Philosophers have something called “the principle of charity,” which requires interpreting a speaker’s statements to be rational and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.
There ought to be a similar “principle of op-ed charity,” which requires the writer to read the opposition’s statements and arguments in good faith and with the strongest possible interpretation before making criticisms. Too often, we find the opposite: an op-ed that misconstrues, misreads, and offers “evidence” that doesn’t support the claims under attack.
Consider the recent op-ed published in the Forward by Andrew Mark Bennett. Entitled “JVP’s Anti-Semitic Obsession With Jewish Power”, the author accuses the Palestinian advocacy group Jewish Voice of Peace of having an “obsession with Jewish wrongdoing,” a “readiness to blame Jews for societal ills,” and an anti-Semitic preoccupation with Jewish power.
Over the course of 3,500 words, Bennett brings multiple links, some of which purport to provide evidence backing up his claims. I, for one, could not find anything in those links that supported his claims, nor did I find arguments in his piece supporting them.
For example: Bennett criticizes JVP’s Deadly Exchange campaign, which protests cooperation and exchanges between Israeli and US police departments and has singled out a few Jewish organizations that support these exchanges. Bennett begins by claiming that “The campaign was undeniably anti-Semitic libel designed to paint Jews with blood and hold Jews responsible for state violence.” He cites no evidence to support this claim. Instead, he continues, “And I was not the only one horrified by the Deadly Exchange campaign. The campaign’s promotional video generated a storm of criticism.” Note that Bennett’s argument has moved from a criticism of the campaign to a criticism of a promotional video, subsequently redone, which had a graphic that struck some, but not all, as suggestive of a Jewish conspiracy.
Perhaps JVP was not sufficiently sensitive in their original video to possible misconstruals. So they retracted and redid the video.
Bennett mentions and dismisses the redone video. “Unfortunately, a few video edits cannot wash away the underlying anti-Semitism of the Deadly Exchange campaign, or the central claim: that JVP is ‘exposing’ the role of American Jewish organizations in U.S.-Israel exchanges for the shadowy Jewish conspiracy that they are, designed to subvert race relations and to erode democracy and human rights.”
His source for the “central claim”? Not provided. His argument? Again, not provided.
One would expect at this point that Bennett would pore over the Deadly Exchange Campaign website and look for statements that implied or suggested JVP’s preoccupation with Jews and power. Not explicit statements, to be sure, but clues and intimations. In fact, Bennett doesn’t have anything to say about the website at all beyond a perfunctory link. Apparently, he feels that the claims and arguments made explicitly by JVP for the campaign don’t support what he calls “the central claim”. And where is this “central claim” made or implied? He doesn’t tell us.
Like Bennett I was skeptical about some of the actual claims made by some members of JVP when the Deadly Exchange program was launched, claims that, by the way, do not appear on the campaign’s website. But here is where the “principle of op-ed charity” should have kicked in. Bennett completely ignores the wealth of explanatory and supplementary material on the JVP website, and focuses instead on a promotional video for the campaign, subsequently retracted, and the comments that ensued.
Many people, including the present writer, who has studied anti-Semitism on and off for forty years, saw the original video and didn’t find any suggestion of a conspiracy or cabal, or anything that would warrant a trigger-warning for the sensitive.
And let’s face it: it is hardly surprising that progressives oppose cooperation and exchanges between police departments that have problematic human rights records, and that Jewish progressives point to Jewish organizations supporting such programs. Agree or disagree, but where is the anti-Semitism?
Bennett appears to recognize this because he continues to look for evidence of anti-Semitism and finds it in in two op-ed pieces by JVP staffers. Of the first, Bennett writes, “In one appalling example from this past November, the Deadly Exchange campaign led Nada Elia to inform the readers of a local Seattle publication that their police have militarized ‘as a result’ of ‘deadly exchanges’ funded by Jewish institutions.” Note that the only things in quotes are “as a result” and “deadly exchanges,” because if you read the actual op-ed you will find that Elia doesn’t use the phrase “Jewish institutions” at all. I read Elia’s op-ed and found the rhetoric exaggerated and the arguments unsupported. But anti-Semitic?
The second op-ed Bennett quotes is coauthored by a JVP Staffer in a Truthout op-ed. According to Bennett, the op-ed claims that when Jewish institutions work with the police, “it’s clear that their leadership is casting their lot with the state, at the expense of people of color and other targeted groups.” Such language, Bennett writes, is “almost identical” to that of German-Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “image of the Jew in the anti-Semitic imagination,” which Bennett cites as follows: “Because of their close relationship to state sources of power, the Jews were invariably identified with power, and… invariably suspected of working for the destruction of all social structures.”
The first problem here is that the Truthout op-ed has no connection to the Deadly Exchange program, despite it being adduced by Bennett as evidence of JVP’s “broader campaign.” But the more serious problem is that Bennett omits part of the statement he cites from the Truthout op-ed, wrenches it out of context, and then, to compound the problem, omits a key part of Arendt’s characterization in his effort to make the passages “almost identical” in language.
