Is there a growing trend among American intellectuals (and former presidents) toward anti-Semitism? That is what a number of recent articles, essays, and speeches—the latest on “The Poisoning of America” from Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive director of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at the Herzilya conference—would suggest. Some of these statements stop short of saying that Tony Judt, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, Tony Kushner, and Jimmy Carter (to name some of the best-known targets) are anti-Semites. Instead, they say that what they have written is anti-Semitic or encourages anti-Semitism. In The Wall Street Journal last year, Bret Stephens, a member of the editorial board, suggested that Walt and Mearsheimer’s essay on the Israel lobby “may not be anti-Semitic in intent [but] may yet be anti-Semitic in effect.”
What these charges are meant to do is to raise the warning flag of anti-Semitism over certain opinions, placing them beyond argument—in a realm consigned to social pathologies. Who would argue, for instance, over the “history” contained within The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? In “Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism,” a paper published by the American Jewish Committee, Alvin H. Rosenfeld writes of the critics of Israel interviewed for Radicals, Rabbis and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel, “[They are] not driven by anything remotely like reasoned historical analysis, but rather by a complex range of psychological as well as political motives that subvert reason and replace it with something akin to hysteria.”
My intention in broaching this controversy is not to argue on behalf of Walt, Mearsheimer, or Judt. I think Walt and Mearsheimer do exaggerate the influence of the Israel lobby and define the lobby in such an inclusive way as to beg the question of its influence. I also don’t share Judt’s hopes for a secular democratic state on what is now Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. But I think that, in characterizing these views as anti-Semitic, or as contributing to anti-Semitism, Rosenfeld and other critics are attempting to suppress an important debate on American foreign policy toward Israel and the Middle East. And they have also fallen prey to a contradiction within their own thinking.
Anti-Semitism has appeared in many guises—from the religious anti-Judaism of Medieval times to the racial and conspiracy theories of twentieth-century Europe. (For a recent discussion, see Walter Laqueur, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism). The term itself dates from the late nineteenth century, and it could be seen to include the imputation to Jews of certain undesirable traits and practices and the imputation to Jewish leaders of international designs that would undermine the societies in which they lived. The classic anti-Semitic text is the Protocols, which describes a fictional conspiracy by Jewish leaders to take over the world. In the United States, anti-Semitism generally took a less malignant form than in Europe, but, in the 1890s, some Populist Party members believed that Jewish bankers were secretly in charge of the economy, and, in the late 1930s, some isolationists believed Jews put their loyalty to their own people above their loyalty to the United States.
The critics of the new anti-Semitism label two kinds of views to be anti-Semitic. First, they argue that, by attributing inordinate influence to the Israel lobby—and therefore to American Jews—and by describing that influence as being contrary to (or not necessarily consistent with) the American national interest, Walt and Mearsheimer and their supporters are dredging up older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. “Accusations of powerful Jews behind the scenes are part of the most dangerous traditions of modern anti-semitism,” wrote historian Jeffrey Herf and political scientist Andrei Markovits in a response to Walt and Mearsheimer.
Second, the critics argue that, by voicing overly negative views of Israel itself—or by calling for Israel’s replacement by a secular democratic state—Judt and others are contributing to anti-Semitism. The critics are not deterred by the fact that some of these authors, including Judt, are Jewish. Brandeis sociology professor Shulamit Reinharz, writes that many of these authors “would say that they are simply anti-Zionists, not anti-Semites. But I disagree, because in a world where there is only one Jewish state, to oppose it vehemently is to endanger Jews.”
What of these charges? Walt and Mearsheimer do suggest significant influence by some Jewish leaders over American foreign policy. That certainly recalls the accusations of the Protocols. But the Protocols were a pure fabrication, while Walt and Mearsheimer’s case is based upon a reality that most people who study Washington concede: The “pro-Israel” lobby, led by AIPAC, exerts enormous influence over U.S. policy toward Israel. Walt and Mearsheimer extend that influence to policy toward the entire Middle East and to the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. That’s a mistake, in my opinion, but it’s an arguable case. What would make their argument similar to the older anti-Semitism would be a claim that the Israel lobby controls, rather than influences, foreign policy and that its reach extends to all regions and not merely the Middle East.
Walt and Mearsheimer’s critics also draw an analogy between their views and older charges of “dual loyalty.” But what distinguished these older charges was the large element of pure fantasy. Jewish bankers getting together secretly to plot the future of the world? International socialism as a Jewish plot? Walt and Mearsheimer take the argument beyond where I would do so by tossing Jewish neoconservative intellectuals and policy-makers into the same “lobby” as AIPAC, but there is no question that there is a powerful lobby, run and funded by American Jews, that looks out for the interests of Israel.
