Innuendo as a weapon of war

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By Stephen Gowans

Original dateline: August 2, 2002 / Reposted as a classic essay, since “anti-semitism” continues to be used as a cudgel to beat opponents of Israeli policy into submission. 

How comforting to know my local newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, is on the lookout for undesirables, striking an alarm whenever a persona non grata pays a visit to this small, usually frozen, northern capital.

On July 30th, the newspaper sounded the latest alarm. “Accused anti-Semite is coming,” it warned on its front page.

The accused anti-Semite is Mohammed Salmawy, an Egyptian journalist, author, and playwright.

Salmawy says he isn’t an anti-Semite. “I’ve never written anything to say Jews are a bad race or anything like that.” But he says, “I have been critical of the Israeli government.”

Who is and who isn’t an anti-Semite has become a rather ambiguous matter. It used to be that anti-Semites were people who hated Jews. No longer. These days, long standing supporters of racial equality, veteran anti-racism activists, even Jews themselves, are being called anti-Semites. And they’re being saddled with the hateful obloquy for the same reason Salmawy is: they’ve criticized the Israeli government.

Salmawy has complained that, “All the atrocities the Nazis have done to innocent Jews at the time are now being committed against the Palestinians by the very victims of evil.” Of course, not all the atrocities are being done; there has been no Palestinian Holocaust. But Israel shows itself to be perfectly capable of matching the Nazis in other ways, and it’s being noticed.

Yaffa Yarkoni, Israel’s “Singer of the Wars” was reminded of what the Nazis did to the Jews when she saw the IDF, the Israeli army, rounding up Palestinian men and boys, painting numbers on their heads.

“When I saw the Palestinians with their hands tied behind their backs, young men, I said, ‘It is like what they did to us in the Holocaust. We are a people who have been through the Holocaust. How are we capable of doing these things?'”

And Adam Shapiro, a Jew from New York who is an activist with the International Solidarity Movement, an organization working to foster understanding between Jews and Palestinians, thought the Nazi simile apt when he criticized Israel in a CNN interview on March 29.

Said Shapiro:

“The [Israeli] government sometimes will apologize after it kills an innocent civilian but it does not apologize for raping the cities and for going in and carrying out terrorist actions, going house to house much like the Nazis in World War II, tearing holes through the walls, roughing up people, killing people, assassinating people. This is a terrorist government, funded, by the way, by the United States government to the tune of $3 billion a year in U.S. military aid. These are American helicopters and tanks and F-16s doing this damage to the Palestinian people.”

Shapiro’s remarks about Nazi-like behavior were hardly unique. An unnamed IDF officer, quoted in Ma’ariv, an Israeli newspaper, said “If our job is to seize a densely packed refugee camp, we must before all else analyze and bring together the lessons of past battles, even–shocking though this might appear–to analyze how the German army operated in the Warsaw Ghetto.”

Reaction to Shapiro’s remarks was swift. The New York Post immediately denounced him as the “Jewish Taliban,” calling him a “traitor.” His family was inundated with death threats and Shapiro’s father, a part-time Yeshiva teacher, was peremptorily fired.

And Yarkoni, too, has been widely reviled.

As for Salmawy, he’s been branded an anti-Semite by “various Web sites of the Israeli government, Tel Aviv University and other Jewish-friendly organizations dedicated to uncovering anti-Semitism,” according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Anti-Semitism, it seems, is no longer so obvious it can be detected without the aid of organizations dedicated to “uncovering” it.

Howard Rosenthal (not his real name), whose acquaintance I’ve met on an Internet listserve, shares the same passion for “uncovering anti-Semitism”.

He first came to my attention when he objected to another listserve member posting a link to a BBC story about an IDF tank firing on and killing two unarmed Palestinian boys.  Rosenthal greets criticism of Tel Aviv with reminders that anti-Semites are everywhere — at work, at school, in anti-racist organizations and human rights groups, in left wing groups, and apparently, in synagogues.

