Presbyterian Fiction #3: the End of Antisemitism

Posted in Uncategorized by wspotts on June 30, 2010 Edit This

Antisemitism no longer exists; it is a problem of the past that affects Israelis and Jews as a “psycho-trauma”, but it poses no serious threat today.

I first really became aware of the PC(USA)’s Israel problem when the General Assembly voted for divestment in 2004. I took it as harmless bandwagonism – a misguided attempt to seem relevant by copying fashionable, college campus activism. But I was startled enough to actually look into it – to read the GA minutes, to see what the ACSWP (in its now defunct Church and Society Magazine and in its history provided to the GA), the Washington Office, and the Presbyterian News Service had to say about Israel.

I detected bias – both in terms of a remarkable singularity of negative focus on Israel (about 20 times that spent on China, Iran, or North Korea), and in terms of presentation of facts (that either omitted relevant details, oversimplified events, or presented outright falsehoods). But, to be honest, I was not that concerned with anti-Israel bias. I regarded it in the same way I regard most political bias.

But something else in the Presbyterian literature (and in the literature or Presbyterian partners and sources) did concern me. I encountered significantly anti-Judaic themes (by which I mean hostility to Judaism as a religion); some anti-Jewish themes (by which I mean generalizations of negative character traits to the Jewish people); and several blatant examples of historic antisemitic themes (language of contempt, the use of crucifixion and other explicitly Christian imagery to demonize Israeli Jews, notions of Jewish control of the US and other governments, assertions of Jewish control of media, the use of the Khazar meme).

This problem was so pervasive that it needed (and still needs) to be confronted; the anti-Jewish themes, aside from being loathsome, are also dangerous. Yet every time the issue is raised it is brushed aside. The people who push these anti-Judaic, anti-Jewish, and antisemitic themes immediately protest: “criticism of Israel is not antisemitic.” They sometimes go farther (as in the case of the MESC Report):

I know how … viciously attacked any truth-tellers are by majority voices in the American Jewish community that are quick to attach the label “anti-Semitic” to anyone who even suggests that there are serious ethical and legal issues at stake.

These protesters view accurate observations of antisemitism as a diversion from the real topic – their political agenda. Others, who are not really that interested in the politics of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel advocacy, either are mystified by or ridicule Presbyterians and others who raise concerns over anti-Jewish elements in the dialogue. Still others – who oppose the anti-Israel bias – regard confronting the anti-Judaism / antisemitism issue as profoundly unhelpful – and would be happy just to have a more politically balanced approach.

The bottom line is that it is the anti-Judaism and antisemitism that form the heart of the problem with much of the advocacy in the PC(USA). These are not side-items, irrelevant to the “real” issue of activist politics. Instead they are a central moral and ethical question that must be decided by commissioners.

Yet they are devoutly ignored by many Presbyterians.

The reason for this is an assumption – a fiction – that is sometimes stated in the advocacy literature of Presbyterians and others – but is rarely fully articulated. The idea is that anti-Judaism and antisemitism don’t really matter because these have become non-issues in the world. In plain terms, antisemitism is no longer dangerous.

The basic thrust of the argument is not a denial of the historic existence of antisemitism or a claim that the incidence of historic antisemitism has been significantly exaggerated. Instead it assumes a change has occurred: antisemitism is no longer oppressive because oppression requires both prejudice and institutional power. As a population (the argument goes) Jews are now empowered – therefore, while anti-Jewish prejudice may still exist, it cannot today exclude Jewish people from positions of power and influence.

The premise, that antisemitism has somehow become obsolete – a tragic relic of history – is one that a great many people very strongly want to believe. An argument can be made; people want to be persuaded; sizable advocacy groups have little problem finding a podium. As a consequence, this idea, no matter how dangerously flawed, has the potential to penetrate widely into the public consciousness.

This argument hinges on an actual change – for it to be valid, a preliminary condition is necessary: antisemitism must once have posed a problem, and now no longer does. So we are obliged to ask: has there been a reduction in antisemitism? Have barriers to Jewish integration and success been functionally eliminated?

The available evidence suggests that the answers to these questions are somewhat complex. In many ways, at least in the United States, there have been significant improvements. A type of glass ceiling seems to have been removed; significant barriers in many industries are no longer the norm. To be sure, there remain pockets of segregation, but these are far less widespread than they were only a few decades ago.

Also significantly, surveys commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League have shown reductions in the numbers of people who will agree with many classically antisemitic statements. [Examples include, “Jews have too much power in the US today”; “Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want”; and “Jews have a lot of irritating faults”. Between 1964 and 1998, there were dramatic reductions in the numbers of respondents who agreed with almost all of the statements – with the exception of “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America;” and “Jews stick together more than other Americans.”] Since 1998, however, that trend has begun noticeably to reverse. Statistics about antisemitic incidents in the United States present another mixed picture. Acts of vandalism have fairly consistently increased over the last five years, while reports of harassment seem to have peaked in 2004. Campus related incidents have generally increased since 1999. The number of incidents involving high schools and middle schools adds a troubling dimension.

