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Is It Anti-Semitism?

By Claudia Chaves

As an environmental, peace and social and economic justice activist, most of my socializing and volunteerism has been with people who share these passions and views. More and more, during the last 10 years, friends and colleagues from the Left have been baiting me with psedo-questions about Israel, followed by a “pouncing” of their part. This dynamic happened again and again, and it would always leave me thoroughly confused and hurt. It was only after experiencing it many times that I was able to understand what was happening. Until I understood, I would respond to their question–just as I had always answered their questions on a country where I had lived and they hadn’t. Yet over and over, with many and different friends, I found myself in a strange landscape that I will try to describe.

Since I feel love and support for Israel in many ways, and I am also aware of its flaws, the bait was to get me to talk about some area of difficulty. (Now, I not only have lived in Israel for many years, but I have lived in Argentina for more. I could talk with them about the greatnesses and the flaws of that country, Argentina, and the reaction I am about to describe would be the farthest thing you could imagine happening.) But with Israel, as soon as I arrived at their home for a visit, as soon as we had established the friendship rituals, I would feeling they had an “itch” – which after seeing it burst into action over and over, I got to know. The pouncing had several parts:

1) Ideological: they would adopt a challenging posture and present arguments that to me were obviously based on the propaganda that I also was hearing from the same media venues, but to them it was hard fact. In the early years of this I would try to offer some of the most uncontrovertible evidence to show that their view was not the only reasonable option, only to find that they would block my efforts by not allowing me to follow any line of argument, much less to feel heard, if by chance I could get out a few sentences in a row. It felt like a karate match – blocking moves. Obviously this would frustrate me, and my frustration (to my horror) seemed to delight them! (This leads me to the next part.)

2) Emotional, overt and covert currents: Overtly there was this immediate switching to a challenging mode, very different from the dialogue mode we used before when we had different opinions. Covertly there were emotions ranging from hatred (not infrequent ), to emotional “dumping” (a kind of relief to at last feeling free to express what they really felt about Jews because it now was “cool”), to genuine anger. This genuine anger was there in friends who did not harbor antisemitic feelings and prejudice like the previous, but who really believed that Israel represented all that was wrong, evil, reactionary and discriminatory in the world – which is what they had been hearing gradually and systematically, for the last several years. And they were doing what they saw others do in their movements and social circles: attack a Jew, any Jew, that attempts an explanation that re-humanizes Israelis. Some of these people were angry because they felt taken in as fools: years ago they had had open and amicable views about Israel, not too different from the basic attitude of good will they still have about Argentina (though they assume it is not a perfect country). However, after years of hearing a steady and mounting (much of it subliminal) message that “Israel equals Nazis and Apartheid”, they felt betrayed in their previous goodwill.

3) Relational: They had been my friends. We had developed a relationship where we heard each other and made each other feel heard. We had previously been interested in each other’s well being, and when we could not help each other, we would instinctively refrain from harming. All of a sudden they were disecting me: one piece was Claudia, their friend, and the other was their own projection of what they saw as my Jewishness, love for Israel, Israeliness. This they dehumanized and attacked, quite oblivious to the harm they might be doing.

4) Prejudicial attitude, bigotry, dogma: These intelligent, and often intellectually inclined, friends were using all manner of thought fallacies, (unbelievably disproportionately) weighted scales for evaluating Israel on one side and the rest of world countries and societies on the other. They showed a complete loss of historical memory, even of events of 2 months before; a closed mind typical of fundamentalists of any kind. And most tragically, they had a selectively closed heart: typical of bigots of any kind, where they loose touch with their own humanistic attitudes/feelings, and stereotype some people as all good, and some as all bad (actually dehumanizing both).

Happily there were exceptions: As I was telling you above, some of these friends were not harboring antisemitic (new or old) attitudes but were angry for believing all they had been led to believe. With some of these friends I was able to have a meaningful dialogue after the initial emotional flare-up. They were eager to know more about the situation and they were not emotionally caught into having to believe some politically “correct” dogma.Once we re-established dialogue, it was easily maintained. Not so with those who deep down feared to be ostracized by their colleagues in the Left if they opened themselves to re-humanize Israelis, if they learned the history of that society in the last 60 years, if they took an interest in them as fellow human beings again. Sad to say, most were afraid to ‘fall out of belonging’ with their colleagues in the left–and they were therefore as closed minded as the latent antisemites.

Sadly, I have rarely attended a demostration, a gathering or conference from the Left, in the last few years that was devoid of eruptions of Israel-bashing, and blaming Israel or some politically or economically prominent Jew for all the ills in the world. IS IT ANTISEMITISM? “It is not anti-semitism” many say… “We are just criticizing Israel’s policies, and US policies relative to Israel”.

