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Reading Dara Horn

The Front Lines 2

If you have not read Dara Horn’s recent article in the Atlantic you really should. It is a beautifully written piece which distills an enormous amount of information about the rise of antisemitism in the west, and it is chock full of brilliant, biting insights. We discussed it recently in the newly formed Classical Forum for Contemporary Issues, and I would like to share part of our discussion (my part, naturally). I wrote as follows:

I cannot equal the eloquence or knowledge of Dara Horn, but I would like to address one of her many striking statements: “Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic: Jews are now required to recite this humiliatingly obvious sentence, over and over, as the price of admission to public discourse about their own demonization.”

It is definitely a humiliating demand, and one that I have sometimes felt I needed to make. Dr. Horn herself has made this statement, ostensibly of her own free will, and she refers to it as obvious. It is obvious, in a sense. Not all people who criticize Israel are antisemites. There are plenty of Jewish people and friends of Israel who believe that Israel mistreats the Palestinians. These people are not antisemites by any stretch of the imagination. But just because a criticism is not antisemitic does not mean that it is a fair or worthy criticism. Antisemitism is not the only evil in the world, and even if something is not classified as antisemitic, it can still be very bad. Antizionism, for example, is arguably worse than antisemitism, since it threatens the lives of millions of people in Israel and beyond.

Although not necessarily antisemitic, criticisms of Israel are highly damaging to Israel’s reputation, to the reputation of Jews, and also to the prospects for peace because they place a question mark on the legitimacy of Israel as an enterprise. It is impossible to combat antisemitism while remaining steadfast in the belief that Israel is a rogue nation. This is the fundamental contradiction of the liberal West, and it has been exposed and refuted by the pro-Palestinian movement. They perceive very clearly, and indeed correctly, that if Israeli is a rogue nation, then the Jews are a rogue people.

Yet international figures continue to make false and slanderous claims about Israel in the public realm, all the while claiming that they are battling antisemitism. The Secretary General of the UN justified the massacre of October 7th (after condemning it) by saying that “it did not happen in a vacuum.” That’s true of every act of terrorism and probably every act of anything. 9/11 did not occur in a vacuum and neither did WWII. Nothing occurs in a vacuum. This kind of response is what Hamas was counting on, and what other terrorists will continue to count on as they plan the next massacres. It offers them encouragement and incentives. Aside from terrorists, the image of Israel mistreating Palestinians or murdering children plays into well-known antisemitic stereotypes. My point is that even if not motivated by antisemitism, criticisms of Israel produce antisemitism and encourage terrorism world-wide.

Well, what can we do? If the criticisms are valid, we must make them regardless of the cost. That is a debatable proposition. But what is not debatable is that unfair criticisms are completely unworthy.

There are good grounds for exercizing care before criticizing Israel. In general we credit liberal democracies with decent policies because it is not easy for liberal democracies to indoctrinate their citizens with malicious ideologies. They have complex systems of checks and balances and freedom of the press. Israel has a supreme court that is more fully independent of the political process than any other in the world, and a free press that can and does offer the most trenchant criticisms of everything the government does. They have had in the past what is probably the most successful peace movement in the world, if we judge success by the ability to enact far-reaching policies that bring the nation into genuine existential danger.

Do we extend the presumption of decency to Israel or not? If so, there must be an approximately equal number of criticisms of Israel as there are of other liberal-democracies. If not, then what is it about the Israelis that causes them to depart from the norms of decency that are ostensibly observed by other liberal democracies? The volume and seriousness of the criticisms of Israel that we hear all the time, if valid, suggests that the Israelis — or rather the Jews of Israel, who are the only real objects of criticism — are singularly deficient from a moral point of view. And that not only encourages antisemitism, it justifies it.

