Post-Modern Anti-Semitism: Part I

Part IV of “Anti-Semitism: Medieval, Modern, and Post-Modern,” which I wrote in early 2002 (before I found out about Muhammad al Durah).]

Post-Modern Antisemitism: Leftist Anti-Zionism

The exception to the rule for my reading of anti-Semitism [largely a “right-wing” phenomenon from people opposed to the liberal impact of Jews on prime-divider cultures] comes when I try to explain the anti-Zionism of progressives. According to my analysis, those who favor the humanistic commitments of civil society – government responsible to the people, freedom of expression, treating the life of commoners as a valuable social good, broad empowerment of populations, both as individuals and as groups, women’s rights, etc. – should side unequivocally with the Israelis. Indeed Israelis often express precisely this confusion, when they appeal to the liberal West for support.

And yet the opposite has happened. Rather than the morality tale I describe above, a radical inversion has occurred in the retelling of this story in modern progressive (leftist) circles. The toxic imperialism and fascist nationalism with genocidal tendencies so prominently on display in the Arab world, appear now as Israeli traits. The Zionists are an imperialist settler colony like the Boer in South Africa or the pilgrims in America. Israel, in this narrative, represents only the latest of that vicious imperialism and nationalism that Europeans and Americans, as they increase their commitments to civil values, come more and more to regret – slavery, genocidal policies that killed millions of natives, ruthless suppression of indigenous culture. The Palestinians, in this reading, represent the oppressed people trying valiantly to free themselves from European-style occupation.

The difficulties of such a reading are immense. They necessitate:

  • Romanticizing of the past in which the Arabs of the region were living in an egalitarian society (rather than being occupied by their own elites), in which Muslims and Jews got on famously.
  • Reversing the vectors of action in which the Israelis initiate the aggression and the Arab violence is a reaction to that aggression
  • Viewing the aggressors in the conflict as innocent by virtue of their loss, and the defenders as guilty by virtue of their victory
  • Ignoring, or lightly condemning all of the immensely depraved actions of the Arab leadership (killing their own “dissidents”, imprisoning and immiserating their “refugees”, suicide terrorism) as “understandable” given their frustration and “lack of hope” while criticizing every Israeli act against these deeds as inexcusably disproportionate aggression.
  • Accepting the statements that Arabs make in English as an index of their intentions, and ignoring what they say in Arabic, thus dismissing any possibility that they still harbor desires to wipe out Israel. (As one confident analyst put it on NPR: “Any Palestinian with a three-digit I.Q. knows that Israel is here to stay.”)

Such readings are possible. Indeed there is a whole academic literature dedicated to just such analyses, and a press that generally covers the events essentially from this framework, and a large body of left-wing and pro-Arab ideologues who assume it is true. It results in a widespread consensus that views events in an “even-handed” manner, one in which both sides have reasonable positions (even if the Palestinian position must be attributed to them in order to make it reasonable), both have done reprehensible things, and both should just sit down and work this out in negotiations. Such thinking, generous in its belief in the good intentions of both sides, results in astoundingly inaccurate and harmful analyses. By failing to distinguish between a shame culture dominated by a political prime-divider on the one hand, and a guilt culture, organized by the principles of a civil society – indeed projecting liberal values and commitments onto the honor-shame side – progressives undermine the very forces they believe they strengthen.

  • They systematically misread events, assuming that, for example, the Israelis must be guilty of the pain and suffering of the Palestinian refugees, since who would imagine that the Arabs would do this to their own people?
  • They fall prey to the use of Western liberal language by people who have no commitment to it, believing, for example that the Palestine Liberation Organization is dedicated to freeing the Palestinian people, not destroying the Israelis
  • They adopt the demonizing narrative of the Arab elites, reinforcing their grip on the populations that they victimize in the name of fighting the Zionist imperial entity.
  • They abandon one of the rare independent cultures that share their progressive values, excoriating them for their lack of restraint precisely where they demonstrate a level of restraint no Western country has ever shown.
  • They justify behavior (terrorism, especially suicide mass murder) as “legitimate expressions of frustration” that set a catastrophic precedent for the dangerous and delicate task of globalization that faces us in the coming decades and centuries.
  • They label as racism any attempt to point out the violent, hate-mongering racism of the Palestinians and Arabs.

