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Do Jewish Actions Ever Cause Anti-Semitism?

Jewish graves daubed with anti-Semitic slogans in a German cemetery / Getty Images

Is anti-Semitism ever a response to things that Jews do?

Jeffrey Goldberg thinks saying “Jews… Jewish organizations, or the Jewish state” ever cause anti-Semitism amounts to blaming the victim. Thus he attacked Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, for tweeting, “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war.”

Goldberg is right to highlight and condemn anti-Semitic violence in Europe, which is horrible and scary. But he’s wrong about Roth, because he’s thinking fuzzily about anti-Semitism.

First off, denying that Israel’s behavior has any causal role in anti-Semitism is deeply counter-intuitive. This summer, Israel fought a war and anti-Semitism surged in Europe — are those two facts supposed to be a coincidence?

Social scientists like to say that you cannot explain a variable with a constant. That is, there’s plenty of “irrational hatred” of Jews in Europe, but there always is. To explain changes in anti-Semitism, we need to discuss things that change — current events. And that’s why, as Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin noted, in 2002, the esteemed Jewish sociologist Nathan Glazer not only attributed contemporary anti-Semitism to a reaction to Israel, but further claimed, “hostility can be reduced and moderated by [Israel’s] policies.” When you approach anti-Semitism as a detached observer, rather than a polemicist who has a beef with Human Rights Watch, this is obvious.

Goldberg gets mixed up because he conflates two very different questions. Glazer and Roth are just describing, totally without moral judgment, what causes what. Goldberg, who excoriates Roth for “accept[ing] these [anti-Semites’] pathetic excuses as legitimate,” confuses causality with moral responsibility. As an example: Surely when the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade ran over a black child, that was one of the causes of the Crown Heights riots, but that does not in the least justify the subsequent rioting. Israel bombing Gaza may cause upticks in anti-Semitism, without detracting one bit from the moral culpability of the anti-Semites in question. German neo-fascists and Jew-haters are contemptible. There should be no argument about that. But their strength and virulence vary over time, and Israel’s actions can help explain those changes. Explaining isn’t justifying.

Goldberg gets away with this conflation through a misleading analogy. “It is a universal and immutable rule,” he claims, “that the targets of prejudice are not the cause of prejudice. Just as Jews… do not cause anti-Semitism to flare… neither do black people cause racism, nor gay people homophobia, nor Muslims Islamophobia.” Slow down. It is deeply implausible that black people cause American racism, because black people do not hold power in American society. How women dress or behave is unlikely to cause rape, because women don’t hold power in their interactions with potential rapists. And for the same reason, German Jews’ actions likely have nothing to do with German anti-Semitism. It’s delusional to think powerless people are the cause of what powerful people do.

But the Jewish state is (thank God!) a powerful force, whose actions have worldwide reverberations. Lumping “Jews” with gay or black people is argumentative Three-card Monte: European Jews are often victimized, and Israel is a powerful, majority Jewish country. A better parallel is Islamophobia in America, which targets an oppressed minority, but is sometimes caused (not justified!) by the actions of Muslims who wield power elsewhere. Don’t ask me. Ask the Muslim news site Cii Broadcasting, which ran an article about rising Islamophobia that began, “The violence unleashed by an outfit that calls itself Islamic State was bound to trigger Islamophobic tendencies.” Will Jeff Goldberg criticize them for victim-blaming? Is Imam Hamza Yusuf, when he talks about how ISIS leads even his own father to wonder if Islam is a violent religion, blaming victims? Is he excusing Islamophobia? No, he is just speaking realistically about causes and effects.

Lest anyone twist my words, let me state explicitly that I am not morally comparing Israel to ISIS. My whole point is that social causes and effects work independently of moral judgments. Nor do I think that Israel’s policies are the only, or even the most important, cause of European anti-Semitism. I don’t even think Israel should base its policies on the likely results among Europe’s neo-fascists. The security of Israeli citizens (first and foremost), the occupation, alliances with America and European governments, internal social problems — frankly, Israel has more pressing concerns.

I just think it’s unfair to emphasize the fact that Jews are oppressed in Europe and ignore that Jews have power and agency in Israel. And I cannot stand to see anti-Semitism used to take a cheap shot at a political enemy.


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