From outside one will always triumphantly impress theories upon the world and then fall straight into the ditch one has dug, but only from inside will one keep oneself and the world quiet and true. /FK (Contact: TBONotebooks at fastmail.fm. The Blue Octavo Notebooks welcomes mail, although we cannot guarantee a response. Your email may be posted in part on The Blue Octavo Notebooks unless otherwise requested.) Please enjoy the notebook entries, and thanks for reading.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Lions and Tigers and Khazars and Semites, Oh My!

Not content with dishing up the usual lame and perverted pseudo-definition of anti-Semitism—you know, the predictable semantic/linguistic logrolling about anti-Semitism signifying not just Jews but non-Jewish Arabs (because they’re Semites, too, y'know, even though the term “anti-Semitism” has nothing to do being a Semite or not)—Egypt’s semi-official Al-Ahram Weekly, in the December 4-10 edition, now stoops to publishing a letter from Dick Meyers, who gushes "80 per cent of Zionists are not Semites, but Khazars, whose ancestors never set foot on this once holy land.” Oho, indeed. Presumably, the darling who wrote this drivel is making the same mistake bemoaned elsewhere on the same letters page—that is, conflating Zionists with Jews—but what can you expect from someone who advocates one of David Duke’s favorite fantasies (that is, the Khazar “theory” of Ashkenazi Jews, by which European Jews are descendants not of Jews but of tribal Khazars from Eastern Europe) in a letter to the editor? You can expect just such a repugnant letter to be published in the leading newspaper of the most moderate Arab country. Imagine the sorts of slimy pontifications Egypt’s state-controlled press would be disseminating about Jews (and others) if they weren’t so moderate and didn’t have a peace treaty with Israel.

Meyers’s paean to the Khazars of yore is but one of several supportive letters penned in response to an absurd essay wittily entitled “Israel’s Anti-Semitism” and written by Ibrahim Nafie, one of Egypt’s foremost journalists. Among other Orwellian inanities offered in yet another predictable piece of Al-Ahram dreck, Nafie proclaims that anti-Semitism “refers to remarks or acts targeting the ethnic group termed Semites, which comprises both Jews and Arabs” and, as such, Israel is guilty of anti-Semitism (!) because it “practices in word and deed some of the cruelest forms of anti-Semitism against the Arabs.” That this and other such Orwellian bile is retched up by a five-time chairman of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate and the current chairman of the board at Al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading (and semi-official) newspaper, to be spread across the country and across the Internet for domestic and international consumption, speaks tellingly as to the state of Egypt’s (state-controlled) journalistic standards, not to mention what passes for state-sanctioned intellectual discourse there. If this is the sort of pseudo-intellectual garbage that the Egyptian government allows for publication in English, imagine what they’re keeping under wraps.

Unfortunately, when it comes to maligning Israel such pseudo-semantic contortions and perversions are practically de rigueur in many circles. The predilection for spuriously applying terms like Apartheid, Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and so on in regards to Israel is but one example of this. As such, it came as little surprise that when Vernon Bellecourt, one of the speakers at last month’s Palestine Solidarity Conference at OSU, made the obligatory “Arabs are Semites, too” proclamation in reference to anti-Semitism his asinine comment was greeted with approving snickers and giggles. One might think a member of the American Indian Movement would be somewhat more sensitive to such misleading semantic contortions, but whatever. Maybe he’d been reading too much Al-Ahram, or worse.

I hate to get down in the gutter with people who disseminate such drivel, but anyone who seriously believes that anti-Semitism is some sort of umbrella term relating to Semites in general (that is, based on the “logic” of: “anti”= against, “Semites”=any Semites, Jewish or not) is going to have a bloody unpleasant time with the myriad of terms like antibiotic (anti=against, biotic=of or having to do with life or living organisms; a mode of living: so antibiotics are against life, i.e. poisons, not medicines (kudos to a friend of TBON for sharing this example) or explaining why we drive on a parkway but park on a driveway or grasping why a “freedom fighter” fights for freedom but a “fire fighter” fights against fire. Following the delightful quasi-logic by which the term anti-Semite somehow refers to all Semites, then someone who opposes “the Democratic Party” also opposes the Democratic Party, regardless of which country—India or the United States, say—that particular Democratic Party is in. But such are the intellectual pitfalls to which redefining anti-Semitism quickly lead, and from there it’s just a short jump to defining cats and dogs as the same things, since both species have four legs, two eyes, etc. Indeed, by the quasi-linguistic hijinks by which anti-Semitism is forged into a term that refers to non-Jews, then god only knows how the same doyens of definitional daffiness define terms like antilogarithm or anti-Zionism. After all, if anti-Semitism refers to all Semites, then anti-Zionism refers to all Zionism, right? (Warning: The next time you hear someone explain that he’s merely anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, since Arabs are, like, Semites, too, man, exercise extreme caution should you ask him what he has against the latter Zionism. Although the logic is exactly the same, such folks tend to hate it when their creative logic self-scores on them, and should there be a resultant brain explosion it will be all your fault.)

That the school of semiotics to which Nafie and his ilk belong displays a pathetic lack of epistemological commitment and credibility goes without saying, but one wonders if such unctuous linguistic empiricism is an issue for them when it can’t be garnished to distort and distract from issues of bigotry against Jews. Harping on semiotic ambiguities is generally a fools’ game, of course, and those who play it with anti-Semitism might keep in mind that it can be played with other terms quite a bit more effectively, and not just because actually facts are employed. Discussing linguistic redundancies such as “Arabs are Semites, too” might cease to be enjoyable if somebody starts pointing out the semiotic roots and history of terms like, say, Palestine (a geographic entity but never a country, and never controlled wholly or even in part by Arabs until the 20th century) or Palestinian (a term previously used to refer to Jews). Not that intellectual consistency was ever of any priority when it comes to belittling Jews and/or Israel, of course, but so it goes.

Anyway, the term "anti-Semitism" was coined in 1879 and refers only to attitudes, actions, etc. toward Jews, regardless of whether Jews or anyone else are Semites. One can analyze and discuss anti-Semitism in all its different forms (political, religious, etc.) and manifestations (harassment, blood libel, violence, murder, etc.) and degrees (“polite” anti-Semitism, state or church sanctioned oppression, genocide, etc.) and justifications (racism, religion, etc.) and archetypes (the Jew as: Christ-killer, socialist, capitalist, communist, Bolshevik, materialist, infidel, refusing to assimilate, assimilating too well, denigrated for not having a state, denigrated for having a state, embodiment of modernity, embodiment of anti-modernity, etc.) and so on by which anti-Semites and anti-Semitism have manifested themselves over the ages. But unless the hostility in question, regardless of era or extent, was directed within the context of a Jewish target, it’s not anti-Semitism. Hostility towards Semites can be anti-Semitism, but only if the Semites in question are Jewish. "[T]o use pejoratives against Arabs is also anti-Semitic," preaches Gary Brune, in another similarly minded (or mindless) Al-Ahram letter, "as this definition (sic) includes both. Thus, when some speak ill of Iraqis, they also make anti- Semitic comments." Ba-dump-sphhhh, but seriously folks. Indeed, but only if the Semites or Iraqis are Jewish, Gary. In attempting to redefine the word, such partisans in effect endeavor to dilute the meaning and experience of anti-Semitism, not least by trying to force the word to absorb various contexts for which it was never intended. Perhaps the only positive aspect of such semantic shallowness and linguistic claptrap is that it shows how disinterested in, and possibly incapable of, intelligent discourse those who engage in such pseudo-intellectualism actually are. One would sooner waste time arguing with a hollow earth advocate than with someone—be it Edward Said, Ibrahim Nafie, the International Solidarity Movement, Gary Brune, or anyone else—who has so righteously and conveniently decided, contrary to elementary linguistic principles, philological history, and good taste, that anti-Semitism refers to Semites in general, not just Jews, and that this redefined, fake version of “anti-Semitism” should be emphasized when anti-Semitism is mentioned.

