Review of Gabriel Schoenfeld, The Return of Anti-Semitism

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Review of Gabriel Schoenfeld, The Return of Anti-Semitism
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National Pride and Prejudice

Gabriel Schoenfeld, The Return of Anti-Semitism (Encounter Books, 2004), 193 pages, $25.95

American Outlook, Summer 2004

George W. Liebmann

Based on news clippings and prepared, according to its acknowledgments, “under the strain of a tight deadline,” Gabriel Schoenfeld’s The Return of Anti-Semitism is a polemical work that represents itself as a survey of contemporary anti-Semitism in its Islamic, European, and American manifestations. The book is virtually bereft of hard data. Readers will find no polling results, no crime or employment statistics, no evidence of discrimination, and little history. Moreover, the conclusion acknowledges that what the author describes as anti-Semitism accelerated at the time of the Palestinian intifada in 2000 and “does appear to be an epiphenomenon of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” A book with such an ill-founded premise is unlikely to yield much light, though this one does generate a good deal of heat.

The work begins with a survey of the Islamic world, noting with appropriate alarm the radical nature of Pakistani Islamic schools and the use by leaders in Iran and Malaysia of rhetoric that is both anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic in the original sense. The writer straddles the question of whether Islam is inherently anti-Semitic, but he does refer to the thinking of Norman Podhoretz—whose speech to the 2001 American Enterprise Institute dinner characterized Islam in a way which would have caused an uproar if applied to any faith more widely held in the United States—as “a lodestar” on the subject.

Schoenfeld’s data about Asian antisemitism, however haphazardly assembled, is indeed alarming, as is his description of its infiltration into Islamic communities in Western Europe. However, when Schoenfeld leaves the Islamic peoples to assert that “the music is piped in from abroad, the dancing takes place at home,” his book leaves the rails.

The book is a shot in the “culture wars” which seeks to deflect criticism of the current Israeli government, and the policy of the Bush administration with respect to Iraq and Palestine, by indiscriminately tarring critics of both with the brush of anti-Semitism and by demonizing or marginalizing those who hold opposing views. Schoenfeld is at least explicit in stating his proposition that “anti-Semitism is the right and only word for [one-sided] anti-Zionism.”

The anti-Israeli fulminations of Noam Chomsky and others are to be deplored, as are their equally uncivil and intemperate denunciations of American policy in Vietnam and Central America. However, equating the former to a blood libel, as Schoenfeld does, is to engage in precisely the same kind of rhetorical extravagance one is deploring. Individuals who reasonably assert that Palestinians may be justifiably aggrieved at Israeli nationalism and even irredentism are stigmatized by Schoenfeld in two different ways. If Gentile, they are charged with abetting anti-Semitism by denying it. If Jewish, they are declared guilty of opportunism and self-hatred: such a Jew, claims Schoefeld, is “so anxious to deflect from himself the poison arrows coming at his fellow Jews that he must publicly disown an entire Jewish collectivity.” The latter folk excite particular spleen in the author, evoking such phrases as “‘renegade’ Jews legitimating hatred” and “a coterie of preening left-wing Jews.”

In Israel, we are told, “a relatively small population of Jews was able to build a flourishing industrial and agricultural economy on land that was formerly sand and swamp . . . a perpetual reproach to Arab pride.” The Jews have prevailed in “the harshest competitive arena of all, the battlefield.” The book is full of disparagement of France, and even of the French Enlightenment. Nothing, however, is said of the fact that Israel’s achievements rest in part on nearly $100 billion in foreign assistance, and on France’s role as its most important military supplier in the first half-dozen years of the Israeli state.

Among the Western media organizations and commentators denounced are the BBC, for correctly declaring that “Sharon led punitive military operations . . . [and] launched a disastrous invasion of Lebanon”; the Economist, for observing that “Israel is a superior country. But it has to abate its greed for other people’s land”; the columnist Georgie Anne Geyer, for referring to “pro-Israeli hardliners” in the American government; and former U.S. Senator Gary Hart for his admonition, applicable not only to Palestine but to Cyprus and Ireland, that “the terms of U.S. foreign policy must not be dictated by Americans who too often find it hard to distinguish their loyalties to their original homelands from their loyalties to America and its national interests.”

Similarly, the communitarian writer Amitai Etzioni is denounced for saying that “it is completely uncalled for to label as anti-Semitic the criticisms of the Sharon government and of current Israeli policy regarding the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” The editor of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus, is condemned for pointing out that the Palestinians’ quarrel is based on territorial grievances against Israel. The literary editor of the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, is charged with soft-headed support of the Oslo accords, of which Schoenfeld writes, “If the Arab attitude toward Israel does partake of a truly genocidal hatred, then the prospects of a negotiated peace settlement are doomed.” Put quite simply, none of these people belong in a book about anti-Semitism.

