In the past few weeks, two African American leaders have been accused of anti-Semitism - Alice Walker and Marc Lamont Hill. The problem is, only one of them actually made anti-Semitic remarks - Walker.
And by erasing the difference between Walker’s remarks and Hill’s, we Jews are minimizing the threat and danger of actual anti-Semitism. In writing off the whole pro-Palestinian movement as anti-Semitic, we lose the ability to call out anti-Semitism when it really happens. Moreover, we lose any leverage over people in that movement.
Let me step back. Hill was fired from his job at CNN after calling for a "free Palestine from the river to the sea" in a speech at the United Nations. As a result of his call for Palestinian liberation, Hill was criticized for using the language of Hamas, leading Jewish conservative editor Seth Mandel to call Hill's remarks an "explicit call for Jewish genocide."
The Washington Examiner went on to accuse him of "genocidal rhetoric," and Israeli Consul to New York Dani Dayan compared Hill's remarks to a "swastika painted in red." For the right, the charge of anti-Semitism substituted for argument: no need to debate Hill if you can label him a Nazi.
- Alice Walker's Crass Bigotry Exposed
- Say What You Like About the Jews. Up to a Point
- Alice Walker Defends Endorsement of anti-Semitic Book: Critics Trying to Silence Palestinian Advocacy
- Marc Lamont Hill Apologizes in Op-ed for Use of Phrase ‘Free Palestine From the River to the Sea’
The problem is what Hill said was not the least bit anti-Semitic. He was punished for advocating wholeheartedly and unapologetically for Palestinian rights - as non-Jews on the Left, and particularly people of color, routinely are.
By contrast, last week, Alice Walker recommended an openly, rabidly anti-Semitic book in the New York Times. And it wasn’t even the first time. It turns out she has been praising the book’s conspiratorial author, David Icke, for years.
Worse yet, last year, Walker published an anti-Semitic misreading of the Talmud on her website, blaming the Talmud for the oppression of the Palestinian - but not only the Palestinians:
"Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
Are three year old (and a day) girls eligible for marriage and intercourse?
Are young boys fair game for rape?
Must even the best of the Goyim (us, again) be killed?
Pause a moment and think what this could mean
Or already has meant
In our own lifetime."
She claimed to have found in the wisdom of Youtube videos "the trail of 'The Talmud' as its poison belatedly winds its way into our collective consciousness."
Walker’s awful anti-Semitic comments only serve to highlight how unfairly Hill was treated. Hill and Walker stand on opposite sides of the bright line between criticizing Israel and expressing anti-Semitism; where Hill restricted himself to politics, Walker attacked Jewishness itself. Hill spoke of liberation; Walker talks conspiracy theories.
And yet, despite this crucial difference, Hill was actually treated as badly, if not worse, than Walker.
This is not only unfair. It’s actually dangerous for Jews.
In the case of Hill, it was clearly a situation of crying wolf. And having witnessed the Jewish community cynically using the charge of anti-Semitism to protect Israel from criticism, why would you subsequently take it seriously?
Ask yourself this: if those who advocate for Palestinian rights can and will be tarred as anti-Semites, what do you expect will happen? People avoid charges of anti-Semitism, racism and the like for core ethical reasons. But there are also reputational and social reasons: They do so because there are (appropriately) harsh penalties for being labeled an anti-Semite or racist.
But by cynically penalizing pro-Palestinian advocacy as anti-Semitic, the pro-Israel community has completely written pro-Palestinian advocates off. They already face smears, loss of career, and the like.
We get exactly one strong, bright boundary you get to draw between "reasonable person" and "anti-Semite." We draw that boundary because by creating serious consequences for anti-Semitism, we give people a reason to avoid it.
But if you draw the boundary such that pro-Palestinian activism is inherently anti-Semitic, you are creating a whole pool of people who no longer have any reason to care what the Jewish community thinks: upon whom we have already declared war. I'm not saying any of those people should choose anti-Semitism (God forbid); I am saying that realistically, some of them will.
In evoking time and again the accusation of anti-Semitism against people doing nothing worse than advocating for Palestinians, American Jews weaken the force of our allegations, and we create a growing population of people who - though they may have no pre-existing animus against Jews - also have already been branded anti-Semitic. Those people have no reason to listen to the Jewish community, and every reason to ignore it.
Think of the fact that the Anti-Defamation League has been vigorously lobbying the federal government to label the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement anti-Semitic, a move they have privately admitted would be disastrous. "Simply put, ADL does not believe that anti-BDS legislation is a strategic way to combat the BDS movement or defend Israel and is ultimately harmful to the Jewish community," a memo from the organization reads, calling anti-BDS laws "ineffective, unworkable, unconstitutional, and bad for the Jewish community." And yet, the ADL has stood firmly behind accusations that BDS is anti-Semitic.
Or think of the fact that Kenneth L. Marcus, a pro-Israel attorney who now serves as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, is investigating pro-Palestinian activism on campuses as anti-Jewish discrimination.
Practically, the pro-Israel standards for being called an anti-Semite are ludicrous, and include many, many Jews who have valid criticism of Israel. Simply put: a Jewish community that destroys Hill’s career for supposed anti-Semitism forfeits the moral legitimacy it needs to critique Walker.
Right-wing defenders of Israel benefit from these standards. In doing so, they cheapen the charge of anti-Semitism, and they gradually create a larger and larger pool of Leftists who are immunized to it. That cannot but have bad consequences down the line.
These standards may scare off non-Jewish progressives, who wisely but sadly often find it easier to write and speak about less risky issues. But honestly, it also scares me - as it should anyone who cares about real, actual Jew hatred.
Raphael Magarik is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley