Naomi Wolf and anti-semitism’s mystification
By Jonathan Cook – Nazareth, Israel: My previous post was about the firing of a cartoonist, Dieter Hanitzsch, by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung after its editor became concerned – though, it seems, far from sure – that a cartoon he had published of Benjamin Netanyahu might be anti-semitic. Here is the image again.
As I argued then, the meaning seems pretty clear and uncoloured by any traditional notion of anti-semitism. It shows the danger that Israel, a highly militarised state, will use its win at the Eurovision song contest, and its hosting of next year’s competition in occupied Jerusalem, to whitewash the sort of war crimes it just committed in Gaza, where it has massacred large numbers of unarmed Palestinians.
In fact, the cartoonist is far from alone in highlighting such concerns. The New York Times has reported delight among Israelis at the prospect of what they regard as a “diplomatic victory” as much as musical one. And, according to the Haaretz newspaper, the Eurovision contest organisers have already expressed concern to Israeli broadcasters about likely attempts by Israel to “politicise” the competition.
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Among those responding on Twitter to my post was Naomi Wolf, a US Jewish intellectual and feminist scholar whose body of work I admire. She disagreed with my blog post, arguing that the cartoon was, in her words, “kind of anti-semitic”.
In our subsequent exchange she also noted that she was uncomfortable with the fact that the cartoonist was German. (For those interested, the complete exchange can be found here.)
In the end, and admittedly under some pressure from me for clarification, she offered an illustration of why she thought the cartoon was “kind of anti-semitic”. She sent a link to the image below, stating that she thought Hanitzsch’s cartoon of Netanyahu had echoes of this Nazi image of “the Jew” alongside an Aryan German woman.
Frankly, I was astounded by the comparison.
Cartoons in Nazi propaganda sheets like Der Sturmer were anti-semitic because they emphasised specific themes to “otherise” Jews, presenting them as a collective menace to Germany or the world. Those themes included the threat of plague and disease, with Jews often represented as rats; or secret Jewish control over key institutions, illustrated, for example, by the tentacles of an octopus spanning the globe; or the disloyalty of Jews, selling out their country, as they hungered for money.
As Wolf notes, anti-semitic cartoonists would give the portrayed “Jew” grotesque or sinister facial features to alienate readers from him and convey the threat he posed. These features famously included a large or hooked nose, voracious lips, and a bulbous or disfigured head.
So how did the cartoon of Netanyahu qualify on any of these grounds? There is no implication that Netanyahu represents “Jews”, or even Israelis. He is illustrated straightforwardly as the leader of a country, Israel. There is no sense of disease, world control or money associated with Netanyahu’s depiction. Just his well-known hawkishness and Israel’s well-documented status as a highly militarised state.
And there is nothing “grotesque” or “other” about Netanyahu. This is a typical caricature, certainly by European standards, of a world leader. It’s no more offensive than common depictions of Barack Obama, George Bush, Tony Blair, or Donald Trump.
So how exactly is this Netanyahu cartoon “kind of anti-semitic”?
Limiting political debate
What follows is not meant as an attack on Wolf. In fact, I greatly appreciate the fact that she was prepared to engage sincerely and openly with me on Twitter. And I acknowledge her point that judgments about what is anti-semitic are subjective.
But at the same time ideas about anti-semitism have become far vaguer, more all-encompassing, than ever before. In fact, I would go so far as to say the idea of anti-semitism has been metamorphosing before our eyes in ways extremely damaging to the health of our political conversations. It is the current mystification of anti-semitism – or what we might term its transformation into a “kind of antisemitism” – that has allowed it to be weaponised, limiting all sorts of vital debates we need to be having.
It is precisely the promotion of a “kind of anti-semitism”, as opposed to real anti-semitism, that has just forced Ken Livingstone to resign from the Labour party; that empowered Labour’s Blairite bureaucracy to publicly lynch a well-known black anti-racism activist, Marc Wadsworth; that persuaded a dissident comedian and supporter of the Palestinian cause, Frankie Boyle, to use his TV show to prioritise an attack on a supposedly “anti-semitic” Labour party over support for Gaza; that is being used to vilify grassroots movements campaigning against “global elites” and the “1 per cent”; and that may yet finish offLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn, currently the only credible political force for progressive change in the UK.
