by Paul de Rooij | Dissident Voice | 22 December 2003
Review of The Politics of Anti-Semitism, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair (AK Press, 2003)
There's no more explosive topic in American public life today than the issue of Israel, its treatment of the Palestinians and its influence on American politics. Yet the topic is one that is so hedged with anxiety, fury and fear that honest discussion is often impossible.
--Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair
There has been a concerted effort in the United States to block critical debate about what is happening in Israel-Palestine, and a pervasive last-ditch attempt to stifle criticism of Israel by smearing those who dare to raise their voices. This book is a collection of articles dealing with the means that the insidious slur of "anti-Semitism" has been used for political ends. The articles range from a philosophical examination of the term "anti-Semitism" to a survey of the topics that are not covered in US discourse because of self-censorship induced by fear, fear of being labeled an anti-Semite or fear of being targeted by pro-Israeli groups. The consequences of this are evident for all to see: an uncritical acceptance of interminable US wars, the generalized misery of the Palestinian people, bloated armaments budgets, and massive US resources siphoned off to Israel. To break the silence and allay fear over these topics requires critical appraisal of what anti-Semitism actually means and to tackle the taboo that it represents.
The philosopher Michael Neumann analyzes the term, discussing alternative definitions and examining the implications of these alternatives. Making the definition too broad cheapens the term, creating its own problems, while if the definition is too narrow, the accusation loses its political significance. Neumann points out: "... there is a choice to be made. You can use anti-Semitism to fit your political agenda, or you can use it as a term of condemnation, but you cannot do both." This is a superlative discussion, with important lessons for all.
Scott Handleman criticizes the way "anti-Semitism" has been portrayed in recent books, that is, the claim that anti-Semitism is something evil out there, irrational, and the responsibility of others. He offers an alternative appraisal of anti-Semitism by suggesting that the responsibility of its victim should also be taken into account. Again, this is an important discussion to place the various sanctimonious books on the topic into perspective.
There are several Israeli perspectives on the issue, including an important one by Uri Avnery. Avnery points out several Zionist myths and discusses how Israeli actions contradict those myths. Whereas Zionists claimed that Israel was needed as a refuge from anti-Semitism, the contradiction has arisen that Israel's policies are actually causing much anti-Semitism. "For Jews, this creates a dangerous vicious circle. Sharon's actions create revulsion and opposition throughout the world. These reinforce anti-Semitism. Faced with this danger, Jewish organizations are pushed into defending Israel and giving it unqualified support. This support enables the anti-Semites to attack not only the government of Israel but the local Jews, too." Avnery also makes the important point that Zionists should consider the implications of their actions taking into account that their project may go awry.
The self-censorship also affects people from whom one would not otherwise have expected it. Jeffrey Blankfort catalogs the unwillingness of many left activist groups to take a stance critical of Israel. He provides a series of amazing examples: the organizers of demonstrations against the US-Iraq war and their unwillingness to take a critical stance vis-à-vis Israel; unions barely willing to utter the word Israel in their literature or posters, and relegating a mildly critical comment about the condition of the Palestinians to the backside of a poster! For a critical assessment of the anti-war movement and what passes for domestic opposition to the neo-imperial US role, it is important to read this essay. It suggests that, for these resistance movements to be effective, they need to have a critical view of Israel. Unfortunately, such groups are reticent about starting this debate.
Kathy and Bill Christison offer an amazing overview of the power and influence of the neocons. They show that these rightwing zealots are inextricably bonded with Israel. However, it is surprising that questioning the loyalty of such policymakers is suppressed in the media discourse. In many cases, the neocons demonstrate clear contradictions between their "Israel first" proclivities and their presumed loyalty to the United States - the country currently employing them.
Jeffrey St. Clair provides a lucid account of the Israeli bombing of the USS Liberty - a sordid chapter that involved the strafing of the survivors in their lifeboats. St. Clair examines how this vile episode was kept off the political agenda and why Israel was never condemned. It may come as a surprise to most Americans that The White House and the Pentagon connived to bury this story. This episode notwithstanding, US arms shipments and economic assistance to Israel started in earnest shortly afterwards.
This book is important for all those concerned with peace and justice in the Middle East, and those wanting to change the US foreign policy agenda. It is also important for those seeking to understand the American political system and find ways of influencing it. The book addresses an issue that has caused much anxiety in the past. A discussion of "anti-Semitism" is important, to undo the pernicious political effects of its usage as a slur; the book also provides a basis for countering the slur. Finally, the book also surveys a range of important taboo topics in American discourse. Knowing what issues are sensitive, and why, should spur an opening up of the debate -- perhaps the greatest value of this book. The supporters of Israel may also want to read the book because it highlights an unintended effect of their attempts to block debate. That is, overuse of the anti-Semitic slur has devalued the coin, reducing its worth to that of crying wolf.
Many of the essays in this book have appeared on the CounterPunch website - an important online magazine which is edited by the editors of this book. Cockburn, St. Clair and the other authors must be commended for addressing this important topic with this collection of excellent essays. Unfortunately, criticism of Israel is still a taboo topic, and the first ones to raise questions will probably attract a significant amount of abuse. One must remember this when appreciating the courage of those who have produced this important book.
Paul de Rooij is a writer living in London, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted). © 2003 Paul de Rooij