Crying Wolf: The Overused Accusation of Anti-Semitism

In my interactions with Jews, and in years of reading various news articles, I have often heard one person or another being accused of anti-Semitism. This accusation can be puzzling. This post examines the accusation and offers some suggestions.


Standard Meaning of the Term
Exaggerated Use of the Term
An Example of Exaggeration: “Rich Jews”
Observations from the Aso Example: Downplaying Jewish Success
Another Example of Exaggeration: Kanye West
Other Examples of Exaggeration
The Self-Hating Jew
Governmental Definitions of Anti-Semitism
Backing Away from the Accusation of Anti-Semitism

Standard Meaning of the Term

A search for definitions of “anti-semitic” or “anti-semitism” leads to a large number of websites. Here are a few:

  • Merriam-Webster: “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”
  • “discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews.”
  • Oxford Dictionaries: “Hostility to or prejudice against Jews.”
  • Free Dictionary: “One who discriminates against or who is hostile toward or prejudiced against Jews”; “Hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism”; “Discrimination against Jews.”
  • Cambridge Dictionaries: “having or showing a strong dislike of Jewish people, or treating them in a cruel and unfair way.”

These examples suggest substantial agreement among mainstream sources: anti-Semitism is commonly used to indicate negative views or actions toward Jews. There is a problem, however: the definition of Semitic includes “any of a number of peoples of ancient Southwestern Asia descent including the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews (Jews), Arabs, and their descendants” (Wikipedia).

It seems that people who intend to speak of negative views or actions toward Jews should be using the term “anti-Jewish.” Given the definition of “Semitic,” “anti-Semitism” would seem to indicate negative views or actions toward Semitic peoples generally. The distinction would appear in, for instance, the difference between a negative statement about Jews (e.g., “Those Jews are always causing trouble”) and a negative statement about a broader set of Semitic peoples (e.g., “Those Jews and Arabs are always causing trouble”). What is an incorrect use of “anti-Semitic” or “anti-Semitism,” strictly speaking, yields confusion, sometimes oxymoronic — in, for example, a Wikipedia article citing “Arab and Muslim involvement in the Jewish exodus from Arab and Muslim countries” as an example of anti-Semitic behavior.

The “anti-Semitic” misnomer comes from a German word reportedly first used to refer specifically to Jews in 1881 or perhaps 1879. Apparently that German word (antisemitisch) had been used as early as 1860 to refer to hostility toward Semitic races more generally, and the German word for “Semitic” (semitisch) had been in use since the early 1800s if not before. While it appears that some of the scholars engaging in early use of “anti-Semitic” to refer particularly to Jews were themselves Jewish, the narrowing of the term to focus on Jews seems to have originated in the work of the anti-Jewish writer William Marr in 1880.

Thus it seems that Jews did not somehow hijack the term to exclude other Semitic peoples; it appears, rather, that “anti-Semitic” was introduced by a Gentile, with Jews as its target, and was used thereafter in that sense by Jews as well. While the term is now almost universally used to refer to antipathy toward Jews in particular, it seems that careful future usage would favor the distinction suggested here, between “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Jewish.” This appears to have been the gist of Arab-American efforts (achieving limited success so far) to obtain clarified dictionary definitions.

Exaggerated Use of the Term

The organization originally known as the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, now referring to itself as simply ADL, has been highly active in identifying and denouncing statements it considers anti-Semitic (i.e., anti-Jewish). ADL is, of course, not alone in that. But for purposes of this post, various statements and actions by ADL serve to highlight key issues related to the accusation of anti-Semitism.

It appears that ADL and its supporters have sought to extend the definition of anti-Semitic behavior to include instances that do not necessarily involve negativity toward Jews. A search of ADL’s website leads to a webpage that defines anti-Semitism as follows:

The belief or behavior [sic] hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish. It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews, for instance, or political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them. It may also include prejudiced or stereotyped views about Jews.

That definition appears to be linked to certain overreactions and distortions. Consider, for example, the following quote from that same ADL webpage:

[D]isagreement over policy toward the State of Israel has created opportunities in which the expression “Zionist” – support for Israel as the Jewish homeland – is often used as an anti-Semitic code word for “Jew” in mainstream debate.

That is a single sentence. But what, precisely, does it mean? Upon peeling back its layers, one encounters much confusion.

