Top 10 Anti-Semitic Slurs: Anti-Semitism or Legitimate Criticism of Israel

Below is the list of top 10 anti-Semitic slurs for 2012 from the Simon Wiesenthal Center. All but one of these contributions for the year concerns me. I always look at the statements and spend a moment chagrined and admittedly a little shaken that such discourse actually characterizes the consciousness of certain individuals and groups. But that aside, the slurs bring up the tension between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. This is a fine interpretive line that speaks to the issue of Israel as a legitimate target of political criticism, and the use of such criticism as an anti-Semitic tool. Moreover, it’s an excellent example of the distinction I like to make for students between perspective and bias. Top 10 Anti-Semitic Slurs.

Look at #9 by Jakob Augstein who is a contributor to Spiegel online. There is currently a bit of a fury in Germany over the decision by the Wiesenthal Center to list Augstein here. Augstein is a respected journalist and surely doesn’t belong in the same categories as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the Golden Path, and Farrakhan. Moreover the issues of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, powerful political lobbying, and conservative trends in the society are legitimate issues worthy of discussion and argumentation.

One can be a respected journalist raising legitimate issues and still be quite misleading, exaggerated, and uninformed. I do not think these comments by Augstein rise to the level of anti-Semitism and do not think he should have been lumped in with the likes of the other 9 contributors. His words and style are inflammatory and certainly lacked nuance. Comparing traditional observant Jews to the sort of “Islamism” that is triumphalist in nature and promotes violence is a silly comparison based more on exaggerated rhetorical strategies rather than fact. An unfair and unjustified moral equivalency is typically the rhetorical strategy used by those characterized more by bias than perspective. The same sort of exaggeration applies to the claims about the undue influence of the Jewish lobby. It is true that the Jewish lobby in the United States is effective and strong but it does little more than successfully defend its interests in a democratic manner. There is a Saudi lobby and a Pakistani lobby and on and on. The Jewish lobby engages in the democratic process and does so successfully. But the argument that Jewish influence distorts foreign-policy is based on the assumption that there is a “correct” foreign-policy that is being subverted. If a group wants to counter the influences of the Jewish lobby then organize and come up with better arguments.

Again, I think Mr. Augstein is critical of Israel and does not do a particularly good job of defending such a position – and there is plenty to disagree with – but the charge that the statement in #9 is anti-Semitic is unjustified. Jews and Israelis who are overly sensitive to the potentialities of anti-Semitism must also work to make the distinction between a perspective based on legitimate issues critical of Israel and anti-Semitism. Staining someone with the charge of anti-Semitism, when it is only a knee-jerk response and not clearly justified, shuts down legitimate debate about Israel as a political entity and strangles the communication process.

We have to do the hard work and make the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel on the basis of argument and substantive issues. Sure, some critics of Israel are blatant anti-Semites. Showing movies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is clearly anti-Semitic; the vacant eyed whack job surrounded by guns holed up in a mountain cabin somewhere who blames the Jews for the world’s problems is anti-Semitic; comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is anti-Semitic. Even the apartheid comparison is problematic. A careful and considerate comparison between Israel and South Africa, on the basis of the best political theory and history, does not justify in any way such a comparison even though there are issues of difficult population concentration.

But making civil rights and political arguments about occupancy of the land, the status of Palestinians after their dispersal in 1948, refugees, borders, settlements, and security considerations is not anti-Semitic. These issues are not treated seriously when they are viewed as manifestations of racism and anti-Semitism. And sometimes anti-Semites attach themselves, like barnacles on the bottom of the boat, to those making legitimate criticisms of Israel. They attempt to move the discussion from quality argumentative confrontation to “delegitimization” of Isreal. Sometimes the difference between anti-Semitic intentions and fair criticism is difficult but it is a difficulty we must continue to grapple with.
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Posted on January 15, 2013, in Democracy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Here are a couple of comments on the “defense” of Jakob Augstein against the accusation of anti-semitism made by Dr. Ellis; subject to:

    Caveats

    I forwarded the Simon Wiesenthal Newsletter after reading the commentary but I did not read the list of anti Semitic slurs. Nor did I read that list before commenting here. That said, I hope the reader will “cut me some slack” in the interest of timeliness.

    Ellis: Comparing traditional observant Jews to the sort of “Islamism” that is triumphalist in nature and promotes violence is a silly comparison based more on exaggerated rhetorical strategies rather than fact. An unfair and unjustified moral equivalency is typically the rhetorical strategy used by those characterized more by bias than perspective.

    Comment: Anti Semitism is often characterized as a “bias”. Thus, some might categorize your description of Mister Augstein’s remarks as evidence of anti-semitism rather than a defense against it.

    Ellis (quoting Augstein): Undue influence of the Jewish lobby
    Comment: I might, with caution, “cut someone a little slack” for using the term “The Israel(i) Lobby.” When a person’s words “slop over” into “the Jewish Lobby” it very often signals fierce anti-semitism. In such cases, the speaker or writer needs to convincingly demonstrate the contrary in the moment or in the document. Barring such a convincing statement, one would be advised against giving the person the benefit of much, if any, doubt.
    Comment: Obviously an exception would exist when discussing lobbying actions on an obviously Jewish issue by Jewish groups. For example, a school district might rule that students taking off Yom Kippur could not make up a graduation exam.

    Ellis: We have to do the hard work and make the distinction between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel on the basis of argument and substantive issues.

    Comment: Given my earlier caveat, where do the two comments by Augstein embrace either argument or substance? Do they drive home a point? Do they paradoxically illustrate some great truth or argument? My guess is, neither does either!

    Ellis: Sometimes the difference between anti-Semitic intentions and fair criticism is difficult but it is a difficulty we must continue to grapple with.

    I hope my brief remarks here give the reader additional considerations when weighing comments such as those of Mister Augstein.

    DJ

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