If the reaction to the death of Helen Thomas, with its studied indifference to her cackling demand that the Jews “get the hell out of Palestine,” has told us anything, it is that the embrace of racism among Israel’s critics has become so ubiquitous that it has essentially been normalized.
There is a fascinating irony in this, because critics of Israel, however ferocious they may be, almost always portray themselves as anti-racists.
Thomas clearly did not see herself as an anti-Semite, and claimed as much, saying that she was merely anti-Zionist.
Like many – perhaps most – of Israel’s critics, she probably believed this. Indeed, her objections to Israel’s existence, she likely thought, came not in spite of but because of her anti-racist ideology.
If so, she was by no means unusual. Israel’s critics usually claim, and most of them almost certainly believe, that their embrace of anti-racism makes it impossible for them to be racist. They may attack the Jewish state, but they have nothing, can have nothing, against Jews qua Jews. The accusation of racism against them, they say, is nothing more than a tactic, a smear employed by Israel’s unscrupulous supporters.
For most Jews and supporters of Israel, however, this is wholly inadequate. Indeed, even many dedicated critics of Israel, such as George Soros, have admitted that anti-Israel politics and racism have become intertwined, they simply choose to blame this on Israel and its policies. Nor can anyone knowledgeable about the history and vocabulary of classic anti-Semitism ignore the presence of racism in anti- Israel polemic. A demand for the ethnic cleansing of the Jews from Israel – indeed, from any country – can hardly be viewed as anything else.
Whether subtle or blatant, then, it nonetheless appears that a bizarre paradox has taken shape: With regard to Israel and the Jews, anti-racism has become racism; or, at the very least, it has unconsciously adopted a racist vocabulary and worldview. And this has occurred not in spite of antiracist ideology but because of it.
TO CONFRONT such a paradox is not easy, but one of the first ways of doing so is to understand how it has happened.
While it appears at first inexplicable, it is nonetheless the result of a fairly clear series of developments.
The first is simply the devaluation of the word “racism” itself. The term once referred to a generally well defined pseudo-scientific ideology which held that some races were biologically superior to others, creating a racial hierarchy in which “white” races were at the top and “black” races at the bottom. The word has now come to mean little more than “something of which I very much disapprove.”
At its least precise, it has simply become a synonym for “pure evil.”
The second is a result of the first: Anti-racism’s development into an ideology that proposes what is, in essence, a Manichean theology, one in which the white races who invented racism as an ideology are perceived as a form of pure evil and non-white races constitute either a population of holy innocents or a redemptive force for good.
This is not “reverse racism” in the classic sense, in that it usually has no pseudo-scientific or pseudo-biological basis (though it does among some groups, such as the Black Muslims), being more akin to a form of religious thought, but it is no more accurate a view of the world than the ideology it ostensibly opposes.
Anti-racism today, in short, has accepted racial categorization as legitimate. The only question is the use to which it is put.
The third factor is specific to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Put simply, Israel and the Jews have come to be identified with “white,” while Arabs and Palestinians have come to be identified with “black.” The consequences of this are troubling at best, since within the rubric of anti-racism as it exists today, it means that Israel and the Jews have been identified with pure evil, and the identification of the Jews with evil is not simply an aspect, but the defining aspect of anti-Jewish racism in all its forms.
It is also – and it is important to point this out – wholly inaccurate even on its own terms.
The majority of Israel’s population is composed of, for lack of a better term, Jews of color, many of them with darker skin than all but a handful of the country’s Arab population.
Their existence has long been ignored by Israel’s critics, for obvious reasons.
Even as perceptive a commentator as George Orwell missed it completely, even though he had been to North Africa, seen Jews of color, and noted their oppressed and beleaguered state. This studied ignorance is, of course, selfserving, but it is also of immense importance.
The reason is that, put simply, today’s anti-racism feels deeply threatened by Israel, because Israel as it actually exists throws the entire antiracist worldview into disarray.
The Manichean division of the world upon which its ideology is based runs headlong into the reality of Judaism and the Jewish people as a collective that essentially transcends race, in that it defines itself according to terms utterly alien to anti-racism as it exists today.
Israel is both “black” and “white,” and in a world divided into absolute terms of “black” or “white” and especially “black” vs. “white,” this should not be possible. And it is a very small step from believing that something cannot exist to thinking that it should not exist.
A fourth and perhaps decisive factor has also come into play. At the same time as antiracism in the West has come to identify Israel and the Jews with evil, traditional anti-Jewish racism has been undergoing a renaissance in the Arab world.
Anti-Semitism has been, in effect, completely normalized in many Arab and Muslim societies. Indeed, those offended by Thomas’ comments should take some comfort in the fact that she still felt at least some need to conceal her racism beneath a political veneer. In the Arab world, anti-Jewish racists feel no such compulsion.
In the West, however, and especially in Europe, the meeting between anti-racism’s distaste for and fear of Israel and the Jews and the traditional anti-Semitism of the Arab and Muslim world has resulted in a situation in which the one has re-legitimized the other.
Perhaps due to anti-racism’s identification of the Arab world with “black,” and thus a form of absolute good – making its beliefs impossible to reject and its enemies impossible to perceive as anything other than absolute evil – a phenomenon has taken shape that some have come to call the New Anti-Semitism.
Very little about it, of course, is new, in that its iconography and vocabulary are largely the same as those of its predecessors. What is new, perhaps, is the identity of its practitioners. Put simply, the cause of anti-racism has, to an extraordinary degree, adopted one of the most ancient forms of racism as its own, and from behind this veil emerge Thomas’ exhortations to ethnic cleansing, the willful indifference to it, and innumerable other depressingly familiar reiterations of a hatred that, despite its age, appears to enjoy something approaching eternal youth.