When the controversy over anti-Semitism and Women's March co-leader Tamika Mallory first flared up, surrounding Mallory's enthusiasm for Louis Farrakhan, it had one very interesting characteristic: it wasn't about Israel.
This is somewhat uncommon in left-of-center anti-Semitism disputes, and one could almost hear the gears grinding in Mallory's would-be defenders. So used to having "criticism of Israel isn't anti-Semitic" as their "get-out-of-talking-about-anti-Semitism-free" card, they were left almost dumbstruck.
Mallory has been notoriously resistant to any serious reckoning with anti-Semitic sentiment on her part. She views herself as the victim here, and so she's seemingly cast about for new avenues to antagonize her Jewish tormentors.
This is what she tweeted: "Be clear: Donald Trump’s wall + #muslimban + #deportation plan are all lines out of the #Netanyahu book of oppression. Trump has referenced this himself. We ought pay attention & not allow folks to label us + try to black list us in to silence. #JusticeDelegation"
In response to this tweet, Abe Silberstein's tweet articulated a common sense of Jewish dismay.
- What Is Women's March Leader and Farrakhan Supporter Tamika Mallory Doing in Israel?
- No One Who Praises an anti-Semite Like Louis Farrakhan Can Call Herself 'Progressive'
- Women's March Faces Crisis as Jewish Activists Lose Faith Amid Farrakhan Firestorm
- From Left and Right, Why Is a League of Haters Descending on the ADL?
"I dislike Bibi and Trump in equal measure, but our xenophobic politics precedes Israel's. I appreciate the fact that you visited the region, but I wish you had a better sense of your own reputation in the Jewish community before commenting like this."
But in some ways I think Silberstein is missing the point. Mallory isn't tweeting unaware of what Jews think about her. Rather, her goal in this Israel trip is precisely to rehabilitate her reputation - albeit, not amongst Jews.
Anti-Semitism, like racism, tends to take the path of least resistance down to the ground. As Paul Berman noted, while we:
"...like to think of hatred of the Jews as a low, base sentiment that is entertained by nasty, ignorant people, wallowing in their own hatefulness...normally it’s not like that. Hatred for the Jews has generally taken the form of a lofty sentiment, instead of a lowly one – a noble feeling embraced by people who believe they stand for the highest and most admirable of moral views."
If one dislikes Jews, there are many ways for that disdain to manifest. But among these diverse options, people with anti-Semitic views want to express those views in ways that will gain social approval - at least, in the communities they care about.
Hence, we should expect that anti-Semitic sentiments will be systematically channeled in directions where their expression can expect to find validation and laudation.
The content of those sentiments will vary from community to community. In some railing against "globalist financiers" will do the trick. In others speaking of those who "crucified Christ" will work. And of course, in still others, lambasting Zionist perfidy is the winning ticket.
Note the argument is not that "criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic," any more than I'm saying orthodox Christian beliefs are inherently anti-Semitic, or that opposing the political preferences of wealthy billionaires is. My argument is that in certain communities, positions of this ilk provide a convenient point of discharge for anti-Semitic sentiments that offer up the path of least resistance.
Precisely because there are perfectly valid critiques of Israel that are, on their face, wholly laudable from within a progressive paradigm, a speaker harboring antipathy towards Jews and looking for a socially-acceptable vector to express them will gravitate toward that issue.
A conservative speaker with the same internal sense of grievance towards Jews might pick a different path to the ground. Put another way, we should expect that if someone with progressive-inclinations harbors anti-Semitic sentiments (consciously or not), they'd be most likely to express them in the idiom of anti-Israel speech.
Why wouldn't they? Anti-Semitism will always be expressed in the dominant language of the place and the time, and it is entirely predictable that people will seek to express anti-Semitism in ways that enhance rather than detract from their social standing.
In Mallory's case, then, the shift from Farrakhan to the ADL to Israel is a move from forms of anti-Semitism that encountered great resistance to that which will (again, in the relevant communities) gain plaudits.
It is a rehabilitation tour, because it moves her sense of grievance towards Jews out of a context where even her allies would have trouble defending her, to an arena where people in her community are quite accustomed to dismissing Jewish complaints.
