Liberal Anti-Semitism, Take 2: When Legitimate Criticism of Israel Turns into Something Else.

At the risk of becoming a pariah as a liberal blogger, I have to try again. 


Last week, I wrote an article about anti-Semitism on the left side of the political spectrum.  It was the most commented article I’ve ever posted but an abject failure at doing what I hoped for, which is to get some folks introspecting about their biases.  I’ll own that failure.  I was mad and reactive when I pounded it out, and people responded (surprise, surprise) by being mad and reactive.   They provided lots of critical feedback, some about my character, intelligence and motives, but more about the article itself–often quite thoughtful and thought provoking. (DK, HP, MLW)


Ironically, commenters both demanded and provided documentary evidence of whatever-the-hell anti-Semitism I was talking about.  People accused me of not being able to tell the difference between prejudice and legitimate criticism of Israel; I guess I was accusing them of the same.  I’m hoping this time to move beyond accusations.


Among responses to the first article, here are some specific fragments that struck me as tapping something beyond the current situation.  


·         slavery and racism against Blacks went on for centuries from generation to generation of Blacks and it was institutionalized, not only in the Americas, but across the entire Western world. I am not sure you can say the same about anti-Semitism or the Holocaust.


·         the astute and scheming forces of an illegitimate and aggressive nation pandering in social guilt for its own nefarious purposes.


·         now try to get the oppressors in Israel to recognize that the right thing to do is take their hand off the squirming bug and maybe the bug will stop bitting it.


·         Everybody knows that the Jews have been persecuted all thoughout history, for their religious beliefs and also for their practice of usury.


·         . . . ( the Holocaust Industry ).


·           . . .  Jews were silent and passive (as were the Christians), and when the juggernaut came for them they did not resist.  


·         I do see a small minority of aggressive anti-Semitics, but I also see what appears to be a long standing, deeply ingrained mental illness which inflicts a huge proportion of the Israeli/Jewish community….a combination of fear, paranoia, persecution complex, vengence, racism, etc…which is nurtured in them and used to the advantage of Israeli leaders.


·         If "the Israelis", who’s the top dog in this fight you know, started caring for anybody but themselves we would all come a long way



Phrases like these jar me, even when they are imbedded in otherwise thoughtful, well-intentioned discourse.  Other comments were more ambiguous.  Is it anti-Semitic to assume that AIPAC rather than American security and oil interests controls US Middle East policy?  Is it anti-Semitic to characterize Jews as whiners because they still talk about the holocaust?  I tend to think so, but either way, I realize that these rather out-there bits aren’t what bothers me the most. Let me see if I can articulate what does.  


To me it seems that one of our strongest tendencies as humans is to draw tribal boundaries around who we think of as a “person”, who the Golden Rule applies to, and who merits our compassion.  Most people are capable of being kind and loving and generous and fair and empathic – but they draw lines around who merits this kind of treatment. These tribal boundaries are what enables most human cruelty (as opposed to, say, flawed early attachment or brain anomalies which can inhibit a person’s capacity for empathy in all contexts.) In this line of reasoning, most harm is perpetrated not by bad amoral people but by people who, within their boundaries are quite decent and have intact moral reasoning and emotions. So I think that it is tremendously important for decent people to notice and question their tribal biases. 


My experience in reading and hearing liberal discourse about Palestine is that many decent liberals have set the Israeli people outside their boundary or circle of compassion.  For some this extends to any Jew who thinks Israel has a right to exist.   When someone is outside your circle of compassion, you stop trying to see the world through their eyes.  You also lose your ability to move them, except by force, which is how many Western liberals seek to move the people of Israel. (e.g. boycott them, cut off aid, burn Starbucks, ban Israeli academics. . . )


It is very difficult to be empathetic to both sides in a conflict.  Research since the 1950s shows that humans tend to resolve this kind of dissonance by choosing one side.  In my experience with divorcing families, if conflict between parents is high enough, a kid often will choose one parent and ditch the other, because the attempt to love two people who hate each other can feel unbearable. But if we can care about both parties in a conflict, we sometimes have the power to help them care about each other.  In liberal blogs, the pain of Palestinians seems well voiced, and so the next two paragraphs are a one-sided attempt to offer some thoughts about the Jewish/Israeli experience.  


I suspect that liberal distancing from Israelis occurs in part because, as a movement, liberals think of themselves as being on the side of underdogs, and they perceive Israelis as over-dogs.  Part of who we are is the team that stands up for underdogs.  But I don’t think that the Israelis and Jews I have met feel like over-dogs.  And I don’t think that their failure to feel powerful and privileged is just whining, paranoia, or an inability to get over the past.  Why have floods of Jewish immigrants moved to Israel from Russia (950K) and Ethiopia (22K) in recent decades?  Because they continue to be persecuted as minorities in those other countries.  They choose to live in a walled city surrounded by enemies—a place where it is virtually impossible to feel safe– in part because they don’t feel safe elsewhere either. 


Tangentially, from ancient times, Jews were scattered about the Near East as well as Europe, but they have been “cleansed” from many countries where they lived in small communities because of the intermittent cycles of violence they have faced.  It goes without saying that the regional tensions between Muslims and Jews over the State of Israel and the fate of Palestine have only serve to accelerate this process.  All of which is to say, I guess, that we see the Israelis as needlessly vicious over-dogs vis a vis the Palestinians, but for them the Intifada is part of a broader dynamic in which many Jews feel like underdogs – and historically have been—and still are in many places–and would be in Israel/Palestine if people who despise them could get away with a little more.


A related factor that many Americans seem not to consider (or admit?) is that Israelis face a real existential threat.  Without US aid, the state of Israel probably wouldn’t exist; there would have been a war or series of wars that went on until the Jews were driven out.  The American left knows this – that Israel exists in part because of our aid and our kneejerk alliance with them in international forums. This one reason left wing Americans feel entitled to demand that Israel behave better. 


But the Israelis know it too—they live with a sense of constant threat. American right wingers vomiting hate speech; synagogues burning in Europe; a Holocaust denial conference in Iran; the occasional rocket coming across their border; Palestinian maps on which Israel doesn’t exist – all serve to remind them that it’s not over yet.  What would that feel like? Frustrated advocates for Palestine ridicule their sense of threat and treat it as if it were simply crass manipulation.  But the Israelis feel threatened with reason.   And unless we seek to understand and address why they feel threatened rather than simply scorning their fears, then the only tool we will have to move them is the one we lefties are trying to use now. 


The problem is that our derision and the familiar stereotypes that comes out some on the left only increases their sense of threat and so increases the likelihood that they will seek to take care of themselves alone with preemptive violence– like the recent nightmare in Gaza which as far as I can tell served no one and left thousands dead or anguished.  I fear that our boundless outrage feeds the problem it seeks to solve. 



About Valerie Tarico

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