Anti-Semantic

Posted on June 8, 2004

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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators and speakers have recently taken up the very bad habit of defending their views against western sensibilities by claiming, “I am not an Anti-Semite, I am Anti-Zionist” or ‘anti-whatever’ as long as it does not implicate Jewish people as a whole. I think it is time to reverse this trend and to do so without rancor or shame. I will supply three good reasons to strip the word anti-semite of any meaning when used in reference to a Palestinian.

One) Let’s take a look at the term and its orgin; obviously, the word semite existed before anyone ever tacked an ‘anti’ in front. According to Webster’s a Semite is:

1 a : a member of any of a number of peoples of ancient southwestern Asia including the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs b : a descendant of these peoples

2 : a member of a modern people speaking a Semitic language

The Encyclopedia Britannica elucidates:

The term came to include Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, some Ethiopians, and Aramaean tribes including Hebrews. Semitic tribes migrated from the Arabian Peninsula, beginning c. 2500 BC, to the Mediterranean coast, Mesopotamia, and the Nile River delta. In Phoenicia, they became seafarers. In Mesopotamia, they blended with the civilization of Sumer. The Hebrews settled at last with other Semites in Palestine.

But who would argue that an anti-semite is anti-Palestinian? By virtue of the fact that prevailing discourse has created a dichotomy between Palestinians and Jews, and because Jews are the favored half of the dichotomy, anti-semitic can mean only one thing- being anti-Jewish. Worse, since being Pro-Palestinian is often perceived as being anti-Jewish, Palestinians are put in the anti-semantic position of being called anti-semitic when asserting their identities as semites. Excluded from the meaning of a term in public discourse even as current English dictionaries include them in it, Palestinians are robbed of agency and wiped from the ranks of humanity. Using “anti-semitic” in its current usage is tantamount to excluding women from the term “person”; in an interesting parallel, this is more or less the way things were before the launch of aggressive women’s rights movements. In any sane society, therefore, we would conclude that the use of the term “anti-semitic” is too polluted with racism to be of any meaningful use in categorizing bigotry.

Two) Even discounting the above, Palestinians should feel no stigma when referred to as “anti-semitic”. As mentioned before, many Palestinians now feel pressure to qualify their statements by demarcating a distinction between Jews and Zionists. But is there really any sense in making this differentiation? I would argue that Zionism has become as much a cultural value of Western Judaism in the last century as any religeous practice or tradition; perhaps more, as Zionism is the lens by which Judaism is projected to Jewish communities and not vice versa. Indeed, a wealth of statistical (see below) and real world data reveals virtually no functional difference between being Jewish and Zionist. In national US elections, for example, it is obvious that American Jews are almost a one note demographic group. The “Jewish” vote is won on who can be most supportive of the state of Israel(see article in Slate or recent article in LA Times ). In previous decades, the Democratic party regularly proved itself to be the most compliant with Israeli needs. Choosing Joseph Lieberman, an outspoken Zionist, as his Vice Presidential candidate won Al Gore 80% of the Jewish vote in 2000 because he promised to make Lieberman his “advisor” on Middle East issues. Republicans for their part are rapidly losing the stigma of openly courting Jewish votes; George W. Bush has succesfully used the carte blanche he has given Israel in the Occupied Territories to make serious inroads into the Democrat Jewish niche. In essence, as George W. Bush’s popularity plummets with the US mainstream due to his policies in the Middle East, it has actually grown with Jewish American voters.

Zionism has become so entrenched in Western Jewish culture that most Jews are not aware that supporting the state of Israel as a Jewish-only entity, by itself, is a Zionist position. Seperating Zionism from modern western Judaism would be the equivalent of dividing “American” from “capitalist”. Immersed in a life-long deluge of pro-capitalist propaganda, most Americans, no matter how aware or progressive, live and act like capitalists to some degree, perhaps without even knowing it. In much the same way, Western Jewish communities are so immersed in the mythology of the creation of the Israeli state that it may be nearly impossible for them to think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside the confines of Zionism. Even so called Anti-Zionists often believe that Jewish immigrants had the incontrovertible right to displace Palestinian natives before 1967. Jeff Halper, one of the most arguably radical of Israeli Leftists who has worked tirelessly for the rights of Palestinians, calls himself a “post-zionist” and believes that the Zionist narrative should be validated even if there should ever be a bi-national secular state in Israel. Tanya Reinhart an Israeli professor at Tel Aviv University and leftist, comments in the introduction to her well-researched and insightful book “Israel/Palestine: How to End The War of 1948,:

“…the Israeli land was obtained through ethnic cleansing of the indiginous Palestinian inhabitants…Had Israel stopped there, in 1948, I could probably live with it.”