Let’s begin with the context of the Truthout op-ed: The Jewish Federation of Seattle decided to award its annual Tikun Olam award this past year to the Seattle Police Department, which was, according to the op-ed, “currently under court supervision for excessive force and racially biased policing.” Following the police killing of an African American mother of four, the authors of the op-ed, together with others, protested the award. It’s in this context, one in which the Jewish Federation was giving an award to a police department under court supervision, that the authors wrote the following:
“When organizations like the Federation partner with the police through programs like SAFE it’s clear that their leadership is casting their lot with the state, at the expense of people of color and other targeted groups — both within and outside of the Jewish community.”
Whether you agree with the authors or not, this is hardly a claim that “the Jews” are associated with state power, or that they combine with the state against minorities for their own gain. Had the Seattle Federation awarded the Tikun Olam award to state environmental agencies, no JVP staffer or progressive would have complained. Moreover, the claim is not about Jewish organizations combining with police departments, but some Jewish organizations supporting a specific program that the writers, rightly or wrongly, find objectionable.
Furthermore, this is what Arendt actually says:
“Because of their close relationship to state sources of power, the Jews were invariable identified with power, and because of their aloofness from society and concentration upon the closed circle of the family, they were invariably suspected of working for the destruction of all social structures.” (emphasis mine)
Bennett omits the words I have emphasized above, and thereby misrepresents Arendt. It is not Jewish power that makes Jews “dangerous”, according to Arendt’s anti-Semite; it is that power combined with their “aloofness from society and concentration upon the closed circle of the family.” According to Arendt, Jews are represented by anti-Semites as a “secret force behind the throne that degrades all visible governments into mere façade.” Of course, none of this is remotely similar to anything said or implied in the Truthout op-ed. Bennett has succeeded in branding as anti-Semitic a strawman based on a misreading of Arendt.
There’s a further irony to the appeal to Arendt’s authority. Were the philosopher alive today, she would possibly be a supporter of JVP, given her participation in Judah Magnes’s Ichud organization and her criticism of Zionist and later Israeli attitudes towards and treatment of Palestinian Arabs. (See Moshe Zimmerman’s essay in the recent collection, Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem, edited by Steven Ascheim, for more on this.)
I am not suggesting that Bennett deliberately suppressed Arendt’s words in order to make a polemical point. On the contrary, I think he may have actually interpreted the Truthout op-ed to read as a copy of Arendt. How can that be?
This is the crux of the matter. If one is predisposed to view progressive Jewish criticism of Jewish organizations or of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as anti-Semitic, or as disloyal to the Jewish people, or as “self-hate”, then one is very likely to find lots of “evidence” that confirm such a bias, however far-fetched the interpretation of that evidence is.
This is not true only of “anti-Semitism” hunters. Replace “anti-Semitic” by any other term of opprobrium and you will find the same phenomenon throughout social media or online journalism, the same cherry-picking of statements and misconstruing them out of context to make a polemical point.
Absent evidence of actual anti-Semitism, what explains the obsession on the part of some Jews with tarring JVP?
This is what I think: Where JVP claims that it is loyal to the Jewish prophetic and ethical tradition, some consider it disloyal to the Jewish people by partnering with groups outside the Jewish community against positions taken in the mainstream Jewish community. JVP may respond that the concept of “the Jewish people” is not a monolithic one, that in the twenty-first century, there are enough JVP Jews and allies to form a Jewish community/alliance. They may also respond that while they separate from the community in some areas, they stand firmly with them on others.
But their activism with others (e.g., the Palestinian BDS National Committee, Black Lives Mater) reveals their willingness to go beyond communal boundaries in criticism of the Jewish community. This, and their strident criticism of the State of Israel, strike me as the source of their demonization in some quarters. But even this doesn’t explain the patently ridiculous charge of anti-Semitism, the “A-bomb” that some folks love to detonate – even against Hannah Arendt.
To be sure, JVP, like any organization, should be subject to criticism, and in the opinion of this member, they have made some missteps. But if you are going to criticize them, or, for that matter, any group, left or right, you would do well to accord that group’s statements the “principle of charity.” Try to listen to what they are driving at, rather than to score points by inventing far-fetched arguments that purport to uncover hidden intentions and nefarious motives.
We can all be better people than we are, and part of being better is reading our opponents’ statements with a fair mind, and in their intended context, and not putting the worst possible construal on them, simply because we don’t agree with them. Yes, people should be careful about how their words can be interpreted by others. But people should be as careful about uncharitable construals and tendentious readings.
We all sin in this regard, and we are worse people for it.
Jeremiah Haber is the pen name for Charles H. Manekin, a philosophy professor who divides his time between Jerusalem and Washington, DC. He is a member of JVP.