That LA Times Story on Robinson

Nicholas Goldberg, writing in the Los Angeles Times has decided to tackle the question: “What is anti-semitism?” I want to go through the key parts of the essay and provide commentary.

Nicholas Goldberg of the LA Times

Goldberg begins by noting that “today, determining what is or is not anti-Semitism is generally a more nuanced business, at least in the West.” Part of this ambiguity stems from the term’s ideological value by those who smear others with the label. For me, the definition of anti-semitism is still clear, namely, anti-semitism is prejudice towards or discrimination of persons on the basis of perceived or real Jewishness.

Goldberg poses several questions to illustrate what he sees as nuanced character of the term. He asks, “Is it anti-Semitic or merely factual to say that Hollywood is controlled largely by Jews?” We might answer this with an analogy: Is it anti-Christian to say that a given institution is controlled by Christians or by white Europeans? Sounds like an empirical question. If Hollywood is indeed controlled by Jews, then observing this fact can’t possibly be anti-semitic anymore than noting Christian or white European control over a given institution is anti-Christian or anti-white European. Goldberg himself notes that “[m]ost of the big studio chiefs are Jewish.” Is this anti-Semitic?

According to Goldberg, some have noted “that many of the neoconservatives who helped devise the war’s intellectual rationale were Jewish—and possibly harbored a dual loyalty to Israel?” It is true that many of the policymakers behind the Iraq war were Jewish. More importantly, it isn’t merely a possibility that they harbored a dual loyalty to Israel. As I have shown in my work on the Iraq War, many of them worked for the right-wing Likud Party of Israel and openly formed policy they perceived to advantage Israel (see Christian Neo-Fundamentalism and US Foreign Policy). Some of them have been found guilty of improperly transmitting classified information to Israel. There’s nothing ambiguous about that.

Goldberg continues wondering along these lines by asking if it is anti-Semitism to “point to the existence of a powerful ‘Israel lobby’ that wields substantial influence on Capitol Hill?” Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer have been accused of anti-semitism for writing about the Israeli lobby. Is there a powerful Israel lobby that wields substantial influence on Capitol Hill? Is there is, saying so is not anti-semitic. This lobby is also wielding substantial influence in higher education. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Goldberg writes that, for some, “comparing Israelis to Nazis is, in the final analysis, anti-Semitic because it is so demonstrably untrue and so patently disingenuous.”

Even Israel’s fiercest critics, they argue, ought to concede that the country’s actions have been taken in its own defense—even if one believes that defense was misguided or disproportionately violent or even criminal. Further, they say that the number of Palestinian deaths during the 60-year conflict can’t begin to compare to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. To suggest a moral equivalency is anti-Semitic because it’s so absurd.

Israel’s fiercest critics should not concede that Israel’s actions against Palestinians are taken, at least no solely, in the defense of Israel. Many of Israel’s claims to be defending itself amount to an Orwellian redefinition of what Israel is actually doing: occupying and annexing land that is not theirs, ghettoizing Arabs, pushing the indigenous residents off the land, confiscating their property, and killing and making refugees of them. Pro-Israeli historian Benny Morris simultaneously admits and rationalizes these actions:

The great American democracy could not have been achieved without the extermination of the Indians. There are cases in which the general and final good justifies difficult and cruel deeds that are carried out in the course of history.

Is this anti-Semitic? Morris even uses the term “exterminate.” What is the character of his analogy? While Goldberg understands Robinson’s argument that deeply held beliefs are there to be challenged in order to develop skills in critical thinking, he feels the need to point out that it’s the way Robinson said it that brought him trouble. “There are acceptable ways to criticize Israel, while others cross the line into anti-Semitism, says Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Oh boy. Here we go.

For instance, if a person repeatedly singles out Israel for attack without subjecting other countries to similar scrutiny, that’s questionable, Goldhagen says. Or if he opposes Zionism – and therefore, Israel’s right to exist as an explicitly Jewish state – altogether.

For years, Goldhagen specialized in the argument that ordinary, everyday Germans made the Holocaust possible because anti-semitism was fundamental to the German national character. Goldhagen was driven. He was on a mission. For years, I defended Goldhagen’s thesis. Does that make Goldhagen anti-German? What about me? No, I’m anti-Nazi. Does that make me anti-German? If a person specializes in studying the injustices perpetrated by a group, why should she make room to arbitrarily denounce another group? Does this not often carry a ulterior motive: to suggest to an audience that what the first group is doing isn’t as bad as you think because other groups do the same or similar things? I can’t count how many times in discussing how bad Hitler and the Nazis were, people respond with, “Yeah, well, Stalin was worse.” I’m forced to make two responses to this: First, “Stalin wasn’t worse.” Sorry, but he wasn’t. He was bad. But he wasn’t worse. Second, “Stalin is irrelevant; we’re talking about Hitler.”

