Do we truly understand the term “antisemitism”? Mark Weber shed much light on the subject in this talk at [email protected] on May 14, 2019. Many in the audience wanted to read it and share his remarks with others. So here it is, in it’s entirety.
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By Mark Weber
Recently, we’ve watched with dismay as supporters of Israel in the United States have launched attacks on first-term Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), accusing her of antisemitism because she’s been critical of Israel and has raised the specter of “dual loyalty.” This is just the latest of many incidents in which false charges of antisemitism have been used to stifle criticism of Israeli policy and support for Palestinian human rights. In particular, we have seen this term used to bully and to intimidate young activists on campuses across the country. Spineless college administrators and corrupt politicians of both parties in state legislatures, under pressure from wealthy donors and the Israel Lobby, have sought to suppress these student activists’ work on behalf of Palestinian rights.
Today, antisemitism has become associated with Israel and its policies toward the West Bank and Gaza. To put our discussion in perspective, let’s go back to the origins of the term “anti-Semitism.” Let’s reflect on the politicization of antisemitism in the United States and the use of the term “antisemitism” as a cudgel to bludgeon critics of Israel, forcing them to abandon their criticisms of Israel while defending themselves against false charges of bigotry.
The term “Israel Lobby” means a constellation of organizations that see their mission as the vigorous defense of Israeli interests in the United States. However, the term “Jewish Lobby” is both misleading and inaccurate. Why? Because American Jews are deeply divided over Israel and its expansionist policies toward occupied Palestine. From the point of view of Prime Minister Netanyahu, his most reliable allies in the United States are not rank-and-file American Jews, but rather Christian evangelicals. They support Israel because they see it as the fulfillment of the Christian dream of an “ingathering of Jews” in the Middle East, a critical precondition for the Second Coming. Of course, part of this narrative is the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity. This fact gets lost in the shuffle when they loudly proclaim their support for virtually anything that Israel does.
ORIGINS OF THE TERM “ANTISEMITISM”
“Antisemitism” was coined in the year 1891 by one of the principal architects of modern, racial antisemitism, Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Marr (1869-1904). Marr was one of the leaders of an organization called The League of Antisemites. This was a far-right-wing political organization in Imperial Germany in the years before the First World War. The goal of Marr and his followers was to take away from the Jews of Germany their civil and political rights. Marr disliked the term “Judenhass” or Jew hatred. He felt that it carried religious overtones. He wanted a new term that would sound modern and scientific. The old religious bigotry against Jews, going back two thousand years, demanded that Jews convert to Christianity. To modern racists like Wilhelm Marr, this ancient hatred was inadequate. They theorized in their speeches and writings that Jews carried a “racial stain” that could not be cleansed and that conversion to Christianity would not fix.
The precise term antisemitism derived from a dubious 18th Century study of languages that differentiated between “Aryan languages” and “Semitic languages.” From this, these German racial theorists falsely reasoned that there were corresponding racial groups. Within this politically-conceived racial hierarchy, “Aryans” were Germans and “Semites” were Jews. This paved the way for Marr’s new vocabulary of hate. He felt it was far superior to the old-fashioned religious hatred of Jews, which he viewed as “unscientific.” Eventually, the term antisemitism became a way of speaking about all forms of hostility toward Jews throughout history. All of the anti-Jewish villains, real and mythical, from Haman of the Purim story to Martin Luther were simply labelled “antisemitic.”
Gradually, there grew to be a shared understanding that antisemitism meant hostility toward Jews as individuals or collectively anywhere in the world. However, through misunderstanding about the origin of the term, many reason that it should also refer to other “semitic” peoples who exist today…Arabs, Assyrians, and Samaritans. However, Wilhelm Marr, the anti-Jewish bigot who coined the term, intended it to apply only to Jews. He wanted the term antisemitism to herald a new “racial” and “scientific” from of Jew hatred that would be deeper and more uncompromising than the older religious forms of Jew hatred, which focused on converting Jews to Christianity. With this new term, anti-Semitism, and with the accompanying racial classification, Marr sought to brand Jews as a race, set apart and eternally cursed. For the Jews of Germany in these years, there was no conversion and there was no escape. This new form of racial Jew hatred that Marr called antisemitism was deeper and more insidious than earlier forms of Jew hatred based in Christianity. This new racial Jew hatred had the cheap veneer of a phony science and it also appeared to some to be something “new” and even “progressive” to some misguided souls. This mixture of pseudo-science and modernity was a dangerous concoction. As Whittaker Chambers once wrote: “From Marr’s nonsense, it was only a short walk to the gas ovens of Auschwitz.”
Indiscriminate use the term antisemitism obscures its origins. Most people think a group of disinterested scholars coined the term and applied it to mean only hatred of Jews. They don’t realize that the term antisemitism is itself a term of hatred. It was coined by people who hated Jews and it was meant to be a racial and “dressed up version” of the older notion of Jews as anti-Christian and therefore worthy of eternal hatred. With the end of World War II and with the searing tragedy of the Holocaust, open antisemitism went underground. In its place came “Holocaust Denial.” In the West, both in Europe and the United States, there arose a movement that declined to attack Jews directly but instead claimed the Holocaust never really happened, implying that European Jews did not deserve sympathy or support as survivors of the Holocaust. One of the most infamous of these Holocaust deniers was the British writer David Irving. It was Irving who, taking advantage of Britain’s lax libel laws, filed a defamation suit against the U.S. scholar and historian Deborah Lipstadt, author of the book, Denying the Holocaust: a study of the Holocaust denial movement. She wrote that David Irving was an antisemite and Irving sued. The British court found for Deborah Lipstadt and dealt a blow to the Holocaust denial movement. Of course, this movement still exists. This type of antisemitism fell within the shared understanding of antisemitism as an attack on Jews either individually or collectively. Major Jewish organizations, the American Historical Association, the Association of American Historians and other learned societies all condemned Holocaust denialism as bigoted and a form of hatred of Jews. There was disagreement as to whether Holocaust deniers should be accorded First Amendment protection. However, there was NO disagreement as to the nature of Holocaust denial.
