Anti-Semitism and Critical Thinking
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Some time ago, I wrote a post on Open Salon which used the topic of Anti-Semitism to examine various facets of critical thinking. Recent exchanges with Ajit Randeniya prompted me to revisit it.
Let me emphasise:
- I am not an anti-Semite
- I am not a racist
- I have nowhere questioned the right of the state of Israel to exist
- I have nowhere condoned the actions of the PLO, Fatah, Hamas, Hezbollah, IRA, UDA, LTTE, FARC or any other terrorist organisation you can think of.
There were many lengthy comments on my post, many of them off-topic and many of them angry. There was a lot of to and fro, a lot of tit for tat and the main point got lost along the way.
My main purpose was to highlight certain tendencies I had noticed during the nearly two years that I had been blogging on OS (I served almost three years before giving up). These tendencies were brought out particularly by a debate on anti-Semitism.
The particular issue was whether criticism of Israel constituted anti-Semitism. My interlocutor, whom I will here call K, seemed to be saying that it was possible to criticize Israel and not be an anti-Semite. However, the upshot was a third party, DL, called me an anti-Semite merely for using the word “sneakily” about K’s shift of ground in his argument, and an Israeli citizen called me a hate-monger for trying to conduct a rational conversation.
Tu Quoque- the Companions in Guilt Ploy
“Don’t look at me–look at them. It reduces the debate to schoolchildren in the yard pointing fingers at each other. It is childish and self-destructive.”
Defenders of Israel tend to use a category of rhetoric known to philosophers of critical thinking as tu quoque or “the companions in guilt move”. This is brought into play in order to dilute the force of an argument by demanding a spurious consistency that the arguer may not feel is germane. Some people use it to excuse bad behaviour on the grounds that other people also behave badly. Just because many people do something that is wrong , that does not make it right or less dangerous – for example, the defence that everyone has driven while under the influence of drink. First of all not everyone really has done so and, more importantly, it would be very dangerous if everyone took that as permission to drive under the influence.
K says that he does not think criticism of Israel by itself constitutes anti-Semitism and then goes on to widen the definition of anti-Semitism. You don’t qualify as an anti-Semite purely for criticising Israel but you do qualify if you fail to state strongly that others, particularly Arabs and Muslims, are as bad as Israel and probably much worse.
Another stale old rhetorical device is the straw man. There is this lefty, bleeding heart, NGO, do-gooder, who hates Israel and turns a blind eye to the iniquities of Arabs and Muslims who just love to kill innocent children.
K said: “I do not believe that anyone who thinks that walking into a pizza parlor with a bomb, noticing that half the people in the pizza parlor are kids and detonating the bomb anyway should be condoned under ANY circumstances has any moral authority. I will not treat such a person’s views of right and wrong as having any validity until such time as they change their view on this. What anyone else does is beside the point – this action is intrinsically always wrong on its own. Period. I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.”
That is not terribly well-expressed or lucid but I think it means that because Palestinians blow up innocent children in pizza parlors they have no moral authority. Notice he does not say the particular Palestinians who set off the bombs. He says Palestinians which implies that all Palestinians lack moral authority. I suspect that the moral condemnation is extended to include those who do not condemn the action. Does “moral authority” refer to the bombers or those who condone their actions or fail to condemn? The phrase is dangling somewhat at the end of the sentence. “What anyone else does is beside the point” – what does that mean? I’m stumped!
“I do not believe that your enemy’s moral standards should determine your own.” Does that mean that the bombers have allowed their enemy – Israel- to determine their conduct? Is K condemning the bombers because they are, in killing innocent children, adopting the low moral standards of Israel? Or does it mean that, just because Palestinian terrorists kill innocent children, that Israel should refrain from killing innocent children? Israel seems to have failed morally on that score.
Opinions divorced from facts or knowledge.
Voltaire said “prejudice is opinion without judgement”. Opinion without knowledge, truth or logic can also foster prejudice.
My meta-intention was to deal with an aspect of blogging. (It also happens in ‘real-life’.) Before I started blogging, I used to read in the Guardian Review a weekly summary of what was going on in the literary blogs. I was astounded to read one self-important blogger pompously stating: “I haven’t read X’s latest book but what seems to me to be the crucial issue is…” This seemed to be saying that whatever time, effort, imagination and literary skill poor old X had put into his latest tome, it paled into insignificance beside the uninformed opinions of some nonentity of a blogger.