For one thing, the sentence claims that there is disagreement over policy toward Israel. Certainly some American policymakers have disliked some Israeli policies and actions. But on the level of fundamental “support” for Israel’s existence and for its freedom of cultural and religious practice, there has been virtually no disagreement. America has long been staunchly supportive. Not counting today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel has long received far more aid than any other nation.

In addition, that ADL quote seems somewhat paranoid. It appears to say that mainstream debate uses “Zionist” as a “code word” conveying “anti-Semitic” views of Jews. It is bizarre to suggest that, for example, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, and their constituent journalists and readers — all comprising, in some sense, “mainstream debate,” and in many cases being Jewish themselves — share uniform views on Zionism, much less that they are anti-Semites speaking in some form of code. Even if Gentiles did have a single view, it would not necessarily be wrong or anti-Semitic: as a recent New York Times article points out, Jews themselves disagree on what Zionism is or should be. Ironically, in the foregoing quote, it is the ADL itself that conveys racist assumptions, falsely stereotyping Gentiles while complaining of “stereotyped views about Jews.”

Altogether, that ADL statement seems incoherent. To introduce an impression that will emerge again (below), the statement’s accusatory and overblown language may be intended more to promote ADL’s funding and membership rolls than to convey accurate impressions regarding American people, views, or debates.

An Example of Exaggeration: “Rich Jews”

It may be helpful to consider specific cases in which ADL claims to have identified anti-Semitism. One such case is that of Japanese politician Taro Aso. In 2001, ADL linked Aso with anti-Semitism after he made this statement:

Maybe I’m saying this from my dogmatic prejudice, but the way I see it the best country in the world would be a country where the richest Jewish people would want to live. Or it could be Armenians, or overseas Chinese, or any group around the world criticized for being rich.

ADL’s press release did not explain why it felt that this statement reflected what it described as “deep misperceptions and stereotypes.” Aso was obviously referring to “the richest” Jewish people. It is not clear how he could be accused of stereotyping Jews generally. He does not seem to have been saying anything relevant to poor or middle-class Jews.

The fact that there are rich Jews is hardly a secret. For instance, a 2013 article on Jspace, which calls itself “the first online homeland for the Jewish people,” offers “a countdown of the Jewish billionaires whose fortunes ranks [sic] among the top 100 in the world.” According to that article, 24 of those top 100 are Jewish. They include such well-known names as Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Michael Dell, George Soros, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Michael Bloomberg, Charles and David Koch, and Larry Ellison.

It should be obvious to most educated people that virtually no stereotype will apply across the board to all members of any substantial racial, ethnic, religious, or sociocultural group. Any such group is likely to include a spectrum of abilities, attitudes, and opportunities, ranging from lazy to hardworking, poor to rich, and ignorant to brilliant. Thus, a conspiracy theory claiming that “the Jews” are working together to control the economy would have to take account of the contention, by ADL director Abraham H. Foxman, that “over 700,000 American Jews live below or near the poverty line.”

But let us not make too much of that contention. Depending on the definition used for counting, Foxman’s number appears to mean that Jews experience poverty at only about half the rate of the general American public. A study by the Jewish Federations of North America (2000) found that only 5% of Jewish households reported incomes below the U.S. government’s poverty line, at a time when 9.3% of American families were below that poverty line. The Jewish poverty rate dropped to 4% if one excluded those who had immigrated into the U.S. in recent years, many of whom would eventually enjoy improved prospects. Jewish poverty in New York, in particular, tends to be concentrated among those Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox Jews who live on welfare and deliberately seek to have large families for sociopolitical reasons. Especially after excluding these people who choose poverty to accommodate such alternate priorities, Jews are far less likely than Gentiles to fall below the poverty line.

Perhaps ADL criticized Aso’s statement about “the richest Jewish people” because of its objection to stereotypes in which “the Jewish community” wields, in ADL’s words, “a disproportionate amount of wealth and control.” Again, Aso wasn’t discussing any such community. But beyond that, ADL seems to be suggesting that people who think Jews tend to have money are just wrong. In making such a suggestion, ADL would contradict the considerable literature documenting Jewish exceptionalism. Countless sources (including Jewish sources) tabulate the disproportionately large numbers of Jews who have excelled in arts and sciences, in Supreme Court appointments, and in numerous other fields. It is not likely that these people — widely recognized as being good at making money — would have merely average levels of wealth. Nor is it consistent with, for example, a poll (cited in Haaretz, 2012) in which Jews were nearly three times more likely than Gentiles to earn more than $100,000 per year. Indeed, the headline of a 2012 article by Tani Goldstein in Ynetnews, which describes itself as “Israel’s largest and most popular news and content website,” asks this question: “How did American Jews get so rich?” It is accurate, it is consistent with Jews’ own statements about themselves, and in a country that glorifies wealth it is certainly not anti-Jewish, to acknowledge the obvious fact that Jews in America do tend to wield wealth and control disproportionate to their numbers.

