The most effective way to begin an anti-Semitic rant is to preempt your musings with a refutation of all who you anticipate will call your courage and honesty ‘anti-Semitism.’ Chances are, you are right in thinking that Jews, among others, will be offended by your negative and over-generalized thoughts on ‘the Jews,’ their money, and their warmongering tendencies. But if you reveal your awareness of the forthcoming accusations, you miraculously inoculate yourself against the charges. It is not immediately apparent why that technique works every time, but it does.
It’s a technique John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have mastered, to judge from their recent book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The authors — who teach international relations at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively — argue that American Jewish leaders intentionally conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in order to garner U.S. support for that country. The media played along, citing such well-known and subtle thinkers as Alan Dershowitz and Abe Foxman denouncing the book as anti-Semitic — thus proving the authors’ point.
But what is remarkable about the controversy is how few of Walt and Mearsheimer’s critics actually called them or their book anti-Semitic. This, even among those who found that the pair gives a one-sided account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that they vastly overemphasize the power of Jews in America. Barring a few mostly predictable exceptions, critics respected the authors’ demand that the phrase “anti-Semitism” not be uttered in reference to their work or to them as individuals. Some critics noted that they purposefully avoided the phrase so as not to play into the professors’ own argument. Others avoided the expression so as to distance themselves from the hysteria of the implied party-line Jewish response. And still others just took the authors at their word. Thus the pair’s much-voiced anticipation that their critics would “play the anti-Semitism card” has allowed them to successfully silence the would-be silencers, and to insist on a respectful discussion of their work. This, although it’s debatable if the book deserves that type of respect.
Accusations of anti-Semitism today are considered evidence of oversensitivity to behavior that has nothing to do with Jews as such. Jews are thought to be overreacting to criticism of Israel or slights to victims who only happen to be Jewish. Walt and Mearsheimer put a political spin on this perception, arguing that Israel’s supporters manipulate the fear of anti-Semitism — and in some cases, people’s fear of being considered anti-Semitic — to further their cause. The professors are not the only ones to notice that Jews seem especially touchy. The New York media Web site Gawker sparked a less scholarly controversy of its own when it began posting clever anti-Jewish comments, daring anyone to be offended. According to Gawker’s graphic, “Things About the Jews That Are Funny,” the official funniest is “Constant Bitching About Anti-Semitism.” Since some of the writers at Gawker are Jews, this is meant to be read as self-deprecation. Regardless, the posts are amusing because they hit upon something many believe: that Jews make too much of a fuss.
As the largely positive reception of the Gawker posts reveals, anti-Semitism is now taken so seriously as to be ignored altogether. All charges of anti-Semitism are implied accusations of Hitlerian hatred. But those who overreact to anti-Semitism do so not by imagining it where there is none, but by associating all examples of it with Nazism. Those who are called anti-Semites understand the implication, and are thus easily able to refute the charge. Because anti-Semitism must mean a demand for death camps, virtually no one sensible is willing to call sub-genocidal Jew-hatred “anti-Semitic.” All resistance to anti-Semitism thus comes across as either tepid or over-the-top.
Understandably, the Holocaust is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of anti-Semitism. To accuse someone of hating the Jews today is to imply that he wants all Jews dead. Meanwhile, it is rarely assumed that a homophobe wishes all gays dead; he is just uncomfortable next to a gay man at the sauna. When Bill O’Reilly several months ago ‘discovered’ that blacks in Harlem are not savages, many thoughtful people decided that he was a racist, but no one is accusing him of a plot to ethnically cleanse America of non-whites.
Today, in the U.S. and elsewhere, people are killed on account of their race or their sexual orientation. Yet armchair bigotry in these realms is not tantamount to inciting murder. For this reason, blacks and gays may protest discrimination without being accused of overstating the case. But every time a Jew cries anti-Semitism, Jews and non-Jews alike call it hysteria. They point out that the accused has Jewish friends, cares about the Palestinians, is not a Nazi, and therefore cannot be an anti-Semite.