In England, the Community Security Trust reports a trend of rising antisemitic incidents since 1997. In 2006 the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism stated, “Until recently the prevailing opinion both within the Jewish community and beyond was that antisemitism had receded to the point that it existed only on the margins of society. However, the evidence we received indicates that there has been a reversal of this progress since the year 2000.” The inquiry committee concluded that the belief that levels of antisemitism in Britain are rising is justified. It cited antisemitic discourse as a contributing factor in creating an “atmosphere where Jews have become more anxious and more vulnerable to abuse and attack than at any other time for a generation or longer.”

Statistics of antisemitic incidents reported in Europe do not show a clear trend. This is partly a function of disparate methods of compilation between nations. For instance, Germany and Austria appear only to record incidents that occur within a “right-wing political context.” A number of other European nations do not report antisemitic incidents. The Pew Global Attitudes Project has recorded a dramatic increase in unfavorable views of both Jews and Muslims since 2004. One eye-opening finding of their 2008 survey was the number of countries in which more than half of respondents reported an unfavorable opinion of Jews. These included Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon with a greater than 95% negative view; respondents in Turkey and Pakistan had a greater than 75% negative view; and Indonesia, China, and Brazil each reported at least a 50% negative view. Majorities of respondents in only three nations held negative views of Christians. Majorities of respondents in seven nations reported unfavorable views of Muslims; of these, Japan indicated the highest percentage of negative views at 61%. Attitude surveys commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League portray a fairly steady increase in the number of European respondents who agree to classically antisemitic statements over the last several years. Worldwide, the US State Department describes an increase in frequency and severity of antisemitic incidents in the 21st Century: “In recent years, incidents have been more targeted in nature with perpetrators appearing to have the specific intent to attack Jews and Judaism.”

An observable reality would be necessary to support any assertion that antisemitism has essentially become a non-issue, but the available facts present a mixed picture at best. A person would have to go to great lengths to minimize or excuse the antisemitism in several Islamic nations, in parts of Europe, and elsewhere. And a person would have to believe that the readily observable prejudices in those places were not held by people in positions of power.

But even were the initial contention about a reduction in the effective threat posed by antisemitism true – which is clearly not he case – the resultant argument still suffers from several flaws.

First, any argument of this kind, framed in terms of power dynamics, falsely implies that oppression causes harm while prejudice does not. It raises both moral and practical questions. Are prejudices and violent acts based on prejudices only to be resisted when the actors are perceived to be members of empowered groups and when their victims are held to be unempowered? The rationale provided here offers a moral cover story for treating some victims as if they were more important than others. This is faulty even when such a double standard is intended to redress a perceived imbalance of power; when it comes to individual victims of violence and actions based on prejudice, that imbalance no longer exists.

A related and equally indefensible consequence of this perceived power dynamic rationale is the fact that persons are held to significantly different standards of conduct based on their theoretical group affiliations. A tepid argument can be made to support the application of such a double standard to positive action. For example, one might reasonably expect greater contributions from a person who has access to greater resources – solely based on ability to contribute. It is morally indefensible, however, to apply this rubric to justify negative conduct – say, excusing indiscriminate violence on the part of the person held to be unempowered. The factors that might apply to positive responsibilities have no bearing on negative or violent behaviors.

While the language of power relationships is ubiquitous among advocacy groups and tends to be uncritically accepted, it is, in its own right, flawed. It requires a person to assign respective power, and that is something of an arbitrary judgment. In individual human interactions there is often an imbalance of power – one party often holds more power than another. But it is not always as easy as one might think to discern who is empowered and who is not, and things are not always as they appear on the surface. The application of this to groups, to races, to large populations becomes very tricky. It is often assumed without justification that all or most of the members of a population have the same level of power and privilege that some individuals enjoy.

An assessment of universal or near universal Jewish power and privilege is certainly not borne out by the data. It greatly depends on the communities in which individuals live. One must ask, is the Jewish resident of Sderot in the same position of empowerment as the Jewish resident of New York City, as the Jewish resident of London, as the Jewish resident of Russia, as the Jewish resident of Iran? This is manifestly not the case.

Additionally, arguments based on perceived power dynamics frequently contain an appalling and insupportable leap: if Jews are not currently an oppressed group (at least in the West) then antisemitism is no longer dangerous. The first portion of this statement can be responsibly argued – though most arguments currently being advanced are spurious. The second tenet, on the other hand, cannot be made to follow from the first. It either neglects the question of how groups become marginalized in the first place, or it naively over-simplifies the phenomenon. For this to be true, one would have to assume that a minority that enjoyed a certain level of power and access in a given community could never become marginalized by that community.

Indeed, that is the implication of the whole framework: it is the unempowered who become marginalized because they are already unempowered. If that were true, then the notion that prejudice was not dangerous – that only systemic oppression mattered – might (at least in broad terms) be sustainable. However, here again, the data does not fit the assumption. It supports a more complex phenomenon – one that has been repeatedly seen in history: prejudice often leads directly to disempowerment. It is true that prejudice is sometimes used to justify a previously existing imbalance of power, and it is true that the power relationship often enables and reinforces the prejudiced attitude. However, it is equally evident in other cases that specific prejudices do not spring from power relationships; instead, those prejudices create and sustain the power relationships.

