Monday, January 12, 2009

Leveraging antisemitism to fight against Jews

For the record, I’m against Israel’s attack on Gaza. Primarily, I don’t think it can accomplish anything, so I’m not going to even bother with the morbid calculus of war. I felt ill when I first heard. But that doesn’t mean that I support all criticism of Israel. Certainly, some is needed, and criticism like this can be deeply moving, but contrary to what some people insist, it is certainly possible to be antisemitic while criticizing Israel. And it’s even possible, without being hateful, to criticize Israel in a manner that reinforces Christian hegemony and Jewish oppression. There’s been an entirely predictable rise in violent antisemitism rationalized as opposition to Israel’s policies or existence - most dramatically, a bomb attack against a synagogue in France and a protester in Florida shouting, "Go back to the oven."

I’m not alone when I say it seems like the only publicly available options these days are to be hawkishly pro-Israel or pro-Hamas. Of pictures I’ve seen, posted online by those on all sides, there are many more signs appropriating the Holocaust to demonize Israel or Jews than signs calling for peace.

One feature of antisemitism is that it places Jews at the center of history. And so I appreciate it when a blog doesn’t bother to deal much with the issue or pointedly refuses to make Israel issue number one. I’d rather read about football (my team is still alive) than world news. I’d rather keep my head low. But if I can feel like this in New York, then this only proves to me the necessity of Israel. Part of me doesn’t want to bring it up here, but how can I claim to talk about antisemitism if I don’t?

So I’d like to talk about one phrase –probably not the most important– that pops up again and again when people talk about Israel. It Avi Schlaim writes in the Guardian (not CIF, but the more proper paper):
The Biblical injunction of an eye for an eye is savage enough. But Israel's insane offensive against Gaza seems to follow the logic of an eye for an eyelash. After eight days of bombing, with a death toll of more than 400 Palestinians and four Israelis, the gung-ho cabinet ordered a land invasion of Gaza the consequences of which are incalculable.
The larger article, unsurprisingly, makes a few good points along with the bad. It's filled with reasonable criticisms of Israel beside bizarre claims. As Ralph Seliger points out, attributing the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza to the Likud party is just flat wrong. It was Kadima. For an historian, which is Schlaim’s profession and source of fame, that’s an egregious, even damning, mistake. And though they may not justify the current war, the rockets landing on Southern Israel for the last 7 years, forcing parents to raise their children in bomb shelters, are more than "an eyelash." There are other errors and distortions.
The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism.
There was no single reason for the occupation or settlement -though it may sound odd, I'd like to propose that different Israelis had different ideas about it- but if we were to try to boil it down, I'd say security following the 1967 War. A war that Egypt, Jordan, and Syria claimed and Israel believed to be a war to eliminate the Jews of Israel. At a time when the US and USSR were carving up the world and, particularly, the Middle East. Maybe an odd idea of security. Some people thought the territory would make Israel's borders more defensible. Others thought the territory would be a valuable bargaining chip to sue for peace. Probably, some thought settlements would serve to form a buffer between Israel and hostile states. Israel and the West Bank together are about the size of New Jersey, only about 8 miles across at it's narrowest. Some argued that settlements would force Israel’s neighbors to negotiate for peace, based on the failings of earlier peace agreements. Of course, part of it was territorial expansion, but to say it had nothing to do with security is just strange. To do so, one would have to understand all the debates Israel has had since cynically, as no more than an elaborate a ploy. Perhaps even a grand conspiracy.

Using quotes from the Bible, however, goes way beyond strange. Actually, if you want to criticize Israel, I'd suggest staying away from anything biblical unless you’re the type of person who peppers every sentence with Biblical allusions. To the best of my knowledge, Shlaim isn’t religious. He knows quite well that Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, and Tzipi Livni are not religious. I’m not religious. Is it because we’re Jews that he uses such references? (I’ll generously assume he isn’t specifically addressing Christians.) Yet he uses two Biblical allusions in his piece.* Is that all he understand of Jewishness? But it’s more demeaning than that.

The phrase "an eye for an eye," seems to have a very clear meaning to most people. It's a legal system based on vengeance, no? Such people clearly don't know a lot about Judaism, in which the phrase is about monetary compensation - tort law. The phrase is, furthermore, understood to limit compensation in contrast to other legal codes from Biblical times, such as Hammurabi’s Code, that were explicitly harsh and genuinely vengeful.

But outside of Jewish society, this has rarely been clearly understood. Christians, who use the Jewish Torah as their Old Testament, but who are unfamiliar with the Talmud, have often used the phrase to argue that the Jewish legal codes are harsh and vengeful. The God of the Old Testament is supposedly a vengeful god.