One might ask, why such self-destructive behavior? Why attack those who represent the very cutting edge of the culture you have worked so hard to create? Why side so enthusiastically with people who despise you and your culture, and want nothing more than to dominate you? Why empower a narrative and an elite that treats its own with such merciless cruelty?


At one level, one can analyze this as an honest mistake, one that systematically underestimates the difficulty of achieving a civil society, and assumes that such “rational” behavior lies within the grasp of any culture. Thus, the Palestinians would love to build a civil nation if only the Israelis would leave them alone (end the occupation), and as soon as the Israelis make enough concessions, the Palestinians will respond accordingly. Similarly, Arabs value the lives of their children just as much as Israelis do, or, in Ted Koppel’s words, “I refuse to believe that Palestinian mothers mourn their dead children any less than Israeli mothers.” Indeed to suggest otherwise would be racist.

This of course means that one must look away from the behavior of mothers who, their daughters killed by their husbands and sons for having “shamed” the family, insist that they do not mourn. They may indeed mourn as Ted Koppel (and I) suspect, but the public culture demands that they do not, and they comply. When we look away from such profoundly different cultural phenomena, we fail to ask such pertinent questions as: If these violent men will kill their own children for shaming them, what would they do, could they, to the Israelis for shaming their culture and religion? Similarly, when reporters do not know about honor killings, they cannot understand the attitudes of families toward suicide “martyrs.”

The result becomes profoundly superficial and subtly racist. When, as many will profess in an almost off-handed way, suicide bombers are the expression of hopelessness – “what else can they do?” – one assumes two terrible things about the antagonists. First, one assumes that the Jews are as evil as the Palestinians present them, ruthless, genocidal killers who throttle any decent desire for independence among Palestinians; and second one assumes that Palestinians have so impoverished a moral culture that they have no choice but to engage in the most depraved and vicious form of child sacrifice in the recorded history of mankind in order to get their way. Deconstructed, such banal remarks underscore the poverty of such off-hand sympathy for the “poor Palestinians.”

Nowhere does the intellectual and moral failure of even-handedness appear more blatantly than on the question of racism. Jews and Israelis often accuse the Arabs of being anti-Semitic. No, reply the Arabs, for we too are Semites, so how can we be anti-Semitic? Facetious, perhaps, but nonetheless an argument that seems to carry weight. Rather than accept the argument, however, it should then shift our attention from the specifically racist quality of late 19th and 20th century antisemitism to the more general demonizing hatreds of medieval and early modern antisemitism.

Rather than moving in such a direction however – again a desire to avoid the unpleasantness of accusing a whole culture of hatemongering – the discourse then takes a stunning turn. Not only are the Arabs not antisemites, the Israelis are racists. This accusation, which is patently false – no country in the world has as much racial, religious, and cultural diversity as Israel – and even wrong where the Israeli’s treatment of their Arab Muslim and Christian minorities are concerned (our society would, as Scott Andersen recently admitted on NPR, have produced vigilante groups to intimidate any group that dared to attack our civilians in the manner of the suicide bombers, who get a 80% approval rating among their fellow Arabs).

And yet the accusation carries great weight, not only in organizations like the UN which voted in 1985 under the presidency of a former and unrepentant Nazi, Kurt Waldheim to condemn Zionism as racism, but also in the widespread parallels drawn between South African apartheid and Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The appalling logic here came to a stunning climax just after the second Intifada, in the summer of 2001 at Durban, a conference supposedly dedicated to fighting racism around the world, but which spent most of its time dealing with Arab denunciations of Zionist “racism,” and ended with condemnations of the Atlantic slave trade (i.e., historical European trade) and no mention of the Indian Ocean slave trade (i.e., current Arab trade). The fact that the Arabs demonized the Jews should not have surprised anyone who follows the narratives that dominate Arab press, academic, and political discourse, but the acquiescence, even the enthusiastic support of NGOs, the self-appointed bastions of civil society around the world, deserves pondering. Even liberals with enough sense to see the excessive nature of the attack, preferred to regret the excess as an “unfortunate distraction,” than focus on the revealing contradiction of demonizing racists successfully accusing others of racism.

