Finkelstein and the Charge of Anti-Semitism

One hears in the celebration among some in the Jewish community concerning DePaul’s denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein the term “anti-Semitism.” Finkelstein is an “anti-Semitic Jew.” So what is anti-Semitism?

“Anti-Semitism” is really a misnomer for “anti-Jewish” ideology. When a person is anti-Jewish it is, strictly speaking, incorrect to say they are “anti-Semitic.” The term “Semitic” was originally constructed to denote a language group that covers ancient and modern forms of Akkadian, Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Hebrew, Maltese, Syriac, Tigrinya, and so on. The term was later extended to cover the culture and ethnicities of the peoples who spoke or speak these languages, peoples who range over a wide geographical area, including Africa, Western Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. It is from these peoples that the major monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam issue.

Nonetheless, for this discussion, I will keep to the popular usage and employ the term “anti-Semitism” to refer to “anti-Jewish” ideology. So what is “anti-Semitism”? Anti-Semitism is antipathy toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group (put aside for the moment the problematic nature of race as a designation for any group of persons). If I loathe a man because he is a Jew, do not sell my house to a family because they are Jewish, or refuse to employ a woman because she is a Jew, then I am an anti-Semite. This understanding is consistent with the concept “racism”: If I refuse to hire a black person to work for me because that person is black, I am a racist.

However, many supporters of Israel argue that anti-Semitism involves more than prejudice toward or discrimination against Jews (or at least they assume this in accusing others of anti-Semitism). Anti-American and anti-Zionist sentiment and politics, opposition to the existence of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and even criticism and opposition to the policies of the state of Israel constitute anti-Semitism from the perspective of those who see everywhere a “new anti-Semitism.” 

Suppose I assert that the Israeli nation-state currently existing in Palestine is an illegitimate construction and therefore should not exist. Suppose I regard Zionism, which is the ideology and practice of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as immoral and a form of oppression. Such assertions and arguments would be construed by many people to represent an anti-Semitic position.

Yet, but for the confusion caused by indoctrination, one should see right away that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are entirely separate matters. Taking the extreme case, if I oppose the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine, my opposition has nothing necessarily to do with antipathy toward and discrimination and prejudice against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group. I could oppose the existence of Israel from a pro-Palestinian position, namely, Palestine is the land of Palestinians and Palestinians should therefore govern it. This is not anti-Semitism any more than arguing that my belief that North America is Indian land that ought to be governed by Indians is anti-Europeanism. 

Of course, if I opposed the existence of a Jewish state on the grounds that I hate Jewsn then that I would be anti-Semitic. But if this is not the case, then I am not an anti-Semite. Put another way, a man may be anti-Zionist and anti-Israel without being anti-Jewish if he has other reasons for opposing Zionism and the Israeli state that are not based on antipathy towards Jews.

Skeptical that every fair-minded person who reads this essay will immediately grasp my argument to this point, a simple analogy serves to illustrate my point.

Suppose that the United States were to become a Christian state — that is, suppose US leaders declare North America to be a national homeland for the Christian people. Would I oppose such a thing? Indeed I would, for many reasons, including the fact that, on principle, I oppose theocratic rule. I regard any state declared by those in power to be the state of a particular religious group to be an unjust political and legal arrangement. Not only would I oppose it, but I would struggle to change it. Let me be more bold that that: I would seriously consider taking up arms with the intent to overthrow my government if it officially proclaimed itself to be a Christian state. Does that make me anti-Christian? No, that’s absurd. I grew up in a Christian family and I respect Christians. My father was a Christian minister and some of the men I respect most in history, for example Martin Luther King, Jr., were Christian leaders. Moreover, I know lots of Christians who would take up arms and join me in revolution if ever politicians in Washington officially declared our government to be a Christian state. I suspect that many of you agree with me. 

For those among you who don’t agree with me, consider the reason why so many people oppose theocratic rule. What would a Christian nation mean for other religions, including Judaism? If this designation were religiously observed, then all Christian holidays would be state sanctioned and promoted. Jewish holidays would be tolerated only as long as Christians decided that was okay with them. Same would be true of Islam and every other non-Christian religion. Jews and Muslims would be second-class citizens as a matter of law. They would be official outsiders. If this arrangement strikes you as problematic (and I can’t imagine that it doesn’t), does it not seem logical therefore that Muslims living in Palestine should have a problem with a Jewish state that treats them as second-class citizens? Do Muslims not justifiably see the Jewish state in Palestine as a threat to their existence as autonomous religious and cultural beings?

“But Israel is a democracy and a secular, pluralist society,” supporters often asserted. This is untrue. It is official Israel national policy that the state of Israel exists as an ethnic Jewish homeland. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, occurring on 14 May 1948, harkened back to Theodore Herzl and the First Zionist Congress, who “proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in what it claimed to be its own country,” a right that “was supported by the British government in the Balfour Declaration” and “reaffirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in particular, gave international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and Palestine and to the right of the Jewish people to rebuild its National Home.” 

The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel stated that the Holocaust necessitated “re-establishing in Israel the Jewish State, which would open the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a fully privileged member of the community of nations.” The declaration claimed that the UN General Assembly resolution of November 29, 1947, called “for the establishment of a Jewish State in Israel” and that “recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.” 

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State. Thus members and representatives of the Jews of Palestine and of the Zionist movement upon the end of the British Mandate, by virtue of “natural and historic right” and based on the United Nations resolution [h]ereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel to be known as the State of Israel.

So in Palestine, a place where people of different faiths co-existed, a Jewish state was established that made every other non-Jew a second class citizen — that made every non-Jew a cultural, political, and religious outsider. (And within minutes of the Declaration, the United States, a country founded on religious pluralism and the principle of the secular state, recognized the legitimate existence of the state of Israel.)

In a universe where pure reason (by this I mean universal reason) prevailed, all this would be immediately understood. I would not need to present an argument laying out a defense of the position held by the hundreds of millions of observers of this great dispute. But in the universe in which we live, pure reason is not desired by those wielding power. Such universal reason interferes with the goals of domination and oppression. 

A more concrete reason exists for conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism: at the root of this charge of anti-Semitism lies the objective to stifle speech critical of Israel and advance the cause of Zionism. By equating legitimate criticism of the Jewish state, and criticism and opposition to the broader idea of theocratic government, to antipathy toward and discrimination and prejudice against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group, pro-Israeli voices mean to silence critics by branding them racist.

Normal Finkelstein is not anti-Semitic. It’s a ridiculous charge made by ridiculous people.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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