Monday, July 31, 2006

Boxes and Pointy Sticks

The recent furor on all sides that has been brought to the forefront by the new Middle East war reminds us all, once again, how so many have a compelling need to shove people into boxes so they can then be poked at with pointy sticks.

This is not new and it was to be expected, especially in North America where saying anything having to do with Israel has largely been taboo - no matter which 'side' you're on. Not so in the Middle East, of course because the volatile situation there has been a matter of everyday life for millions for a very long time.

So, here we are again. Labeling people like Iraq's Prime Minister an anti-semite for what he didn't say and regardless of the fact that he is also a semitic person. This distortion is common and has a longstanding history as a tactic used by politicians and people to attack those who oppose Israel's policies.

Take a walk back to 1986 with me. Responding to a battle of words between author Gore Vidal and journalist Norman Podhoretz at the time, historian and author Dr. Alfred M. Lilienthal penned the article, 'Semite and Anti-Semite: A Confusion Stifling American Freedom'. He could have written it yesterday. It is still that relevant.

Some key points:

The biting, mocking Vidal article claimed that pro-Israel lobbyists, including the American Jewish Committee, the employers of Podhoretz, "make common cause with the lunatic fringe" to frighten Americans into spending enormous sums of money for defense against the Soviet Union and for the support of Israel. Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, Vidal insisted, were more interested in Israel than in this country. This may be anti-Podhoretz, anti-Decter, anti-Conservative, even anti-Israel, but it is certainly not anti-Semitic.

An implication of dual loyalty is no proof of anti-Semitic intent. Unfortunately, many Jews themselves confuse their allegiances to religion and state, and hence the word "Jew" has become widely used to denote simultaneously a universal faith and a particular nationality.

No one but the most irrational would deny that there are bigots and haters, that there was a Nazi Germany whose unparaeled genocide still stings the conscience of Man, and that there is still anti-Semitism. The latter is only one of an infinite number of prejudices that ought to be eradicated. However, Podhoretz and other neo-Conservatives are using the existence of this sociological phenomenon to suppress any and all criticism of the Israeli state, the multi-fold Zionist organizations, and their actions.

Sound familiar? Except now it isn't only the neocons who are trying to score political points for Israel by labelling dissenters as 'anti-semitic'. It's also some Democrats and some so-called liberals. And their fierce defense of Israel is used as a blatant tool to stifle free speech and instill fear on a western population that has long chosen to ignore the elephant in the living room - the reality underlying the current situation in the Middle East.

Anti-Zionism should not be equated with anti-Semitism, the racist ideology directed against Jews as Jews. Nor should Zionism, the political movement established to reconstitute Jews as a nation, be equated with Judaism, the universal faith which knows no national boundaries and constitutes a relationship between man and God, requiring no political loyalty to any country.

While it has little bearing on the substance of the political discussion in the U.S., the words "anti-Semitism" and "anti-Semitic" are, in fact, semantic misnomers. Jews constitute no more than 10 percent of the world's Semites. The overwhelming majority of Semites are Arabs. Furthermore, most Jews today could not trace their ancestry back to the Holy Land and, therefore, are not true Semites at all. Ninety percent of the world's Jews are descended from converts to Judaism, mostly the Khazars in what is now the southern USSR. The Khazars accepted Judaism as their monotheistic faith. They did not have the remotest connection with the Semites of the Holy Land.

Notwithstanding, the mere interjection of the label "anti-Semite" halts discussion, mutes doubt and crushes debate on Middle East policy. In fact, nothing has accounted more for the success of Zionism and Israelism in the Western world than the skillful attack on the soft underbelly of world opinion--"Mr. Decent Man's" total repugnance toward anti-Semitism. The charge of this bias, bringing forth the spectre of Nazi Germany, so totally pulverizes the average Christian that, by contrast, calling him a Communist is a pleasant epithet.

Even the full-blooded Semite, the Arab, absurd as it may be, finds it difficult to defend himself against this charge.

