BIGOTS IN ABUNDANCE?

James Traub, in his Times Mag piece on ADL head Abe Foxman, notes that

Foxman upset many of his colleagues by extending a welcome to Christian conservatives, whose leaders tended to be strongly pro-Israel even as they spoke in disturbing terms of America’s “Christian” identity.

True that. Brings to mind the Zionist Organization of America’s decision to honor Pat Robertson with a “State of Israel Fellowship Award.” Abe Foxman at the time demurred that “He’s not deserving, but I have no objections to other groups honoring him.” This despite Robertson having literally written the book on how Jews conspired with Free Masons and Illuminati to engineer the major wars in American history in order to manipulate the global market (Norman Podhoretz argued at the time that that kind of antisemitism was rendered irrelevant by Robertson’s Zionism just as in the Talmud a tiny bit of treif can’t render a huge kosher vat no longer kosher). Robertson went on to raise the ire of the ADL, which had previously highlighted some of his rantings with concern, when he suggested that Ariel Sharon’s strike was punishment from God.

Perhaps the most telling piece of Traub’s article is this exchange:

I asked if it was really right to call Carter, the president who negotiated the Camp David accords, an anti-Semite.

“I didn’t call him an anti-Semite.”

“But you said he was bigoted. Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No. ‘Bigoted’ is you have preconceived notions about things.”

The argument that the Israel lobby constricted debate was itself bigoted, he said.

“But several Jewish officials I’ve talked to say just that.”

“They’re wrong.”

“Are they bigoted?”

Foxman didn’t want to go there. He said that he had never heard any serious person make that claim.

This is the Abe Foxman worldview. Intellectual and/or moral serious equals the belief that the pro-Likud lobbying infrastructure exercises no pressure on the scope of the Israel debate in this country. Concern about the role of that lobby (unlike, say, concern about the role of the NRA) in shaping public perceptions and policy outcomes equals bigotry. And acceptance of Jews equals support for the actions of the current Israeli government.

This despite the ADL’s own research showing antisemitism declining in Europe at the same time that “anti-Israel” sentiment rises. As my friend Jacob Remes wrote at the time,

Abe Foxman, while hailing European governments that have worked to differentiate Israel from Jews, fails to do so himself and continues to equate the two.

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DISENGAGEMENT: FORMALDEHYDE OR CATALYST?

The Gaza pullout is one of those political events like a geometrical plane: it’s massive or nearly invisible, depending on the angle from which you look at it.

The idea that leaving Gaza represents a historic change of hearts on Arik Sharon’s part, while it makes good copy, isn’t grounded in much evidence – certainly not enough to disprove the more convincing and more characteristic explanation Dov Weinglass (Sharon’s Rove) gave to Ha’aretz last year:

The disengagement plan makes it possible for Israel to park conveniently in an interim situation that distances us as far as possible from political pressure. It legitimizes our contention that there is no negotiating with the Palestinians…It is the bottle of formaldehyde within which you place the president’s formula so that it will be preserved for a very lengthy period. The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians…there is an American commitment such as never existed before, with regard to 190,000 settlers…there will be no timetable to implement the settlers’ nightmare. I have postponed that nightmare indefinitely. Because what I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns.

Weinglass identifies a series of factors which have made it necessary for Israel to make some kind of visible concession, including the growing ranks of seruvniks refusing to serve in the territories (no blue-haired pot-smokers, he observes), and the signing of the Geneva Accords by opposition parties on both sides. If the Gaza withdrawl represents a new understanding on Sharon’s part, it’s a new understanding of the extent of pressure on his government to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice for peace, not a discovery of his inner peacenik. His statement to the press that he would not definitively rule out future concessions by Israel in the West Bank at any time in the country’s future doesn’t change that.

That said, the fact increasing non-violent resistance to occupation, as well as a range of external factors (Arafat’s death, though after the original announcement, certainly contributes) and demographics, have built pressure for peace and justice to the point that the man who pledged “more Elon Morehs” would give up any territory at all is huge and worthy of celebration.

