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Meditations in a Time of Delusions and Lies 18: The New New Anti-Semitism

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February 1, 2007

The New New Anti-Semitism

Alarm bells are going off among rigid pro-Israel circles about "the new anti-Semitism" - which means the increasing criticism of Israeli policies, particularly its occupation of Palestinian lands. At Stanford, where I teach, students organized Students Confronting Apartheid in Israel (SCAI), calling for divestment from selected companies that sustain the occupation of the West Bank, not a general boycott of Israel. They announced their campaign on the same day that President Jimmy Carter's recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid appeared. Both used the hot-button term of "apartheid" as an analogy to describe Israel's policies of separation walls, Jews-only by-pass roads, passbook checkpoints and segregated settlements on confiscated land. It's not an exact fit, but a good enough analogy, as Carter and the students explained. The students, while raising the issues of discrimination against Palestinians who are Israeli citizens, took great care, as Carter did, to focus just on the occupation and not attack Israel as a country.

No matter. SCAI, like Carter, has been virulently attacked as anti-Semites, and in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Anti-Defamation League has held a conference to fight "the new anti-Semitism" represented by such criticism.

Such a charge is actually not so new. From the beginning of the occupation in 1967 through decades, critics have been castigated as anti-Semites. When Jesse Jackson called for negotiations with the PLO and for a two-state solution, when Americans spoke out against the policy of "breaking bones" during the first intifada - every time there have been criticisms of Israel, charges are leveled of the "new anti-Semitism" or "Black anti-Semitism" or the "real anti-Semitism." It's tiresome.

But now there is a difference. While Carter has been denounced as an anti-Semite, he was able to gain a standing ovation from students at the predominately Jewish campus of Brandeis University, and he will be heard no matter what kind of names he is called. Students at Stanford have responded to attacks with cool reason, measured words and quiet fortitude, and they are gaining an audience. Presbyterian and other churches have been attacked for their decisions about divestment but they have not faltered.

Increasingly, prominent Jewish critics of Israel have been targeted. Now the American Jewish Committee is distributing an essay by Alvin H. Rosenfeld entitled " 'Progressive' Jewish Thought and [yes] the New Anti-Semitism" attacking Tony Judt, Tony Kushner, Adrienne Rich, the late Arthur Miller and more. This attack has only accelerated the widespread dismay that continues to run through Jewish intellectual circles. Even Jews sensitive to Jewish concerns are being slandered in defense of Israel's self-destructive policies, and more and more Jews are alienated to such "your with us or you're against us" mindsets.

Usually, those leveling charges of the new "new anti-Semitism" harp on a few themes. According to them, critics employ double standards, focusing on Israel while ignoring failings of other countries, particularly Arab and Muslim countries. One of the key organizers of SCAI was also one of the leaders in (successfully) calling for Stanford to divest from companies that do business with Sudan despite the dismal situation in Darfur. Still, he was attacked for double standards, and in fact there is virtually nothing he could do to shield himself from castigation.

No matter how single your standard, you will be attacked by many supporters of Israel. Nor is this the first time "double standards" have been used as a smokescreen. I've been around long enough and been on the receiving end of these charges, so I'd like to remind people of certain realities these attackers ignore.

In the eighties I worked for a newspaper which called for Palestinian rights, and we wrote editorials denouncing the atrocities committed by both sides of teh Iran-Iraq war. We wondered why the US was actually backing Iraq (although after Iran-Contra broke, we learned that the US was actually supplying both sides with the aim of helping each to destroy the other). Not too many pro-Israel supporters cried out about the one million people killed in that stupid war - nor did they complain about America's complicity in egging on both sides.

For decades Middle East peace advocates criticized reactionary anti-democratic regimes throughout the Middle East, noting how the US funded the repressive apparatus of many of these regimes in order to destroy any indigenous movement for democracy. Activists in the Middle East peace movement denounced the murderous regime of the Shah of Iran - and when Ayatollah Khomeni took over and jailed and executed secular democrats and socialists, we denounced the Islamic regime as well.

When I and others spoke out about Israel's alliance with apartheid South Africa, we were met with howls by supporters of Israel - until representatives of the ANC addressed the same audiences, and the attackers were too embarrassed to speak. Along those lines, it was no accident in the eighties that the Bay Area ADL was caught spying not only on Middle East activists but on such "radical" civil rights organizations as the NAACP and anti-apartheid organizations - and then turned over their intelligence to the South African as well as Israeli governments.

Actually, all throughout this time the "double standard" operated more in the other direction: no one was allowed to criticize Israel without being ostracized or attacked. The most odious example of that was the huge disarmament demonstration in 1982 in New York during which even the peace march organizers banned any posters calling for the end of Israel's invasion of Lebanon then going on.

None of the critics targeted as the new "new anti-Semites" condone terrorism, and they have condemned such actions as suicide bombings against civilians. Most of these critics acknowledge that both sides have blood on their hands. But this has not stopped the cadres of Israel's holier-than-thou defenders from attacking these critics.

Israel is a vital, strategic component of American policy in the Middle East. It serves as a reliable military outpost and partner, fulfilling joint goals, such as last summer's unsuccessful attack on Lebanon or the possible upcoming attack on Iran, and the Bush administration has allowed the Israelis to build settlements and do as it wishes, just so long as the big picture of American domination of the region is kept clearly in focus. Yet Israel's continuing dispossession and abuse of the Palestinian people is a festering sore in the region; it is a major source of instability. Consequently, anyone who wants to end the American occupation of Iraq and the growing hatred for Americans in the region has to address Israel's role, as well. The Iraq Study Group stated this obvious truth - it's not a terribly radical insight - and this is why in great part the campaign against the new "new anti-Semitism" has been launched.

I think the time has long passed for these slanders to come to an end. The tragedy is that these tactics obscure dealing with real problems and real hatred. Many people in the Middle East do hate Israelis - they bomb their homes, confiscate their land, and more in the name of all Jews. At the same time too many Americans entertain half-baked ideas about purported Jewish power. So, it's not as if everything will become a love fest. And it's not as if opportunists like the president of Iran who trot out denials of the holocaust are not fanning anti-Semitism. But if the real abuses of Israel are not confronted in a free and open debate in the United States, then it only means more hatred, directed not only against Jews but also against Americans.

Now, I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired, as Fannie Lou Hammer once said. I just hope that we can all get to the other side of this mess and actually deal with the situation. The American public is beginning to wake up, although the political elite still follows the logic of empire, and Israel is a close partner in sustaining that logic. We need to debate realities and begin to change the framework for America's role in the world.

America is a great nation and not a great bully who allows its junior partner to run roughshod over its neighbors. Such behavior doesn't help us and it certainly doesn't help the Israeli people, not to mention the Palestinians.

It took 25 years out of office for Carter to speak out. No one has the luxury to wait another 25 years.

Hilton Obenzinger
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Hilton Obenzinger is the author of "American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania" (Princeton), among many other books of criticism, poetry and fiction, and the recipient of the American Book Award. His most recent book is the (more...)
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