Anti-Semitism was coined by the German racist Wilhelm Marr in his best-selling pamphlet “The Victory of Judaism over Germanism,” first published in February, 1879. Marr’s pamphlet offered little that was new in terms of the racialist (and usually anti-Semitic) discourse that had been popular in Germany for some time, but its inflammatory and xenophobic rhetoric helped make Marr’s screed a best seller. Indeed, by the end of the year, it had been republished in at least twelve editions, and it was not to be the last anti-Semitic best seller. In coining the term anti-Semitism, Marr hoped to afford anti-Jewish and anti-Judaism bigotry with a more scientific and respectable veneer, as the term would reflect not only the bigotry’s religious context but its putative scientific and ethnographic contexts. Anti-Semitism, it was hoped, would assist in making such moral and political attitudes (not to mention those who espoused them) more palatable and attractive to those who saw Jews primarily as a religious concern. Part of the reason for this, as Robert Wistrich notes in Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, is that

Religious hostility in late nineteenth-century Europe was regarded by many intellectuals as something medieval, obscurantist and backward. There was clearly a need to establish a new paradigm for anti-Jewishness which sounded more neutral, objective, ‘scientific’ and in keeping with the liberal, enlightened Zeitgeist…. Antisemitism which grounded itself in racial and ethnic feelings provided a way around the problem. By focusing attention on allegedly permanent, unchanging characteristics of the Jews as a social and national group… the antisemites hoped to delegitimise Jewish equality.

The term never meant hatred of “Semites” in general, much less the “ethnic group termed Semites,” as Nafie others of his ilk would have us believe.

Edward Flannery, in the introduction to the first edition of The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism, writes of the term “anti-Semitism”:

First used in 1879 to signify a racial antipathy toward Jews, it has since become idiomatic and includes anti-Jewish hatred of any kind and of all eras. Misnomer though it is, we bow to universal usage and accept it in the wider sense, taking care withal to distinguish it from anti-Jewish or anti-Judaic manifestations that are not anti-Semitic because they carry no animosity toward Jews as person. The dividing line between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, however, is a fine one, as they are often intermingled. The distinguishing mark of all anti-Semitism is, of course, hatred, however mild or concealed.

In fact, the difference between anti-Jewish or anti-Judaic manifestations and anti-Semitism is usually merely academic in nature, if even that. Debating the lexigraphic technicalities of a term like anti-Semitism, no matter how much certain folks might want to, serves little purpose other than to distract from the actual meaning and the reality it represents.

The term Semite, in fact, although deriving from the biblical figure Shem, originally referred not to people but to a grouping of languages that included Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Hebrew. Like the newly popularized pseudo-scientific term “Aryan” (or “Indo-European”) which Marr and others seized upon, it was a linguistic term, not a sociological one (much less a counterpoint to “Semitic”), and its adoption for pseudo-scientific racialist dogma was part and parcel of that cretinous but widespread project. Indeed, it is but a small jump from people like Marr coining a term like anti-Semitism so as to justify their bigotry on quasi-racial grounds to people like Nafie conveniently re-defining the same term, again on quasi-racial grounds, so as to pervert its meaning.