The Walt-Mearsheimer fuss is in many ways the best example of this phenomenon. After all, the pair are said to have Jewish friends, claim to care about the Palestinians, and are clearly not Nazis. But even in cases where no reference is made to the Middle East, few — including Jews — are willing to call a contemporary event or individual, no matter how over-the-top Jew-hating, anti-Semitic. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported last October that the president of Belarus said of Bobruisk, a town in that nation, “This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Bobruisk into a pig sty. Look at Israel — I was there.” The JTA quotes the head of a Jewish organization in Belarus as saying, “No one can say he’s anti-Semitic,” adding, “In his 14 years as president I’ve never heard him say such a thing.” Belarussian law does not favor open criticism of the government, but this pattern repeats itself even in countries where free speech is respected. When Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish cell-phone salesman, was found tortured and dead near Paris in February 2006, his murderers stated openly that they believed Jews had money (as it happened, the Halimis did not), and that this was why they chose a Jewish victim.
While the authorities eventually came around, the New York Times reported that “The French police initially dismissed accusations by Mr. Halimi’s family and Jewish groups that anti-Semitism played a role in the crime, even after one suspect told investigators that Mr. Halimi had been a target because he was a Jew.”
The secular authorities were not alone in their response. “Nobody is denying that their priority was money,” said Roger Cukierman, president of CRIF, France’s umbrella Jewish organization. “But their vision, based on the prejudice that Jews have money, and then once they are kidnapped, the way they happily tortured them, shows the anti-Semitic element.” In fact, many did deny that greed was the killers’ main motivation. Cukierman thus goes out of his way to respect the absurd position — one not even held by the killers — that the crime fell under the rubric of “not anti-Semitic, but.”
Halimi’s case had nothing to do with how his killers felt about Gaza. What they thought about the plight of Palestinians, if they thought about it at all, is irrelevant. The belief that Jews — even the poor ones — are rich existed long before the rise of modern Zionism.
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In some respects, Cukierman’s response is right out of the Dreyfus Affair, when the fin-de-siècle French Jewish establishment refused to admit that the campaign against the captain was about anti-Semitism, despite the facts of the case, not to mention the anti-Semitic mobs and propaganda accompanying the controversy. In fact, the analogy can be taken further than a parallel reticence on the part of the French-Jewish leadership. In the late 1890s, French Jews — with a few notable exceptions — believed anti-Semitism was a thing of the past and on its way out. Today in America, all but the Anti-Defamation League believe the same. For the 19th-century French Jew, the past was the Middle Ages; for American Jews, it is the Holocaust.
The important difference is that in our age, we have heard leaders the world over unequivocally condemn anti-Semitism. In France during the 1890s, public opinion was split. Political candidates ran officially as anti-Semites. Nineteenth-century French Jews had a sense that life for Jews had once been worse, but there was no “never again” — no humanitarian trump card to play in Jewish and gentile settings alike. In some respects, having a “never again” makes the status of Jews worldwide less vulnerable. Simply put, the world denounces the Holocaust, and when a world leader does not, this is at the very least controversial. But in other ways, knowing about the worst makes Jewry more vulnerable. When anti-Semitism was out in the open, one never needed to prove its existence to the unconvinced. Unless one is able to prove that despite the cries of “never again,” yes, the same thing is happening again, one is thought to be making a fuss over nothing.
The response to Walt and Mearsheimer’s work on the “Israel lobby,” reveals just how difficult it is for thoughtful people to state with confidence that something is anti-Semitic. This particular case is more complicated than that of Halimi’s murder for a variety of reasons. An academic text is not an act of physical violence. Plus academics tend to have more clout with the general public than do members of suburban French gangs, especially among other academics. But most importantly, once the discussion is about the Middle East, just about anything can be called “legitimate criticism of Israel.”
Along with Dershowitz and Foxman, a few naysayers, such as the foreign policy professor Eliot Cohen, Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, and historian Jeffrey Herf, admitted to finding Walt and Mearsheimer’s work anti-Semitic. But in general, critics of the work played into the authors’ argument by refusing to “smear” the pair with a label the authors claim Is inappropriate, as though they have the final word on the matter. By not “silencing” the authors, these critics believed they were able to have a free and open discussion about the book’s ideas. However, they were not able to have a free and open discussion about what sort of a book it is, if one of the possibilities was ruled out from the beginning.
