By Jon Lohnes
The specter of anti-Semitism haunts all discussion of Palestine and Zionism. This is in and of itself unavoidable, and, indeed, allegations of anti-Semitism are entirely appropriate where some dimensions of the conflict are concerned. The Hamas Charter, for example, is overflowing with anti-Semitic rhetoric, something all people of conscience should condemn. But it is also demonstrably true that every major regional conflict since the June 1967 War has been accompanied by overwrought and largely spurious claims about the rise of a “new anti-Semitism” from pro-Israel activist and intellectual circles. When Israel’s defenders brandish the charge of anti-Jewish bigotry as a crude political weapon, it has the triple negative impact of trivializing historical and contemporary Jewish suffering, immunizing the State of Israel against legitimate criticism, and obscuring the symbiotic (as opposed to purely antagonistic) relationship between European anti-Semitism and Zionism. If recent campus back-and-forth is an appropriate measure of the level of critical thinking on these important subjects, I can only conclude that Binghamton’s alphabet soup of Israel advocacy groups are not prepared for a substantive exchange.
I will leave it to the original authors to address the accusations leveled against “March out, soldier parade: the IDF brigade.” I am interested in exploring the links between anti-Semitism and the Palestine Question, both on campus and more broadly. On the first count, muted reaction to a recent piece from the right-wing Binghamton Review is instructive. In “9 Reasons Why Bing Nightlife Sucks,” Chris Gil describes the fraternity scene as follows: “Who would have known that so many students from a school dominated by Jews would pay $5 for a frat party admission? That’s $5 for one, maybe two, warm and disgusting keg beers or sketchy punch. That’s just not cost effective. Silversteins worldwide are saddened.” The line separating legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism is sometimes murky. That ambiguity ensures that Israel advocacy groups can shift the goal post at will and thereby police opposition discourse. Gil’s remarks, on the other hand, represent an unambiguous case of anti-Semitism masquerading as satire. Why wasn’t his article condemned in the campus press? Binghamton University Zionist Organization and other pro-Israel student groups seem to have an altogether different conception of what constitutes hate speech when it’s coming from their political allies. The silence over Gil’s piece underscores the cynicism and hypocrisy of those who cry foul at an imagined anti-Semitism and fall silent on the transparent anti-Jewish bigotry of anyone whose politics align with their own (reminiscent of the marriage of convenience between Britain’s Zionist right and the anti-Semitic English Defense League).
This brings us to another problem. Received wisdom holds that Zionism is a political ideology absolutely opposed to anti-Semitism, which of course it nominally is. But if we consider the cultural and intellectual history of the Zionist mainstream, a different picture emerges. In its analysis of the Jewish condition in turn-of-the-century Europe, Herzlian political Zionism reproduced the logic, and many of the tropes, of European anti-Semitism. Herzl’s writings showcase a contemptuous attitude toward European Jewish cultural life. He described his coreligionists’ Yiddish as “the stealthy tongue of prisoners” and advocated jettisoning it in favor of “proper” European languages in the new Judenstaat. Zionist patriarch Max Nordau’s critique of “ghetto” and “bourgeois” Jewish bodies was, likewise, totally in line with anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish men as feeble, deviant, and emasculated.
The Zionist mainstream was in broad agreement with European anti-Semites that European Jews were an indigestible element for whom the only viable option was departure. With the understanding that gentiles would never accept Europe’s Jews as equals on the continent, Herzl, Nordau, and other major Zionist thinkers championed a program of making Jews “truly” European at a geographical remove. Herzl’s suggestion that Jews should form in Palestine “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism” speaks to the Zionist movement’s mimicry of European anti-Semitism and colonialism. The fact that mainstream contemporary Israeli politicians like Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon openly call Palestinians a “cancerous” threat to Jewish national integrity tells us a great deal about Zionism’s projection of anti-Semitic stereotypes onto its victims.
Anti-Semitism is not a secondary concern. It is central to understanding the conflict over Palestine. The invocation of historical Jewish suffering to deflect criticism of Israel, the lenient treatment meted out to pro-Israel anti-Semites, and political Zionism’s essentially anti-Semitic orientation are serious problems. If our campus community wants a serious conversation about anti-Semitism, we must wrestle with the substantive issues involved instead of allowing ourselves to be derailed by a sideshow.
Ed. Note: the Pipe Dream declined to run this editorial for technical reasons; it is posted here for the the campus community to access to it regardless.
Suggestions for further reading:
- Joseph Massad – The Persistence of the Palestine Question
- Gabriel Piterberg – The Returns of Zionism: Myths, Politics, and Scholarship in Israel
- Michael Stanislawski – Zionism and the Fin de Siècle
- Daniel Boyarin – Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man
- Todd S. Presner – Muscular Judaism: The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration
- Jonathan Judaken – “So what’s new? Rethinking the ‘new antisemitism’ in a global age”