The Dialectical Scam: Why Does it Work?

Alvin Rosenfeld has an excellent essay at TNR Online about the reception to his essay.


Rhetorical violence and the Jews. Critical Distance

by Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Post date: 02.27.07

Judith Weiss at Kesher Talk has posted the piece with both further discussion and some bibliography. In this essay Rosenfeld goes over the responses to his piece, which more or less reflect what he says Bernard Harrison called the “dialectical scam,” a line of thought that, despite being logically vacuous, nonetheless carries a great deal of persuasive weight. The poverty of thought involved in this scam, it’s logical weightlessness makes its widespread use and effectiveness something worthy of serious attempts at explanation. As Gershon Gorenberg gently reproaches Rosenfeld, we need more analysis.

Rosenfeld begins with a review of the reception of his publication, then defines the object of his criticism.

Among others on the left, though, an often strident anti-Zionism is part of the ideological package that gives them their political identity. Their inclination to liken Israel to Nazi Germany and white-ruled South Africa–and their frequent excoriations of the Jewish state as guilty of “racism,” “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “war crimes,” and “genocide” draw from a common lexicon of hyperbolically corrosive speech and have helped to fashion an intellectual and political climate that encourages the demonization of Israel and its supporters. Jacqueline Rose’s reduction of Zionism to a form of collective lunacy and her attempt to link Theodor Herzl with Adolph Hitler; Joel Kovel’s call for “true Jews” to “annihilate their particularism,” “annihilate or transcend Zionism,” and “annihilate the Jewish state”; Norman Finkelstein’s claim that Israeli Jews are a “parasitic class” and that their “apologists” are comparable to the Gestapo; and Michael Neumann’s equation of “Jewish complicity” in Israel’s policies with German complicity in the Holocaust illustrate the extremity of such views. Citing innumerable examples of such tendentious thinking, I closed my essay by noting that, “at a time when the delegitimization and, ultimately, the eradication of Israel is a goal being voiced with mounting fervor by the enemies of the Jewish state, it is more than disheartening to see Jews themselves adding to the vilification.”

Many readers agreed with these conclusions. But some were clearly discombobulated. “I am almost in a state of shock,” Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College and TNR contributing editor, told The New York Times. Confronting me on NPR’s “On Point,” Wolfe dropped the “almost”; he also accused me of employing “Stalinist tactics” to stifle free speech and suppress open debate. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, told the International Herald Tribune’s Roger Cohen, “The atmosphere is hysterical, verging on McCarthyism. You can’t raise questions about Israel without being told you’re an anti-Semite or a self-hating and disloyal Jew.” The Boston Globe ran a story by Stanley Kutler under the absurd heading, “All Critics of Israel Aren’t Anti-Semites,” which carried the fantastic charge that my “real targets” are “Democrats and opponents of George W. Bush’s dubious adventure into Iraq.” And the Forward lost its editorial wits altogether with a piece called “Infamy,” claiming that my intent was to “turn Jews against liberalism and silence critics” and, for these alleged sins, placing me in their secular version of cherem.

Since I never once referred to “liberalism,” called no one a “Jewish anti-Semite” or “self-hating Jew,” said nothing about Democrats or the Iraq war, and made no attempt to “silence” anyone, this Kakfaesque bill of indictment makes me wonder what is at play here–illiteracy, dishonesty, or worse? As Bret Stephens recently put it, “How does joining a debate become an effort to suppress it?”

“Illiteracy, dishonesty, or worse…” It could also be evasiveness done under the guise of protesting too much. After all, this is one argument the “progressives,” after decades of verbal incontinence about Israel, will lose hands down in front of a sober and morally intelligent audience. The point is no morally sane person — especially now — should allow these folks to make these protestations without holding their feet to the fire. “Freedom of speech,” is not an excuse for not criticizing.

Rosenfeld then lays out the logic behind this evasion — the dialectical scam.

The ubiquitous rubric “criticism of Israel,” however, has also come to designate another kind of discourse–one that has almost become a politico-rhetorical genre unto itself, with its own identifiable vocabulary, narrative conventions, and predictable outcomes. At its ideational core is what the British scholar Bernard Harrison calls a “dialectical scam.” It goes something like this:

(1) Spot an Israeli action that can serve as the ground of “criticism of Israel” (e.g., Israel’s military incursion into the area near Jenin in April 2002 in response to Palestinian terrorist massacres);

(2) Then “dissent” in the strongest possible terms, for instance by likening the “razing of Jenin” to the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, while anticipating that “powerful” and “repressive” Jewish institutions will try to “silence” the critics by calling them anti-Semites;

(3) When taken to task by more sober-minded critics who find that, contrary to your charge, there was no such thing as “the razing of Jenin” and that the IDF has nothing in common with the SS, cry “foul” and claim their censure perfectly illustrates the point that there really is a Jewish organizational conspiracy to silence “criticism of Israel” by branding the authors of such criticism “anti-Semites.”

