Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
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The Big Lie Returns: Antisemites and Antisemitism

The forthcoming edition of Commentary magazine carries an essay I've written on the recent contortions of contemporary antisemitism. The trigger was an episode that HP readers are certainly familiar with, and one that, by rights, should have resulted in a major scandal.

Yet it didn't.

I'm referring, of course, to Chicago University professor John Mearsheimer's endorsement of the latest book by the imbecilic Jew-hater, Gilad Atzmon. And I argue that the general indifference to Mearsheimer's decision underlines a disturbing reality: that Jews don't own the definition of the word "antisemitism". In truth, they never have.

"Anti-Semitism's newfound respectability is not unprecedented. Indeed, the fact that anti-Semites have been given power over the definition of anti-Semitism reflects the very origins of the term. Coined in late 19-century Germany, anti-Semitism was not intended as a descriptor for a troubling social trend—like racism, or the more recent Islamophobia—but as the positive organizing principle of an emancipatory political movement.

While the Jews and their allies regard anti-Semites as propelled by hatred, anti-Semites regard themselves as a fraternity bound by a message of universalist love. "This book is above all a book for friends, a book that is written for those who love us," wrote Edouard Drumont, one of the founders of France's Ligue Antisemitique, and an especially shrill voice behind the false allegations of treason against Alfred Dreyfus, in his Le Testament d'un Antisemite. Atzmon expresses himself with similar pretensions: "When you talk about humanity, you talk about a universal system of values promoting love for one another." Rather than being anti-moral, the moral sensibility of anti-Semitism resides in its presentation of the Jews (or "Jewishness" or "Judaism") as the barrier to a society founded upon love. What seems at first glance to be a material battle is really a spiritual one.

With this understanding, we can better appreciate a rare modification in the nature of anti-Semitism in our own time. I say rare, because, as a framework for interpreting the world, anti-Semitism resists innovation. Charles Maurras, another French anti-Semite, took great delight in hawking a worldview that "enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over, and simplified."

The modification rests upon a distinction between what I call bierkeller and bistro anti-Semitism. Bierkeller anti-Semitism—named for the beer halls frequented by the German Nazis—employs such means as violence, verbal abuse, commercial harassment, and advocacy of anti-Jewish legal measures. Certainly, the first and second generations of modern anti-Semitic publicists and intellectuals had no qualms about this sort of thuggery. Since the Second World War, though, this mode of anti-Semitism has waned sharply, along with the tendency to use the word anti-Semite as a positive means of political identification.

Bistro anti-Semitism, on the other hand, sits in a higher and outwardly more civilized realm, providing what left-wing activists would call a "safe space" to critically assess the global impact of Jewish cabals from Washington, D.C., to Jerusalem. Anyone who enters the bistro will encounter common themes. These include the depiction of Palestinians as the victims of a second Holocaust, the breaking of the silence supposedly imposed upon honest discussions of Jewish political and economic power, and the contention—offered by, among others, Mearsheimer's co-author, Stephen Walt, of Harvard—that American Jewish government officials are more suspect than others because of a potential second loyalty to Israel.

I then engage in a little thought experiment:

Imagine, for a moment, that the Soviet Union was still in existence, still forbidding its Jews to emigrate, still barring them from sensitive jobs and higher education opportunities. Imagine, too, that the Soviets were still pumping out the propaganda of pamphleteers like Trofim Kichko—a clear precursor to Atzmon—who wrote, in Judaism and Zionism, of the connection between the Torah, the "morality of Judaism," and Israeli "aggression." Would a Jewish advocate, standing before a learned liberal audience, be able to categorize these as instances of anti-Semitism with the same ease that a Muslim civil-rights advocate could expect in an equivalent circumstance?

No, of course not. Actually, were he still alive, it would be entirely plausible that Kichko would be on a speaking tour of North American and European campuses. An army of professors, commentators, and student activists would line up to shield this progressive intellectual from the smear of anti-Semitism—aided, no doubt, by those self-consciously Jewish leftists whom Kichko reviled, just as Gilad Atzmon does.

My aim in writing this piece is to reclaim the antisemitism debate on the terms of those who still suffer from this ancient prejudice, together with that broader public who still understand the profound danger that antisemitism – whether open or clumsily disguised – represents. I end by saying:

As long as the adversaries and enemies of the Jews control the meaning of the term anti-Semitism, Jews will remain vulnerable to that most sacred of anti-Semitic calumnies: that they alone are the authors of their own misfortune.

All comments and reactions most welcome. You can read the essay in full here.

By Ben Cohen  |  Tue, January 24, 2012 9:13 AM  |  Permalink

Rock The Casbah

Something a little different to my usual output: a review of legendary outfit Big Audio Dynamite's reunion gig in New York City. Even here, though, the politics of the Middle East intrudes. Here's an excerpt:

For a short time, it seemed like this gig was going to be all about identity and politics and identity politics. Next up was "Beyond the Pale," another deeply personal composition in the tradition of earlier Jones tracks like "Stay Free" and "I'm Not Down," in which he sings about his Russo-Jewish roots. "I'm half Welsh and half Russian," he explained, by way of an introduction.

Then came a brief interlude when the focus shifted to Libya. Jones told us that he'd done a radio interview earlier in the day. The presenter had asked him why he was supporting Gadhafi. This was, he continued, a shocking accusation that was completely unfounded. To prove his pro-rebel credentials, he dedicated the next number to Omar al Mukhtar, a teacher of the Qu'ran who became the leader of the Libyan resistance to Italian colonization in the early twentieth century. Al Mukhtar, canonized as as the "Lion of the Desert," had a grandson who was presently, Jones reported, fighting with Libyan rebel forces. Only then did BAD launch into "A Party," a song originally written as an indictment of South African apartheid.

I was, I must confess, a little bemused at this point. In part, because al Mukhtar's legacy has been embraced by both Gadhafi and various Islamist currents but not, so far as I know, by purveyors of groove. In the main, because I couldn't believe that I was contemplating such issues at a BAD gig. While Jones was never a vacuous celebrity type, he was also the one member of The Clash who despised the posturing of ultraleft groups like the Socialist Workers Party and never apologized for his rock star ambitions. Jones, don't forget, was the man whose petulant love song, "I'm So Bored With YOU," was hacked by Joe Strummer into the anti-American chant, "I'm So Bored With The YOU-S-A." And yet, here he was, delivering a political lecture of such complexity that the audience missed their applause cue.

In the event, I'm glad to say that BAD's performance didn't descend into a series of isolated songs punctuated by political speeches. Jones has a charm that does not sit well with evangelism, and he knows it. A sleek figure who glides around the stage dressed in a gleaming white shirt and nattily-cut suit, he is first and last a musician, and a brilliant one.

If that tickles, go here to read the rest.

By Ben Cohen  |  Thu, April 21, 2011 10:46 AM  |  Permalink

The Palestinian Authority's Strategy of Self-Defeat

Today's United States veto of the Arab -sponsored resolution at the UN Security Council has left no-one happy.

Israel's detractors point, with a modicum of glee, to an Obama Administration full of multilateralist pretensions, yet woefully isolated in this vote, which won the support of the remaining 14 members on the SC. That, they say, is a direct result of the overpowering influence which Israel and its lobby has over U.S. foreign policy.

Israel's supporters are angry that this issue even got to the UN. After all, this is a body in which all states are formally equal, yet Israel finds itself less equal to everyone else, thanks to the wildly disproportionate attention which the various UN bodies pay to its supposed offenses, as well as the battery of agencies dedicated to everything from Palestinian refugees to Palestinian rights.

It is true that the U.S. enabled today's spectacle by seeking a compromise solution, whereby the Security Council would issue a non-binding presidential statement condemning the settlements. However, the Palestinians, who are unrivaled when it comes to playing the victim, said they were being short-changed. They pressed ahead with a resolution that, if not for the U.S. veto, would have been passed.

A moral victory for the PA, then? Perhaps, but so what. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in which I quoted Francois de Callieres, an emissary of France's King Louis XVI, who made this pithy observation about powers great and small in one of the foundational texts of modern diplomacy, "On the Manner of Dealing with Princes:"

The blunder of the smallest of sovereigns may indeed cast an apple of discord among all the greatest powers, because there is no state so great which does not find it useful to have relations with the lesser states.

