The Guardian carries a letter from John Pilger depicting Egypt as a wronged party in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. There's a time and a place for everything, and Pilger's eccentric historical interpretations are not the subject of this post. But one of the statements within the letter makes a curious juxtaposition with a story elsewhere in the same edition of the paper. Pilger writes:
According to [Jonathan] Freedland, the present Israeli regime is merely "a clumsy prizefighter driven to fury by a fly buzzing around its ears". His description of the entire Palestinian resistance as buzzing flies would be shocking if it did not accurately reflect Israeli racism, itself a virulent form of anti-semitism.
You read that last clause right: Pilger is making an accusation not only of Israeli racism - a standard trope of the extreme Left - but also of Israeli anti-semitism. It's not a misprint: it's a libel he fully intends.
The reasoning behind Pilger's bizarre accusation is pure sophistry. It is common on the extreme Left, and it runs like this. Israelis complain about the prejudiced character of parts of the popular culture of the Arab world (for example, a television drama assuming the truth of the notorious Tsarist forgery the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion; Palestinian textbooks retailing venerable anti-Jewish libels). They are, according to the anti-Israel campaigners, being disingenuous however in levelling accusations of anti-semitism, because the Arabs themselves are a semitic people. How then could it possibly be true to describe the Palestinian Authority and other Arab groups as guilty of anti-semitism, when they are themselves semites? (This is presented as a rhetorical question and conversation-stopper, but it's generally followed, as in Pilger's letter, by accusations of Israeli racism, colonialism and manifold other sins of commission and omission.)
I'm no fan of Pilger's, but I think this calumny is the most egregious remark I've come across even from that source. What's wrong with it is that it reduces the suffering of the Jewish people - most obviously the attempt in the last century to kill every Jew in Europe, but a Judaeophobia that has lasted literally millennia - by means of semantic trickery. It is a historical accident that the term 'anti-semitism' exists at all, let alone is the common term for anti-Jewish prejudice. The term was coined only in the second half of the nineteenth century by a German anti-Jewish polemicist, Wilhelm Marr. Marr argued that western civilisation had been infiltrated by a pernicious Jewish influence, and he established his own Anti-Semitic League in 1871 to further his anti-Jewish demagoguery.
Ironically Marr, an extremist Jew-baiter, thereby invented a term that became standard as a label for anti-Jewish prejudice. Yet it's an intellectually idle and vacuous word as well as a euphemism. There is, after all, no such phenomenon as 'Semitism' to which one can be opposed. The destructive effect of the very term anti-Semitism can be discerned in Pilger's casual insults. If 'anti-semitism' doesn't mean prejudice specifically against Jews, then we have no immediately recognised term for that particular prejudice. Because the language we use about politics is crucial to the clarity of our thinking about a subject (I don't entirely endorse Orwell's views on language and politics, but I do this one), this softening of the specificity of anti-Jewish prejudice serves to anaesthetise our moral defences. It's a process that marked the history of the so-called German Democratic Republic, a prison-state that not only refused to accept any historical guilt for the Holocaust but was also a relentless source of anti-Jewish propaganda and anti-Israel agitation.
We are stuck with the term 'anti-semitism', but it is as well to note its historical lineage and the ease with which it can be manipulated to harm the Jews further. It was for that reason that the philosopher and rabbi Emil Fackenheim, who having escaped Nazi Germany in 1940 studied under Leo Strauss and served many years as Professor of Philosophy at Toronto University, urged that the word 'anti-semitism' be written, without a hyphen, as 'antisemitism'. It may seem a small point, but I hope the example of John Pilger's letter will indicate that Fackenheim's pratice is in fact a means of defence against political obscurantism. I consequently always spell the word as 'antisemitism', and I recommend adopting this practice: it simply makes it marginally more difficult for those who wish deliberately to misapply the term. (An alternative practice is worth noting: the Irish statesman, historian and polymath Conor Cruise O'Brien has suggested, on similar grounds, adopting the term 'anti-Jewism'. Its merit is that no one could possibly fail to miss what it means, and its ugliness is appropriate to the phenomenon it describes.)
I referred to an ironic juxtaposition within The Guardian. It so happens that Pilger's letter appears on the same day as Fackenheim's obituary (three weeks after the death of one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the modern world). The Guardian's treatment of this outstanding intellect is, I'm afraid, snide and knowing. The obituarist states:
In the mid-1960s, Fackenheim coined a 614th commandment, not listed in the Hebrew Bible - "not to despair of God and not to despair of man"; as a corollary, he argued that Jewish survival "denied Hitler a posthumous victory". And only a strong Israel, he continued, could prevent Jews vanishing from history.
Such views attracted plaudits from nationalists, accusations of chauvinism from liberals, disquiet from Jews who feared Holocaust memory alone would displace Judaic values, and disappointment from former students lamenting Fackenheim's apparent retreat from intellectual subtlety.
Indeed, what possible explanation could there be for wishing for a strong and secure Israel other than an absence of intellectual subtlety? For those willing to be thought unsubtle by The Guardian, I would recommend Fackenheim's moving and highly readable exposition of his thinking, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Among the most important parts of the book is his address specifically to Christians on the nature and imperative of Jewish nationalism:
For Christians, the first priority may be theological self-understanding. For Jews it is, and after Auschwitz must be, simple safety for their children. In pursuit of this goal, Jews seek - are morally required to seek - independence of other people's charity. They therefore seek safety - are morally required to seek it - through the existence of a Jewish state. Except among the theologically or humanly perverse, Zionism - the commitment to the safety and genuine sovereignty of the State of Israel - is not negotiable.Even if I held views on theological responsibilities and believed confidently there were such things, I wouldn't have the competence to express them and this blog wouldn't be the place for them. But I do hold that there is a political and human responsibility to support the safety and genuine sovereignty of the State of Israel, on the compelling grounds that what happened in the middle of the last century must not happen again. There are many fronts on which those who attempt to deny Israel's legitimacy mount their campaign; the linguistic is not the least important of them.