“Prejudice is a shape shifter. It is very agile in taking forms that seem acceptable on the surface”– David Shipler, 1997

In the early half of the 20th century, millions of people spanning Russia all the way to the US were “not anti-Semites” – they were “against Bolshevics: and their formula was Jews = Reds”. Indeed, there were many socialists of all stripes who were Jewish. At the very same time and in the same areas, demagogues were inciting the masses of the impoverished “not against the Jews”, but against “Capitalists”, and “surely Jewish capitalists are running the world”. Indeed, many Jews were capitalists of all kinds – from the peddler in the streets of New York to the Rothschild in Paris. Jews never controlled the world, but to the person who still held to pre-Napoleon attitudes that the Jew should never have been granted equal rights in modern nations, seeing Jews act like they were free and equal was scandalous! Imagine for a moment a Southern family, owners of slaves, transported to a world where Blacks hold many and sundry positions, and some with economic and political power. You can almost hear their outrage expressed as: “Blacks have overrun this country and are going to control us all!”

While millions were “not anti-semitic but against Jews for being Bolshevics who will destroy freedom and democracy” and millions were “not antisemitic but against Jews for being capitalist pigs who devour the proletarian man”, millions more were affected by the racist worldview that was widely accepted in Western countries until the Second World War. This view was found not only in Germany: examine for instance the racial prejudices that many British people held of East Indians – even AFTER WWII! And there such are examples from all around the world.

By the 19th century it was no longer politically correct for “scientific minded” Europeans to discriminate a group on the basis of religion. But it was acceptable to see them as an inferior race. There was much pseudo-scientific theorizing about race. “Prejudice is a shape shifter – it is very agile in taking forms that seem acceptable on the surface”. The man who coined the very word “Anti-Semitic”, Wilhelm Marrih in 1879 in Germany, did so for this very reason. He opposed having Jews avoid discrimination and persecution by converting to Chrisitanity – as some attempted – and founded the Anti-Semitic League, saying that he wasn’t against Jews because of their religion, but because they were “Semites” – an inferior race.

Adding ignorance to insult, modern anti-semites are trying to erase from cultural memory the massacres associated with the word “anti-semitism” by de-legitimazing the word–saying that it has no validity since Arabs are also Semites. It’s like telling the Cherokee that “The Trail of Tears” is a misnomer, since actually the trail – if there was one – was made of dirt; and insisting they call it instead “forced migration”. What do you think Cherokees will tell you if you try this?

So while some rationalized their prejudice one way and others the opposite way, a third and overlapping group came up with the “semite” rationalization. Nowadays the line goes: “I’m not anti-semitic–I just criticize Israel”. A friend of mine (let’s call her ‘M’) quite innocently, recently repeated this line of argument. I drew attention to the scales she was using to judge Israel. “If you weigh your car and this tomato here, and the scales (like the Scales of Justice, with 2 brass plates…) show up balanced, or the tomato appears heavier, would you say there’s a bias in the scale? So how is it that Israel has come to be seen as such an international pariah yet the Palestinian leadership and the Arab regimes are so thoroughly whitewashed? Why is there such a colluded silence in the Western media – and deliberate distortions in the propaganda of progressive movements – about the Israeli offer (backed by strong popular support. This is first hand knowledge: I was in Israel till days before Camp David) in the negotiations of 2000? Why is a blind eye turned to the reactionary policy of the Palestinian Authority, who instead of counter-offering and staying in the negotiation process, incited and in every way supported violence against Israelis – with the very same tactics used in the previous decades by the PLO and by extremist groups in their midst – and which the PA supposedly had abandoned? I am referring to the tactics where one Palestinian faction or another would bomb buses of children, etc., any time there was a chance at pragmatic peace negotiations. Does NPR, BBC, CNN, etc., etc., not have all the news clippings of all the years when every single time the sides were trying to reach a compromised agreement, all the Palestinian factions with declared intentions of owning the land from “the Jordan to the Mediterranean” would unleash a string of attacks on Israeli civilians – inside the Green Line?

Heaven forbid all these media venues from checking their own archives and putting together a rational sequence of events! What explains this targeted journalistic incompetence? The evidence of the violence unleashed by Arafat and company is amply, amply available. How is it that so many people attribute the whole thing to Sharon’s visit to the Temple/Al Aqsa Mount? Why is it that 90% of the times I listened to NPR (100% of the times during the first 2 1/2 years of the violence since Camp David 2000), our National “Public” Radio reported only the suffering of victims of an Israeli defensive action. Where was the reporting on the Israeli victims of the attacks that prompted the action? Does nobody care about the very easily demonstrable sequence of the methods the Israelis have used to defend themselves since the beginning (you can start with the creation of the state, or in the 1930’s if you wish), yet were blocked at every turn from doing so, thus leading to escalation? How is it that far more severe reactions to attacks of their civilians by other countries get such an unemotional reaction compared to the reactions to the far more deliberated and careful reactions by a country so small that if you are there you will feel personally in danger.