I went on to say:

As a remedy, de Callieres insisted that negotiations must be continuous, so that, at the end of a process that is likely to be complex and tortuous, all parties understand that it is in their respective interests to compromise. However, when it comes to the U.S.-led effort to bring peace to the Middle East, de Callieres's insights, long embedded into the norms of modern diplomacy, are being displaced by that "smallest of sovereigns," the Palestinian Authority.

Rather than engage in negotiations which will reinforce the need for compromise, the PA has embarked on a strategy that, in the language of de Callieres, places its "passions" over its "interests." Moreover, the PA is getting away with it, because it has become adept, in its relations with powers great and small, at trading its supposed powerlessness as a form of power.

My point is that while the prestige of U.S. diplomacy has been badly bruised today, the Palestinian strategy is ultimately self-defeating. Neither pushing resolutions at the Security Council, nor winning recognition of statehood from assorted Latin American countries, will deliver a real, functional Palestinian state. Only direct talks with the Israelis can achieve that.

By scorning the talks, the Palestinians are also scorning their sponsor: the Obama Administration. Yes, as de Callieres tells us, big powers value their relations with small entities. At the same time, small entities who abuse those relations take a perilous risk.

Whatever differences Obama may have with Israel, this snub from the PA is not one he will easily forget. Remember, this is a man who, last September, stood at the podium of the UN General Assembly and pledged to do all he could to bring about a Palestinian state by the same time the following year. That pledge now looks increasingly forlorn, thanks in the main to the PA's antics.

As well as alienating the U.S., the PA has no guarantee of continued regional support. Those Arab states which lined up to push the resolution are under tremendous internal pressure, so much so that it is positively bizarre that, today of all days, the Security Council should devote its energies to the Palestinians. Further unrest and repression in the Arab world, as well as the spectre of an Islamist triumph in Egypt, could actually damage the fortunes of the PA.

Rejection, isolation, the overwhelming sense of being on the wrong side of history: all the fates that the PA warns lie in store for Israel await the PA too. If the PA leadership is serious about creating the political conditions for statehood within the framework of a final agreement with Israel - and that if seems ever more pertinent to the conversation - it needs to stop the grandstanding.

By  |  Fri, February 18, 2011 6:09 PM  |  Permalink

Lies of the Angry Arab

I normally don't respond to my critics because if I did, I'd scarcely have the time to do anything else. But, as I'll explain, I have to make an exception in the case of As'ad Abu Khalil, a Political Science Professor at California State University and the author of a rather sordid little blog called the Angry Arab News Service.

Abu Khalil, seen here in a picture which may serve as a warning about the misuse of hair restoration products, berates me for my latest piece – published here in The Propagandist and on The Huffington Post - about Al Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper with a Strasserite editorial line: anti-American, anti-capitalist and viciously antisemitic.

Abu Khalil, whom I have never met and never corresponded with, wants his readers to believe that I have no knowledge of Marx's oeuvre (dude, don't get into that with me – I really do.) And he's also spitting rage that a "Zionist hoodlum" like me – don't you just love that deliciously retro, Soviet term of abuse? – should criticize an Arab newspaper when I don't read Arabic.

It's that last point which has triggered my decision to respond. Abu Khalil is right. I don't read Arabic and I'd like to explain why. In 1941, my father's family was ethnically cleansed from Iraq in the wake of the farhud, a pogrom against Baghdad's Jewish community instigated by similarly "angry Arabs," allied with the Nazis and spurred on by the notorious Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, which resulted in hundreds of deaths and injuries and destroyed homes. Had it not been for that event – painstakingly documented in Edwin Black's superb book on the subject – my mother tongue would have been Arabic.

Hence my desire to set the record straight. And now I'll move on.

