Monday, February 11, 2019

Criticizing Israel and Its Supporters

I have seen a flurry of stuff online about American politicians and their stances on Israel (for a better thread, see here).  Folks have been talking about the role of money in shaping attitudes and/or policy.  Jews are sensitive to this since anti-Semites have long been blaming Jews for using money in all kinds of unsavory ways.  Also, Jews get upset when folks lump them all into the same basket.  So, we see accusations of anti-Semitism whenever support for Israel is criticized.  So, I am going to take the pieces apart and play the game of "anti-Semitic or not."

Before I get started, a few caveats.  I was born and raised Jewish, but do not believe/observe. I feel my Jewish identity more keenly these days as Trump has given aid and comfort to those who would want me dead, preferably discarded in an oven.  I have never been to Israel, in part because I never wanted to give my father the satisfaction. Now that he has passed away, it may be no accident that I am going to Israel this summer on one of those trips people talk about--where Israelis will try to convince me of the merit of their side of things.  Will that work?  See below.  I tend to resent those who think I should have specific opinions about Israel because of my background.  I tend to see both (all) sides having severe flaws.  But I also believe strongly the #notallx is important here because generalizing about entire groups is how we get into this morass in the first place (despite the fact that my academic work on the IR of ethnic politics tends to treat ethnic groups as actors, oops).

First, the most obvious one: criticizing Israel for various policies is not anti-Semitic on its own.  Criticizing Israel for allowing settlers to build in the occupied areas so that it becomes harder and harder to negotiate a two-state solution is fair game.  So is noticing that Israel has been launching poorly conceived wars.  And, oy yes, it is quite fair game to criticize Benjamin Netanyahu for all kinds of things.  Saying Israel has no right to exist?  That is more problematic--what is the argument?  That no state should enshrine a single religion?  Ok, then lots of states should not exist.  If it is because of its violent origins?  Um, ditto.

Second, one can criticize American support for Israel without being anti-Semitic.  That Israel has developed policies over time here and there that conflict with American interests.  That unthinking and unconditional American support for Israel may not help lead to a peaceful resolution.  That moving the US embassy to Jerusalem is a bad idea especially trading in this chip for nothing.

Third, and the topic du jour, explaining American support for Israel is a bit tricky.  The go-to move is to focus on AIPAC--the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee--which is widely known to be one of the most effective lobbying organizations.  Others push back, saying AIPAC is mostly pushing on an open door since the American people support Israel.  Here, arguing all or nothing are both problematic moves.  I think the best way to treat AIPAC is to compare it to other lobbying organizations--that it does not represent all those who have some kind of identity affiliation--the NRA does not represent all gun-owners.  Nor is it all powerful as it has lost on some key issues over the years. It is not responsible for all of the big bad decisions in the Mideast (hint: invading Iraq).  Politicians are always agents, having their own agendas so lobbying efforts don't determine what happens.  BUT lobbies do influence.  After all, why spend so much effort on public relations, on meetings, on attempting to persuade if they have no impact.  Why fly folks (such as myself this summer) to Israel if not to make them more sympathetic?  It worked to a degree when Japan flew me to Tokyo although I was already pro-Japan.  It worked a bit less well when Canada flew me to Afghanistan, as I did support the mission before and after, but was more informed and thus more critical after.  The actors that are investing resources in this kind of stuff are betting that it has an impact.

Getting back to the American people's support for Israel--maybe those lobbying for Israel have had some influence on this?  After all, the best way to get a politician to support Israel is to try to get his/her supporters to support Israel.  Again, this is nothing magical nor evil in this--lobbies do this all the time.  Those who study those who lobby for Israel (notice, I don't call it the Israel lobby--more on that in a second) should again consult the literature on lobbies and even on diasporas.

But the key here is this: AIPAC is just one actor.  Another key is that Jews are divided on Israel and are not alone in advocating support for Israel.  To see Jews everywhere as a unified force is problematic and anti-Semitic because it is generalizing about an entire group based on the behavior, actual or imputed, on a segment.  To ignore that others have agendas concerning Israel is also a problem--evangelical Christians have become more uncritical in their support of Israel than Jews.  To be clear, not all of them, but enough of them that the GOP has become more fervent in its support of Israel than the Democrats despite the fact that Jews tend to vote much more for the Democrats.  The rise of "Christian Zionism" is not pro-Jew, as it views Jewish control of a slice of the Mideast as means to an end--the end of days.  I posted before about Steve King and his being pro-Israel.  Indeed, folks have noticed that some throwing around accusations of anti-Semitism have used anti-Semitism for political gain.  Kevin McCarthy, that is you.

One last set of concerns: BDS--Boycott, Divest, Sanction.  Is this movement anti-Semitic?  Damned if I know.  In the abstract, the idea of sanctioning Israel for its policies is not inherently anti-Semitic.  If one can criticize Israel for having bad policies, then it is logical than one can try to impose costs upon Israel for such policies.  But we do not live in the abstract, and this movement includes people who are anti-Semitic.  I also think it is problematic because it is too much of a blanket policy.  I get the idea of not playing Sun City--targeting specific activities and denying the economic exchange--but denying the interaction of Israeli academics (one can say one is targeting institutions but the effect is the same) with academics elsewhere is extremely problematic, using the example I know best.

So, for me, the key moves that make something anti-Semitic in this kind of discussion are:
  1. Asserting that Israel or agents of Israel control US policy.  Try to influence?  Sure, but control is going too far and starts whistling the usual tropes.
  2. Asserting that Jews are behind everything.  Some Jews, to be fair, give to lobbying groups, fund campaigns, are in government.  But this tends to assume that all Jews are on the same page and that other folks/interests don't matter.  Jews have not made the GOP uncritical supporters of Israel--lobbyists representing segments of the evangelical community have done that.  Asserting the existence of a single Israel lobby is problematic--it is not a single actor.
  3. Asserting that everything Israel does is evil.  Some of what it does is bad, much of what it does is misguided, but considering it a source for all evil is problematic.
  4. Arguing that American Jews are not loyal Americans.  Every diaspora has members who focus on their homeland, some of these people care more about the homeland, but most are loyal to their new country.  Most American Jews are not Jonathan Pollard (who spied for Israel and was also paid for it).
  5. Asserting that it is all about money.  

The challenge is that some folks will touch on some of these deliberately as dog whistles to their anti-Semitic audiences and others may bump into them less deliberately.  I tend to try to separate people by whether they seem to be operating in good faith or not.... so I don't buy Kevin McCarthy's indignation for a second.  But again, that might be my confirmation bias at work.  Ok, not in that case.  Not all criticism of Israel or American support of Israel is anti-Semitism, but some of it is, and given these times, I can see why folks suspect anti-Semitism to be at work.  It often is but not always.

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