He also warns that anti-Semites are fond of criticizing Israel. The observation is true enough. There is no fiercer critic of Israel than David Duke, the white supremacist and former Klansman. But it doesn’t follow that all critics of Israel are anti-Semitic or motivated by anti-Jewish racism, any more than all lesbians being female implies all females are lesbians.

Still, one wonders whether Rosenthal has fallen prey to a common logical fallacy, or is trying to frighten off would-be critics of Israel with innuendo. His reminder that Duke and other racists are fierce critics of Israel may be nothing more than a warning to those who call Israel into question. “You wouldn’t want to be known as an anti-Semite, would you?”

What’s more, it’s clear Rosenthal’s definition of what an anti-Semite is, isn’t what an anti-Semite used to be. Anti-Semite somehow has morphed from “one who hates Jews” to “one who opposes Zionism” and “one who deplores Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.”

According to Rosenthal, anyone who makes any of the following claims is an anti-Semite, by definition.

Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state;

Israel is oppressing Palestinians;

Palestinians are innocent victims;

Palestinian refugees have an unqualified right to return to their homes;

The actions of Israel are equivalent to those of the Nazis.

Rosenthal’s reasoning follows a tortuous and tortured path: If you criticize the way Israel has dealt with Palestinians, you deny Israelis the right to live within secure borders; if you deny Israelis the right to live within secure borders, you deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state; if you deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, you are an anti-Semite. In short, Zionism justifies war crimes, the abridgment of Palestinian rights, and transgression of international law. And anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.

That the Israeli government and supporters like Rosenthal have an interest in smearing critics as Jew-haters is plain. Nazis complained their critics hated Germans. But what’s disturbing is that the press is playing along. If Salmawy’s treatment by the media is any indication, some newspapers are not only prepared to stoop low enough to run “when did you stop beating your wife?” headlines, they’re also acting as willing executives of Israel’s slander campaigns. After all, what the Ottawa Citizen did was to uncritically report what Israel had to say about an opponent it has an interest in discrediting. That’s equivalent to the New York Times running a front page story under the headline, “Accused anti-Arab bigot in the White House,” based on allegations posted “on various Iraqi government Web sites.” If that happened, wouldn’t you ask, “Who are these guys working for?”

Equally disturbing is that others are playing along.

Gilles d’Aymery, editor of the e-zine Swans, which I wrote for until d’Aymery refused to publish an article of mine denouncing the behavior of the Israeli army in Jenin as being modeled after the Nazis, published an editorial, Primum Non Nocere, in which he described the equating of Israeli government actions to those of Nazis as the demonizing of a race, and therefore promoting hate.

D’Aymery uses a favorite ploy of Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: equating Israel, and more narrowly, the Israeli government, with the Jewish people. The message is clear: criticize Zionism and you criticize the Jews as a people. That the equation is odious to hundreds of thousands of non-Zionist Jews, and that the logical merits of the argument are comparable to the rankest neo-Nazi slurs against Jews, either escaped d’Aymery’s notice, or he didn’t care.

Managing dissent is as much a part of war as assault rifles, tanks and F-16s, for wars cannot be prosecuted without the consent of the majority. Silencing critics who threaten to undermine support is imperative. How it’s done differs, depending on the time and place. In some places critics are hacked to pieces and left at the side of the road. In others, they’re jailed. In the Western world, they’re more likely to be marginalized, or maligned in crafty campaigns bearing the hallmarks of a McCarthyite witchhunt, carried out by those who use innuendo and charges of anti-Jewish racism as weapons of war. They’re not as directly deadly, but they’re every bit as much a part of the war on Palestinians as soldiers who massacre civilians in refugee camps and F-16 pilots who fire one-ton missiles into densely packed neighborhoods.

How odd that those who talk of a multiracial, secular state in Palestine, where all are equal, and where race and religion have no place in the assignment of rights and privileges; how odd that these people are called racists. And how strange that those who call them racists would elevate one race above others, invoking the same rhetoric used by  David Duke and his white supremacists: we’re not trying to oppress other races; we’re just trying to protect our own.

Stephen Gowans is the legendary founder & editor of What’s Left, a fraternal blog. 


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