Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Why don't we talk about antisemitism more

There's a fascinating series of posts up by Richard Jeffrey Newman at Alas, a blog and at his own blog, It's All Connected. Having been away, I'm still catching up on it (and the various related posts scattered about the internets). One of the best passages, one I found enlightening, is this:
Indeed, it often feels these days that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only context in which a discussion antisemitism is taken seriously. It gives antisemites an opportunity to cloak their antisemitism in an argument that has a considerable amount of moral high ground built into it, and to call foul when Jews and our allies say, “Wait a minute! We’re not going to let you get away with antisemitism just because the policies of the Israeli government deserve criticism.” More importantly, I think, for Jews and our allies, precisely because antisemitism is not taken seriously enough as a phenomenon in and of itself, a reality of Jewish lives independent of what goes on between Israel and the Palestinians, and precisely because secular Zionism and that State of Israel were founded largely in response to antisemitism, discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict become one of the few opportunities we have to talk about antisemitism period, all of it, how it has worked and continues to work all over the world. The result is that what should be a conversation about Israel and Palestine and the people who are living and fighting and dying there ends up bearing the burden of, for example, not only every instance of antisemitism I listed above, but the history out of which that antisemitism arises and that continues to give it context. No single conversation should have to bear that burden.
There's a lot to say around that. Like, when Morton Klein of the ZOA, a man and organization I almost always disagree with, attacked Archbishop Desmond Tutu... Many people took this as an example of how "the lobby" silences critics. But take a look at what Klein wrote. In fact, Tutu did say some pretty sketchy things about Jewish power in America. And worse.
Speaking in a Connecticut church, Tutu said that “the Jews thought they had a monopoly on God; Jesus was angry that they could shut out other human beings.” In the same speech, he compared the features of the ancient Holy Temple in Jerusalem to the features of the apartheid system in South Africa.
I not only happen to think Klein is right to criticize such statements, I think Klein is well within his rights to criticize. I don't think it's likely Klein is right that such pronouncements should "disqualify him [Tutu] as a speaker," but it seems right to me that Klein should be able to argue that. Tutu may or may not be disqualified from his post as oracle of moral authority, but in my mind his moral authority is certainly qualified. So, having found that criticisms of antisemitism tend to be as accurate as criticisms of any oppression by oppressed groups, I'm reluctant to even entertain people who say that criticism of antisemitism is stifling debate.

But Newman has a serious point that the debate over Israel/Palestine is forced to unfairly bear the burden of the conversation on antisemitism. And so I've been wondering why it is that we don't talk about antisemitism more in other contexts. Actually, I've been going back to that question. I think, if you're Jewish, you've probably asked yourself that before.

No comments: