A blurb on a book jacket would seem an unlikely vehicle for the introduction of a new and sinister tactic in the promotion of an ancient prejudice. But in September 2011, a word of appreciation on the cover of The Wandering Who launched a fresh chapter in the modern history of anti-Semitism. And when the dust had settled—what little dust there was—on the events surrounding the blurb, it had become horrifyingly clear that the role of defining the meaning of the term anti-Semitism did not belong to the Jews. It may, in fact, belong to anti-Semites.
The flattering quotation came from John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago professor and co-author, with Harvard's Stephen Walt, of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Mearsheimer's 2007 bestseller, which contends that Israel's American supporters are powerful enough to subvert the U.S. national interest, has been controversial for its adoption of anti-Semitic tropes—tropes Mearsheimer danced around cleverly. But in endorsing The Wandering Who and its Israeli-born author, Gilad Atzmon, Mearsheimer crossed the boundary.
The man whose book Mearsheimer called "fascinating and provocative," a work that "should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike," is an anti-Semite, pure and simple. A saxophone player by trade, Atzmon was born and raised in Israel but subsequently moved to London. He proclaims himself either an "ex-Jew" or a "proud self-hating Jew" and was quoted approvingly by Turkey's Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the Davos conference in 2009: Denouncing Israel in vociferous terms before a horrified Shimon Peres, Erdogan quoted Atzmon as saying, "Israeli barbarity is far beyond even ordinary cruelty."
Atzmon fixates upon the irredeemably tribal and racist identity he calls "Jewishness." The anti-Gentile separatism that compels Jews to amass greater power and influence is manifested, he preaches, in any context where Jews come together as a group. The Wandering Who finds Atzmon on territory well-trodden by anti-Semites past and present: Holocaust revisionism (one chapter is entitled "Swindler's List"), the rehabilitation of Hitler (he argues that Israel's behavior makes all the more tempting the conclusion that the Führer was right about the Jews), the separation of Jesus from Judaism (Christ was the original proud, self-hating Jew, whose example Spinoza, Marx, and now, Atzmon himself, have followed).
One would think this was categorically indefensible stuff. Yet, when the blogger Adam Holland e-mailed Mearsheimer to ask whether he was aware of Atzmon's flirtation with Holocaust denial, as well as his recital of telltale anti-Semitic provocations, Mearsheimer stood by his endorsement of the book. Holland duly published Mearsheimer's response: "The blurb below is the one I wrote for The Wandering Who and I have no reason to amend it or embellish it, as it accurately reflects my view of the book." A number of prominent commentators—among them Jeffrey Goldberg, Walter Russell Mead, and even Andrew Sullivan, up to that point a dependable supporter of Mearsheimer—rushed to confront and condemn the professor. But Mearsheimer maintained in various blog posts that Atzmon was no anti-Semite and those who said otherwise were guilty of vicious smear jobs. He wrote on the Foreign Policy magazine blog of his co-author, Stephen Walt: "[Jeffrey Goldberg's] insinuation that I have any sympathy for Holocaust denial and am an anti-Semite . . . is just another attempt in his longstanding effort to smear Steve Walt and me."
And that was that. No affaire Mearsheimer unfolded.
The fact that a controversy did not erupt, that the endorsement of a Holocaust revisionist by a prominent professor at a major university did not lead to calls for his dismissal or resignation or even a chin-pulling symposium in the pages of the New York Times's "Sunday Review," represents an important shift in the privileges that anti-Semites and their sympathizers enjoy. Now, it appears, anti-Semites are being given additional power to define anti-Semitism by stating that it is something other than what they themselves represent—before rising in moral outrage to denounce anyone who might say different. Their views are not offensive, not anti-Semitic; no, it is the opinions of those who object to their views that should be considered beyond the pale.
This is more than a change in the dynamics of anti-Semitism; it is an inversion of the accepted logic of minorities and bigots altogether. Unlike blacks, Muslims, Hispanics, or any other religious or ethnic group, Jews alone are now to be told by their enemies who does and who does not hate them.
The list of flagrant Jew-baiters is growing; those with Jewish names provide an additional frisson. In America, M.J. Rosenberg—a one-time employee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)and now called a "foreign policy fellow" at the leftist organization Media Matters—refers to supporters of Israel as "Israel Firsters," recycling the notion that Jewish political loyalties gravitate toward other Jews first and last. There is Max Blumenthal, whose enraged salvos against Jewish chauvinism earned him a flattering profile on the Iranian regime-financed Press TV, the most repulsive of all the English-language satellite broadcasters currently on the market. There is Philip Weiss, a blogger whose bitterly personal reflections on Jewish influence were, until quite recently, underwritten by the Nation magazine's Nation Institute ("I felt that the form demanded transparency about what I cared about, Jewish identity," Weiss wrote about his blog in the American Conservative.) What Weiss means by "Jewish identity" was laid bare in a 2007 posting on his Mondoweiss blog, concerning journalist Seymour Hersh's contention that "Jewish money" was driving a new war fervor against Iran. Crowed Weiss: "This is a beautiful moment, too. Hersh is a progressive Jew. Now he is turning on other Jews. 'New York Jewish money,' he says. The soul-searching that I have called for within the Jewish community has begun!!!!"
To understand why such blatant expressions of anti-Semitism are no longer a cause for moral opprobrium, we have to examine the sociology that determines that Jews, in contrast to nearly every other minority group, sit squarely on the wrong side of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic and thereby make any Jewish complaints about bigotry inherently suspect.
The origin of this warped thinking lies in the left's commitment to anticolonialism following the Second World War.* Frustrated by Marxist orthodoxies about class, and contemptuous of such bourgeois frivolities as individual rights, writers Frantz Fanon, Regis Debray, and others laid the foundations for a new politics based on identity. Native populations would never see the world clearly until they were liberated from the neuroses imposed on them by their white, Western colonizers. Through the revolutionary process, the colonized would become the masters of their countries, their cultures, and—above all—their discourse.
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