I Think You're Insulting Me Wrong

With the ADL charting a disturbing persistence in anti-Semitic attitudes in Europe, and a flurry of anti-Semitic activities racing through the continent over the past month, the head of the European Jewish Congress, Moshe Kantor, says that he believes that the actions have nothing to do with the conflict in Gaza, but instead represent economic scapegoating of Jews due to the current financial crisis.

Kantor is obviously more familiar with the facts on the ground than I am. And to some extent, I think he is clearly right: for the most part, I think hatred shines through when people are scared, angry, hurt, aggrieved, or vulnerable. Even people who might harbor anti-Semitic or otherwise hateful attitudes are less likely to act on them when they are feeling happy, content, fulfilled, and secure. So in that sense, it strikes me as extremely likely that the economic crisis was a primary spark in setting off this anti-Semitic wave.

Still, some things leave me nervous (not that I’d be any less nervous knowing that I’m liable to be stabbed because I’m associated with the Jewish banking cabal than because I’m associated with the Zionist war machine), and unsure that the rhetoric surrounding Israel in the international system isn’t also playing its part.

Primarily, we have to ask why the rhetoric of the wrongdoers themselves is tied to Israel, rather than to economics. There is something to be said about taking people on their own terms, after all. A British man was beaten by an assailant who said “they were doing it because of what had happened to the Palestinians in Gaza.” What makes this statement “bizarre”, in a way, is that there are no shortage of available anti-Semitic stereotypes far more directly tied to economic malfeasance than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. If the hate was reducible to economics, we would expect lightening to take the most direct route to the ground: “This is for destroying my job, Shylock!” would seem far more appropriate.

But yet, Gaza is the hook, and that raises the question of why the haters are deviating from the most direct trail. And the reason, I suspect, is that people are interpreting the state of the discourse around Israel as legitimating anti-Semitic violence in a way that is not being replicated across other potential “justifications” for targeting Jews. Surely, this sentiment is aided when the parties normally counted on to hold the line against such hateful activities respond with a yawning silence. Something is happening in which the people tempted by anti-Semitic violence to begin with are receiving the message that tagging it to Israel makes it okay and justifiable, whereas tagging it to Jewish banking circles is not. I strongly suspect that criticism of Israel that is consciously tied to retributive or utilitarian norms is significantly less likely to inadvertently send this legitimating signal.

But I’ll concede that even many of the critics whose criticism is, I think, outside these parameters — who are engaging in or at least fostering Kaiser’s “moral hatred” — do not intend this result. They intend to demonstrate that they do not believe the policies criticized are acceptable, or they intend to try and effectuate change to create a more just world, or they intend to show the victims of said policies that there are people on their side and that they do not stand alone. They do not intend for Jews to get beaten on the street. They are appalled (if sometimes very quietly appalled) by this sort of violence. One reason I think they would give is that it is clearly wrong to hold individual Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli state — particularly given that we have no idea what their individual politics are vis-a-vis Israel (let alone whether they are in any position to influence the state). However, it is worth noting that a position which engages in “moral hatred” of Israel will have a lot of trouble checking the impulse to also engage in “moral hatred” of those who support Israel in any way, shape, or form — i.e., those who voluntarily identify and associate with an entity deemed worthy of being hated. And surely we all agree that violence against Jews who identify as Zionist is just as bad as violence against those who do not.

Intent is not all that matters when engaging in a speech act; we speak knowing that our words are subject to interpretation, and bear at least some responsibility for the likely and foreseeable interpretations thereof. “I didn’t intend for that to happen” is not a good enough excuse in cartooning or politics, when the effects being protested are known and predictable. The fact that vitriolic criticism of Israel is, observably, being used as a justificatory schema for anti-Semitic hate is warrant enough to impose obligations on the speaker who wishes to launch such criticism. At the very least, we have to ask ourselves: What qualities of our current pattern of discourse are leading others to interpret what we’re saying as legitimating violence? Again, my strong suspicion is that the answer to that question is the quality of “moral hatred”. Write folks out of society, and society will take you up on it.

In law (criminal and civil), to be “reckless” is to go through with an action where you have knowledge that X is a likely consequence, even though X is not your intended consequence (where X is some sort of legally cognizable wrong). Under this definition (taken out of the realm of criminal or tort law), criticism of Israel that crosses into the realm of moral hatred can justly be labeled as reckless. We have good reason to believe that moral hatred of Israel legitimates violence at least against Jews who identify with Israel. Even if that is not the intent of the speech, by following through with it while indifferent to its likely consequences, we are demonstrating reckless disregard for the bodies put at risk. That’s intolerable.

I believe in society’s ability to criticize and to punish wrongdoing without sending the signal that the wrongdoer (and his, her, or its allies and associates) are extra-social beings worthy of hate. I believe that at least in part because I think criticism and other forms of punishment are critical tools in our moral toolbox. It is important to signal that wrongful acts are wrong, and it is important to try and change behaviors and states of being to bring about a just world, and it is important for persons victimized by injustice to know that they do not stand alone. These things are essential moral obligations. But they exist in tandem with moral obligations to the wrongdoer, they do not supersede them. I believe that the obligations can co-exist with each other. Indeed, I believe that respecting the rights of the alleged wrongdoer makes it far more likely that the preceding three obligations will stick.


“If you love the good, you must hate evil; or else you are sentimental. But if you hate evil more than you love the good, you become a damn good hater! And the world has enough of that kind of activist.” — Rev. William Sloan Coffin

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One Response to I Think You're Insulting Me Wrong

  1. 1
    iamefromiami says:

    Good article, but then people tend to like stuff they more or less agree with. Somewhat on topic, In the Opinion section of the paper today a person pointed out that talk about the Bernard Madoff scandal has tended to focus on his Jewishness , whereas it is less known or not focused on at all that Leonard Abess (the man who shared millions of dollars with his employees) is Jewish as well.