Even though the sequence of events for Mallory offers compelling evidence that she's at least in part motivated by a sense of antipathy against Jews, because she's now expressing her disdain in terms of anti-Israel sentiment, people will ironically view further complaints about her anti-Semitism as weaker rather than stronger.
Finally, think about the specific content of her tweet - claiming that Trump's anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies are cases of him following the Israeli lead - because I think it's also "rehabilitative" in its way, and it's worth articulating why that's so.
As many people have noted, there is something more than a bit absurd about the contention that American conservatives need an Israeli example to enact racist and white supremacist policies. Moreover, it ends up acting as an indirect apologia for American racism - asserting that it is not truly homegrown but rather is a foreign disease imported from Israel. Why would Tamika Mallory find that sort of claim attractive?
Mallory's stance is similar to that made by American environmentalist Winona LaDuke when she made a putative critique of America's implication in colonialist and genocidal practices by saying "We are Israel." One would think that "Israel is us" would be the more accurate label, since "even if we thought that Israel was a valid case of colonialism...surely it isn't the paradigm case."
But note the subtle shift of responsibility here - our misdeeds are characterized as following another's evil example. Israel stands in for our own misdeeds - it is the "platonic ideal" of our own wrongs. We are not intrinsically bad, we're only bad insofar as we're "Israel." Our absolution comes when we're no longer Israel.
That shift offers a way to maintain a sense of moral growth and possibility by externalizing the source of the sins onto another body deemed irredeemably corrupt.
There is, I suggest, a perverse form of patriotism at work here. By suggesting that American misdeeds are actually instances of a foreign (Jewish) infection, the implication is that the American body itself is not the problem. The issue is outwards, not inwards.
The fundamental appeal of "the Jews are our misfortune" is that it actually allows for a sort of redemptive American narrative to emerge, and for even those most critical of contemporary American policies to lay claim to it.
One thing that is often-forgotten when talking about anti-Semitism, or racism, or other systemic hatreds, is that they are productive ideologies. They build things, they engender alliances, they motivate actions.
Reflexive claims that anti-Semitism "hurts our movement" always thus struck me as far too pat - of course it depends on how one defines the goals of the movement, but more fundamentally it overlooks the way that anti-Semitism can represent a genuine and attractive tool of mobilization.
Given the choice between arguing against American support for the Muslim ban by articulating how it reflects fundamental malformations that are deeply-rooted in our national character, versus arguing against it by saying we've been led astray by the Jews - it's quite plausible that the second route might be more effective than the first.
And so again, we see a form of rehabilitation here. Any organization seeking to make the sort of wide-ranging and deep-cutting critique of discriminatory American practices that the Woman's March does is going to face the inevitable charge that it is "anti-American" in some way.
It is hard to counter these accusations, even though they are deeply unfair, because it's always hard to demonstrate love for a place or institution while simultaneously leveling a radical critique (something about which Jews with sharp objections to many Israeli policies are quite painfully aware.)
So the temptation will be to cheat: the problem isn't with America, you see; the problem is with those Jews over there ruining America. One need not reject America; one need only "de-Zionize" it.
People think that when Tamika Mallory blames Israel as the source of American anti-immigrant and Islamophobic policies, she's revealing herself to be more radical than ever before. In reality, though, it is a significant step back towards the mainstream.
The radical critique - the one that it is so hard for many Americans to latch onto - is the claim that we, America, are our own problem. We are responsible for our own decisions; our hatreds, our injustices, our wrongdoings stem from nobody but ourselves. In Richard Rorty's trenchant words: "There is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves."
But to the extent that problem is not in ourselves, but rather came to us from Israel - well, much of that discomfort can go away, and a radical critique instantly becomes far more digestible.
Plenty of people who'd resist mightily the notion that there is something fundamentally wrong with America are entirely happy to agree that there's something fundamentally wrong with outsiders, with aliens, with others, who've insidiously managed to infect our great nation.
And so I suspect that Mallory will find many willing and eager recipients of this new message. After all, it is saying nothing more than what so many have long wished to hear.