Trying to understand today’s antisemitism

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by Neil Godfrey

An article in Salon.com caught my eye and initially repulsed me enough to make me deliberately ignore it at first: Ever blamed “the Jews”? You have blood on your hands too.

My first thought was, Hang on, I blame “Australia” and “Australians”, too, for inhumane treatment of refugees and war-loving “all the way with the USA” enthusiasm whenever the US finds another excuse to invade someone. I blame the white British peoples and white Americans for a history of imperialist and even genocidal adventures. And if I speak critically of Israel I am similarly speaking of the nation as a whole for their treatment of black (even though religiously Jewish) races in their midst and of Palestinians generally. Far from my mind is that there is any racial essence in every single Australian, British, American or Jewish person that predisposes them to racist and genocidal (as defined by the United Nations) attitudes and actions. I know I have many like-minded opponents of all these evils among Australians, and I know they exist in the US, UK and Israel, too.

I later did have cause to return and read the Salon article by Matthew Rozsa and learned I had reacted too quickly and ignorantly of what he had written. I should have paid more attention to “the Jews” in the title. No, I have never blamed “the Jews” for the atrocities of Zionism. We have two different terms when it comes to Jews or Jewish people, and I have just used them now, as does Matthew Rozsa. I find it hard to imagine an antisemitic bunch of neo-nazis denigrating “the Jewish people” but I can imagine them spitting out the word “Jew”. I haven’t quite put my finger on the best way to spell out the difference clearly in words but I no doubt will as I think it through some more.

I have been very fortunate to have grown up in a family and in social circles where antisemitism was deplored so I have never been able to personally understand the thinking of antisemites (though I can understand it “intellectually” of course). But recent events I have read and seen in the news have added to my incomprehension.

Trump (sorry to bring him in to the discussion) clearly lent moral support to the antisemitic demonstrators at Charlottesville when he said there were fine people on both sides. I have read and am led to understand that when certain circles speak of “globalists” they are implicitly referring to Jews, to George Soros as a prominent representative, with shades of “world conspiracy” thinking. Recall Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

But here’s the complicating part that I am not quite sure I completely understand. Trump also boasted of his enthusiastic support for the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Stuff the Palestinians. How could one demonstrate any more clearly some sort of philosemitism?

How does that move sit with his respect for the “fine people” of Charlottesville and sinister warning of Soros’s role in “financing” the “thousands of invaders”, a mixed band of criminals and “middle-easterners”, marching to the United States?

I turned back to Edward Said’s Orientalism in a search for some help. I recall he spoke of the bifurcation of anti-semitism since the Second World War: the despised Arab had taken the place of the “ghetto-bred Jew” while the “Jewish people” had become “dehumanized” in reverse — they were now effectively angels who could do no wrong and any faults were merely the side-effects of over-zealous good intentions.

But that was too simplistic. We see here someone who both backs Israel to the hilt and sends derogatory dog-whistles to antisemites at the same time.

It’s the same with that other branch of “semitic peoples”, too, isn’t it. The Arabs. We hear dire warnings of “unknown middle easterners” (hear “terrorists”) joining the invasion caravan on its way to the US. But at the same time we have a devotion that reaches over into subservience to the rulers of Saudi Arabia.

I guess if there is a common point here, it is that Jews and Arabs are on “our side” (or rather we are on “their side”) when they are contained in their state borders and demonstrate an ability to use decisive power to crush the Muslim cum Middle Easterner threat and give us oil. But most of all, the Saudi Arabian elites “do as they are told” by the West — give us oil, support Israel, and keep certain terrorists under check. (We set aside the actual facts for the moment — Israel’s responsibility for launching Hamas and Saudi Arabia’s financing of world-wide extremist Islamism — and confine ourselves to public impressions. Iran also crushes radical dissent and could give us oil but there is a need for vengeance there going back to the humiliating events surrounding the overthrow of the Shah, I think.) When certain Jewish people (“Jews”) and Arabs are “like us” — violent and keeping “Arabs” under the thumb of occupation and imprisonment, and wealth-generating in our interests — they are “good”.

So I returned to read Matthew Rozsa’s article and found some degree of confirmation:

Both sides, of course, will frequently target the state of Israel, which certainly deserves criticism for its treatment of the Palestinian people but has also attracted a certain breed of anti-Semite who embraces Israeli atrocities as a cover for their own bilious views. Here’s an easy tell that distinguishes bigots from legitimate critics: The former will come up with arguments that hold every Jew accountable for the actions of Israeli officials, and are likely to lump Israeli misdeeds into larger diatribes against “the Jews.”

