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December 23, 2003
Thinking about it

I've been called bad names occasionally and mostly it doesn't bother me. I just consider the source, which is usually laughable and saunter on my way, blissfully content with in own superiority. (What an ugly sentence.)

For instance, I remember being called anti-Semitic in the comments section of a (conservative) blog not too long ago. Since I'm pretty much equal-opportunity anti-religion, meaning I don't care if other people want to be superstitious but don't think this country should be run on the basis of reading ancient runes or fortune cookies or the oracular pronouncements of Roman-era deities and when someone's obsession with reading entrails and calculating the position of the planets starts influencing public policy I get rabidly annoyed and the name-calling didn't really bother me.

(There will be a brief pause while I get a grip on my syntax.)

Anyhow. It's easy to be called anti-Semitic these days. It's like a blog's comments being spammed by a wingnut -- you haven't really arrived until it's happened to you.

And then, you see, I read The Return of Anti-Semitism and I started feeling just a little uneasy.

Mind you, I could still care less about "Jewish" or "not."

Not much less, but less. I couldn't care less about the religious thing except as it's used as a reason to kill people. Everyone's entitled to their hobby, after all, and when the International Embroidery Association starts ganging up on the Cooperative of Home Knitters, I promise you I'll be dissing both of them with equal passion.

Besides, it definitely hits a hot button of mine when I hear that there may be a groundswell of organized opposition to a group of just-as-law-abiding-as-anyone-else people based solely on a belief system that, near as I can tell, they're not trying to force on anyone else. (A phrasing that nicely allows me to exempt the rightwing extremists from my policy of personal tolerance....)

On the other hand, it seems to me that that description could almost equally well apply to citizens of Israel and to Palestinians. (At least, for the average, garden-variety citizens of both populations. I make no claims of being able to understand suicide bombers or any stripe of religious extremist. Or, for that matter, politicians.)

Anyhow, I was appalled by myself, and all the more so after a cursory afternoon of research at the local library.

Like many (non-Jewish) USofA citizens, I tend to think of Israel, sweepingly but vaguely, as a "Jewish state" in spite of the fact that I know the country has a large and fast-growing Muslim population and that if Israel doesn't act soon to give the Palestinians their own country, the whole "war" will be a moot point because in perfectly fair, democratic elections, the Muslim majority is going to change the face of "Israel" but that's not really what we're here to discuss today.

Much of what the article charges is true. I do recall that Israel and Palestine were on the verge of signing a peace agreement when Arafat inexplicably torpedoed the peace plan and set off a wave of (more or less) continuing suicide bombings. I was in one of my extended "non-political" periods and didn't question the situation at the time, nor was I able the other day to find any contemporary "explanations" of Arafat's behavior that sound convincing today.

Perhaps even more importantly, the public attitude in this country does seem to have shifted from one of unquestioned support for Israel to attitudes of, "what have you done for us lately" and "can you please just knock off the killing, no matter what the price."

I dunno if I'd characterize it as a groundswell of anti-Semitism, but there does seem to be a certain anti-Israel feeling springing up and as most people are probably guilty of the same sloppy thinking processes as I use, I'd imagine that there's spillover from anti-Israelism to anti-Judaism.

Anyhow. I'm not shifting my position to one of whole-hearted support of Israel in the conflict, but I am giving the Palestinian authority some dubious looks and wondering just how sincere they are on the subject of "peace" that they haven't taken steps about Arafat before now.

I'm also considering what a dinky, inconsequential little bit of land these people are fighting over. It's a pity they're all so superstitious*. If they weren't we could give one group New Mexico or North Dakota and solve all of the problems. Or Utah. There's a lot of territory there the Mormons aren't using and while it's not the most hospitable land in the world it's amazingly beautiful.