This post came out of a general dismay at people putting forward opinions without the knowledge to back them up and proceeding with specious arguments based on faulty logic and fallacious premises. I have encountered similar tactics in relation to my posts on Sri Lanka. Someone with “Progressive” in his blog name said that he did not know much about Sri Lanka but it seemed to him that… and proceeded to accuse me of being bigoted against Tamils (while displaying his ignorance of the reality of the situation for Tamils, a subject on which I am an expert). In his view, the fact that I lived in Sri Lanka was not relevant because he believed the Sri Lanka government controlled information.
People who are blogging clearly have access to the internet. A few minutes on Google and Wikipedia should prevent basic errors of fact.
I quoted the Cambridge philosopher, Jamie Whyte: “You are entitled to an opinion in the epistemic sense only when you have good reason for holding it: evidence, sound arguments and so on. Far from being universal, this epistemic entitlement is one you earn. It is like being entitled to boast, which depends on having something worth boasting about.”
Leaps of logic
My chief interlocutor, K, was a decent man with whom I got on well. I thought him misguided in his arguments about Israel. He persistently claimed that he himself is critical of many aspects of Israeli government policy and of government actions. He claims that he has no objection to people criticizing Israel and that such criticism does not, in his view, constitute anti-Semitism.
If we unpack his actual words he was saying something quite different.
K said: “For most of my life, I drew a sharp distinction between antisemitism and antizionism. Over time, however, my opinion has changed as a result of a litmus test I now use.”
“If your standards for how Israel should behave are substantially different from your standards for how other nations should behave, chances are that you’re antisemitic.”
I don’t think he really means a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. He seems actually to be talking about a distinction between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.
My objection to his litmus test is that he gives permission to criticize Israel only if one criticizes other culprits.
“Because there’s only one factor that really differentiates the Israelis from everyone else and we all know what it is.”
I take it that he means that Israel is Jewish and anti-Semites hate Jews therefore those who criticize Israel are anti-Semitic because it is a given that they will not criticize other regimes.
Although he denies it (and perhaps he does not realize what he is doing) he is still saying that criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism.
Israel’s right to exist
DL (with whom I got on well in other contexts) said: “The topic, as Padraig Colman framed it, is the meta-debate. His launching point, you’ll recall, is his disagreement with K as to the boundary between antisemitism and antizionism. That isn’t about Israel’s conduct; that’s about responses to Israel’s conduct.”
Another problem that occurs in discussions like this is people make false assumptions about their interlocutors. This was not a disagreement about the boundary between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. That was not my point at all! That is a completely different discussion.
At one point, K said: “I make the connection and state that antizionism under those circumstances is antisemitism by another name.“
People often talk of a distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism as if the former is vile but the latter is acceptable. I don’t think DL would approve if I denied being anti-Semitic but proudly admitted being anti-Zionist. Wouldn’t being anti-Zionist mean that I did not recognize Israel’s right to exist? Wouldn’t that put me in the same box as Iran?
Israel uses Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah as justification for its own violent actions. Does anyone remember Haganah, Irgun, Lehi, Palmach? These groups were official, semi-official and unofficial paramilitaries that split and reformed into different alliances in a kaleidoscopic fashion, fought with the British and against the British and, mainly, against the Arabs. Many would class them as terrorists. Future prime ministers Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Rabin and current president Shimon Peres served in these groups. In 1946, there were 91 people, Arabs, Jews and British, killed in the bombing of the King David Hotel, 46 injured in the hotel with further casualties outside. When the King David Hotel bombing was mentioned, Chaim Weizmann started crying heavily. He said, “I can’t help feeling proud of our boys. If only it had been a German headquarters, they would have gotten the Victoria Cross.” Netanyahu described the bombing as a legitimate act with a military target, distinguishing it from an act of terror intended to harm civilians. Civilians were harmed.
Another future prime minister Ariel Sharon, was commander of “Unit 101,” an Israeli special forces unit. On October 14, 1953, in retaliation for the killing of two Israeli civilians, Unit 101 executed sixty Arab men, women, and children in the border village of Qibya. Anyone remember Shatilla? Estimates of the dead civilians vary between 800 according to international sources to 3,500 according to Palestinian sources. Robert Fisk estimated 2,000 bodies as did Israeli journalist, the late Amnon Kapeliouk in Le Monde diplomatique : http://mondediplo.com/2002/09/08sabra. (See also articles on Sri Lanka by the estimable Padraig Colman: http://mondediplo.com/_Padraig-Colman_) In 1982, an independent commission chaired by Irishman Sean McBride (son of WB Yeats’s muse Maude Gonne) concluded that the Israeli authorities or forces were, directly or indirectly, indubitably involved. The Israeli government established an investigation, and in early 1983 it found Israel indirectly responsible for the event, and that Ariel Sharon bore personal responsibility for the massacre for allowing the Phalangists into the camps. The UN General Assembly condemned the massacre as an act of genocide.
