Understanding anti-Semitism, understanding Israel

Let’s begin by dispensing with the issue of what’s going on at Columbia University over accusations of bias and victimization in the department of Middle Eastern studies.

The Columbia controversy is important as one local instance of a worldwide struggle. But as important as it is, we simply don’t have access to “the truth” in this matter; we don’t know for sure what happened in the “he said-she said” situation at Columbia and we shouldn’t talk, or write in The Student as if we did know. The Columbia authorities investigating the matter clearly don’t know themselves. It is right and fitting, on the other hand, to use this opportunity to have an important discussion on a larger issue.

One should consider that there are three kinds of anti-Semitism. First is racist anti-Semitism. Jews, in all countries but especially in Israel, are considered as a people. They are despised as Jews, not for what they do but for what they are. Racist anti-Semitism is one form of xenophobia, a familiar enough subject at Amherst College. But anti-Semitism is surely a unique case of xenophobia, given its millennial, near-universal and vicious effects.

There is “ordinary” racist anti-Semitism, the tough-to-eradicate gut feeling of people who grew up in an anti-Semitic household or neighborhood. There is intellectualized anti-Semitism, contrived in books and pamphlets such as the notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In both we find the timeworn image of Jews as socio-economic parasites-craven, shifty, living off of others’ work; or else controlling the world through a hidden financial capitalist conspiracy located, it is sometimes alleged, in The New York Times, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission.

A second kind of anti-Semitism is religious anti-Judaism, a hatred of Jews for religious reasons by people of “competing” religions. Anti-Semitic Christians hate Jews “for not accepting the Messiah” and for being “Christ-killers.” Anti-Semitic Muslims hate Jews as religious “infidels,” although it’s worth adding that Muslim toleration of Jews is historically far superior to the attitudes of Christians.

It is sometimes alleged that a third category of anti-Semitism we are dealing with today is anti-Zionism, closely wound up with and yet distinct from criticism of the Israeli government’s policies.

It should be obvious that criticism of Ariel Sharon or any other Israeli government’s policies is not necessarily anti-Semitism. But it’s also obvious that it could be. The question of Palestinian rights and Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its government’s brutality are legitimate concerns. But others whose criticism of the Israeli government derives from anti-Semitism as such are, unfortunately, hopeless.

Anti-Zionism usually means principled opposition to the Jews’ historic project of a return to Palestine to set up a Jewish state (Mount Zion is a hill in Jerusalem on which the Jewish Temple was built). Anti-Zionism focuses on the state-creating Jewish arrival in Palestine and on the unjust, geopolitical expulsion of the Palestinians from their land and homes.

It is the results of Zionism that we are most directly debating today in Amherst. And this question centers, of course, on the rights of Israelis versus the rights of Palestinians. We all need to begin by facing a few facts.

First, the Palestinian people have suffered a great injustice, no doubt about it. But, as the Palestine advocate Edward Said himself wrote time and again, the Palestinians are “victim of victims.” Judging Israel or the Jews makes no sense without an emotional grasp of the historical geopolitical situation and suffering of the Jewish people, through two millennia, as oppressed minorities in somebody else’s country, culminating with the Holocaust.

The Jews surely constitute a historic people. Given their experience, the Zionist goal of a Jewish state to provide a home and a safe haven for them is compelling. Those who revile Zionism-oppose it or cry imperialism-are fighting a battle that is over. The Palestinians (and the Muslim countries) are at this very minute in the process of admitting, some bitterly, others hopefully, that they have lost the struggle against Zionism. Israel exists, and it exists as a Jewish state. It should not be asked to disappear. But, under the right conditions of peace and security, it could be asked to adapt.

One thing the state of Israel will certainly not adapt to is self-destruction. On the other hand, given its citizenship laws, the state of Israel today can be criticized as, in that sense but only in that sense, undemocratic. So be it. The Jews don’t want to be a minority in Israel. Ask yourself honestly, in their place, would you? Demography is against them: Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews. When you have been fighting for your existence and, make no mistake, are still menaced by generations of hatred and potential nuclear and missile arsenals in the neighborhood, you are justified in asking others for time enough and place enough to survive, so that in the future a better solution will be possible. Here, as in other intractable conflicts, it is necessary to give these things time.

This is not a struggle between right and wrong; it’s a struggle between right and right. One wishes that history had been kinder to the Jews and Palestinians both.

Ronald Tiersky is the Eastman Professor of Politics in the Political Science Department. He can be reached at [email protected]