The Conditioned Reflex
For those of us watching the rising tide of antisemitism, a tide which is slowly seeping in even over American shores, the problem of how to fight it has a sharp edge, because, historically, nothing has ever worked, certainly not rational persuasion. Old-fashioned Christian Jew-hatred was unpersuadable because it rested on religious grounds. Nineteenth century antisemitism claimed to be scientific and should have been, by its lights, refutable. No such luck. That was partly because it had a good conscience. If you called someone an antisemite, he might well reply, “Right. What’s your point?”
Only after the Holocaust did Jew-hating, called antisemitism after its most recent form, become unacceptable among decent people. Now anti-Zionism offers a new mask for the old hatred. But the old danger applies. If we prove to the anti-Zionists that they are antisemites, too, at some point they may, instead of recoiling in shame, say, “Okay; you’re right, we are.” Then what?
So it becomes crucial to understand from within, as much as possible, what the process is that turns a would-be progressive who loves everyone equally into an unrepentant Jew-hater, if we are to find ways to intervene in the all-too-familiar process. Recently, something striking came to my attention. The context was the dismay of my Zionist friends that the media once more had done everything it could to minimize the Tel Aviv massacre and to avoid saying who it was who had done it and why. The worst was CNN, which mentioned terrorists, but in scare quotes. This was so appalling that CNN apologized.
So why had some headline writer and editor thought it was okay? Not calculation, I suspect. When it’s likely to be that embarrassing to your employer, you don’t do it except out of conditioned reflex. A similar case, not involving Israel at all, cost Reddit a lot of readers. In the immediate wake of the Orlando shooting the blog censored any mention that the shooter was Muslim. That was something that, even if true, simply could not be said. Dopey, fetishistic, self-shaming, all true. But all the more significant for those reasons. Again, this had to be a conditioned reflex more than a calculated decision.
Cultures produce manners, external ways of signaling loyalty to the central creed. Our elite culture prides itself above all on not being elitist and sides instinctively with the officially sanctioned oppressed and marginalized, if only to justify its own privilege. Muslims have, for whatever reason, become part of the canonically oppressed. So, whatever happens, morality requires expressing a bias on behalf of the Muslim side in any quarrel with the privileged world, of which Israel is understood to be a part. If this identification becomes tight enough, it will be impossible to keep this movement from becoming unashamedly anti-Jewish. Even “Bagheot,” of the Economist, in an essay pooh-poohing the dangers of British antisemitism, admits that on the far British Left the identification of anti-Zionism and antisemitism is well-nigh complete. As the Economist’s essayist says, in Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s circle, “implicit conflation of Israeli government policy with Jewishness is virtually de rigueur.” Our liberal Left has a ways to go to catch up, but the determination of the Sanders delegates, frustrated at the committee level, to take the anti-Israel fight to the floor of the convention, and the failure four years ago of a pro-Israel motion at the 2012 Democratic convention, are signs that the waters are coming in here as well.
To speak of conditioned reflexes suggests that once again Jew-hatred is becoming grounded in an irrational belief. If not a religion this time, it is something rather similar. One might think of contemporary radical leftism as the religion of Narcissus; one worships oneself as a putatively moral person. So what can be done? The religion itself cannot be attacked. Individuals may turn from it, but unless it is so discredited publicly that it becomes an embarrassment, it will continue to find converts.
But perhaps its particular dogmas can be challenged. Perhaps other examples can begin to seem more morally attractive to moral narcissists. That means focusing on the simple equation of “Muslim” and “innocent victim of the West/ Jews.” Part of that would mean even greater emphasis on the non-Western character of much of Israeli life and part of it would mean emphasizing even more how the alliance between the Left and the radical Islamists like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood hurts most Muslims. The testimony of Christian Arabs and other Middle Eastern minorities will matter a great deal more than our usual rational defenses of Israel’s existence and policy. But if we can’t lever out the increasing annoyance with the Jewish state and ultimately with Jews as such from the progressive creed, I suspect that all Jews, even progressive ones, will begin to find the air getting less breathable, even here, in America.