For some, this dialectical scam works nicely and validates their sense of themselves as intellectual martyrs suffering for a higher ideological cause. Once one is on to it, however, the scam readily dissolves into what it actually is: political bias, compounded by a touch of hysteria, masquerading as victimization. Thus, when a tiny political group calling itself “Jewish Voice for Peace” sets out to track “a growing epidemic of intimidation and harassment from fellow Jews seeking to stifle open debate over America’s policy toward Israel,” it can hardly be expected to be taken seriously.

(And yet they do expect that, and given the tenor of the reaction on NPR, the Boston Globe, the Forward, even the Jerusalem Post, for goodness sakes, they are taken seriously.)

This analysis of the dialectical scam lucidly lays out the lame logic of left-leaning analysis. Answers to why otherwise intelligent, talented people with acute minds, can fall prey to the kind of logic that gives — and has given us — a court full of people praising the emperor’s new clothes, mostly end up being psychological in order to explain these moves which really defy logic. My approach emphasizes what I call masochistic omnipotence complex and its attendant “prophetic rhetoric” which uses inflated language to “whip” the wayward people (here the Israelis) “back into line.” Thus, when Gershom Gorenberg rebukes Daniel Boyarin for saying that his Judaism is dying at Nablus in the same way that Christianity died at Auschwitz, he makes the following perfectly logical point: Boyarin is using a grotesque double standard in comparing what Israel does in Nablus with what men baptized as Christians (Nazis) did at Auschwitz.

    …Berkeley Talmud professor Daniel Boyarin, who says that just as Christianity may have died at Auschwitz, “my Judaism may be dying at Nablus …” — which at least implies that Israel has engaged in Nazi-style mass murder in that West Bank city. Outrage at such comparisons is justified.

It’s classic moral equivalence. So why would so remarkable an exegete as Boyarin become nauseatingly stupid all of a sudden. My explanation is that he is a moral perfectionist and that beneath that moral stance lies a deep contempt for virtually everyone who is not in his league, and in particular, for Christians. To Boyarin’s angelic standards a failure of Judaism on the order of Nablus is every bit as unacceptable to “his” Judaism, as Auschwitz is/should be to Christians. To Boyarin, apparently, it takes a genocide to get Christians to renounce a religion capable of generating such a horror (all the Nazis were baptized Christians). But he does not hold them to his, Jewish, standards. For him, the kind of activity that every occupying power in the history of mankind would find mild especially when defied so viciously (Nablus… why Nablus?), trikes him as so morally unbearably wicked that it is killing his Judaism because done by Jews. Moral narcissism? Something like that.

Is this the same kind of cultural racism that characterizes the abysmally low moral expectations among progressives for the Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims, who are forgiven anything with the excuse that they are resisting. Shouldn’t, by this logic, every suicide bombing done by shouting Allahu Akhbar result in the “death of Islam” for any moral Muslim?

But there’s another dimension here worthy of consideration. Note that the beginning of the dialectical scam is what Nidra Poller has called a “lethal narrative.” In Rosenfeld’s example, it’s Jenin which had Andrea Koppel questioning Israel’s morality and hence future existence. In Richard Cohen’s case, it was Qana, which also set off Jostein Gaarder into a (post-)Christian supersessionist rant. And this whole round of “new” anti-Semitic madness takes off in October 2000 with the image of Muhammad al Durah, the first blood libel of the 21st century. And what do all this “events” have in common?

They are Pallywood narratives, not necessarily in that they are staged — although some of them are from start to finish — but they are also exaggerations, outright lies, rhetorical violence aimed at framing the conflict in terms of the valiant underdog against the terrible bully. And these images “stick” not because the Palestinians (and other Arabs) are so good at them — they’re actually pretty cheap and obvious fakes — but because the Mainstream Media is so incomprehensibly and inveterately gullible about them. It’s when our news reporters, who, we expect, will give us a competent assessment of what’s reliable information (after all, it is their job), tell us that untrue things are true (their higher truths), that we’re in real trouble. Even those who were sure that no Israeli soldier fired intentionally to kill a 12-year old kid, could not argue with the terrible images and Charles Enderlin’s gravely voiceover informing us that he was the target of fire coming from the Israeli position.

And it is under the aegis of Muhammad al Durah that the equation Zionism = Nazism goes mainstream.

pdlr cropped
Place de la République, Paris, October 6, 2000.

