[Marxism] When Is An Anti-Semite Not An Anti-Semite?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 3 08:30:55 MDT 2009


When Is An Anti-Semite Not An Anti-Semite?
Desperate to promote Israeli Government policy, the Australian Jewish 
establishment has resorted to calling all kinds of people anti-Semites — 
even Jews

Once again, the so-called pro-Israel lobby has shown how it feels about 
debate on Israel.

The latest major episode is the Jeff Halper affair. The Australian 
Jewish News (AJN) refused to publicise the times and venues of Halper’s 
talks, and urged the Temple Emanuel to cancel its invitation of him. 
This was because Halper not only opposes house demolitions, but is "a 
hardline detractor of Israel", who believes that the state "courts 

In a sense, this is a useful demonstration of the sorts of views 
"supporters of Israel" think the Jewish community should be protected 
from. Yet, most of these major organisations do not identify as 
pro-Israel, but as simply Jewish. The Executive Council for Australian 
Jewry (ECAJ), with all of its underlying Jewish bodies, the AJN, the 
Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) are all presented as Jewish 
organisations, but they are all committed to strongly partisan positions 
on Israel.

This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they claim to 
speak on behalf of the Jewish community, even though political opinions 
by a community organisation are unlikely to ever be entirely 
representative. Consequently, these organisations often say things that 
members of the Jewish community — such as myself — strongly disagree with.

Two years ago, a group of prominent Australian Jews, and over 100 fellow 
travellers (so to speak), released a mild statement on the matter. They 
thought that their concerns about "uncritical allegiance to Israeli 
Government policy … should be met by reasoned argument rather than 
vilification". The signatories were concerned that "the Jewish 
establishment does not represent the full range of Jewish opinion".

In a sense, this was long overdue. Outside the Jewish community, critics 
of Israeli policy have long complained that they have not been allowed a 
fair hearing. One of their specific complaints is that leading Jewish 
organisations have unfairly accused them of anti-Semitism.

This accusation, by slandering the critic and shifting the debate, 
prevents honest discussion of the issues, and creates a chilling effect. 
Those who are willing to criticise Israeli policies run a serious risk 
of being treated this way, argued these critics. And further, if the 
leading Jewish organisations would not permit a fair hearing of 
grievances against Israel within the Jewish community either, then the 
issues could go entirely undiscussed.

In an immediate response to that mild statement, the Jewish 
organisations swung into action. As one, they denounced the petition and 
its signatories. They also arranged a counter-petition, in which they 
solemnly declared that Australian Jewish "communal roof bodies include a 
wide range of opinions".

Of course, the "wide range of opinions" plainly does not include someone 
who compares Israel’s occupation to apartheid. So, what are the 
uttermost fringes of permissible discussion of Israel within the Jewish 

Consider the case of Philip Mendes. According to the Jewish News, Mendes 
was one of the co-writers of the counter-petition. Mendes is a useful 
example, because he represents the left-most fringe of what is 
considered acceptable in the leading Jewish organisations. For example, 
when Antony Loewenstein criticised the AJN on Crikey, its editor 
suggested Crikey should have asked Mendes to write on the topic instead. 
Mendes is for the Jewish establishment the "good leftist", who they can 
point to with pride, as the diversity they are happy to have in their 
discussions of Israel.

As the fringe left of the Jewish establishment, he is the perfect 
illustration of the primary concern expressed in the IAJV’s petition, 
"that Jewish organisations do not represent the full range of Jewish 
opinion". Indeed, what is striking is that not so many years ago, he 
felt able to write that "the ECAJ, state boards and community councils 
can reasonably claim to represent the entire spectrum of Jewish 
political and religious positions".

And exactly what are these views of Mendes’s — this furthest "extreme" 
that the establishment will tolerate or acknowledge within the Jewish 
community? On Tuesday, Mendes gave a presentation to a Labor Party forum 
on when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism. He says — as he has said in 
the past — that there are basically three left wing perspectives on 
Israel. The first "supports moderates" and condemns extremists on all 
sides. In his presentation, Mendes gave an example: Julia Gillard 
defending Israel’s right to defend itself in Gaza. This is the only 
perspective on the left Mendes doesn’t criticise — presumably it’s his 
view. Israel killing some 1400 Palestinians, and suffering all of 13 
casualties in its onslaught is apparently "self defence" in Mendes’ 
world. The Palestinian right to self-defence, of course, went unmentioned.