History and Truth
“Jews were not the only people who migrated to the area in the half century before Israel was founded and it’s a little disingenuous to assume that one population was completely indigenous while the other was completely foreign – neither contention is true.”
K and I agreed that the territory on which the state of Israel now sits was not empty in 1948. The fact that some of the sitting tenants were Jews is not particularly relevant. Even if, as K says, a majority were Jewish and had been there for thousands of years – that also is not particularly relevant.
Israeli historian Tom Segev says, in a footnote, that the term yishuv was used because, as well as “settlement”, it meant the opposite of “wasteland”, suggesting, consciously or not, that Zionist settlers were living in a wilderness devoid of other human beings, that is, Arabs.
According to Segev, in the 1840s, “Palestine was a rather remote region of the Ottoman empire with no central government of its own and few accepted norms. Outsiders began to flock to the country towards the end of the century, and it seemed to awake from its Levantine stupor. Muslims, Jews, or Christians, a powerful religious and emotional force drew them to the land of Israel. Some stayed only a short time, while others settled permanently. Together they created a magical brew of prophecy and illusion, entrepreneurship, pioneerism and adventurism – a multicultural revolution that lasted almost a hundred years. The line separating fantasy and deed was often blurred – there were charlatans and eccentrics of all nationalities – but for the most part the period was marked by drive and daring, the audacity to do things for the first time. For a while the new arrivals were intoxicated by a collective delusion that everything was possible”.
There was huge influx of new Jewish settlers from Europe for whom room had to be found. This was bound to alter the balance. This happened even before the state of Israel was born. Segev writes: “Tens of thousands of people, most of them Jews, came from Eastern and Central Europe. Among them were courageous rebels searching for a new identity, under the influence of Zionist ideology”.
Founding father Ben Gurion said: “I am in favour of an obligatory transfer, a measure which is by no means immoral.” Around 800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.
Benny Morris and Illian Pappé confirm that it was the Israeli authorities who forced the Palestinians to flee their land through blackmail, threats, brutality and terror. Israel had been granted more than half of Palestine. The rest was to be returned to the indigenous Arabs. However, some Jews thought the territory earmarked for Israel too small for the millions of immigrants its leaders hoped to attract.
Moreover, 405,000 Palestinian Arabs would have lived there alongside 558,000 Jews, who would have accounted for just 58% of the population of the future Jewish state.
In 1948, Ben Gurion was able to put his relocation plan into action. In a few months, several dozen massacres and summary executions were recorded; 531 villages out of a thousand were destroyed or converted to accommodate Jewish immigrants; eleven ethnically mixed towns were purged of their Arab inhabitants.
On Ben Gurion’s instructions, all 70,000 of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ramleh and Lydda, including children and old people, were forced from their homes at bayonet point in the space of a few hours in mid-July 1948.
Yigal Allon and the future prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, ran the operation. Numerous refugees died of exhaustion en route, as they were driven towards the Transjordanian border.
There had been similar scenes in April 1948 in Jaffa when 50,000 of its Arab citizens had to flee, terrorised by particularly intense artillery bombardment from the Irgun, a militant, some might say terrorist, Zionist organisation.
In total 750-800,000 Palestinians were forced into exile between 1947 and 1949 and lost their land and property.
Avi Shlaim, a fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (Allen Lane and WW Norton, 2000) has demolished yet another myth: that of an Israel devoted to peace but confronted with belligerent Arab states bent on its annihilation. Shlaim recognises the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and of Israel’s 1967 borders. “On the other hand,” he says, “I entirely reject the Zionist colonial project beyond that border.”
Truth Matters- National Myths
In their book Why Truth Matters Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom write:
“History is not simply a narrative about the past; it is a research-driven form of empirical enquiry. Mythic or invented or ‘wishful’ history is thus not history at all, but a different thing – a branch of literature or story-telling. History is not propaganda, myth-making or a self-esteem inflation device, though it has often been pressed into service for those tasks. History is highly interpretative, to be sure, but it is always, when done properly, grounded in evidence. The questions are empirical ones, and the interpretation is of evidence, not of daydreams or fantasies. There has been quite a lot of glorious past-invention in the name of history recently”.
It seems that to found and sustain a nation, “glorious past-invention” is essential. Benedict Anderson has dealt better than I, with my limited powers, can with the “imagined communities” that are nations. The philosopher AC Grayling has written: “Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culture and nationality: there is no country on earth that is not home to more than one different but usually co-existing culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity”.
