In 1966, the eminent Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod wrote an article called “The Jewish interest in Vietnam,” in which he argued that Jews should support American intervention in Vietnam. A Communist victory in Vietnam, he worried, would encourage Russian support of the Palestine Liberation Organization and thus threaten Israel.
Several million Vietnamese dead later, Wyschogrod’s article is a moral obscenity and a blot on a great thinker. Not only was Wyschogrod’s logic torturous and tenuous (the Communists won, without any appreciable benefit to Yassir Arafat or the PLO), but his parochial interests had entirely obscured the real story.
Vietnam was not about the Jews, and in saying that it was, Wyschogrod stepped over the line from particularism into solipsism.
I thought of Wyschograd while reading Yishai Schwartz’s recent attack on Cornel West.
West recently attacked Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Guardian, calling Coates out for being a neoliberal stooge complicit in American imperialism. Twice in his essay, West invokes the Palestinian cause, which Schwartz in his Haaretz piece takes as evidence of a sinister anti-Semitism.
Schwartz is wrong. There is not a scintilla of Jew hatred in West’s piece. But though my stomach turns to see Left intellectuals falsely tarred with anti-Semitism, the deeper problem here is the moral narcissism in thinking that everything is about you, in reading arguments between Black intellectuals about the future of the American left and asking: How can I make this about the Jews?
First, some context. Schwartz (with whom, I should say, I went to college) faults West for mentioning Palestine twice in the article, once in the vicinity of Wall Street. “West’s bizarre insistence on inserting the Palestinian issue into discussion of race in America,” Schwartz writes, indicates that he “sees Zionist puppet-masters controlling those with whom he disagrees,” because Coates’s editor at the Atlantic is Jeffrey Goldberg, a Zionist Jew. West skips over other victims of American imperialism, Schwartz writes, and “uses the Palestinians to critique Coates’s parochialism” because, like St. Paul and other anti-Semites, he understands “the Jewish people as the singular symbolic enemy of universalism.”
Every point of this argument is wrong. First, it is misleading to claim that West ignores other victims of American imperialism. Apparently Schwartz was so busy circling instances of “Palestinian” in red pen that he neglected to read the sentences in which they occurred, since the second one also bemoans “the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of US citizens with no trial, [and] the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550.” Second, Schwartz must have confused West’s Guardian op-ed with Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, since the terms “universal” and “parochial” appear nowhere in West’s piece. West’s claim is not that Coates is insufficiently universalistic; it is that he is insufficiently radical. Universalism is a red herring.
Third, West nowhere says that Coates is “in the pay of whites” (as Schwartz writes) or gives any indication that Jeffrey Goldberg or rich Jews are at issue. In fact, the only “elites” West mentions are Black elites; his critique of neoliberalism is, whether fair or not, really about class.
Finally, and most importantly, West has a good reason for focusing on Palestine. In America, support for Palestinian rights demarcates the difference between liberalism and radicalism, because it lies to the left of the political mainstream. If you want to critique a liberal, it won’t do to discuss Saudi Arabia (as Schwartz says West should have), since everyone but Thomas Friedman acknowledges that American support for the Saudi war in Yemen is a scandal.
In short, the attack on West is baseless and irresponsible. (Even Alan Dershowitz, the king of spurious accusations of anti-Semitism, has amicably debated West). And that must be said, because there is nothing more poisonous than using “anti-Semitism” to intimidate Black thinkers who discuss Palestine.
But moreover, there’s something intellectually perverse in a white American Jew reading this West piece and asking, “How does this offend me?” The dispute between West and Coates touches on central tensions of Black politics in America: attitudes towards mainstream venues and politicians, intersectionality and radicalism, Black Christian faith and a younger generation’s doubt. To make this fight about Israel is, intentionally or not, to divert a discussion of Black politics to the complaints of white American Jews. West mentions the “Palestinians” twice in a thousand-word article; Schwartz devotes a thousand words to West’s two. Who exactly is “fetishizing” the Palestinians here?
Frankly, even if West were an anti-Semite, the real point here is that Jews are not the story. We were not the story when Ava DuVernay’s Selma helped launch a wave of new Black films, despite angry op-eds about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s omission. We were not the story when The Movement for Black Lives published the most comprehensive Black policy platform since the Black Panthers’, although Jews wrung their hands about the mention of Israeli “genocide.” We are not the story in the fight between West and Coates.
Just because someone has slighted the Jews, you do not have to raise the question publicly. There is an ethics to who gets to be the center of attention, and it is dangerous to turn the focus from Black struggles for liberation to the question of whether Jews have been insulted.
When we read the news of social-justice struggles of people of color, white American Jews like Yishai Schwartz and me need to think carefully before making ourselves the center of the conversation. Because as Wyschogrod’s piece suggests, tribal myopia rarely looks good in retrospect.
Raphael Magarik is a doctoral candidate in English literature and Jewish studies at UC Berkeley.