THE END OF THE SHARED UNDERSTANDING OF ANTISEMITISM
In the late 1980’s, the definition of antisemitism began to shift. The Israeli government (both Labor and Likud) oversaw the creation of a newly-established Monitoring Forum on Antisemitism (MFA). Through this organization the Israelis worked with major American Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League, to create an expanded definition that has clouded the shared understanding of antisemitism. This “remake” of antisemitism is best described by Canadian lawyer and jurist, Irwin Cotler, a former cabinet minister in the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin during the years 2003-2006. He writes:
“In a word, the shared understanding of antisemitism was that antisemitism was the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live as equal members in whatever society they choose to inhabit. Now with the expansion of the meaning of antisemitism, antisemitism came to mean also the discrimination against, denial of, or assault upon the right of the Jewish people to live in Israel as a member of the family of nations.”
This subtle expansion of the meaning of antisemitism by uncritical supporters of Israel led to what we see today…namely, the labeling as “antisemitic” of all those who, in the name of human rights, dare to criticize Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and the resulting exploitation and oppression of indigenous Palestinian Arabs.
The attack on Israel’s critics as “antisemitic” intensified after 2005, when about 170 Palestinian civil society organizations signed a call for an economic boycott of Israel. This came to be called BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) and spread to become a worldwide grassroots movement. Faced with this, the Israeli government and the “Israel Lobby” in the United States demanded legislation to suppress the movement. In response, conservative states passed laws outlawing the advocacy of BDS. Most of these laws are unconstitutional and represent a violation of the First Amendment rights of American citizens, in the interests of a foreign nation. However, Israel and those organizations, like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) held sway over Democrats and Republicans in Congress and in state legislatures and “anti-BDS” laws were passed in more than half of the fifty states. Several of these laws have already been struck down in the courts. In public comments, Noah Pollack, of the Emergency Committee for Israel, urged people to call both BDS supporters and members of Jewish Voice for Peace “hate groups” and “antisemites.”
POINTS OF DEBATE OVER ANTISEMITISM
In writings and in the media, apologists for Israel, like Allan Dershowitz and Brett Stephens, have launched a number of attacks on Israel’s critics with the following allegations.
- Dual Loyalty: Representative Ilhan Omar has been subjected to a smear campaign because she hinted that some backers of Israel have a dual loyalty. Her many attackers fail to mention that in 2007, three employees of AIPAC who are US citizens were indicted under the 1917 Espionage Act because they passed classified information to Israeli agents in theUnited States. Is this dual loyalty
- Anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism. Most recently, this lie was repeated by Brett Stephens, right-wing journalist, who made the assertion this year in the April 29th New York Times. Stephens, it appears, is ignorant of the strong anti-Zionist tradition within Reform Judaism in the United States. Organizations like the American Council for Judaism were strongly opposed to Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Reform leaders like Rabbi Elmer Berger, who was born in Cleveland, asserted that a state like Israel in the Middle East would be a source of discord and division within the Jewish community. It appears he was right. Now, apologists like Stephens and others want to erase Jewish anti-Zionists from the pages of American Jewish history and, failing that, to simply smear them as antisemites.
- “Israel has a right to exist.” The Israel Lobby contends that Israel has an immutable right to exist and to question this “right” is antisemitic. In truth, no state has an absolute, abstract right to exist – not Israel, not the United States, not Egypt or Norway or Japan. A nation’s right to exist is determined by how well or poorly it treats its people and others over whom it rules. That is the standard we should use to evaluate all states. This is “antisemitic” only to those who place the interests of Israel above those of the United States.
- “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.” Israel is a democracy for Israelis who claim Jewish nationality. In the Knesset, there are several bills that, if enacted, would take away the right to vote for Israeli Arabs who live inside the 1948 armistice lines and who make up 23% of the population. The Nationalities bill that passed last year effectively states that only Israeli Jews have the right of self-determination. Is this democracy?
- “Israel and the United States have identical interests.” This is another untruth promoted by the Israel Lobby in the United States. Israel is an independent country with its own strategic interests. For years, Israel has tried to persuade the United States to take military action against Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu may think that war with Iran is in the interests of Israel. However, most Americans when polled, do not agree that just because Israel wants war with Iran, that war is in U.S. interests. Israel also interferes in the internal political debates in the United States. A good example is Netanyahu’s unprecedented visit to Congress to attack President Obama and the Iran treaty, which was then before Congress.
- The Return of the Blacklist. A website called Canary Mission is funded secretly by a number of organizations such as Hillel of San Francisco, and by financier Adam Milstein who heads a group called the Israeli American Council. Milstein intends Canary Mission as a weapon to blacklist Americans who support Palestinian rights or BDS or who are critical of Israel. Included are both Palestinian and Jewish activists as well as other Americans who support the rights of Palestinian Arabs. The goal of Canary Mission is intimidation, especially to young Jewish and Palestinian student activists whose futures may be compromised by Canary Mission’s blacklisting them.
The end of the “shared understanding” of antisemitism has meant its weaponization, to be used against American citizens who are critical of Israel. Our shared understanding of antisemitism has been eroded by Israel’s apologists. We must rise up and demand our First Amendment rights and speak out for justice in Palestine. The time to begin is now.