Indeed what Halpert, Reinhardt and many other Israelis and Jews find unpleasant today is being personally implicated in the on-going colonialist endeavor of occupation that lacks generations of polishing to make it appear virtuous or the distance of memory to mitigate its impact. Because Israelis and Western Jews seemingly cannot give up the holiest of holies – the Israeli Creation Myth – they are unable to understand how to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the dynamics of the real world; they continue to produce peace strategies designed to ensure Israel’s ethnic exclusivity first and justice for Palestinians second. If the overwhelming support for Israel’s right to exist as an apartheid state is any measure, most Jews seem to believe that you can have ethnic exclusivity and representative democracy at the same time. Halpert and Reinhardt both support an independent state for Palestinians, the two state solution, even though their entire acadamic ouput has been dedicated to pointing out the political cynicism and disastrous consequences of the Oslo Years. The solution to the conflict, however, envisioned outside the boundaries of the Zionist perspective, is completely at odds with a seperate Jewish and Palestinian state; Israelis must share Palestinian land with Palestinians.

That solution, however, remains outside the realm of polite discourse because it would eliminate the “Jewish Only” stricture from the state, a scenario most Jews and Israelis cannot even bring themselves to contemplate. A recent Haaretz study found that “only 47 percent [of Israelis] support complete equality between Jews and Arabs and only 23 percent support making the Arabs partner to decisions crucial to the state”. Most disturbingly, given the nature of those majority views, the study found that “only 51 percent agree with the statement that Israel’s Arabs are discriminated against”. Taking a stand against the vulgar colonialism of the settler movement may be increasingly popular among Jewish communities worldwide; actually giving Palestinians a fair shot at economic and political justice in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem or even in the democractic continuum of Israel itself, is another matter.

Three) Taking all this into account, what’s so bad about a Palestinian resenting Jews, anyway? If even Israeli leftists can “live with” the dispossession of nearly a million Palestinians in 1948, then we’re definitely going to have some problems getting along.

The reason Palestinians are required to feel shame for hating their oppressors has everything to do with Western guilt over Europe and America’s barbaric treatment of Jews, and nothing to do with the brutal realities of Israeli occupation, ethnic cleansing and colonialism. Americans, heirs to a western culture that includes the Nazi regime and other societies guilty of pogroms, segregation and acts of genocide, must constantly be on guard not to appear in any way supportive of the sort of thinking that led to those inhuman times. Fair enough; but Palestinians had nothing to do with those pogroms or genocides. On the contrary, before the deluge of immigration that preceeded the Israeli state, Palestinians were more than happy to share their land with Jews fleeing the hatred and inequality of Europe. Palestinians should feel no guilt or responsibility over the European crimes against Jews any more than Guamanians should.

On the other hand, the early history of Zionism, an ideology created by Jews and still enjoying some level of support even among progressives as noted above, is repleat with arrogant calls to ignore the desires of Arabs as if they were cows grazing on unused land. Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the forefathers of the Israeli state, claimed that Palestinians could go live in “Arab state No.4, No.5 or No.6” and that Palestinian desires for statehood were like “claims of apetite versus the claims of starvation.” This view of Palestinians has remained a dominant one in pro-Israeli discourse, with Palestinians just another group of Arabs who could pitch their tents somewhere out of the way without so much as a hiccup of resentment. Even today, Palestinians are scolded for not having jumped at Ehud Barak’s generous offer of 2000, which constituted a meager fraction of what had been stolen from them since 1948. Israelis, along with virtually every first world country, still insist that Palestinians settle for bantustans and reservations and to be sure, no matter what the cost, to avoid appearing resentful towards their Jewish oppressors so as not to offend Western minds.

If there is a good reason to overlook the narrative of dispossession left to us by Israel and the global Jewish community, it has certainly not yet been presented. If anything, too many Palestinians today are expresssing gratitude when offered a small measure of control over the large prison camp that has become the Palestinian homeland. I do not mean to say that our anger against Israelis and Jews should lead us to contemplate the kinds of horrific acts predicated by groups such as Hamas and Jihad. It is important, however, to realize that the anger we often feel towards Jews as a group is legitimate and fed by the fact that so few Jews take a stand not only against the occupation, but on the apartheid nature of Israel.

Palestinians have not asked to hate Jews and they would gladly be rid of the emotion; however, asking Palestinians to feel something less is negating their humanity. Any people would feel the same under such circumstances. Perhaps when there are fewer Jews advocating putting us in bantustans or erasing our existance as a people, we can be more reasonable and take the higher ground. That would require Jews to take Pro-Palestinian peace positions, not just self-serving Pro-Israeli ones, and be fearless and vocal about them. That would mean accepting Palestinians as full partners, not just in the peace process, but in humanity, with the same right to self-determination as Jews. And finally, that would mean accepting the end of a militarized apartheid state in favor of an inclusive democracy. Only then can a conversation about anti-semitism occur in any meaningful way.