Bigotry and criticism of Israel

By James Carroll, 5/20/2003

WITH BREATHTAKING cynicism, Hamas has just blown a hole in the road to peace between Israelis and Palestinians -- five suicide-murder attacks in two days, including a particularly savage one in Jerusalem. The Bush-Sharon meeting scheduled for today in Washington was called off, Israel clamped a total closure on the West Bank, and the challenge facing Palestinian peacemakers became far more daunting. Everyone who loves Israel, while also affirming Palestinian hopes, is disheartened. It is possible to condemn the broad Palestinian surrender to the nihilist fringe that sponsors such brutality without falling into an endemic anti-Palestinian bigotry. That the proper Palestinian demand for justice is so soaked in blood severely undercuts its claim on the world's conscience, and it is no manifestation of racial hatred to say so. But criticism of Israel is more complex.

The ''overwhelming force'' occupation by Israel of the West Bank and Gaza, with attendant strategies of collective punishment, extrajudicial assassination, and the ongoing policy of salting disputed territory with the ''facts'' of Jewish settlements deserve to be denounced and often are -- by many Israelis and American Jews, as well as by others who make clear that their opposition is to Israel's policy, not to its Jewishness.

But it is likewise true that criticism of Israel is increasingly animated by anti-Semitism. This shows up most obviously in some Arab countries, but also in Europe and America where political criticism of the Sharon government morphs into transcendent scorn. Urgent conferences have convened on the subject here and abroad. Understanding this ugly phenomenon is important for three reasons: to oppose anti-Semitism, to affirm a normalcy for Israel, like other states, that takes criticism of the exercise of power for granted, and to defuse one of the explosive elements that keeps the Israeli-Palestinian dispute so volatile.

Two features of anti-Semitic thinking come into play here. The first might be called the celebration of ''the ideal Jew,'' which accomplishes a denigration by means of an exaltation. Jews as they exist are measured against Jews as they should exist, and are always found wanting. This can involve a New Testament assumption that God's chosen people should certainly have recognized Jesus as Messiah, a medieval Christian rage against the Talmud as denial of the sufficiency for Jews of the Old Testament, an Enlightenment-era resentment of Jewish ''clannishness'' that complicates Jewish citizenship, or the contemporary contrast between the Socialist idealism of the kibbutzim and the compromised realpolitik of the post-1948 state of Israel.

In every case, the imagined Jew is used to justify contempt for the real Jew. Israelis are thus commonly measured against standards of justice that Palestinians would not match, and neither, for that matter, would the administration of George W. Bush. After all, Bush's ''overwhelming force'' is the license for Sharon's.

A second, related signal of anti-Semitic thinking is the tendency to define ''the Jews'' univocally, as if this group is only one thing. Thus, criticisms of Israel are routinely mounted from outside Israel with little attention to the expressly Jewish voices within Israel that steadfastly raise issues of Palestinian suffering. It is true, as polls show, that in the present climate of terror, the Sharon government draws wide support from the Israeli electorate; it is equally true that majorities of Israelis still favor compromise for peace, dismantling of settlements, and a viable Palestinian state. When Israel is harshly judged, one might ask, which Israel: The Israel of the Jerusalem Post, or the Israel of Ha'aretz? Of Likud or Labor? Which Jews? Ariel Sharon or Thomas Friedman? Joseph Lieberman or Michael Lerner?

The inability of many of Israel's critics to refrain from sweeping condemnation of ''the Jews'' repeats the originating Christian mistake -- perceiving ''the Jews'' in such univocally negative ways that Jesus was no longer recognized as belonging to this people. And it is important to acknowledge that a particularly Christian prejudice sometimes powers this sweep, as is clear every time an Israel Defense Force siege of Palestinian militant positions in Bethlehem is characterized as ''the Jews'' against Jesus once again.

Anti-Semitism is back, and perhaps not surprisingly. Despite the American government's disclaimers, the war on terrorism, with its subset war against Iraq, has been cast, alas, as a momentous conflict between ''the West and the rest.'' It feels, indeed, like a new Crusade. The first Crusade (1096) initiated a war not only against Islam in the flashpoint city (then as now) of Jerusalem, but against Jews in the heart of Europe. The first pogroms occurred along the Rhine that year.

The flip side of a massive assault against an enemy outside is paranoid fear of an enemy inside, and in Western civilization the enemy inside par excellence has been the Jew. To be aware of this twin dynamic is to be alert to its grave danger, which is the first step in finally defeating it.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.