Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 1990, Page 9
Who Suffers When Criticism of Israel Is Equated With Anti-Semitism?
By Richard H. Curtiss
"The willingness to condemn the Jewish state for things others are not condemned for-this is not a higher standard. It is a discriminatory standard. And discrimination against Jews has a name too. The word for it is anti-Semitism."
—Charles Krauthammer, Time, Feb. 26 1990.
"Healing has come slowly to Jewish students at the American University, where vandals scrawled anti-Semitic slurs on a main gate and a dormitory wall last week," the two-column report in a recent issue of the Washington Jewish Week begins. "Although the offensive graffiti were removed within hours of their discovery last Thursday morning and the university moved swiftly to condemn the act, students continued Tuesday to seek outlets to vent their shock and anger."
The story quotes at some length such expressions by Jewish students, who make up about 30 percent of the Washington, DC university's student body, and denunciations of "bigotry" by the director of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League's local office and the president of the university.
Only one sentence describes the outrage itself: "Among the spray-painted graffiti were a slur on 'Israel Zionists' and a pictogram equating a Jewish star with a swastika." A photo shows only a Star of David, an equal sign and a swastika on an otherwise blank wall.
The American University has large numbers of Arab students and, as on campuses across the nation, dozens of male and female American students routinely wear the checkered black and white Palestinian kuffiya as a scarf or headdress. Without the Washington Jewish Week'sguidance, therefore, and bearing in mind the fact that the Star of David is emblazoned on Israel's flag, military and civilian aircraft, and as an ideogram on many items made in or associated with Israel, passersby could be forgiven for interpreting the three-character "pictogram" as a statement in algebraic form that "Israel is Fascist" or "Israelis are Nazis."
Yet the attack was described in the national capital's authoritative Jewish publication not as "anti-Israel" but "anti-Semitic." To state the obvious, if the vandals had intended an attack on Judaism, American Jews or Jews in general, they would very likely have made this clear by drawing a menorah. They certainly would not have referred to them as "Israeli Zionists."
A great many American Jews criticize the policies of Israeli extremists like Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir, particularly since the latter's stubborn refusal to accede to US requests to implement his own West Bank elections plan. Such American Jews would be deeply offended if leaders of mainstream US Jewish organizations informed them that their criticisms of Israel make them "anti- Semitic." Yet, they unprotestingly allow mainstream Jewish leaders and journalists to apply that term indiscriminately to non-Jewish critics of the same Israeli leaders and policies.
They also tolerate semantic tricks such as that in the quotation at the top of this column by Charles Krauthammer, a national board member of Americans for a Safe Israel, an advocacy organization associated with rightwing Israeli leaders. Syndicated columnists Krauthammer, William Safire, and A.M. Rosenthal seem to have joined other aggressive American apologists for Israeli intransigence in equating all criticism of Israel with callous anti-Semitism.
How extremely destructive this is to the long-term credibility of both Israel and American Jews is illustrated by a mid-March poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC television. Sixty-three percent of the Americans polled, and more than half of American Jews, agreed with Senator Bob Dole's proposal to shave aid to Israel and the four other leading foreign aid recipients so that the US can help friendly regimes in Central America and in Eastern Europe. From answers to other questions the Journal concluded "that the public considers even West Germany or Japan to be more of a friend to the US than Israel is."
Do American Jews really want the leaders who speak in their names to equate the criticisms of Israel by a growing American majority with -anti-Semitism? Depicting criticism of current Israeli stonewalling of the peace process as anti-Semitism will have virtually no effect in stifling such criticism. It may, however, eventually take the sting out of a charge used so loosely, and unfairly.
Equating criticism of specific Israeli actions with anti-Semitism will seem to many Americans to be a repetition of what is increasingly perceived as cynical media exploitation of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. When, month in and month out, new films based on the tragic Nazi German genocide against Europe's Jews are shown on US television, it begins to seem that the aim is not so much to prevent such horrors from happening again, but to ensure that, 45 years after the Holocaust, Israel continues to receive special treatment when the US allocates its dwindling world-wide foreign aid.
Syndicated columnist Richard Cohen, a sincere but sometimes critical supporter of Israel, capsulizes that feeling with a suggestion that few non-Jewish writers would dare to advance: "I come now to the Holocaust Museum currently being erected on the Mall. I have always doubted its appropriateness. The Holocaust, to which most of the museum would be dedicated, was not an American experience. The United States was peripheral to the event ... I would like a Holocaust museum in every one of the world's cities. I would like that because the Holocaust was a universal experience- something that people did to people. But if there is to be one major museum, if $147 million is to be spent somewhere, then it ought to be where the Holocaust originated: Germany.. The Holocaust Museum will be in Washington because American Jews want it here. As such, it will be a 'Jewish museum'—extraneous to the broad American experience, but not to the German or European one. The museum belongs at the site of the crime—a gift from America, particularly American Jews, to the German nation."