The second perspective is also one Mendes thinks someone can 
legitimately hold. This is one that holds Israel, and its occupation of 
the West Bank and Gaza, primarily responsible for continued violence. 
Mendes graciously permits this camp to raise concerns about aspects of 
the occupation, discrimination against Palestinians within Israel and 
the issue of the refugees. While Mendes thinks such people cannot simply 
be dismissed as anti-Semites, he believes that at least some of them 
"may reasonably be characterised as unbalanced and naïve at best". Their 
concerns fall within what Mendes calls "legitimate non anti-Semitic 
political debate".

However, in the Mendes structure there is a third perspective, which is 
when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism. These anti-Zionists portray 
Israelis and their Jewish supporters as "inherently evil oppressors". 
Manifestations of this anti-Semitism include the view that in the Hanan 
Ashrawi affair, members of the Jewish community exerted "undue financial 
and political influence". Believing in the wealth and influence of 
Jewish organisations (which Mendes calls "alleged") is a sign of this 
anti-Semitism. These third-perspective anti-Semites often favour a 
boycott, which he sees as being based on ethnic stereotyping of all 

Indeed, comparisons and references to Nazis are also a typical 
manifestation of anti-Semitism according to Mendes. While he hedges this 
part of his definition, Mendes thinks he’s able to identify someone as 
anti-Semitic if they make comparisons between Israel’s conduct and the 

For example, John Pilger is supposedly anti-Semitic, because he is said 
to have made eight comparisons between Israel and the Nazi Holocaust in 
an article about the Gaza massacre. While Pilger may sometimes use 
overly dramatic language, in making these comparisons and assertions of 
genocide, he was mostly citing other people. The UN Special Rapporteur 
on Palestine Richard Falk, for example, compared Israel’s siege on Gaza 
to a Nazi "collective atrocity". Isn’t this a fairly significant 
comment, worth reporting? By the Mendes standard, it is, a priori, 
anti-Semitic, and doesn’t warrant consideration.

Socialist Alliance uses "Stop the Holocaust in Gaza" placards. Mendes 
assumes that they are anti-Semites too. John Docker and Ned Curthoys 
advocate an academic boycott of Israel, so they’re anti-Semites too. 
That’s right, even Jews can be anti-Semites if they go outside what 
Mendes considers the correct margins for debate.

That is the striking part of the Mendes margins. He’s willing to 
consider the "extent to which the creation of the state of Israel 
contributed to the historical injustice that has befallen the indigenous 
Palestinians". However, if someone concludes that this means the 
endeavour to create a Jewish state was illegitimate, such a person is an 
"anti-Zionist fundamentalist", and so presumably falls outside Mendes’ 
room for debate. Mendes allows people to reflect on a resolution of the 
"refugee tragedy". However, those who advocate a right of return would 
plainly bring about the end of Israel as a Jewish state, and so we can 
assume Mendes considers them anti-Semites too.

Consider now what is left of Mendes’ idea of legitimate debate. 
Everything is open for discussion, until someone disagrees with Mendes’s 
conclusions, at which point they are anti-Semitic.

Empirically, what Mendes asserts is broadly under-informed. For example, 
Israeli political discourse has long been accustomed to rash comparisons 
to Nazis, including comparisons made by and about Israel’s own founding 
fathers. One may find this language insensitive, but that doesn’t mean 
it’s anti-Semitic. And what are we to say of Israelis who openly mimic 
Nazis, painting slogans like "Arabs to the Gas Chambers"?

Another argument these third-perspective anti-Zionists use which in 
Mendes’s book qualifies them as anti-Semites is mentioning that Zionist 
Jews collaborated with the Nazis. Yet historian Benny Morris is among 
those who have noted the attempt by the Zionist LEHI organisation to 
"establish an anti-British alliance with Germany" during World War II 
(see his book Righteous Victims, 2001, p 174). Is Benny Morris an 
anti-Semite too?

If Mendes disagrees with someone, he should not respond by calling them 
anti-Semitic. He should seek to prove that they are mistaken. He holds, 
for example, that Socialist Alliance shouldn’t have made placards saying 
"Stop the Holocaust in Gaza". I agree. I also disapprove of Socialist 
Alliance’s ongoing devotion to Lenin and Trotsky. The appropriate 
response to these disagreements is seeking to prove one’s case, using 
things like evidence and argument.

Mendes thinks Israel should not be considered a racist state founded 
upon settler colonialism. If he wants others to hold this view, he 
should seek to prove it, rather than smearing those he disagrees with as 
anti-Semites. It is about time all aspects of Zionism can be debated in 
good faith, without resorting to outrageous slurs to obscure the issues.

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