« Don't Blame the Patriarchy | Main | Multifamily Living »

October 05, 2007

What Is Anti-Semitism?

Jon Chait chides me for believing anti-semitism is a hatred of something intrinsic about Jews. "Anti-Semitism can take the form of animus against all Jews, but it doesn't always, or even usually, do so," he writes. "The variety of anti-Semitism represented by the Protocols usually holds that most Jews are innocent, but tiny number of them hold vast, secretive, malevolent powers. It's not an attack on Jews per se, just the tiny handful of Jews who are responsible for engineering wars and other international disasters...if we're going to be debating anti-Semitism, we need to understand what it is."

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are also a czarist forgery responsible for endless sets of pogroms, discriminatory laws, and other acts that affected all Jews, not a small minority. But before we get into that, is Jon's definition correct? Does he understand what anti-semitism is?

Wikipedia offers a couple scholarly definitions of anti-semitism. The Holocaust scholar Susan Fein describes anti-semitism as "a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs towards Jews as a collective." Professor Dietz Bering's definition speaks more directly to the interpretation of The Protocols, as it says that anti-semites believe "Jews are not only partially but totally bad by nature, that is, their bad traits are incorrigible. Because of this bad nature: (1) Jews have to be seen not as individuals but as a collective. (2) Jews remain essentially alien in the surrounding societies. (3) Jews bring disaster on their 'host societies' or on the whole world, they are doing it secretly, therefore the antisemites feel obliged to unmask the conspiratorial, bad Jewish character." Neither fits Jon's description.

Indeed, both definitions quickly state that anti-semitism requires a judgment on "the Jews" as a people, not a couple of Jews with a particularly impressive grasp of currency exchange. And for good reason. A definition of the sort that Jon envisions, wherein anti-semitism is merely saying that a certain number of Jews are powerful, is staggeringly imprecise, and could apply to anything from The Protocols to a discussion of a large company run by Jews.

But you can draw distinctions. The Protocols were not an argument, nor a legitimate topic of conversation. They were a forgery. And they were -- and in the Middle East, still are -- used to incite hatred of all Jews everywhere. That is why they're anti-semitic -- because they exist for no other purpose than to propagate loathing of the Jewish people. To compare Walt and Mearsheimer's book to such documents is reprehensible. None suggest The Israel Lobby is a forgery. None but the insane suggest that these two eminent professors, who exist in a field packed with Jews and who have no record of anti-semitism, have written this book to incite hatred of the Jewish people. And that's what anti-semitism, even the variety represented by The Protocols, is: A hatred of Jews. Anti-semitic works exist to increase hatred of Jews. To group every non-complimentary discussion of Jewish power and influence under the term is to greatly misunderstand, and even cheapen, what made works like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion so deeply reprehensible.

October 5, 2007 | Permalink


In all my years of Jewdom, I've never ever heard of this strain of anti-semitism that supposedly claims most Jews are okay. How weird.

Ezra still makes the mistake of labeling M&W's book as "a non-complimentary discussion of Jewish power and influence." Some folks in the right-wing Israel Lobby are Jewish, of course, and some most certainly aren't. There's absolutely no reason that you have to be Jewish to promote extreme right-wing views regarding Israel policy - just look at George W. Bush - and indeed, in a sane world, being Jewish would presumably make you LESS likely to support crazy policies which increase the likelihood of violence towards Israel and the potential destruction of the Jewish state.

Posted by: Steve | Oct 5, 2007 9:14:36 AM

Steve does have something of a point. While some people are part of the AIPAC axis because they want to do something for Israel, many of them are in it to see their own middle eastern desires carried out.

Posted by: soullite | Oct 5, 2007 9:22:47 AM

Does he really think if a bunch of neo-Nazis were beating up some Jews, they'd stop and say, "Oh, wait, this one's not part of the inner circle, never mind." Either A) Chait is full of crap, or B) Anti-semites believe that all Jews are part of the "inner circle," in which case, see A.