By  |  Fri, December 31, 2010 6:53 PM  |  Permalink

Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions and the New Israel Fund

This one has been doing the email rounds rather feverishly today, and now Jeff Goldberg has run with it:

Well, this is certainly disconcerting: The New Israel Fund, a left-leaning organization I admire (it funds all sorts of civil liberties groups in Israel), states that, on the one hand, the anti-Israel boycott movement (the BDS movement, for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) is pursuing a counterproductive and inflammatory strategy, but on the other, it will continue to fund groups that support BDS, so long as they don't support BDS too much. Here are the weasel words, so you can judge NIF's position for yourself:

NIF supports an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories as a central tenet of the strategic framework in which we operate. The tactics known as 'boycott, divestment and sanctions' (BDS) are designed to pressure Israel to end the occupation, but NIF believes these tactics to be unproductive, inflammatory and ineffective because of the difficulties in defining an approach that is not overly broad, does not delegitimize Israel and will achieve the long-term goal.

Although we will continue to communicate publicly and privately to our allies and grantees that NIF does not support BDS as a strategy or tactic, we will not reduce or eliminate our funding for grantees that differ with us on a tactical matter. NIF will not fund BDS activities nor support organizations for which BDS is a substantial element of their activities, but will support organizations that conform to our grant requirements if their support for BDS is incidental or subsidiary to their significant programs.

The way I read this, the NIF does not support the attempt by anti-Israel activists to turn the world's only Jewish country into a pariah state, and Jews into a target — once again — of a broad-based economic boycott. Except when it does, a little. It would seem that if the New Israel Fund believes BDS to be immoral, then it would defund grantees that support BDS, even incidentally. This is one of those bright-line issues, and if NIF wants to get on the wrong side of that line, it should not call itself a pro-Israel organization.

Jeff is absolutely right to say that supporting BDS under any circumstances is incompatible with defining oneself as pro-Israel. After all, can you imagine a foundation dedicated to civil rights supporting grantees whose advocacy of separate lunch counters was deemed "incidental?"

There is, however, a more fundamental point concerning NIF's characterization of BDS as a "tactical matter," the aim of which is to secure an end to the "occupation" - a term which NIF understands as referring to those territories under Israeli control since the 1967 war. In fact, the polar opposite is true. BDS is the tangible expression of an ideology which holds that Israel itself has no moral or legal foundation. And this is something understood on left and right. J Street, commendably, sums it up rather well:

J Street strongly opposes views and positions such as those captured at the Palestinian BDS National Committee's website,, because, among other reasons, they fail explicitly to recognize Israel's right to exist and they ignore or reject Israel's role as a national home for the Jewish people. In addition, the promotion by some in the BDS Movement of the 'return' to Israel of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their families indicates support for an outcome incompatible with our vision of Israel and incompatible with a two-state solution to the conflict.

For the BDS movement, the original sin crystallized in 1948, not 1967. Those who push for BDS are advocating the same eliminationist strategy embodied in the Arab League's 1945 declaration of a boycott of "Jewish" and "Zionist" goods.

Whether waged by states or by NGOs, BDS is a form of economic warfare which has, so far, been as spectacular a failure as the parallel attempts by Arab armies to defeat Israel on the battlefield. That doesn't, however, make it any more acceptable for an entity called the New Israel Fund to provide support to those who believe Israel shouldn't be there in the first place.

By  |  Wed, November 17, 2010 2:51 PM  |  Permalink

Goldstone, Goldstone, Wherefore Are Thou, Goldstone?

I'm asking because, in his report to the scrupulously neutral and balanced UN Human Rights Council in September 2009, Judge Richard Goldstone and his fellow commissioners said: "Statements by Israeli political and military leaders prior to and during the military operations in Gaza indicate that the Israeli military conception of what was necessary in a war with Hamas viewed disproportionate destruction and creating the maximum disruption in the lives of many people as a legitimate means to achieve not only military but also political goals."

They also famously said: "While the Israeli Government has sought to portray its operations as essentially a response to rocket attacks in the exercise of its right to self-defence, the Mission considers the plan to have been directed, at least in part, at a different target: the people of Gaza as a whole."

Last week, Fathi Hamad of Hamas came out and admitted that 600-700 of those killed in a war whose casualties have been estimated in the 1,100 -1,400 range were Hamas fighters. Quite a revision upwards from the original Hamas figure of 49. And who knows? Perhaps it'll be revised upwards again.

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, now says the world owes Israel an apology for what is, in effect, a modern day blood libel. If I were him, I wouldn't hold my breath.

By  |  Tue, November 9, 2010 1:10 PM  |  Permalink

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