Surely I don’t endorse all the reactions (I don’t endorse the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; I don’t endorse the political manipulations that the Sharon government did of the separation fence, which could have been a very good idea as initially proposed by the Israeli Left; I didn’t endorse some of the bombings of terrorist leaders and installations that killed and maimed civilians and their houses, etc..). But I have witnessed, personally, how the reactions have escalated because of how Israel has been blocked in pursuing far less damaging efforts to defend itself. And the progressive movements have been manipulated, and have themselves manipulated, to block these efforts and contribute to the escalation. Why has the UN been a forum for singling Israel out for condemnation? How is it possible that when 3 other large countries are brought to the UN for condemnation for blatant human rights abuses, and then Israel’s enemies bring up Israel for the same condemnation on the same meeting, all other countries are acquitted by the UN but only Israel is condemned????

Why do all these journalists and practically all their listeners so easily accept this story line where Israel is the bully and the Palestinian violence is just trying to fend off the aggressive occupier – accept it to the point of turning what Camp David and Taba were in 2000 on its head – and why has NONE OF THEM asked: “Couldn’t Arafat counter-offer relative to the 3% or 5% of the territory that the Israelis didn’t offer, or about other points, if he was serious about a negotiated peace? Strange, isn’t it? Strange that no one asks, I mean. I understand very well why Arafat didn’t counter-offer. Neither do I demonize Arafat. I know something about his political trajectory, personality, context.

But prejudice keeps shape-shifting, mask-making. Now that many people have heard complaints about the anti-semitism underlying outrageously disproportionate criticism of Israel – the latest way of covering up is to demonize Sharon! Now it’s not anti-semitism and it’s not anti-Israel, it’s anti-Sharon! Well, I am politically anti-Sharon for real, and I can really tell when someone is against Sharon as a politician and when someone is completely closed to understanding the first thing about Israeli politics or society and is using this “anti-Sharon” posture to legitimize feelings and prejudices of which they would be very ashamed otherwise.

The bias of the scale, of the measuring tool: that is the anti-semitism. Using two different standards when judging Israel as a country or Israeli Jews, and when judging all other countries and all other ethnicities: that is anti-semitism. The deep down attitude that all human beings are entitled to defend themselves, but it is OK to de-legitimize it when Jews do it: that is anti-semitism. My friend M (whom I was telling you about some paragraphs before) happens to be a very fair

minded person who had accepted the line of “it’s not anti-semitism, it’s criticism of Sharon”. She was accepting this mostly because it was painful to her to accept that the madness of widely spread antisemitism was back again! But when I drew the analogy of the scales she was quick to realize where does prejudice lie: Not in the line of argument – no, the line of argument will always be sanitized because nobody wants to openly admit that they are anti-semitic–not people in the Left anyway! So she said: “Ah, it’s like my colleague X at the office: An Hispanic man did something dishonest, irresponsibe. X then commented to my friend: ‘that confirms what I thought of Hispanics, you can trust them’. My friend M, who is a very honest Hispanic woman said to him: ‘Why does what this man do reflect on all Hispanics. Why does it confirm anything? Are there no White Americans who are dishonest?” Yes, X had a biased scale already in his mind and used the man’s behavior to justify it to himself – and vent on my Hispanic friend!

Our existential situation, and human cognitive limitations:

In the early 1980’s I still had vibrant hopes that we (humans) could yet reverse the trends that were taking us to our destruction, and that we could do so gradually and constructively. Remember our best scientists’ warnings that if we didn’t significantly reverse several key destructive trends right away, they would soon be irreversible? By now, all those deadlines are long past, and the trends in the world are towards more pollution, consumption, poverty, destruction of natural systems of every kind, centralization of power and wealth, demagoguery, oligarchy, population explosion, destruction of indigienous lifestyles, war and conflict in every scale, etc..

Not only are the trends towards massive destruction on Planet Earth accelerating – for humans and all other forms of life – but the task of creating wise culture looms ever more formidable and unattainable. Many of us are still trying. I am still trying, but I also recognize the incredible odds against it because of the very nature of humans’ cognitive aparatus. (See my article: The Limits of Democracy – Why People Vote Against Themselves”.)

