Are Critics of Israel Smeared as Anti-Semites?

The Anti-Defamation League, which keeps track of these matters, recently issued a press release noting that “a total of 1,559 anti-Jewish incidents were reported against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2002, a slight increase from the 1,432 incidents in 2001. At the same time, anti-Jewish incidents reported on campus were up by 24 percent in 2002.”

The A.D.L.’s figures accord with my own impression that there is more anti-Jewish sentiment, loosely defined, now than there has been in the recent past. That anti-Semitism is more prevalent now than it has been is the opinion of Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers, who says of himself: “I am Jewish, identified but hardly devout.” Last September, he told an audience in Memorial Church in Cambridge, Mass.: “Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities. Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”

My guess is that Mr. Summers has got hold of something here. There does appear to be some considerable shifting in opinions going on. It would seem that “poorly educated right-wing populists,” or what I might call Christian militants, have moved over to being, if not pro-Jewish, then pro-Israel at the same time that members of “progressive intellectual communities” have become, if not anti-Jewish, then anti-Israel. Mr. Summers did not add in with the intellectuals those mainline Christian denominations-i.e., the Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians et al.-whose sympathies are pro-Palestinian. Nor did he mention the long-held antipathies of many African-Americans. I detect no great abatement of hostile opinion in those quarters.

In his church address, Mr. Summers gave examples of current “actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.” They are:

“Hundreds of European academics have called for an end to support for Israeli researchers, though not for an end to support for researchers from any other nation.

“Israeli scholars this past spring were forced off the board of an international literature journal.

“At the same rallies where protesters, many of them university students, condemn the IMF and global capitalism and raise questions about globalization, it is becoming increasingly common to also lash out at Israel. Indeed, at the anti-IMF rallies last spring, chants were heard equating Hitler and Sharon.

“Events to raise funds for organizations of questionable political provenance that in some cases were later found to support terrorism have been held by student organizations on this and other campuses with at least modest success and very little criticism.

“And some here at Harvard and some at universities across the country have called for the university to single out Israel among all nations as the lone country where it is inappropriate for any part of the university’s endowment to be invested. I hasten to say the university has categorically rejected this suggestion.”

In his choice of examples, Mr. Summers comes close to saying that attacking Israel is the same as being anti-Semitic. He adds: “I have always throughout my life been put off by those who heard the sound of breaking glass in every insult or slight, and conjured up images of Hitler’s Kristallnacht at any disagreement with Israel. Such views have always seemed to me alarmist if not slightly hysterical. But I have to say that while they still seem to me unwarranted, they seem rather less alarmist in the world of today than they did a year ago.” If I read Mr. Summers correctly, he does believe that negative opinions about Israel are tantamount to anti-Semitism. If that isn’t what he means, then given his position of power and influence as the president of Harvard University, Mr. Summers ought to take an opportunity to make some crucial distinctions.

Without them, we have the repercussions of the Moran incident to contemplate. For those who missed it, The Washington Post summed up the affair nicely in an article which noted that Jewish organizations had condemned Representative James P. Moran Jr. for “delivering what they said were anti-Semitic remarks at an antiwar forum … where he suggested that American Jews are responsible for pushing the country to war with Iraq and that Jewish leaders could prevent war if they wanted to. At the forum … Moran discussed why he thought antiwar sentiment was not more effective in the United States. ‘If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this,’ Moran said.” Mr. Moran was further quoted saying: “The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should.”

Mr. Moran later apologized, but his apologies did him no good. He was stripped of his position as regional minority whip in the House of Representatives, threatened with opposition in the next primary, and roundly denounced by rabbis and other important Jewish and non-Jewish figures. It remains to be seen if Mr. Moran’s political career has crashed and burned, but for many who are verging on what Mr. Summers might consider some kind of parlor anti-Semitism, the Moran story is a cautionary tale reinforcing the spreading conviction that a person risks job, career and status if he or she disagrees with the party line on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

With something like this, there is no way of guessing the percentages. The type of people who have decided that the prudent thing to do is to keep their mouths zippered are literate, college-educated managers and professionals. When the poll-takers come around, these people are not going to tell them what they really think, any more than they’d tell anybody else whom they don’t know and have no reason to trust. Hence, there’s no telling if we’re dealing with one half of 1 percent of the population, or 2 percent, or what. We don’t know, but I’ll hazard a guess that they’re more numerous, more significant and less visible than those people figuring in Mr. Summers’ examples. It seems to me that the sense of being gagged and intimidated is growing-and, with it, a resentment that is not without a nasty edge.

Mr. Summers, considering his power, his being Jewish and his being apparently quite pro-Israel, has no idea that these people exist-although, since they seem to be all over the place, he probably deals with some of them every day in his own office. They will keep their own counsel and tell him not what they actually think, but what they know he wants to hear. Some of those people dissembling in front of him may also be Jewish: It’s not only non-Jews who choose discretion over valor and keep their opinions to themselves when it comes to these dangerous topics.

Since 9/11, it seems that the number of underground dissenters has markedly increased, because although they don’t say so (except in their private circles), these people are convinced that the years of supplying arms and money to Israel ultimately triggered what they see as a retaliatory attack on the United States.

When our politicians talk about freedom of speech, they are referring to freedom from governmental interference, from political police, from the kind of suppression exercised by a certain Mr. Saddam Hussein. But that’s not what’s going on here. The underground dissenters aren’t afraid of the government; they fear informal social and economic punishment. They don’t fear being thrown in jail, but out on the street. Life-and-death issues of American foreign policy aren’t being debated and haven’t been debated, because the would-be debaters on one side fear that the personal cost of carrying on the argument would be too high.

So the other side has had the best of the argument for years. It should go without saying that American democracy has paid a price, but what that price is cannot easily be determined. The secret resentment and anger are not unlike an underground peat fire. You know it’s there-but how deep it smolders and how long and how hot it may burn, no one can say.

Are Critics of Israel Smeared as Anti-Semites?