Posted by: SP | Oct 5, 2007 9:23:43 AM

If, hypothetically, Ezra's girlfriend were to break up with him, would that make her an anti-semite? Apparently Chait thinks so!

Posted by: rea | Oct 5, 2007 9:33:43 AM

I actually sort of agree with Chait on the broader topic - the attempt to categorically shut down what qualifies as anti-Semitic to a core set of neo-Nazis would force us to miss the anti-Semitism of, say, Rudolf Bultmann's theological argument that the "self-righteous" Jews around the time of Paul were led into sin precisely by following hte Jewish law. Bultmann's main point was not that all Jews are evil, and he was writing primarily to support a certain form of Lutheran pietism and to advance scholarly knowledge of early Christianity. His writing was, nonetheless, anti-Semitic.

(This isn't an argument that M&W are - I haven't read the book, I won't speak to it.)

But, I note that Jonathan Chait was not nearly so open to this sort of broadly construed notion of racism when he defended Marty Peretz from charges of anti-Arab bigotry:

Fortunately, it happens that I don't think Marty's item was racist. This is a longer conversation, but I don't think there's anything racist about saying that most of the Muslim world is deeply illiberal. This was true of Europe 500 years ago (and at that time, of course, the Muslim world was far more tolerant than Europe.) I don't think it would be racist to say that Europe was intolerant and illiberal then, and I don't think it's racist to say the same about the Muslim world now, as long as you don't attribute that to inherent racial characteristics, which Marty's item doesn't do. Marty isn't saying a Muslim MLK would be killed because Muslims are inherently vicious, he's saying he'd be killed because Muslim countries are ruled by autocrats. This seems indisputably true.

Posted by: DivGuy | Oct 5, 2007 9:35:22 AM

This discussion is in serious need of the term "ad hominem." The existence of more subtle forms of anti-Semitism does not make accusing Walt and Mearsheimer of anti-Semitism any less of a diversion. And chiding you for not understanding how anti-Semitism works is merely an extension of that diversion. Insofar as accusing Walt and Mearsheimer of anti-Semitism is a way of avoiding confrontation of their actual arguments, it is ad hominem argument and thus should be rejected on that basis alone, and the truth of Susan Fein's observations doesn't make that any less so. Which I believe was your point.

There's a second point here, which is that the charges of anti-Semitism can take two different forms, which are substantively different and therefore have to be handled differently. It's important to ask, "Can this argument be made by people who are free of anti-Semitism?" In other words, are the accusations saying that the argument itself constitutes a proof of anti-Semitism or that the argument is of a type that would be useful to anti-Semites and therefore would likely be put forward by them? It is clearly ad hominem argument to point out that one's political opponent is a poor dresser, but you can get around that problem by claiming that "only" a bad dresser would put forward such a specious argument.

The same applies here. If the argument itself is anti-Semitism, then that suggests a ridiculously low threshold of what constitutes anti-Semitic argument. If, on the other hand, the accusers have evidence of anti-Semitism in the private lives of Walt and Mearsheimer, then they should produce it.

Posted by: Martin | Oct 5, 2007 9:45:43 AM

Great post.

Posted by: Northern Observer | Oct 5, 2007 10:01:51 AM

I'm not sure if antisemitism even requires Jews. The political right claims to loooove Jews. However, its caricature of the "liberal" invokes every damn antisemitic stereotype under the sun: physically weak, elite, cosmopolitan, verbal, loose sexual morals, you name it.

I'm not sure that antisemitism remains a useful concept in Western societies, or at least the US. A better term? Fascism.

Posted by: Joe S. | Oct 5, 2007 10:07:42 AM

Back when in Reagan's and Bush Sr's time the National Republican Heritage Groups Council had on its leadership actual, original, unreconstructed fascists (Hungarian Arrow Cross, Romanian Iron Guard) and at the time this was dismissed by a lot of the typical warmongers and anti-Arab hysterics (who think being "pro-Israel" consists of eternally backing war and occupation as unimportant) "antique and anemic forms of anti-Semitism" and that the "Real" and more dangerous anti-Semitism was of those who backed peace groups in Israel, etc., you know, a lot of Democrats.