Fortunately, most of the criticisms of Israel are superficial and unfair. That is not surprising. A society in which antisemitism is as widespread as it appears to be from Dr. Horn’s article (which mainly addresses campus and elite antisemitism) would find it hard to offer fair-minded criticisms of the Jewish state. Even if not antisemites, we all share certain images and patterns of thought about Jews. Social pressure plays a role too: if Jews are forced to acknowledge that criticism of Israel is legitimate or valid, so are non-Jews. It is, in large part, a social stance, a mark of fair-mindedness, even in the absence of any actual knowledge. So while not all criticism of Israel is necessarily antisemitic, and not all criticizers are antisemites, much of the criticism is formed in an atmosphere in which antisemitic stereotypes play a role.

The UN Secretary General referred to 56 years of occupation, a number that cannot stand by any account, because Israel left Gaza in 2005, and did not impose a blockade during the entire period since then. This is an important point because while an occupation may be illegitimate, the imposition of a blockade was a legitimate response to actions taken against Israel by an unoccupied Gaza. Israel was criticized, among other things, for blocking the importation of cement. No one believed that the outlandish claim that cement imports could serve a military purpose was anything but Israeli malice. But the extensive tunnel network has proved that the Israeli claim is, once again, completely innocent and completely correct.

Almost the entire discourse about Israel is steeped in bias. Piers Morgan referred to the Israelis as seeking “an eye for an eye,” a phrase I have not found used in comparable contexts. Israel is told to stop its “indescriminate” bombings, even though everyone knows that each strike is carefully vetted before being made. Critics are searching desperately to apply the term “genocide” to an unremarkable, but necessarily tragic, case of urban warfare. President Herzog says that the ICJ twisted his words into a blood libel, unbeknownst to them. The hospital libel is only one of a long line of “mistakes” that the NY Times, and other news outlets, were forced to retract, this time in a bold black notice resembling a notice of death. Was it the death of integrity they mourned? The list goes on. Clearly there is a level of suspicion about Israel that is not applied to other liberal democracies.

According to a recent poll, one in four Americans indulges in antisemitic attitudes. Indeed, the very word “Jew” in English has pejorative connotations, and “Jewing” someone is not a nice thing to do. Would it help if we changed our name as Blacks have done several times? We might try using the original indigenous Hebrew form Yehudi, for example. Non-Jews continue to refer to the Hebrew Bible as the Old Testament, even though the so-called New Testament is not all that new any more. Should we call it the Older Testament? Or just remind people that it is called the Hebrew Bible, a term that distinguishes it from the Greek Supplement. These changes will not erase antisemitism, but they might remind people how pervasive it is.

We should remind them also that antisemitism, or Jew-hatred, has nothing to do with Jews. It is a purely non-Jewish phenomenon, invented by and perpetuated by non-Jewish people. Indeed, Shakespeare created his Shylock without having met a single Jew, since they had been expelled from England years previously. This form of hate varies from relatively mild and tolerable forms of prejudice to viral obsession. It affects Jews in dastardly ways, but it affects non-Jews even more. Aside from 6 million Jews, 50 million non-Jews were killed in WWII. It has cost the lives of tens thousands of civilians in Gaza and in Israel, lives that could have been saved if the Secretary General of the UN did not allow prejudice to derange his judgement. He is not alone. Today, the obsession with Israel deranges the minds of millions, even billions, of non-Jews world-wide. We are always willng to help, but it is really up to the non-Jewish population to figure out what is wrong with them.

Not all people who criticize Israel are antisemites, but their criticisms are all formed in a cultural environment that contains antisemitic stereotypes, and these play a role in distorting the judgement of everyone including Jews themselves. It contributes to the obsessive-compulsive desire to find ways to blame Israel, an obsession that serves, in circular fashion, to reinforce ugly antisemitic thought patterns that bring it about. For these reasons it is not at all obvious that criticisms of Israel are not antisemitic, even if the speakers are not themselves what we call antisemites, and I am not sure that Dara would disagree with me.

About the Author
The author is a professor in the department of Classical Studies at Bar Ilan University. He is the President of the International Society for Socratic Studies, and the Founder of the Classical Forum for Contemporary Issues. The father of eight beautiful children, he lives in Efrat with their beautiful mother.