Shlomo Sand, a professor at Tel Aviv University, has argued that the Jews are neither a race nor a nation, but ancient pagans – genetically, in the main Berbers from North Africa, Arabs from the south of Arabia, and Turks from the Khazar empire – who converted to Judaism between the fourth and eighth centuries CE. He believes that the Palestinians are probably descended from Hebrews who embraced Islam or Christianity.
Sand was quoted in Haaretz. He was pessimistic about how his work would be received in Israel: “There was a time when anyone who claimed that the Jews had a pagan ancestry was accused on the spot of being an anti-Semite. Today, anyone who dares suggest that the Jews have never been, and still are not a people or a nation is immediately denounced as an enemy of the state of Israel.”
I have written about nationalist myths in greater depth at:
Confusion between explanation and approval
DL: “I am referring here to your extended list of episodes of Jewish violence against Arabs, whose contextual import you left dangling before readers, thus inviting them to fill in the blank with respect to Arab violence against Jews.”
What DL left dangling is whether he defends the listed acts of violence against Palestinian civilians. I ask him plainly .”Do you deny that acts of violence such as those listed were carried out in the furtherance of the establishment of the state of Israel?”
I hereby state quite plainly that I do not believe that acts of violence against Palestinians by Jews justifies the blowing up of Jewish children in pizza parlors.
The actions of the Jewish paramilitaries have a bearing on the current situation and help to explain Palestinian discontent.
When I tried to explain in another article how Tamil militant separatism took hold in Sri Lanka and described Tamil grievances, I was condemned by some as a terrorist sympathiser. Explanation is not the same as justification or approval. I wrote: “Where is the proportionality between unfair university admission quotas and a thirty year war and 100,000 dead? What was the connection between discrimination against Tamils and extortion and drug trading? How did the Sinhala-only language policy lead to the assassination of Tamil politicians and the maiming of small children? How can a recurrence of such conflict be prevented?”
Disagreement is not the same as censorship
I have encountered this in real life as well as on blogs. People with whom one disagrees proclaim their rights under the first amendment. If I tell someone I think they are wrong they can get back and tell me how I am wrong. Disagreeing is not a form of control. I have enough trouble controlling myself without trying to control anybody else.
Someone else commented: “Out in big boy blog world, bloggers are always challenging each other’s opinions and writing. The idea that all criticism is attacking another person , that only praise is allowed, is just idiotic.”
DL ‘whinged’ about me accusing him of stifling debate by promiscuous use of the epithet “anti-Semite”. This is a sticks and stones kind of thing; this is not censorship in the extreme sense of having an iron-spike shoved into one’s brain through the eyeball. At the very least, though, it is a serious devaluation of the currency of language. It will not make me shut up but more timid souls might be reluctant to participate for fear of being unjustly accused of the horrible evil of anti-Semitism. Shame on you, DL!
Debasing the currency of language.
My feeling was that K seemingly gave permission to criticize Israel and then withdrew it. I said that he had ‘sneakily’ changed his ground. Perhaps I should have said something about sleight of hand, or prestidigitation. DL seemed to call me an anti-Semite for using the word ‘sneakily’. He changed his ground a little when I challenged him. He said: “At the very least, I’d think that one would want to be highly conscious of the language one chooses when addressing topics as sensitive to Jews as antisemitism. Is Padraig an antisemite? I have no way of knowing, but I do know now that he is willing to toy with rhetoric that dances right up to the edge — and he is too clever a writer not to know just what he was doing.”
I sought further clarification and he told me: “’Sneakiness’ is part of the standard antisemitic stereotype of Jews, whether you like it or not. You are far too sophisticated to pretend unawareness. I don’t assert that you ‘must’ be an antisemite on this basis. I call it out as evidence of a willingness on your part to play around with some decidedly ugly rhetoric. Own it or not, but you deserved to be called on it.”
I honestly did not know that I could be seen as employing a stereotype. When I said I had never been called an ant-Semite before he said: “You haven’t been called one now. I’m inclined to reserve my accusations of antisemitism for cases where the evidence is strong. I was quite clear in what I was accusing you of: rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes. Really, if you find it so wounding to be charged with such a thing, the simplest way to avoid such a charge is not to do the thing.”
I was not “rhetorically toying (flippantly, as you put it) with ugly stereotypes” I was flippantly using the word “sneakily” without the slightest awareness that it was a stereotype that would offend a Jew. The particular Jew that I was addressing has not told me that he was offended, although we have had many friendly exchanges.
