The new antisemitism?

Stripped of its veneer of nuance, Noah Feldman’s essay in 'Time' is another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists.

Israel-Palestine protest march, August 2014, Cape Town. Image credit Louis Reynolds via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

In today’s America, defenders of the indefensible don’t have to do much to convince people that they have something new and interesting to say.

This explains why Time magazine gave Harvard law professor Noah Feldman space to write an analysis of anti-Semitism, which looks balanced and thoughtful but is yet more propaganda for the Israeli state and its actions. And why the article has attracted attention in cyberspace.

Like many liberal Zionists these days, Feldman seems confused. Not long after the Time article appeared, he wrote in the Washington Post on ideas in his new book on Jewish identity. The article is far from perfect, but it does acknowledge that young American Jews have good reasons for rejecting the Israeli state. It also assumes that opposition to the state will become a fixture of American Jewish life and discusses how Jews who reject it may live out their Jewishness. All of this is only possible if rejecting the Israeli state is a legitimate choice.

But that is not what Feldman writes in Time. His article purports to discuss why anti-Semitism, and anti-Jewish racism, survive. But, stripped of its veneer, his analysis is yet another attempt to silence opponents of the Israeli state by smearing them as anti-Jewish racists. And so, like others before him, he draws attention away from real hatred of Jews. He also unwittingly encourages it by associating an entire people, the Jews, with the actions of a violent state.

This is not a new tactic. As my book Good Jew, Bad Jew shows, the Israeli state and its supporters have been using claims of anti-Semitism against critics of the state’s racism since the 1970s. They do this by claiming that there is a “new antisemitism” that demonizes Jews by targeting the Israeli state, ignoring the obvious difference between a state—and the ideology that underpins it—and a people. Western governments have jumped on the bandwagon: they eagerly shred core democratic values such as freedom of speech as they demonize the supposed racism of the Israeli state’s anti-racist critics.

Feldman seems to know that, despite its success, this tactic has been crude and often laughable. Many people accused of hating Jews are themselves Jewish. What the targeted people are saying is obviously not racist; opposing nuclear energy was branded as anti-Jewish racism because it would strengthen the power of oil-owning Arab states. Feldman has attracted attention because he tries to seem more tolerant and open to debate. But the difference between him and other muzzlers of anti-racism is one of style, not substance.

Unlike others who weaponize claims of anti-Semitism, Feldman acknowledges that, “It is not inherently antisemitic to criticize Israel.” He warns against tarring all critics of the Israeli state with an antisemitic brush. He adds: “To deploy the charge of antisemitism for political reasons is morally wrong, undermining the horror of antisemitism itself. It is also likely to backfire, convincing critics of Israel that they are being unfairly silenced.” He notes that: “ Like other criticisms of Israel, the accusation of genocide isn’t inherently antisemitic.”

Having established his democratic credentials, he spends a large part of the article doing precisely what he has criticized.

Consistent with his concern for public relations, Feldman never says critics of the Israeli state are antisemites. Instead, they “run the risk” of anti-Jewish racism or might “veer” into antisemitism. But this is a difference without a distinction. The intent is exactly the same as that of his “crude” predecessors, to silence critics of the state, particularly its Jewish opponents.

Feldman repeats most of the smear tactics of writers on the “new antisemitism.” Like them, he insists that antisemitism has shifted shape and is now directed at the Israeli state. Like them, he claims “well-meaning” people can be antisemitic without knowing they are. Like them, he insists that the Jew-hatred of the right is no longer the core problem because “the most perniciously creative current in contemporary antisemitic thought is more likely to come from the left.” All this is as convenient to the Israeli state as it is devoid of substance.

As the British scholar of antisemitism, Anthony Lerman, points out in his recent book Whatever Happened to Antisemitism?, the claim that people who oppose a state are expressing racism to a people is a basic “category mistake.” A state is not a person or a group of people and claiming that opposition to Israeli state racism is anti-Jewish is no different to the claim that opposing the apartheid state betrayed hatred of whites. The claim that you can be an antisemite even if you don’t dislike Jews is a blank cheque to label all critics as racist when they are clearly not. The left is always a target of this propaganda because it calls out Israeli state racism; no left-winger has murdered people in synagogues simply because they were Jewish as a right-wing racist in the US did not that long ago.

Feldman is eager to show that opposition to the Israeli state is so clearly based on falsehoods that anyone who opposes it must be racist. Like all other attempts to defend the indefensible, his effort is full of holes and borders on the unintentionally comic.

He insists that the Israeli state is not a settler-colonial enterprise. The theory of settler-colonialism, according to Feldman, is meant to explain countries whose colonists wanted to displace the local people, not exploit their labor. He insists this does not apply to the Israeli state because it was created by a UN resolution establishing a Jewish and Palestinian state.

This reads very much like an exercise in Spot the Deliberate Error, in both fact and logic.

Settler colonialism does not only describe states that tried to displace their indigenous people. It was also applied to apartheid South Africa, which tried to both displace and exploit the labor of black people. Nor is it clear why Feldman makes this point since the Israeli state is precisely the type of settler colony he says the theory is meant to explain: it is built on displacing Palestinians, not exploiting their labor.

His first attempt to explain this away commits a basic logical error. It assumes that what the UN decided is what the leadership of the Zionist movement that founded the state wanted. It wasn’t. The UN might have hoped to establish two states living side by side but the Zionists went along with this only because they thought it was the best they could get at the time. Their aim was always to expand as much as they could, which they have been doing with vigor ever since. The state’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, told his son in a 1937 letter that the Zionist movement would accept what became the UN proposal because: ‘The establishment of a state, even if only on a portion of the land, is … a powerful boost to our historical endeavors to liberate the entire country.”