In a Washington Post column titled “Seeds of Anti-Semitism,” Michael Gerson concludes, “These academics may not follow their claims all the way to anti-Semitism. But this is the way it begins. This is the way it always begins.” Comments to Gerson’s article bashed him for calling the respected authors anti-Semites, when he did no such thing. Oxblog’s David Adesnik calls the authors “conspiracy theorists” but not anti-Semites, because “Walt and Mearsheimer knew better than to make any statements that could easily be clealry [sic] labeled as anti-Semitic rather than anti-Zionist or anti-Israel.” Adesnik nevertheless notes that the authors place just about all American Jews, left and right, in the Israel lobby. He implies that he finds the work anti-Semitic, but that he does not feel free to say so if he wants his critique of the book to have any impact.
In Slate, Christopher Hitchens calls the pair’s work “slightly but unmistakably smelly,” but does not give the odor a name. And in the New Yorker, after noting that “The authors observe that discussion about Israel in the United States is often circumscribed, and that the ultimate price for criticizing Israel is to be branded an anti-Semite,” David Remnick assures us, “Mearsheimer and Walt are not anti-Semites or racists. They are serious scholars, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity.” Political scientist and former Mearsheimer colleague Daniel Drezner blogged: “Walt and Mearsheimer should not be criticized as anti-Semites, because that’s patently false. They should be criticized for doing piss-poor, monocausal social science.” Jacob Levy, another former Mearsheimer colleague who offered a convincing political-science critique, blogged that “M&W have been getting unearned mileage out of the predictable rhetorical move that any criticism of their paper constitutes an attempt to paint them as anti-Semites and shut down debtae [sic], thereby proving their argument, which is why it’s important to establish that my critique of their paper doesn’t turn on the substance of their evaluation of Israel.”
Such is the dilemma: To say anything substantive about the work, one cannot weigh in on one of the most central questions people have about it, because if the answer turns out to be, as Eliot Cohen put it, “Yes, it’s anti-Semitic,” then there is no next step. According to the authors, their supporters, and all but the most shrill anti-defamation activists, one simply does not use that expression in reference to a work by esteemed professors. Again, because no one wants to call anyone else a Nazi.
That did not stop some from trying to address whether the book is anti-Jewish. In The New Republic, Jeffrey Goldberg tries to get around the notion of labels by creating his own, and not throwing around the expression he understands is unmentionable:
[S]ince many people in the West are queasy about attaching the label of anti-Semitism to almost anybody, regarding the charge of anti-Semitism as itself proof of prejudice, let me begin by describing bin Laden’s view of history less inflammatorily — not as anti-Semitic, but as Judeocentric.
Judeocentrism is not always anti-Semitic. There is a fine line between assuming the Jews are pulling the strings, which is anti-Semitic, and focusing on the Jewish aspect of every problem, which can have any number of meanings, among them that one has spent too much time reading Philip Roth novels. Anti-Semitism is better understood as an indifference to Jewish diversity, and a willingness to ascribe to all Jews the traits or behavior of some. Goldberg comes closer to this definition when he mentions, albeit in parentheses, that “Mearsheimer and Walt have no grasp whatsoever of the diversity of American Jewish life.” He has the Holocaust in mind when discussing The Israel Lobby, as is clear from his conclusion:
One would think that the editors at Farrar, Straus and Giroux might have harpooned this leviathan of a contradiction before it reached print. Unless of course you believe, as I do, that Farrar, Straus and Giroux has all along been allowing Mearsheimer and Walt to undermine their own credibility by promoting their abysmal arguments about Jewish power. The publishing house, you see, is not known to be a part of the Jewish lobby, but its owner, the German company Holtzbrinck, has been emphatically friendly to Israel, in part out of guilt that its founder was a Nazi.
The reader of Goldberg’s review is left with that powerful word, “Nazi.” He uses it in indirect reference to the authors, but he has put the idea out there, and pushes others to make the connection.
Jeffrey Herf, responding to Goldberg on The New Republic’s Open University blog, comes closer to the source of the problem: “Goldberg is quite right that many people in the West are reluctant to attach the label of anti-Semitism to arguments. Yet this may also be due to a deficiency of historical knowledge about what radical anti-Semitism amounted to in the 20th century.” Few note how rarely anyone who is not considered a raving paranoiac makes an accusation of anti-Semitism. Fewer still look for historical examples to explain why this is the case. But the truth is the opposite of what Herf argues. Most think of nothing but “what radical anti-Semitism amounted to in the 20th century.” Few lose sleep over what moderate anti-Semitism amounted to in the 19th.