Posted by: El_Cid | Oct 5, 2007 10:08:59 AM

Like all demographics...there's good folks and the not so`s.

I like to think of all my own gay demographic as sensitive, honest
and compassionate but we have the glaring evidence before us and
In this day, of ....that being totally Otherwise or 'Crap'.

So among the Jewish people I'd follow into hell would be the Feingolds or Salks & Sabins,
if they are or maybe even our Klein if he is - when he's completed his job on earth
And those I'd like to put there are Liebermans and Bibi and maybe even Feinstein
[maybe esp. Jabotinski] and it goes on.

Profiled lumping makes thinking and decisioning easier...that's why we do it.
But we're slow learners ...that's why are asses are so chewed up.

[Wonder if Machiavelli was a Jewish fella?]

Posted by: has_te | Oct 5, 2007 10:27:44 AM

Like all demographics...there's good folks and the not so`s.

I like to think of all my own gay demographic as sensitive, honest
and compassionate but we have the glaring evidence before us and
In this day, of ....that being totally Otherwise or 'Crap'.

So among the Jewish people I'd follow into hell would be the Feingolds or Salks & Sabins,
if they are or maybe even our Klein if he is - when he's completed his job on earth
And those I'd like to put there are Liebermans and Bibi and maybe even Feinstein
[maybe esp. Jabotinski] and it goes on.

Profiled lumping makes thinking and decisioning easier...that's why we do it.
But we're slow learners ...that's why are asses are so chewed up.

[Wonder if Machiavelli was a Jewish fella?]

Posted by: has_te | Oct 5, 2007 10:30:11 AM

To digress from Ezra's post and talk about Woody Allen and my own Jewish identity, I just want to talk about what Joe S. writes when he says that antisemitic stereotypes include: "physically weak, elite, cosmopolitan, verbal, loose sexual morals."

The minute that I read those words I think of Woody Allen in "Annie Hall." Like I said, I know this is a digression from Ezra's post, but it got me asking if Woody Allen in one of my favorite films is truly a self-hating Jew who is not only self-hating but perpetuating and promoting anti-semitism to the larger population. That seems like a pretty harsh accusation to make at the self-depricating nebbish little "every man" that is Woody Allen's character, Alvie Singer. But realizing that there's some truth to the stereotypes named by Joe S, I think it's something to think about when we think of comedians playing on the stereotypes of their own cultures. It's just that when it comes down to it, Annie Hall feels so accurate. Those are characteristics of Woody Allen. They are characteristics of liberals that I know in New York. And they are characteristics that I, a neurotic Jewish liberal in Boston struggle with. The fact that Allen plays with them at least feels cathartic.

What's interesting that Joe S. didn't point out is that the biggest Jewish stereo-types seem to me to be money grubbing and power hungry. And it those two stereo-types that I find particularly offensive.

Posted by: Andrew Slack | Oct 5, 2007 10:56:23 AM

Well I suppose the "loose sexual morals" stereotype is one that I don't think is accurate to most liberals like myself that I know. But as for "physically weak, elite, cosmopolitan, verbal..." well you should have seen me in English class versus gym.

Posted by: Andrew Slack | Oct 5, 2007 10:59:10 AM

anti-semitism is alive and well.
i have seen it in my family.
one son gave his yearbook to a fellow student to sign and it was returned with a giant swastika on the front page.
...another was told to face and pray to the nearby, towering cross before a football game...
...my daughter would watch students gather around the flagpole for "born-again" prayer sessions at her school, feeling very strange and left out.
...and there is always, the "you cant go to heaven" trip put on jewish children regularly, bringing little children home tearful.
...a very bright friend who argued with me that crystal night never happened.
...it happens time and time again.

