and jump to claims that “The Jews” control the media, the banks and Hollywood, through which they manipulate and control finance and public opinion.

An anthology edited by Robert Wistrich introduced me to the term “fictive Judaism” which describes the type of fantasies that have leapt from the mind of individual anti-Semites into broad public belief systems among certain societies.  For whether the Jews get their power and scheming nature from Satan, from their genes, or from their devotion to a murkily-defined “Zionism,” it is this fictional all-powerful Jew that the ruthless organize against, creating tools of repression (an oversized military, secret police forces and torture chambers) strong enough to battle this fictive threat which are ultimately used to put the ruthless into power and keep them there.

But as Wisse demonstrates in her book If I am Not for Myself (a theme she continues to develop in Jews and Power), the actual power of real-world Jews is not just limited, but what little power they have achieved is ephemeral.

For without denying the remarkable financial, cultural and academic achievements Jews have had in certain places at certain times (notably Europe in the first half of the 20th century, the US and Israel in the second half), these achievements have not translated to substantial or fixed political power (as the fate of Europe’s Jews in the 30s and 40s aptly demonstrates).

Even today when Jews have gained a comfort level organizing politically in support of their own causes (vs. hoping their contributions to society will encourage others to protect them – which Wisse refers to as “The Politics of Accommodation”), the political power of Jews remain highly limited, centered in just a few places (notably the US) and focused in just a few areas (notably the fight against anti-Semitism and support for Israel).  And even in the US, Jews continue to put more time and resources into supporting other people’s causes than their own, with a not-insignificant minority putting their energies into fighting against those who fight for the Jews and their state.

It is in this gap between the boundless power of the fictive Jew and the limited power of the real one that the ruthless spot opportunity.  For if you are organizing the violent force needed to battle the all-powerful enemy (even if only imaginary), there is no limit to how much power the ruthless must demand to win out against such a foe.  And, as noted previously, once the tyrant has run out of Jews to use this force against (presuming they were even around to begin with), there exists a whole society of non-Jews to be repressed using these same forces.

On a smaller scale, we see this gap exploited continually by anti-Israel activists in the BDS “movement” and beyond, who continually portray themselves as weak and helpless victims of vast and powerful Jewish/pro-Israel/Zionist (take your pick) forces ranged against them.

Which is why they feel comfortable with the wild language, accusations and behavior that they and no one else would tolerate if used against any other minority group.  For the sly mind of the BDSer understands full that – despite claims to be repressed by an all-powerful and vengeful “Jewish establishment” – Jews are least likely to hit back when punched in the face (just as the Jewish state is least likely to do what any other state would do when attacked and unleash unlimited force to destroy the attacker).

Lacking the tools the tyrant has at his disposal (for now, anyway), the local ruthless Israel hater must make do with bullying masquerading as courage, even though the gap between the fictive Jews they imagine and the real ones they actually fight just demonstrates their cowardice.  For the BDS bully knows full well that the consequences of “standing up to the Zionists” are minimal since, for whatever reason, we Jews have not developed the ruthlessness to treat them like they treat us.

I began this series promising to explain what “The Big Ugly” (the actual source of our challenges and troubles) constitutes, and Harris’ conception of ruthlessness coupled with Wisse’s notion of an exploitable gap between fictional and real Jewish power constitutes that explanation.  This is the problem we face today for the simple reason that it is the same problem we have faced for centuries, regardless of what language it uses and what it calls itself.

And so the question remains, what are we to do about it?


From Ambivalence to Betrayal – 4

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Left vs. Right

An obvious objection to all this talk about Karl Marx (and the Bolshevik revolutionaries who did so much damage in his name) in the context of a discussion of Left-wing anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism is that it continues to allow current inheritors of this ideology to claim to speak for the Left as a whole.

This is actually not just a strong, but a profound argument which I plan to get to shortly.  But not before covering the Betrayal portion of the story described so well in Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal.

Wistrich traces the ambivalence theme in the first two sections of his book (which covers the hundred years between Marx’s On the Jewish Question and the birth of the Jewish state) through a series of stories of the people who set the agenda for these ideological and political disputes.

Through brief intellectual histories of people such as Franz Mehring, Bernard Lazare, and Karl Kautsky (not to mention more well known names such as Karl Marx, Rose Luxmburg and Leon Trotsky) we can see how different individuals and groups grappled with Jews insisting on expressing their political aspirations by carving out their own portion of the labor movement (the Jewish Bund) or by  developing a national consciousness (the Zionists), rather than just folding themselves into a theoretical classless society through assimilation.

