Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A group of seventy-odd British residents "of Jewish origin" have written a letter to the Guardian comparing Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, and urging British sanctions against Israel. No doubt they are highly atypical of their self-declared demographic, but then, out of a population of some 280,000, one could no doubt find seventy to endorse just about any point of view, including the view that Israel is treating Gaza too harshly, and should be punished for it.

But I find it fascinating that they felt compelled to identify their "Jewish origin" in their letter. Why should their ethnic roots matter? Would a group of seventy or so Americans of British origin ever get together to express their opposition to British policy? Do critics of the Chinese government who happen to be of Chinese descent (as opposed to, say, Chinese birth or citizenship) like to call attention to that fact?

Indeed, it's a good bet that the Guardian letter's signatories are predominantly secular leftists who disdain Judaism as a relic of arcane superstitions, consider Jewish peoplehood a reactionary chauvinism impeding international solidarity, and condemn Israel as a colonialist imperialist outpost. In other words, in any other circumstances, they'd take great pains to minimize the significance of their Jewish heritage. Why, then, would they mention it so prominently here?

The answer, I believe, has to do with one of the more minor, less well-known costs of the Holocaust: while powerfully discrediting (to say the least) anti-Semitism, it has also implicitly raised the bar, so to speak, for anti-Semites. Whereas previous Jew-hatred was founded on libels about Jewish religion, culture, moral character or group behavior, the Nazis went a step further, concocting elaborate theories of Jewish genetic inferiority. As a result, many classic anti-Semitic slurs--such as, say, conspiracy theories positing various Jewish plots to achieve world domination--have actually come to seem somewhat milder by comparison, to the point where their modern promulgators often straight-facedly claim that they're not really anti-Semitic at all, since they make no genetic claims about Jews. (One obnoxious commenter here at ICBW, for example, tried this tack, apparently in all sincerity.)

It is in this context that the Guardian letter writers' assertion of Jewish origin makes sense. If extreme hostility towards Israel is widely associated with anti-Semitism, and anti-Semitism is is widely associated with a belief in Jewish genetic inferiority, then rabid critics of Israel might be expected to attempt to insulate themselves against charges of anti-Semitism by identifying their own Jewish genetic heritage. In effect, they're saying, "Hitler would consider us Jewish--so when we say we think Israel is behaving like Hitler, you can believe us."

Perhaps they should stop letting Hitler set the standard for so many of their moral distinctions.


Aaron Baker said...

Well, it might also be the case that criticism of Israel (whether rabid or justified) is almost routinely stigmatized as antisemitic--and so the signatories may be trying preemptively to defuse a slur.

For their pains, they've already incurred a bunch of completely unfounded hostile speculation about their motives from you; so they should probably have saved themselves the trouble.

Dan Simon said...

Aaron, you completely missed my point. In fact, we apparently completely agree regarding their motives--the signatories are trying to "preemptively defuse" accusations of anti-Semitism. The question is why they thought referring to being "of Jewish origin" would accomplish that. Plenty of notorious anti-Semites, such as Tomas de Torquemada, Karl Marx and Adam Gadahn--to name just three--have been "of Jewish origin". Why, then, would the signatories assume their Jewish heritage to be sufficient to shield them from the charge?

The answer is that in the post-Holocaust era, anti-Semitism is often equated--particularly among anti-Semites of a more pedestrian variety--with the extreme Nazi variety that advocated extermination based on genetic heritage. These days, anti-Semites who merely loathe or disdain Jews routinely defend themselves by claiming not to be genetics-obsessed exterminationist Nazis, as if this absolved them of any taint of bigotry. (See, for instance, my long argument with one in this comment thread.)

Now, perhaps the signatories are in fact completely devoid of hostility to Jews, and are merely stunningly ignorant and morally obtuse. But if you're going to compare Israel to Nazi Germany and Hamas to the Warsaw Ghetto partisans, it would help to have a better (and less self-contradictory) defense against charges of anti-Semitism than, "we can't be Nazis--after all, we're 'of Jewish origin'".