Posted by: jacqueline | Oct 5, 2007 11:46:42 AM

In all my years of Jewdom, I've never ever heard of this strain of anti-semitism that supposedly claims most Jews are okay. How weird. - Steve

I've not heard this strain, but there are many strains of anti-Semitism along the lines of "you're ok ... I don't mind Jews like you -- it's those other Jews". Actually, that's pretty standard for any form of bigotry, ain't it? The thing with anti-Semitism is even some eliminationist anti-Semites have expressed this kind of thinking, AFAIK -- the mentality sometimes is "not all Jews are bad, but those that are bad are so bad, we need to kill/expell them all just to be safe".

I'll second Joe S.'s point -- so then why do certain Jews embrace a political movement that still keeps anti-Semitic tropes alive even if they've renamed "Jews" "liberals"? What is the psychology behind that?

Similarly, the thing about comparisons of W&M's work to the Protocols is that those who often make that comparison also are the types that say "well, if those goyim think that we behave as described in that forgery, we might as well behave that way" ... who was it that linked to Kinsley's brilliant piece in Slate about this?

And speaking of Woody Allen's stereotype of a Jew ... are we Jews that anhedonic that we can't enjoy a happy Simchas Torah without talking about anti-Semitism?

Come-on! Let's celebrate! Happy Simchas Torah everyone!

Posted by: DAS | Oct 5, 2007 12:11:12 PM

What Chait writes is of course nonsense, he just make it up as he goes along to defend a TNR fellow.
But Klein is off the mark too. Antisemitism at least in the european and north american context is not just a garden variety racism. It was and is a right wing strategy to combat its political foes.

Lets look at your and Chaits example, the protocols. Was it really necessary to propagate hate against the Jews in Russia in 1905? Obviously not. Church and peasants did this well enough already. But it was necessary to discredit the left, who endangered the czarist throne.

So fake a document about the zionist world congress, turn social revolution into a jewish conspiracy and perhaps some of the (semi)educated classes could be kept apart from the left and on the side of the czar.

To use a modern example: Antisemitism is rife among the polnish right, including parts of the governmment. Do you really believe they are bothered about the 15,000 or so polnish jews?
No. It is mainly a way to fight the left and center parties in poland.
What political antisemitism is, is all in all well known: Please don't simplify it down for (american) domestic consumption.

Posted by: IM | Oct 5, 2007 12:14:55 PM

I think the 'defining down' of Anti-semitism, as Chait does, is necessary for the odd alliance rightwing Jews have made with right wing evangelical Christians. Obviously, the latter group's views of Jews are conflicted - on the one hand, consigning them to hell after they die - a sort of eternal Auschwitz - but on the other hand, supporting the state of Israel as a sort of lure for the anti-christ - after all, destroying Israel is a necessary part of the plan in Revelations, so Israel has to be preserved in order to be destroyed.

The only way a Jew could work with such people is to block out of his or her mind the general outlines of their belief. And, sooner or later, that blocking out process will lead to a strange distortion in what anti-semitism traditionally is and how it traditionally has worked. Chait must think that the Czar's pogroms were police snares gone wrong, as the pogromists were just looking for the elders of Zion among the people of the shtetl, and got all excited. In other words - Chait has a deeply sick view of contemporary history. But, after all, he does have to work under Marty Peretz.

Posted by: roger | Oct 5, 2007 12:15:03 PM

Well said DAS!

Posted by: Andrew Slack | Oct 5, 2007 12:15:15 PM

"None but the insane suggest that these two eminent professors, who exist in a field packed with Jews and who have no record of anti-semitism, have written this book to incite hatred of the Jewish people."

Note that "to incite hatred of the Jewish people" is straw - the work could be anti-Semitic without any such conscious intent. And the argument only has force from assessing W/M's self-interest and thus fails if the text isn't blatant. It probably fails on the simple comparison to the statement, "Eminent professor Herrnstein could not have written _The Bell Curve_ to incite hatred of blacks."

And "insane" here is a tell.

