Thursday, December 06, 2018

Defining Antisemitism

Rabbi Avi Shafran
There is an interesting debate at Cross Currents between Rabbi Avi Shafran and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on the subject of antisemitism. The question is do accusations of anti-Semitism where there is only possible or low grade antisemtism help or hurt the cause of fighting it by calling only-possible anti-Semites by that pejorative? 

That raises the general question about what antisemtism really is. How do we define it? The protagonists are two people whose views I generally respect although sometimes disagree with. And both make cogent defenses of their position.
Some people might use the Justice Potter Stewart definition of  ‘I know it when I see it’ to define it. But is that right? I think the answer is yes. But only partially. There is such a thing a latent antisemitism. Rabbi Adlerstein posits that it if exists just below the level of consciousness of those that harbor it, but that it is the more dangerous of the two (latent versus overt) and it ought to be called out. 

He says that ignoring it because it is not overt or expressed in violent ways gives cover to people that support BDS and others that want to boycott Israel. They will be able to claim that it is not antisemitism that motivates them but the tyranny of an occupying force making life miserable for its inhabitants.

Rabbi Shafran is of the opinion that even though some of that is attributable to latent antisemitism, it cannot all be attributed to it. No matter how much we disagree, sometimes it is not about hating Jews. Even subliminally. And at low levels we are better off ignoring it.

The argument was generated by the recent boycott of West Bank Settlements in Israel by Airbnb. They have removed all listings in those locations – blaming the lack of progress in the peace process and the resultant aforementioned tyranny of the occupation on them. Rabbi Adlerstein believes that Airbnb is on the ‘spectrum of antisemitism’ and it ought to be labeled as such (albeit not on the same level as the Louis Farrakhans of the world). 

Rabbi Shafran would give Airbnb the benefit of the doubt and say that it is not necessarily so. I too have taken that position. Even though I believe them to be ignorant of the all the facts and misguided I do not necessarily believe it sourced in antisemitism. (But I also believe they should be boycotted even if their motivations are not antisemitic even at the subliminal level. What they are doing hurts Israel unfairly.) 

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Adlersein’s career gives him an advantage that Rabbi Shafran does not have. Rabbi Adlerstein is tasked with the job of inter-religious relations. Which means his job requires him to know who loves us and who hates us. And to which extent. And to work on improving the relationship between Jews and non Jews in any case.

He knows that many non Jews are indeed Judeophiles. Far more of them than most Jews believe. Their positive views of the Jewish people are legitimate. But he also says that when challenging people that might be involved in anti Israel activity about their motives they often find it can be traced to a generational history of negative feelings about us. Feelings that were never acted upon in concrete ways and perhaps didn’t even realize they had. In fact once they realize the true source of their anti Israel bias they tend to go the other way and become our biggest defenders. 

He adds that until such people are confronted that way, that subliminal animus remains… only to rear its ugly head in supporting things like BDS. 

I hear his point. But where does that put those who blame the settlements in Israel for the lack of peace - and are in positions of power to do something about it? One such individual was a very prominent Republican that has been  in the news a lot these days. Former President George H. W. Bush. 

As President he clearly blamed the lack of progress in making peace between Israel and the Palestinians on Israeli settlements. Practically ignoring the Israeli view on the subject. So much so that at one point he refused to continue the US policy of granting loan guarantees to Israel that were necessary to assist the absorption of Soviet Jewish immigrants. Bush supported the guarantees but did not want them used to subsidize building in the West Bank.

That had brought about a massive protest against the President by lobbyists like AIPAC. Which caused President Bush to make what many considered an antisemitic comment about those lobbyists.  He later apologized. But was that not the kind of latent antisemitism that Rabbi Adlerstien speaks of? 

My quick  answer to that based on his definition is yes, it was. The same thing can be said about a Democrat in a similar circumstance, former President Barack Obama. He allowed a UN security council resolution condemning Israeli settlements to pass by not vetoing it. Was President Obama a latent antisemite? I do not believe for a moment that he was.

The  question about what actual antisemitism is - is hard to define in exact ways. How many Americans have the kind of latent antisemitism described by Rabbi Adlerstein is impossible to say. I will grant that pre-Holocaust there was a lot of it in this country. Does that mean that their children and grandchildren inherited those views at least at a subliminal level? Perhaps some did. But my guess is that most of them did not.

First let me say that I think both Rabbi Adlerstein ad Rabbi Shafran would agree that the vast majority of Americans are not in any way antisemitic. That has been proven to me many times. Most recently by the solidarity with us by Americans of all stripes across the land after the Pittsburgh massacre. 

As it was when Joseph Leiberman’s pick by then Vice-President Al Gore as his running mate resulted in a 10 point uptick in polls. Which showed Gore pulling even with Bush (the 2nd) in the election that year. Voters that were behind that uptick were asked what made them do that. The typical answer was that they saw Lieberman as a plus because of the ethics in his religious views. 

As does the fact that Judaism is the most admired religion in this country according to respected polling organizations.

The question remains, how substantial is the minority of Americans that do not feel that way? How many of them harbor subliminal antisemitism? Does it matter as much as Rabbi Adlerstein believes it does and should we make an issue of it? 

Do people with subliminal negative feelings about us never acted upon even rate being classified as antisemites? (I think they do.)

Are subliminal antisemitic feelings really behind support of BDS? Or does such support stem from a sincere belief that sympathizes with the plight of Palestinians? My guess is that there are both kinds of people there. I just don’t know if it’s even possible to know what their true motives are.

And where does stereotyping fit into the picture? Does it for example make someone an antisemite to say that Jews are good with money?

All good questions to which I have no definitive answers. Just asking the questions.