I am not talking about IQ, about standard measures of intelligence. I am referring to how human thinking is ruled by emotions, and these emotions operate in the context of the person’s social connections. The interactions between thinking, emotions and social group are programed into our evolutionary psychology. The social context, in turn, exists as part of a particular sub-culture within a larger culture. Both the sub-culture and the larger culture are shaped by historical/political forces AND, once again, by evolutionary psychology. (And so it is in the sub-culture of progressive organizations in the US, for instance). This whole apparatus (of human cogniton nested into other levels that are nested in turn) was designed to operate quite unconsciously. Not completely unconsciously – but largely so. Therefore, manipulating it by demagogues is very easy. Rendering it conscious, in more than a few individuals at a time, is tremendously difficult – and time consuming! However, rendering it conscious is the only real defense against demagoguery, dogmatism, cultism, prejudice. A minority of humans – in every culture and group – find themselves at one skinny end of the Bell Curve of human talents and dispositions, where they have a talent for rendering this process conscious. You may be one of them. You may be one of the people who doesn’t get easily inflamed by propaganda, conned by the media, constricted in your thinking by your most admired group’s dogma – a group where quite naturally, you need to feel belonging.

I am sure that I am not the only one who noticed that the destructive forces in the world are rampant –as I was describing them at the beginning of this section. I am sure I am not the only one who has felt that the formidable efforts many of us have dedicated to all the progressive causes, can be quickly and ruthlessly wiped out by the oligarchs at every level, setting us back 30 years when we urgently need not be loosing ground. For instance, I have been working towards forest protection – forests and all the life systems that depend on them. We can point to G.W.Bush as a destructive force of my efforts, we can certainly point to the corrupt county government where I live as a destructive force to my efforts; we can point to the US House of Representatives as a chronic disaster – but frankly, Clinton and Gore weren’t much help either: Remember the infamous Rider they signed preventing lawsuits to enforce forest environmental protections? And what about the Northwest Forest Act? Was that the strong and incontrovertible protection our few remaining forests that we really needed at this point in the eco-systems destruction? I am sure that I am not the only one who noticed. Yet noticing all this discouraging picture poses a big problem in terms of depression, despair and keeping alive one’s activism regardless.

And what about the constant threats we face at disunity within our movements and within the coalitions we try to form in order to better oppose all the reactionary forces aligned against us?

I have coped with this heavy burden on my heart with existential therapy; reaching out to sane people; deepening my connection with nature; tapping into my deepest values and into the wisdom of others; and getting more intimate with my own soul.

But what solution do I think many (most?) people in the movements in the Left have found? Solutions both to the powerlessness as we face global catastrophe, and to the need for strong “glue” to hold our movements together?

“Blame it on the Jews!” Again, this scapegoat is found convenient to channel all that frustration and powerlessness that has no place to go! Just channeling the immense frustration against Bush, the WTO, multinationals and the conglomerate of powerful forces that make us feel this powerlessness and despair gives people no relief! But finding a scapegoat much smaller than ourselves, towards whom we can feel powerful and superior, this does provide relief! “So let’s blame it on the Jews! Let’s equate the Jews, alias Israel, alias Sharon, with all the evils of the world. Let us make them emblematic of this tidal wave that dwarfs us, and attack them! This will make us feel our power! And to boot, it is the best glue to keep all our movements unified: not just having a common enemy, BUT AN ENEMY WE KNOW WE CAN VANQUISH!

The Return:

I believe that all the people who are activists in all the movements of the Left, worldwide, are activists because of a profound love. This profound love may be for the forest, for all of nature, for human beings, for certain human beings, for certain cultures and ways of living, for universal human values, for a peaceful, creative, justice-full world, for freedom and equality, for spiritual times alone and in community, and more.

It is hard to remain closely connected with this love at all times, in the midst of our many struggles and the world conditions described above. However, I also believe that it is the only immunity we have against demagoguery. In this case I am talking about the demagoguery of the progressive movements themselves, and the media that caters to them.

I have a few friends who read and hear what the others read and hear. Yet over these heartbreaking 10+ years (of mounting anti-semitism in progressive movements) I have noticed what distinguishes them: They seem to constantly refer to their humanistic values before making up their mind about an opinion they hear. They touch into what they know to be true with heart and mind connected.They do it quite easily. The path is very well worn, so when difficult issues arise, they don’t loose it completely. This skill, this form of love, this way of thinking, is essential if we want to aviod the tyrannies that have attended the large and small revolutions born of progressive movements everywhere. The antisemitism I see in progressive movements and academia in the last 10 years seems cultic to me.