Anti-Semites and Anti-anti-semites

The American Jewish Committee accuses, among others, Tony Judt, of being anti-semitic; Judt, among others, responds that the AJC, is cynically trying to suppress genuine debate on the Middle East.

Who’s right? Neither of them, although on the merits the AJC has the better of the argument.

Judt got into hot water on this issue three years ago for a piece in the New York Review of Books entitled “Israel: The Alternative.” The Alternative, in this case, is a binational state. The AJC has gotten into trouble by 1) protesting a speech that Judt was supposed to give at the Polish consulate; and 2) sponsoring a book accusing progressive Jews of anti-Semitism.

Judt’s piece was, to put it mildly, inane. Consider its opening lines:

The Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: it was killed. Mahmoud Abbas was undermined by the President of the Palestinian Authority and humiliated by the Prime Minister of Israel. His successor awaits a similar fate. Israel continues to mock its American patron, building illegal settlements in cynical disregard of the “road map.” The President of the United States of America has been reduced to a ventriloquist’s dummy, pitifully reciting the Israeli cabinet line: “It’s all Arafat’s fault.”

The idea that somehow Israel could have completed the peace process successfuly by granting Abbas concessions rests upon heroic empirical assumptions, never justified and never supported. As I have long argued, it collapsed because the Palestinians–whom Arafat probably represented pretty well–refused to abandon his demand that Israel allow up to 4 million Palestinian “refugees” (many of whom are not legally refugees) to immigrate to pre-1967 Israel, a demand that no Israeli could ever accept. The only reason why the peace process could restart successfully is if one side was ready to concede on the refugee issue, which none was.

For Judt, none of this matters: it’s all Israel’s fault. As he sees it, Israeli settlements have now made it impossible for Israel to disengage from the West Bank because there are too many settlers–he puts the total at 250,000. And if Israel cannot disengage, then it must either rule over millions of West Bank Arabs without giving them the vote, which would make it an apartheid state, or create a binational state. He favors the binational state:

The security of Jews and Arabs alike would need to be guaranteed by international force—though a legitimately constituted binational state would find it much easier policing militants of all kinds inside its borders than when they are free to infiltrate them from outside and can appeal to an angry, excluded constituency on both sides of the border. A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class.

Besides, he argues:

In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.

It’s really hard to go point by point to show how fatuous this argument is, although Michael Walzer did a pretty good job in his response. As an example: Judt claims that 250,000 “armed settlers” would never leave the West Bank. But this is a horrible distortion: the vast majority of settlers are not religious fanatics, but suburban types who got good financial terms to settle and would leave with similar terms. Besides, the vast majority of settlers also live in settlements close to the Green Line: border modifications on a 1:1 basis, such as are proposed by the People’s Voice accord, could easily solve the problem.

Moreover, the idea that Israel is somehow anachronistic because it is based on ethnic nationalism is really a smear. Germany, Greece, South Korea, and many other democracies have similar requirements to Israel; and in any event, it’s a lot easier to become Jewish (and thus an Israeli citizen by right) than to become a US citizen. Comparing Israel to a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state” is really just sloppy thinking.

And by the way, what’s the record of people’s security being protected by the international community? Why don’t you talk to a Darfurian about that one.

But it doesn’t make Judt an anti-Semite; it just makes him a not-very-intelligent commentator on the Middle East. He doesn’t say that Zionism is illegitimate, and in fact suggests that if disengagement and a two-state solution were possible, then he would favor it. His argument turns on practicalities, which he grotesquely misdiagnoses; but anti-Semitism, it ain’t.

It is thus unfair of AJC to label Judt that way. But that doesn’t make it the thought police, or even unreasonable. Judt, through his sloppy thinking and writing, has advocated the liquidation of Jews. He states that in some undescribed way, a “new political class” (where have we heard that one before?) will make Palestinians and Jews live in peace together–while presumably he castigates the US for attempting to make Sunnis and Shiites live in peace together.

The New York Times labeled AJC a “right-wing organization”, which could be unintentional because it publishes Commentary: the magazine has complete editorial independence from the organization (much to the relief of both, I suspect). The AJC is, in fact, resolutely centrist; it is genuinely fearful and rightly contemptuous of someone who wants to liquidate Israel. It interprets this an anti-Semitism, but that goes too far.

Put another way, I think it’s interpretation of anti-Semitism is reasonable but wrong: one can actually take the position that Judt does and not be an anti-Semite.

On balance, I think AJC wins on points, but it would better off if everyone could have an intelligent debate. That’s probably too much to ask.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.