Many (although by no means all) of these revolutionaries were, like Marx, estranged Jews which might explain the extreme hostility they displayed when having to confront specific Jewish concerns.  But simple politics can explain other elements of Left-wing hostility to Jewish particularism, such as Lenin’s willingness to entertain the national rights of Czechs  and Poles (but not Jews) since national agitation among the former could help him achieve his goal of overthrowing the Russian Czarist state, while the later were more useful providing assimilated foot soldiers for the Revolution.

The fact that almost all the Jews who threw their lot in with Communism were murdered either before, during or after the Soviet takeover of Russia (mostly by their Comrades) demonstrates just how wrong they were with regard to the fate of the Jews after the Revolution.  But while Stalin relied as much on Russian nationalism (which included deep rooted anti-Semitism) to force industrialize the USSR and get the nation through World War II, there was a brief window where state-sponsored anti-Jewish bigotry was not allowed to impact the Soviet Union’s Machiavellian geopolitics.

This is why the Soviets supported creation of the State of Israel in 1948 (and allowed their emerging satellite of Czechoslovakia to provide the Jewish state with its few arms).  For at the time, the Jews seem most poised to disrupt the status quo in the region, a status quo that involved an exhausted Britain trying to hold onto an Empire it no longer had the power, resources or will to continue controlling.

To a large extent, this bet paid off.  For while Zionism is no longer talked about as a revolutionary movement amongst the Left, it was the example of Israel throwing off the yoke of imperial rule (while Arab opponents such as Jordan continued to ally themselves with the fading British Empire) that inspired other Third World peoples to similarly reject European rule and form their own nations.

The irony is that once those nations were formed, many threw their lot in with the new empire on the block: a Soviet Union that had mastered the ability to propagandize about creating a worker’s paradise at home and liberating people abroad, while they were actually building the world’s largest prison camp internally and exporting their soldier’s, propagandists and secret police forces around the globe to create a new imperial holdings.

It was during this post-war period that we get to what Wistrich refers to as “Betrayal.”  For once they had pocketed their gains by exploiting Israel’s usefulness in cracking British rule in the region, the Soviets quickly switched their allegiance to Israel’s Arab foes (as well as many other emerging states) to create the world we know today where cynical exploitation of the language of human rights and freedom is coupled with brutal repression at home and aggression abroad.

For the first two decades after 1948, the language of hostility was still driven by the fading monarchs and emerging military dictators of the Arab world who insisted their goal was to “throw the Jews into the sea.”  But after the 1967 Six Day War, the propaganda we see today took full flower as the real issues in the region (human rights abusing Arab tyrannies refusing to allow a Jewish presence to exist in the Middle East) was turned on its head to claim that it was the Jews who were refusing to allow an Arab (Palestinian) presence in their midst.

Given that discussion of Palestinian and general Arab responsibility for their own fate is now off limits in discussion of the Middle East within far-left circles (a mode of discussion that has, to a certain extent, gone mainstream), we can see how successful this new propaganda message has been.

But the sheer vehemence of hostility towards the Jewish state expressed by the Soviets, their allies and (today) the post-Soviet far Left, cannot entirely be explained by opportunism or realpolitik.  Annual condemnations of Israel in a Soviet (and now Arab League/OIC) dominated UN are one thing.  But turning such condemnations into an hourly ritual, and coupling these with political language and imagery that would have found a home in Der Stermer represents something else entirely.

This something else might simply be the mutation of the anti-Semitic virus which once condemned Jews as a religion then as a race, now turning on them as a nation.

But as the core of the Communist belief system (the imminence of world revolution driven by the working classes) vanished as those working classes refused to budge (or – as in Germany – joined decidedly un-Marxist mass movements), something had to fill this void.

For a while, there were attempts to have the masses of the Third World take over the role that was originally to be played by the industrial proletariat (even if this meant turning that industrial proletariat from the engine of progressive revolution to part of the machinery of global repression).

But as even this hope evaporated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was little left for Marxist believers to actually believe in.  Which may explain why a certain vanguard continues to deny so much objective reality and use the aggressive and ruthless tactics that emerged during the Age of Ideologies to propel forward the only thing left of their once eternal and global agenda: that Israel Must Go.


From Ambivalence to Betrayal – 3

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Left vs. Right

Most of the kids marching against Israel on college campuses today were not even born in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, meaning they have little to no idea how much their rhetoric and actions are built on nearly 150 years of political tactics honed during the near 150 year “Age of Ideology” that began in the mid-19th century and ended with the demise of the USSR.