But ok, I think it's very unlikely that W/M are anti-Semites. Still, I wish I knew why e.g. they argue that the Democratic congresspeople and anonymous emailers who expressed concern about a comment by Howard Dean on the I/P conflict should have realized that his wife and kids are Jewish or why they put a one-sided idealist argument on Israel's relations with the Palestinians in a realist book.

Posted by: rilkefan | Oct 5, 2007 12:20:43 PM

Now how about that substantive discussion of the counter-arguments to the text putting accusations of anti-Semitism to the side?

Posted by: rilkefan | Oct 5, 2007 12:23:36 PM

And this Goldberg fellow has made exactly what counter-argument?

Posted by: IM | Oct 5, 2007 12:31:54 PM

Actually, the Bell curve is an excellent example of what EK is talking about. It makes generalizations about all blacks, and roots them in nature - the classic pattern of racism. In the articles I've read, W/M's generalizations are confined to those organizations, like AIPAC, that support Israel - the Israel lobby. To criticize the NAACP or the Black Congressional Caucus is, to carry the inference out, different in kind from the Bell Curve.

Now, a sub-issue would be in the reception of W/M's work. I could well imagine that anti-semites might quote and use its arguments. The problem is, we know that anti-semites - people like the president of the Southern Baptist Convention who said that God doesn't hear the prayers of Jews - might also be very supportive of Israel, for their own reasons - after all, Eichman, who wanted to ship the Jews to Madagascar, called himself a Zionist. You might say he was mistaken - I would agree - but that doesn't really matter, since the question is about the way anti-semites latch onto the world. And it seems to me that Chait is simply wrong in thinking they latch onto the world with this tolerant view of Jews, except for their 'elders'. This seems especially tailored just to include critics of AIPAC - in other words, it is a bogus category.

Posted by: roger | Oct 5, 2007 1:07:54 PM

It's clear the Nazis at least saw Jewishness as a contagion of sorts---some horrible rot that could be inherited (you were born a Jew), not renounced (converts were still considered Jewish), and sexually transmitted (gentile women who had sex with Jewish men were also sent to the camps to be executed). Most anti-Semitic material from European history indicates that it was that sort of contamination fear that tends to come along with a lot of racism. I don't think your workaday anti-Semite is remarkably different from any other kind of racist.

Where anti-semitism differs, I think, is the sheer amount of justification for the baseline racism. It's not that other racists don't have their stories---American racism towards black people has gone from "too stupid not to be slaves" to "trying to rape our pure white women" to, well, actually "too stupid and criminal not to be an underclass", which is the favorite storyline now. But anti-semitism is a cut above the rest in the paranoid story-telling---the Protocols and the blood libel being the classic examples.

Posted by: Amanda Marcotte | Oct 5, 2007 1:11:48 PM

What Martin said. Now we are having an even more complex, sophisticated discussion of the meaning of anti-Semitism, and whoops! We STILL aren't talking about the actual arguments made by Walt and Mearsheimer! Nicely played, Chait!
Adding, I am a Jew and my dad, who seems to be in the "Walt and Mearsheimer and anti-Semites" camp, accuses the "liberal intellegentsia" of being "anti-Israel" - totally missing the irony of using what he seems not to realize is a veiled anti-Jewish smear against an ill-defined group of people that might well include lots of Jews.

Posted by: bobbo | Oct 5, 2007 1:21:01 PM

It seems to me that the Chait side of this debate is leaning *very* heavily on the Marxist idea of something being "objectively" anti-semetic; whatever their motives, their thesis does objective harm to the standing of the Jewish people in the minds of all who read it.

The thing is, I don't think that's even true. I've come out of this argument so far feeling more or less indifferent towards W&M, very unsympathetic towards AIPAC, and highly sympathetic towards non-AIPAC Jews (like myself). So, to the extent that I qualify as a data point, W&M aren't even "objectively" anti-semetic.

Posted by: Daniel Munz | Oct 5, 2007 1:21:14 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.