And Edward Said covered that point, too, when he wrote

The common denominator between Weizmann and the European anti-Semite is the Orientalist perspective, seeing Semites (or sub-divisions thereof) as by nature lacking the desirable qualities of Occidentals. (Orientalism, p. 306)

Like us, good. Not like us, bad.

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Trying to understand today’s antisemitism”

  1. I go to blogs and YouTube all the time and find anti-Jewish comments (especially when the topic is finance/banking). I have known Jewish people and families all my life and the older I get the more angry and intolerant I get with the intolerant. These prejudices surviving into the 21st century are baffling and distressing.

    As an aside, DNA and other historical evidence reveal that at least ashkenazi Jews are not of Semitic origin. Of course, that does not make any difference.

    1. I understand those scientists who have published the evidence from the DNA have themselves been labelled antisemitic by certain ideologues, of course.

    2. I thought the picture was more complex than that…. A skim of the Wikipedia article on the subject (which isn’t exactly an easy read for someone who isn’t an expert on the subject – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_studies_on_Jews), suggests that Ashkenazi maternal mitochondrial-DNA is largely (Southern?) European but that paternal Y-DNA has a significantly (but not entirely) Middle Eastern origin. (The term “Semitic” is avoided because that is properly a linguisticterm, however much it tends to be used to cover a variety of other categories).

      There was a theory that the Ashkenazi Jewish population was entirely descended from Khazar converts of the 8th-9th Century CE, and had no Middle Eastern antecedents whatsoever, but most researchers don’t believe the genetic evidence supports it (though some DNA of a Caucasian origin does show up in the Ashkenazi genetic mix).

        1. Well, that was just my impression from both that Wikipedia article and another one on the Khazar theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khazar_hypothesis_of_Ashkenazi_ancestry#Genetics_and_the_Khazar_theory).

          The arguments appeared very technical but the subject is clearly emotive. I think that, in the end, it doesn’t pay to try and second guess hidden emotional/political/religious agendas, and one should just evaluate the substance of the arguments – but that’s something that in this case I’m not really qualified to do.

            1. Thanks, db, I didn’t really know about that site. Actually, in this particular instance (where the RationalWiki essay is much shorter and overwhelmingly dismissive of the Khazar hypothesis) the Wikipedia article seems far more detailed, expert and trustworthy.

              I haven’t been delving too deeply into this, but the one geneticist that supports the Khazar theory is Eran Elhaik (sometimes collaborating with the linguist Paul Wexler), and he is up against an awful lot of other studies that have produced quite different results, and faces various criticisms of his methodology and interpretation of the data.

              My own guess is that that the Elhaik & Wexler scenario – that the Ashkenazi community is entirely derived from the Khazars – is just too extreme and too simple to be correct, and that the real story is fuzzier, messier, more convoluted and much more complex. This is human beings we are talking about, and in such matters there’s one constant: nothing is straightforward.

          1. I have collated several of the scholarly publications and had contact with one of the authors. There is certainly an emotional investment in opposing certain research.

            1. I’m sure you’re right. But there may also be an emotional or political investment in pursuing that same research. Not all counter-consensus research is necessarily dispassionate, emotion-free rationalisation.

              People of all political and religious persuasions honestly believe their research is bias-free and dispassionate… unlike their benighted opponents.

              And on the other hand, motives don’t necessarily determine the quality of an argument or interpretation of evidence. Even people with an agenda you or I reject, can have good arguments, as people with an agenda we broadly support may still adduce bad arguments.

    1. Christian Zionists often are seen to have something of an ambivalent attitude towards Israel and the Jewish people.

      CUFI (Christians United for Israel) are about as supportive and gung-ho for Israel and Zionism as anyone can get. One does not dare utter a critical word of Israel in their presence. They see the state of Israel fulfilling biblical prophecies so whoever speaks against them speaks against God. They repeat the Genesis 12 mantra that God will curse anyone who curses them and bless anyone who blesses them.

  2. I think the problem here is that you are assuming the Trump administration has some kind of cohesive policy. Supporting Israel fires up his evangelical base. Inflaming neo-nazi’s does him no harm with them, so he might as well stoke the “nationalists” in the country to against anyone who isn’t “American” enough. His is a coalition of bigotry, prejudice, and hatred.

  3. I don’t get it, I really cannot understand it, when you blame the Jews for Israel’s actions you are a bigot, but when you blame for example the Poles for Poland’s actions you are not (I used Poland here cause it is fresh).
    Or let’s get it with the Holocaust, when some people in European nations collaborated with the Nazis the blame falls to the nation and to it’s people and in end to every European.
    I just don’t get it.

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