But the behaviors we see among anti-Israel activists today did not emerge from thin air.  For just as current Students-for-Justice-in-Palestine types insist that any true liberal must embrace their agenda  (the PEP argument noted previously), Marxist ideologues in previous eras scoffed at progressives who “merely” wanted to improve the lives of workers or solve pressing social issues, rather than replace the entire capitalist system through a spasm of revolutionary violence.

And once it turned out that the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was only ever going to be a dictatorship, the ruthlessness of Soviet action was matched by a ruthlessness of language in which their every crime was denied and every accusation against it buried in a mountain of rhetoric insisting that the Marxist cause by judged solely by its theoretical goal of creating heaven on earth.

In service to the cause, nothing was off limits: not civic society within the USSR and not multi-national institutions outside of it, which is why tyrannies allied with the “movement” were so successful in corrupting virtually every organization dedicated to human rights and international law, turning them from potential moderating influences in an increasingly interconnected world to weapons of war.

Accusing those that created and perpetuated this system of cynicisms would be an error, for the people who split progressive and labor movements for their own ends, who ardently rejected any criticism of their crimes (while perpetually attacking their opponents) were driven by fanaticism that more resembled religious fervor than rational calculation.

The Jews played an unusual set of roles during this Age of Ideologies.  While Medieval religious anti-Semitism was still rife when the political terms “Left” and “Right” were first coined (they applied to which side of the king one sat at the National Assembly at the time of the French revolution, BTW), by the time Karl Marx was writing what would become the sacred texts of the Marxist faith, negative reaction to Jews were being cast in economic and political vs. religious terms.

To Marx (a German who had long ago abandoned his own Jewish heritage), the continuation of the Jews for nearly two Millennia after the fall of the Jewish state was a political aberration growing out the need of powerful Christian elites for a class of moneylenders, rent collectors and economic middlemen to do their financial dirty work.  This allowed kings and clerics to gather their rents and borrow the cash needed for their lifestyles and wars.  And when their own loans came due, they could always sick the mob on these despised Jewish landlords and “loansharks,” and begin the cycle again with a new set of Jews ready to play the game of politically powerless financial middlemen.

This novel description of Jewish history was fleshed out in Marx’s famous essay On the Jewish Question, a work that today seems rife with anti-Semitic stereotypes, portraying Jews as congenial “hucksters” whose One God is actually Mammon.  But when he wrote it, Marx had a different agenda in mind.  For, according to the theories he was developing, the capitalist system was in the process of replacing the Jewish middlemen of antiquity with a class of capitalist (consisting of people of all faiths) which (according to Marx) meant the economic deformities once managed by a persecuted Jewish minority was now becoming the cornerstone of the modern political/economic system.

Thus his call to free Europe from the Jew was really a call to free society from the “hucksterism” represented originally by the Jews but which now infested all of capitalist society.  And what of actual Jews who (like Marx’s parents and grandparents) were not simply economic abstractions?  As with most human beings, they had a role to play within Marx’s developing theoretical framework.  In this case, they (meaning the Jews as a distinct people) were meant to disappear once their economic role became irrelevant as man passed into a new post-capitalist era.

To someone like Marx, this proposition was not entirely fanciful.  For hadn’t many people born into Jewish families (including Marx himself) shed their religious identity once they encountered European enlightenment?  And if Marx and others he traveled with were able to successfully toss aside their Jewishness, wasn’t that the ultimate solution to “The Jewish Problem” once a classless society freed from capitalism eliminated the need for Jewish middlemen and Jewish “husksterism” (whether practiced by Jews or Christians) entirely?

The reason Robert Wistrich’s From Ambivalence to Betrayal starts its narrative with “ambivalence,” is that the historic inevitability of Jewish assimilation and disappearance predicted by Marx meant that outright hostility towards Jews as Jews did not need to play a role in the political movements inspired by his works.

But this also meant that that actually defending Jews against the racism being directed against them (especially by purely anti-Semitic political parties emerging in countries Germany and France in the decades following Marx’s death) was equally irrelevant to the Marxist-informed Left.  Which is why you began to see condemnations of anti-Semitism (insults and violence directed at the Jews) balanced by equally vehement condemnations of “philo-Semitism” (attempts to defend Jews from these racist attacks), with arguments that Jews defending their own interests were guilty of parochialism and selfishness echoing to today.

As already noted, Marx’s theories about the redemptive power of Jewish assimilation and disappearance were confirmed by his own experience, as well as the experience of other hyper-assimilated Jews attracted to various Socialist movements.  But as these “enlightened” Jewish and non-Jewish Socialist began to encounter unassimilated Jews (especially those of Eastern Europe) and as Eastern and even Western Jews began to advocate for distinct Jewish political and even national rights, ambivalence turned to hostility which became more and more virulent as the “inevitable” world revolution never materialized, shaking Communist faith to its core.