Agreeing with Goldberg, Herf argues that Judeocentrism was “the distinctive and defining feature of Nazism’s radical anti-Semitism.” He notes, “[It] was precisely the idea that Jews were at the center of mid-20th century history, that they had started World War II, made possible the alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, and conducted the war as one of extermination aimed at the German people.” Wildly successful and openly anti-Semitic writer Edouard Drumont, author of the bestselling La France Juive devant l’opinion, was saying the same thing regarding Jews and France in the 1880s. The Nazis were not unique in this respect. As Herf notes, “The attribution to Jews of enormous power used for evil purposes, what Goldberg plausibly calls Judeocentrism stood — and stands — at the center of anti-Semitic arguments.” It certainly does, but that is not saying much. All bigotry attributes a disproportionate amount of power to the target group, or else why bother?
What makes anti-Semitism unique is the asymmetry between the targeted and the target. Modern anti-Semitism, more than anything else, is a refusal to let self-identified Jews define what it means to be Jewish. An anti-Semite is one who thinks all Jews are the same and who declares with certainty that individuals who do not consider themselves Jewish are nevertheless just that. As historian Paula Hyman shows in From Dreyfus to Vichy (1979), one important characteristic of rising anti-Semitism in interwar France was the conflation by anti-Semites of immigrant Jews and Jews whose families had been French citizens since 1791; this despite vast linguistic and cultural differences between the “native” and immigrant groups. As is widely known, Nazis and their allies used a racial definition of Judaism that made victims of individuals who were gentiles according to rabbinic law, the broader community, and themselves.
This is why attempts to look for the roots of anti-Semitism in Jewish behavior tend to fall flat. As long as the perceived misbehavior of some Jews is equated in much of public opinion with that of ‘the Jews,’ even a peaceful Middle East will not make a dent in anti-Semitism. This is not to say that Jews or Israel should refrain from acting morally, because some will hate Jews regardless. But good behavior will not be rewarded by Jews’ greatest enemies.
Judeocentrism as Herf describes it is a step toward anti-Semitism, but not the first one. The ideology begins with an assumption that what counts as Jewish — be it a person or a political bent — is defined arbitrarily and from the outside. Imagine if Italy were at war with Spain, and decided to define ‘Spain’ arbitrarily as Spain and England. That is how anti-Semitism functions. It is only once ‘the Jews’ have been defined that the belief that Jewish action or existence (the two having thus been merged, as even neutral Jews or those in the opposition ‘count’) is the fundamental force behind even the most unlikely world events becomes truly dangerous. Nazi or Vichy anti-Semitism was above all the refusal to permit the enemy to define its own membership or boundaries. This asymmetry is what makes it so challenging for Jews to fight anti-Semitism successfully.
It is only natural that Jews often respond to hatred by reminding the anti-Semite of Jewish diversity. Look, one can say, I voted for Kerry, so stop with that neocon nonsense! I came to Israel from Morocco, I’m no European colonizer! Unfortunately, pointing out that ‘the Jews’ does not exist as a monolithic entity negates unified attempts by all its victims to fight anti-Semitism.
Now if all Jews and those perceived to be Jewish responded with a united front to a charge that they are, among other things, united, they would be allowing anti-Semites to define their identity, not to mention confirming suspicions. Obeying anti-Semites’ orders does not work, nor does flouting them. Anti-Semites’ cries of “Go back to Palestine!” in the decades leading up to Israeli independence became demands for precisely the opposite course of action once many Jews did so. How’s that for lose-lose? Add on the problem, specific to our era, of all accusations of anti-Semitism carrying the weight of the Holocaust, and it becomes clear why, although ‘everybody’ is against anti-Semitism, condemning specific instances of it is virtually impossible.
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Having established what anti-Semitism is and what makes it so difficult to combat, we can turn to the question of the hour: Is Walt and Mearsheimer’s book anti-Semitic? It is, in literary terms, a bloated op-ed, but that does not make it anti-Semitic. It is, in part, a political science argument backed up by examples, but above all it is a series of rhetorical tricks. Each chapter offers a smattering of evidence in support of the thesis, followed by a brief conclusion noting that the point has been proven, which is in each case questionable. Walt and Mearsheimer try to deny the flimsiness of their arguments by claiming that Americans have been inundated with counterarguments for years, and so any anticipated opposition to the book’s thesis deserves no respect. The authors have set things up so that everyone should agree with them, and those who do not only prove their point. If you believe their argument is wrong, it is only that forces beyond your control are clouding your thought. This is one reason why attacking their book with the obvious counterarguments is doomed to fail.
