It has been an unpleasant week to be Jewish at Yale. On Tuesday, Dean Pamela George published a column to the effect that it was no more inappropriate to invite rabid anti-Semite Amiri Baraka to speak than it was to invite former members of the Israeli military. That afternoon, Baraka spoke to a standing ovation.
On Wednesday, Sahm Adrangi ’03 informed readers of this page that condemnation of Baraka stemmed from the eagerness of Jews in the media to shield Israel from criticism (“Not just another conspiracy theory: m anipulating anger”). For the next 24 hours, I watched more postings than I care to recall pile up on the Yale Daily News Web site, praising Sahm for his courage and denouncing Jews in the media for serving as Israeli shills.
Hatred of Israel and its suspected apologists has never seemed more prevalent on this campus.
In my years here I have heard unending discussion of whether anti-Zionism constitutes anti-Semitism. I have concluded that while the two are not identical, hatred of Israel constitutes a moral pathology in its own rite, one that is still regarded as legitimate by many of my classmates.
Some Jews will invariably denounce any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, using a powerful allegation as a barrier to dialogue. This pernicious tendency has contributed to the development of an equally false counter-proposition: that nothing you could say about Israel could possibly be anti-Semitic.
The truth is twofold: There are many things about the actions of the Israeli government that are deserving of criticism. On the other hand, some denunciations of the Israeli government are so hyperbolic, so wedded to a notion of Israel as an incarnation of the demonic, that they do constitute anti-Semitism.
In other words, many negative things can and should be said about Israel’s current policies without the speaker being subjected to charges of anti-Semitism. But when such remarks take on a reckless disregard for the factual, the proportional, or the right of individuals to be assessed on their own merits rather than on the basis of their ethnicity, such rhetoric begins to reek of bigotry.
For example, arguing that Israel should demolish all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip is far from anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Semitic to note the objective fact of the extent of Palestinian suffering. To suggest that Israel is an apartheid state, Nazi-like in its policies, intent on genocide or ethnic cleansing, however, is to bury the truth beneath the vilest of epithets. To demonize Israel in this way, to see it as a monster among the nations perpetrating “affronts to humanity,” smacks of a level of hatred beyond the limits of criticism.
Perhaps we ought not to call the condemnation of Israelis qua Israelis anti-Semitic, but it is nonetheless a form of fetishistic hatred, one which imputes the demonic to a state and its people such that the reality of the political entity disappears into a symbol of human evil.
The transformation of a real, complex nation into a scapegoat for the world’s ills constitutes the essence of bigotry. This type of thinking transforms the social conscience into fuel for the smug hysteria of the ignorant and the dogmatic.
What I sense in the ideology of Baraka’s apologists is the notion that because Israel’s defenders protest too much when confronted on the merits, any attack on Israel contributes to meaningful dialogue, no matter how scurrilous or devoid of merit.
“The stanza on Israel by far doesn’t constitute the main body of the poem. But that is where the attention was shifted, not by Baraka, but by certain members of the audience,” wrote one student poster on the Yale Daily News Web site. “This debate is not about anti-Semitism, it’s not about propaganda. It’s about the Zionist supporters of Israeli occupation on campus refusing to accept any form of criticism of their cause.”
How, I ask, does saying that the Israelis blew up the World Trade Center criticize the occupation? The underlying assumption seems to be that since American supporters of Israel are uncritical in their support for Israel, that any accusation against Israel is somehow an appropriate response to their intransigence.
The hatred of Israel contained in such a sentiment is so virulent that I am at a loss to explain it. As a columnist, there is no empirical means of discovering how a significant number of my fellow students arrive at such extremes of prejudice.
I suspect that antipathy to Israel stems from the automatic tendency to sympathize with the perceived underdog in any given conflict. A general aversion to the use of military force may also play a role in shaping campus attitudes towards Israel.
Indeed, Adrangi and numerous posters cited Baraka’s nod to the Rosenbergs, Rosa Luxembourg and victims of the Holocaust in his poem as evidence to refute claims of anti-Semitism. It’s worth noting that the philo-Semitic remarks only get applied to Jews as victims. For Jews who take up arms in their own defense, Baraka seems to have little room for sympathy.
Perhaps campus anti-Zionists are driven by an analogous impulse, by a distaste for power and the ethical complexities which come with it. If Jews were still powerless, stateless and passive, perhaps people like Baraka would be as widely loathed at Yale as Ariel Sharon. But since Israel is not a mere collection of helpless victims but a real state with real flaws, capable of both great triumphs and profound injustice, it fails to merit collegiate sympathy.
Sometimes I wonder, idly, what it would take to get these students to deal with the accomplishments and moral failings of the state of Israel in an even-handed, thoughtful way.
But ultimately the genesis of anti-Zionist fanaticism at Yale is less important than the indisputable fact that such fanaticism exists. Its adherents are no anonymous horde but include friends, professors and longtime colleagues. For better or for worse, they are my peers, and their bigotry an inextricable component of my Yale education.
Eli Muller is a senior in Silliman College.