That ADL webpage also states that “the vast majority of American business leaders are actually not Jewish.” Yet the majority is not an appropriate benchmark, not when Jews comprise well under 5% (some say 2%) of the U.S. population. It would be remarkable if even 10% of business leaders were Jewish. Here, again, it is commonly recognized that, as Gilder (2009) puts it,

Jews are not only superior in abstruse intellectual pursuits, such as quantum physics and nuclear science, however. They are also heavily overrepresented among entrepreneurs of the technology businesses that lead and leaven the global economy. . . . [According to one study,] Jews were five times more likely to start technological enterprises than other MIT graduates.

For all its special features and extreme manifestations, anti-Semitism is a reflection of the hatred toward successful middlemen, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, lenders, bankers, financiers, and other capitalists that is visible everywhere whenever an identifiable set of outsiders outperforms the rest of the population in the economy.

Contrary to Foxman and the ADL, the indication (above) that 24% of the top 100 billionaires are Jewish is consistent with both the general public impression and the extensive literature indicating a Jewish orientation toward success in business and finance. In short, it was disingenuous to attack Taro Aso for expressing the hope that Japan would be a country that rich Jews would find attractive. There are many rich Jews, and many countries do reasonably hope to attract wealthy visitors and immigrants.

The preceding remarks may suffice to debunk ADL’s Taro Aso accusation. The example seems to suggest that, when ADL complains of an “anti-Semitic” statement, what it means is, “true statement that we don’t want people to hear.”

It may be illuminative to continue a bit further with the ADL webpage. Some may feel that, among the strange views expressed there, the strangest is the claim that it is “anti-Semitic” to entertain the widely held belief about “rich [Jewish] media moguls exerting undue influence.” As in the financial realm, it definitely is true that Jewish people are overrepresented at multiple levels, from the top down, in media and related spheres (e.g., advertising).

That remark deserves some qualification. As noted above, the overrepresentation of Jews in such fields does not necessarily imply a coordinated effort — essentially, a conspiracy — to present a united front on topics of interest (e.g., Israel). In the view of former Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz,

Yes, there are many individual Jews in positions of influence in Hollywood, in network television, in sports and entertainment, and in many other areas of American public life. These individuals, who happen to be Jewish, do not act together in any kind of conspiratorial manner. . . .

Indeed, many individual Jews who are in positions of authority are anti-Israel and critical of Jewish values. Others simply don’t care about these issues.

Whenever there are allegations of Jewish “control” over the “media,” the primary examples cited are The New York Times and the Washington Post. Both were founded by families of Jewish origin. But neither has ever gone out of its way to promote Jewish causes or values.

Dershowitz is not correct in that last statement. Having read countless articles in the New York Times over the past 30 years, I would say it subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) does place limits on what it wants its readers to think and read. It is also my impression, however, that, within the scope of its editors’ cultural blinders, the Times has been admirably inclined (especially in the past few years) to publish criticisms as well as defenses of Israeli policies, among other things.

Although ADL’s webpage seems determined to deny it, there is no secret that — as proudly publicized by Adam Sandler among many others — Jews do predominate in the media. Consider Joel Stein’s editorial in the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 19, 2008):

As a proud Jew, I want America to know about our accomplishment. Yes, we control Hollywood. Without us, you’d be flipping between “The 700 Club” and “Davey and Goliath” on TV all day. . . .

“That’s a very dangerous phrase, ‘Jews control Hollywood.’ What is true is that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood,” [ADL Chairman Abe Foxman] said. Instead of “control,” Foxman would prefer people say that many executives in the industry “happen to be Jewish,” as in “all eight major film studios are run by men who happen to be Jewish.”

(For those who might ask, Miramax, co-founded by Harvey Weinstein, was not among those eight.) As another example, here are excerpts from Manny Friedman’s essay reportedly published in the Times of Israel (July 12, 2012):

We Jews are a funny breed. We love to brag about every Jewish actor. . . .

We’re a driven group, and not just in regards to the art world. We have, for example, AIPAC, which was essentially constructed just to drive agenda in Washington DC. And it succeeds admirably. And we brag about it. Again, it’s just what we do.

