Home National Politics The Anti-Israel Left and that Historical Mystery, Anti-Semitism Part I

The Anti-Israel Left and that Historical Mystery, Anti-Semitism Part I


Talking with a friend about anti-Semitism, and about a distaste for the flavor of the anti-Israeli position of so much of the left.

I think my friend is a lot more wholly siding with Israel than I am. But we both agreed that — in the way the anti-Israel left deals with the moral complexities of the situation in the Middle East – there is a distinct smell of anti-Semitism.

Which led us into some discussion of the mystery of anti-Semitism.

Here are some of my thoughts about it. And as an American Jew born in 1946, and one who has made a life-time study of human brokenness, I’ve been thinking about anti-Semitism here and there for fifty years, from Erich Fromm and the Authoritarian Personality to Hitler’s Willing Executioners and The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933.

The extraordinary thing about anti-Semitism is the way it can take so many forms in so many times and places. It’s like this indigestible bone in the gullet of much of civilization down through the centuries across much of the planet.

The world is full of inter-group hatreds. The map of them would consist of a great many short lines of such negative engagement.  But with the Jews, and only the Jews, it’s different.

There are prejudices all over the world, but there is no other people who have been the object of prejudice in so many times and places, getting kicked out of Spain, getting massacred by the hundreds of thousands in 17th century Ukraine, to “The Protocol of the Elders of Zion” being a huge hit TV documentary in Egypt, spreading the long-discredited murder-feeding fraud of that forgery of a tract.

How does that happen in a civilization, or collection of civilizations interacting on one planet?  

If we ran human history a couple dozen times, would there always emerge a particular people who get bounced around like that? I bet not. My guess is that this especially persistent form of intergroup prejudice is a bit of a freak historical occurrence, an unusual way that brokenness came to flower with this particular scenario of civilized history.

An essential part of this unusualness was that in the Jews, culture had evolved a genius for maintaining its integrity and values as a cultural form, no matter the blows.

Jewish culture, like none other I know, could transmit itself from generation to generation, protecting and passing along its spirit and structure, despite a world that wanted to crack it open like a nut and devour it to establish its hegemony over vulnerable people.

Partly because of a European culture that was particularly intolerant of religious differences (unlike traditional India), as demonstrated by the way that Protestants and Catholics made war on each other for generations.

Partly because the Jews were a people of the book, and were therefore of great use to elites, who kept the Jews as the face of the power that exploited them, i.e. the instruments of the ruling elite’s own greed and lust for power.

And now some other aspects of history have created a state of Israel in a situation frought with brokenness.

On the one hand, the state of Israel exists as an extraordinary and thrilling homecoming after two thousand years, and a great achievement of a people.

But also it was a risky development, coming as it did in a particular geo-historical moment, with its various broken forces at work:

• Israel coming into existence being one of the post-War repercussions of European anti-Semitism, i.e. the Holocaust;  

• Israel being born into the midst of an Arab world that was beset by profound brokenness, not well-aligned with its needs and the modern world – an untogetherness that is still evident all over the Arab world;

• An Arab world that would not make peace for generations and managed over the years of unremitting refusal to make peace has by this time created an Israel that’s a whole lot more broken than it used to be.

A lot of forces and patterns brokenness involved in the overall picture of the creation of Israel, a Jewish effort to create a Wholeness.

And those chickens have come home to roost. It is sadly hard right not to see how wholeness will emerge in this situation between Israel and the Palestinians.

And Israel is clearly now a not-trivial part of the problem.

But the way of dealing with Israel’s shortcomings that would be appropriate morally and spiritually is a far cry from some of what one discerns on the anti-Israel left.

Victims of history, all. Human. Love thy neighbor.

(To be continued.)

  • JimWebster

    Andy, as an Irish-American Catholic (born in 1938) who abhors discrimination of any sort, I support your judgment that there is at least a “whiff” of anti-Semitism on the left, in some of the criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinian tactics. Catholics need only to read the history of their own persecution (which clearly does not rise to the level of persecution of Jews) to sympathize. Catholics have our own history of anti-Semitism to admit and overcome.

  • amber waves

    I share your concern about the growth of Anti-semitism (and anti-Islamic) trends. Muslims are being tarnished by Al Quaeda, Boko Haram, and ISIL. Jews are being tarnished by the actions of Likud and its extreme Zionist allies.

    Anti-semitism is being kept alive in large part because of the actions of the Israeli state. This is true for right wing fascists, Christians, Arabs, Muslims, Left wing Westerners and others.

    Israeli apartheid and occupation are abhorrent and are the primary cause of contemporary anti-semitism.

  • Iechyd Da

    Because of this charge, so very few American politicians dare to criticize Israeli policies as evidenced by the unanimous support of the U.S. Senate (Senate Resolution 498) for the Israeli military action in Gaza. When, recently, has the U.S. Senate been unanimous on any issue? Would it be fair to say that critiques of American policies are anti-Christian, because Christianity is the dominant religion here?

    The Israeli policies toward Palestinians, and the unquestioning support give these policies by American leaders, have resulted in extremely disproportionate casualties between the two sides of the conflict. So far in 2014, 75 Israelis and 2218 Palestinians have been killed. Over the past 14 years, 11 Palestinian children have been killed for every Israeli child killed – http://www.ifamericansknew.org

    U.S. policies should work towards a world where no children are killed in war anywhere and human aspirations for a home, a decent living, freedom of movement, and democratic process are encouraged rather than thwarted.

