left in the left itself
Wednesday, August 4 2004
I was out in Redhook for dinner tonight with friends of the family from Gretchen's side. (It's not as though there really are any "friends of the family" from my side.) Such friends of the family tend to be Jewish and very pro-Isræl, and it's not unexpected to hear nuance-free sentiments about the Holy Land during polite conversation. But I was taken aback when one of the people at our table suddenly proclaimed Michæl Moore to be "anti-semitic." I asked her what he'd said that was anti-semitic and she said that he'd said "the usual thing about Arabs" that "the left is always saying." Then she went on to decry the fact that the left itself had a strong current of anti-semitism. As a reaction, was in the process of carefully advancing an argument to the effect that not having complete and unqualified support for Isræl and its policies isn't necessarily anti-semitic. But then Gretchen sharply whispered some ominous advise into my ear, that I should just drop it, that it wasn't worth it. She was right of course; I was the only non-Jew at the table and it was clear that anything I might say on the subject that didn't fit within a certain narrow target of acceptability would be construed as evidence of, well, anti-semitism. It's that same old problem again: the inability of grown people to talk about an important issue because it's really just a minefield of taboos. It's such a shame, because on every other issue Jews are such fun to be around with their constant arguing and nerdy iconoclasm.
Like nearly all secular American non-Jews, I have little emotional investment in Isræl. To me it's a scrap of desert not worth the fuss and bloodshed. In the tradition from which I hail, my ancestors never even worried about their own homeland (wherever that might have been), let alone the homeland of the Jews. Personally, my wish for Isræl is that everyone there just get along in a state of Rodney Kingesque utopia. I think the pursuit of some policies advance this cause more than others, and leaving the Palestinians out of the equation or otherwise marginalizing them isn't in the long-term interests of anyone. Doing as George W. Bush has done and giving carte blanche to whatever fanatical right wing Isræli government takes power is not doing anyone any favors. The sense I get of Michæl Moore's statements about Isræl is that he basically shares this view. To call this view "anti-semitic" is to trivialize true anti-semitism while unnecessarily alienating non-Jews. It's not too different from saying that all non-Jews are automatically anti-semites. Remember, there are only three groups of people in America who consider the support or lack of support of Isræl to be of paramount importance. Firstly, there are the Jews who support Isræl for tribal reasons. Secondly, there are the Christian fundamentalists who believe that supporting Isræl will hasten the arrival of the Rapture (a good fraction of these Isræl supporters really are anti-semitic; I saw a bar full of them gleefully singing "Throw the Jew Down the Well" on the Ali G Show the other night). Then there are the Muslims, many of whom would be delighted to see Isræl destroyed. Politicians in America cannot build a career out of catering to this last group, but they risk little by supporting Isræl no matter how nutty its government becomes.
This peculiar American political reality means that level of support for Isræl is not an especially good test for the presence or absence of anti-semitism. An example of why this is true came at another point in tonight's conversation when the subject of Alan Keyes came up. Alan Keyes, for those who don't know, made a name for himself by running as an ultra-conservative African American candidate in the 1996 Republican primaries. Among his many medieval opinions is the view that the constitution does not mandate the separation of church and state and even allows for states to set up their own theocracies. Alan Keyes is in the news again these days as a potential Republican senate candidate to run (and inevitably lose) against "the first black President," Barack Obama, in Illinois (despite the fact that Keyes actually lives in Maryland).
The same friend-of-the-family who would later label Michæl Moore an anti-semite made the observation that at least Keyes "is very good about Isræl," as if this might possibly redeem many of his antediluvian viewpoints. I mean, come on! What if YHWH intervened and Keyes really managed to rise to power and really did get his way and America was divided into a bunch of state-wide theocracies? How good would that be for the Jews? There are more Jews living in the United States than in Isræl, and there are plenty of well-meaning Christian fanatics in this country who would support mandatory Christian indoctrination for all children, regardless of religion. I ought to know; I got a taste of it in a public school in rural Virginia as late as the mid-1970s.
Mind you, the conversation about Michæl Moore's possible anti-semitism wasn't the only thing that raised my blood pressure at dinner tonight. I found myself arguing with the other half of this friend-of-the-family couple about the USA PATRIOT Act. He's the first person I've met who actually thought the act was a good piece of legislation, and it's not like he isn't a Kerry supporter. He's a terrorism expert, and in his line of business he's come to feel that the act really does contain a lot of necessary "tools" to help fight terrorism. He also defended it by saying that much of it had been developed during the Clinton administration and it was all ready to go when 9/11 happened. I knew all that, and I also knew that it had been written in a way that makes it impossible to read, that it had been passed without having ever been read, and that there had been no debate about it. Furthermore, ever since George Orwell, people should regard anything bearing a name like "USA PATRIOT" with grave suspicion.
Then there was also the harrowing story of one of the other people at our table, the nephew of the two others mentioned, who had been arrested and charged with a class three felony for carrying a plastic knife butter knife onto an airplane. He had been flying to Cleveland to attend a bar mitzvah and suspiciously crocheting a keepah during part of the trip. Then he went to apply some cream cheese to his bagel and someone saw the knife and reported it to the stewardess, who pointedly did not say "have a nice day" as he was disembarking from the plane. He was immediately arrested and would have remained in jail through the long Columbus Day weekend had he not been very lucky and managed to rouse the local Jewish network, which pulled the necessary strings to get him out. He figured that it had been his beard which triggered the suspicions of the flight crew, and from there it was your usual zero-tolerance Kafkaesque nightmare. When zero tolerance madness kicks in, there's never any appealing to reason. Just ask the five year old kicked out of kindergarten for drawing a picture of can of O'Douls.
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