* As I understand it, the mythology goes something like this:

This guy is married and he and his wife don't have any kids and he has an eye for another woman so he pretends like he's gonna just, you know, die if he can't pass on his genes, so he shacks up with this second woman and she gets pregnant and whether it's really his or not, no one knows but the odds are against it because he was married for about a hundred years to the first chick and no business resulted, and then it turns out that his wife has, it's not historical but I strongly suspect it, found herself a piece on the side too and she comes up pregnant and announces to the guy that it's his and he, being tired of his new gal pal or suspecting she was doin' someone else while he was off communing with god and nature or whatever it was men did back then when they were evading their responsibilities, decides to boogie on back to his wife and announces that the discarded gal pal and her offspring ain't got nuttin to do with him, nossir, no way, get outta here and now a few thousand or whatever years later, there are people strutting around giving themselves airs and being all martyred that either, (a) some tramp stole my daddy from my mommy for a while and all those kids of her kid are, you know, like illegitimate spawn and we're the righteous, chosen, cool ones and don't no one even think of pointing fingers at that anthropomorphized deity we're blaming for engineering all of this cause it's was part of the Master Plan, you see; or (b) daddy threw my momma out in the snow, okay, the sand, but it was hot, and so them other kids are going to pay for it, yeah, even unto the five-millionth freaking generation because there's nothing else to do here, man, there's not even cable and if those cats in Europe think the old white guys in charge are a pain they oughta come here and check out the complete repression of a teenager's natural desire to hang with his buddies and do some brawling with anyone not from our 'hood without, you know, actually having to leave home to do it except that they're telling us we're going to get all we want and then some in the afterlife so woo-hoo! and get me there while I'm still young enough to do it all night!

(And for this, they all hate each other except when, you know, they live in a country where religious intolerance isn't encouraged and people are more or less expected to get a grip on themselves and remember that opposing viewpoints are entitled to exist.)

That's kind of how it was explained to me.

(Some of it is sort of how it was explained to me, anyhow. The part about the guy indulging in a little extra-marital nookie and then ditching his girlfriend and her kid when wifey came up pregnant was, I'm pretty sure, very close to what someone said to me.)

I'm just saying. I'd never realized there was an actual "history" to the Jewish - Palestine conflict or that they had so much in common, both "races" being quite unlikely to have been the offspring of the hundred-and-fifty year-old and probably sterile guy whose name currently escapes me and I'm sure it wasn't Noah but it could have been Abraham or something but of course all of those old testament guys seemed to have been named Jonah or Abraham, so that's not much of a guess and in any case Jonah was the whale guy and what these people today ought to be doing is celebrating is that their respective mothers had the sense to get knocked up by (we hope) guys not quite as weasely as mister "I didn't wanna do it but god told me to have sex with that woman" but instead of celebrating, they're killing each other.

Actually, when I was being called "anti-Semitic" I was pretty clear where the responsibility for the Palestine - Israel conflict existed and nothing I read in this article changed my mind. But it did give me reason to stop and examine my own prejudices to figure out whether or not I have some, you know, extra bias against Jewish people because...well, because of whatever it is that non-Jewish people have against Jewish people these days.

And while I'm guilty of having forgotten some of the nuances of "peace negotiations" over the years, I'm happy to report that my disdain-occasionally-rising-to-mockery of Judaism isn't any more intense than my disdain of Episcopalians or Baptists or Muslims or Moonies. (Or Mormons, who, as I scan the world o'blog while I consider whether or not it's wise to post this, I see are still creating retroactive Mormons and pissing off the kind of people who take this stuff seriously.)

Read the article. Check the fastness of your own soul. Are you without this particular sin, or at least in the habit of strewing the thorns equally upon the path of each religion's chosen path to enlightenment?

(Go ahead, take a look. I'll wait.)

Because the bottom line is that, aside from the religious implications which I seem to be completely incapable of treating seriously, you just can't get past the fact that it was Palestinian land and the West grabbed it and said Palestinians weren't a real country (and, by inference, not "real people" with "real rights") and they didn't have any right to the land and then the West opened it up to Jewish settlement and that's the reason people are dying today.

I do find it hard, considering Western history, to dismiss Jewish longings for a country of their own although I do regret that they had their collective hearts set on a bit of land that belonged to someone else but the bottom line is that everywhere belongs to someone else and, short of doing something silly like buying the land they wanted, I don't see how they were going to actually get a country, do you?