How is opposition to Zionism is anti-semitic? Suppose as a matter of principle that I don’t believe any state should have an ethnic character? Suppose I don’t believe there should be a Jewish state for the same reason that I don’t believe there should be a Christian state or a white racial state. Does this make me anti-Christian or anti-white? Zionism is an ideology shared by some Jews and non-Jews that a Jewish state should exist. I can’t be coerced or shamed into sharing that belief from fear of being labeled an anti-semite. Don’t force me to be a Zionist.

Anarchists believe no states should exist. Is anarchism by definition anti-semitic? 

“Another way to cross the line,” Goldberg writes, “is to compare Israelis to Nazis.” He quotes Dershowitz, who writes, “Any comparison between Israeli efforts to defend its citizens from terrorism on the one hand, and the Nazi Holocaust on the other hand, is obscene and ignorant.” He quotes Foxman who says, “The moment you compare the Jews to those who consciously and systematically determined to wipe them off the face of the Earth—that’s anti-Semitism.”

Note how Dershowitz frames Israel policy for us. It would seem to be problematic to compare efforts to defend one’s citizens from terrorism to fascist atrocities, but then we would need to first accept as true the assumption that Israel is acting to defend its citizens. If Israel is in fact acting to occupy and annex Palestine for the creation of a larger Jewish state, and in the process was ghettoizing, killing and making refugees of Arabs, then the comparison isn’t so problematic anymore, is it? This disposes of Foxman’s point, as well.

Goldberg writes that Robinson “says he tells his students that there can be no double standard when it comes to human rights, and that the targeting of one Iranian or Palestinian or Jew or Rwandan is equally condemnable.” To the ridiculous demand that he mediate his criticism of an injustice by an actor under discussion by identifying other injustices by other actors, he responds: “it’s unreasonable to suggest that each time I critique one state for a human rights violation that I must also, in the name of balance, run off a litany of all the other human rights violations in the world.”

Worse, as I have already noted, it’s often an attempt to diminish the significance of what the state actor in question is doing by diluting it with discussion of other injustices. It’s an attempt to distract the observer with irrelevancies. Can you imagine the defense in a murder case arguing, “Yes, well, the crime allegedly committed by my client was indeed heinous, but have you taken a look at all these other heinous crimes my client didn’t perpetrate?” What other point can there be in this other than to distract the jury with irrelevancy?

The LA Times asks Robinson where he draws the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not.

It’s fine, he says, to criticize Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe for driving his country to the brink of collapse, but it would be unacceptable to say that he has done so because he is a biologically inferior black African. Similarly, it is acceptable to argue that Israel’s offensive in Gaza was wrong—but it would be anti-Semitic to criticize Israel on the grounds that Jews are dirty, greedy or sinister.

“What does Robinson say to the idea that comparing Israelis to Nazis is simply out of bounds?”

First, he defends the comparison of Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto. He says that, like the ghetto, Gaza is sealed off. As in the ghetto, the delivery of food and medical supplies is controlled by the hostile power outside, so that poverty and malnutrition are building. As in the ghetto, he says, rebellions are put down with disproportionate force. According to Robinson, it may not be an exact comparison, but it’s hardly ridiculous. Moreover, Robinson insists that such analogies are essential to understanding history. Would it be wrong, he asked, to compare the apartheid regime in South Africa to the Jim Crow laws in the American South, even if the situations were not identical? As for whether it’s OK to compare contemporary figures to the Nazis, he notes that President George H.W. Bush once likened Saddam Hussein to Hitler and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared Iran to Nazi Germany.

The LA Times tries to steal the thunder of these points by noting that “those are not cases where victims are compared to their persecutors.” Robinson gives this response:

comparing victims to their persecutors shouldn’t be off-limits. In fact, that’s the very irony that makes the analogy so important. “I’m saying that the people who suffered the most nightmarish crime of the 20th century are now using tactics and practices that are eerily similar to what was done to them,” he says. But he acknowledges that the analogy has its limits: “Extermination,” he says. “Obviously that’s the key difference.”

Not according to Benny Morris! At any rate, can you imagine a situation where we could not ask black South Africans why they were setting up an apartheid system that oppressed white South Africans merely because the black South Africans were the historic victims of the white South Africans? Isn’t there something called the “Golden Rule”?

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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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