And like so many disappointed millennialists, the revolutionary Left had someone to blame and a new cause to believe in (hostility to the Jews and their state) once their original Messiah failed to appear.



Given how often the topic is brought up in the comments section of this blog, readers might be surprised to know that in the hundreds of articles and blog entries I’ve written over the years on the subject of BDS, I have yet to accuse those involved with the so-called Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment “movement” of being motivated by anti-Semitism.

Part of the reason for this is metaphysical. After all, to truly know the motivation of those I oppose politically would require the ability to look into someone else’s soul, a gift I have been denied along with the rest of humanity. How much easier it is to simply point out the dishonest, selfish and bullying actions of BDS practitioners and allow readers to draw their own conclusions (or, if they prefer, guess at the boycotter’s internal motivations).

Another reason is practical. For in the last few decades, the Israel-disliking community has developed and honed a narrative that says every criticism leveled against them (regardless of its content or accuracy) is really nothing more than direct or masked accusations of anti-Semitism, designed to shut them up and smear their noble cause. The fact that this is simply another projection (since BDSers routinely accuse their opponent of bigotry at the tiniest provocation, such as using the word “Arab” in a sentence) does not change the fact that accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism (in addition to being un-provable) runs the risk of triggering this well-rehearsed martyrdom defense.

But the biggest reason I avoid such accusations is philosophical and to describe it I must again draw from that unending font of wisdom on this and other subjects, Harvard’s Ruth Wisse.

In Wisse’s groundbreaking work “If I am not for Myself” (the controversy around its subtitle subject: “The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews” put aside for purposes of this discussion), Wisse posits two different phenomenon traveling under the name of “anti-Semitism.”

The first is a garden variety personal hatred of Jews, comparable to other forms of bigotry directed at blacks or similar minorities, a loathing (like all bigotries) formed of ignorance and insecurity, either at an individual or cultural level.

But “anti-Semitism,” according to Wisse, also describes a fully-formed ideology, comparable not to other types of racism, but to the nastiest ideologies of the past, notably the Twentieth Century’s totalitarian movements such as Fascism and Communism.

Like these movements, ideological anti-Semitism provides its adherents with a full-fledged world view, one in which all of history can be boiled down to a struggle between those in whom all virtue is held (normally the groups adhering to anti-Semitic ideology) and the shadowy evil – the Jews – standing behind everything wrong on the planet.

As an ideology, anti-Semitism is a call to action, not simply a paranoid delusion. And this action involves organizing, empowering and (frequently) arming oneself to fight this hideous evil that threatens all mankind.

While cultural factors clearly play a role in this dynamic, a much more critical motivation behind anti-Semitic ideology is the huge gap between the power of the mystical Jews in the anti-Semites imagination and the actual highly limited power of real Jews. This disparity allows the anti-Semite to arm him or herself for a struggle against a foe whose actual power to resist is highly limited in real-world (vs. imaginary) terms. And thus, anti-Semitic ideology allows the anti-Semite to play the hero, while actually living as a bully. And once forces have been gathered far in excess of what is needed to keep down real-world (vs. fictional) Jews, it’s a simple matter of using that force to seize wider, even ultimate, power.

This is why the last century’s totalitarian movements, whether Nazi or Marxist, were either born or died steeped in anti-Semitic word and deed. And this is why this century’s remnants of those movements (in the form of Arab dictatorships struggling for survival over the last month) and the Islamist totalitarians who hope to unseat them all compete with one another as to who can brand their opponents as tools of the all-powerful Jews.

The classical Jew-hating vitriol spewing from the Middle East like a modern day Vesuvius (including widespread publication and belief of classic anti-Semitic text such as Mein Kampf and the Protocols of Zion) is not simply a throwback to 20th century or even Medieval hatreds. Rather, they are practical means of uniting people in opposition to (and arming against) “The Jew,” then turning those gathered weapons against any and all opponents who (as it always turns out) are secretly in league with Hebraic evil.

As I join the rest of you watching the melt-down in the Middle East, bewildered by what might come next, the most critical metric to watch is whether the parties that come to power do so based on a platform of opposition to Zionism (the latest metaphor for Jewish wickedness). For this will truly dictate whether the millions who dwell in the Middle East are on a pathway towards positive change, or another violent and bloody Dark Age.

Given this profound reality, one more reason to avoid accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism is that they are such small beer in a much more profound struggle. That being the case, why give these self-centered losers credit for ideology that may very well be beyond their ability to comprehend?