As soon as DL suggested that the word was offensive to him, I deleted it and told him so and asked him if he was happy. He replied: “Yes and no. Deleting what you describe as the inessential ‘sneakily’ in effect acknowledges my assessment of it as gratuitous, so, yes. But you also strenuously resist acknowledging the initial offense itself, so, no. Even Joe Biden had to acknowledge that his clumsy characterization of then candidate Barack Obama as ‘clean’ strayed into very dicey territory, whether he meant it to or not.”
Can’t do right for doing wrong!
As GB Shaw said to Zionist David Eder: “I cannot explain my position to you. There is something inherent in your germ-plasm which makes you congenitally incapable of understanding anything that I say. I have explained in writing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over with the most laborious lucidity.”
K and I agreed that analogies can be misleading and even dangerous. I’m going to try one anyway. Back in the last century, I worked for the Department of Health in London in the area of child protection. The leading charity in the field conducted a number of shock horror campaigns to raise public awareness of the problem of the sexual abuse of children, to raise its own profile and to raise funds. According to the “evidence” the charity presented it seemed that just about everybody had been a victim of sexual abuse as a child.
This strategy was not helpful. Ordinary members of the public were surprised by the statistics. A lot of people thought, “I never experienced sexual abuse as a child and I don’t know anyone who has.” The charity seemed to be blaming the government for not doing more to curb the incidence of abuse. Ministers were not pleased because the charity depended for its existence on an annual grant of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money as well as further grants for a number of one-off projects. Not surprisingly we began to look at the raw data. Members of the public thought sexual abuse meant rape and sodomy. We discovered that the charity had widened the definition to include accidental exposure to soft porn, inappropriate language, flashers in the park and loving relationships between teenagers who were legally below the age of consent. The currency was devalued.
Child abuse is evil. Racism is evil. The Israeli citizen said: “it puzzles me why people focus so much on questioning the Jew and his Land?” I am not doing that. “Don’t take us back to the Inquisition or the Krystall Nacht. That is regressive and not progressive.” “Anti-Semitism came and stayed.” If he is saying that anti-Semitism still survives, I agree. How does one define anti-Semitism? Neo-Nazi parties are on the rise all over Europe. I did my bit campaigning against them in England by taking part in Anti-Nazi League marches and supporting the organization Searchlight which took great risks investigating and exposing fascist thugs. The National Front became very scary in England during the 70s (the play Destiny by David Edgar whom I knew at university was produced at the National Theatre to great acclaim). Today the British National Party has representatives in the European Parliament. I do my bit to counter the forces of racism in Sri Lanka. Anti-Semitism is evil. Do not devalue the currency of language by absurdly widening the definition of anti-Semite or racist to include me.
What to do?!
Prime Minister Netanyahu published a book in 1993 called A Place among the Nations. In it he wrote that Israel had made enough concessions, by which he meant that it had abandoned its claim to Jordan which he believes should have been part of Israel. He repeatedly compares Palestine’s hopes for statehood with Nazism because claiming territory for such a state resembles Hitler wrenching Sudetenland out of Czechoslovakia. Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank would be accepting a “ghetto state” within “Auschwitz borders”.
Peter Beinart argues in the NYRB that the current coalition government is the result of trends that have come to characterize contemporary Israeli society: ultra-Orthodoxy is growing, the settler movement is becoming more radical and more influential in the government and the civil service and the army, Russian immigrants are prone to anti-Arab racism. 77% of recent Russian immigrants support encouraging Arabs to leave the country. More than 80% of religious Jewish high school students would deny Israeli Arabs the right to be elected to the Knesset.
and Abraham Foxman’s response:
Acceptance that Palestinians have a right to stay and that settlements should be dismantled might would be a good basis for working out a solution for the future but what is being done? Many do want to expel the Palestinians and the settlers are radically recalcitrant. I am not arguing that the state of Israel should be destroyed, but its own actions may not help its survival. The Roman Empire once seemed indestructible, as did the British. I remember my history teacher saying that the Soviet Union had survived so many setbacks in its early days that it would probably last forever. It died at the age of 72. Apartheid South Africa seemed rock-solid until it wasn’t. Israel is two years younger than me and I feel a bit shaky. As the Buddhists say, “Anicca”, impermanence is all.
I would like to recommend a few books that have helped me to clarify my thinking:
Bad Thoughts – Jamie Whyte
Critical Thinking: an Introduction – Alec Fisher
Thinking from A to Z – Nigel Warburton
A Rulebook for Arguments – Anthony Weston
The Meaning of Things – AC Grayling
Keywords – Raymond Williams
Why Truth Matters – Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom
Lying – Sisela Bok
Truth – Simon Blackburn
True to Life – Michael Lynch