When is calling a Jew a Nazi not anti-Semitic? When she's a feminist Jew.

(Note: I’ve also criticized leftist anti-Semitism and partisanship. But because this post responds to others’ disagreements with me, and no one disagreed with that point, it doesn’t come up in this post.)

In an earlier post, I wrote this:

[Cathy Young] correctly criticizes those who use the word "Nazi" to attack Jews they disagree with; it’s disgusting, both for a monstrous indifference to Jewish sensibilities and for trivializing historic Nazism. But if the search function on Young’s website is accurate, she’s never criticized the word "feminazi," which is frequently used against Jewish feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Naomi Wolf. Ms. Young, who is best known as an anti- feminist writer, must realize "feminazi" is a common term among her fellow travelers; so why hasn’t she called them on it?

This wasn’t the main point of my post, by the way. My main point was deploring how pro-Israel partisans label all anti-Israel activism as anti-Semitic. A clear example is the Harvard divestment petition, which Larry Summers called "anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent." Yet absolutely nothing about the petition is anti-Semitic, if anti-Semitism means displaying animus towards Jews in general. (It does criticize the current Israeli government, but you can dislike the current Israeli government without hating the Jewish people – right?). It seems to me Summers’ statement represents a harmful broadening of the term "anti-Semitism," for purely partisan purposes.

Unfortunately, none of the folks who responded to me explained how someone saying "I favor divestment from Israel to pressure the Israeli government to remove settlements" is anti-Semitism. Instead, people responded to me about the word "feminazi." Armed Liberal wrote:

To call me a ‘Nazi’ because I’m obsessed with and rigid about safety, or a women a ‘Nazi’ because she is obsessed with or rigid about feminism, or an ecologist a ‘Nazi’ because they are obsessed with or rigid about ecology is a different thing than to call someone by the name of the enemy who specifically targeted them out and attempted to exterminate them.

Lynn of In Context lays out a similar case:

Making comparisons between feminists and Nazis is odious, yes, but no one that I know of has ever accused feminists of “crimes against humanity,” or of “perpetrating a Holocaust.”

Both these folks are mistaken about where the term "feminazi" comes from. The term was invented by Rush Limbaugh. He didn’t mean it as a friendly gibe, the same way AL’s friends might call AL a "safety nazi," or that my friends have called me "wedding nazi" (I’m a wedding coordinator for a living). The term is not restricted to rigid feminists – even Naomi Wolf, who flirts with being pro-life and writes prose-poems about loving penises, is called a feminazi. And Rush (who Lynn presumably doesn’t know of) explicitly meant the term to accuse feminists of perpetrating a Holocaust. Rush used the term to suggest that Nazis are to Jews as feminists are to babies, which is Rush’s idea of contributing to the abortion debate.

So. Do I think the term "feminazi" is anti-Semitic?

I think there’s a good case to be made that it is. The comparison trivializes the harms done by Nazis to Jews, and it shows (at best) a stunning indifference to Jewish feelings. These two elements combined suggest – if not actual anti-Semitism – well, then, a perverse willingness to not give a shit about Jewish history or feelings. (Over the years I’ve explained this to several conservatives who use the term "feminazi," but only one responded by giving up the term).

Going further, AL and Lynn are very quick to assume it’s not significant when the word "Nazi" is used against a movement that has been led disproportionately by Jewish women. I’m not sure I agree. There is no way of overstating the impact Jewish women have had on American feminism: to list just a handful, where would feminism be without Betty Friedan, Gloria Stienem, Bella Azbug, Naomi Wolf, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, Shula Firestone, Robin Morgan, Rebecca Walker, Katha Pollit, Karen Nussbaum and Judy Chicago?

If conservatives recognize the historic connection between feminism and Judaism and deliberately choose to use "nazi," that’s plainly disgusting. But even if we assume that conservative critics of feminism don’t know much about feminism, they’re still not off the hook. The term "feminazi" has such hellish staying power because it stings, it bothers feminists like no other epithet; and a major reason it stings is because so many feminists are Jewish. Maybe the folks perpetuating "feminazi" don’t know that; but they sure enjoy seeing the sting, and that’s why they keep using the term.