I don't blame people for having "a dream" even if it's based on murky, historical superstition, but this particular dream seems to require a wholesale act of theft and I just can't support that.

Anyhow. Bottom line. I've examined my conscience for anti-Semitism and pronounce myself clean of the taint.

With that comfortable conviction in mind, I'll also say that I still approve of the Geneva Accord and think it's the most likely path to "peace" for those two peoples. The Palestinians involved have accepted that the Israeli people are in the area to stay. The Israelis involved have accepted that at least some of the Palestinians' land needs to be given back to them. Neither of these groups is going to wind up in sole possession of the land so an equitable plan to share (remember, sometimes you can't make everyone happy and the best you can do is to insure that everyone's equally unhappy) the land is the only rational solution.

(Note: I'm going to mortally offend about fifty million people if I post this, aren't I? I've been sitting here with my finger hovering over the Post button for five minutes.)

Posted by AnneZook at 11:46 AM


It's a good start. Gotta give you much credit for trying.

The fact that all the essential Israeli actors in creating Israel were secular, and that secularity has always remained in control, though lately not in full control, can wait for a later discussion.

Posted by: Gary Farber at December 23, 2003 08:00 PM

"As I understand it, the mythology goes something like this..." That explanation sounds very Margaret Cho. :)

As far as I can see you haven't written anything anti-Semitic (not to put too fine a point on it, but Arabs are Semites too, the word has just come to mean "anti-Jewish" the way "homophobic" means "anti-gay" rather than literally "afraid of gays"). It gets very frustrating for many of us American Jews to combat the "you can't criticize Israeli policy 'cause that means you're a self-hating Jew" mentality. It's the same ridiculousness as saying "you can't criticize the Bush administration 'cause that obviously means you hate America."

Posted by: Elayne Riggs at December 24, 2003 08:52 AM

You see what I mean? I went out and did research and I didn't pick up on the secular nature of Israel's formation. And I think you should discuss it, okay?

Nor has anything I've read explained that Arabs are Semites - although now that Elayne mentions it, it makes sense to me.

And, Elayne, I'm aware that I'm not anti-Semitic (Well, not in any mean way. Clearly I'm of the opinion that religion exists to be made fun of if no one's in the process of dying for it.) but, as you said, just like criticizing the current Administration makes you "anti-American" it seems that criticizing Israel makes you "anti-Semitic."

Posted by: Anne at December 24, 2003 09:25 AM

(P.S. I'm such a cultural illiterate that I had to go Google "Margaret Cho", Elayne. :) I think you're doing her an injustice. Heh.

Posted by: Anne at December 24, 2003 09:43 AM

"...Arabs are Semites too, the word has just come to mean 'anti-Jewish' the way 'homophobic' means 'anti-gay....'"

Arabs are Semites, but the rest of this phrase actually is completely untrue, and is ahistoric to the philology of the word. It's helpful if one only ventures information that is actually based upon fact.

See here:, and this, try dropping "Wilhelm Marr" and "anti-semitism" into Google.

There are a vast number of online resources on the history of Zionism and the founding of Israel, Anne, as well as thousands of good books.

Posted by: Gary Farber at December 28, 2003 11:09 PM

The founders of Israel, incidentally, were all socialists (except for the Irgun segment, who were also entirely secular).

Buy me dinner and I'll talk your ear off about it. :-)

Posted by: Gary Farber at December 28, 2003 11:11 PM

"It's helpful if one only ventures information that is actually based upon fact. "

Hey, let's play nice, okay? I've had to correct myself often enough to find a minor error in historical fact forgivable.

Anyhow, the fact that someone coined the phrase and then used it to describe something other than what it actually means is relevant, but if all "Semites" could be brought to acknowledge that commonality, that might force them, and others, to find different ways to identify their differences.

It's possible that that exploration would teach them much about themselves and others.

It's possible.

Posted by: Anne at December 29, 2003 12:20 PM