Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Confessions of an Antr-Semitic WASP

Jefferson Morley

from World Opinion Search

As a Jew-loving liberal I must say that David Greenberg’s recent piece in Slate on Yale’s center for the study of anti-Semitism struck me as abstract, and one-sided–yet I took it personally. When I quit my kvetching, I decided that Greenberg’s usually capacious historical vision had failed to capture the reality of anti-Semitism in the city where I live, Washington DC.

The piece evokes anti-Semitism as a threat to the Jewish community worldwide, particularly as articulated by Islamic fundamentalists, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Some liberals, he says, are faint of heart when it comes to talking about this. Greenberg (a former colleague at the New Republic in the mid-1980s) asks: “How did liberalism—historically the philosophy of toleration and equal rights—come to be so squeamish about confronting Jew-hatred in its contemporary forms?

Here’s how:

There is a growing non-violent movement in Israel, the Palestinian territories, the United States and Europe called BDS, which stands for the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions on the current government in Tel Aviv because it disenfranchises, demonizes, and denies the rights of about half of the human beings under its sway, solely on the basis of race and religion.

The BDS movement is liberal, in precisely the same way the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was liberal. BDS, for example, seeks to open up the apartheid roads in Israel that are now restricted for the use of believers of one faith only. BDS says the existence of a “Jews-only” highway is long-term folly as a security measure for Jewish people and ill-liberal on its face.

The BDS movement confronts a democratically-elected and messianically nationalistic government that daily seizes the land of people of one faith for the exclusive use of the people of another.

BDS seeks to call attention to the fact that Israel receives more U.S. taxpayer dollars than any country in the world, while its leaders barely conceal their intention to draw our nearly bankrupt government into yet another war in the Middle East in the near future.

In short, BDS is rooted in the same human desire for participatory government—the same revulsion against arbitrary power–that fuels the unexpectedly inspiring events known as the Arab Spring. Yet to declare one’s support for the BDS movement in Washington invites—no, insures– that you will indicted as an “anti-Semite” in a liberal American journal. If you are lucky, you will only be charged with the misdemeanor of being “squeamish” about Jew hatred.

That’s how it happened to me.

So excuse me, while I plead innocent to Jew-hating. Greenberg’s worries (and Ron Rosenbaum’s) about anti-Semitism seem abstracted from the reality of American politics in 2011. The most successful anti-Semite in recent U.S. presidential politics was Pat Buchanan, a charming and intelligent Irishman who undeniably has some gut animus against my Hebrew kin. He sometimes displays the same bile for my black brethren and the Latino “illegal immigrants” in my life–and for much the same reason. These dusky humanoids threaten Buchanan’s sense of the United States as a white Christian republic, which is why I never voted for the man.

Was Buchanan over-the-top when he described the U.S. Congress as “Israel’s amen corner in Washington?” Maybe. Was the U.S. Congress over the top in giving a strutting bully named Netanyahu 29 standing ovations for during his recent Capitol Hill cameo? Definitely. We need analysis of that Zionist debacle more urgently than another sotte voce warnings about the somewhat more distant threat (at least to sane Washington discourse) of Jew hatred.

Greenberg doesn’t name any liberals who deny the reality of Jew-hatred in the Arab world, but I suppose there are a few. I don’t know or like any of them. For the sake of argument, I can agree with Paul Berman’s suggestion that the anti-Semitism of the Muslim Brotherhood somehow inspired the 9/11 hijackers and the global Islamist movement. So what? Save for pre-modern Yemen, the newly mobilized publics of the Arab world show little tolerance for or interest in the damaged and discredited leaders of what our hero Hitchens has usefully dubbed “Islamofascism.” Let’s do what we can to keep it that way.

As a taxpayer, I’m not that worked up about the strain of Jew hatred in the Muslim Brotherhood’s culture right now because my money does not fund the Egyptian Islamic party. I do pay for the regime in Tel Aviv. As a voter, I think my preferences are even-handed. In policy terms, the U.S. government has a few ways to shape the behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood in a more liberal direction—and it should use all of them. The U.S. government has many more levers to nudge the Israeli government in a more liberal direction—and it should use all of them.

As for the micropolitics of the Yale anti-Semitism center, Greenberg attributes the closure of the first center to some subtle, unspoken bad faith of American liberals that the administration can’t quite articulate. Ron says it is “shameful.” As an alumnus, I agree Yale should clear the air with a concise explanation of why the first center did not meet university standards and why the second does. It’s a teachable moment.

For all his complaining, Greenberg does not address the rather more tangible role of the campus BDS movement in Yale’s decision. This multicultural movement–which naturally includes more than a few Jewish kids–made it clear to the administration of the school that an anti-Semitism center would be held to high standards of liberal discourse. It seems to me (from afar) that Yale responded to these legitimate concerns while trying to keep the boundaries of discussion as wide as possible.

Instead of addressing the arguments of the Yale BDS movement, Greenberg props up a straw man.

“Yes, yes,” he says. “Criticism of Israel isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic. Everyone agrees about that. What liberals seem to have a hard time admitting these days is that criticisms of Israel can ever be anti-Semitic. “

This liberal doesn’t have a hard time admitting that. The Jewish people have always had lots of enemies. They don’t need any more. That’s why the Muslim Brotherhood and Benjamin Netanyahu should be watched closely. But why am I getting so huffy and personal about this?

Greenberg’s essay torqued me because I am a 10th generation white Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) whose formative education began when I first met Jewish people. It happened when I was enrolled in 6th grade at the almost totally Jewish Ethical Culture school on New York’s Upper West Side. It was there, among the liberal Jews, that I contacted an apparently incurable lifelong case of the dread social disease known as “secular humanism.”

I attended Fieldston, the high-achieving high school in the Bronx that gave the world J. Robert Openheimer, the visionary physicist who warned against nuclear weapons, and Lloyd Blankfein, the Goldman Sachs visionary who got rich while my 401K evaporated, I came of age with a fatal weakness for Henny Youngman jokes and Jewish women. I eventually married one. Her father was an Ashkenazi Jew from Romania, and I was glad to have a mensch of a father-in-law. It seemed natural.

Actually I never met my father-in-law. Nesti Arene died a decade before I met my wife. But I sure love him from afar. He was darkly handsome aspiring musician who studied with Pablo Casals while still in his teens. In Nazi-occupied Paris, he lived under an assumed name to evade a national security apparatus that sought to liquidate Jews and communists. He was expelled to Argentina, and, via a romantic twist of fate, wound up bringing new levels of excellence in classical music to the people of El Salvador. Toward the end of his life, he became a refugee again. In 1980, he and his family had to leave San Salvador or be killed by a U.S.-funded national security apparatus that sought to liquidate Jews and communists. Blown across the globe by 20th century geopolitics, my father in law never lost his sense of culture or his sense of humor. My kind of mensch.

Yet because I am a BDS supporter, I am by the current norms the nation’s capital, a borderline anti-Semite whose views have no place in respectable debates in Washington. I’m also alleged to be an enemy of academic freedom at my own alma mater. I’m “squeamish.”. Some might allow as I’m not really a Jew hater, I’m just “objectively” helping the anti-Semitic conspiracy that plans to wipe out the Jewish people in the near future. (Actually, my views on Iran are actually more complicated than that but never mind.) I hope my old friends Greenberg and Rosenbaum don’t think I’m trafficking in age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes. I don’t think I’m a self-hating (non) Jew. But if it turns out I am, I suppose I will feel bad about it. In my own mind, I’m just a slightly evolved WASP: a Wannabe Ashkenazi Supporting Palestinians.

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