Anti-Semitism: Seeing is Believing

Oftentimes, we see what we want to see, not necessarily what is actually in front of us, on the page or in the world. We take intellectual shortcuts: Oh, if he thinks ‘X’ then he must also think ‘Y’ even though there is no such connection in a given argument. Sometimes these blinders we put on ourselves are harmless. Sometimes not.

Careful readers will note that I almost never reply to comments posted on my blogs: I have had my "say" in the original post and now it is the readers’ turn to argue, to vent, to question. But, the responses from yesterday deserve attention.


One reader raises an objection to my calling Israel "our best ally in the whole world" which I most certainly did. Another reader pointed out that Great Britain has been a strong ally too. Sure enough. Israel, like Britain, is our ally not merely because of shared interests but because of shared values. They, too, have an open, liberal society with a free media, genuine elections, the peaceful transfer of power, etc. There is, as well, the fact that most Americans and most Israelis also share the belief that the Hebrew Scriptures are the Word of God.

But, there is something more, something that distinguishes our alliance with Israel from our alliance with Britain. Israel needs us and the protection of our military power. It is a desperately small country surrounded by enemies. Maybe in the Cold War, Britain needed the umbrella of American strategic power the way Israel still does, but not anymore. So, Israel is our best ally because the alliance is built on both shared values and practical necessity.

Another reader says I am wrong to equate admiring Arabs or criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. But, I did not equate those two. I equated admiring the tyrannical regime in Saudi Arabia with moral confusion or, in Mr. Chas Freeman’s instance, I suppose you could call it a case of "clientitis" a not unfamiliar affliction of some foreign service-types. I linked Mr. Freeman’s comments about Saudi Arabia not with any claim about anti-Semitism, but with his equally outrageous comments about China.

I also did not equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. I said Mr. Freeman’s remarks about a conspiracy by something called the "Israel lobby" were anti-Semitic and anyone familiar with the history of anti-Semitism will recognize that the assertion of powerful, but secret, Jewish influence is one of the great tropes of anti-Semitism. The Washington Post labeled Mr. Freeman’s remarks "a grotesque libel." I was content to point out that there was nothing secretive about the campaign on the blogosphere that brought down Mr. Freeman’s appointment, so what did animate this charge of secretive influence?

My article also pointed an accusatory finger at an Arab Israeli Christian who was quoted in this magazine making remarks that smacked of anti-Semitism. I cited the comparison of Hamas with Avigdor Lieberman and need not repeat it. I could have easily cited the other person quoted in that article who called Mr. Lieberman’s party a "fascist party." Of all the adjectives in the world, "fascist" just leapt to mind? I confess I do not know enough about Mr. Lieberman’s views on corporatist economics, an essential part of fascist ideology, to know whether the adjective fits precisely, but my hunch is that the word was chosen to inflame, not to enlighten. Yes, dear readers, throwing the word "fascist" at a Jew is strong stuff, and I stand by my belief that the most likely explanation for its usage is anti-Semitism.

Two readers write about what one of them calls the American government’s "100 percent uncritical support for Israel" and the other calls "blind support." They may have forgotten that the U.S. insisted, over Israeli objections, that we have elections in Gaza – and, by the way, the Israelis were right. Or, the repeated clashes over settlement policy, which clashes have resulted in not once but twice forcing an Israeli government from power. Or, the American refusal of Israel’s request for weapons that might have been useful in a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. "If you agree with me seventy percent of the time, vote for me," Mayor Koch used to say. "If you agree with me one hundred percent of the time, see your shrink." There have been sufficient divergences of opinion between the American and Israeli government to assert with confidence that there is nothing psychologically, or strategically, corrupting about our relationship with Israel. As for "blindness," I think failure to support the nation that mourned with us on September 11, rather than the nation that celebrated in the streets, would be blindness.

As Christians, we have a special obligation to be on the alert for anti-Semitism. If I am over-sensitive, I am happy for it. Auschwitz (and the other largest camps) were located in the most Catholic nation in Europe. Ultra-conservative French Catholics, as we have recently been reminded in the controversy over the Society of St. Pius X, have a history of convinced anti-Semitism that goes back before Dreyfuss and is still alive and kicking.

