The following remarks are a lightly edited email to a colleague who sent me Bernard Harrison’s recent publication by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
Since we initiated our down-under emulation of ‘Jews for Genocide’ ( – Melanie Phillips’ lovely characterisation of the British group ‘Independent Jewish Voices’ IJV), it’s interesting to read Bernard Harrison’s recent analysis of the emotive issues concerning anti-Semitism and its causes.
Harrison’s recent pamphlet Israel, Anti-Semitism and Free Speech (American Jewish Committee, 2007) follows his earlier book The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and Liberal Opinion (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
As organizers of IAJV, we are regularly accused of encouraging anti-Semitism though our criticism of Israel. Of course, the criticism is based on the fact that we express our views publicly, as distinct from keeping criticism within the Jewish community. At a personal level, perhaps the most vitriolic denunciations have been for this betrayal and disloyalty and for the alleged harm we bring to Jews. Of course, in the very criticism that we incite anti-Semitism, there is the implicit admission that Jews have, indeed, something to be ashamed of and are being publicly exposed for it.
In the light of our own experience of vicious attacks and public slanders of the kind Antony Loewenstein regular receives in the Australian Jewish News, Harrison is simply naïve or perhaps just unfamiliar with the way the Jewish community works when he is so dismissive of the influence of the Israel Lobby in suppressing dissent. The ‘immune system’ reacts in a way that is quite extraordinary to experience directly. The levels of apoplectic, hysterical vilification including death threats is not to be so breezily dismissed as Harrison imagines. These responses of the Jewish community are hardly the kind of rational debate one might expect from civilized people. Above all, they are remarkable in view of our insignificance by comparison with the resources, influence and extent of the Jewish community and its various organizations.
The over-reactions to such minor departures from conformity with the hawkish Zionist doctrines of the official orthodoxy is revealing of a totalitarian reflex – even the slightest, minor dissent must be eliminated, countered and discouraged.
These reactions of the community provide an important lesson for others who might dare to think for themselves by entertaining thoughts that depart from uncritical support for Israeli government policies: They will have to endure the kind of ridicule and abuse to which even the most minor dissenting voices are subjected. A Jewish acquaintance revealed something of the psychological pressures felt at the very idea of independent thought: Although I have never had a conversation with this person, he confronted me in order to abuse me and to make me aware that I am hated by everyone in the entire Jewish community. While this is not exactly an argument against my views, it is very revealing about the fear that keeps people in line – the unthinkable possibility of being ostracized and treated like a pariah. We know from friends and sympathizers that, although they share the sentiments of our original founding statement, they were unable to sign publicly because of the impossible family tensions it would create.
Since we are, by any objective standard, pretty insignificant compared to the combined influence, resources and organized activities of the UIA, JNF, AIJAC, WIZO, AJN and NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, you have to ask why we have been given such inordinate attention. The answer is pretty clear: Any dissenting voice must be neutralized lest people may be emboldened to think for themselves. Michael Danby has been one of those whose role was to ensure that no critical voice ever appeared in public without some complaint or harassment. Many years ago, Chomsky appeared for 8 minutes on the ABC radio, prompting Danby to lodge a formal complaint to the ABC Board. That is, a rare few minutes of an alternative view from a distinguished intellectual must not be heard without some effort to defuse its potential harm. The irony in Danby’s complaint was his demand that such dissenting opinion should be “balanced” by a “mainstream” view. But by definition the mainstream view is the one we hear all the time and, therefore, Chomsky’s radical position constitutes balance and does not need to be countered.
The systematic activities of the Israel Lobby are needed to preventing independent thinking when the evidence of one’s own eyes concerning Israeli crimes seems difficult to justify. I was giving a lecture to a B’Nai Brith group in 1982 on philosophical topics when I was asked whether I would mind if an Israeli emissary could address the group briefly before my talk on the “crisis for Israel”. At that time the Israeli army was mercilessly and indiscriminately shelling Beirut as every TV news was showing, and it was a bit difficult to explain to one’s-self how this might be justified on the usual pretexts of “self-defence”. Hence the need for re-assuring propaganda to keep diaspora Jews from squirming at what their own consciences might be hinting. And, of course, it’s very effective. In the recent Lebanon war, emails were circulating in the Jewish community expressing outrage at the criminal depravity of Hezbollah rockets. Of course, the Hezbollah crimes of targeting civilians must be readily and unreservedly condemned, but Jewish friends were incapable of making any concession that perhaps Israeli actions were also crimes and perhaps even on a larger scale. There is no apparent moral outrage in the Jewish community about anti-personnel weapons like cluster bombs etc. or devastation of entire Lebanese villages such as Bint Jbail.