Perhaps the single most revealing misreading that comes from an attempt at fairness, an “even-handed” approach concerns the interpretation of the divisions within Israel and the unity among Palestinians. On the surface, it suggests that even some Israelis recognize the errors of their own nation’s deeds (e.g., the Israeli expulsion of Arabs in 1948), whereas the Palestinians unanimous complaints about the aggression of the Israelis suggests there must be considerable truth to them. Gentiles who criticize Israel invariably cite the Jews and Israelis who make similar criticisms in defense of their own attacks, recalling the Christian invocation of prophetic critique to demonize the Jews.

In reality, this asymmetry reveals just the opposite. It separates a culture that has raised self-criticism to a high – some might argue pathological – art, from one that throttles self-criticism with the violent demands of tribal unity. Palestinians invoke precisely the fate that Israelis suffer – the use of their self-criticism by outsiders to attack them – as the reason for not allowing anyone within their ranks to admit to any shortcomings on pain of death.

When Andrea Koppel spoke of atrocities at Jenin shortly after the Israeli assault, an inquiring Israeli asked her if her Palestinian sources might be exaggerating or even lying. “Oh, so they’re all liars now,” came her response, with its edgy suggestion that the Israeli was being a racist. Ms. Koppel obviously has little experience with the nature of Palestinian attitudes towards the truth, and the experience of Jenin’s non-massacre probably has done little to sober her. She will continue to project onto the Palestinians all the best intentions that she herself feels.

And what seems innocent, if inexcusably naïve from some, seems somewhat more malevolent in the hands of others. Claire Balderson of the BBC has openly criticized those Palestinians arguing that their own side should stop the violence and return to negotiations. “But isn’t this spontaneous Palestinian rage?” she challenged one such Palestinian. “Are you saying that the they should just bottle up their frustrations?” Similarly, when Arafat’s call for reform brought the kinds of critics who show a much deeper appreciation of the need for and the demands of civil society began to speak, she challenged one: “Isn’t this a time for Palestinians to band together behind Yasser Arafat, and not break ranks?” One imagines with difficulty her scolding an Israeli liberal, critical of the government, for breaking ranks with Sharon.

Or, to take another classic case of leftist conspiracy thinking, Jose Bové, the French farmer who took on MacDonalds, recently claimed that the Mossad was blowing up synagogues in France because “the Arabs would not be so foolish as to endanger their own good cause.” Such logic suggests that the Palestinian grievance against Israel is so important to M. Bové that even when the evidence of Arab anti-Semitism and thuggish violence appears in his own land, he prefers to project the best of intentions and the most honorable self-control onto them, and the basest motives – who could be so base as to attack their own people? – to the Israelis. Such cases recall to mind the fellow travelers who continued, despite all the terrifying counter-evidence, to believe that the Stalin and the Soviet Union were paragons of virtue. Is this anti-Zionism primarily anti-Jewish malevolence (wanting to see violence against Israel) or knee-jerk radical chic (siding with romanticized “third world” “radical”)? It may be difficult to separate out the two; they may be sides of the same coin.

The virulence of European anti-Israeli sentiment shows up most strikingly in their fondness for the analogy between Israel and the Nazis, an analogy much favored by the Palestinians (when they’re not denying the Holocaust ever happened). The astounding hurtful and breathtakingly inaccurate nature of such a comparison – after 12 years of power the Jewish population of Germany did not double – takes on an added horror when one considers that if anything, the historical connections and analogies between Germans and Arabs goes disturbingly far. The Arab League in 1948, like Hamas in 2000, are the only organizations to openly call for genocide, and genocide against the Jews, since the Holocaust. The Arabs embrace the world of delirious antisemitic fantasies like the Protocols and the blood libels, the very paranoid hysteria that drove the Nazis to their staggering evil. And yet, like moths to a flame, European leftists find the comparison of Israelis with the Nazis inordinately attractive.

