Liberal Anti-Semitism

"you f*****g piece of shit jew and your stinking jew woman and inbred jew childrun and jew-lover traiter daughterinlaw deserve to torture die you filth jew liberil america hating jesus hating basterd Lord willing none of us will have to wait long america is too good for dirty jew scum of your family and your commie foundasion" – anonymous email, April 21, 2009

Mikey Weinstein is President and Founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. A Jew, a former Reagan Whitehouse attorney and an honors graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he spends his days fighting back against what has been called an "Evangelical coup" in the U.S. Military. (See Jesus Killed Mohammed 5/09.) Mikey writes letters, makes phone calls, lobbies and, when all else fails, files lawsuits on behalf of religious minorities and mainline Christians who are being subjected to relentless proselytizing from fundamentalist officers and peers. One routine part of the reaction is letters like the one he received above.

Liberal anti-Semitism is more subtle and sophisticated. Even at our worst, we don’t talk about Jews, we talk about 9/11 conspiracies orchestrated by agents of Mossad. We talk, as our medieval Christian and Christian Nationalist predecessors did before us, about undue Jewish control of the monetary system. Mostly we talk about Zionists, and every Jew who has a more complex perspective on the Middle East than Amy Goodman is one.

I’m not a Jew. I am a psychologist. One of the things I learned as a therapist was to respond not just to surface words but also the feelings and implications behind them. As a therapist, you listen to your body–your intuitive emotional response to what is being said, and then use your mind to sort things out.  I can’t say how many comments about the Israel-Palestine situation I’ve read on liberal blogs. What I can say is that the comment threads often make my stomach hurt–and not because of what is going on in Israel and Palestine. Here is the tread that triggered this post.

The plight of the Palestinians is anguishing. And yes, Israel has violated international law and may well be guilty of war crimes. But at a visceral level I often have a hard time experiencing my own pain and moral sensibilities about the Middle East situation. I get so overwhelmed by the flood of thinly veiled anti-Semitism that I can’t respond to anything else.

Let me state for the record: I categorically do not believe that criticizing Israel is inherently anti-semitic. There is plenty of reason to protest Israel’s part in the seemingly endless Middle Eastern cycles of violence and suffering. What I am talking about is a certain quality of this conversation — a distancing from Israelis explicitly or Jews more broadly as people, an exceptionalism that characterizes liberal American disgust at and demands of Jews, a pattern of silence toward some things and outrage toward others that suggest bias. And subtle or not-so-subtle versions of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes that escape criticism (except from offended Jews) on liberal blogs.

Perhaps I am projecting my Seattle experiences onto the net. One sweet, progressive activist neighbor refused to come to a panel discussion I hosted because, along with an atheist, a Christian minister and a Sufi minister the panel included a rabbi. A friend equated the invasion of Gaza with the Holocaust. A political teammate couldn’t see the difference between Obsession‘s bitter flow of misogynist verses and the forged conspiracies in the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They do all love Amy Goodman. So maybe my gut is wrong.

But besides gut feelings, there are other indicators that something more than compassion, fairness and yearning for a better world is at play in left of center reactions to the plight of the Palestinians. Several writers (e.g. here and here) have listed factors that in their minds differentiate legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism. Here are the things that caught my attention:

1. The failure to focus on the log in our own eye. Two towers come down and 4000 people die, and the majority of our population (who suddenly feel unsafe) bless the destruction of 100,000 Iraqi citizens, their basic infrastructure, their museums and their schools. Yet we mock the Israelis’ sense of threat and demand inhuman perfection in their reaction. Granted, American liberals have worked long and hard against war in Iraq, but we were more conflicted about Afghanistan. And in both cases the protests lacked the absolutism of our reactions to Israel. I hear the Israeli attack on Gaza described as genocide.  I never hear the American attack on Iraq described that way.

2. Our silence when it comes to the role of the surrounding countries, who want the Palestinians to remain right where they are as pawns in a global power struggle. Palestinians don’t have the option to leave because Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and others don’t give them that option any more than we do. Israeli-Gaza border closures work only when Egypt keeps her border closed as well. Within any group of refugees there are those who don’t want to sacrifice their children on the altar of their politics–who simply want to go away and start a better life. But they are denied resettlement rights elsewhere. The Palestinian people are bandilleras in the flanks of a Spanish bull–goads that feed the pain and rage needed to sustain a battle of civilizations.

3. Our indifference to Jewish post trauma dynamics and conditions that reactivate trauma. In Israel, men who spent their teenage years dragging bodies out of gas chambers and burying them in trenches are only just dying off. To make matters worse, threats of annihilation are ongoing. When a woman who has been molested has someone hit on her, she often gets triggered, under- or over-reacting because she is re-experiencing the earlier trauma. When people who have been the targets of genocide hear surrounding leaders pledge their extinction, I might imagine they would get triggered, too. If we Liberals are willing to assume that it takes a people generations to recover from slavery, can we not assume the same of genocide? I grieve at Israeli reactivity just as I grieve when African American young people say that success is White. But grieving and demanding that they be over it are two different things.

4. A double standard for Middle Eastern Countries. When Arabs or Muslims engage in mass political extermination, we say little. The same with smaller cruelties. Yet we hold the Israelis to a higher standard. Why is this? Why do we scream about Israeli rockets and yet we’re mum when Hamas and Fatah are murdering each other? How about the slaughter of the Kurds or on a smaller scale, the execution of female teachers in Afghanistan. (Sometimes I wonder if it is actually a form of racism against Arabs and Muslims, like when we assume that a kid is fated to be a low-achiever and we write them off.) But consider: How would we react if the Israelis treated their women like Saudis do? If they treated their Hindu servants like Omanis do? If they treated their religious minorities like the Iraqis do? If they pledged the extermination of Palestinians the way that Hamas pledges itself to the extermination of Jews?

5. Our lack of comparable passion about other suffering in the world. How come the Palestinian plight taps deep feelings for so many liberals, and yet brutalities in Sudan  or Sri Lanka don’t have the same power to arouse us? To draw an analogy from my work opposing fundamentalism, when Evangelicals cite Leviticus to justify their attitudes toward homosexuals but then ignore the rest of Mosaic Law, something other than biblical literalism is at play. When the suffering of the Palestinian people arouses the kind of venom that seeps through in Liberal blogs while other suffering leaves us cold, something more than compassion is at play.

I loathe the kind of ignorant right wing rant that kicked off this article. But the subtle bigotry of some fellow liberals feels worse. It violates the very humanitarian rhetoric that gives it cover. As a progressive, it shames me. And it makes me scared.

Christians and their cultural descendents have been finding reasons to single out Jews since the First Century. Always there is some social issue that makes the antipathy seem justified to many people in the short run.  And always to date anti-Semitism seems obvious in retrospect.

 We humans are probably hard-wired for tribalism, and we need little excuse to see the "other" as disgusting or evil. But we also are capable of thinking more complexly. One who suffered much, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had this to say: "If only it were all so simple, if only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." Maybe in addition to looking at the dividing lines in the Middle East we could be looking more at the dividing lines in our own hearts.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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