Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Anti-Semitic Carter?

So, Jimmy Carter just published a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a lot of people are freaking out.

That's predictable. It's a freak-out topic. When a former US President writes about it, the freak-out will be significant.

A disclaimer: I haven't read the book. I'm not doing a book review or a review of the book reviews. But I have heard Carter talking about why he wrote the book and what he thinks of Israel and Israelis a couple times, and I'm pretty sure that he's not an anti-Semite. So I'm curious why people feel okay calling him one.

Yes, Carter is critical of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. But Carter also speaks glowingly of democracy within Israel, and I've never heard or read anything he's said that would make him sound like Hitler, or David Duke, or Louis Farrakhan. He hasn't even called New York "Hymietown."

That didn't keep people from calling him an anti-Semite. A case study is New Republic Editor-in-Chief Marty Peretz, who writes, "I believe [Carter] feels deep rancor towards the Jews and deeper rancor towards Israel. And those feelings give him all the knowledge he thinks he needs." Without quoting meaningfully from the book, Peretz speculates on why Carter is such an anti-Semite: "Maybe it comes from his mother. Or maybe it comes from his brother." Ultimately, it doesn't matter." He then goes on to conclude "[W]herever it comes from, it is now a part of his life and his legacy. That's how he will go down in history: as a Jew hater."

Ouch! "Jew hater!" Other Carter critics like New Yorker writer Jeffrey Goldberg and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz have confined himself to calling Carter anti-Israeli or "deeply cynical." I don't think he's either, but those are fair enough accusations to make in response to a critique of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. But "Jew-hater"?

I don't think I'm alone in saying that I'm tired of people getting called Jew haters for criticizing Israeli government policy. I understand that Israel is for most Jews the religious homeland and, if not a literal homeland, then at least a comforting reality--with Israel there, even if the world turns as (truly) anti-Semitic as Germany was under the Nazis, there will be a strong, well-organized government dedicated to the protection of Jews and the Jewish religion. I understand that, and I don't underestimate Israel's importance psychologically and geopolitically.

But let's not lose track of the fact that Israel is a state, as such, it has a government and armed representatives who help that government control territory. That territory includes land seized during war, land populated by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in a political limbo, citizens of neither Israel nor the neighboring Muslim states (which often exploit the Palestinians' predicament without actually helping them). It's possible to criticize Israel's treatment of Palestinians without being anti-Israeli. (Israelis do it all the time.) And it's possible to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. (Just as it's possible to criticize Iran or Syria or Saudi Arabia without being anti-Muslim.)

In addition to resenting any criticism of Israel per se, Peretz also calls Carter "silly," "ignorant," and "malicious" for comparing Israeli policy in the occupied territories to aparteid. Dershowitz and Goldberg, though more polite (and reasoned), make much the same point. They say that since Carter is claiming that the "separation barrier"--Israel's enormous wall in and around the occupied territories--is a land grab by Israeli settlers at the expense of Palestinians, it's cynical and/or foolish to compare it to the racialized hierarchy of South African aparteid.

Well, okay, but let's remember how the colonial world that produced aparteid worked. It's not like a bunch of Afrikaners and English people said to themselves, "Hey, since we're superior to black people, let's all move 10,000 miles to put a society in place that reflects that superiority." I don't underestimate the deep and irrational movements and powers of racist beliefs in those colonists (and in pretty much everybody in the world at that time and now), but I'm pretty sure that the huge majority of colonists who moved to South Africa and fought the Zulu (and one another) in bloody war after bloody war over centuries as well as the governments and corporations who supported those colonists did so in order to make money and to control land. Racism might have been a primary motivation for some, and was surely a primary rationalization for many, but colonialism always has been about money, land, and the power that they confer. And if you're in the role of colonizer--if you both exist under and survive courtesy of the threat of force, if you live on land that other people lived on and still believe belongs to them--it's pretty much inevitable that you'll become bigoted against those people. The only other possibilities are hysterical denial, substance abuse, going insane, or joining a revolution.

So when Carter says that a land grab in the occupied territories and the laws needed to support that land grab look like aparteid even though it isn't motivated by the same kind of racism that motivated the white colonizers of South Africa and the aparteid system that came out of their consolidating their hold on South Africa, he might well be right. I don't know. I haven't been to Gaza or the West Bank. (He has.)

And if Carter is right, Israel's supporters should (as many Israelis do) push their government for a serious change in policy, not spend their time calling him a Jew hater.

And if he's wrong, call him wrong. Not a Jew hater. Unless he actually, you know, says something hateful about Jews.


At 1:37 PM , Blogger Joe said...

This is a major source of ire for me. There are people in this world who are truly anti-Semitic and who absolutely hate Jews, and use of the label anti-Semitic to describe people who merely disagree with the policies of the Israeli government dilutes the value and purpose of the word anti-Semitic to the point of meaninglessness.

Usually the party that gets more votes than the other parties in Israeli elections receives less than half of the total votes because there are so many parties. The “winning” party must form a coalition government with one or more other parties. So at any time there are more than half the citizens of Israel (most of whom are Jewish) who disagree with the policies and decisions of the Israeli government. Are they all anti-Semites?

Israel may be the world’s only Jewish state, but there are more Jews in the world living in other countries than in Israel. The policies and decisions of the Israeli government do not represent the viewpoints of the world’s Jews. They do not even represent the viewpoint of the majority of Israeli citizens. So being critical of the government’s policies could hardly be anti-Semitic or qualify one as a “Jew hater.” I have many Jewish friends who are critical of the Israeli government, and I’d be an idiot to label them as Jew haters or anti-Semites.

It reminds me of the hundreds of thousands of Bush supporters who label anyone critical of the Bush Administration’s policies as anti-American. As if Bush is the very definition of American thought and purpose. Those same Bush supporters were extremely critical of President Clinton, and nobody was stupid enough to label them as anti-American. But as soon as Bush took office (even before September 11) those critical of him became anti-Americans and the “blame America first” crowd. Again equating Bush with America, but not Clinton with America.

It shows either a very shallow lack of knowledge or a deliberate attempt to mislead those who are less knowledgeable. I don’t believe the writers you mentioned are stupid, so the only alternative is that they are deliberately misleading those they feel ARE stupid: their readers and the rest of the American people.

It shows an enormous disrespect for the people of this nation on the part of those using the anti-Semite label and a lack of serious thought on the people who accept it.

At 5:05 PM , Blogger John Damer said...

As Harvey Pekar once said, "Israel showed the world that a Jew can be a xenophobic asshole like everyone else."*

I think that the common association of anti-Israeli views with anti-semitism is indictive of the human mind's tendancy to simplistically conflate two subtley different concepts and an demonstration of the complex problems that come into existence when religion and government merge into one. I do think that it is a shame that people broadly label Carter as anti-Jew just because he considers Israel's systematic violations of human rights, you know, problematic, especially when considering that Carter has been an incredible humanitarian.

*I don't know if Harvey Pekar (himself Jewish) actually said this in the real life or just in his comic book.

At 11:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The use of the word of anti-semetic is starting to mean, to me, anyone who critisizes Israel's government policy. My best friend is Jewish and I am muslim. He felt that the movie "Munich" was anti-semtic, so I am wondering what he thinks of my dislike for Israels policies. This problem is very real and can end friendships let alone prolong a lack of peace. The word anti-semite is truly being misrepresented to the point where room for real anti-semites will be wide open.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home