What makes a liberal anti-Semite?

Harrison explains proliferation of anti-Semitic talk among liberals but he can't explain away hatred.

resurge book 88 298 (photo credit: )
resurge book 88 298
(photo credit: )
The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel and Liberal Opinion By Bernard Harrison Rowman and Littlefield 224 pages; $22.95 Bernard Harrison, a philosophy professor at the University of Utah, has done something unusual. In today's climate of fearful academic inquiry, which often wavers between conspiracy theories and a refusal to acknowledge harmful trends, Harrison has written a sane, balanced book on the growing anti-Semitism in Left-influenced liberal circles. As a philosopher "with a foothold in literary studies," as he puts it, Harrison is suited for the precise parsing of written material and public statements that he undertakes throughout the book. Additionally, unlike Indiana University professor Alvin Rosenfeld who recently caused a media storm with his essay "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism," Harrison's identity as a non-Jew with ties to the Left makes his examination of the issue particularly interesting. There is nothing heavy-handed about Harrison's approach, nothing gooey or sentimental. For those turned off by earnest sociological studies, Harrison's book will be a breath of fresh scholarship. He approaches the topic by exploring the fashion de jour, in which both individuals and institutions on the cultural Left carry criticism of Israel into the realm of caustic attack, calling Israel an apartheid state and comparing IDF operations to Nazi aktions. His essential question is: When and how do such statements - which have become common in many otherwise reputable media sources - constitute anti-Semitism? To answer, Harrison, like any worthy scholar, sets about defining terms. He separates what he calls "social anti-Semitism" from the more dangerous form, which he dubs "political anti-Semitism." Taking up the case of a 2002 cover story in the New Statesman about the influence of Jews on British foreign policy called "The Kosher Conspiracy," Harrison explicates the text of the article. He notes that it both describes the great power and influence of "Big Jewry," and at the same time ridicules the "wealthy Jewish business leaders," comparing the fragmented nature of pro-Israel British organizations to "Woody Allen films, where a dozen or more members of a family sit around the dinner table all shouting different things." This dual edge, says Harrison (quoting British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks), bemoaning the "disproportionate" power of the Jew while minimizing and dehumanizing him, is one telltale sign of anti-Semitism. Incisively, Harrison also exposes the internal contradictions and inconsistencies in the "apology" written by New Statesman editor Peter Wilby and published in response to negative reader response. Guided by the author, one becomes aware of the rhetorical tricks played by those who use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a springboard for covert anti-Jewish statements. Harrison is equipped with a kind of academic lie detector, able to isolate the ways that the educated and well-spoken fall into a pernicious form of racism. Yet it is important to note that the author stays far away from personal attacks. He makes it very clear that one can say things that fall under the rubric of anti-Semitism without truly hating Jews or, for example, wanting them killed. Harrison also takes great pains to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause and his belief in the need for a safe Israel, distinguishing between a fair critique of Israeli policies and anti-Jewish attitudes. In fact, it is Harrison's neutrality vis-a-vis his subject that allows him to explore it fully. If Wilby and others in the worlds of media, academia and the arts are essentially good liberals, why, asks the author, do they resort to these kinds of subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - attacks on Jews? That question gets some treatment in the last chapter of the book, but first Harrison spends quite a few pages dismantling erroneous theories regarding the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as the Jewish state's alleged racism. For those well-acquainted with Israeli democracy, some of these points will be self-evident. For this reviewer, it was painful to imagine the many readers who would be encountering these basic facts for the first time. The author moves on to a discussion of radical sentiment in a chapter entitled "Fascism and the Idea of Total War." He notes the continuing appeal of fascism, and shows how this concept remains popular in many parts of the Islamic world. He then sheds light on how this can open the door to anti-Semitic sentiment. Good points all. But the crowning jewel of Harrison's book is its final chapter, "The Uses of Anti-Semitism." Here, the author looks at the current trend as affected by Marxist messianism, in which capitalist bodies were seen as evil and ultimately subject to destruction by the good working hordes. Since the 1970s, Harrison writes, "moral hectoring" has come to replace this kind of economic analysis. While to a Marxist a revolutionary movement was only worthy if its goal was to instill socialist ideals, today's Left supports any "armed revolutionary movement" which can be seen as a victim of colonialism. Harrison explains how some on the Left implicate Israel - and Diaspora Jews - as the colonial aggressors in a bid to protect their own fragile worldview from notions that threaten their beliefs. While this chapter goes far in explaining the current proliferation of anti-Semitic talk among good liberals, it can't explain away the hatred that lies in the human heart. Sadly, even Harrison, a scholar who it would seem prefers logic to simple hunches, warns that we are dealing with "a new version of a once-familiar type of politico-moral hysteria." If this is the case, Harrison's book is the calm voice of reason helping us find our way home.