“It Really Doesn’t Matter Whether Or Not You Agree With The Israeli Government’s Policies”, Ctd

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

I want to thank the Dish readers who responded to my recent post on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yes, even the furious ones. You’ve helped clarify my thoughts on the topic. Below, I respond to several (overlapping) dissents. One reader writes:

Regarding Phoebe’s post “It really doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with the Israeli government’s policies,” I think she and others are misreading the NYT’s letter to the editor, or at least I (and I’m sure the many others to whom this letter is not “jumping out”) read it very differently. I do not read the reference to “patrons” to mean Jews living outside Israel.  I read “patrons” to mean countries (obviously, most specifically in this instance the United States). The term “patron” is routinely used in the context of foreign affairs (and in the NYT) to describe one country that provides some kind of support (financial, military, etc.) to another country or entity. This is particularly true in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian/Hamas/Hezbollah conflict. The United States is routinely described as a patron of Israel, and Iran and Syria are routinely described as patrons of Hamas and Hezbollah. Given the context it is far less likely that the writer intended “patrons” to mean Jews or some “nice little loophole” than that the writer was simply using common vernacular to refer to the countries who aid and support Israel and who most certainly do have influence over the Israeli government.

These angles of the issue should really be addressed in a post like this on the Dish.  While there should not be any connection between anti-semitism against Jews (whether in the U.S., Europe, or anywhere) and the Israeli government’s policies, it is a simple fact that there is a connection. Does Phoebe contend that there is not a connection between Israel’s policies and anti-semitism?  (which, again, is plainly a different question from whether there should be a connection).  And, if there is a connection then what exactly is objectionable in the writer’s paragraph about Israel’s patrons if “patrons” is read to mean the United States and other Western governments, as that term is widely used in foreign affairs?

I’ll address the second paragraph later, but first, the first: I agree that “patrons” is ambiguous, and that it’s entirely possible that Bruce Shipman meant countries (or just the US), not global Jewry. Indeed, the most charitable explanation I can come up with, reading, rereading, and rereading the letter some more, is that, by “patrons,” he meant the US government. If that was what he meant, though, he might have said so, and not relied on highly sophisticated readers catching the foreign-policy jargon. There would have been a clear way to indicate exactly which parties he was holding accountable, and he opted against. What reads to me, and to some other Jews, as a dog whistle doesn’t read that way to all. That’s… the trouble with dog whistles. Either you hear it or you don’t. As it stands, he used roundabout language that leaves very much open the possibility that he means Jews. After all, as another reader points out, many Jews do patronize Israel:

I find Ms. Bovy’s argument a little hard to follow. American Jews have a very strong connection to Israel, both financial and political. I have numerous friends and colleagues who are “secular” Jews. They aren’t particularly religious, but the older the get, the more often they go to synagogue. They make their kids do the Bar mitzvah thing. And they travel to Israel on vacation. For the most part they are politically liberal. But when it comes to Israeli policy, they are right wing nuts. If I say anything – anything – negative about Israel, they freak out. Anti-Semitism. You can’t even have a conversation about the Middle East in their presence.

I must admit that I found part of this response similarly hard to follow. Is there something sinister, or even surprising, about “‘secular’ Jews” expressing some religiosity? But I will set that aside, and turn to the “freak out” portion of the paragraph. I can’t speak to this reader’s personal experience with otherwise impeccably progressive friends who start railing on about Judea and Samaria at a moment’s notice. There are plenty of people who are fully liberal or conservative but for the one area that affects them personally; surely that category wouldn’t exclude Jews.

I can, however, offer some thoughts from… the other end of such conversations. I’ve been in situations, in the US and elsewhere, where I’m the token Jew, asked to account for what my kind are doing over there in Israel. In cases like this, it’s easy to feel on the defensive, and to come across as more rah-rah Israel than one might if not feeling cornered on the basis of a personal identity that frankly isn’t opt-out (born Jewish, always Jewish, in the eyes of society), or if discussing with other Jews.

The most vigorous dissent, however, comes from a third reader:

Phoebe Malz Bovy owes Rev. Bruce Shipman an apology for her latest post. Her dishonesty lies in her simply substituting one term for another, making a joke about doing so, and proceeding as though that substitution is legitimate. Shipman did not name Jews as the target of his remarks, and in fact “Israel’s patrons abroad” includes essentially every national politician in America, the vast majority of them gentiles, to say nothing of an enormous number of mainstream gentiles living in the United States and elsewhere. If we’re simply allowed to substitute one word for another out of rhetorical convenience, then we’ll very quickly find ourselves accusing everyone with whom we disagree of the worst bigotry.