The walk to the death camps began with one step just as genocide begins with one victim. I do not suppose the readers of my column wrote what they did because they are anti-Semites. I suspect they wrote what they did because sympathy for the tragic circumstance of the Palestinian people has led many informed and decent people in the West to see Israel as a culprit. NPR, my all-time favorite news source, is, I think, guilty of this kind of criticism of Israel. My reading is different. My reading is that the Palestinian people have been failed, time and again, by their own political leadership, that the example of Jordan proves that a better way can be found for Jews and Arabs to live together, and that America’s best interests are served by supporting Israel, not uncritically, but it is tendentious to think our support has been uncritical. And, everyone who touches this subject needs to weigh carefully their word choices, their analogies, their biases. Anti-Semitism does indeed lurk in many Western intellectual closets, some on the right, some on the left, some in the Church. To deny that it is so does not make it so.


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9 years 10 months ago
Mr. Winters: For some balance, please read David Broder's comments in the Washington Post:
9 years 10 months ago
We invite you to sign our petition to encourage Pope Benedict to visit Gaza. Excerpts of the Petition: “To Pope Benedict XVI, on the occasion of his visit to the Holy Land in May, 2009: Your Holiness: The incarnation of divine love and our redeemer, Jesus Christ, enacted human reconciliation in part by visiting, eating with, and listening to the least among us: women and children, lepers and tax collectors, many persons deemed inferior and unclean by his society... In many ways, the people of Gaza have been suffering under similar unjust social systems. In many ways, the Israelis, too, live in fear, distrust, and uncertainty. And thus the deeper justice of mutual healing is needed for both peoples. However, the people of Gaza in large part represent ''the least among us” today...When we ask, ''Whose equal dignity is most unequally ignored?'' or ''Whose equal rights are most unequally threatened?'' the faces of the people in Gaza clearly arise. Mindful of the gospel’s call and the Gazan’s need, we believe there is a unique opportunity for Christians as the body of Christ, especially for our leadership, to cooperate with God in the redemptive work of reconciliation. As in all times, the way of reconciliation exemplified by Jesus calls us to initiate social healing by visiting, eating with, listening to, and risking our safety in solidarity with the “least among us” -- in this case the people of Gaza... Such witness by Church leadership will inspire the Catholic faithful, particularly the young, to embrace their Church and its rich tradition, particularly Christ’s wise, loving, and nonviolent way of promoting reconciliation...We trust and hope that through such courageous love, embodied in nonviolent peacemaking, God’s Spirit and our participation will draw us all further into the Reign of God.” Sign: Eli McCarthy Graduate Theological Union
9 years 10 months ago
The proportion of atheists in Israel seems to be fairly high if we are to believe the following page:
9 years 10 months ago
It is good to read a thoughtful, articulate assessment of our moral duty to an ally, that has always been viewed, first and foremost, as a "Jewish" State, with all the thousands of years of deeply ingrained, conscious and unconscious associations to the crimes Jews have committed (killing God) that have been passed down from generation to generation. I thank you Michael Sean Winters for standing with Jews, rather than falling prey to the lasting hatred they continue to experience clothed particularly today by he Left who hold Israel at a double standard, and criticize Jews for protecting and staunchly defending the last outpost (other than America) Jews have in this world. It's fine for Americans to be defensive about criticisms against our own country, but somehow American Jews' loyalty is questioned when they are concerned about unfair blame and criticisms, distortion and lies about Israel. What a guilt trip ! Bruce Kugler
9 years 10 months ago
As the person who questioned the idea of Israel as the "best ally of the U.S," I'm still a bit puzzled by Mr. Winter's choice. I've no doubt that Israel is an ally that shares our values. But noting that it is a small country surrounded by enemies and thus dependent on the U.S. makes Israel perhaps our most dependent ally, not necessarily our best. And arguably both the United States, in its invasion of Iraq and its employment of torture, and Israel, in the harshness of its invasion of Gaza, have been less than true to our shared values. Of course the United States and--to a much great degree--Israel, have genuine enemies, but our responses to the dangerous world in which we live are still subject to criticism and self criticism. Americans need to examine our collective consciences about our actions in the world, and we owe our friend and ally the obligation of honest advice and criticism. That need not be in any way anti-Semitic.
9 years 10 months ago
Your Jesuit education is showing: "Auschwitz (and the other largest camps) were located in the most Catholic nation in Europe". One presumes you mean Poland - under Nazi occupation. The most Catholic nation in Europe in the 1930s was most likely Ireland. Have you ever heard the expression "Polish Jew"? Does it not reflect the fact that Jews were most welcome in Poland for centuries?


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