  • Elaine in Roanoke

    My own study of the history of Christianity as we know it today showed me how some of the roots of anti-semitism go far back, back to the time when Christianity was first a sect of Judaism and then split off from the early faith centered in Jerusalem with the incorporation of gentiles into the faith. One can see it in the lack of blame for the crucifixion of Christ in the earliest writings ( Paul and Mark) and in the appearance of that facet of anti-semitism in the later gospels  of Matthew and Luke, not to mention its incorporation into the theology of the Catholic Church.

    Add to that origin the fact that Jews historically have passed their unique culture from generation to generation, sometimes separated from their faith, and they became the “other” to many of the people they lived among. Indeed, I know Jewish friends who proudly see themselves as Jews but never practice their faith, their Jewishness passed from mother to child through the institution of family. The persistent prejudice against Jews reinforced this “otherness” because it forced Jews to live in enclaves, separated from their neighbors.

    I, too, have long seen the tendency of the Left to view Israel as the sole aggressor, or at least the precipitator of the violence in that region, staying blind to the fact that the neighbors of Israel, for the most part, have vowed to destroy Israel. Is it because the Left sees Israel as the bully because of its military might? Is it because the Left traditionally has taken the side of the underdog in power struggles? Is it a reflection of the persistence of anti-semitism? I simply don’t know.

    What I do know is that we now are at a terrible impasse in that region. Voices of moderation on both sides have lost out for now to militant Islamists and Biblical Maximalists. Caught in the middle are the ordinary citizens of both Israel and Palestine, ever the victims of power struggles. Can the United States do anything to help resolve that impasse? I don’t know the answer to that one. We certainly will not see the United States cut aid to Israel, as some on the Left want. We certainly won’t see the U.S. using force to impose a solution on the people of the Middle East. Can we somehow cause Israel to stop building settlements on land that is Palestinian, while somehow causing Hamas and other radical terrorists to end their futile attacks on Israel? That is far beyond the capability of any outside force.

  • scott_r

    This is kind of like the 5th grade bully complaining that he shouldn’t get punished because some other kid aren’t getting punished too…and therefore the bully is a victim.  How about you actually address, on the merits, the criticisms of Israeli policy, instead of whinging that US lefties shouldn’t talk about Israel until they’ve talked about Tibet & China (and countless other essentially colonial/imperial conflicts – after all, the Chinese are colonizing Africa too).

  • Andy Schmookler

    In a comment above, the sentence appears: “criticizing Israel, the political state, is not criticizing judaism, the religion/ethnicity.”

    Of course, that is true. Criticism of Israel does not constitute anti-Semitism.

    And doubtless there are defenders of Israel who over-deploy the accusation of anti-Semitism as a way of denying the valid critiques/challenges being directed at Israeli policy.

    I’m not one of them, as I do not deny that there are problems with Israel’s policy.

    But there’s another denial evident even in this discussion, in my view, and that’s the denial that in much of the critique coming from the left in recent decades, there are fairly clear signs that something else is going on besides the legitimate critique.

    The evidence that there is something else is not hard to find. It seems that some here have not noticed it, but I’m not eager to spend the time to write the brief to make that case.

    (I also think about how the right-wing these days can look at Ferguson, MO, and not see that there’s any problem with white racism. Instead, they go with what Jon Stewart so well skewered as a “he who smelt it dealt it” kind of racism, in response to the Fox News types suggesting that the racists are the one’s who raise the question of racism when another white cop shoots and kills another unarmed black young man.)

    Then there’s the question of how to interpret it.

    I believe there are good reasons to suspect that the “something else” is an expression of a force that’s been moving through Western civilization for more than a millennium, and that has shown itself to be both powerful and resilient and able to change shapes and forms depending on time, place, and circumstance.

    I myself have been slow to come to that interpretation. In the forty-five or so years I’ve been looking at this anti-Israel animus on the left, it is probably only in the past decade that I’ve begun to perceive that the ancient current of anti-Semitism is a not-so-trivial part of the mix.

    Not denying the problems with Israel, and not denying that a part of the left has become a channel of an ancient toxin in our civilization, one can come to what I believe to be a more accurate and balanced view of how brokenness is playing itself out both in the Middle East and in Liberal America.

  • amber waves

    What is missing in the analysis on the part of the “anti-semitism” commentators is the right wing take-over of Israel. Throw in occupation, apartheid (hundreds of laws and regulations that make Palestinians second class citizens), and 1 sided US support for Israel, and of course some US Leftists and much of the planet are rabid.

    In addition, Leftists are working for secular governance everywhere. How can Leftists effectively fight islamist caliphate nonsense or the Ayatollahs, when US strong allies (Israel, Morocco, Saudi) in the region are theocratic? Secular Israelis are emigrating in increasing numbers.

    The Likud government is destroying any chance of a 2 state solution. Its internal economic and social policies are terrible. 13 years of increasingly radical right-wing governance…with no end in site.

    We may be smelling elements of anti-semitism, but the stronger smell is US support for disastrous Likud policies.