The Hitler Test
The strongest evidence that the taboo against anti-Semitism is being eroded is the fact that obvious forms of verbal abuse are tolerated—even justified
Consider, for example, Robert Wright’s take on the CAP affair in a blog post at The Atlantic he titled “How to Smear a Washington Think Tank.” “I’m not Jewish,” writes the best-selling author, “so I always feel awkward weighing in on the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism.” What an odd statement. Presumably Wright, who is also not African-American, feels no such qualms about weighing in one what constitutes racism.
For Wright and so many others, anti-Semitism now seems to fall into a special category of prejudice. In this instance, you need to be Jewish to have an opinion. Instead of enforcing the limits, the limits are erased, making phrases like “Israel Firster” acceptable. The next step is to have that move validated by Jews who may not be interested in promoting anti-Semitism but are eager to push a separate political agenda that in order to silence opponents requires dirty tricks, including the use of anti-Semitic tropes. That’s the reason Wright cites an Israeli who appeared alongside him in a recent edition of the Internet debate forum Bloggingheads and who explains that the criticism of CAP is similar to the way his own Israel-based organization has been treated.
J Street’s founder Jeremy Ben-Ami chalked up the CAP blogger’s anti-Semitic rhetoric to mere semantics. “The use of the term ‘Israel Firster’ is a bad choice of words,” wrote Ben-Ami, but in his opinion it’s not really anti-Semitic. On the J Street website, he advised “American Jews and communal leaders [not to] overreach with charges of anti-Semitism in incidents like this. When real anti-Semitism actually rears its ugly head, people will be far less likely to listen.”
Apparently, Ben-Ami has postulated some sort of acid test in order to discern “real” anti-Semitism. The bar has been set so high that just about anyone can clear it, so long as they’re not a brown-shirt, neo-Nazi, or Klansman. Say whatever you will about the Jews, and we’ll give it a pass, so long as it meets the Hitler test. According to this standard, if someone wants to eliminate the Jewish state, then they’re just an anti-Zionist. It’s only when that sentiment comes from someone wearing a swastika and who has the resources to slaughter Jews wholesale that they’ve crossed the threshold into “real” anti-Semitism. Otherwise, raising a fuss makes you just the little boy who cried anti-Semitism.
This isn’t how the world works. Americans’ sensitivity to racist language directed at African-Americans has not made Americans insensitive to “real” anti-black racism. Rather it has made us scrupulous about our language, and subsequently our beliefs and practices have come to reflect, if not wholly fulfill, the promises embodied in this country’s founding documents.
What makes people insensitive to racism is when American political and intellectual elites refuse to confront racist language. The use of phrases like “Israel Firster” and “dual loyalist” that are based on anti-Semitic tropes is anti-Semitic. So is the belief that Jews fan the flames of hatred for discussing the opinions of those who hate them. What is even more vile than the anti-Semitic language impugning the political motives of pro-Israel American Jews is someone like Ben-Ami crying foul when those Jews object to being slandered as disloyal. In effect, the message is, don’t defend yourselves against the calumnies heaped upon you, Jews, because the more noise you make the more trouble there will be for you in the long run.
No doubt there are some in the Jewish community who would prefer that I—who, like Wright, am not Jewish—stay out of what they perceive to be essentially an intramural debate. Tough luck. This is not just about the Jews. Anti-Semitic ideas and language corrode our entire social fabric. It is my business. And there is something wrong with anyone, especially those who are not Jewish, who thinks this isn’t their problem as well.
Note to some of my fellow progressives: If we can’t argue about Israel without using anti-Semitic tropes, then the debate is lost before it even begins