With respect to criticism of Israel, the best response to Schoenfeld’s central thesis is found in the last written words of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who died too soon to be included in Schoenfeld’s bestiary:

“Aggression committed by Israel must be condemned, not only because no State has the right to annex foreign territory, but because every expansion is also an experiment to discover how much more aggression the world will tolerate. . . . We are frequently told that we must sympathize with Israel because of the suffering of the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Nazis. I see in this suggestion no reason to perpetuate any suffering. What Israel is doing today cannot be condoned, and to invoke the horrors of the past to justify those of the present is gross hypocrisy.”

Unfortunately, nowhere in Schoenfeld’s book is there any discussion of the facts that have excited indignation against various Israeli policies. Schoenfeld is outraged, for example, that “three of Israel’s recent prime ministers have been [called] mass murderers,” but he does not concede that the exploits of Begin in the Irgun, Shamir in the Stern Gang, and Sharon in relation to the Lebanon refugee camps deserve any censure at all. Few parties in democratic Western states have been led by a succession of persons with comparable histories. Nor does he acknowledge that Israel’s system of proportional representation (in its inception an import from the French third republic) has brought into cabinets some ministers committed to the total expulsion of the Arab population or to the recovery of “Judea and Samaria.”

A writer who so strongly deplores a lack of even-handedness in others appears ridiculous in deploring the fact that “a taboo thought to have been firmly fixed in place” against critical discussion of Israel has dissolved, while simultaneously noting that people like black activist Al Sharpton “operat[e] under special moral exceptions.” Just so, Schoenfeld reproaches Arafat for retaining, in his surrounded compound, arms forbidden by the Oslo accords, and for engaging in forbidden propaganda; the new Israeli government’s declared unwillingness to abide by the scheduled territorial withdrawals, on the other hand, is unmentioned. To give a third example of Schoenfeld’s one-sidedness, the roots of the intifada, according to Schoenfeld’s account, have nothing to do with the assassination of Rabin, delayed Israeli withdrawals from occupied territory, or reprisal raids by Israeli forces, all of which go unmentioned. Instead, he claims that Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon “emboldened the Palestinians.”

The book is bereft of a constructive agenda. Even where it notes phenomena like the paucity of Arab translations of Western works, it does not propose that anything be done about them. The third generation of Palestinian refugees, Schoenfeld feels, should rejoice in infrastructure improvements under the Israeli occupation, but he says nothing about the need for economic development or greater emigration rates as a means of improving the living standards of Palestinians. There is likewise no hint that America’s military and foreign service, whose lack of Arab-speakers has seriously embarrassed the occupation of Iraq, might be in need of improvement. To be fair to Mr. Schoenfeld, his absence of positive proposals is a logical necessity of his argument, because offering new solutions to problems is implicitly to criticize the current approach to them, and such criticism, at least in the context of American and Israeli policies aimed at the Middle East, is, in Schoenfeld’s estimation, tantamount to anti-Semitism.

The book thus reads like an exercise in wartime propaganda. What is alarming is the transfer of this warfare to the domestic terrain of the United States. Those in America urging “restrictions on immigration and international trade . . . an end to a forward-leaning U.S. foreign policy” are said to make up “a Red-Brown [Communist-Fascist] alliance,” whose principal votaries include left-winger Michael Lind and right-winger Patrick Buchanan. Whatever may be said of Lind and Buchanan, they do not deserve to be thus identified with Stalin and Hitler. They have not urged massacres, discrimination, or the suppression of free speech. They may even believe in the writ of habeas corpus.

Strangely, Schoenfeld claims of Iran and North Korea, uninvaded members of the so-called axis of evil, that “we may yet see the emergence of suicide states, willing to sacrifice substantial portions of their own population for the sake of destroying the Jews.” This although Iran appears to be in the terminal stages of a revolution spurred by a rushed modernization, and has never completely abandoned free expression and free elections, while North Korea is kept in existence by its neighbors’ fears of the floods of population that would follow a collapse.

Schoenfeld derides, with some reason, “the outsized influence [ascribed] to three or four mid-level Jewish government officials” in the Bush administration. Their critics are correct, however, in seeing them as a self-conscious group and not merely an intellectual tendency; one need only recall the self-congratulatory portrait of many of the same “defense intellectuals” in Jay Winik’s On the Brink (1996).

It is cause for concern that a writer of this ability and prominence perceives important fellow citizens as “reds” or “browns” and various foreign nations as “suicide states” to whom international norms do not apply. Israel itself, as it learned in 1973, has a stake in Resolution 242 and the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 and UN resolutions that preceded it.

The domestic consequences of this kind of thinking were well described by Learned Hand when it last began to gain ascendancy, in the era of the McCarthyites and anti-McCarthyites:

“That community is already in the process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection; where denunciation, without specification or backing, takes the place of evidence; where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent; where faith in the eventual supremacy of reason has become so timid that we dare not enter our convictions in the open lists, to win or to lose. . . . The mutual confidence on which all else depends can be maintained only by an open mind and a brave reliance upon free discussion.”

Notwithstanding the value of its first chapter, the purpose of this book is to stifle free discussion by demonizing too many of those who do not share its author’s views.

George W. Liebmann is an attorney in Baltimore and recently a Visiting Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge, is the author of several books on civil society, including Neighborhood Futures (Transaction Publishers, 2004).


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