As for what this means for the chances of a West Bank withdrawl, seems to me the establishment of a state of Israel with just and internationally recognized borders will likely continue to be a very slow process, and Sharon opposition to such remains as strong as ever. But I’m inclined to agree with Ian Lustick that Sharon’s gamble that chaos in Gaza will heighten Israeli opposition to giving up any more of the occupied territories is likely to backfire, simply because Israel’s borders have now been recognized by the Likud party and many more Israelis as a strategic one rather than an absolute moral and religious principle. During the first Intifada, Lustick explored the process by which the idea of returning occupied territories crosses the threshholds from being undiscussed to being seen as incitement to civil war, and from being seen as incitement to civil war to being seen as a political question on the public agenda, with an extensive and ultimately hopeful comparative analysis of Israel’s challenge to one which faced Britian in Ireland and France in Algeria. In that framework, the current chatter about civil war amongst Israelis can be understood as a sign of how far we’ve come from the pre-Oslo days when a Palestinian state was simply off the agenda of the Israeli public.

As for the scenes on the ground in Gaza this week, it’s of course an ugly and divisive situation (a Likudnik relative who lives in a West Bank settlement reports having his tires slashed because his car had no anti-disengagement orange on it). The IDF appears so far to have largely shown the kind of restraint – even in the face of settlers throwing acid – that it has sadly failed to show in dealing with Palestinian protesters, violent and non-violent, since the second Intifada broke out. Here’s hoping for further restraint on all sides, and that the Israeli public will continue to recognize disengagement as a necessary, if difficult step. And that further steps on all sides will follow bimhairah, b’yamainu (speedily, in our days).

Democracy.
A Jewish state.
The West Bank and the Gaza strip.

Given demographic reality, Israel can have any two out of three.

Meir Kahane pushed Israel to give up the first; Tony Jundt recently stirred up controversy in this country pushing for giving up the second. The reason I call for Israel to keep the first two and give up the third is because it’s the only solution that’s received majority support on both sides. Now the New York Times is suggesting that Sharon’s right-wing Likud party is coming to the same conclusion. I would love to believe that they’re right.

Jacob Remes deserves, depending on your judgment, the credit or the blame for pitting Josh Cherniss and I against each other over Tony Auth’s recent cartoon. His original take on Auth’s work is here; his more extensive, and fairly moderated, take, in response to my earlier post, is here. In responding to his eloquent piece, I should start by noting that there is a great deal about which, in principle, Josh and I agree. We stand by the importance of distinctions between anti-Sharon, anti-Israel, and antisemitic sentiment, and recognize that, as he says, “many extreme and dogmatic defenders of Israel,” as well as too many critics of Israel, “casually ignore this distinction, to their great dishonour.” We both maintain that, as Josh says, “we should be careful in how we employ symbols — and may with justice criticize others for not taking such care — ESPECIALLY when we agree with the point they were trying, or may have been trying, to make.” Josh and I both share with Tony Auth an opposition to the “separation fence,” the occupation, and the settlement project. And like Josh, I’ve felt and expressed a special frustration with those who use unjust tactics or offensive rhetoric in the service of a cause I share. The case of Professor Qumsiyeh, to which I alluded in my previous post, who sent to the Yale Coalition for Peace listserve what he believed was the membership list of the pro-war Yale College Students for Democracy, and was actually the list for an Israel discussion listserve, is for me the most telling recent example. Instructively, but not surprisingly, after I and then other students in Yale Peace rebuked him over the listserve, the story was spun as further evidence of the antisemitism of the left without mention that leftists had been the first to condemn his actions.

It doesn’t seem worth devoting too much space to defending myself from an accusation of having “an ideological persecution complex,” especially given Josh’s admission of using my “minor side-comment as an opportunity to express [his] thought” about the attraction of the victim posture. I’ll just say that I agree that demonstrating persecution is not a substitute for demonstrating virtue (Josh’s word choice), while sharing that I think accusations of a “victim mentality” are too often – in other contexts – a substitute for confronting the arguments offered by, or the injustice witnessed by another. I don’t believe (despite being called a Nazi, a self-hating Jew, etc. on occasion) that being a Jewish critic of Israel makes me a victim of some sort. But I also don’t believe that making the personal and empirical observation that much left criticism of Israel “come[s] under fire…as not only critical of the Sharon government but anti-Israel, and not only anti-Israel but antisemitic” represents “a wallowing in victimhood, a sheer love of whining and feeling put upon,” or even a lesser shade of such.

Josh suggests that because Sharon does not appear in Auth’s cartoon, it must be anti-Israel at the least rather than anti-Sharon. Terms like “anti-Israel” are as ambiguous as they are charged – the cartoon is only anti-Israel, as I see it, in the sense that it presents a strident critique of Israel and uses the central symbol of the state in connection with oppression. That may pass Josh’s bar for anti-Israel – I wouldn’t render that inherently anti-Israel any more than I would a depiction of, say, the Statue of Liberty carrying Japanese into internment camps anti-American. To me the cartoon is anti-Sharon in the sense that it dramatically criticizes a policy of the Sharon government, even if Arik himself is absent from the cartoon. But at the center of our dispute isn’t how to draw different shades of political criticism of the state but how to draw the line between political criticism of the state and religious bigotry – the charges being leveled at Tony Auth now are not primarily of offering anti-Israel criticism but rather of offering antisemitic criticism – although much of the criticism comes from people and organizations, I should note, who seem to be interested in charging the latter only when it offers an opportunity to discredit the former.