None of this is, of course, to suggest that Wolf would herself want any of these outcomes or that she is trying to misuse anti-semitism. I fully acccept that she has been a strong Jewish critic of Israel and doubtless paid a price for it with friends and colleagues.
But unlike Wolf, those who do consciously and cynically weaponise anti-semitism gain their power from our inability to stand back and think critically about what they are doing, and why it matters. There is an intellectual and cultural blindspot that has been created and is being readily exploited by those who want to prevent discussions not only about Israel’s actions but about the wider political culture we desperately need to change.
Israel and Jews
In fact, the mystification of anti-semitism is not new, though it is rapidly intensifying. It began the moment Israel was created. That was why a Nazi cartoon – drawn before Israel’s establishment in 1948 – could never have been described as “kind of anti-semitic”. It simply was anti-semitic. It attributed menacing or subversive qualities to Jews because they were Jews.
To understand how the current mystification works we need briefly to consider Israel’s character as a state – something very few people are prepared to do in the “mainstream”, because it is likely to result in allegations of … anti-semitism! As I observed in my previous post, this has provided the perfect get-out-jail-free card for Israel and its supporters.
Israel was created as the national homeland of all Jewish people – not of those who became citizens (which included a significant number of Palestinians), or even of those Jews who ended up living there. Israel declared that it represented all Jewish people around the world, including Wolf.
This idea is central to Zionism, and is embodied in its Declaration of Independence; its constitutional-like Basic Laws; its immigration legislation, the Law of Return; its land laws; and the integration into Israel’s state structures of extra-territorial Zionist organisations like the Jewish National Fund, the World Zionist Organisation and the Jewish Agency.
A dangerous confusion
It is also why the rationale for Israel is premised on anti-semitism: Israel was created as a sanctuary for all Jews because, according to Zionists, Jews can never be truly safe anywhere outside Israel. Without anti-semitism, Israel would be superfluous. It also why Israel has a reason to inflate the threat of anti-semitism – or, if we are cynical about the lengths states will go to promote their interests, to help generate anti-semitism to justify the existence of a Jewish state and encourage Jews to immigrate.
So from the moment of its birth, the ideas of “Israel” and “anti-semitism” became disturbingly enmeshed – and in ways almost impossible to disentangle.
For most of Israel’s history, that fact could be obscured in the west because western governments and media were little more than cheerleaders for Israel. Criticism of Israel was rarely allowed into the mainstream, and when it did appear it was invariably limited to condemnations of the occupation. Even then, there was rarely any implication of systematic wrongdoing on Israel’s part.
That changed only when the exclusive grip of the western corporate media over information dissemination weakened, first with the emergence of the internet and satellite channels like Al Jazeera, and more recently and decisively with social media. Criticism of Israel’s occupation has increasingly broadened into suspicions about its enduring bad faith. Among more knowledgeable sections of the progressive left, there is a mounting sense that Israel’s unwillingness to end the occupation is rooted in its character as a Jewish state, and maybe its intimate ideological relationship with anti-semitism.
These are vital conversations to be having about Israel, and they are all the more pressing now that Israel has shown that it is fully prepared to gun down in public unarmed Palestinians engaging in civil disobedience. Many, many more Palestinians are going to have their lives taken from them unless we aggressively pursue and resolve these conversations in ways that Israel is determined to prevent.
And this is why the “kind of anti-semitic” confusion – a confusion that Israel precisely needs and encourages – is so dangerous. Because it justifies – without evidence – shutting down those conversations before they can achieve anything.
