Read no further if you're not willing to consider the possibility that "anti-Israeli state policy" claims are NOT tantamount to "anti-Semitism."
The recent deadly attack on an aid-bearing flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip has re-stoked the fires at home and abroad over Israel's continued blockade of Gaza. That blockade has been in effect since June 2007, following the election of Hamas to the Palestinian government, and has resulted in what practically every international aid organization recognizes as a full-blown humanitarian crisis. According to the politically-neutral American Near East Relief Association (ANERA), the ugly details of life in Gaza under the blockade are undeniably tragic. And yet, regrettably, the basic humanitarian dimension of this crisis continues to be eclipsed in domestic and international political discussion NOT by debates over what constitutes permissable or impermissable state-sponsored actions on the part of Israel, but rather by debates over what constitutes allegiance to or enmity towards the state of Israel itself. And so, again, critics of Israel's actions in the most recent flotilla incident find themselves on their heels, forced to elaborate the distinction between "criticizing the policies of a particular state" and "rejecting the right of a particular state to exist" over and over. And over. Of course, the suggestion that a particular state might not have the right to exist is an especially thorny one in Israel's case, but the tendency of organizations like AIPAC to suggest that all actions of the Jewish state are themselves representative of Jewish values only makes a thorny issue exponentially thornier. The elision of "anti-Israeli state policy" and "anti-Semitism," which dominates all considerations of the Israel-Palestine conflict, is an old (and increasingly dated) interpretive frame that just won't go away... and which, for the sake of Israelis and Palestinians alike, desperately needs to go away.
Let's just review, for a moment, the facts surrounding the recent Gaza flotilla incident. The explicit aim of the activists aboard the flotilla was to deliver embargoed goods to the residents of Gaza, of course, but it could be argued that the actual delivery of those goods was incidental to their mission. That is, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that a chief aim of the flotilla activists was simply to break the Israel blockade, full stop. Perhaps those flotilla activists were nothing more than humanitarians, perhaps they were conscientious objectors in the long tradition of civil disobedience, perhaps they were lawbreakers plain and simple. Whatever one may think about the legality or illegality of Israel's blockade and the morality or immorality of the flotilla activists' disregard of that blockade, it requires a gross and terribly prejudicial denial of the facts on the ground to claim that what is happening in Gaza today is not still a humanitarian crisis and that Gaza residents were not in dire need of the embargoed goods. So, the question is: why did Israel respond so violently to the renegade aid-deliverers?
Here is where an interpretation of the facts gets considerably murkier. Israel claims that its blockade was originally instituted, and has been subsequently extended, in an attempt to curb the terrorist threats (and actual assaults) of Hamas, which is the democratically-elected representative of the Palestinian people and which refuses to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. But we should remember, as M.J. Rosenberg persuasively argues, that "Israel does not need permission from anyone-- let alone Hamas-- to exist. All it needs from Hamas is an end to violence and that is precisely what Hamas is offering, in exchange for lifting the blockade." Hamas has, in fact, offered Israel the promise of an indefinite cease-fire in exchange for lifting the blockade several times. And Israel has accepted that offer, then refused to live up to its end of the deal, several times. Assasinations, attacks, and political posturing of both the literally and figuratively violent sort have continued from both sides. Who is suffering the most in the interim?
The people of Gaza.
What seems beyond debate--outside of the echo-chamber of reductively pro-Israel talking heads-- is that the Gaza blockade is primarily intended to inflict collective punishment on the people of Gaza, regardless of their sympathy or lack thereof toward Hamas. A closer look at the details of the blockade (below), published earlier this week in The Economist, demonstrates exactly how needlessly obstructionist the blockade really is.
It's hard to look at those details and NOT think that the Israeli attitude toward Gaza residents is little more than "we intend to make your lives miserable by whatever means necessary." What is the strategic reasoning at work behind this blockade? Israel is both an occupying force in Gaza and controller of its borders (and everything that passes through them). For just a moment, let's put aside the question of the "right" of Israel (or Palestine) to exist. Let's put aside questions about settlements, reciprocal recognition, two-state solutions, or who counts as a terrorist organization. Do we have any reason at all to presume that every single resident of the Gaza Strip is a member of Hamas and wants to see the legitimacy of the state of Israel obliterated from the face of the planet? Is the blockade really fueled by the spirit of anti-anti-Semitism?
Quite simply, no. It is not. But the more (morally and politically) questionable Israeli state actions become, the more it becomes necessary for advocates of Israeli state policy to mask those actions in the protective garb of anti-anti-Semitism. The discussion between Peter Beinart and Steven Rosen on NPR this past weekend ("Criticizing Israel, Outside of Israel") is an excellent study in the nuances of "anti-Israel-state-policy" vs. "anti-Israel" vs. "anti-Semitic" positions. Beinhart, exhibiting a graciousness and patience well beyond that of his interlocutor, repeatedly emphasized that his own position, which is highly critical of Israeli state policy, ought to be considered of a kind with other pro-Israel advocates. He placed himself and other critics of Israel state policy squarely within the noble tradition of conscientious objectors, who realize that sometimes the very best expression of one's love for a country is to criticize it when it seems to have gone astray. Rosen countered with the (highly-suspect) proposition that one is either a "friend" of Israel or her enemy, and to be a "friend" of Israel means to back her actions, warts and all. Rosen stopped short of outright accusing Beinart of anti-Semitism, but the very strong inferences that could be easily drawn from his argument were all but an accusation.
Now more than ever, the force of this rhetoric needs to be explicitly rejected. Back in 2002, then-President of Harvard University (currently, Director of the White House National Economic Council for Barack Obama) Larry Summers caused a bit of a stir when he said:
Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent.
In response to Summers' claim, (progressive intellectual) Judith Butler published an essay in the London Review of Books entitled "No, it's not anti-semitic", in which she tried to make the case for the separation of Zionism from Jewry, the separation of the state of Israel from the Jewish diaspora, the separation of political critique from hate speech. Butler wrote her piece in the context of what she viewed as a threat to academic freedom on the campus at Harvard, but her words extend beyond the bounds of Cambridge. From Butler:
Here, it is important to distinguish between anti-semitic speech which, say, produces a hostile and threatening environment for Jewish students – racist speech which any university administrator would be obliged to oppose and regulate – and speech which makes a student uncomfortable because it opposes a particular state or set of state policies that he or she may defend. The latter is a political debate, and if we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship.
A couple of years later, Butler revisited this same issue in the fourth chapter of her excellent book Precarious Life, in which she argues that one (among many) casualties of the prohibition against criticisms of Israeli state policy is our ability to "mourn" Palestinian lives. That is, the formal or informal restriction of our ability to criticize Israel compromises us as members of the human community, effectively blinding us to the suffering of a certain segment of that community. What is, perhaps, the most regrettable and offensive dimension of this censorship is that it exploits one people's historical suffering to justify the exploitation of another's.
The public shame that we have learned to associate with anti-Semitism since World War II is a legitimate and earned one, but its current deployment in the service of deflecting any and all criticism of Israeli state policy is itself shameful.