It's not my intention to speak on behalf of the Dr's views of the history behind all of this. He's the historian and I'm sure many will choose to debate his perspective. Learning that history is a challenge for all of us who engage in debating the current situation. Regardless, he makes the point clear: there is a difference between anti-semitism and anti-zionism. There are also Christian zionists, although their beliefs are somewhat different from Jewish zionists. It must also be made clear that there are definitely people who are anti-Israel, in the sense that they believe the state of Israel does not have the right to exist along with others who are clearly bigoted towards all Jewish people. But, that's beyond the topic at hand.

Lilienthal also makes the sensitive point that, I believe, explains why so many people don't even want to talk about Israel's policies, yet alone disagree with them:

The emotional reaction engendered by Nazi genocide has given rise to an Eleventh Commandment, "Thou shalt not be anti-Semitic," and to a corollary Twelfth Commandment, "Thou shalt be anti-anti-Semitic." No Christian wishes to run afoul of these 20th century supplements to the interdictions brought back by Moses from Mt. Sinai.

Nor do many others, regardless of what religion they may or may not subscribe to. The Holocaust is still fresh in all of our minds - as it should be. The horrendous actions of the Nazis, resulting in the deaths of so many Jewish people are simply beyond comprehension. However, and this is a big 'however', the fact that Jewish people were so horribly victimized - not only by the Nazis, but throughout history - ought not stifle debate about the state of any Israeli government policies. One can oppose policies while not opposing people of a certain country for the actions of their government.

We cannot allow our sense of collective grief to overcome reason when it comes to evaluating what is happening in the Middle East today. History must never be forgotten, but it cannot be allowed to inflict charges of anti-semitism or anti-Jewishisness to stop reasonable people from looking at the facts of the war the last few weeks. Most of us are quite able to examine the actions of all involved in order to determine any supposed justness of the current actions. We can rely on modern rules of warfare set out in the Geneva Conventions and the words of objective humanitarian observers like the International Red Cross to give us an unbiased view. There is no doubt that the media are biased - either pro or anti-Isareli policies (except for those reporters who only set the facts before us, without interpretation) - so we must choose our sources carefully and with an open mind. And we certainly cannot trust politicians or their representatives to give us anything more than their opinions, reminding us that many are also beholden to lobby groups and money men behind the scenes who expect them to toe a certain line.

Renowned Harvard sociologist Dr. David Reisman once wrote in the Jewish Newsletter:

The Zionists can muster not merely the threat of the Jewish vote and the no-less important Jewish financial and organizational skills, but also the blackmail of attacking anyone who opposes their political aims for Israel, as anti-Semitic.

That ought not be read as saying anything close to bigoted assertions that 'Jews run the banks' etc. Politicians of all stripes know they have to please certain special interest groups, whether they're the feminists, the pro-lifers, the environmentalists or whoever they're relying on to bring in votes for them. Witness Bush's pandering to the religious right and the effect they've had on his policy choices. It's just a fact that those votes are crucial to a politician's survival and some will set aside their conscience to stand for those whose support they seek.

Lilienthal concludes:

Any group of people may achieve something of a separate identity merely by believing they belong together. American tolerance toward separatism ceases, however, when group thought and group action run counter to the mores and interests of the country in which they live.
If the political problems of Israel become the political responsibility of American Jews, disaster will eventually follow.

And here we are, 20 years after Lilienthal wrote that article foreshadowing this 21st century reality or, more to the point perhaps, the obvious inability of our nations to move forward on these issues. The bullish stance of the Bush administration and its congress (including the vast majority of Democrats) has made Israel's problems their problems and their responsibility. After years of providing Israel with billions of dollars of foreign aid it now appears, depending on which theory you believe, that Israel's Olmert is either snubbing the US government by refusing a ceasefire or that it is simply playing its role in the neocon plan to draw in Syria and Iran - the evolution of a crisis of unknown proportions.

So, while many would like to stuff people into those narrow 'anti-semitic' boxes while taunting them with their pointy sticks based on their political agendas as a distraction from what's actually happening on a daily basis, those who choose not to fight their way out of those boxes are simply giving the abusers what they want so deperately - power.

Note: I do not vouch for Lienthal's credentials. I simply came across this old article and thought what he wrote was applicable to today's events.

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