What's Left

January 6, 2002

On criticism of Israel

By Stephen Gowans

A standard accusation made by Israel's boosters is that criticism of Tel Aviv's policies is motivated by anti-Semitism. And while it is said fervently that the accusation is not intended to deter criticism, it plainly is. Indeed, so sweeping is the statement, and so patently political in intent, it's surprising that those who make it keep getting away with it.

It should be obvious that a statement of the type "all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic" is highly unlikely to be true, for this would imply that anyone who criticizes Israeli policy hates Jews. It's difficult to imagine how this could be so, for it prohibits the very real possibility that at least some criticism of Israel (if not more than that) may be motivated by other concerns.

To be sure, it's possible to establish a definitional equivalence between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, so that anti-Israeli criticism becomes an instance of anti-Semitism, by definition. But this is making words mean whatever you want them to mean, simply to suit whatever purpose you have at a given moment. Drawing the equivalence enlarges the meaning of the word "anti-Semitism" from a negative emotional orientation toward Jews (which is how the word is usually understood) to include, on top of the everyday meaning, a negative political analysis of a country's policies -- hardly what anti-Semitism is understood to be, although it would have to be admitted that the equivalence is a convention to be fervently wished for by anyone seeking to mute Israel's critics.

As an empirical matter, criticism of Israel could be a manifestation of anti-Semitism, in the emotional sense; that is, those who hate Jews may be inclined to criticize Israeli policies. But this hardly implies that all criticism of the policies pursued by Tel Aviv masks, or is impelled by, a negative emotional orientation toward Jews as a whole, anymore than it can be said that since anti-capitalists are inclined to criticize Washington's policies, anyone who criticizes Washington must be anti-capitalist. This is a common enough logical error, but an error all the same.

Instead, it should be said that, yes, some criticism of Israel is motivated by hatred of Jews, but equally some criticism of Israel is not. David Duke, a white supremacist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan, is a fierce critic of Israel. It can probably be said with a fair degree of certainty that Duke criticizes Israel because he hates Jews, but there are three things that should be said about this:

1. Duke's anti-Semitism can be inferred from far more than his criticism of Israel. True anti-Semites are likely to have a long history of behavior, outside of overt criticism of Israeli policies, that points to an anti-Jewish orientation.

2. Duke's motivation for criticizing Tel Aviv's policies doesn't, by itself, invalidate his criticisms. His criticisms must be refuted, or accepted, on their merits. (If someone who hated Germans condemned the Nazis for the Holocaust, would his condemnation be invalid?)

3. Duke, like many pro-Israelis, draws the same invalid equivalence between Israel and "the Jews", where many critics of Israel do not. Indeed, if you wanted to sort anti-Semitic from non-anti-Semitic critics of Israel, you might ask, Does he or she regard Israel and the Jews as equal?

Let's take each point in turn. While it's often alleged that much, or all, criticism of Israel that comes from the political left is motivated by hatred of Jews, it's more likely to be true that much criticism of Israel that is anti-Semitic comes from the political right. The political left, being more vociferous and compelling in its criticism of Israel, and perhaps more sensitive to charges of racism, is singled out for this smear; the political right, however, is largely ignored. And yet it is among the right-wing followers of David Duke, and to some extent Pat Buchanan, that the telltales signs of anti-Semitism are everywhere in evidence. It is here that you'll find the belief that Israel, or "the Jews", run Washington, that the war on Iraq is not about oil, and has no connection to imperialist designs, but has been ordered by Tel Aviv because, it's said, Jews run the world, or are conspiring to do so. It is here, too, that much is made of the names of the people who surround President George W. Bush: Perle, Fleischer, Wolfowitz.

These arguments are easily dismissed. True, they are almost certainly anti-Semitic in origin, but they're readily refuted otherwise. Criticism from the political left, on the other hand, almost invariably concerns Israeli violations of international and humanitarian law, the inefficacy of the crackdown on the Intifida in protecting Israel's citizens from terrorist attacks, the reasons for the Intifada, and the role Washington plays in facilitating Israel's transgressions. These are far more difficult to deal with than, say, the political right argument that the United States is run by Tel Aviv, which is probably why it is the left, not the right, that's singled out for attention.

Still, while anti-Semitism may be the basis for some criticism (particularly from the right), it's long been a foundation of Western thought that arguments must be addressed on their merits, and not by reference to the personal qualities of those who put forward the arguments. This, however, is rarely observed in practice, the attractions of ad hominem argument being too arresting, and, sadly, all too often highly persuasive, even among supposedly intelligent and well-educated people.

As an almost invariable rule, those too lazy to address an argument on its merits, or who haven't a reply, will dismiss the bearer of the argument as a way of dismissing the argument itself. (This has an obverse: accepting someone's argument, without consideration of the argument itself, on the basis of the person's credentials alone.) Almost everyone does it. Who hasn't dismissed a troubling argument, with "I once saw him reading a Lyndon Larouche publication; that guy's a nutbar," or "I wouldn't listen to anything she has to say; she belongs to a bizarre, neo-Stalinist, sect," or "Isn't he one of those conspiracy theory kooks?" which has its complement: "Isn't he one of those conspiracy theory demolishers in thrall to the conspirators?" How tempting to dismiss the political left's criticism of Israel's violation of humanitarian law, for example, than to make the charge that the political left is rife with conscious and unconscious anti-Semites.

