Loving Us Too Much
A polemical book can be one of quality. A strongly argued text can be solidly grounded in reliable evidence. So I wonder whether Will Skidelsky, chairman of the judging panel for the 2009 Jewish Quarterly Wingate literary prize, thought he had such a book in his hands when he described one of the six contenders, Dennis MacShane’s Globalizing Hatred: The New Antisemitism, as an ‘impassioned polemic about the resurgence of anti-Semitism as a global force’? MacShane, a Labour Member of Parliament and a former junior minister, is a talented populariser of political issues.
A similar description could be applied to a new book by experienced think-tanker Robin Shepherd, who used to run the European programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and is now Director of International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society. His work, A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel, also strongly argued, seeks to explain why Israel is accorded disproportionate attention by Europe’s opinion formers.
That these authors have turned their attention to the question of anti-Semitism and Israel might well give comfort to concerned Jews looking for moderate and reasonable non-Jewish allies in their attempt to deal with what is a real and serious problem, but to do so in an intelligent and balanced way. The very titles of their books make it clear where the authors stand on anti-Semitism and Israel. The New Antisemitism in MacShane’s title is shorthand for severe criticism of Israel which is deemed to go beyond what is reasonable and demonises the Jewish state, the ‘collective Jew’. Shepherd’s title needs no explanation. And it is no coincidence that both books are published by Lord Weidenfeld who has been actively promoting these themes in recent years.
But both books give rise to larger questions: Do some well-meaning people just love us too much? And are these books representative of a pattern of argument which might almost constitute a unique genre?
Consider these statements by MacShane: ‘[Israel is] the one state in the world where anti-Semitism by definition cannot exist’; ‘Jews in the end are Semites and when in the Middle East they look like other Semites’(a statement so absurd it is difficult to keep a straight face when reading it); ‘Jews in many settled democratic countries have to live with a degree of fear that no other religion, community or birth-defined group has to face’. If the first two statements appeared in an undergraduate essay, a tutor would simply strike them out as nonsensical and untrue. The third may be defended by the author as being his opinion, but we are surely meant to assume that it is incontrovertible fact. And yet it is breathtakingly hyperbolic, a feature of so many of the judgements MacShane makes in his book.
Shepherd is rather more careful when it comes to errors of fact, though he makes some. ‘Israel has a right to exist for Israeli people’; ‘[T]he dispersal of the Jewish people [after the destruction of the Temple], [was] itself a product of anti-Semitism’. But he is equally ready to make sweeping statements as if they were self-evident truths. For example, ‘it is an existential necessity for Israel to use military power to achieve political aims’.
The problem with this genre is that what’s being argued is presented as so obviously right, nothing further need be said by way of supporting evidence. But this is no surprise, since it’s clear from these books that anyone who disagrees tends to be branded in advance as an anti-Zionist, anti-Semitism-denying, left- or hard-left, Islam-appeasing ideologue — and if Jewish, probably also wracked with Jewish self-hate. Why spend time supporting your arguments with evidence when these are the kind of people who disagree with you?
From their opening pages these authors make it clear that they are not conducting a discussion about differing views and reaching conclusions as to which view is correct as they go along. Shepherd writes: ‘It would be disingenuous at this stage to say that the purpose of this book is to adjudicate between . . . competing narratives. I am quite openly motivated by a belief that there is something profoundly troubling about the way Israel is treated these days.’ MacShane is, perhaps, even more blunt: ‘I have written a book that I hope is polemical, partisan and political.’
What seems much more important to these authors than deploying convincing evidence to back their arguments is to close off avenues of debate and discussion. For example, Shepherd writes: ‘It is a great mistake, and an all too common one, to address the question of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians through the human rights paradigm. The situation can only be correctly understood through the paradigm of security and ant-terrorism policy.’ This is because ‘Palestinian suffering is primarily the consequence of Palestinian violence.’ In other words, the Palestinians brought the suffering upon themselves and therefore forfeit protection under human rights law, giving a free hand to Israel to treat them in whichever way it wishes. End of story.
If the Palestinian argument gets short shrift, so too does the point of view of left-liberal Jewish critics of Israel. Instead of dealing with the arguments such Jews make, Shepherd seeks to rubbish their Jewishness. He confidently claims that Jews will disappear unless they choose either religion or ‘deep and enduring affiliation with Israel’. So the ‘route to a sustainable Jewish identity via a deep seated identity with Israel’ is blocked to secular, anti-Zionist Jews. ‘The secular anti-Zionist Jew is a self-negating Jew because he or she lacks the ability to project a meaningful identity into the future.’
