About Stanley Fish
Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami, and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Fish has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University. He is the author of 10 books.
March 4, 2007, 9:36 pm
Is It Good for the Jews?
When I was growing up in the ’40s and ’50s, a single question was asked in my neighborhood of every piece of news, large or small, local or national: “Is it good for the Jews?” We have now learned to identify this question in all of its versions – Is it good for the Catholics? Is it good for the Latinos? Is it good for the gays? and on and on – as the paradigmatic question of identity politics, the politics that is derived not from some general, even universal, assertion of what is good, but from a particularized concern with insular interests. Is it good for us, for those of our kind, for our tribe?A community in which this question is central and even natural will be a community with a sense of its own precariousness. (No one ever asks, is it good for the white, male, Anglo-Saxon graduates of Princeton; it’s always good for them.)
Its members will think of themselves as perpetually under assault (even if the assault never comes), and as the likely victims of acts of discrimination and exclusion. (“No Irish need apply.”) As a result it will turn inward and present to the outside world a united and fiercely defensive face. It will be informed and haunted by a conviction that no matter how well things may seem to be going, it is only a matter of time before there is a knock on the door and someone comes in and takes it all away.
By all the available evidence, formal and informal, precariousness does not mark the situation of the Jewish community today, at least not in this country. Whether the measure is education, wealth, ownership of property, influence in the corridors of power, prominence in the professions, or accomplishments in the arts, Jews in the United States are visible and successful to a degree that is remarkable given their relatively small numbers (around 2 percent of the population). Yet as Professor Charles Small of Yale University reports, “Increasingly, Jewish communities around the world feel under threat,” and there are some Jews in this country who share this feeling, not because they are themselves threatened (although that does occasionally happen), but because they fear – in the spirit of Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here” or Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” – that what is happening elsewhere may soon happen here.
Why should they think that? Part of the answer is to be found in the relationship between three words – Israel, Iraq and anti-Semitism. Much of the world has been opposed to the Iraq war from its beginning, and now after four years 70 percent of Americans share the world’s opinion. Some who deplore the war believe that those who got us into it and cheered it on did so, at least in part, out of a desire to improve Israel’s position in the Middle East. Those who hold this view (and of course there are other analyses of the war’s origins) fear that the same people – with names like Wolfowitz, Pearle, Feith, Abrams, Kristol, Kagan, Krauthammer, Wurmser, Libby and Lieberman – are pushing for a strike against Iran, arguably a greater threat to Israel than Iraq ever was. Why, they ask, should our foreign policy be held hostage to the interests of a small country that is perfectly capable of defending itself and is guilty of treating the Palestinians, whose land it appropriated, in ways that are undemocratic and even, in the opinion of many, criminal?
A now famous answer to this question was given a year ago in the title of an article in the London Review of Books written by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt: “The Israel Lobby.” Mearsheimer and Walt contend that American Middle East policy “derives almost entirely from domestic politics, and especially the activities of the ‘Israel Lobby,’” which they describe as an incredibly powerful “coalition of individuals and organisations who actively work to steer U.S. foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction.” The goal of the coalition, they assert, is to get “America to help Israel remain the dominant regional power,” and so successful has it been that “the United States has become the de facto enabler of Israeli expansion in the Occupied Territories, making it complicit in the crimes perpetrated against the Palestinians.”So there you have it. The war was a huge mistake and is causing us no end of trouble at home and in the world at large. The lobby that led us into it is “a de facto agent for a foreign government” – Israel. Members of that lobby are largely, though not exclusively, Jewish.