The best explanation I can come up with is a kind of moral Schadenfreude driven by their own ugly past, both their colonial violence on a scale that beggars the modern liberal imagination and Israel’s actual behavior, and their craven cooperation with the conquering Nazis, especially in assaulting the Jews. The Jews, once again, serve as a sacrifice on the altar of European denial and projection of guilt. In their view, then, the Jews are the imperialists who, long after the Europeans have given such nasty behavior up, continue to endanger world peace with their desire to dominate others. Still better, the analogy with the Nazis permits Europeans to exculpate their own antisemitic depravity. To be able to say: “Ah the Jews… after so many centuries of suffering from others, as soon as they can, they turn around and do it to someone else.” Irresistible, especially if you are more interested in escaping blame than in confronting reality. (And of course, for those who wish to go there, the more extreme versions open up the path to suggesting that “maybe the Nazis had good reason to fear the Jews.”)

None of this “moral” thinking offers promising signs; on the contrary, it seems like the very stuff of anti-Semitism.

What could possibly explain such extraordinary and ultimately self-destructive moral blindness? The average committed Jew would fairly rapidly conclude that this moral sadism represents a classic case of anti-Semitism. The psycho-logic here seems clear: like the anti-Dreyfusards of late 19th century France who preferred the Jew Dreyfus in jail at the cost of allowing the traitor Esterhazy to go free, these people would rather wish the Jews harm than move to protect themselves, and certainly prefer it over protecting the people about whom they profess so much concern and sympathy, the Palestinians. To fight for civil society in Palestine would mean fighting the elite’s demonizing of the Jews, urging and educating the Palestinians to abandon these vestiges of prime-divider hatreds. And somehow, many would rather fortify the demonizing than save its first and longest victim – the Palestinians.

Such an analysis explains two major anomalies among progressives on this subject: First, it explains why the Palestinian Liberation Organization is the most popular liberation movement in the world today, despite the fact that a) they behave worse than any other (and the record of the other movements is not great), and b) if their cause were successful, they would represent the 23rd Arab Muslim nation, rather than the first Kurdish, or Berber, or Tibetan, or Tamil, or Timorese, or that of any of the other ethnic and religious groups that languish under the heavy hand of “third world” imperialist and nationalist dominion.

Second, it explains why the Palestinian people (as opposed to their heroic leaders) languish in hell not only under Israeli occupation, but under the occupation of their own people, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian Arabs, and, since Oslo in 1993, under Palestinians. For all its good will, the world of “progressive” sympathy for Palestinians has never translated into their welfare. Why not? Because the logic of Arab irredentism demands that Palestinians must be the victims of the Jews. How can one justify to oneself hatred of the Jews if they are not harming someone. The Palestinians must suffer on the altar of hatred to the Jews. And for reasons we would all rather not think about, the suffering of Jewish victims has enormous appeal. The Palestinians are not only the designated victims of the Arab elites, but also of European intellectual and political elites.

After the Holocaust, this accusation runs, when Jew-hatred was no longer acceptable, even in some drawing rooms, when publications of the Protocols drew reproof (e.g., at Vatican II when the Austrian bishops opposed to exonerating the Jews for deicide, tried to circulate the text through the Spanish contingent), anti-Semites strong and mild, could count on their Arab proxies, and their victim people the Palestinians, to carry the torch. They would keep the nascent Jewish state under constant threat of destruction. What better way for the old virus to survive in a world of victorious liberalism, where everyone, even Jews, were supposed to get a fair chance? Thus, rather than help the forces of civil society in the Arab world by getting them to come to terms with Israel, Europeans preferred to encourage the worst aspects of Arab political culture, and assure the victimization of the Palestinian people. Now, faced with an Arab world that has become literally world-destroying in its frustrated rage and hysterical victim-narrative, they blame the Israelis for creating this situation.

If such an attitude does not constitute anti-Semitism, it certainly shares a lot of traits and dynamics with it, including the current outbreaks of public celebrations in Europe at the killing of innocent Jews (marches in praise of suicide-bombers), the outbreak of copy-cat attacks on Jews and Jewish sites, not only in Israel, but around the world, the passive approval of European elites who dismiss such incidents as political spill-over from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But more forebodingly, the suicidal attitude of the progressives in legitimating Palestinian suicide bombing as somehow “justified,” parallels the repeated results of earlier, “medieval” antisemitism – they will fall victim to their own violent fantasies and projections of hatred and slaughter, corrupted in their society by this way of dealing with the “other.” The West went through nightmare centuries of persecuting “heretics” and “witches” and every other scapegoat they could find as a result of this approach to the Jews. Why do we want to repeat such self-destructive madness?