Oblivious to the dramatic revival of Jewish life in Europe, which in great part is due to secular Jews reconnecting to their Jewishness through culture and not religious practice, Shepherd also seems to know nothing about recent research on diasporas and transnational peoples which shows how successful they are at sustaining their identities in a variety of ways. Many alternative Jewish paths exist today, not just Zionism, and they are getting stronger.
Locating the reasons for the errors of left-liberal Jewish critics of Israel in their abandonment of Jewishness is the classic underpinning for labelling such Jews ‘self-hating’. And Shepherd shamelessly gives credence to this bogus concept (see my summer 2008 Jewish Quarterly article, ‘Jewish self-hatred: myth or reality?’) — his phrase ‘self-negating Jew’ is merely a euphemistic version of ‘self-hating Jew’.
Shepherd cements all his groundless assertions together with strange notions about anti-Semitism. He writes: ‘I work on the basis that anti-Semitism refers only to Jews not to people of “Semitic” origin generally’ — as if this were his discovery rather than the meaning of the word when Wilhelm Marr first used it in the 1870s,—‘To be anti-Semitic, therefore, is exactly the same as being anti-Jewish.’ But what does it mean to be ‘anti-Jewish’? What is being referred to? Shepherd doesn’t say. Later, he makes a distinction between ‘subjective anti-Semitism’, relating to the person or institution engaged in it, and ‘objective anti-Semitism’, referring to the object of attack. What this means and why it might be of any use is never explained.
Not surprisingly, he grounds his judgments about the anti-semitic nature of European opinion-formers’ hostility to Israel in the idea of the ‘new anti-Semitism’, which he explains is not anti-Semitism in the traditional sense, that is, ‘motivated by a hostility to individual Jews per se’, but is ‘neo-anti-Semitism’, because it ‘denigrates the state of Israel’. But his rationale for the ‘new anti-Semitism’ is false on two counts. First, traditional anti-Semitism was also hatred of Jews as a collectivity, a people: terms in anti-Semitic discourse like ‘Jewry’, phrases like ‘Jews control the banks, created communism, were responsible for capitalism’, and so on, clearly demonstrate this. Second, it’s conceptually untenable to posit the idea of a ‘neo-‘ or ‘new’ anti-Semitism that has none of the characteristics of what scholars have always regarded as fundamental to any definition of anti-Semitism.
Shepherd further closes down debate by parading his anti-Europe animus throughout the book. Already by page 37 he confidently asserts: ‘The fact is that from a large proportion of contemporary Europe’s opinion formers we are now experiencing a tidal wave of hysteria, deception and distortion against the Jewish state which has not only brought resurgent anti-Semitism in its wake but also risks becoming a stain on the continent’s entire political culture.’ But his definition of opinion-formers is incredibly narrow, completely ignoring the role that governments play in shaping opinion. Moreover, in his ‘analysis’ of opinion-formers views, he uses a very limited number of examples and looks only at criticism, so we get absolutely no idea of the degree to which negative views of Israel are countered by pro-Israel opinion. And even the examples of the criticism he gives fail to prove his point.
The Israel of Shepherd’s imagination is a country that, in theory, can be criticised. But if the seriousness of his criticisms is to be judged by the mealy-mouthed phrase ‘excessive settlement policy’ — implying, I suppose, that settlement policy is ok, as long as there’s not too much of it—and by the extent to which he makes any other criticisms of Israeli policy — as far as I could see, there aren’t any — nodding to the idea is just a sham. And you can tell this is so when he berates the BBC for avoiding ‘using the word terrorist in relation to anti-Israel groups in particular’, and then describes the Irgun simply as ‘the Zionist group which had fought for a Jewish state under the British Mandate’. Even highly respected Jewish historians, like Howard M. Sachar in The Course of Modern Jewish History (page 565), openly call the Irgun a ‘terrorist group’.