White Americans have sins of their own to repent, including the treatment by their ancestors both of the aboriginal inhabitants of their own land and of the Black slaves who were brought from Africa to labor in that land. Few would disagree with the appropriateness of memorials in Washington, DC to the achievements and tragedies of American Indian and American Black victims of indigenous racism. But as American visitors experience the Holocaust museum, they may share Cohen's doubts as to the motive and appropriateness of situating it in Washington instead of Europe. What is accomplished by the insistence of organized American Jewry not just in commemorating the unique horrors of the Holocaust, but in treating every individual criticism of Israel as an attack upon Jews in America? Are American Jews in real danger?
In fact there is far more concern within Jewish communities across the United States today at the chronically low birthrates to Jewish couples, and the fact that 30 to 40 percent of US Jews outside major American Jewish centers marry non-Jews. As Professor Daniel J. Lasker of Ben Gurion University in the Negev put it:
"In America today Jewish life is threatened neither by slavery nor by persecution nor by anti-Semitism. Jewish life is threatened by the danger that assimilation will weaken the Jewish community to the point that it will lose its vibrancy and vitality."
Nevertheless, some politicians are having a field day with the anti-Semitism issue. Senator Paul Simon, who has received almost half a million dollars from pro-Israel political action committees in the past eight years, has introduced into the Senate the Hate Crimes Assistance Act. It instructs the FBI to begin an annual accounting of acts ranging from the type of vandalism that occurred at American University to arson, assaults and murders that seem to be motivated by hatred for a person's race, religion or sexual preference.
"There's a growing poison in the land, a growing hatred," Simon maintains. "You can't treat the problem if you don't know where it is."
What is the immediate effect of cries of "anti-Semitism," and the extraordinary attention paid by Jewish students to the speakers brought to campuses by Black students?
At American University, scene of the graffiti incident, "relations between Arabs and Jews are definitely very, very tense," according to David Fain, a sophomore quoted by Washington Jewish Week. "Getting together any type of meeting or panel discussion is often very difficult. And relations between Jews and Blacks are also very tense—much, much more than they should be ... There are 127 countries represented here at American, and we need to try and create here a community of peace."
Nat Hentoff, a long-time crusader for civil liberties, advises Jewish students to lower the confrontational rhetoric when African American student groups bring speakers such as Louis Farrakhan and Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael) to campus, even if the event is paid for from student body funds.
"Censoring speakers gives their supporters another issue that can be used to becloud the real issue of anti-Semitism. When Jewish students are accused of being against free speech, they're put on the defensive—for a long time to come—on that campus."
It's good advice. Better advice, however, would be to make clearer and fairer distinctions between "anti-Semitism," "anti-Zionism," and simple criticism of Israel.
Although Farrakhan is generally careful to confine his criticisms to Israel and Zionism, he has a genius for inserting into his rhetoric just enough ambiguous phrases to keep him in the national headlines. When Jewish critics complained about Farrakhan's alleged reference to Judaism as a "gutter religion," they put Farrakhan on front pages around the nation. His explanation that he had meant the exact opposite—that Israeli soldiers couldn't possibly justify their actions against the Palestinians on religious grounds unless theirs was a "dirty religion"—delighted his followers, infuriated his Jewish critics and kept his name in the headlines and his speeches packed.
The Smear of Anti-Semitism
Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, is the target of a smear campaign that all American Blacks, and most whites, recognize as unfair. His "Hymietown" remark was made in private and at the height of a campaign in which he was being harassed at every appearance by noisy, organized Jewish hecklers.
In fact he is being smeared because he traveled to the Middle East to meet Yasser Arafat. There Jackson embraced not only the Palestinian leader, but the two-state solution to provide Israel with security and the Palestinians with self-determination. Some American Jews, more than half of whom now also support the two state solution, apparently cannot forgive him for being the first to be right. In routinely referring to him as "anti-Semitic," they are repeating slurs every bit as serious as his own one-time slur six years ago against New York's Jews.
Some politicians are having a field day with the anti-Semitism issue.