But the funny part is when any anti-Semite or anti-Israel person starts to spout stuff like, “The Jews control the media!” and “The Jews control Washington!”

Suddenly we’re up in arms. We create huge campaigns to take these people down. We do what we can to put them out of work. We publish articles. We’ve created entire organizations that exist just to tell everyone that the Jews don’t control nothin’. No, we don’t control the media, we don’t have any more sway in DC than anyone else. . . .

Let’s be honest with ourselves, here, fellow Jews. We do control the media. We’ve got so many dudes up in the executive offices in all the big movie production companies it’s almost obscene. Just about every movie or TV show, whether it be “Tropic Thunder” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” is rife with actors, directors, and writers who are Jewish. . . .

I’ll give my theory for why Jews don’t want to talk about their control of the media.

The truth is, the anti-Semites got it right. We Jews have something planted in each one of us that makes us completely different from every group in the world. . . .

I think that’s the real reason most Jews are so afraid to admit that there’s something inherently powerful and good about them. Not because they’re afraid of being special. But because they’re afraid of being responsible. . . .

It means we’ll have to start working together. It means we’ll have to hold one other, and ourselves, to a higher standard.

There is much in these remarks to think about. Among other things, I would point out that control of Hollywood does not mean control of news or other media. Of course, from various perspectives, neither is control of Hollywood a trivial matter.

Observations from the Aso Example:
Downplaying Jewish Success

The foregoing remarks provoke several questions and impressions. In addition to the unethical hounding of Taro Aso for making a perfectly reasonable statement, it appears that Foxman and the ADL wish to deceive Americans as to the glaring, obvious realities of Jewish power and wealth. As noted above, statements made on the ADL webpage do not even reflect Jews’ own opinions about themselves.

No doubt Gilder (above) is at least partly correct in his apparent belief that hatred of Jews arises from resentment. I would not say that is the entire story, but certainly fear of such resentment could explain why some (apparently including Foxman and the ADL) attempt to deceive the public on the extent of Jewish success in the United States.

There are multiple problems with such an attempt, however. One is that it doesn’t work. You can’t very well have all these Jews displaying their successes in highly visible communications media, and then seriously expect intelligent (or even unintelligent) people to believe that Jews are just like Gentiles, experiencing the same levels of educational and financial success and so forth. That would be an ironically unintelligent strategy, and (as argued in another post) it could be tragically self-defeating for Jews in some nations.

Another problem with such falsification is that it can feed the belief that the Jews are up to something. Why else would they be lying about their wealth and influence? Not everyone is going to consider, or accept, that it might be due to fear — to the concern (fed, no doubt, by the history of Nazi Germany) that too much success could generate a backlash. In a country with relatively little religious or cultural persecution, many Gentiles will doubt that fear of persecution explains it. They will reasonably suspect, rather, that there must be some other reason for the deception, and some will conclude that that other reason must be nefarious.

In short, the behavior that promotes these sorts of suspicions is counterproductive, if the goal is indeed to diminish the amount of actual anti-Jewish sentiment in the U.S. It would be sensible to stop making absurd statements that purport to “defend” Jewish people.

An additional problem with such falsification is that, as in the Aso case, it creates the need to attack people for speaking the truth. The logic of Foxman and the ADL seems to be that what Aso says may be true, but we can’t let him say it because we are precommitted to a lie. Aso, like many others, then becomes a victim of what is, in fact, a conspiracy to control people’s speech and, if possible, their thoughts. Here, again, is an irony: one would not expect Jewish culture, or 20th century Jewish experience, to favor that sort of thing. It seems, unfortunately, that people in entitles like ADL do believe they can get away with it.

There, again, we have the seeds for profound suspicions about Jews generally, among people who do not realize that ADL might represent only one kind of American Jewish thinking. And why should a person from overwhelmingly Gentile parts of the U.S. imagine otherwise? ADL is highly visible; it claims to speak for Jews; Jews as a whole are not visibly rejecting it. When Jewish spokespeople insist on broadcasting ridiculous fabrications, one can hardly be surprised if some number of Gentiles doubt Jewish truthfulness. It seems that, if ADL were as concerned about negative stereotypes as it claims, it would take every precaution to insure that its own behavior does not bring exactly those stereotypes to mind.

