Reframing Anti-Semitism: Alternative Jewish Perspectives

Jewish Voice for Peace Publication (2004)

I recall my stepfather telling me that he always wanted to be a physician, but as a Jew growing up in New York City, he was prevented from attending medical school. This was the 1940s-1950s when there were quotas. So he went on to get a Ph.D. in one of the hard sciences and teach, and edit the research manuscripts of physicians who didn’t know how to write. LOL

Anti-Semitism wasn’t a reality for me in my early years, I was never exposed to it. Maybe I haven’t given it the attention it deserves.

Many Zionists dismiss criticism of Israel with a flippant charge of anti-Semitism.

In turn, I dismiss the anti-Semite label when it’s hurled my way. It’s just too ludicrous to spend time refuting.

“It can get frustrating. Constantly engaging in the same argument is bad enough, but when that argument is over something that should be obvious – such as the right to criticize the actions of a state with one of the world’s strongest militaries, that has been in occupation of another people for 37 years – the argument becomes all the more tiresome. In fact, it can become so tiresome that many people – both Jewish and non-Jewish – who have to deal with it can easily become so frustrated that they cannot or do not wish to hear about genuine issues of anti-Semitism. It is becoming the cry of “wolf” that can portend a horrible fate down the road.” – Mitchell Plitnick

Jewish-Voice-for-Peace-Header-Logo-AThe title of this thin, little book (90 pgs) caught my eye at Red Emma’s in Baltimore. I was hoping it could give me some tips for responding to the charge the next time the issue comes up.

It didn’t, but the quick read (less than 3 hours) was worth the time and effort.

The seven, short chapters are each written by a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that I’ve come to greatly respect over the years.

Article 1 – “Reclaiming the Struggle against Anti-Semitism” (Mitchell Plitnick) explains the origins of the term and how its use and misuse have changed over the years. Article 2 – “In Search of Anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum” (Cecilie Surasky) provides an interesting first-person account of her participation in the World Social Forum (WSF). Her observations belied the characterization that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has leveled against the WSF as one of the centers of “new anti-Semitism” – charges picked up by various journalists as evidence of a dangerous new trend on the left.

Article 3 – “No It’s Not Anti-Semitic” (Judith Butler) uses the comments by Harvard President Lawrence Summers to illustrate how misguided charges of anti-Semitism can be an intellectually slippery slope.

“Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” – Lawrence Summers, 17 September 2002

Ms. Butler urges a distinction be made between Israel and Jews; a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel. She opposes anti-Semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests.

“The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-Semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-Semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-Semitism wherever we find it.” –  Judith Butler

Articles 4, 5 and 6 were also informative …. but if your time is short, I recommend you jump to Article 7 – “Historical U.S. Anti-Semitism – The Invisible Oppression: Stereotyping, Scapegoating, Discounting” (Penny Rosenwaser) The author shares a good many concrete examples of anti-Semitism, taking the issue from the abstract to the cold reality.

“Just as anti-Semitism has been rising, anti-Arab racism inside Israel is rising as well, just as racism in this country has exploded against Muslims and people of Arab descent since 9/11. As Jews with a proud heritage of social justice, we cannot let ourselves take comfort in the badge of victimization: when we target anti-Semitism, we must also target racism in this country and in Israel.” – Penny Rosenwasser

The last article — “Is Criticizing Israel Anti-Semitic?” (Chuck Sher) — provides a response by a Jewish activist in Petaluma, CA to charges that the Petaluma Progressives’ weekly downtown protests “express hatred against the state of Israel.” He gives a point-by-point rebuttal which I found very helpful.  I intend to use these points in future letters-to-the-editor.

You may have a difficult time finding this little book at your local bookstore, but I encourage you to make the effort and contact Jewish Voice for Peace for a copy.

JVP opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression.  JVP seeks an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem; security and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians; a just solution for Palestinian refugees based on principles established in international law; an end to violence against civilians; and peace and justice for all peoples of the Middle East. Current mission statement adopted in 2009.