Clifford D. May: Are We Too Fair-minded to Take Our Own Side?

By | Mar 05, 2012

By Clifford D. May

In the 20th century, a war was waged against the Jews of Europe. It culminated in the Holocaust. In the 21st century, a war is being waged against the Jews of the Middle East. How that turns out will depend in large measure on whether people in the Middle East, Europe and America stand up to resurgent anti-Semitism.

At the moment, there’s little basis for confidence. In Iran, Egypt, the West Bank, Gaza and other corners of the Middle East, what is now routinely said and written about Jews is indistinguishable from what the Nazis said and wrote about Jews in the 1930s. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently called Israel “a cancerous tumor,” adding, “And it will be removed.”

In Europe, anti-Semites are generally more sophisticated. They don’t call for the Jewish state’s extermination, but they make clear that were such an event to occur, no salty tears would be shed. One example: At a dinner party in London just three months after the attacks of 9/11, French Ambassador Daniel Bernard offhandedly told newspaper publisher Conrad Black that Israel was a “shitty little country.” The BBC called that “undiplomatic.”

In America, it’s still considered impolite to openly disparage Jews, Israelis or Israel. But speaking in a coded way is not unacceptable. So it’s fine to suggest that perhaps some Jews exercise too much power and insinuate themselves into positions where they place Israel’s interests above America’s. Efforts to delegitimize Israel and even dehumanize Israelis are permissible “free speech” rather than impermissible “hate speech.” It also is increasingly considered bold, even brave, to suggest that Israel may have been a mistake.

Anyone with a grasp of history or a grain of common sense should know where this road leads. Yet too many people—not least, too many American Jews—seem untroubled by such rhetoric. Some even reinforce it.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is no anti-Semite. But in December, he echoed a long-standing calumny: He charged that the standing ovation that members of Congress gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Friedman apparently could not imagine that the case Netanyahu articulated about the threat posed by those who proclaim they are waging a jihad against Israel, America and the West resonated with the legislators. No, those members of Congress—Democrats and Republicans alike—must be cynically doing what they were bribed to do by Jewish money.

Gilad Atzmon is an anti-Semite, a self-hating Jew who wrote a book featuring a defense of blood libels, Holocaust denial and the claim that Hitler merely responded to a “declaration of war on Germany by the worldwide Jewish leadership.” Nevertheless, John Mearsheimer, co-author of a 2007 book charging that American Jews are eagerly sacrificing America’s interests in favor of Israel’s, last year called Atzmon’s book, The Wandering Who: A Study of Jewish Identity Politics, “a fascinating and provocative book on Jewish identity in the modern world” showing how “panicked Jewish leaders have turned to Zionism (blind loyalty to Israel) and scaremongering (the threat of another Holocaust) to keep the tribe united and distinct from the surrounding goyim.”

Such praise, noted The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, makes clear that Mearsheimer is “not even bothering to make believe any more—he’s moved from a self-described critic of Israel to a corrosive critic of Jewry itself.” Even Daily Kos ran a story headlined: “John Mearsheimer Does His Best to Prove Critics Right.”

But The Atlantic
’s Robert Kaplan, a writer I’ve long admired, penned a glowing profile of Mearsheimer, dismissing the “controversies” surrounding him as “lamentable” because, Kaplan gushed, they “threaten to obscure the urgent and enduring message of Mearsheimer’s life’s work, which topples conventional foreign-policy shibboleths and provides an unblinking guide to the course the United States should follow in the coming decades.” Had Mearsheimer written about blacks as he has about Jews, do you think Kaplan would have said that about him?

One more example, different but revealing of the mindset that views Israel as less than a normal country: The New York Times Travel section recently gave prominent placement to a story by Matt Gross, who wrote that “of all the world’s roughly 200 nations, there was only one—besides Afghanistan and Iraq (which my wife has deemed too dangerous)—that I had absolutely zero interest in ever visiting: Israel…[T]o me, a deeply secular Jew, Israel has always felt less like a country than a politically iffy burden.”

Gross ventures to Israel anyway and pays a visit to Yad Vashem. “I’d been to other Holocaust-related sites before—the Berlin memorial, the killing pits outside Vilnius—and had not been much affected.” He finds this one “hellaciously detailed” and so expresses relief at escaping and finding a “lively restaurant.” In the same paragraph, he writes: “I had my mind blown by a platter of seared veal sweetbreads with artichokes, cherry tomatoes and cauliflower cream. It hit every mark: lush and crusty, vegetal and tart, smooth and filling.”

Imagine a Cambodian-American briefly dismissing a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge, then gushing over peppered chicken with julienned ginger root in Phnom Penh. Or an African-American writer giving the back of his hand to Rwandan genocide, then raving about the Nouvelle Franco-African cuisine in Kigali. If Gross went to Iran, would he report that he was not much affected by the executions of apostates, the hangings of homosexuals and the stoning of adulterers but that the kabobs were to die for? Surely the Times editors would ask the writer to rethink such moral obtuseness.

Years ago, someone told me that a Jew is a person too fair-minded to take his own side in a fight. Back then, it was meant as a joke. And back then the fight was not as consequential as the 21st century war against the Jews.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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