So now, let us review. Aso made a reasonable statement about rich Jews. It had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. But it did depend upon the correct impression that there are numerous rich Jews. ADL’s message to people like Aso was, in effect, “Don’t talk about our money.” Casual observers could reasonably infer that Jews generally wish to deceive the public regarding the true extent of their wealth and power. Such behavior could feed suspicions and conspiracy theories about Jews. Those would be bad for Jews but good for ADL: such mutterings would convey the impression that American Jews need ADL to protect them, when in fact unethical and heavyhanded advocacy by ADL is part of the problem.

Another Example of Exaggeration: Kanye West

According to an MTV article, on November 26, 2013 rapper Kanye West said this:

Man, let me tell you about George Bush and oil money and Obama and no money. People want to say Obama can’t make these moves or he’s not executing. That’s because he ain’t got those connections. Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people. Black people don’t have the same connection as oil people.

ADL attacked this statement in a press release, as follows:

“If the comments are true as reported, this is classic anti-Semitism,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “There it goes again, the age-old canard that Jews are all-powerful and control the levers of power in government. As a celebrity with a wide following, Kanye West should know better. We hope that he will take responsibility for his words, understand why they are so offensive, and apologize to those he has offended.”

Mr. West reportedly made the statements during an interview on New York City’s Hip Hop and R&B radio station Power 105.1 FM. The comments came to light after the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz printed them on Friday.

While the preceding section of this post has already addressed most of the issues arising in this incident, a few additional points deserve mention. Note, first of all, the slip of the tongue in that last quoted sentence. A prominent performer’s statements, broadcast on a major New York City hip-hop radio station, only “came to light,” from ADL’s perspective, after they were published in Israel. In other words, Kanye West and Power 105.1 lacked connections with which to make themselves directly known to ADL, even in Manhattan; it took Haaretz to confer noticeability upon them.

In this quote, once again, Foxman damages his own credibility by exaggeration. West did not say that “Jews are all-powerful.” He said simply that they (and also “oil people”) had better connections than blacks. As demonstrated above, this claim is eminently supportable. The contrast in U.S. foreign policy toward Israel versus any black (e.g., African or Caribbean) nation further makes the point. What West said is simple and obvious. It did not merit an attack. West’s supporters — and he has many — are apt to construe such an attack as Jewish unreasonableness. Result: another self-inflicted wound for American Jews, courtesy of ADL.

Moreover, in West’s case, there is an ominous overtone that was not so noticeable in the Taro Aso case. As Manny Friedman (above) put it, “Suddenly we’re up in arms. We create huge campaigns to take these people down. We do what we can to put them out of work.” There is, in other words, an implicit threat: kneel down and apologize to us, Kanye West, or we will ruin your career. The nature of that threat is sketched out in slightly more detail in an article in The Guardian regarding remarks by actor Gary Oldman:

[ADL rebuked Oldman] for stating: “Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews, and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him.” . . .

Oldman appeared to blame “political correctness” for Gibson’s subsequent experience of being ostracised in Hollywood and said that everyone had used similar epithets in their private moments. . . .

[ADL replied] that it was minded not to accept Oldman’s apology, though it said discussions were ongoing. Foxman said in a statement to the Guardian: “We have just began a conversation with his managing producer. At this point, we are not satisfied with what we received. His apology is insufficient and not satisfactory.”

In other words, apparently ADL did not simply object. It sounds like ADL proceeded to threaten Oldman’s employment by bringing pressure to bear upon his producer. Here, again, one might find irony: it appears that Kanye West’s remarks about Jewish connections (in this case, Hollywood connections) could be confirmed by malicious use of those very connections against him. For those who recall or have heard of the era of Joseph McCarthy, it is astounding that Hollywood would tolerate this sort of thuggery, this steel-fisted intolerance of celebrity attempts to state what appears to be the truth.

Other Examples of Exaggeration

The preceding sections have detailed two instances in which ADL has hyped and distorted non-events to the detriment of Jewish people generally. The following paragraphs offer additional examples of a tension between ADL and related organizations, on one hand, and reality and the positions of many Jews, on the other hand.

Yomin Postelnik, reportedly a former rabbinical student, has criticized ADL for suggesting that anti-Semitism was the reason for a White House ceremony in 2002. That ceremony honored the 34 murdered crewmen on an American ship that the Israeli air force bombed, napalmed, and strafed in 1967.  In Postelnik’s words,

[The surviving sailors] do not blame Jews. They know the attack had been deliberate on the part of Israel and this is where they lay the blame. . . .

