Jewish Writing on Anti-Semitism

How to Criticize Israel without being Anti-Semitic: The Unofficial Guide

The news media have once again been ablaze with reports of Israel’s military attack on Gaza. The historic Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, consequently, returned as a subject of discussion at cafés, salons, and dinner tables.

The discussion, however, is not an easy one to have—unless, of course, you are foursquare behind Israel. Criticism of Israel very quickly lands the critic into trouble; accusations of anti-Semitism are fired back as if from an Uzi. What is more, these accusations can sometimes come accompanied by raised voices, red faces, bared teeth, waved fists, and even rude expletives. Sometimes, not even Jews can avoid them. So it is understandable that non-Jews desiring to avoid drama think it best to keep mum.

Noticing the problem, and apparently in the interest of free and open debate, a concerned Jewish blogger has recently made waves posting a 19-point guide on how to criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic. The Tumblr blog post has, at the time of writing, attracted 8485 notes. And the BBC deemed it so useful that they even reported it on their news website.

As TOO was created for purposes of free and open debate, including Jews and Israel, it seems pertinent that we examine the 19 points. Perhaps we will find in them the Philosopher’s Stone in our efforts to discuss important matters involving Jews without being accused of ignorance and moral turpitude. The points are meant to be considered in no particular order.

1. Don’t use the terms “bloodthirsty,” “lust for Palestinian blood,” or similar. Historically, Jews have been massacred in the belief that we use the blood of non-Jews (particularly of children) in our religious rituals. This belief still persists in large portions of the Arab world (largely because White Europeans deliberately spread the belief among Arabs) and even in parts of the Western world. Murderous, inhumane, cruel, vicious—fine. But blood…just don’t go there. Depicting Israel/Israelis/Israeli leaders eating children is also a no-no, for the same reason.

While one can understand the desire to avoid rehashings of the ancient blood libel, this seems a little paranoid in the case of “bloodthirsty”. Read more

Kishinev: In Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently attracted some attention for a tweet he penned following the discovery of the bodies of three missing Israeli yeshiva students. The students, Gil-Ad Shaer,16, Eyal Yifrah, 19, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, were kidnapped late at night on Thursday June 12 from a hitchhiking point in Gush Etzion, before being found dead on June 30. At this writing, the facts concerning those behind the slayings remain obscure, though there is a growing consensus that Hamas was behind it. Soon after the discovery of the bodies, Netanyahu tweeted: “Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created. Neither has vengeance for the blood of 3 pure youths who were on their way to parents who will not see them anymore. Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay. May the memories of the three boys be blessed.”

Although most of the commentary thus far on this tweet has revolved around its inflammatory nature (the cry for ‘vengeance’ rather than ‘justice’) I have been more intrigued by the lesser appreciated literary allusion made by Netanyahu. The first line of the tweet appeals directly to Chaim Nahman Bialik’s poem, “On the Slaughter,” which was composed in the aftermath of the Kishinev ‘pogrom’ in 1903. I believe that Bialik’s role as Israel’s unofficial ‘national poet,’ and Netanyahu’s drawing upon the literary motifs in Bialik’s work, reveal something about the thought processes, self-perceptions, and siege mentality of Jews more generally. In this essay I want to examine two of Bialik’s poems, with particular attention paid to the manner in which Bialik interpreted non-Jews, and the nature of Jewish-Gentile hostilities. I’ll conclude with some remarks on Bialik’s legacy in Israel and Jewish thought.

Chaim Naḥman Bialik (1873–1934), was born in Radi, Volhynia, Ukraine, then a part of the expansive Jewish Pale of Settlement. Born into poverty, Bialik was left fatherless when he was five or six years old and was brought up by his rigid and pious grandfather. After an intensive education in the Jewish classics, he attended for a short time the Jewish academy in Volozhin (now Valozhyn, Belarus). These three influences — his poverty, his being an orphan, and his study of Jewish religious classics — were the inspiration for much of Bialik’s early poetry. In 1891 he went to Odessa, then the center of Jewish modernism, where he struck up a lifelong friendship with the Jewish author Aḥad Haʿam, who encouraged Bialik in his creative writing. Read more

Review: Anthony Julius’ “Trials of the Diaspora” [Part3]: “English Literary Anti-Semitism”

ILlustration from The Prioress's Tale

ILlustration from The Prioress’s Tale

We continue with our analysis of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora, by turning our attention to one of the more expansive sections of the book — a chapter dealing with what Julius believes to be England’s uniquely hateful contribution to world literature. In the first part of this analysis we explored the background of the author, his history as a Jewish ethnic activist and also, through some of his statements and biographical information, aspects of his psychology. This psychological, and in a sense also political, outlook has already been demonstrated as influencing both Julius’ perception of the history of Jews in England, and his writing of that history. This is most apparent in the thread of victimhood which Julius crudely weaves throughout much of the book.