Well, Harrison’s pamphlet is disappointing for many reasons that I’ll indicate more or less randomly. Starting at the end, he says (p. 39) that some left-wing criticism of Israel is “so strained, hyperbolic and defamatory as to be effectively indistinguishable from (non-Jewish) anti-Semitic propaganda.” First, I don’t quite understand Harrison’s repeated use of the term “defamatory” to refer to criticisms of a state as distinct from a person. This is an odd locution that reveals much about the adulation and idolization of the State that might suffer insults and hurt as if it were a person. Since Harrison is so sensitive throughout to the nuances of language and the misuse of terms, he might reflect on the curious connotations of this one – entailing just the kind of personification of the Nation, People, Flag etc. one might find profoundly objectionable.
As these remarks suggest, there are grounds for concern about notorious attitudes that have been increasingly evident in our own societies – young people draping themselves in national flags and beating perceived “enemies” etc. Harrison’s objections to making such analogies with Nazism is a convenient ploy that would make history impossible: if every detail of historical events had to be reproduced before meaningful comparisons were legitimate, we could never draw any comparisons at all. Does Ariel Sharon or Ehud Olmert (or George Bush) have to have a toothbrush moustache before we can say anything at all about trends in legal, political and military behaviour that bear important resemblances. Does every feature of South African apartheid have to be reproduced before we can use the term meaningfully to highlight features of Israeli policies? Naomi Wolf’s recent book on the steps the US has taken toward Fascism may be criticized, but is not to be so cavalierly dismissed as Harrison would, by implication, dismiss it for such analogies. He lists the horrors of the concentration camps, deportations etc. as if nothing less than 6 million Jews and others can warrant serious comparisons. That’s the trick of an entire genre of commentary on Nazism – including the Heidegger industry. These are demonized to a degree that makes it impossible to recognize our own, admittedly lesser, evils. Hans Sluga’s book on Heidegger makes this point well. Of course, that’s why Jewish commentators were so harshly critical of Hanna Arendt: She saw both Heidegger and Eichmann as more like ourselves than we care to admit.
Back to Harrison’s criterion for judging left-wing criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic: His criterion of the “test of truth”. Views are held to be anti-Semitic, among other reasons, if they are falsehoods. Well, his remarks suggest that he is a victim of what are, admittedly, the most widely held prejudices about Israel and its history. After all, one might expect better from him. His utterly uncritical citing of Dershowitz is unworthy of someone who pretends to give a serious scholarly discussion of these very issues. Dershowitz himself has been shown repeatedly to fail the “test of truth” – his exposure to the Boston Globe in 1973 for having knowingly misrepresented the case of Israeli human rights activist Israel Shahak, his repeated lies about Chomsky’s position on the Holocaust denier Faurisson, and his plagiarism of Joan Peters’ hoax book From Time Immemorial exposed by Norman Finkelstein.
Harrison’s test of truth might have included mention of those, now well-known, Israeli, Jewish and other historians who have written massive, documented alternatives to the traditional narrative that Harrison recites uncritically – Israel’s repeated wars of self-defence etc. This is no longer so glibly assertable in light of the work of Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Norman Finkelstein, and others. This point is, indeed, perhaps the central weakness of Harrison’s pamphlet since the charge of “defamation” of Israel cannot be sustained if the history recounted by these new ‘revisionist’ historians is at all close to the truth. Morris is himself is a right-wing ‘tranfer’ advocate and no left-wing ideologue, but his history is more or less the same as the others – despite some significant differences of emphasis.
On the mainstream media and its workings, Harrison just seems naïve if he thinks that they are biased against Israel – the usual cry. Comparing Israel’s Ha’aretz with the New York Times or Sydney Morning Herald is sufficient to determine which way the Times and SMH are biased. Harrison’s discussion of the separation wall is just embarrassing in mouthing Israeli nonsense about keeping out terrorism. Why isn’t it constructed along the 1967 border in that case? Checking the details of its path and the destruction of villages etc. tells a different story that Harrison has managed not to discover.