Next: Unconscious Anti-Semitism, “Objective” Anti-Semitism?

10 Responses to Post-Modern Anti-Semitism: Part I

  1. igout says:

    Last summer somebody named Pascal Buchner (or something like that) wrote a striking piece in le Figaro. My French is pretty basic, so I could only get the gist, but it went something like this, at least I think it did.
    The West is so consumed by guilt over its past sins of racism, colonialism, exploitation and what have you, that it has come to regard the 3rd World almost as vengeful gods that must be appeased. In this sense, the boilerplate of pc utterances fill the role of ritual charms and spells to avert the angry gods’ thunderbolts that threaten to deprive them of their very Western comforts and luxuries. The massive peace demonstrations that took place across Europe shortly before the 2nd Iraq war Buchner wittily likened to a tribal raindance.
    All this of course sounds more like primative anthropology than abnormal psychology, but does answer a lot of the questions you have raised.
    Now, while he didn’t mention it in his arcticle, you can easily imagine how such blood thirsty gods as the West has fashioned of thugs- of -color, murderers, 7th century fascists, teaming idiots, would require sacrificial victims, preferably human, which is where Israel and the Jews come in nicely.

  2. Yona says:

    “if their cause were successful, they would represent the 23rd Arab Muslim nation, rather than the first Kurdish, or Berber, or Tibetan, or Tamil, or Timorese, or that of any of the other ethnic and religious groups that languish under the heavy hand of “third world” imperialist and nationalist dominion.”

    I have always wanted to hear this on some NPR talk show. It is a great point!

  3. RL says:

    Points all well taken. His name is Pascale Bruckner and he’s written some excellent books, including: Le sanglot de l’homme blanc: Tiers monde culpabilité, haine de soi [The White Man’s Tear: Third-World Guilt and Self-Hatred].
    I’ll look for the article (must have missed it).

    your point about Jews and Israel being served up on the altars of hatred is especially on target. and as we know from the nazis, those sacrifices merely whet the appetite. as one sans culotte put it during the French revolution when he thought it was time for the Guillotine to start up again — “The gods are thirsty.”

    of course the wretched irony in all this is that, by rendering themselves vulnerable to the blood-thirsty gods you have so aptly described, they think they are rejecting the “blood-thirsty god of the “old testament” which serves as one of the standard Judeophobic dismissals of Jewish religiosity. so instead of repenting and asking forgiveness of the jews, the europeans prefer to attack the jews as proxies for their own sins and offer their necks to the blade of an executioner who is not in any kind of a forgiving mood.

    as my friend anti-dhimmi says, “Great civilizations don’t die, they commit suicide.”

  4. Lawrence Barnes says:

    Fascinating, infuriating, challenging and imaginative commentary. It deserves careful consideration.

    BTW the comments on the term “civil society” that are posted on the Second Draft site have been very helpful to me. I have seen “civil society” used to mean just about anything, and have never found a good definition of it until now. I used to think of it as just an annoying verbal tic favored by snobs and phonies; well, I still do, but now I see the errors the poseurs make, because it turns out that the term is useful after all. If one is intellectually honest.

    Thank you very much indeed for all this material.

  5. RL says:

    thanks for your comments. that’s exactly what i’d like the term to mean. it’s apparently easier to get someone like you to listen than all those academics who use the term in such a way as to obscure the phenomenon.

  6. RL says:

    part of the reason that you don’t hear this on NPR is that it would make too much sense. the reason the left has exiled anyone who has the nerve to disagree is that to allow their voices to be heard would make the bizarre and grotesque twists of PCP look just like that, bizarre and grotesque.

    i gave a talk at Boston’s NPR about the importance of letting their audience hear more than PCP. I remember one of the talk-show hosts saying, “The problem with the fence is not the fence, but where it deviates from the Green Line.”
    “That’s precisely what I’m trying to say: you think that’s the issue, and you get people on your program to articulate that perception. you need to let your audience know that for some Palestinians, the only acceptable line for the fence is the shoreline.

    it apparently made little impression.

  7. […] ; RL @ 11:08 pm — Print This Post For the previous installment of this essay, see Post-Modern Anti-Semitism, Part I. Unconscious Anti-Semitism, “Ob […]

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