Josh reads me incorrectly as seeing “the ‘appropriation’ of the Star of David as the symbol for Israel — and, thus, the symbol for supporters of Israel, including diehard Likudniks (and worse) — as somehow making it cease to be a symbol of the Jewish people.” Not at all. The Jewish star today is identified as a symbol of the Jewish faith and people, and as a symbol of the state and government of Israel (while I maintain that the Jewish star is used and has been as a religious symbol, Josh is right to remind me that the historical root and dominant use of the Jewish star is as a symbol of the Jews more than of Judaism). But just as the political symbol doesn’t erase the historic meaning of the star, neither should the latter invalidate the former. Josh seems to be suggesting either the reverse of the statement he attributes to me – that the use of the star as a symbol of the Jewish people makes it invalid as a symbol for Israel – or that the star is a valid symbol for Israel but inaccessible to Israel’s critics. Either of these arguments seems to me rather troubling, both, I think, for obvious reasons. There’s little of substance I would disagree with in Josh’s characterization of the historical and current resonance of the Jewish star – as he says, “It has been worn — sometimes proudly and voluntarily, sometimes forcibly and with shame and fear — by Jews throughout history.” No one could reasonably argue with Josh’s admonishment that “given how potent and fraught symbolic politics are, we should be careful how we employ symbols…” But that said, we should also be careful how we read symbols. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Auth to use the star in the cartoon as representative of the state which imposes the fence on the civilians – the fence and the civilians being the second and third symbols of the cartoon. And I strongly reject the idea – one promulgated on print and around the web, but one which in fairness Josh implied in his original post but seems to have backed away from – that to do so makes Auth a bigot. I can’t think what the better symbol for this particular cartoon would be – the menorah, in my judgment, which appeals on the seal of the state, is a distant second as a national symbol. It also co-exists as a religious symbol (and an evocative one which, like most Jewish symbols, is tinged with memories of oppression), and it lacks the currency in the American consciousness that the star has as a symbol for Israel. Josh’s conclusion may be that a cartoon of this type – combining the national symbol of a state with a symbol of the oppression it’s visiting on others – simply shouldn’t be drawn. I don’t think that’s an easily acceptable conclusion. .And again, I think it’s illustrative that the Israeli government, Israeli politicians, and right-wing lobbies all plaster their material with the symbol of the star. While I might sometimes find such use of the star (much like much of the use of the American flag) tasteless, I wouldn’t deny them that symbol from their vocabulary.

Incidentally, if Auth intentionally adapted a similar-looking Nazi cartoon, obviously that would be tremendously problematic. But absent that, as aesthetically unsettling as the similarities might be, I don’t think the argument that Auth’s cartoon resembles a Nazi one is an effective critique

Josh seems to fail, or decline, to distinguish between provocative and offensive commentary – or between that which offends and that which is offensive. Political cartooning is a provocative medium, and some of its best achievements are among its most provocative. Tony Auth’s cartoon after the lynching of Israeli soldiers in Ramallah on October 12, 2001 (I remember because I was in Hod HaSharon at the time), redrawing the photo of one of the Palestinian killers pressing his blood-stained hands against a window and replacing him with the image of Yassir Arafat, was highly provocative (and like much of Auth’s work, not overly clever). And provoking intentionally – a charge Josh levels against Auth – doesn’t strike me as poor behavior on the part of an artist. But if offensive works are to be condemned (but not – I assume Josh agrees with me – censored), then offensiveness must be some quality – like, say, religious bigotry – beyond being observed to offend some people. I agree with Josh that, “It should be very easy to criticize Israel on its merits right now, and not be open to imputations of anti-Semitism from any reasonable person.” But when critics of Israel are subjected to imputations of antisemitism, we should ask ourselves whether the problem is the critics of Israel, or the critics’ critics. Josh shifts in his post between criticizing Auth for being offensive, and criticizing Auth for opening the left up to attack from the right, for giving “a gift to the Likud.” And while I agree with Josh that one mistake peace movements make is a failure to disavow bigotry promulgated in their name, I’d contend that another mistake peace movements make is allowing themselves to be cowed out of making difficult charges by the threat of being tarred with unjustified accusations of bigotry. There are few to the left of Alan Dershowitz who can criticize Israel in a manner that CAMERA would approve. One of the major obstacles to the execution of a coherent Jewish response to genuine antisemitism is the frequency of spurious charges. As Uri Avnery argued, antisemitism used to be a charge that people shrunk from with haste. Now the real antisemites have safe cover among the increasing ranks of non-antisemitic critics branded with the label. In other words, absolutely there’s a difference between Die Sturmer and (as much as I hold its cartoons in about the same estimation the writers of Seinfeld do) the New Yorker. Which is why treating the New Yorker like Die Sturmer is such a mistake. I’ll admit to being somewhat mystified by Josh’s narrative in which the Likudniks and their American allies were “slinking about silently trying to ignore the marriage law” before Tony Auth spurred them on and rendered them “suddenly up in arms” – I think this may be another case where the “blogosphere” fails to reflect the pulse of the broader populace.

