Framing the Debate Pt. 2 - Israel

It's the year 2012, and "anti-Semite" has officially become a meaningless term.

It took years and years of sticking the label to anyone who dared to question Israel's divine actions, pledge support to a Palestinian group, or simply say 'Zionist' in a way which did not show proper reverence, but here we are.

Continuing the saga of what should really be a completely mundane political appointment, potential Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel (of whom - if I haven't been otherwise clear - I'm no fan) is now being smeared as an anti-Semite.  It seems that some years ago he had the audacity to claim: "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [on Capitol hill]".  Of course, "Jewish lobby" is a questionable term, but the Israel lobby certainly does exist and is quite powerful.  Regardless, the attacks are coming rapid fire, and it has put many on the left in the awkward position of having to actually defend Hagel and his pro-Israel record.

This is the point we've reached - where even the slightest diversion from uncompromising support for Israel means you will have to endure the worst kind of personal attacks.  It doesn't matter if you're a former US Senator who has regularly voted for legislation favorable to Israel and hostile to Hamas, even sponsoring resolutions condemning moves toward a Palestinian state.  You will be branded an anti-Semite if you stray off the beaten path.

If it seems like we just played this game a few months ago, it's because we did.  The very same neocons attacked Obama during the election cycle by claiming he wasn't pro-Israel enough.  That didn't have quite the direct effect they were looking for (American Jews still overwhelmingly supported Obama), but it might have played a role later that month in Obama's unwavering support for the 'Pillar of Defense' attacks on Gaza, as well as in Susan Rice's very angry speech at the UN condemning the vote to recognize limited Palestinian statehood after it passed 138-9 - the US being one of the 9, of course.  This is, after all, where these attacks are most effective - at keeping the power players in America sufficiently on Israel's side, through good times and bad.

You have to ask: if Chuck Hagel is an anti-Semite, who isn't?  The vast majority of the world's population takes a much harsher stance on Israel than he does.  Nearly every international human rights group, advocate, and intergovernmental agency strongly criticizes Israel, or at the very least supports a Palestinian identity.  And from UNESCO to Desmond Tutu, they're all called antisemitic.  As an al-Jazeera anchor put it in a brilliantly titled article: "If Bishop Desmond Tutu is an anti-Semite - what hope for the rest of us?"

Is no one safe from this labeling?  What about American Jews who criticize Israel?  Well, Noam Chomsky is regularly called a 'self-hating Jew', and that sounds a little bit nicer, even if it has similar implications.  At the very least it doesn't implicitly invoke Hitler.  Still, it's not hard to find Chomsky (among many others) labeled as antisemitic as well.  It seems there's no clear consensus on what American Jews who criticize Israel should be called.  Even the ever-distasteful Jonah Goldberg wrestles with the problem, ending just a tiny step away from outright calling a few of the candidates he lists anti-Semites (to be fair, he seems to understand the increasing skepticism attached to the label).

Strangely enough, though, this isn't how the debate works in Israel.  While the right wing there currently dominates the political sphere, dissenting voices within Israel have an easier time finding a platform than they do in the United States.  Amazingly, even in the middle of strong pro-war sentiment during 'Pillar of Defense', television stations in Israel were willing to give Palestinian voices airtime.  This, at the very same time you were hard pressed to find a single pro-Palestinian voice on American television (the exception being, I believe, on Chris Hayes' show), let alone an actual Palestinian.  Even the BBC - usually a far more enlightened voice on international matters than the U.S. media - was much the same way.

Clearly, the "anti-Semite" branding has worked.  And it's no surprise - what defense is there really against name-calling?  Attempts to clear your name only further the momentum, making it seem as if you actually have something to hide.  Voices in the American media - rightfully sensitive to concerns over true antisemitism, and willing to defer to Jewish definitions of it - have unfairly censored themselves.  They've completely lost scope of the entire nature of the debate.  At first, if you challenged the idea of Zionism, or the inherent rights of the state of Israel, you were an anti-Semite; then, if you condemned Israeli treatment of Palestinians or its military campaigns in the occupied territories you were an anti-Semite; and now... well, we've seen where we're at now.  The debate has been continually restricted over time, to the point where we just simply don't even have one.  The entire frame of discussion is:  You either support Israel, or you implicitly hate Jews.

But there is an even harsher side to this.  Hagel's "Jewish Lobby" mistake is an easy one to make.  The very same people who are calling him out for it are the ones who always tend to refer to Israel as the "Jewish State" (despite its very real demographics).  And if you insist on calling Israel as a "Jewish state", and labeling anyone who criticizes the actions of the state of Israel as antisemitic - even if those critics are Jewish themselves - then you're effectively saying that the state of Israel speaks for all Jewry.  It then follows that all true Jews support Palestinians being forced to live in conditions that are "worse than apartheid", not to mention regular bombings of Gaza (killing at least as many civilians as militants), open threats to other nations in the Middle East, and even war crimesYou've now become the one who is demonizing Jews, opening them up to real antisemitism.

And, indeed, if we were to accept this logic, it would be hard not to condemn Jews as a group.  Many open-minded people who haven't yet studied the issue of Israel/Palestine fall into this trap - seeing the uncompromising pro-Israel position as that of Jews defending Jews no matter the crime.  The old, ugly stereotypes start to come alive again, where Jews everywhere are seen as a nefarious group with unhealthy amounts of power.

But I know - and all reasonable people know - that the actions of the state of Israel do not speak for every Jew.  It just so happens that the Israeli right apparently has a stranglehold right now on defining what it means to be Jewish.  And when American politicians and media moguls accept this position, they do an incredible disservice to the many Jewish groups who are working for a lasting peace, and who are unafraid to actually have a debate on the issues.

For their sake, and the sake of our collective sanity, the term "anti-Semite" needs to be resuscitated by being put in its proper context.  There will not be peace when lines are drawn furiously in the sand, divisions are solidified, and the rhetoric is that of Israel (with American at its back) against the world.

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