Current attacks against Representative Gus Savage (D-IL), an easy target, may prove to be equally unfair. He is a congressman from a 70-percent-Black constituency in Chicago, where Black and white neighborhoods are as polarized as anywhere in the United States. He has been critical of Israel. A widower, he hit the headlines a year ago with allegations that he tried to force his attentions upon a Black Peace Corps volunteer assigned to his embassy escort during his official visit to Zaire. He in turn accused his accusers, and the newspapers that carried those accusations, of racism.
In March, journalists reported he had made anti-Semitic remarks at a Chicago election rally. They demanded that he be repudiated by Representative William H. Gray III (D-PA), who has presidential ambitions, and Representative Charles B. Rangel (D-NY), from heavily Jewish New York City, both of whom had attended the rally but were not present when the alleged remarks were made.
In his own defense, Savage invited the press to view a videotape of his entire speech. The charge of "anti-Semitism" apparently was based upon two videotaped statements. One was that his opponent, also Black, had received more than 90 percent of his campaign donations from "pro-Israel, Jewish organizations," a tabulation Rep. Savage offered to prove. The other statement was that this outside intervention into his congressional district was orchestrated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which he said was guilty of "un-American" and "illegal" actions.
Coordinating PAC donations is illegal, and AIPAC has been charged with doing just that in a formal complaint pending with the Federal Election Commission signed by the writer of this article, among others. Therefore, if Savage has done his arithmetic correctly, the allegations of "anti-Semitism" in his statement must refer to his reference to pro-Israel Jewish PACs, and to AIPAC, an organization of US citizens which exists to lobby on behalf of Israel, as "un-American." It's a judgment call on which Savage's media accusers and home district supporters will, almost certainly, disagree.
Anti-Semitism Does Exist
Although observers agree that anti-Semitism does not pose any real threat to Jews in post World War II America, it would be absurd to maintain that it does not exist and could never increase.
"Most research in this country indicates a level of hard-core anti-Semitism equal to about five percent of the (American) population," according to Dr. Raymond Duch of the University of Houston, who has just completed a survey of anti-Jewish feelings in the Soviet Union partly funded by the American Jewish Committee.
Those US figures, high as they seem, hardly justify the degree of alarm evidenced in this excerpt from a weekly column from Israel by Emanuel Rackman on the "Cancer of Anti-Semitism" in The Jewish Week (Queens, NY) of March 9:
"I find it difficult to believe that a presumably august body such as the European Parliament would be so vicious as to impose sanctions on Israel in the cultural and scientific spheres ... We are back to 'square one' not only in the United States but all over the world. Sixty years after 1930, we are back to 1930 with perhaps more nations afflicted with the cancer than ever before. What a horrible disappointment for those of us who had hoped that our involvement in World War II would end all of this and the rise of the state of Israel would shrink the cancer rather than aggravate it ...
"We are to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. But how does one continue to do this in the face of the almost congenital hatred and mistrust that we suffer?"
Rackman clearly equates any criticism of Israel with "almost congenital" anti-Semitism. His is the same pessimistic philosophy that, a century ago, gave rise to the Zionist dream of creating a Jewish state as a refuge from inevitable persecution for Jews from all over the world.
That state's major problem at present, however, is its unwillingness to accept the fact that the Jewish refugees aren't coming, and that the lands it is holding for them in the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights could be put to far better use by giving them back to their Arab occupants in exchange for a permanent peace.
Postponing the inevitable
It is highly unlikely that many of the hapless Russian Jews presently arriving in Israel, only because the US will no longer receive them, will stay in the Jewish state for long. Even if all of them did stay, however, they would only postpone by 5 or 10 years the moment, early in the next century, when Arabs outnumber Jews in Israel and the occupied territories. This in itself is sufficient reason for American Jews to abandon their silence and insist that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories.
A recent survey by Steven M. Cohen of the City University of New York reveals that although leaders of American Jewish organizations generally give unquestioning support to the policies of any elected government of Israel, these leaders themselves favor by 3 to 1 Israeli talks with moderate PLO leaders and a land-for-peace settlement.
They would be doing Israel and themselves a favor by expressing these views publicly, and supporting the present Bush administration initiative for a land-for-peace settlement providing security to the Israelis and self determination to the Palestinians.
An excellent start would be for American Jews to begin listening and reacting thoughtfully to the political dialogue at home. Branding informed and honest criticism of Israeli policies as "anti-Semitism" is a disservice to political discourse in America, to mode rate leaders in Israel, and, most of all, to the credibility of American Jews themselves, both in the US and in Israel. ❑
Richard H. Curtiss, a retired foreign service information officer, is chief editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.