NPR’s Special Segment on Anti-Semitism

Bill Robinson’s case prompted a discussion of anti-Semitism on NPR Talk of the Nation. Here’s the blurb from the program dateline May 18, 2009:

A California professor stirred up a backlash when he compared Israelis to Nazis. Monday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama, Neal Conan talks with guests and callers about the question: What is anti-Semitism? Guests are: Nicholas Goldberg, deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages, whose article “What Is Anti-Semitism?” appeared last week; John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago political science professor and co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy; and Walter Reich, the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and the former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Goldberg is the journalist who wrote the op-ed “What is Anti-Semitism?” discussed here on this blog (recall that the experts he consulted were Abraham Foxman, Alan Dershowitz, and Daniel Goldhagen). Mearsheimer was the only one who had anything worthwhile to say. But many things are revealing when the event is examined with a critical eye. Neal Conan kicked off the program with this claim:

After Gaza and the Bernard Madoff scandal, many Jews perceive a significant and disturbing increase in anti-Semitism. For example, some [two] students [in a class of 80] at the University of California Santa Barbara complained after a professor there distributed an email that compared Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto, and implicitly Israelis with Nazis.

Conan provided neither evidence nor sources for his claim. Both Mearsheimer and Reich agreed that anti-Semitism was not dramatically on the increase. Here’s Reich’s answer:

Anti-Semitism has been fairly stable during the last several years. There’s been a bit of an upsurge probably in the last months following both the economic crisis and the activities in Gaza, but in general it’s been fairly stable and has not increased markedly.

Mearsheimer took the opportunity to get to the point:

I see occasional instances of anti-Semitism, but it’s hardly commonplace. I mean, the problem that we’ve come to in the United States is that it’s almost impossible to criticize Israeli policy or to criticize the US-Israeli relationship without being labeled either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. And the reason that defenders of Israel use this charge so liberally is because it is deadly effective at silencing critics and deterring other potential critics from leveling criticisms at either Israel or the special relationship that exists between the two countries.

On the question of whether Robinson’s email crossed the line, Goldberg noted that the shared view of Foxman and Dershowitz was that the claim that Israeli aggression against Palestinians is comparable to Nazi aggression against Jews is “absurd because it’s inaccurate, but it’s particularly insensitive and particularly hurtful to compare you to your own persecutors.” A reasonable follow up query would have been whether there is something remarkable about the victims of oppression using similar tactics against other peoples. Conan asked Goldberg to define anti-Semitism. He admitted it was hard, but then said this:

One of the best definitions I found was the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia. This organization back in 2004 tried to come up with a working definition of anti-Semitism, and some of the things that they came up with were calling for the killing or harming of Jews in the name of an extremist ideology, making dehumanizing or demonizing stereotypical allegations about Jews, accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for wrongdoing that was in fact committed by a single Jewish person or group, trafficking in Jewish conspiracy theories, denying the Holocaust and accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel then to their own nations. And one of the other things that the organization talked about is they said that anti-Semitism could also target the state of Israel, and they did say specifically that comparing Jews to Nazis was a form of anti-Semitism.

I want to talk about this document, produced by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (really the work of its predecessor the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia). The report, Report on Racism and Xenophobia in the Member States of the EU, list several examples of what constitutes anti-Semitism. The part that the program focused on was this: 

Examples of the ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context: … Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

You will note that these statements cannot simultaneously be true. The premise of the second statement is that one cannot hold Jews collectively responsible for actions of Israel. To do so is anti-Semitic. Blaming Jews for the actions of Israel would be like blaming Muslims or Arabs for the actions of Saudi Arabia. Israel doesn’t represent all Jews, even if it claims to be a Jewish state, any more than Iran represents all Muslims, even thought it claims to be a Muslim state. Saudi Arabia does speak for all Arabs even though it’s an Arab state. Etc.

The claim made by Zionists that the movement speaks for all Jews does not mean that it actually does. Indeed, it’s rather self evident that it doesn’t. So then how can it possibly follow that comparing Israeli policies with the policies of Nazi Germany is anti-Semitic? It cannot be because Israel claims to be a Jewish state, since the report already establishes that Jews cannot be held collectively responsible for what Israel does. Israel does not represent Jews as a people. Israel cannot speak for Jews as a people. Israel is not coextensive with Jews as a people. If it were, then it follows that we could hold Jews responsible for the acts of Israel. No?

The same EU report says “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” In other words, the report makes an exception for one country. That’s unethical.

Reich criticized Robinson’s use of the photograph by singling out a photo he said that, contextualized, proved the fallacy of the e-mail. 

One is a German soldier, one of the Einsatzgruppen, behind the advancing German forces in the former Soviet Union, and he’s aiming a rifle. All you see is him aiming a rifle. He’s aiming a rifle at the head of somebody who’s not in the photo because that part of the photo was cut off. He was shooting a woman in the head holding a baby. Probably it killed both of them with the same bullet. Paired with that was a picture of an Israeli soldier holding a rifle. The appearance is that they’re both doing the same thing. One was part of a murder operation that eventually killed, in that particular part of the Holocaust, one and half million Jews by executing them or gassing them. The other one was part of a war.