And that’s where the anti-Semitism comes in. Or does it? One reason the lobby is “immune from criticism,” Mearsheimer and Walt explain, is that criticism, when it appears, is always re-described as anti-Semitism, and “anti-Semitism is something no one wants to be accused of.” Their point, and it has been made by many, is that there is no reason to assume that those who criticize Israel and argue that America’s uncritical support for a flawed state is strategically unwise and morally wrong are anti-Semitic. Maybe so, but there is some empirical evidence to the contrary. Charles Small and his Yale colleague Edward Kaplan have recently published an article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, the title of which also tells its own story: “Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe.” What Small and Kaplan find is that “Those with extreme anti-Israel sentiment are roughly six times more likely to harbor anti-Semitic views than those who do not fault Israel on the measures studied, and among those respondents deeply critical of Israel, the fraction that harbors anti-Semitic views exceeds 50 percent.” The authors conclude that, “even after controlling for numerous potentially confounding factors,” “anti-Israel sentiment consistently predicts the probability that an individual is anti-Semitic” and will say things like “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind” or “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country” or “Jews have too much power in international financial markets.” Small and Kaplan are careful to disclaim any causal implications that might be drawn from their analysis: they are not saying that anti-Semitism produces opposition to Israel or that opposition to Israel produces anti-Semitism, only that the two attitudes will more often than not be found in the same individual: scratch an opponent of Israel and you are likely – 56 percent of the time – to find an anti-Semite.
This does suggest that if opposition to Israel increases, there will be an increase in anti-Semitism because the population of the 56 percenters will be larger. Is this something Jews, even Jews living in the United States, should be apprehensive about? The answer to that question will depend on whether you think that there is a meaningful distinction to be made between the “old” and the “new” anti-Semitism. Old anti-Semitism, according to Brian Klug of Oxford University, is based on a hostility to and fear of “the Jew” as an alien and demonic figure. In this ancient and much retailed story, Klug tells us, in an article in Catalyst magazine last year, subhuman Jews wander from country to country and “form a state within a state, preying on the societies in whose midst they dwell.” This is the anti-Semitism that came to full and disastrous flower in Nazi Germany.The new anti-Semitism, in contrast, Klug continues, is rooted not in a hostility to “the Jew” as a vampire-like destroyer of cultures, but “in the controversial nature of the State of Israel and its policies.” As such, “it is not a mutation of an existing ‘virus,’ but a brand new ‘bug.’” That is to say, its origin is political rather than racial, and there is at least a chance that if its political source were removed – if Israel’s policies were to change – its force would abate.
So there you have two stories: anti-Semitism is on the rise and it’s time to get out those “Never Again” signs. Or, it’s not anti-Semitism in the old virulent sense, but a rational, if problematic, response by Middle East actors and their supporters in the West to what they see as “an oppressive occupying force”; don’t take it personally. I understand this second story, and appreciate its nuance, but I can’t bring myself to accept it, if only because I believe that the viral version of anti-Semitism is always capable of regaining its full and deadly form even when it is apparently dormant or weakened. All it needs is a pretext, and any pretext will do. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict didn’t exist, it would attach itself to something else; but it does exist, and anti-Semitism couldn’t be happier. Because I think this way, I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when American Jews might feel precarious once again. There is a certain irrationality to this imagining, given that at this moment, I am sitting in a very nice house in Delray Beach, Fla., and taking advantage of the opportunity afforded me by The New York Times to have my say on anything I like every Monday. And in a few months I will repair to an equally nice house in the upstate New York town of Andes, where I will be engaging in the same pleasurable activity.
Sounds like a good life, and it is. So why am I entertaining fantasies of being dispossessed or discriminated against or even threatened?Part of the answer lies in the fact that I spend much of my time in colleges and universities, where anti-Israel sentiment flourishes and is regarded more or less as a default position. And I have seen (with apologies to Shelley) that when hostility to Israel comes, anti-Semitism is not far behind. But the deeper explanation of my apprehension is generational. One of my closest friends and I agree on almost everything, but we part company on this question. He tells, and believes, the “criticism of Israel is one thing, anti-Semitism another” story.
I hear it, but I can’t buy it. He is 10 years my junior. I remember World War II. By the time he was born it was history. Maybe it’s that simple.