Prejudice sometimes takes gross forms, like physical violence, but it is not always so blatant. Scholars talk about “institutional” racism, sexism, or homophobia, since attitudes can militate against some groups, even when members of the dominant group consider themselves tolerant.
With anti-Semitism, however, theories of institutional discrimination hit a brick wall. Age-old stereotypes about sinister Jews covertly controlling governments, finance, and the media, emerge as quasi-respectable. Italy’s leading leftist philosopher, Gianni Vattimo, boasts of “re-evaluating” the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He brands Israel “worse than Hitler”.
Vattimo echoes millions in Europe and the world, whom he eagerly wishes to guide. What is remarkable is the stony silence of his leftist cohorts, aside from the predictably trivialising brush-offs. Ordinarily, theorists of institutional discrimination would refuse to treat such outbursts as mere slip-ups. In this case, however, they refuse to ask how the left socially constructs Jews.
Vattimo’s collaborations with Judith Butler may seem to soften his blows. Butler is, in many ways, Jewish in the loftiest sense. She deeply cares about Judaism and admirably expounds its philosophy. Unfortunately, however, the history of philosophy is littered with luminaries whose general insights may be of high genius, while their positions on a given controversy of the day turn out to be neither faithful to their own premises, nor helpful for solving the problem itself.
Butler, one of our most innovative theorists of gender, energetically promotes the slander of “pinkwashing”. Her intentions are honest enough. Yet few slurs so bleakly revive the crusty image of the conniving Jew, saying one thing then doing the opposite.
Contrary to the views of scary numbers of academics, Israel does not legislate gay rights through a plot of Machiavellian skulduggery to deflect attention from Palestinians. It is possible for Israelis – like real human beings – to adopt gay rights for no reason other than that they support gays. Many a gay Arab who has taken refuge in Tel Aviv will testify as much.
Theorists of institutional discrimination would normally be outraged at the notion that it is the perpetrators themselves who decide whether they are biased. No feminist would tolerate the view that a man becomes non-sexist simply by declaring that he is. No race theorist would tolerate the view that whites become non-racist simply by insisting that they are. On the left, however, conclusive self-assessments that the movement is clean of anti-Semitism go blissfully – indeed vigilantly – unchallenged from within.
Theories of institutional discrimination rightly demand that we focus on the least conspicuous forms of prejudice. By contrast, asking about anti-Semitism within anti-Israel campaigns turns immediately suspicious until one can point to full-blown swastikas and cries of “Hitler was right!”.
And even then, it all ends up explained away as just a few rotten apples. Gone are the theories, central to feminism, to race studies, or to post-colonial disciplines, about how superficially marginal expression hints at tacitly widespread attitudes.
Many argue that charges of anti-Semitism aim to divert attention from Israeli militarism. But who, over decades, has engineered that depressing Muslims-versus-Jews dynamic? When it comes to muddying the waters, the US record abroad and at the UN certainly leaves plenty to be desired.
And, like many industrialised democracies, Israel has by no means remained free of racism. But over decades, the entire membership of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has organised bloc voting, sabotaging UN agencies to prop up endless censure of, and resolutions against Israel.
It has done so to shield its members and satellites from condemnation of heinous human rights abuses. It is the Palestinian Observer Mission which continually spearheaded moves to block investigations of millions of victims of mass killing, rape, and internal displacement in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo. One of those Palestinian delegates was wont, instead, to recite his poetry.
Supposed anti-racists, who normally speak up for sub-Saharan Africans, have uttered not a word against those UN machinations. Muslim scholars and leaders in the West, too, have maintained silence or have actively supported that OIC stance. Academics and the media continue to cite UN resolutions or findings against Israel with no enquiry into those voting processes.
It is true that the US has vetoed many Security Council resolutions against Israel. But what the media perennially overlook is that no veto power exists in other UN bodies (the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council) whose resolutions are constantly cited as high moral authority against Israel. Their resolutions, far from reflecting “the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”, are products of [naked power mongering](Rosa Freedman, The United Nations Human Rights Council: A Critique and Early Assessment (Routledge, 2013).
Yet Israel’s objections to such hypocrisy end up summarily dismissed with the boilerplate accusation of “whataboutery”.
Critics are right to point out that Israel receives enormous military backing. But our globe no longer divides into the tidy “spheres of influence” of earlier times. As with Israel, the military force and far greater internal abuses of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and numerous other states are equally unthinkable without extensive Western involvement at every step.
Our universities receive staff or students from some of those states in droves. Yet it is the drastically smaller numbers of Israelis, many of whom are vocal peace supporters, who face concerted hostilities on our campuses.
Germany leads the way
For years, German academics and media have remained leagues ahead of other Europeans in squarely confronting anti-Semitism within leftist-supported movements. In the leading left-wing Tageszeitung, the Islamic studies specialist Lamya Kaddor rejects knee-jerk inclinations to minimise the role of anti-Semitism within the anti-Israel camp.
She lambasts hatreds that have “long existed” among what she calls a “considerable part” of Muslim culture and which have massively carried over into the West. Kaddor notes the robust sales of Hitler’s Mein Kampf which have persisted throughout “the Arab world”, and the increasing normalisation of anti-Jewish readings of the Koran.
To claim only to criticise Israel, but not Jews, is less straightforward than it may appear. Both sides to the conflict are linked, culturally and symbolically, to wider and deeply textured forces reaching far beyond their borders. Such a claim raises hard questions, then, as to the historical, political, and ethical assumptions being made about the countless relationships that exist between Israel and Jews.
Certainly, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. At the same time, anti-Israel sentiment cannot be as hygienically removed from anti-Semitism as is claimed throughout academia and the media.