Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Language of the Debate (4)

Professional magicians refer to the art of misdirection as “attention management”. I like that. The basic idea is to direct the eyes of one’s audience to one thing so they do not notice another.

That pretty much sums up how the word antisemitism is being used today. It has become the favorite attention management device of con artists and people with unsavory agendas.

8. Antisemitism

Not so long ago, when you called a man antisemitic you were accusing him of a form of racism. You were alleging that he was prejudiced against or engaged in discriminatory behavior toward a Jew or Jews. You were calling him a hater at one level of intensity or another. Today, antisemitism means any criticism of the nation of Israel or of the personal conduct of Jews, period, without the slightest regard to its actual validity. Worse, it has come to mean any choice of words which might allow the hearer to infer insufficient respect for Jewish people or their version of reality, even if no such disrespect exists.

Doubt this? A quick Google search turns up three recent stories about allegations of antisemitism that turned out to be more than a little cynical.

The People of the State of New York v. Raphael Golb

A U.S. Jew accused (and later convicted) of multiple felonies and misdemeanors filed a legal motion to suppress evidence against him on the basis that the witness to his crimes was antisemitic. The proof offered? In his dissertation, the witness had used the phrase “Jews fleeing a political uprising” to describe, well, Jews fleeing a political uprising, specifically the AD70 Roman suppression of their own revolt. Had the witness not been a raving antisemite, he would surely have stopped to issue a lengthy critique of the brutality, rape, murder and sacking of the city of Jerusalem by the Roman army. He didn’t, and we all know what THAT means.

How the private thoughts of a witness may serve to invalidate documented evidence of forgery, impersonation, identity theft, and aggravated harassment is unclear, but it’s certainly an impressive attempt to redirect the court’s attention from the actions of the defendant to the alleged prejudices of his accuser. It’s attention management.

As it turns out, the court didn’t buy it, but the fact that Golb’s lawyer thought the witness’s attitude toward Jews constituted sufficient basis for a legal motion suggests the accusation of antisemitism has acquired exceptional rhetorical power.

The Antisemitic Semite

During the 2019 primaries, a writer for the Washington Examiner accused Democrat Bernie Sanders of running “the most antisemitic [campaign] in decades”. The evidence? The presidential aspirant expressed his solidarity with suffering Palestinians. Bear in mind that Sanders’ Jewish parents are said to have emigrated from Poland in 1921 in order to escape antisemitism, which would normally make their son an unlikely candidate for prejudice against the nation of Israel. It’s not impossible, of course, but it seems a bit of a stretch.

In any case, if objecting to a nation’s political policies is now to be considered conclusive evidence of racist thinking, then everyone on the planet is racist. It should be obvious that Israel’s government is no more likely to be immune from bad judgment than the government of any other nation.

In hindsight, the probable motive of the right-leaning newspaper was to sabotage the Sanders campaign in hope that a less-competitive Democrat challenger would wind up facing off against the incumbent president. It was attention management. But when even a Jew cannot critique the government of Israel without being labeled antisemitic, political commentary is rapidly approaching a new low ... and that’s saying something.

Buying Congress

A fundraising letter for Republican congressman Tom Emmer contained the claim that “news of impactful, real progress on turning our nation around was undercut by biased media … funded by deep-pocketed far-left billionaires George Soros, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. These left-wing radicals essentially BOUGHT control of Congress for the Democrats.” Two of the three named billionaires are Jewish, which prompted the executive director of Jewish Community Action to tell the media that the letter contains “pretty classic anti-Semitism”.

Sure, it’s possible Congressman Emmer is a smirking hatemonger, but we’d need something a little more solid than his letter to go on. Distressed by what he deemed a false accusation, this Jewish rabbi quickly jumped to the congressman’s defense, calling him “a true friend of the Jewish community and of the U.S.‑Israel relationship”. Emmer’s letter made no reference to the ethnicity of the deep-pocketed billionaires in question, so the accusation of antisemitism was based entirely on his use of their names, which was apparently considered grossly prejudicial.

In any case, if billionaires, Jewish or otherwise, don’t want to be criticized for buying control of Congress, maybe the thing to do is ... not try to buy control of Congress. But the exercise in misdirection did its job. The story became Emmer’s letter rather than the legal and ethical questions it raised.

Rhetoric and Truth

Genuine racial hatred is a terrible thing, and there is plenty of real antisemitism out there to complain about: synagogues with smashed windows in Germany or burning in Duluth; Imams in Gaza talking freely about “total extermination” of the Jewish people; the stabbing of a Boston rabbi. One of the frequent concerns voiced by members of the Jewish community is that frivolous accusations of antisemitism hurt the very people they are supposed to be defending. Hershel D. Lutch writes, “If all conduct critical of any Jew is anti-Semitic, then the term ‘anti‑Semite’ loses its teeth and becomes just another meaningless expression. Watering down the definition of anti-Semitism is done at great risk to our community.”

He is not wrong. The fact is that accusations of antisemitism have become a powerful rhetorical device wielded irresponsibly and unfairly by Left and Right alike to demonize their political opponents and disqualify their arguments without allowing them a hearing. But Christians operate on the principle that “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Inference, innuendo and supposition are not only inadequate but inappropriate tools for believers. We should have no part in either initiating or perpetuating unproven rumors of antisemitism, whatever the reason. The examples cited above, which are only a tiny fraction of those which could be produced, should encourage us to give the benefit of the doubt to those accused of antisemitism on the basis of conjecture or convenience, and to be careful we do not become marks for the magicians in the media who are seeking to manage our attention.

Worse and Worser

Furthermore, even if a person making claims about the conduct of any particular Jew or Jews can be demonstrated to be a flaming antisemite, it tells us nothing whatsoever about the truth or falsehood of what he is alleging. Those must be established on an evidentiary basis, and refusing to investigate a complaint against a Jew simply because holding him to the same standards as everyone else might open us up to an accusation of racism is no more moral than being an antisemite. As God put it to Moses, “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” If God does not acquit the guilty, it is dangerous practice for us to do it.

So then, if Raphael Golb was a criminal, he deserved to go to jail whether or not his accuser was an antisemite. If the Palestinians are indeed suffering unreasonably at the hands of an Israeli government, how is that injustice mitigated in any way by the prejudices of the person bringing their plight to public attention? If billionaires are using their bank balances to subvert democracy, how does a whistleblower’s opinion of their ethnicity factor into it at all? The fact is that it does not.

The vast majority of today’s accusations of antisemitism are attention management devices. They have no bearing on the question at hand. Don’t fall for the misdirection.

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