A pass for anti-Semitism?

August 20, 2014

SOCIALISTWORKER.ORG HAS been too quick to dismiss the allegations against Steven Salaita, the academic fired from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We should take the accusation of anti-Semitism seriously.

In one pair of tweets, Salaita implies that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu controls the Republican Party. He writes, "Republicans are such tough guys, eager to kill 4 God and country. #Israel slaps around the US of A, though, and all they do is ask for more," and "Rednecks need a new slogan. Instead of 'kick their ass and take their gas,' how about" #Gaza is a disaster but Netanyahu is my master." This is disturbing rhetoric that alludes to the anti-Semitic myth of Jews secretly controlling governments.

In another tweet, Salaita says "Zionists are partly responsible" for anti-Semitism. This is a rationalization of racism that unfortunately has become a commonplace in the Palestine solidarity movement. Israel says it is a Jewish state, the argument goes, therefore anti-Semites must be pardoned since they are merely reacting to Israel's crimes against the Palestinians.

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If someone on the left were to try to pin responsibility for Islamaphobia on right-wing Muslims, we would immediately reject this. Our approach to oppression has always been that responsibility for racism never belongs to the oppressed group, regardless of their behavior. There should be no exception for Jews.

Another variation of this argument points out that Zionism is predicated on accepting anti-Semitism as immutable. In his diaries, Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, described how he resigned to the idea of fighting anti-Semitism. This resignation towards curbing anti-Semitism led many Zionists to collaborating with anti-Semites who shared their goal of increasing Jewish emigration from Europe. For this capitulation, the argument goes, Israel must accept blame for world anti-Semitism.

However, compare these actions to those of right-wing Black nationalists in this country. Marcus Garvey espoused the idea that blacks would never be equal in white America. Complacent toward white racism, he met with the Ku Klux Klan, and told the Klan that they shared the goals of separate nations for blacks and whites. In its heyday, the Nation of Islam preached that whites could not be turned from racism, and organized rallies alongside the American Nazi Party whom they considered the honest whites.

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People deal with oppression in a number of ways, and sometimes, their responses are conservative and nationalist. However, these forms of resistance are always the result of oppression, never its cause.

These fine points of the relationship between Zionism and anti-Semitism matter. There is a danger of the Palestine solidarity movement becoming desensitized to any claims of anti-Semitism.

The career of Gilad Atzmon is an instructive case. Atzmon is an Israeli-born Jew and musician turned Palestine activist. His writings on Zionism contain venomous attacks on Jews, including the argument that Israel's attacks on the Palestinians are not a product of imperialism but represent something wrong with Jews. Atzmon calls the accusation of anti-Semitism "a common Zionist silencing apparatus."

In spite of this, a number of Left institutions have excused or rationalized Atzmon's bile. For a few years, Atzmon regularly performed at the British Socialist Workers Party's annual conference, before he was quietly dropped without an explanation or apology from the SWP's leadership. Atzmon's writings still appear in Counterpunch, perhaps the most widely read online publication on the American left. Finally, Zero Books, a British publisher that has published authors like Richard Seymour and Laurie Penny, published a treatise on Jewish identity by Atzmon which is still available through their website.

Another example is "leftist" academic James Petras, whose articles on Jewish control of the media and government still appear on Dissident Voice and in Counterpunch. A single pass for someone like Atzmon or Petras is a case of bad judgment. Multiple passes represent a pattern of unwillingness or inability by the left to address anti-Semitism.

Instead of an instinct to show solidarity with Jews, the pro-Palestine left has developed an instinctive skepticism towards reports of anti-Semitism, which makes the movement more open to real Jew-haters.
Paul Pryse, Madison, Wis.

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