Feldman’s argument is a bit like insisting that South Africa’s apartheid leaders didn’t want to dominate black people because UN resolutions said they shouldn’t.

The displacement of Palestinians began, as Israeli historians showed long ago, immediately as the Israeli state was formed—a key goal of the war that the state fought at the time was to displace as many Palestinians as possible, producing the Naqba, or catastrophe, which Gaza’s residents are again experiencing.

Feldman knows all this and so he offers a lame account of the Naqba which does his argument no favors. He acknowledges that Palestinians did not, as Israeli state propaganda at the time claimed, leave on the instructions of “Arab states” but were driven out: “Instead of ending up in an independent Palestine as proposed by the UN, those who had stayed in their homes found themselves living either in Israel or under Egyptian and Jordanian rule. Then, in the 1967 war, the West Bank and Gaza were conquered by Israel.” It is unclear how any of this supports Feldman’s claim that the Israeli state did not want to displace Palestinians.

Logical errors and factual omissions appear again when Feldman tries to show that only bigots would accuse the Israeli state of white supremacy. He writes that half of Israeli Jews are of European descent but that Europe did not consider Jews to be racially white. The reality was more complicated. But, even if it was not, the fact that bigots thought Jews were not white does not mean the bigots were right. Similar prejudices were expressed about very white Irish people. Nor does it mean that these European Jews did not see themselves as white. My book argues that this is precisely how they saw themselves and that a Jewish state was meant to turn them into white Europeans.

Feldman adds that the other half of the state’s Jewish population, mainly Mizrahi or Eastern Jews, is not racially “white” so they can’t possibly be white supremacists. But who is and who is not white is a product of society, not biology; people who have not been seen as white in some countries have “become white.” The Mizrahi may not hail from Europe but they identify with white Europeanness and so they tend to vote for parties that, in their view, express a white, European, identity. This partly explains why the right-wing majority among Jewish Israelis expresses anti-black bigotry alongside its contempt for “Arabs.”

Identifying the Israeli state as a racist enterprise is not an antisemitic prejudice, it describes reality. Feldman’s liberal and “balanced” defense of the state is, at bottom, still a defense of racial domination. The difference lies only in the packaging. This makes it hardly surprising that his response to current events repeats the biases of the apologist mainstream from which he wants to distance himself.

Here, Feldman’s phony liberalism is again on view. Responding to the charge of genocide brought against the Israeli state at the International Court of Justice, he offers platitudes regretting the killing of Palestinians and statements by Israeli state power-holders promising to wipe them off the face of the earth. He then declares that, despite all this, the Israeli state’s actions are not genocidal because its “military campaign has been conducted pursuant to Israel’s interpretation of the international laws of war.” Since there are many interpretations of this law, he suggests, its interpretation is as good as any other.

The Israeli state is allowed to use severe violence, he adds, because it is responding to the evil of Hamas which, like the rest of the Israeli state’s supporters club, he treats as the American mainstream once treated communism: as something to be denounced, not understood. Hamas, he writes, is antisemitic. “During the Hamas attack, terrorists intentionally murdered children and raped women.” Its charter “calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.” Despite these obvious sins “…the accusation of genocide is being made against Israel.”

For lovers of English literature, this recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which an attempt by the main character to cloak colonialism in civilizing clothing collapses into the appalling demand that the African “brutes” be exterminated. The liberal mask is removed to reveal the real face of the colonizer and its apologist.

Feldman offers no evidence for his claims against Hamas. The charter he denounces was written many years ago and Hamas has discarded it. Even if it still existed, an Ivy League professor of law should know the difference between defeating a state and attacking a people. Harvard law professors should also know the legal principle that accusations of criminal behavior must be backed by evidence. The claim that children were murdered has been dropped even by most who made it while the rape claims are yet to be backed by evidence that would pass muster in a court. 

Nor is there any mention of the context of the Hamas acts. Nothing about a decade and a half-long blockade of Gaza, nothing about overturning Hamas’s election victory, and absolutely nothing at all about Hamas’s multiple offers of a long-term ceasefire which were rebuffed by the Israeli state and its American patrons. While none of this justifies killing civilians, a serious jurist would take it into account before reaching a verdict.

But serious jurists also do not decide the outcome of court cases until they have heard the arguments of both sides. Yet Feldman’s law training does not deter him from declaring the outcome of the ICJ case before the substance of the proceedings has begun. His claim that a state can’t be guilty of genocide if it claims that it is applying international law gives a handy excuse to apologists for racial violence everywhere.

These failures to apply basic legal principles are no surprise. His article shows that Feldman is a cheerleader first, a jurist third. Like many in the Western academy, his scholarship gives priority to the demands of power, that of the Israeli state and of its chief backer.

Near the beginning of his article, Feldman describes himself as “a proud citizen of the freest country in the world, in which Jews have been safer than in any other country in history.” The rest of us might wonder whether a country in which police are regularly accused of killing black men because they are black or where strenuous efforts are made in some states to deny racial minorities the vote, or where academics are afraid to speak their minds about Gaza for fear of punishment is free at all. South African Jews may also wonder why Jews in the US who are murdered in synagogues are safer than those of us in this and many other countries who have thankfully been spared that fate.

But, in America’s mainstream, evidence matters as little as legal principle. All that matters is to defend the West and its allies from the hordes who are yet to reach its level of arrogance.

Despite his supposed nuance, this Harvard law professor is a loyal servant of that project. And so he becomes yet another voice that makes the fight against anti-Jewish racism a little more difficult by turning a very real hatred into an excuse for the violence of a state.

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