And that’s the image that has seized the mind of Jewish progressives, humiliating them in front of their own progressive friends. The behavior of “progressive” Jews since 2000 — which for me constitutes a moral lunacy that historians will comment on in the future (hopefully, as an object lesson, for a long time) — has much to do with this emperor’s new clothes consensus that the Israelis are like the Nazis. Convinced by the same images — al Durah, Jenin, etc. — that convinced others around the world (and especially their activist comrades), these progressive Jews turned away in horror from an image of (Israeli) Jews that came to them produced by people who hate and defame them, and use rhetorical excess not in an effort to improve the wayward people, but to destroy them.

And the same media that will give us a daily dose of this defamatory Pallywood as news, won’t tell us about the culture that produces it. When one looks more closely one discovers that the Palestinian (and Arab) MSM is completely in the grip of genocidal hatreds that make the Nazis look like amateurs. (The Nazis rejected Christianity, these apocalyptic paranoids are taking over Islam.) So progressive Jews imbibe, internalize as self-loathing, and express as hatred of Israel, the image of Israel that Pallywood creates.

I can hear the outraged liberal: “How dare you claim that Palestinian suffering is faked? How dare you claim that Israel is pure and without sin?” I’m not claiming anything of the sort, and that response is a milder version of the kind of (intentionally?) illiterate response Rosenfeld has gotten. Take my position to the absurd and get indignant over your straw man.

The point here is, where does the grotesque inflation of whatever terrible things inevitably occur at checkpoints and in self-defense become Nazi-like behavior. What trait do Israelis share with Nazis that every other nation that’s ever been at war necessarily becomes guilty of? And compare that with the large number of traits that Palestinians and Nazis share, that very few if any other cultures have ever shared (e.g., paranoid, genocidal, anti-Semitism)? And we, gentiles and Jews, are falling prey to a MSM-mediated, Nazi-like assault on Israel. Why would Daniel Boyarin and the rest of the stables of Jewish anti-Zionists believe the narratives of a people who’s moral stance is so abysmal by his own moral standards? Is it that, as an oppressed people their voice, their rage, is somehow “authentic”?

What is it that makes Jews recoil in horror before these images in the media?

On one level, it’s straightforward. Who likes to look in the mirror and see a monster?

But before Jews start mutilating themselves in order to regain the “proper form,” I think they’d do well to check the mirror.

In today’s world, where we think we know what’s going on in other parts of the world because we assume our media gives us an accurate account of what’s going on, we blunder the more our media blind us.

If the doors of perception were cleansed… what would we see?

Rosenfeld concludes the essay:

That is at stake in the present debate, though, is serious and calls for thoughtful minds to move beyond the regnant clichés and recognize that Jews and the Jewish state are once again embattled. The most violent enemies–Iran and Syria, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda–are undisguised. On another level, but causing its own damaging effects, is the hostility embedded in language. One libel after the other, today’s anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric erodes Israel’s moral standing and marginalizes those who are devoted to the Jewish state and speak out on its behalf. In Europe, slanted media coverage has already reduced Israel and its supporters to something close to pariah status while creating a sense of unease within the local Jewish communities that has not been felt for decades. Some Jews fear that it is now open hunting season on them and their children and are giving thought to leaving. Many have, in fact, already left.

This is not the situation of American Jews at the moment, but, with words like “apartheid” and “dual loyalty” in the air and intimations of powerful “Jewish lobbies” controlling the national press and exerting undue influence over foreign policy, a quiver of nervousness is now detectable among Jews in this country, too. Language matters, and its contamination by thoughtless or malicious people can be invidious. That was the thrust of my reflections on anti-Zionist ideas and anti-Semitic utterances in my AJC essay. Some of the responses to it prove my point.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld is professor of English and Jewish studies and director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts at Indiana University. He is the editor of The Writer Uprooted: Contemporary Jewish Exile Literature (Indiana University Press,

14 Responses to The Dialectical Scam: Why Does it Work?

  1. Yehudit says:

    thanks for the link, RL.

    “why would so remarkable an exegete as Boyarin become nauseatingly stupid all of a sudden.”
    He’s been this way for quite a while. Typical academic.

  2. RL says:

    now, now. i’m an academic, too. and overall there are few as smart and obtuse as boyarin. he’s not typical.

  3. Yehudit says:

    But you’re not a typical academic, RL. But that’s a good description of Boyarin. My point is he’s been obtuse for a long time.

  4. RL says:

    and my point is that he’s obtuse specifically about israel. his other work is quite brilliant.