“We don’t oppose Jews because they’re normal people practicing a different religion,” one can almost imagine Marr saying. “Au contraire, we are enlightened. We oppose them because they’re abnormal people practicing a different religion, and we’ve got the anthropological, sociological, linguistic, and political proof to prove it. It’s got nothing to do with religion, man!” Today, of course, this supplementation of anti-Judaism into anti-Semitism (by which anti-Jew sentiment is justified via a term not merely religious in scope, but supposedly scientific and rational) is often similar to the supplementation of anti-Semitism into the convenient euphemism of anti-Zionism. “I’m not anti-Semitic, I’m anti-Zionist!” goes the hip, enlightened refrain. Perhaps, but the claim is often less than fully convincing, especially in light of the rhetoric which tends to accompany it. (And I’ve yet to see a remotely intelligent daffynition, er, definition of anti-Zionism, but that’s another story.)

Anti-Semitism, like many terms, can be seen as a misnomer of sorts, as has been noted, but only at a purely linguistic (and often juvenile) level of fixation. This is true of thousands of other terms, of course, and it’s one of the realities of languages. Indeed, basketball is not played with baskets; football is not always football; hotdogs aren’t dogs and often aren’t even hot; the Internet is not a net; and on and on. One wonders if folks like Nafie and Bellecourt are afflicted with similar convulsions of linguistic schizophrenia by these and other such terms, or if the condition is only triggered by mention of the term that denotes hostility towards Jews.

Jerry Seinfield, commenting on a dentist who had converted to Judaism so he could indulge in Jew jokes without being accused of anti-Semitism, said this subterfuge offended him not so much as a Jew but as a comedian. Similarly, when people try to subvert and pervert the meaning of anti-Semitism, be it by witless pronouncements that Arabs are Semites, or other equally vapid gambits, not least so the term can be wielded against Jews, one is offended not only as a Jew but as a cognitive being.

To their credit (as negligible as it may be at this point), in the December 4-10 edition Al-Ahram has published another article on the topic of anti-Semitism, this time by Azmi Bishara This subsequent article makes a few good points—including a statement that anti-Semitism doesn’t encompass Arabs just because theyre Semites, and shouldn’t be used as such—but it’s riddled with errors and misrepresentations, often of the self-excusing sort (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were common in Arab countries before 1967, for example: The King of Saudi Arabia was a fan, and Egyptian soldiers carried pocket editions of the Protocols with them during the Six Day War). This devolves into a misleading account of Islamic anti-Semitism, or the lack thereof (anti-Semitism is a European product and not present in Islamic culture, of course, despite, say, the less than pleasant expulsion of Jews from places like Medina, various Koranic denigrations of Jews, the restrictive and often repressive practice of Dhimmitude to which Jews often had to submit in Muslim lands, and so on). Bishara goes on to discount 1500 years or so of pre-modern anti-Semitism—anti-Semitism is a European invention, you understand, so “Zionist historians” (ah, Zionist historians!) who evidence anti-Semitism in Greek and Roman times are off key and off kilter (apparently Bishara would have little use for the types of books I cite above)—and offers an exceptionally rose-colored and truncated account of the French parliament granting Jews citizenship in 1791.

And, really, what’s with the scare quotes around “Ashkenazi? Bishara wraps things up with the usual garbage about how anti-Semitism in Arab countries is in fact Israel’s fault, as such anti-Semitism is but a response to Israel’s actions. Indeed, Holocaust denial in Arab countries was in some cases merely a response to Zionists exploiting the Holocaust. Ho hum, whatever. And speaking of minimizing the Holocaust, why is it that Bishara cannot even bring himself to capitalize it?

Incidentally, the prevalence of Holocaust denial in places where Israel/Nazi comparisons are so often invoked always struck me as a charming albeit decrepit sort of cognitive dissonance. If one is trying to criticize Israel, shouldn't the two be mutually exclusive? That is, if evil Israel treats the Palestinians the same way the evil Nazis treated Jews, but if the Nazis' purported treatment of the Jews is just a big hoax or wild exaggeration to garner Zionist sympathies, then obviously Israel isn't doing anything out of sorts to the Palestinians.... Another self-contradicting dichotomy common among such advocates is the support for Osama's striking a blow against America on 9-11, an attack which was planned and carried out, as everyone knows, by the Jews: Ergo, Osama is Jewish, and thus (as the logic goes) not an anti-Semite because he’s a Semite, too, and a Jewish one at that, but I digress.