AIPAC’s staff and officials claim there is no contradiction between representing the interests of Israel and those of the United States, but that’s at best an arguable point. Certainly, AIPAC has found itself defending Israeli policies—such as the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the rapid expansion of settlements in the West Bank in the late 1980s, or the 1993 Oslo Accords, or even the most recent Israeli offensive in Lebanon—that, in the opinion of many Americans and Jewish-Americans, were not in the interest of the United States. I am not arguing that any of them necessarily were, merely that there are bound to have been differences. American and Israeli interests are not linked together in a logical equation; they are real-world entities whose priorities have sometimes diverged. And when they do, any organizations or individuals that want to represent the best interests of Israel, or the policies of the Israel government, will be torn by the problem of dual loyalty.
Rosenfeld, Harris, and others are on firmer ground in arguing that some criticisms of Israel itself are anti-Semitic. Some European and Middle Eastern commentators simply identify Jews with Israelis and ascribe to “Israelis” the same kinds of evil conspiracies that they would have earlier attributed to “Jews”—for instance, secretly blowing up the World Trade Center while letting the blame for the deed fall on Islamic radicals, or infecting Arabs with AIDS. But what also bothers the critics of the new anti-Semitism are Jewish intellectuals like Judt, Kushner, or poet Adrienne Rich, all of whom harshly criticize the Israeli state, compare its policies in the occupied territories to South Africa’s in the Bantustans or even Hitler’s in Germany, call for a secular democratic state, or criticize Zionism itself. These kinds of views, Rosenfeld writes, “recall older versions of anti-Semitism.”
But the harsh denunciation of Israeli policies can be offensive without being anti-Semitic. It’s not uncommon in political argument to dredge up past evils to dramatize what are believed to be present ones. American administrations constantly evoke Hitler and the Nazis to characterize their current enemies. Indeed, Rosenfeld et al. are engaged in the same kind of hyped rhetoric when they identify Walt and Mearsheimer with David Duke or with Nazis, or when, like the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris, they equate Walt and Mearsheimer’s views with those of people who imagine “Jews as inoculators of AIDS in the Arab world or contaminators of Palestinian water sources.”
The same can be said of Judt’s argument for a democratic secular state or for arguments against Zionism itself. These have been, and should remain, arguable subjects among Jews as well as non-Jews. As Rosenfeld acknowledges, many of these arguments can be found in Israel itself. For instance, in Bernard Avishai’s important book, The Tragedy of Zionism, published in 2002, he argued that the “romance of Zionism harmed—and may yet wreck—[Israel’s] chances to survive as a democracy.” If anything, Judt’s position for a secular democratic state is utopian. It hopes for too much. But, in its folly, it also reflects the same universalist tradition in Jewish thought that contributed to American Jewish support for civil rights. In other words, it might be foolish to think that Jews and Palestinians could coexist in the same state, but it’s not anti-Semitic.
There is a paradox that haunts these charges of anti-Semitism. On the one hand, Rosenfeld, Harris, and others want to deny that American Jews and American Jewish organizations like AIPAC suffer from dual loyalty in trying to influence U.S. foreign policy. It’s anti-Semitic or contributes to anti-Semitism, they say, to make that charge. On the other hand, they want to demand of American Jewish intellectuals a certain loyalty to Israel, Israeli policies, and to Zionism as part of their being Jewish. They make dual loyalty an inescapable part of being Jewish in a world in which a Jewish state exists. And that’s probably the case. Many Jews now suffer from dual loyalty—the same way that Cuban-Americans or Mexican-Americans do. By ignoring this dilemma—and, worse still, by charging those who acknowledge its existence with anti-Semitism—the critics of the new anti-Semitism are engaged in a flight from their own political selves. They are guilty of a certain kind of bad faith.
These controversies over anti-Semitism come, too, at a predictable and particularly unfortunate time in the discussion of U.S. foreign policy. The last time a similar brouhaha arose was in the 1970s, when Jewish peace organizations in the United States challenged Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. At the urging of the Israeli government, organizations like Breira were run out of town by their traditional, and more subservient, brethren. Partly as a result, the United States acquiesced in Israeli policies that, in the long run, have benefited neither the United States nor Israel. The same thing could happen again. A debate has already begun over U.S. policy toward Iran in which AIPAC and the Israeli government have expressed interest in the United States stopping at nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Fears of a new Holocaust—made more plausible by the very real anti-Semitism of Iran’s president—have been sounded. What policies are in the interest of the United States? And of Israel? These are difficult questions, but they are not made easier to answer when critics of Israel and of the Israel lobby in the United States are charged with anti-Semitism.