  5. Yehudit says:

    Yes that’s what I meant. :-)

  6. nobody important says:

    “[T]hese progressive Jews turned away in horror from an image of (Israeli) Jews that came to them produced by people who hate and defame them, and use rhetorical excess not in an effort to improve the wayward people, but to destroy them.

    Can’t people see this distinction? The same goes for the mainstream Left’s view of Al-Qaeda.

  7. thufir says:

    ‘and intimations of powerful “Jewish lobbies” controlling the national press and exerting undue influence over foreign policy’

    personally I dislike how Rosenfeld spends much of the piece complaining about words have been put into his mouth (ie. “liberal Jews”) and promptly proceeds to put words into M&W’s mouth. They go out of their way to say it’s not a Jewish lobby, but rather a pro-Israel one. Plenty of non-Jews are a part of this lobby. And the fact that these complaints get lumped in with this “Israel = Nazis” rhetoric is what makes people think the cries of anti-Semitism are there simply to stifle debate.

    Yes, to say that Israel and the Nazis are the same is anti-Semitic. To say that there are powerful lobbies in this country controlling the direction of policy is fact. I don’t think the Israel lobby is solely to blame for our Middle East troubles, of course, but I’m fairly sure M&W don’t either, even if some people think they “intimate” it.

  8. One of my favorite ideas (I wish I could remember the original quote) is that people tend to think that just because they are capable of thinking rationally that every time they think they are doing so rationally. The vacuous left is rife with practitioners of this self-deception.
    No one has told these idiots to shut up altogether (although we might wish to) Rosenblatt just wants them to have to prove that what they are thinking is the product of rational thought and not just emotionally keyed-up blather or self-serving quasi logic.
    Clearly their outcry against having to meet logical standards is an implied admission of their inability to defend their “thoughts”.
    Thanks Richard for this discussion.

  9. Ben says:

    I intereviewed him for CampusJ just recently after this article was published: http://campusj.com/2007/03/02/campusj-interview-with-alvin-rosenfeld/

  10. Ben-David says:

    You wrote:
    Why would Daniel Boyarin and the rest of the stables of Jewish anti-Zionists believe the narratives of a people who’s moral stance is so abysmal by his own moral standards? Is it that, as an oppressed people their voice, their rage, is somehow “authentic”?

    What is it that makes Jews recoil in horror before these images in the media?
    - – - – - – - – - – - – - – -
    … you have struck gold with that word “authentic”.

    The elephant in the room is that a Jew’s attitude to Israel is almost always directly related to their attitude to their own Jewishness, and their view of the Jewish people’s relevance in our times.

    (Tens of) thousands of op-ed pieces, essays, and conversations both deeply intellectual and rabidly emotional, with Israelis and other Jews of all stripes, have convinced me of this.

    The relationship is often obscured. But it is always there, often just a little conversation is needed to tease it out.

    I now routinely counter overtures by leftie Jews – many of them quite unctuous in their assertions of “brotherhood” with us Israelis (a-la “support our troops – bring them home!”) with a simple question:

    Why are Jews necessary in the 20th century?

    This stops most of them in their tracks. It throws them back on the reality of their lack of belief in the Jewish people – and thus, in the validity of the Zionist project.

    Of course they protest that they are not, Not, NOT self-hating Jews. I just shrug and direct them back to the question.

    This is not just a party trick (although it gives me some relief from their arguments, which are boringly repetitive). It cuts to a deep truth.

    This connection explains many things – including the amazing parallel between Israelis’ position on the religious/secular divide in Israel and their likely position on the political divide.

    Jews with a healthy rationale for being Jewish have no problem defending Israel’s existence and actions – even while being constructively critical.

    Those who haven’t such a basis – well you’re right, nobody likes to “look in the mirror and see a monster”. Even if it’s just a Woody Allen style monster: the specter of otherness.

    The Jews comparing Israel to the Nazis are, by and large, the actual or idealogical descendants of previous waves of Jews who urged their brethren to get with their “progressive” agendas – primarily to erase their own shame at being associated with us!

  11. Eliyahu says:

    there’s an interesting article in the latest Nativ [Hebrew bi-monthly] about the thinking that underlies the “left’s” view of Jews. The author argues that “leftist” attitudes today towards Jews can be traced back to medieval Christian theologians and even back to the Church Father Marcion.
    Here is an English language summary of the article:
    http://www.acpr.org.il/NATIV/2007-1-contents.htm#Reason, Science and Progress

  12. [...] this ideological commitment to the “subaltern other,” the underdog, no matter what the evidence? Is it a form of capitulation (appeasement disguised as [...]

  13. [...] with him, something he does only rarely. In any case, Jeremy’s reaction replicates the “dialectical scam” described by Alvin Rosenfeld – turn a small incident into one of martyrdom at the [...]

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