Was Auth’s cartoon the most effective image to convey his message? I’m not sure. But the charges of bigotry leveled against it are unjust, and in many cases, quite suspiciously motivated. I’m glad Josh has backed a few steps away from them. Where Josh accuses Auth of poor political judgment, or failure to advance the cause of the peace movement, I’m skeptical. But his charges of foolish offensiveness I have to reject.

This Tony Auth cartoon has caused a stir in several Philadelphia, Jewish, and on-line circles since it was printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last Thursday. The cartoon, which depicts a fence in the shape of a Jewish star dividing Palestinian civilians, has come under fire – as do most on the left about Israel – as not only critical of the Sharon government but anti-Israel, and not only anti-Israel but antisemitic. And, as in most but not all cases when Israel is the topic and antisemitism is charged, the charge doesn’t hold weight.

At the heart of the issue with this cartoon is the symbolic use of the Magen David, the Jewish star. Because Auth uses a religious symbol, the argument goes, the cartoon represents a religious – rather than political – slur, a blood libel. Because the star is employed in connection with a depiction of oppression, the cartoon’s message must be that the religion, and the coreligionists, associated with the star are oppressive. But this argument disregards the appropriation of the Jewish star a century ago for the flag of the State of Israel. The star, which appears in the center of the flag framed above and below by horizontal stripes, is its only recognizable symbol, and appears solo in a range of administrative contexts, as understandably is also a mainstay of pro-Sharon lobbies. So why the Magen David does not belong to the lexicon of acceptable symbols for Auth is seems to me difficult to argue.

This may seem like a belated nitpick, but there’s a larger and more persistent issue here. Whatever one believes about the religious nature of the state, I think intellectual honesty demands a recognition that any self-identified religious state inherently blurs the discourse, insofar as most of us legitimize and call for judgments of states and political actors of a type that we don’t want or legitimate of religions or religious groups. But pundits on both sides can fall prey to a desire to have it both ways. A couple months ago I called a Yale professor active on the Yale-Peace listserve on a seeming inability or willful refusal to distinguish between Jews, Zionists, Likudniks, Israelis, and neoconservatives. But the double standard on the right is more subtle and more ubiquitous: Groups that defend the Israeli government are pro-Jewish and speak for Jews, but when critics of Israel conflate the state and the religion it’s bigotry. It would be gratifying to see more politicians willing to distinguish the Jewish community and Arik Sharon when it comes to commentary they agree with and commentary they don’t.

Katha Pollitt, in an essay on flags after September 11, wrote that symbols are doors and it’s time to walk through them (when I asked her in person what she had meant by that quote, she said she didn’t remember ever writing it). Symbolic politics is inherently potent and inherently fraught. And all cartoons are charicature. As cartoonists go, Auth isn’t a particular favorite of mine, although he has his moments. But Auth’s cartoon has three symbols. The first, as described above, is perhaps the primary symbol of the state. The second, Palestinian civilians, exist by the millions in the territory occupied by that state. And the third, the fence in question, is lengthening even now. The criticism of Auth for using the symbol, and the implication that his symbolism is akin to Nazi propaganda and/or is comparing Israelis to Nazis to Nazis, makes it easy to forget that in this case life preceded art. The actual fence, in fact, looks a lot uglier than portrayed in the cartoon. Auth chose to make a statement – not a particularly new one – about the construction of the fence in the name of the star and its impact on men, women, and children. Debatable? Sure. Bigotry? No.

Disagree? Eidelson@Yale.Edu