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The Anti-Semite’s Pointed Finger

Ruth R. Wisse published in "Commentary" November 2010

Ruth R. Wisse is a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University and the author of, among many other books, Jews and Power (Schocken/Nextbook). The present article is based on a talk delivered in August at the Conference of the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism.

... Yet here is the paradox: the fiercer anti-Semitism grows, the more it forces a choice on liberals. The choice is between protecting the Jews and protecting the orthodox liberal belief in rational compromise, world peace, “getting to yes,” and all the rest. Protecting the Jews requires confronting hostility that is not subject to rational persuasion, does not obey the liberal version of the rule of law, does not abide by liberal ideas of fairness, and does not extend peace and goodwill to others. To side with Israel, therefore, leaves one exposed to the same hostility that assails the Jews—an uncomfortable position for individuals and governments alike. The dictates of self-interest persuade some to ignore aggression that presumably doesn’t concern them, and then to justify their callousness by holding Jews responsible for the aggression against them. Some Jews try to demonstrate their own innocence by dissociating themselves from those of their fellow Jews who are under attack.

The politics of anti-Semitism strikes again: blaming the Jews succeeds by persuading liberals that it is aimed only at the “culpable” Jews. By casting these Jews as aggressors, it invites liberals to join the attack on them, on behalf of the Jews’ alleged victims. It congratulates liberals for joining the anti-liberal side by persuading them that they stand with the weak against the strong . . .

I have tried to show (a) that anti-Semitism cannot be arrested by any remedial action of the Jews; (b) that there are harmful consequences for pretending that concessions from Jews can stop the aggression against them; and (c) that anti-Semitism forces a choice between protection of the Jews and, under the guise of liberalism, complicity with their enemies. And though anti-Semitism is often compared to cancer, there is no comparable effort to finding a cure. The reason seems plain: where the carriers of an illness are also its casualties, they and their well-wishers have incentives to tackle the problem. But the carriers of anti-Semitism do not experience themselves as its apparent victims. At-risk Jews cannot halt the malignancy, because they are not itscarriers. And its carriers, the anti-Semites, will not seek a cure, because they don’t recognize its harm to them. Not until enlightened Arabs recognize that they, not the Jews, are its ultimate casualties will this political threat be contained.

What then? Some might argue that, even granting my thesis of a Zionist misdiagnosis, the scourge of anti-Semitism is so protean and so venerable that it can never be entirely expunged. They may have a point about the “entirely,” but I beg to differ about the realities of the present situation. A longstanding political attack has repeatedly called forth a defensive reaction of negotiation, accommodation, and no small amount of self-blame. This response has been shown to fail, and will go on failing with ever mountingconsequences.

To say that anti-Semitism persists and succeeds does not mean that anti-Semitism is politically invulnerable. Tactics in fighting anti-Semitism may and should vary. But what is required strategically, from Jews as from all decent human beings, is no more than what justice and truth and genuine liberalism demand: namely, to reject vigorously the role of defendant at the bar of world opinion and to instigate political, diplomatic, moral, and intellectual countersuits on every front.  Read full story . . .

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