More insidiously, however, in the second part of the analysis we saw instances where Julius wilfully ignored evidence because it didn’t conform to what he believes to be the case, and also because it did not conform to what he wants others to believe. Julius has thus shown his hand as a propagandist contributing to the drumbeat that the West is evil. Read more

Review: Anthony Julius’ “Trials of the Diaspora” [Part 2]: “Medieval English Anti-Semitism”

Go to Part 1. 

In part one of this essay we laid the groundwork for an examination of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora by considering the background of the author, his background as a follower of the Frankfurt School, and his role in defending and advancing Jewish interests. We now move on to a discussion of the historical content of the text. The following analysis will first provide the reader with Julius’ narrative of the Jewish experience in medieval England. The latter half of the essay will be devoted to dissecting his narrative, and pointing out its myriad flaws, misrepresentations, and fabrications.

Julius on Jews in Medieval England.

Julius sets out his history of Jews in medieval England by establishing a common theme in Jewish ethnic activist history writing — complete Jewish passivity and the employment of what I term ‘the victim paradigm.’ As I explained in my earlier work on the 19th century Russian disturbances, “it is the notion that Jews stand alone in the world as the quintessential ‘blameless victim.’ To allow for any sense of Jewish agency — any argument that Jews may have in some way contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment — is to harm the perpetuation of this paradigm.” To Julius, the history of Jews in medieval England is one in which an innocent Jewish population is victimized by “a predatory State, an antagonistic Church, and an intermittently but homicidally violent populace” (p. xli). Julius writes that the period witnessed “a war against the Jews” (p. xli). The lives of the Jews, from the moment of their settlement in the country in 1066, were according to Julius “always difficult, often intolerable” (p. xli).

Julius paints a portrait of a community like any other, diverse in its interests and occupations. Certainly, admits Julius, there were “some great financiers,” but money-lending played no great part in Jewish life, and there were also “physicians, traders, goldsmiths and ballad-singers” (p. 106). Julius claims that “they were not segregated from their Christian neighbors” (p. 107). He urges us to avoid “the misconception that the typical Jewish milieu is a commercial one, and that Judaism itself is especially hospitable to moneymaking” (p. 123). Read more

Review: Anthony Julius’ “Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England” [Part One]

Accompanied by much publicity, 2012 saw the publication in paperback of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England. The paperback followed on from the successful performance of the hardback, which had come out under the imprint of Oxford University Press in 2010. As in so many other cases, much of the book’s success had little to do with its scholarly merit and more to do with a great deal of ethnic networking. For example, Philip Roth labelled Julius’ 827-page literary tumbleweed “an essential history” written by a man with “scholarly integrity”,  while Harold Bloom at the New York Times Book Review gushed that “Julius is a truth-teller, … I am grateful for his calm balance …  and extraordinary moral strength.”

The book achieved its greatest success in Britain, where despite comprising only around 0.5% of the British population, Jews managed to get positive reviews of Julius’ book in almost every single major British newspaper and magazine. At London’s Financial Times the review was written by James Shapiro, an academic who specializes in trying to dismantle Shakespeare, either by denouncing him as an anti-Semite or, paradoxically, claiming that he never wrote any of the works attributed to him. At The New Republic the review was written by Jonathan Freedland, who also writes for The Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle. Freedland also publishes fiction under the name Sam Bourne, in which his plots invariably revolve around Nazi sympathizers and eugenicists. At the New Statesman praise this time came from Jonathan Beckman who also writes for The Guardian and the The Jewish Chronicle. At the Telegraph the review was written by Gerald Jacobs, another Jewish Chronicle stalwart. At the Independent the review was written by Bryan Cheyette, an academic who specializes in portraying White societies as having a neurotic hatred of Jews. At The Guardian, the review was penned by none other than Antony Lerman, a former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

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