From there, it’s on to the predictable blather about how pro-Israel organizations and activists, not to mention Israel itself, supposedly make rampant and unjust accusations of anti-Semitism in a widespread campaign to silence criticism of Israel. Regarding Israel, Bishara pulls no punches: “Israel has been systematic in its attempt to portray any criticism of Israel or Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism, sufficiently so to have propagated a climate of intellectual terror.” These are popular tropes, as we all know, yet it seems the more people complain about all this alleged and unfair “anti-Semite” name-calling the more overblown if not mythical it all becomes. Such people doth protest too much, one suspects. After all, where are all these people and organizations smearing as anti-Semites anyone who criticizes Israel? I’ve never seen anyone called anti-Semitic by Israel or anyone else simply for criticizing Israel, and I probably follow such matters more than the average person. It’s not infrequently that we hear self-righteous critics of Israel whining about criticism of Israel being nefariously labeled as anti-Semitism, but nobody seems able to document the phenomenon, as widespread and ongoing as it supposedly is. In fact, public discourse and the media don’t seem the slightest bit lacking as far as scrutiny, and very often negative scrutiny, of Israel goes, especially in outlets like Al-Ahram.

And “climate of intellectual terror”? Oh boy! Granted, as the former chair of the Philosophy Department at Bir Zeit University, Bishara probably knows about a climate of terror, but really now.

One could go on at length addressing the errors and misrepresentations in Bishara’s piece, but it grows late and the task begins to border on the absurd. Indeed, do the recent “scattered fragments of imported anti-Semitism” to the Arab world include the 30-part Egyptian miniseries based partly on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or was that more of a homegrown anti-Semitism, as alien to the Arab world as it would be? Such anti-Semitism has been documented in Arab countries for decades, and after so many years it’s difficult to take seriously claims that it’s (still) some sort of foreign import from Europe or somewhere.

That Al-Ahram seems incapable of addressing anti-Semitism in anything other than self-exculpatory fashion, which not only fails to address the prevalence and utilization of anti-Semitism in much of the Arab world but also preemptively belittles claims of anti-Semitism, belies the nature of such articles. And the fact that they had to draft (import?) an Israeli politician instead of an actual Egyptian to write such a piece speaks volumes as well. (Bishara, incidentally, is an interesting figure to see in an Egyptian newspaper, for if an Egyptian politician—or a politician in any Arab country, for that matter—had the sort of record of criticizing and disparaging his country as Bishara has against Israel, even when he’s not addressing an audience that includes members of assorted terrorist organizations (Hamas and PFLP-GC, for example) and other militant anti-Israel groups, well, that politician probably wouldn’t be penning editorials in the foreign press, to say the least, assuming he was still alive and able to pen anything.) By the final paragraph it becomes clear that Bishara’s underlying purpose is not so much to discuss the effects of anti-Semitism in any productive or insightful manner but, quite the contrary, to accuse Israel of racism and of trying to take advantage of anti-Semitism. This is little different from the dreck pandered by Nafie in the first article.

It’s nice that Bishara comes out against frivolous re-definitions of anti-Semitism and the like, not that this is saying much (indeed, it’s a bar set so low an ant could step over it, which makes one wonder why so many people like Nafie and Bellecourt crack their foreheads on it). But much of his conclusion (Zionists nefariously and systematically exploit anti-Semitism, not least to cover up their own dastardly racism, and so on) is little different and hardly less boorish than Nafie's. After reading Nafie’s article, and having read Al-Ahram for a while, reading a limpid, self-serving article like Bishara’s is like eating Ramen Noodles: A rare occurrence, to be sure, and kind of nice for a few minutes; but not especially wholesome or satisfying, and it leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. One looks elsewhere for truthful sustenance.

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