The Anti-Semitism Debate

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What do the names Berman, Rosenzweig, and Kagan have in common? They are all Jewish  names, and they belong to activist librarians who have worked for justice for Palestinians  wherever they have lived. I have participated with two colleagues in the American Library Association in two very difficult campaigns over the last ten years addressing issues of freedom of expression in Israel and the Occupied Territories and the destruction of Palestinian libraries and cultural institutions.
We do this because it is U.S. government aid and weapons that make these policies possible. At first glance, it may seem surprising that the leaders of these campaigns were raised in the Jewish tradition, but on second thought it makes a lot of sense as I will explain below.
This short article is necessary now because of an on-going debate about the extent of anti-Semitism in the peace movement. The slogan “Not in My Name” has recently come to the fore. My library friends and I are outraged that the officials of the government of Israel impose the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as the Bush administration is now occupying Iraq. The Israeli officials, descendants of those who were persecuted and gassed during WWII, somehow find it possible to oppress other people. Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University in Israel notes that due to Israeli policies, per capita food consumption in the Gaza Strip has declined by 30 percent and the population is experiencing severe malnutrition equivalent to the poorest nations in Africa (The Nation,April 14, page 17).
Any discussion of anti-Semitism and the worldwide peace movement must start from these facts on the ground; There are daily atrocities going on against the Palestinians and we must protest this as we would protest such actions anywhere else in the world. The most important point of this little essay is that IT IS NOT ANTI-SEMITIC TO PROTEST THE POLICIES OF THE GOVERNMENT OF ISRAEL.
Many American Jews lost family members in the Holocaust, and all American Jews have been deeply affected by this genocide. As a result, most American Jews have an emotional loyalty to the state of Israel as a homeland of last refuge. But the mainstream U.S. Zionist organizations support the state of Israel uncritically and refuse to acknowledge the gravity of its human rights offenses. The peace movement recognizes the Holocaust as an historical abomination and sympathizes with its victims. But at the same time, the peace movement recognizes the U.S. role in supporting the Israeli government in its repression of the Palestinians. The interesting point is that more and more American Jews are beginning to realize that they can speak out, and that they can oppose the propaganda that dominates the mainstream media. It is important to realize that this is also true in our own community. Most Americans, and especially American Jews, don’t understand that there is an Israeli peace movement and that the range of opinions regularly published in the mainstream Israeli press is wider than the range published here. We remember the Israeli conscientious objector, or “refusenik”, who visited our community some months ago. He is but one representative of a movement absent from the American mainstream press. I am proud to say that I support that movement. Evidence of anti-Semitism in the anti-war movement has lately centered around the exclusion of Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun from speaking at the San Francisco anti-war protest on February 16th. For a detailed analysis of what happened, I refer readers to a section of Edward S.Herman’s article entitled “The Cruise Missile Left, Part 2” (Z Magazine, April 2003, page 38-39). The article notes that activists from six anti-war Jewish organizations spoke at that protest representing a broad spectrum of Jewish anti-war views, and that a representative of Tikkun was present at the planning meeting where Lerner was ruled ineligible to speak. The Tikkun representative raised no objection. The ground rules stated that individuals who had publicly denounced any of the organizing groups would be denied the podium. One might argue with these ground rules, but there is a larger point that is more important. Ed Herman writes that Lerner applies the term “anti-Semite” not to people who hate Jews, but to those who assert that Israel today is a racist dangerously out-of-control state that needs to be stopped by the international community.
Progressive American Jews who would never support the slogan “My country, right or wrong,” do often support that slogan when it comes to Israel. For whatever (understandable) reasons, when they close their eyes or excuse what is going on in Israel IN OUR NAMES, they alienate themselves from the anti-war movement. It is not hard to understand why they feel out of place. Admittedly, it is hard to confront long-held, emotionally charged beliefs, but we must all poke through the propaganda mist and see the situation for what it is.
Finally, now that I have explained the context, let me address the ongoing debate. Incidents of anti-Semitism are disturbing whenever they occur, but let’s also insist upon noting a sharp rise in racism of all types.U.S. government policies targeting people from Arab countries, especially through the USA Patriot Act, The Homeland Security Act, and new “Special” Registration for people from twenty-five mainly Muslim countries, have provoked attacks on anyone who looks to the attackers like a Muslim, including many South Asians who do not share that religion. Ethnic profiling is officially sanctioned, notoriously at airports, and the members of our local mosque have communicated their distress to the local anti-war community. They are suffering discrimination in hiring and in their jobs, and women are now often told that they must remove their headscarves to remain employed. Let’s be clear. There is no similar campaign against Jews. In fact, it is notable that Jews have now reached the highest levels of commerce and government in the United States (including in the Bush administration).
Anti-Semitism is inflamed by U.S. foreign policy. Everyone knows that the U.S. supports the government of Israel with billions of dollars and the most sophisticated weapons every year. Most Muslims know that Israel has violated more U.N. resolutions than Iraq. The double standards are obvious for the world to see. It is not hard to see why millions hate the U.S. government.And it is not hard to see why some people will equate the Israeli government with Jews as they see the subjugation of the Palestinian people. Thus, it is the U.S. government that is fostering the increase of anti-Semitism (and further terrorist attacks). Although there may be a few real and even dangerous anti-Semites who affiliate with the anti-war movement, and there may be occasional anti-Semitic signs at peace rallies, they represent a tiny minority in the movement. We must clearly isolate these people, but the propaganda directed against the peace movement for being anti-Semitic has no relation to the impact of such elements. Ta’ayush, the Arab-Jewish Partnership, recently broke the military blockade of Gaza to deliver 30 tons of flour to six Palestinian villages. This is a concrete expression against not only the policies of the Israeli government, but against anti-Semitism. But such actions can only go so far. The way to defeat anti-Semitism is to change American foreign policy. As long as the U.S. continues to prop up the repressive policies of every Israeli government, there can be no peace in the Middle East and the conflict will further intensify religious and ethnic enmity. The problem is in Washington.

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