Another is that by half-contradicting each of their own points as they make them, the authors render themselves so immune to criticism that they can refute even those accusations that are direct citations of their own book. “In Chapter 8 […], we show how the lobby — and especially the neoconservatives within it — was the principal driving force behind the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.” Since we have already learned that there is an Israel lobby but only a “so-called oil lobby,” it is no surprise that the authors believe pro-Israeli forces were behind the Iraq war. Or do they? “We emphasize that the lobby did not cause the war by itself.” So they cannot be accused of emphasizing that the lobby caused the war, but it is their contention that it did just that.
The authors argue that American Jews are responsible for 9/11 and brought about the Iraq war. Media coverage of the work tends to emphasize that the authors talk of an “Israel lobby” but not Jews, and that the lobby, as the authors define it, includes some gentiles. This is why it was so strange to see that in their book, they make a point in noting that not only is the lobby majority-Jewish, but the Jewish part is the dominant one. The only possible reasons they allow for anyone to support the state of Israel are evangelical Christianity, financial or political reliance on the lobby, and the fact of being Jewish, which they believe has a clear and inherent political meaning. Although they note that Jews were and are against the Iraq war as much if not more than most Americans, and that the average Jew does not agree with AIPAC’s positions, we are supposed to consider high Jewish turnout at the voting booths as an example of “the Israel lobby” in action. So for those like Drezner who argue that the argument cannot be anti-Semitic because it is not about Jews, I suggest a closer look at pages 139, 148, and 163, among others.
But the authors do not argue outright that it was “the Jews.” Sure, there are gentiles in the lobby, but they are clear that it is the Jewish members and organizations that are the most important. Sure, other factors affect American foreign policy and international standing, but the Israel lobby is by far the main one. And sure, there are Jews opposed to the war, but the really rich and powerful ones lead the way, rendering the others irrelevant. So they do indeed say that it was the Jews who got our country in this mess. But if you were to ask them outright if the Jews caused the war in Iraq, they would claim that you misread or did not read their book, and that you are just another lobbyist attempting to smear their good names.
The authors are not dense. As Remnick notes in the New Yorker,
The duplicitous and manipulative arguments for invading Iraq put forward by the Bush Administration, the general inability of the press to upend those duplicities, the triumphalist illusions, the miserable performance of the military strategists, the arrogance of the Pentagon, the stifling of dissent within the military and the government, the moral disaster of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the rise of an intractable civil war, and now an incapacity to deal with the singular winner of the war, Iran — all of this has left Americans furious and demanding explanations. Mearsheimer and Walt provide one: the Israel lobby.
The authors realize Americans are looking for someone to blame, and it has been ages since anyone has heard a peep out of a Freemason.
* * * * *
As many reviewers have by now pointed out, the book is not as well-argued as one would expect given the prestige of the authors. Throughout, the authors toss off impossible-to-support statements, including, “It is […] difficult to criticize Israeli policies or question U.S. support for Israel in polite company.” They repeat again and again that Christian values favor the Palestinians over the Israelis. While it is worth reading what scholars in the field say about the work, where it fits in the context of realist theory and so forth, much of the basis of the argument is recognizable as irrelevant speculation even by those with no formal training in political science. The pair cannot have it both ways, asking that only those with specialized knowledge of the field challenge their assertions, but at the same time suggesting that anyone stopping by Barnes & Noble for a Frappuccino leave with their hardcover tome as well. And it is unfair to ask readers to grapple only with the book’s substantive claims when so many of the claims made within it are not substantive.
