Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Anti-Semitic Criticism of Israel?

There has been a whole lot of talk for the past few weeks about a series of comments made by new House of Representatives member, Ilhan Omar. On the off chance that you don't know what I'm talking about, Omar, who is Muslim, has spoken out against our country's ongoing support of Israel, and against AIPAC’s role in ensuring that support. And, many people have responded to her comments by accusing her of anti-Semitism. And then, inevitably, many people have responded to those comments by accusing the people who made them of Islamaphobia, stifling free speech, giving too much blind support to Israel, and so on. It’s not been pretty. Probably the best, most evenhanded summary of the situation I've seen can be found here.

As per usual, most of the articles and posts (although, I'll gladly admit that I've read very few posts, as I've been actively avoiding Facebook for a while now) take a "one side or the other" approach. Either Congresswoman Omar is making a valid point, or she is being anti-Semitic.

It seems to me that it's quite possible that both of those are true.

Let me be clear — I disagree with the vast majority of the substance of what I have heard her say. I continue to be a strong supporter of Israel, and I will happily argue (respectfully, sticking to the issues) with anyone who claims that Israel is an evil actor, and unrepentant oppressor, a colonizer, or anything of the sort. But, I do think that there are valid criticisms that one can make of Israel, just as there are of any country in the world. As I've said before, I'm not at all a fan of the current government in Israel, or of many of their policies. And, pointing out policies which might be wrong, or even immoral, does not make you anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic. And, even though I am generally supportive of AIPAC, and of their mission, I also don't think that they are above criticism.

However, it's possible to be right on the specifics of your criticism while still engaging in anti-Semitism.

Let me try an analogy. Let's say that a Muslim-American engages in an act of domestic terrorism. And, let's say that a certain news source speaks out against that act, vigorously. They call the act an act of evil, and they condemn its perpetrator in similar terms. But, let's also imagine that this same news source has a long-standing pattern of ignoring terrorist acts by white Christian men. It rarely covers them, and when it does, it refuses to use the word "terrorism." But, is never so reticent when the violence is done by a Muslim. In every one of those cases, it runs large headlines condemning the act, and the perpetrator. And, it sometimes uses language which is often used by Islamaphobes-- it talks about how "those people" tend towards violence. It sprinkles the word "jihadist" liberally throughout its coverage. And so on.

I would say that, on this specific issue, that news source is being correct — an act of terrorism should be condemned, as should the terrorist. But, given the larger context, it's also clear that this news coverage is displaying an anti-Muslim bias. I’d be right to be suspicious of their motives.

We don't even have to be getting into hidden agendas and masked ill-intent. Racism can exist in someone's actions even when their hearts are pure (well, at least as pure as anyone's heart can be in the real world). One of the powerful teachings from the left about racism over the past few years (decades?) Has been the way in which good-hearted people can nonetheless, often unintentionally, partake of and reinforce systematic racism. Even if I have absolutely no ill feelings towards African-American people, if I support a policy which does harm to the African-American community, then I'm supporting racism. Intent matters, but impact matters more, and if my impact is racist, even if my intent wasn't, then I have to be held accountable for that racism.

Back to the case at hand… I don't know (and, most likely, neither do you) what Congresswoman Omar's thoughts about Jews really are. And, I truly do not believe that it is out of bounds to criticize Israel, AIPAC, or just about anything else in our society. But, when someone goes out of their way to criticize Israel above and beyond other countries, and when they do so continually, and when they use classically anti-Semitic tropes about using money to subtly control ("brainwash") our government, or which accuse Jews of "dual loyalty," yeah, I get a little nervous, and more than a little suspicious.

I do truly believe that it is the right of any citizen of America to criticize Israel, or our policies regarding Israel. But, the larger context of those criticisms matter a great deal, and don't be surprised when Jews like me point out anti-Semitism where we clearly see it.