What would we say about someone who is (somehow) unaware of the racial history of the term "boy," but who likes using the term against NAACP members (not all of whom are black), because he’s noticed it has such a sting?

But I’ve forgotten to answer my own question. Do I think the term "feminazi" is anti-Semitic?

I’ve been thinking about this all week. And the answer is, no, I don’t.

Most people who use the word "feminazi" are thoughtless at best, cruel at worse; and they have (to repeat myself) a perverse indifference to Jewish history and hurting Jews; but they probably don’t have any particular animus against Jews. And at the end of the day, Anti-Semitism has to involve prejudice against Jews because they are Jewish. Otherwise the term loses meaning.

However, that’s my opinion.

It’s not Cathy Young’s opinion; it’s not Larry Summers’ opinion; and I presume it’s not the opinion of anyone who agreed with Summers’ speech. Why? Because Summers’s speech presented a radical new idea of anti-Semitism: anti-Semitism in effect, even when there isn’t anti-Semitic intent. In this new version of anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitic action is one that hurts Jews, whether or not prejudice against Jews – "intent" – is involved. (Say, if an earthquake levels a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, is that anti-Semitism?).

But here’s my problem with Israel’s paritsans – they want to have it both ways. When it comes to criticizing liberals, they use the broadest definition of anti-Semitism imaginable, so that even a purely political action against the government of Israel, conducted by folks who have never shown any sign of anti-Jewish prejudice, is anti-Semitism.

But let their attention be drawn to a conservative action – such as the tarring of Jewish feminists with the term "Nazi," or attempts to institutionalize Christianity in schools and public functions, or Christian fundimentalists who say Jews are going to Hell; – and those same people will become fountains of excuses and special pleadings. It’s not anti-Semitism unless there’s a comparison to the Holocaust. It’s not anti-Semitism because there was no prejudicial intent It’s not anti-Semitism to call liberal feminist Jews Nazis, it’s only anti-Semitism when Zionist Jews are called Nazis. It’s not anti-Semitism because it’s just a funny joke (funny to whom?). In short, when it comes to the things conservatives say and do, suddenly anti-Semitism is defined as narrowly as possible.

It is ridiculous. It is intellectually dishonest. And it is nakedly partisan.

Pick one standard and stick with it. If you criticize leftists for anti-Semitism for the smallest thing – like signing a petition that says not one word against Jews – then have the moral fiber to admit that, defined that broadly, the term "feminazi" used against Jewish women is also anti-Semitic; and so is someone who thinks Jesus belongs in our public schools. Personally, I think that’s an overbroad definition of anti-Semitism, but it would at least be consistent.

Or, if you want to say that the word "feminazi" is appalling, but not anti-Semitic, then that’s fine too – but show the same leniency when talking about liberals and leftists. Either anti-Semitism requires prejudicial intent, or it doesn’t. Either it’s defined narrowly, or broadly. You can’t have it one way for conservatives, and another for liberals.


Related links: D-Squared Digest thinks he has a solution: Let’s just stop using the words "Israeli" and "Zionist" and replace them with "Likudist". (The permalink doesn’t seem to be working, so scroll around for the October third entry named "Politics and the English Language, redux.")

Organizers of the Harvard petition respond to Larry Summers.

Junkyardblog says "ya got me. Fair ’nuff" in response to this post of mine. I gotta say, I admire that – it takes class to admit you’ve made a mistake. It would have been even better if he hadn’t made excuses for the ways conservatives use "Feminazi" – excuses that I doubt he’d make for left-wingers who think calling their opponents"Nazi" is funny.

UPDATES: Armed Liberal and In Context have both posted replies to my post. Also, Meryl Yourish has posted her thoughts on the divestment issue.

Regarding the “talking about Israel if you’re not also talking about every other abusive state in the world is anti-Semitism” meme, I think D-Squared Digest pretty much covered it:

In related news, isn’t the Dalai Lama a bastard? He’s always going on and on about the bloody Chinese in Tibet. Why does he single them out as being so terrible when there are things just as bad going on in Israel? Bloody Sinophobe.

Finally, thanks to Ignatz for his very kind link to this post.

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