Selective attention to Israel, especially by critical left-wing Jews, is further evidence for Harrison of their anti-Semitic tendencies – or perhaps unwittingly playing into the hands of global anti-Semitism (of which there is undoubtedly plenty – a matter to which I’ll return presently). Of course, I receive this criticism repeatedly and vehemently from Jews who are particularly outraged by public Jewish criticism of Israel. Even if Israel’s sins “might appear relatively venial” by the standards of other state’s crimes around the world, Harrison seems blind to an obvious moral truth – that he would see clearly in other cases. He is, of course, right to notice the asymmetry of attention to Israel’s crimes. Just as left-wing critics hold up US, or Australian crimes for particular attention. It should not require too much argument to make the point that we have a moral obligation in relation to our own crimes – that is, the ones committed by our own state in our own name and, above all, those upon which we might have some conceivable influence. Harrsion overlooks this moral truism when he insists that we should be equally or more concerned about the crimes in Darfur. The true heroes of East Timor in Australia were not those who acted as the cheer squad for our own government’s complicity in the Indonesian atrocities there. A small band of dedicated Australians devoted years of tireless activism to raise public awareness of the near-genocide in East Timor – because of our own governments involvement and because it made a difference. On Harrison’s formula, they should have agitated against larger crimes elsewhere – perhaps those of Pol Pot and other official enemies whose crimes we could not influence.
Finally, perhaps the most striking thing about Harrison’s writing and careful philosophical analysis of the criteria for judging anti-Semitism is that he gives a reasonable enough account of such racism but fails to notice what precisely fits the description – namely, the tidal wave of anti-Islam that dominates and disfigures our intellectual culture and poplular media. Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly a source of concern, but to neglect the vastly greater systematic vilification of Muslims as religious, fundamentalist fanatics – the entire “clash of civilizations” thesis that has consumed commentators and journalists – is a moral blindness that has serious consequences. Harrison might have read Edward Said with profit to recalibrate his moral barometer.
As far as encouraging anti-Semitism goes, I may unwittingly be contributing to this evil, as Harrison and Melanie Phillips suggest – despite my personal history which might have made me a little sensitive to the problem. I still have almost nightly discussions with my mother about her experience in Auschwitz but I may be deluded about my playing into the hands of the anti-Semites. However, there is another view: One can fully acknowledge the growing anti-Semitism in the world while asking what might be among its causes. Harrison seems oblivious to the serious issues that one might raise here – confining his interest to long-standing traditional and, above all, irrational hatreds. This is in keeping with the fashionable trend among so many others to ascribe irrational, fanatical and groundless hatred to Muslims responsible for 9/11 and other crimes, suicide terrorism etc.
In relation to anti-Semitism, it seems to be arguable that a more potent contribution to its causes is not irrational, unfounded hatred but legitimate grievances and the uncritical attitude of Jews towards the crimes of the Jewish State. Jews can hardly expect people to distinguish Jewishness from Zionism when they themselves make such an obsessive almost compulsory political identification, enforcing it in so many ways. I have no doubt from my own non-Jewish acquaintances and the emails we have received from non-Jews that our public stance is welcome as an indication of Jewish willingness to dissociate themselves from Israel’s crimes and thereby distinguishing Jewishness from Zionism. This is, of course, just as we expect of others, such as those we celebrate as the “righteous” among Gentiles. It’s at least arguable that just such dissent and dissociation would lessen the hostility to Jews as Jews – that is, if they were not invisible and publicly silent when Israel’s crimes are so egregious. Harrison presumably understands this perfectly well, since it’s just what we expect of anyone: We expected it of decent Germans, decent Soviet citizens etc. – not to denounce the crimes of other regimes, but the crimes of their own. Since the danger of doing so in those cases was considerable, it seems obvious that the imperative for us to criticize the crimes of our own regimes is even greater. In this case, the penalty is not a visit by the Gestapo or being sent to the Gulag in Siberia but only the discomfort of some obnoxious, ill-informed hostility.
Harrison gives no evidence of having read Morris, Pappe, Shlaim, Finkelstein, Chomsky, Reinhardt or others who are, after all, perhaps the most important objects of his criticism – namely, Jews on the left who are highly critical of Israel. He also gives no evidence of the slightest familiarity with the histories that are hardly controversial though they don’t confirm the mythology of the past 60 years he seems to uncritically endorse. I’d be interested to hear what he might say in response to these people, instead of what is, after all, a pretty thin little diatribe and nit-picking rhetorical exercise.
Best wishes for now,