For their argument that “the charge of anti-Semitism” is “one of its [the Israel lobby’s] most powerful weapons” to make any sense, they need to show that Jew-hatred is a thing of the past. They do this in part by referring to the phenomenon in the past tense, and in part by offering more explicit statements about how pogroms and other manifestations of anti-Semitism “were widespread until recently.” Anti-Semitism cannot be “The Great Silencer” if it is still a major problem. So the authors admit that there was anti-Semitism, but insist that most anything today referred to as such is not, because anti-Semitism “culminated in the Nazi Holocaust.” The authors base their dismissal of contemporary anti-Semitism on evidence showing that the state of affairs is not, as a Forward writer they cite claims, “as bad as it was in the 1930s.” That is a high standard indeed. Russia in the pogrom-filled 1880s was also not as bad as the 1930s. Nor was 1898 Paris, when as historian Pierre Birnbaum has described, gangs of French graduate students and professionals marched through the capital and the countryside demanding death to the Jews, but not actually killing anyone.
The authors note, correctly, the centrality of the Holocaust to the American Jewish worldview and to how Jews understand anti-Semitism today. The pair then uses this as evidence for why “playing the anti-Semitism card” has worked so well for Israel’s defenders. They manipulate Holocaust memory to serve their purposes. By invoking World War II as the standard by which to decide whether or not an incident or a country is anti-Semitic today, nothing can ever measure up. This is why Jews worry when a Jewish cemetery is looted, but it is also what permits the authors to write, “While the charge of anti-Semitism can be an effective smear tactic, it is usually groundless.”
One wonders what the authors, who deny the existence of a “new anti-Semitism,” make of the cement barriers and metal detectors at the entrance to Jewish community centers in the U.S., or of the heavily guarded synagogues in Europe. Perhaps the security reflects a sinister plot on the part of the Israel lobby to convince the world of a lie, that anti-Semitism is indeed still a threat. Or maybe these seemingly apolitical institutions are miniature Israeli embassies, and all attacks upon them should be interpreted as part of the global struggle for Palestinian self-determination. Because, after all, “it is essential that we distinguish between true anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israeli policy.” And if that political criticism expresses itself in the torching of a European synagogue, so be it.
The only fight against anti-Semitism Walt and Mearsheimer allow for is “condemning neo-Nazis or Holocaust deniers.” Unsurprisingly, they come out against “smearing respected individuals” whose views fall short of this purest form of bigotry. They do not, as Goldberg points out, admit any overlap between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Yet on occasion the authors imply that Jews are a stone’s throw, so to speak, away from the worst. They write that they would “view attempts to form an explicitly ‘anti-Israel’ lobby with grave misgivings, as this sort of group could easily foster a resurgence of genuine anti-Semitism.” They admit that despite its potential efficacy, “trying to restrict support for pro-Israel groups would clearly be anti-Semitic, as all Americans are within their rights to contribute to any legitimate cause.” Unless the “Israel lobby” is to be equated with “the Jews,” how would restricting support for it “clearly be anti-Semitic?” For all their dismissal of the “new anti-Semitism,” the authors themselves seem convinced that it could arrive in full force at any time, not to mention that many of the logical conclusions to their arguments are unambiguously anti-Semitic.
Central to Walt and Mearsheimer’s preemptive self-defense against the charge of anti-Semitism is their differentiation between criticism of Jewish political action and true Jew-hatred. They argue in the name of free speech, insisting that no one attempt to silence their ideas. They want their tactic to seem specific to our times, to the anti-Zionist’s noble attempt to prove he is not an anti-Semite. The problem is that the self-proclaimed anti-Semites of 19th and 20th-century Europe justified anti-Semitism on grounds of ‘free speech’ then, too. Edouard Drumont’s newspaper La Libre Parole (“Free Speech”) was not only openly anti-Semitic but proudly so — it advertised itself as France’s first anti-Jewish paper. The publication played a major role in spreading anti-Semitic propaganda during the Dreyfus Affair, when political anti-Semitism was still in its infancy. The cover of the May 16, 1938 issue has a lead story with the following title: “200 Juifs gouvernent la France” (“200 Jews govern France”). If one wished to sum up Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument in one quick sentence, one would need only to swap “la France” for “L’Amérique.” Of course today, one would have to emphasize that not all Jews govern France, just some.
