The problem with ‘Antisemitism’

The problem with ‘Antisemitism’

Israel’s Gaza war has been fodder for both Israel-haters and antisemites. I separate these two terms because not all Israel haters are antisemites. But this is not always an easy call.

A case in point is an emeritus professor at SUNY/Binghamton, James Petras. He has been a virulent foe of Israel and Zionism for many years. And there is this article of a few weeks ago in the Palestine Chronicle: “The Politics of An Israeli Extermination Campaign: Backers, Apologists and Arms Suppliers.”

In this piece, Petras refers frequently to the “US Zionist Power Configuration” (“ZPC”), a nasty term that he has made up. It reminds me of “ZOG” – the “Zionist Occupation Government” – used by racist and antisemitic extremists to refer, not to Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, but of the United States!

Petras refers to but misnames the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an actual umbrella group meant to represent American Jewish community concerns on foreign affairs to the US government. It was created as a response to a complaint from a past US State Department official that the American Jewish community does not speak with one voice. It includes some minor as well as major Jewish organizations, and dovish groups like Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu as well as more right-wing and centrist groups.

I’m just skimming the surface of what’s objectionable in this piece. For example, to call Israelis “totalitarian” as Petras does, is a sure sign that he knows nothing about Israel. Israelis may be more justly regarded as “anarchists.”

One of the terrible (and entirely predictable) impacts of Israel’s move into Gaza, and of the wrenching pictures of civilian suffering, is the legitimization that antisemites feel in giving vent to their hatred. This links to online comments reacting to that article by Petras. There are a few wildly pro-Israel comments toward the bottom, but most are from the other side completely, including – dare I say it? – antisemites. These comments are clearly prompted by Israel’s actions, but many or most of these people hate Jews.

Petras’s writings on the “ZPC,” in its conspiratorial accusations about Jewish power, resembles vintage antisemitism, but Petras may merely be extreme in his anti-Israel zealotry, rather than an out & out antisemite. I actually agree with some of Petras’s July 2008 response to a NY Times op-ed article by Benny Morris – who more or less advocated a nuclear attack on Iran – that the NY Times was wrong to publish this piece.

What I look for in Petras’s writing is an ability to distinguish between Jews and Israel, and between Jews and Zionists. Apparently, on rare occasions, he meets this test (albeit just barely):

… the New York Times in publishing his genocidal ravings provides new signs of how power and wealth has contributed to the degeneration of Jewish intellectual and cultural life in the US. To comprehend the dimensions of this decay we need only compare the brilliant tragic-romantic German-Jewish writer, Walter Benjamin, desperately fleeing the advance of totalitarian Nazi terror to the Israeli-Jewish writer, Benny Morris’ criminal advocacy of Zionist nuclear terror published in the New York Times.

Since I am a Zionist and a lover of Israel, this is cold comfort, but sadly, the charge of antisemitism is not only over-used these days, it has also lost its potency. One problem is that antisemitism covers too much ground: behaviors and attitudes that range from supporting genocide to harboring some minor prejudices about Jews. (I rather like Isaiah Berlin’s amusing definition of antisemitism as “hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary.”)

And I agree with many observers that the A-S charge is occasionally used to unfairly discredit dissent regarding Israel. But it’s also problematic when we fear raising the possibility that some people really are antisemites.

By | 2009-01-26T22:21:00-05:00 January 26th, 2009|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Greg January 27, 2009 at 3:32 am - Reply

    Petras is a true blue anti-Semite. Even radical anti-Zionist Jews have described him as such.

  2. conefor4200 January 28, 2009 at 1:14 pm - Reply

    Less innocence, please.

    Many antisemites and antiIsraelis are totally decent and progressive people.

    Just slightly braindead.

    How can they lump millions of Jews and Israelis in one prejudiced crucible?

Leave A Comment