While Robin Shepherd occasionally blunders into subjects he knows nothing about, Denis MacShane’s book is, essentially, one extended, and rather embarrassing, gaffe-ridden excursion into a whole area he doesn’t understand. Where Shepherd closes down debate by stating that a particular line of argument is wrong, MacShane produces the same effect by making breathtakingly extreme, unsupported assertions. To quite just a few: ‘That anti-Semitic hate now kills more Muslims than Jews is one of the unintended consequences that history relishes.’ ‘Organised neo-anti-Semitism is like a rat in our entrails preventing just and equitable solutions to key world problems and replacing hope with hate.’ ‘Today, [anti-Semitism] is the world’s most pernicious ideology and practice’.
MacShane gives the impression that he’s so angry about anti-Semitism, or rather ‘neo-anti-Semitism’ as he calls it, that he lashes out at many targets. Among them ‘[anti-Semites] or all those liberal leftists who proclaim they are not anti-Semitic but who deny Jews their Jewishness, including their affection for the one state in the world where anti-Semitism by definition cannot exist’.
MacShane too has great difficulty when he tries to bring the Jewishness of Jews into his argument. He makes a completely inappropriate analogy between Jewish affinity with Israel and British Catholic affinity with Rome in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — did Catholics sing ‘Next year in Rome’ at their equivalent of Pesach? When he says ‘[Anti-Semites] have forced the intellectual and humanist passions of Jews to quit the terrain of speaking for human and legal rights’ is to grossly overstate the case. There is still a very significant element of Jewish opinion and activity which is concerned with human rights, and probably a growing interest in it among younger people. And then when he continues by saying Jews have stopped ‘searching like Spinoza for some accommodation between faith and reason in order to defend themselves once again from the anti-Ssemitism that has taken new forms’, not only is he completely wrong — the tussle between faith and reason is at the heart of Jewish internal debates today — but to link a search for such an accommodation to Jews wanting to defend themselves against anti-Semitism is a figment of MacShane’s imagination.
MacShane and Shepherd sing from the same hymn sheet when writing about the controversy surrounding John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. In their severe criticisms of the book, MacShane and Shepherd have both decided that when the authors say ‘Israel lobby’ they really mean ‘Jewish lobby’. Shepherd writes: ‘Mearsheimer and Walt’s primary aim is to show that an extraordinarily powerful Jewish lobby has effectively hijacked US foreign policy in order to support Israel at the expense of American interests.’ MacShane refers to the book as ‘claiming to reveal that American foreign policy is controlled by Jews’; it’s a ‘book about the secret power of the Jews’. But in 2006, Walt said that the Israel lobby ‘is not a cabal’; it ‘is not synonymous with American Jews’, and that ‘there is nothing improper or illegitimate about its activities.’ Again, what’s important for MacShane and Shepherd is what they think, not what Mearsheimer and Walt say.
These two books are not identical in all respects. Shepherd believes that the hatred of Israel by Europe’s opinion-formers is pathological. The continent has so completely embraced moral relativism, appeasement of Muslims and pernicious multiculturalism, that ‘Today’s Europe could not have been built on the basis of the value system now being argued for by large numbers of the continent’s own opinion formers. The Allies would have lost World War II.’ MacShane’s Europeanism would not allow him to accept Shepherd’s view of Europe as populated by such ‘surrender-monkeys’. He locates the hatred of Israel and resurgent anti-Semitism in a global context, not in a European one. On the issue of Islam, MacShane is more careful to distinguish between Islamism and the views and inclinations of Muslims in general. Shepherd nods in this direction, but the entire tenor of his writing on Muslims and the threat they pose to Israel and Jews suggests an irrational fear that they are overrunning Europe.
Nevertheless, the main themes of these books and the manner in which the authors bludgeon the reader with their arguments are remarkably similar. They are clearly examples of a genre of writing about Israel, anti-Semitism and Jews which has a distinctly apocalyptic edge, a narrative driven by conspiratorial imaginings which mirror the conspiracy theories of the anti-Semites. You get the sense that the authors’ wish to support Jews is close to a kind of missionary zeal. But what they are actually doing, encouraged by George Weidenfeld, is making the serious discussion of these issues increasingly difficult to undertake. By fostering a culture in which unsupported assertion, a cavalier way with facts and the placing of Israel at the centre of arguments about the return of anti-Semitism have become the norm, the quality of public debate has been dangerously degraded. If people cannot talk to each other about these issues on the basis of shared assumptions about how to conduct civilised dialogue, the consequences for all of us are bleak. Loving us so much is no compensation.
Antony Lerman is the former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. He is writing a book reflecting on his experience of Zionism and Israel.