The most famous place this vengeful stereotype shows up is in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Even the most humanizing of passages, which is also the most famous, depicts Shylock as cruel and vengeful.
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
There are debates over how antisemitic the play is. It’s worth remembering that Jews had been expelled from England 300 years before the play was written, and the depiction should be contrasted with an imagined demonic character. Some even believe that Shakespeare primarily identified with Shylock. But then it’s also worth remembering that most Christian antisemitism has been cloaked in a message of Christian love. In another interpretation:
The relevance of the legal setting to the plot calls to mind the conviction that Christ's new Law of Love fulfills the Old Covenant, the natural law revealed to Moses (defended by Shylock in the speech quoted above) whereby an eye-for-an-eye is a reasonable measure, superior to the lawlessness of barbarian rape and pillage, but inferior to peaceful reconciliation dispensed with Christ-like mercy.
This would be exactly the sort of antisemitism cloaked in love that rationalized the worst of the Inquisitions.

I, personally, do not have a fond view of MoV. I find it difficult to ignore the comic ending, where the protagonists out-scheme the scheming Jew. Moreover, if the play was ever to be considered anti-racist, it has outlived that usefulness. The vengeance Shylock sought, his pound of flesh, is precisely the sort of vengeance prohibited by the biblical injunction of "an eye for an eye." In attempting to pluck out an eye, the courts might accidentally kill a defendant, so plucking out an eye is forbidden according to The Talmud. Yet the very cruelty of a pound of flesh, the fact that one cannot take only a pound of flesh and leave a person healthy and well, is central to the story. And neither the truth about Judaism or the subtleties of Shakespeare have kept antisemites from using The Merchant of Venice as propaganda, proof that the greatest of minds saw Jews as cruel and vengeful (not to mention rich and scheming).

If someone uses such a Biblical phrase, one with that kind of history, to criticize Israel's behavior, it's really not possible to separate that criticism from antisemitic stereotypes. In the opening paragraph, Schlaim describes Israel as having an essential character:
On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders". I used to think that this judgment was too harsh but Israel's vicious assault on the people of Gaza, and the Bush administration's complicity in this assault, have reopened the question.
Though I agree that the war against Gaza is wrong, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that for Shlaim, it is because Israel is Jewish that it must be seen as cruel and vengeful. There is no place to see a country scared and frustrated. How easy it becomes to ignore Israeli leaders when they say they want peace. How easy to give in to the (worse than) useless urge to demonize rather than engaging in constructive solutions. The attempt to politically outmaneuver the view that is nearly unanimous among Jewish Israelis and almost as popular among Jews outside Israel misses something. As Daniel Finkelstein wrote:
So when Israel is urged to respect world opinion and put its faith in the international community the point is rather being missed. The very idea of Israel is a rejection of this option. Israel only exists because Jews do not feel safe as the wards of world opinion.

* The other is “hewers of wood and the drawers of water.” I’d imagine it’s also got heavy baggage, but I know little about it’s use in antisemitism except by Louis Farrakhan.


Abu Noor Al-Irlandee said...

"But outside of Jewish society, this has rarely been clearly understood. Christians, who use the Jewish Torah as their Old Testament, but who are unfamiliar with the Talmud, have often used the phrase to argue that the Jewish legal codes are harsh and vengeful. The God of the Old Testament is supposedly a vengeful god."


You state that the true meaning and context of an "eye for an eye" is rarely understood outside of the Jewish world but here you are demonstrating a narrow focus on Christians...those of us who are Muslims have long understood the true context of the statement as it is reaffirmed in the Qur'an.

Sometimes it is expressed as a semitic or middle eastern mindset that ties together Jews and Muslims who have not been blessed by the supposedly superior morality of the New Testament. Of course, putting to the side whatever Jesus (peace be upon him) did teach, such sentiments ring ridiculous in light of the hundreds of millions slaughtered by "Christians" during the 19th and 20th centuries in their colonial projects, world wars, and other persecutions including of course the Shoah.

Have you read Avraham Burg's book or seen him in interviews?

Matt said...

To a point, that's a fair criticism. But, please note that Shlaim's usage is very much the Christian interpretation, tied to the Christian slur of Jews.

I hope you can recognize how Christian antisemitism has colored views of the I/P conflict. Not only by (1) coloring historic documents from European observers, but also through (2) the importation of European antisemitism by Arab Christians (as in the Damascus Blood Libel) and through (3) European colonialism such including the relationships the Grand Mufti al-Husayni had with Britain and with the Nazis.

As for Burg, I'm reserving judgement for the time, but I what I've read so far to be problematic. I doubt he'd contend that the Holocaust has no moral repurcussions - but it seems his objection is to people using it in ways he doesn't personally agree with. I think the only thing we can really say about that is that it would be wrong to appropriate the Holocaust for a rhetoric not supported by Jews.

If you want to repeat something Burg said, feel free, but please take responsibility for what you say.

Abu Noor Al-Irlandee said...

