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Don’t use THE THREE WORDS

Emma Watson’s recent post evincing solidarity with Palestinians has stimulated the two reactions that such expressions always elicit.  The first is a condemnation of the post as antisemitic and/or the author of the post as an antisemite.  In Ms. Watson’s case, that condemnation came from as distinguished a figure as Israel’s former ambassador to the UN.

The second reaction, which inevitably follows the first, is a swarm of heated posts from colleagues of the original poster to the effect that criticism of Israeli policies—which, we are told parenthetically, amount to apartheid and even genocide—is not antisemitism; it’s merely criticism of Israeli policies.  And, after those two perfectly predictably reactions play out, everyone goes back into a bunker and waits for the next eruption to occur.

I think that pattern of events is futile; it certainly doesn’t change the mind of anyone on either side.  Moreover, I think the predictable initial response—calling the post antisemitic or the poster an antisemite—actually weakens the position of those who want to see Israel prosper and thrive.  Therefore, my advice is to avoid, in virtually every circumstance, using any of THE THREE WORDS: “antisemitic,” “antisemitism,” or “antisemite.”  Here’s why.

Ideas, expressions, thoughts, assertions, formulations, etc., that are antisemitic are typically entertained, expressed, thought, asserted, formulated, etc., by people who are antisemites, and antisemites agree with and applaud the ideology known as antisemitism.  Thus, if one characterizes a post such as Ms. Watson’s as antisemitic, that immediately raises the question whether Ms. Watson is herself an antisemite.

It is, with respect, a mistake for those who support Israel and want to see her thrive to raise the question whether Ms. Watson is an antisemite.  It’s a mistake for three important reasons.

First, in this day and age, few people openly admit to embracing antisemitism.  (Louis Farrakhan is one of the rare persons who is happy to admit to Jew-hatred, so he’s the exception that proves the rule: it’s perfectly okay to call him an exponent of antisemitism and an antisemite.)  Certainly, Ms. Watson and all those who have stepped forward to defend her will heatedly deny that their criticism of Israeli policies is in any way related to hatred of Jews.  They will assure the whole world that they have many friends who are Jews.  And some of them will themselves be Jews.

Whether or not someone is an antisemite depends on that person’s subjective thoughts and motives.  No one is going to be able to present truly convincing evidence regarding Ms. Watson’s unexpressed, subjective thoughts and motives.  Therefore, labelling Ms. Watson as an antisemite is simply the start of an argument that one cannot win, and no intelligent person deliberately takes up the losing side of an argument.

There is a second reason for almost always avoiding THE THREE WORDS.  Those words refer to people and ideas that, even today, most fair-minded people deem to be vile and abhorrent; this is as it should be.  But the more frequently the words are used, and, in particular, the more frequently the words are used in a context in which it cannot be convincingly demonstrated that they actually apply (as in Ms. Watson’s case), the more likely it is that the abhorrence that attaches to them will dissipate over time.  If it appears that THE THREE WORDS are applied rather casually in cases where they might not be appropriate, it will become ever more difficult to recognize cases where they truly are appropriate.

Thirdly, just because those words continue to have very considerable opprobrium attached to them, their use is more or less guaranteed to eliminate the possibility of persuading people like Ms. Watson and her supporters that their opinions regarding the Israeli/Palestinian dispute are to a large extent based on misunderstanding the relevant facts.  Once any of those words is injected into a conversation, emotions run so high that rational, persuasive argument becomes almost impossible.  Thus, what could be an occasion for intelligent discussion and perhaps persuasion degenerates into a shouting match.

Which brings me to the question that logically arises if one is careful to avoid THE THREE WORDS.  If we shouldn’t say “antisemitism,” what should we say?  How should we push back against those ideas and persons that criticize Israel in a way that is unfair and sometimes even irrational?

I think there are two answers, and they vary according to the person who has made the (let’s say) anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian remark in question.  The author of the remark might be someone like musician Roger Waters, who has a decades-long history of brainless remarks.  In such a case as his, I would say the best response is none at all.  He’s a hopeless, empty-headed case, and no notice of him should be taken.

With someone like Ms. Watson, who does not (as yet) have a decades-long history of brainless remarks, the second answer is easy to state and enormously difficult to accomplish: we should do everything possible to educate the Ms. Watsons of this world as to the true historical facts that surround the present-day conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

For example, I would bet everything I own that Ms. Watson is ignorant of the fact that, from 1948 to 1967, the territories that Palestinians now claim for their state—Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem—were all controlled by Arab countries, Jordan and Egypt.  And yet, notwithstanding Arab control of those territories, no State of Palestine was ever created by Jordan and Egypt.  If the Palestinian claim to those territories is so clear, why didn’t the Palestinians’ brother and sister Arabs in Jordan and Egypt convey those territories to the Palestinians?  An interesting question for Ms. Watson to consider, I would say.

It is of course possible, and perhaps even likely, that Ms. Watson and others like her would reject any information that doesn’t conform to their already-formed opinions.  It must be hard to awaken from being woke.  But perhaps there are a few who would not be so stubbornly wrong-headed.  And, in any event, we can be virtually certain that resorting to THE THREE WORDS will accomplish nothing.  So, let’s not go there.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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