For example, it is readily apparent that the Nazis employed systemic power to foster and increase prejudice, but at the same time, the Nazis came to power on the back of existing prejudice. Those areas under the control of the Third Reich where genocidal programs were most successful were precisely those areas where anti-Jewish prejudices already flourished. This prejudice wasn’t oppression until it had systemic power behind it – yet that power relationship never would have been possible had the prejudice not been present and considered acceptable in the first place.

It is obvious but apparently often overlooked that outbreaks of antisemitism that have resulted in horrific actions, have often been directed at people who regarded themselves as integrated and valued members of their societies. This self-perception of their own role and their own level of empowerment did nothing to protect them. It is also significant that the rhetoric employed to justify those historic outbreaks of antisemitism was often predicated on the assumption that the Jewish minority wielded disproportionate power. Here again, the perceptions of those outside the Jewish community of Jewish power offered no protection. In both cases – self-perceptions and external perceptions of empowerment and access seem to have increased (rather than mitigated) the harm caused by antisemitism.

Historically, this pattern of the public perception of Jewish people as being highly empowered leading directly to horrific actions against them has been too frequent and repetitive to ignore. In 1215, Pope Innocent III and the Fourth Lateran Council enacted significant anti-Jewish legislation, including an order that Jews be visibly distinguishable from Christians. This was part of a program to limit the financial activities of the Jews – based on the assumption that they were acquiring too much economic power and influence. When Jews were expelled from France, England, Portugal, and Spain, in all four cases they had previously lived (at times) under good conditions, had legal rights (sometimes even privileges), held some offices, got along well with their neighbors. In all four cases, they were perceived has having too much economic power and influence; and all four expulsions were preceded by long term increases in popular antisemitic attitudes.

Of course, many factors affected the variable treatment of Jews in these countries; but their minority status always created a vulnerability to shifting popular opinions. They were perceived as being in positions of power and influence, and this perception, along with others, led directly to anti-Jewish prejudice – which in turn led directly to often horrific anti-Jewish action.

In 1543, Martin Luther penned one of the more extreme anti-Jewish polemics; his motives and rationale were varied. But one theme he clearly presents: “Thus [Jews] are our masters and we are their servants, with our property, our sweat, and our labor.” The entire argument of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (and its related documents) is a conspiracy theory, yes, but it hinges on perceptions of Jewish power. This power outlined in the Protocols is, of course, diabolical and super-human, but it would never resonate with the public if the public did not already have a general perception of Jewish empowerment.

The bottom line here is that both internal and external perceptions of Jewish empowerment, integration, security, or access have in no way rendered antisemitism non-dangerous. Whether or not one chooses to regard antisemitism as no longer a form of oppression in the West, one cannot reasonably conclude that increases in antisemitic attitudes are somehow a non-issue. It would be naïve at best for people of good will to harbor the idea that antisemitism has become OK, or a minor thing, and that it no longer needs to be strenuously opposed. To conclude that the situation today is somehow different enough that antisemitism can be permitted to run its course without incurring the horrific results that have accompanied it throughout history strikes me as the extremity of foolishness.

However flawed it may be, this assumption and its argument, this fiction, is being held with increasing regularity.

In this context it primarily serves two purposes:

First, the power dynamic line of reasoning automatically appeals to activists predisposed to view the world in terms of group power relationships. While that framework fails in analyzing antisemitism, it is, nonetheless, a firmly held conviction for many people. The portrayal of the empowered versus the unempowered also carries considerable weight with the uninitiated – who tend to have a natural affinity for the perceived underdog. For the pro-Palestinian activist community, portraying concern with antisemitism as fundamentally unreasonable – will go a long way toward casting Israelis as incomprehensible bullies and Palestinians as blameless underdogs. In fact, this perception is fast becoming the common one – to such a degree that activists are able to distort the many facts that don’t quite fit that model with impunity.

Second, the inescapable cloud of anti-Judaic bias that hangs over many segments of pro-Palestinian activism has caused considerable embarrassment to churches like the PC(USA), to civic organizations, to colleges, and to municipalities who are generally supportive of Palestinian aspirations, but who do not want to be affiliated with antisemitism. If, however, antisemitism can be transformed into a non-oppressive, essentially harmless, historic curiosity, then it’s really no big deal. Suddenly the patently antisemitic statements – like crucifixion and deicide imagery, allegations that Jews control the government, that disagreeable elements of the “Jewish character” are to blame for Jewish support for Israel, the application of a double standard to Israel, and the tolerance for verifiably false information – that are embraced in that activism are no longer repellant. How individuals and society in general respond to anti-Judaic statements and actions will depend, at least in part, on whether or not people buy into this concept. Not only will this render rational discussion of legitimate issues between Israelis and Palestinians an impossibility, but it also threatens to have an even more harmful effect. As more and more sinister antisemitic statements become accepted into the public discourse, given credibility by churches, civic organizations, colleges, and others, attitudes toward the Jewish people will inevitably degrade.

Will Spotts

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