Judaism demands loyalty to one’s country, not to a state of Jews half a world away. It is true that Jews have always defended each other, but only when the other is right and the case is just. Judaism does not support brutality . . . .

Another brief example, in a different vein: in a press release dated April 1, 2014, ADL reported “a significant increase in violent anti-Semitic assaults” between 2012 and 2013. The press release goes on to quantify that “significant increase”: it seems that, in this country of over 300 million people, there was “a total of 31 anti-Semitic assaults on Jewish individuals or those perceived as Jewish in 2013.” Those 31 violent assaults included these horrific crimes:

  • “A man had his shoulder injured by a co-worker who had made disparaging remarks toward him for being Jewish.”
  • “Three people were charged with hate crimes after shooting paintballs from their car at a Hasidic man who suffered a minor injury from the incident.”
  • “A 24-year-old Jewish man wearing a yarmulke was attacked by four men.” (No clear connection with Judaism, other than the yarmulke, which may or may not have instigated the “attack” — from which no injuries were reported.)

There was also a total of 37 anti-Semitic incidents on American campuses. Example: “A swastika was drawn on the whiteboard of a dorm room in which two Jewish students lived.”

One who suspects that ADL needs to invent or magnify controversies, in order to justify its continued existence, could hardly help noticing the triviality of these incidents. The threats to American Jews in 2013 paled against the threats to American skateboarders.

Not that Foxman is the only Jewish person, or ADL is the only Jewish organization, carrying on in this vein. Consider the case where Jewish parents demanded that a California high school withdraw $64,000 worth of high school yearbooks, already distributed to students and marked up by their classmates, after it was discovered that, in a single photo caption, a teenage yearbook staff member had rearranged their son’s name to contain the three letters “Jew.” Does it honestly not occur to such parents that they could do better than to send such a resounding message of self-centeredness, censorship, and extreme sensitivity to slights? Did they even pause to consider the impression of Jews that would have been made, upon all those high school seniors, by a successful attempt to take away those yearbooks, containing in some cases irreplaceable writings by their classmates? Was there really no way to make it a learning experience with ultimately positive outcomes for the students?

In another incident, the rapper known as Macklemore was accused of anti-Semitism for merely wearing a costume that some construed as an imitation of a Hasidic Jew — that Macklemore himself said was a “random costume” not intended to portray anyone. It appears that an entertainer could be labeled and disparaged — that his career could be jeopardized — for merely dressing up in a vaguely Hasidic-looking costume, regardless of whether that was the impression he intended to convey, and regardless of whether most American Jews (of whom relatively few are Hasidic) would even care about such a costume.

Another entertainment effort, yielding a video broadly critical of all major players in the Israel-Palestine conflict, was denounced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center as “raw Jew-hatred.” Whatever the merits of the Russia Today (RT) network, its response to the Wiesenthal statement does recall the point made by, among others, Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce: overreaction to hostile material only makes it more powerful. The depressing thing is that it would be Jewish culture, with its classic orientation toward endless disputation and reconsideration of conflicting viewpoints, that would be indulging the ostrich tactics of organizations like ADL and, in this example, the Wiesenthal Center. More than one Jew has asked, in all sincerity: “Is honest disagreement and debate still a Jewish virtue?”

The Self-Hating Jew

In a few of the foregoing examples and elsewhere, the people speaking out against the distortions of organizations like ADL are Jews themselves. Such behavior has triggered retorts invoking the so-called self-hating Jew. In Wikipedia‘s phrasing, this is “a term used to allege that a Jewish person holds antisemitic beliefs or engages in antisemitic actions.” The Wikipedia piece cites W.M.L. Finlay for the view that the term “is often used rhetorically to discount Jews who differ in their lifestyles, interests or political positions from their accusers.”

Obviously, Jews are not the only ones who resent a perceived traitor, someone who does not get on board and row with the rest of the team. Vietnam War and Occupy Movement protesters alike were pepper-sprayed and beaten by men who could have been (in some cases, probably were) their fathers. Christians espousing heterodox views have often been shunned and rejected by their supposed friends within their home congregations. The universal expectation is, go along to get along.

Despite that human tendency to insist upon conformity, a great deal of good has been done by Jews who have dared to challenge dominant Jewish opinions. While the liberal, peace-seeking element is weak within Israel itself, it remains relatively healthy in the U.S., where many Jews do distance themselves from Israeli (and sometimes American Jewish) practices with which they disagree. As just noted, these are not really renegades; they are perpetuators of a long tradition of independent thought and critique. It is not an aberration — it is not even surprising — that, for example, a Jewish lawyer would defend an Islamic terrorist.