Bovy’s post– in which she does not use the word “Palestinians,” which is typical of her erasure of that inconveniently living people– is typical of her work, which seeks to wave half-heartedly at the notion that there might be some such thing as legitimate criticism of Israel and its brutal, racist occupation, and then turns around and calls every actual instance of such criticism anti-Semitic. Which is particularly untoward, given that so much of that criticism, in the United States, is carried out by anti-Zionist Jews, a large and growing movement of liberals and leftists who are rightfully and naturally disgusted by the conduct of Israel.

Nor is there any acknowledgment of who, exactly, is the threatened party in greater Palestine. This is a reality that Ms. Bovy has to grapple with: Israel is among the safest countries on earth. By any rational estimation whatsoever. In fact, Israel– with its immensely powerful military, its nuclear arsenal, and the unwavering patronage of the United States– is among the least existentially threatened countries in the region. Any dispassionate consideration of its military, diplomatic, and economic security leads us to conclude that it is a stable and secure nation. The same cannot be said of the Palestinians, a refugee people, lost without a state, at constant risk of death from the Israeli government that occupies its land. As Rev. Shipman said: the only legitimate, moral solution is the recognition of the Palestinian people as fully human and thus fully deserving of human and democratic rights. It is Israel’s refusal to grant that recognition that is to blame for Israel’s increasing isolation, and that refusal which threatens its soul.

Two things, one small, one more big-picture. The two are related. The small – the personal – is that I’d have to dispute this claim of  “erasure” of Palestinian suffering, and would direct this reader to the same guest-post of mine I link to in the post in question.

The second is that no, I don’t think it’s “erasure” to respond to stories of anti-Semitism – by which I mean unambiguous things like synagogue vandalism, attacks on Jews who aren’t even in Israel – without mentioning Palestinians. Now, to only notice anti-Semitism and to ignore Palestinian suffering (and every other global tragedy) would be to ignore the broad picture of what’s going on in the world. To those who note that anti-Semitism is not the greatest threat to mankind at this particular point in history… I agree! Bigotry against a group one happens to be a part of is, however, bound to stand out. That’s true for Jews as it is for other groups – it’s the universality of parochialism.

But back to Shipman’s letter. To bring up the questionable or even outright wrong things done by one group of Jews (namely those who have power in Israel at the moment) whenever bigotry against all Jews comes up is to… sorry, but yes, it is to cross the line into anti-Semitism. The thing is, I’m not entirely sure what Shipman’s specific criticisms of Israel entail; for all I know they’re ones I – an opponent of the settlements – would share. It’s not only – for more, see David Schraub – “anti-Zionist Jews” who have such criticisms. To be a “Zionist” isn’t necessarily to be in favor of the current Israeli administration’s policies. For me, it just means thinking there ought to continue to be a Jewish state in some part of the area where there currently is one.

What I found troubling in Shipman’s letter was not that he expressed criticism of Israel, but the context in which he did so. After agreeing that there is “growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond,” he turned immediately to the aspects of Israeli policy that may have inspired this “trend”, and not… to the people targeting Jews. In doing so, he treats anti-Semitism as a legitimate form of protest.

Shipman made two leaps: first, that anti-Jewish acts outside Israel are merely expressions of outrage at the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, and second, that this explanation should be not merely understood (as one seeks to understand the roots of everything that happens) but addressed. Shipman is saying, effectively, that European anti-Semites are making demands regarding Israel policy, are protesting by attacking Jews, and that we should give in to those demands (as if there even are articulated demands when a synagogue is defaced). That’s where justification enters into it.

The problem with criticizing Israeli policy in that context wasn’t that this policy is sound. It should be criticized! The trouble here is that nothing any country – including but not limited to Israel – does can be used to justify acts of hatred against those who share the ethno-religious background in question. There are many good reasons to keep trying to achieve peace in Gaza and to bring about Palestinian statehood. Today’s anti-Semites’ tendency to give Israel policy as a pretext for Jew-bashing? Not one of them.

Ultimately, I think arguments like Shipman’s are worrying to many Jews, but are also not any great favor to Palestinians. Dignifying anti-Semitism as pro-Palestinian advocacy only serves to unfairly delegitimize the Palestinian cause, and only contributes to Palestinian suffering.