Reich began this by suggesting Robinson doesn’t have the requisite analytical training to know that he committed a fallacy. Ironically, assuming he isn’t being dishonest, Reich doesn’t know that Israeli soldiers have created a T-shirt glorifying the killing of an Arab mother and fetus. The image is of a pregnant Arab woman in the crosshairs. The caption reads “1 SHOT 2 KILLS.”

This evidence is devastating to Reich’s argument. It’s the equivalent to a clean knockout blow in boxing. The referee doesn’t even bother to count. Reich demonstrates his superficial understanding of these issues in another moment. A caller named Steve called in with a powerful point:

My mom was raised in racist Texas in the ’40s. And you know, she used to comment to me how she was afraid of what drinking fountain to use being a Jewish girl, you know, whether to use the white or the colored fountain, and she was called all kinds of racist names, anti- Semitic names. She taught me that to be a good Jew was to be a good person. It was basically to follow the Golden Rule. And I feel like being a Jewish person who loves people from all walks of life and all nationalities and religions, to not speak out against the collective punishment against the Palestinians, to not speak out against these brutalities, is anti- Semitic because Semites—not only the Jewish people, they are our Arabic brothers and sisters as well. And I find that when I’m speaking out against these injustices to be called a self-loathing Jew is in and of itself anti-Semitic as well. And that is my comment.

Conan asked Reich whether it is fair to call Steve a self-hating Jew? Reich responded with this bit of jazz:

I don’t like that term at all. And, you know, we tend not to know everything about everything at all times. So we act and do and believe things for the purpose of trying to feel as if we’re good people. People are demonstrating, including Jews, many Jews, against Israeli activities based on what they know, based on what they see in the media and so on. For example, last week I was in London. And there was a piece, probably an anticipation of the Pope’s visit… And it was in a Palestinian woodworking shop, and there was a close shot of a figure of Christ and I think was Christ with thorns, crown of thorns, and it moved to the Christian Palestinian. And he talked about how it was hard for him to get across checkpoints to sell his goods, as I recall. What – so there was an equation of Christ with the crown of thorns and the Palestinian—both are suffering. What the BBC reporter didn’t talk about, probably didn’t even know about, was that the percentage of Palestinians who are Christians keeps on going down. Bethlehem is now primarily a Muslim city. And they’re going down largely because they’re being intimidated and having to leave Palestine, having to leave the Middle East because of this kind of intimidation by Muslim Palestinians. He also – probably, he didn’t talk about—may not have even known why there were checkpoints in the first place. It’s very complex. But if all you see is that, if I were a Christian, I would be very upset and I would react because that was what I would think I know.

How about that for insulting Steve? First, Reich doesn’t address Steve’s point at all. He can’t because it is morally unassailable. So he changes the topic with an anecdote the purpose of which is to suggest that Steve only clings to this moral perspective because he is ignorant of what is actually happening. This style of responding to the moral argument is highly similar to the way Eliezer Wiesel answers questions like this. It is a typical tactic of defenders of Israeli brutality to change the subject and treat the questioner as a child who doesn’t know what’s going on. When the subject of the “new anti-Semitism” was suggested, Mearsheimer responded:

[I]f you look carefully at the debate about anti-Semitism today both in the United States and in Europe, I think that what you see is that the old-fashioned kind of anti-Semitism is kind of gone by the boards. And the new anti-Semitism – and that’s a phrase that’s frequently used by organizations that are fighting anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States – the new anti-Semitism has a lot more to do with Israel than it has to do with criticizing Jews. People who criticize Israel and equate Israeli behavior with Nazi behavior is seen as the main problem today. People who talk about the Israel lobby and argue that it is a powerful interest group in the United States that influences policy towards the Middle East, are oftentimes labeled as anti-Semitism. This is the new anti-Semitism. And the reason that people talk about the new anti-Semitism is that it’s very hard to find much evidence of the old-fashioned anti-Semitism that Nick was talking about before.

Finally, there is this interesting slip by Goldberg. 

I talked to Danny Goldhagen, who’s the author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and he said that what he listens for is—he says again, there’s nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. You can say that the aggression—I’m sorry, the Israeli incursion into Gaza earlier this year, you can criticize it, you can say it was wrong, you can say that too many civilians died, but what he listens for is, well, are you criticizing Israel exclusively?

In case you missed it, Goldberg apologizes for characterizing the Israel attack on Gaza as “aggression.” He corrects himself and uses the term “incursion.” Israel bombed with war planes a country with no anti-aircraft defenses, no air force. Israel attacked with the most advanced weaponry on the planet—tanks, helicopters, machine guns—a civilian population trapped behind walls topped with razor wire. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, hundreds of them children. White phosphorus rained down on human beings who were burned alive. Hospitals, schools, apartments, and houses were pulverized. An incursion is a raid, a surprise attack by a small armed group. This was no incursion. This was aggression. It was a massacre.

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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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