Another sentence from the 1938 cover page jumps out: “Le racisme juif n’est pas seulement sioniste, il est au coeur de tout Juif devant des intérêts juifs menacés.” In other, more English words, Zionism is racism, but so is any action taken by a Jew on behalf of the welfare of other Jews. Important to see here is a) that an openly anti-Semitic paper spoke out against Zionism in the language used today by so many “legitimate critics of Israel,” and b) that this seemingly “straightforwardly racist” paper, complete with caricatures of big-nosed Jews, a newspaper at the very center of the “old Europe” anti-Semitism Walt and Mearsheimer deem its only “real” incarnation, considered racism to be something negative. Hatred of Jews fell outside the rubric of racism, as Jews were defined as a veritable political and economic threat.
Whether they intended it or not, the authors’ argument has given anti-Semites the world over two highbrow names to cite. It is impossible to nod along to a past-tense-only tale of anti-Semitism when one reads the avalanche of comments left on just about every blog post with “Jew” or “Israel” in the title. The commentators, unlike Walt and Mearsheimer, do not carefully sidestep what is really being discussed, though they are happy to complain about Jews’ unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism, all the while providing their own examples of why such accusations are in fact well-founded in the same breath. Commenters on Drezner, Cohen, Gerson, et al. have all spoken candidly of their disdain for Jews and their perceived influence over American foreign policy. From someone commenting on Drezner’s site, “You probably know that, but as far as Israel is concerned, jewish [sic] deception never ends.” Another comment-writer, responding to Gerson, writes:
This Iraq war manufactured for you by the following Jewish Americans:
[A list not worth reprinting of 23 names of Jews or imagined Jews, including Lieberman, etc.]
I’m sure this is just a bizarre coincidence.
The authors cannot be held responsible for nonsense spewed in their names, but the enthusiastic reaction to their work by so many clear-cut anti-Semites disproves their point about the End of Anti-Semitism. Furthermore, by insisting that accusations of anti-Semitism today are attempts to silence the truth, the authors make it almost impossible to condemn the fallout from their work.
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Is it possible to combat anti-Semitism today without adding on a note about impending genocide? As Herf points out, the last time Jews were deemed warmongers, collectively responsible for an escalating global crisis, the ‘punishment’ was the Holocaust. Writings from the 1930s declaring that a coalition of Jews and their friends were putting innocent gentiles in danger to further their own interests were that era’s equivalent of today’s most-blogged article. It is only because of how devastatingly powerless this alleged entity ‘the Jews’ proved itself to be that no such argument about World War II predominates today, and that Walt and Mearsheimer are comfortable referring to Jewry of that era as pure victims. Holocaust exceptionalism prevents the pair from coldly analyzing whether European Jews were disproportionately represented in finance and politics in the interwar period. Yet after The Israel Lobby, it is easy to imagine scholars attempting to show that even World War II was the fault of the Jews. Equating Nazism with unambiguous anti-Semitism — as both those fighting anti-Semitism and those enacting its new and old variants do today — is ignoring that the Nazis gave endless reasons for why they wanted Jews gone. Even Hitler would not have met the Hitlerian gold standard. But the idea of Nazism as pure anti-Semitism has stuck in the popular imagination.
Sometimes a heightened sense of awareness makes pessimism, if not paranoia, morally justified. But hysteria has proven ineffective. The fight against anti-Semitism has become, in Gawker parlance, “funny.”
The answer is not for Jews to become the sort of “sensible voices” Walt and Mearsheimer demand. Instead, those with a stake in this issue must construct a reasonable definition of anti-Semitism, one that removes the element of tragic prophecy to analysis of isolated incidents. We must be able to state confidently that Ilan Halimi’s killers acted out of anti-Semitism. We need to be free to argue that a book accusing Jews of ruining America is an anti-Semitic book, and that the fact that it is poorly argued is secondary. To do this we must accept that there is a good chance 2008 is not 1939.
Maybe the Walt-Mearsheimer book is an omen, but classifying it as anti-Semitic need not mean taking a position in that impossible debate. The point is not to stop anti-Semites from calling Jews whiny — if we are not that, we will be deemed something else — but to permit those who mean it when they say they are against all forms of racism to do something about it. (Incidentally, a proper definition of the phenomenon would also help the legitimate critics of Israel.) Discussing anti-Semitism without invoking a mustachioed Austrian does not trivialize the danger it poses. Rather, by exaggerating it, we lose the ability to acknowledge its presence in any other form.
— Phoebe Maltz is a student in New York University’s joint doctoral program in French and French Studies. She blogs at whatwouldphoebedo.blogspot.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kaavya Ramesh