I'm not sure I would go so far as to say all negative usage of the phrase has to come out of anti-semitism. I think the criticism of what is seen as the understanding of religious law and the nature of God and His relationship with human beings that comes out of the Torah and is basically similar to that of the Qur'an is deep in western Christian culture. Of course, it is in some sense a belief in a superceding of the Torah, but that doesn't necessarily have to be an anti-semitic understanding, does it? I'm thinking here of MLK saying "an eye for an eye leaves us all blind."

As to Burg, I'm not looking to quote him to you, Matt, I was just looking for your honest take on him. I'm reading his book and have seen several interviews and I find him 'interesting.' Not all our conversations have to be debates, do they?


Rebecca said...

Excellent post, hitting many points I would make myself.

Matt said...

I think using such a phrase always comes with baggage when it's used to criticize Jews. (The quote is Gandhi, btw. As an aside, I prefer MLK's Neibuhr-inspired pacifism to Gandhi's rather cold and heartless pacifism.) Maybe you have to ask why pick such a phrase? Supercessionism in Christianity has had a terrible history. Although I'm certain it can avoid being immediately hateful, I'm not sure it can avoid viewing Jews as objects and ultimately inspiring hatred. I really don't think you can use the phrase to characterize Israel without invoking the worst of supercessionism.


I hope so. For everyone. And quickly. Or, as we say in Korean Zen, "Kwan Seum Bosal," which means "perceive world sound."

Abu Noor Al-Irlandee said...

Matt, King used it also, and quite famously.

I respect what you are saying in terms of being aware of things, but when you start reaching the point where any Christian who believes their religious doctrine that the life of Jesus supercedes the Torah AND anyone who is anti-Zionist are all necessarily anti-semitic you are just making dialogue difficult.

I don't know your background but I think you've commented that you're not religious (forgive me I'm wrong). I think this kinda critique that religious beliefs will always lead to hatred of the other is easy to make and certainly easily to document in history but it's not a helpful argument for people who hold traditional religious beliefs because it leaves them no where to go.

Again, we are a bit far afield here from your original point, which was about Avi Shlaim, who I know little about except that he is Israeli and served in the IDF.

This brings me to a related question that comes into my mind in reading yours and other writings -- yes it is certainly true that Israel is held to a higher standard than say other regimes in the region (Although I and most Muslims I know hate those regimes probably more than Israel). The leap is always made to attribute this to anti-semitism but I'm not so sure this is true...I think there is certainly some anti-semitism but there is also a phenomenon similar to what one sees with the U.S. When a nation is perceived to be powerful and a bully and self-righteous it will be criticized more. People can call this anti-Americanism, but as an American, I pretty much think it's a good idea.

Matt said...

"I respect what you are saying in terms of being aware of things, but when you start reaching the point where any Christian who believes their religious doctrine that the life of Jesus supercedes the Torah AND anyone who is anti-Zionist are all necessarily anti-semitic you are just making dialogue difficult."

Not every Christian is a supercessionist. In fact, these days there are few. It is a problematic doctrine, and I don't think it's unfair to say that. And, as I've said, I don't think that anyone who is anti-Zionist is necessarily an antisemite, but it's nowhere near as simple as saying the two ideologies are separate.

If you insist that I can't address antisemitism, you are the one making dialogue difficult.

As for disparate standards, you have a point, but not one that explains the demonization that Israel faces.

Abu Noor Al-Irlandee said...

I definitely don't insist that you can't address anti-semitism. Please continue to do so, I'm sorry if that was not clear in my post.

I'm not an expert, but I kinda think of it as a "soft supercessionism" versus a "hard" variety.

(Wow, I just checked wikipedia and there already is such a distinction as well as a variety of other distinctions among different kinds of supercessionisms.)

Have you read anything by Reuven Firestone? He wrote a book on Introduction to Islam for Jews and one on Introduction to Judaism for Muslims as well as one on the concept of chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- which was a topic that ultimately started our discussions. (He's a rabbi but writes as an academic).

His books are not necessarily anything earth shattering that you need to run out and read and as one would expect from an academic compared to a believer I don't agree with his interpretations re: Islam completely but I have seen him try to talk about some of these issues in interreligious dialogue and understanding.

Again, I believe in addressing anti-semitism and anti-Muslim (Islamophobic is not a favorite word of mine but it seems it's here to say) attitudes, histories, and trends in the larger Christian "Western" society, but as a religious believer myself I am not sure how helpful it is to address people's religious doctrines as 'unacceptable' to me...I think we can raise the tensions but to put people completely on the defensive about their religious doctrines is often unhelpful in discussion and would seem more appropriate if one was proselytizing or attempting to change the other's relgious beliefs.

Well, I could go into more detail about what I mean, but as I said, we are far afield of your original points. For example, I as an outsider have no real standing to argue for or against someone like Mordecai Kaplan's reinterpretation of the Jewish people as "chosen" by God, but I certainly would want such a reinterpretation to emerge out of complaints by non-Jews that such doctrines are unacceptable to us.

You see what I'm getting at?