Anti-Semites Under the Bed
By Andrew Wirth
Michael Leunig, Jake Lynch and Chuck Hagel have recently been accused of anti-Semitism because of their critical views or actions in relation to Middle-East politics. “Of course” criticism of Israel need have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. However, when criticism appears to be grounded in anti-Semitism it understandably causes anger, and the desire to respond. Some Israel defenders believe that publicly identifying someone as an anti-Semite is sufficient to discredit them and their political views. But increasingly this appears to be ineffective or even counter-productive in the “war of ideas”, even if the accusation appears well founded (indeed even if it is true).
By focusing on alleged anti-Semitism, rather than specific anti-Israel statements, one can be accused of avoiding the substantive issues. It may even give the impression that the issues cannot be successfully argued on their merits, hence the choice to “play the man.”
An allegation of anti-Semitism can simply be denied, as Michael Leunig did with wounded self-righteousness (and the hint of possible litigation). The allegation can be portrayed as an attempt to shut down debate, which feeds into the often-expressed view that Jews use personal attack and media manipulation to discredit reasonable criticism of Israeli policy. Worse, apparent victimization may create sympathy for the alleged anti-Semite, and a more sympathetic hearing for his views.
It is hard to establish an allegation of anti-Semitism beyond reasonable doubt, and the effort can consume intellectual and emotional energy and precious column inches. Motivation for anti-Israel comment may be ill defined, and even unrecognized by the commenter. Unless “the accused” is a paid up member of a neo-Nazi group, or has been quoted saying that he/she hates Jews, the accusation of anti-Semitism is ultimately a judgement call. In recent instances, citing offensive use of holocaust imagery (Leunig), unsavory connections with alleged anti-Semites (Lynch) and edgy allusions to Jewish political power (Hagel) all raise troubling questions, but may not convince the general reader of anti-Semitic intent, as opposed to a passionately critical view of Israel.
Finally, even if an allegation of anti-Semitism can be established beyond reasonable doubt, it doesn’t automatically invalidate the anti-Israel critique/act in question, which ultimately stands or falls on its merits. At the end of the day, the offending comments on Israel will remain in the public domain awaiting a response.
There may be satisfaction in outing anti-Semitic bad guys. There is also an inherent value in simply speaking the truth. However, Israel critics have become very adept at trumping the anti-Semitism card with the free-speech card (see here, here, here and here). Such is the reluctance in some circles to acknowledge anti-Semitism that after acts of terror targeting children at a Jewish School in Toulouse, Tarik Ramadan can write “He … killed Jews, Christians and Muslims without distinction… (not) driven by … anti-Semitism.” And Haaretz can editorialize against overreacting to the Toulouse killer because his hatred of Jews was … “mingled with a violent revolt against the West in general.” Apparently diluted anti-Semitism doesn’t count!
Putting such egregious cases of “political correctness” to one side, there is a real need for Jews engaging the media to carefully evaluate the efficacy of their communication. Perhaps this was an aspect of Harold Zwier’s recent opinion piece, although unfortunately by characterizing the Jewish community as “weighed down by its collective memory …(rather than)… informed by it”, Harold diminishes the community’s capacity to respond to distorted views of Israel, and even genuine anti-Semitism. The left, academia, some media and likely now the broader community have become sensitized, and perhaps allergic, to cries of anti-Semitism. Even hinting at anti-Semitism is now taboo according to Paul McGeogh, who says: “…recently, a new arrow has been added … to head off unwelcome debate on Washington’s Israel policy – an allegation of ‘borderline anti-Semitism’… It’s a nice smear, isn’t it – not alleging an explicit offence but, what the heck, here’s a guilty verdict that sounds like anti-Semitism.” In light of this situation, a deft hand and a bit of sophistication may be far more effective in public debate than ponderous rebuke- in this spirit, the response to Leunig by Nick Dyrenfurth should serve as a compulsory study-text for Jewish communal advocates.