One particularly important achievement of Jews who swim against the current — who engage in, among other things, criticism of objectionable Israeli actions — is that they help to defuse Gentile fears that Jews do conspire together against American or Gentile interests. For instance, those Jewish New York Times writers who oppose Israeli settlements demonstrate that they are not part of any monolithic Jewish-Israeli scheme. Or to make a similar point within the competitive economy, for every Goldman Sachs, poised to exploit thousands and amass enormous financial power, there is a Lehman Brothers — competing against and ultimately destroyed, some say, by its fellow Jews at Goldman. It is harder to believe that the Jews are all working together to control Wall Street when some of them are going bankrupt.

ADL certainly recognizes that many Jews have taken contrarian positions. In 2013, ADL released its list of the “Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups in America.” According to an article in Salon, two of those groups were explicitly Jewish and others had Jewish leaders and activists. Quotes from that Salon article:

Levy said that highlighting Israel’s outsized influence in US policy should be fair game: “There are very few examples, if any, where American foreign policy is so positively biased towards one country, and that’s something we should point out.” . . . Levy noted that the Holocaust is often invoked by members and defenders of the Israeli government, and say the ADL was talking “as if only the ADL, and only the [Israeli] government, are the ones that can speak about the Holocaust.” . . .

He said it was “really anti-semitism from the ADL” to suggest that “we should not be using our Jewish identity to speak about, you know, what we think is happening in Israel-Palestine,” and to “say that they have control of the whole interpretation of what Judaism and what Passover should look like.”

Noting a recent Pew survey which found that 48% of American Jews don’t believe the Israeli government is making a “sincere effort” to reach a peace agreement, Levy said, “it is clear the mainstream American Jewish organizations do not speak for the majority of American Jews.” He argued that that disconnect was particularly true for “unaffiliated” Jews who aren’t members of synagogues or Jewish organizations. “There’s a reason why they are not affiliated,” said Levy, “because they don’t feel any connection with these organizations that don’t talk for them.” . . .

As noted in Daniel Greenfield’s attack on comedian Jon Stewart, the concept of the self-hating Jew is “a mostly inaccurate term that needs to be put to bed.” Greenfield’s view is that Stewart likes himself just fine; it’s the rest of the world’s Jews that he dislikes. That’s how it can seem when you’re part of the group that an individualist is criticizing. But if criticism is to be given, then it should also be received, lest one assume one’s own righteous perfection. The day when Jews stop questioning Israel and one another — that will be the day when one should ask whether and why a conspiracy might be underway.

Governmental Definitions of Anti-Semitism

In 2005, the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia developed a Working Definition of anti-Semitism, with accompanying text, as follows:

The purpose of this document is to provide a practical guide for identifying incidents, collecting data, and supporting the implementation and enforcement of legislation dealing with antisemitism.

Working definition: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.

  • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.

  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.

  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).

  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

Examples of the ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the State of Israel taking into account the overall context could include:

  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

That text certainly identified acts of appropriate concern. Unfortunately, as in other situations (above), the text was marred once again by gross overreach — by, that is, remarkable attempts to condemn reasonable activity:

  • This Working Definition would find many of the foregoing statements by Manny Friedman to be anti-Semitic, starting with his very first sentence — “We Jews are a funny breed” — because he (like most other Jewish people I have known) thus makes “stereotypical allegations about Jews as such.”
  • The Working Definition would further condemn Friedman for indulging what it calls “the myth” of “Jews controlling the media.”
  • Contrary to the spirit of debate mentioned above, the Working Definition puts lawyers in charge of deciding history, by prohibiting the expression of the view that there was no Holocaust. In doing so, those lawyers only heighten curiosity as to why historians would be unable to make the case for this event as they would for any other. My impression, informed by visits to Auschwitz and Dachau among other things, is that the historians do not require the lawyers’ assistance in this matter. This is not to say that the historians will persuade everyone. But neither will the attorneys.
  • The Working Definition condemns me for observing that one American Jewish girlfriend did make clear, to me, that she was “more loyal to Israel” than to the U.S.
  • The Working Definition condemns the claim that the existence of Israel is intrinsically racist. And yet the Working Definition implicitly links Jews with Israel. In the real world, there does not seem to be much doubt that “the State of Israel” was created specifically for the protection of Jews. That is not a bad thing. But it is avowedly prejudicial in favor of a specific race.
  • The Working Definition condemns the use of images associated with “claims of Jews killing Jesus.” Apparently Christians are forbidden to depict scenes from the Bible, in which Jewish leaders (as distinct from Jewish Christians) did seek the death of Jesus.
  • According to the Working Definition, political commentators would be forbidden to compare “contemporary Israeli policy” to Nazi policy — even if Israeli politicians, soldiers, or sympathizers expressed views or took actions that could reasonably call to mind certain Nazi atrocities.

Note: the U.S. State Department adopted significant portions of the EU’s Working Definition.

Backing Away from the Accusation of Anti-Semitism

Fortunately, in 2013 the European Union finally discarded that Working Definition. In the view of a spokesman for the Wiesenthal Center, it was “astounding” that the EU had disowned its own definition. Plainly, there was a serious change of heart. Pending deeper exploration of the matter as time permits, I would guess that it may have been due, at least in part, to belated recognition of absurdities like those just listed.

The Working Definition had been criticized, by Jews and Muslims alike, as a deliberate attempt to stifle legitimate discussion of controversial issues involving Jews and/or Israel. This is the point that seems not to be grasped by those who aspire to control, forever, what people are allowed to say, using strong-arm tactics like those employed by organizations like ADL.

To borrow the journalistic adage applied to Richard Nixon, “It’s not the crime — it’s the cover-up.” Doing bad things will certainly attract unpleasant attention. But trying to prevent people from learning about and discussing whatever may have transpired — that is the behavior that will really convince people that you are dangerous. That’s not my decision; that’s the decision made by many American (and a few Israeli) Jews who seem increasingly uncomfortable with the actions of certain powerful American and Israeli Jewish individuals and organizations, including ADL.

In many ways, the charge of anti-Semitism has worn thin. Too often, that accusation is used, against Gentile Americans, by American Jews who have benefited greatly from generous Gentile American support. Here, again, practicality suggests some restraint in the broadcasting of what could appear to be hostility and/or rank ingratitude toward any larger American ideal.

Moreover, the America in which ADL complains interminably of anti-Semitism is not the easily guilted America of prior generations. We are in — indeed, we are even moving beyond — the era of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi and the multifarious Hitler parodies on YouTube. The concentration camp survivors are mostly gone. Anti-Semitism may still sound horrific in the ears of some accusers, but by now that accusation has been flung around so promiscuously as to deprive it of any real gravitas. Often, as illustrated above, it says more about the accuser than about the accused.

To emphasize another point made above, there will surely be mistaken impressions and dark suspicions, and corresponding words, when Jewish individuals and organizations carry on as ADL does. If you aren’t being truthful with people, you are asking for nothing less. This is not Germany. Virtually none of us are Nazis. But, yes, a continuation of benighted efforts to manipulate the public could someday help to generate comparable attitudes toward Jews, among members of a comparable American political minority.

We are no longer in a post-WWII era when the TV and the newspaper could sneer at a “fringe” viewpoint and rest assured that everyone would take their cue to avoid it. It is dangerous, for the long-term future of Israel and of Jews, to condone what Cohen (2009) calls “moral blackmail,” in which “the connection between what is denounced as anti-semitic discourse or activity and what has actually occurred is often tenuous, overblown, or, at the least, highly debatable” (p. 23). We are well into the realm of diminishing returns from such behavior.

This post has confronted the common accusation of anti-Semitism. It has highlighted a certain tendency toward unreasonable overreach and exaggeration in the use of the term. Like virtually everyone else in this world, sometimes Jews and Israelis are going to be criticized and ridiculed, and sometimes they will deserve it. It seems that smart people would eschew ADL’s apparent propensity for hype, falsehood, and self-styled victimization, and would instead focus upon the development of mutual understanding and good working relationships with and among divergent kinds of Jews and Gentiles.


One response to “Crying Wolf: The Overused Accusation of Anti-Semitism

  • Ray Woodcock

    Interesting New York Times essay by Etgar Keret (June 24, 2016), contending essentially that intelligent people are likely to have complex views on difficult subjects — that, in his words, he is “ambi-Israel,” approving some actions by that nation while disapproving others. Keret contends that “We understand what it is to be ‘anti-Semitic.'” But this post points out that, in fact, we don’t. An ambi-Jewish tendency would seem to be the most reasonable attitude, assuming one is not somehow committed to the pretense that Jews are always right and good.

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