Many people, no less on the political left than in the mainstream, and perhaps more so on the political left, are wont to twist themselves into knots, making endless compromises and holding their tongues to avoid that terrible fate: having one's credibility questioned. Many, especially moderate leftists, are already sensitive to being seen as kooks, and are eager to show that unlike all those others, they are not so firmly ensconced on the margins of polite society that they've relinquished all credibility. Championing an unpopular cause or defending someone unfairly, but effectively, demonized, is not for them. Their credibility must be safeguarded at all cost. There are a thousand selfless reasons why this must be so.

An article I wrote on how liberals were using ad hominem arguments to dismiss far-left groups that were organizing antiwar rallies, titled "The ad hominem distractions of America's liberals," was dismissed by one liberal on the grounds that I was "loony." This, he said, was proved by an article I had written being posted on a conspiracy theory portal "below one authored by Michael Rupert," the ex-LAPD cop who says Washington was complicit in 9/11. This, I presume, was to suggest I had a conspiracy theory to peddle (which I don't.) The article in question examined the weakness of all accounts of what happened on 9/11, including the official accounts; it could hardly be said to be the articulation of a conspiracy theory. Nevertheless, my name was next to Rupert's, so I must, it was intimated, be part of "that crowd." I had also, and this was to be my second undoing, signed a petition expressing concerns about the fairness of the trial of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. This made me "an apologist for a thug." I was being dismissed for, what was to be taken to be, promoting a conspiracy theory and for supporting ethnic cleansing and genocide (for Milosevic's name is now emblematic of ethnic cleansing.)  I had done neither, but if I had, would that be sufficient grounds to dismiss the argument I had made about ad hominem distractions? By convention of Western thought it wouldn't have, but I'm not so naive as to suppose it hasn't. Still, the irony is amusing. An article on liberals using ad hominem arguments dismissed by a liberal using an ad hominem argument. Who needs satire?

I once had a long, and frustrating correspondence with a man who said that left critics of Israel are anti-Jewish. What proved most frustrating was his habit of systematically rewriting "Israel" to read "the Jews." So, when I would write "Israel" has done such and so, he would reply, "You say that 'the Jews' did such and so." Rather than asking me if I thought Israel had a right to defend itself he would ask whether I thought "the Jews" have the right to defend themselves,  and so on.

There is, of course, no reasonable grounds on which to draw an equivalence between Israel and the Jews; hence, my frustration. For starters, as my correspondent was fond of pointing out, Israel isn't a monoethnic state, so it could hardly be said to be purely Jewish. But even if it could, the equivalence still couldn't be made. And that's because all, even most, Jews, aren't Israeli. Therefore, Israel and the Jews can no more be said to be equivalent, than Lake Ontario and the United States can be said to be equivalent. Lake Ontario is only a part of the United States, and moreover, is also part of Canada.

Anti-Semitic critics of Israel, however, accept the equivalence. They are as comfortable as pro-Israelis in talking about Israel as "the Jews," and so condemn "the Jews" (not Israel) for their (not its) treatment of Palestinians. They talk of "the Jews" violating international law, that is when their attention isn't stuck on Tel Aviv running Washington. They would, I suspect, accept without reservation the inextricable linkages some Israeli apologists say exist between Israel and the Jews, Zionism and Judaism.

And yet, aren't these sweeping and invalid generalizations not the cognitive basis of racism? To say all Americans are violent warmongers is a silly prejudice born of equating the policies of America's power elite with everyone who claims American citizenship. How is this different from saying "all blacks are lazy" or "all Jews are crooked, sly and money-hungry," or "all Palestinians are terrorists"? Or "the Jews" equal "Israel" and "all Jews are Zionists"?

To be sure, Zionists would very much like Zionism and Judaism to be seen as inextricably bound, for the same reason America's pro-capitalists would very much like capitalism and America to be seen as inextricably bound. (This non-capitalist country or that must be opposed because it is against everything America stands for, says George W. Bush, which is a way of proclaiming an official American ideology -- capitalism. If you oppose capitalism, you oppose the United States, and must be treated accordingly.) This says, first, that an ideology has the weight of a people behind it, and second, that criticism of the ideology amounts to criticism of the equivalent people.

But it doesn't take long to see that the statement "criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism" is devoid of any practical meaning. Surely, it must be replied, "You don't mean all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic?", to which  those who make this argument, quickly concede that it does not. Accordingly, all sides agree that some criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, and some isn't, which is tantamount to saying some days it rains and some days it doesn't. The argument is really no different than this:

Mr. A: "It never rains."

Mr. B. "Surely, you don't mean there are not some days when it does rain.

Mr. A: No, of course not, you're right. I don't mean to say that at all.

Mr. B. So some days it doesn't rain, and some days it does?

Mr. A. Yes, I guess you're right.

Mr. B. So, why should I throw away my umbrella, for that's what your first statement implied, did it not?

And that's what Israel's defenders want us to do: throw away our umbrellas on the basis of a patently false statement.

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