The Livingstone problem
In 2016 Ken Livingstone tried to initiate a conversation about Zionism and its symbiotic relationship with anti-semites, in this case with the early Nazi leadership. We can’t understand what Israel is, why the vast majority of Jews once abhorred Zionism, why Israel is so beloved of modern anti-semites like the alt-right and hardcore Christian evangelicals, why Israel cannot concede a Palestinian state, and why it won’t abandon the occupation without overwhelming penalties from the international community, unless we finish the conversation Livingstone started.
Which is why that conversation was shut down instantly with the accusation that it was “anti-semitic”. But Livingstone’s crime is one no mainstream commentator wants to address or explain. If pressed to do so, they will tell you it is because his comments were perceived to be “offensive” or “hurtful”, or because they were “unnecessary” and “foolish”, or because they brought the Labour party “into disrepute” (Labour’s version of “kind of anti-semitic”). No one will tell you what was substantively anti-semitic about his remark.
Similarly, when pressed to explain how Hanitzsch’s cartoon of Netanyahu was anti-semitic, Wolf digressed to the entirely irrelevant issue of his nationality.
This is the power and the danger of this “kind of anti-semitic” logic, and why it needs to be confronted and exposed for the hollow shell it is.
A mural becomes anti-semitic
The next stage in the evolution of the “kind of anti-semitic” argument is already discernible, as I have warned before. It is so powerful that it has forced Corbyn to concede, against all evidence, that Labour has an anti-semitism problem and to castigate himself, again against all evidence, for indulging in anti-semitic thinking.
Corbyn has been on the defensive since a “controversy” erupted in March over his expression back in 2012 of support for street art and opposition to censorship amid a row over a London mural that was about to be painted over.
After he was elected Labour leader in 2015, the first efforts were made to weaponise the mural issue to damage him. The deeply anti-Corbyn Jewish Chronicle newspaper was – like Hanitzsch’s boss at the Süddeutsche Zeitung – initially unsure whether the mural was actually anti-semitic. Then the newspaper simply highlighted concerns that it might have “anti-semitic undertones”. By spring 2018, when the row resurfaced, the status of the mural had been transformed. Every mainstream British commentator was convinced it was “clearly” and “obviously” anti-semitic – and by implication, Corbyn had been unmasked as an anti-semite for supporting it.
Again, no one wanted to debate how it was anti-semitic. The artist has said it was an image of historical bankers, most of whom were not Jewish, closely associated with the capitalist class’s war on the rest of us. There is nothing in the mural to suggest he is lying about his intention or the mural’s meaning. And yet everyone in the “mainstream” is now confident that the mural is anti-semitic, even though none of them wants to specify what exactly is anti-semitic about it.
The 1 per cent off-limits
Much else is rapidly becoming “anti-semitic”. It is an indication of how quickly this slippage is occuring that repeating now a slogan of the Occupy Movement from only seven years ago – that we are ruled by a “global elite”, or the “1 per cent” – is cited as proof of anti-semitism. The liberal New Statesman recently ran an article dedicated to proving that the articulation of basic socialist principles – including ideas of class war and the 1 per cent – was evidence of anti-semitism.
On Frankie Boyle’s popular TV show last week, comedian David Baddiel was allowed to misrepresent – unchallenged – an opinion poll that found 28 per cent of Corbyn supporters agreed with the statement “the world is controlled by a secretive elite”. Baddiel asserted, without any evidence, that when they spoke of a global elite the respondents were referring to Jews. What was this assumption based on? A hunch? A sense that such a statement must be “kind of anti-semitic”?
Lots of young people who support Corbyn have never heard of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and have little idea about Der Sturmer or Nazi propaganda. More likely when they think of a secretive global elite, they imagine not a cabal of Jews but faceless global corporations they feel powerless to influence and a military industrial complex raking in endless profits by engineering endless wars.
The mystification of anti-semitism is so dangerous because it can be exploited for any end those who dominate the public square care to put it to – whether it be sacking a cartoonist, justifying Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians, destroying a progressive party leader, or preventing any criticism of a turbo-charged neoliberal capitalism destroying our planet.
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001. He is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict