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Eric Alterman and the Politics of Anti-Semitism By: Barry Loberfeld
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, October 04, 2004


It's a bit of history otherwise not worth remembering, but when Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ appeared in theaters, a certain Rev. Hymers staged a protest in California that included chants of "Bankrolled by Jewish Money" and signs that read "Wasserman Promotes Anti-Semitism" -- direct references to MCA's Jewish chairman, Lew Wasserman. It was so pathetically obvious that Hymers was threatening anti-Semitism, not warning against it. This was basically what you'd expect from cornpone fundamentalists.

Which is why it’s so unsettling to see almost the same routine being peddled by MSNBC commentator and leftist-about-town Eric Alterman. His Sept. 9 column ("Neocons for anti-Semitism") begins by asking "what could possibly have been a more generous gift to Jew-haters than this foolish war?" Now since this can’t possibly refer to Saddam Hussein or any other Middle Eastern “Jew-haters” who found themselves in the cross hairs, what does it mean?

Alterman’s first point: "The American people were purposely misled and are paying for it dearly, in both blood and treasure." Not much help in answering the question, is it? No reference to Jews one way or another. Next point: "The war was planned by neoconservatives, many of whom worked directly with their counterparts in the Israeli government, who helped perpetuate the deception." Okay, so the villain is Israel. Its reprehensible behavior will be exploited by "Jew-haters" as proof of their claim that the Jewish state and its agents (the "neoconservatives") control the American government (the "Zionist Occupational Government").

After this throat-clearing, Alterman lays it on in full: “The war did improve the security of Israel, but not that of the United States. No other country's population thought it was a good idea, including Britain, save that of Israel.” He continues: “Some of the very people who helped perpetrate the deception, most notably Richard Perle and R. James Woolsey, have used the opportunity to make millions for themselves in the process.” Don’t ask me what to make of this, since Alterman provides neither details nor documentation – not even a footnote. “Pentagon neocons were spying for Israel and using the Israel lobby as a conduit. (How perfectly paradigmatic is that?)”

Just as we think we've got the read on Alterman, he bursts his bluff by tipping his hand: "It seems to me that all of the above constitutes a gift of enormous generosity to those who seek to blame Jews for divided loyalty, dishonesty, and duplicity in the service of their own financial interests." Well, there we have it. The villain isn't the Israeli government, and despite Alterman's conspicuous WASP-name dropping of R. James Woolsey (who won't be accused of "divided loyalty" unless it’s to England -- he’s a descendant of Cardinal Wolsey), it's not the "neoconservatives" either. It's the Jews.

That is, it’s those "right-wing Jews" who support the war. Alterman doesn't condemn them for doing the wrong thing so much as he condemns them for being Jews doing the wrong thing -- for confirming the "paradigm" of the "Jew-haters" and thereby "pour[ing] gasoline on the fires of anti-Semitism." In an act of preemptive verbal war, he bemoans how his honesty in "point[ing] this out" will be met only with the accusation that he is one of those "self-hating Jews," the same tag applied to those who "recognize the fact that Israel's brutal treatment of the Palestinians endangers Jews all over the world."

Look, let's put aside the histrionics. If you don't like the policies that are commonly called "neoconservatism," then say so (and why). But what is the point of singling out its Jewish proponents and accusing them (via prediction, not proof) of actually promoting anti-Semitism? Is it Alterman's argument that they should stop espousing those policies -- i.e., that they should just shut up -- because it's not "good for the Jews"?

Would Alterman accept this argument if it were made against Jewish liberals and leftists? Would he have told FDR's Jewish associates to step aside when the first grumbles about the "Jew Deal" started going around? Would he put aside his political commitments if some opponent insisted that they only promote the stereotypes of bigots? Doesn't he see how easily the "Jew-haters" could alternately claim that once again Jewish peaceniks are undermining America's military efforts and thus threatening its security? Would he urge Jewish opponents of the war to stifle their "perfectly paradigmatic" actions lest they fuel "the fires of anti-Semitism"?

Yes, there are many Jews prominent in the neoconservative movement, just as there are in its liberal, leftist, and libertarian counterparts. What should we worry about what hatemongers will make of this? Classic anti-Semitism already sanctifies the contradictory roles of Jew as Communist agitator and Jew as capitalist exploiter; the addition of Jew as "neocon" manipulator won't make any new waves. Alterman fundamentally misunderstands the nature of prejudice. As the term itself relates, it's not about looking at facts and then proceeding inductively to a conclusion. Bigotry doesn't need fuel ("gasoline"). Did Russia need real Jewish conspirators to produce The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Did Hitler need an Israel to portray German Jews as traitors to their country? In post-Communist Eastern Europe, we've seen the rise of ant-Semites who blame every social ill on Jewish communities that no longer even exist. Simply put, if a Richard Perle didn't exist, the "Jew-haters" would create their own. They will condemn neoconservatism as a Jewish ploy for power despite its non-Jews -- the same way they always did with both Communism and liberalism.

And Israel? God knows it doesn't have a perfect human rights record, and I don't mean that in the nobody-is-perfect sense. But that record has nothing to do with anything. If it did, Israel would be the world's least vilified nation in the Middle East, which is a cauldron of despotism and brutality (executions of sixteen year old girls for having a “sharp tongue,” for example). If it did, the Muslims of the region and in Europe wouldn't have created a vast body of antisemitica that, among sundry grotesqueries, includes the resurrection of the blood libel and the invention of the Jenin “massacre.”

And if Israel did have a perfect human rights record -- what? It would have won the respect of the Soviet Union and Communist apologists in the West? There'd be no hatred and violence from the Arab-Islamic world? One can only guess why there was so much of it pre-Zionism. (See Alan Dershowitz's The Case for Israel.) And Diaspora Jews would be safe -- from whom? From people who indiscriminately blame "Jews all over the world" for the situation in Israel but will stop indiscriminately blaming "Jews all over the world" for anything if the situation there changes? Again, an irrational mentality persists in defiance of the facts and won't change with any change in the facts. There's just no appeal to the minds of the mindless. Bigotry is hatred that has no reason and requires none. (Now let us just hope that it's not too much to ask that the foregoing not be distorted to say that the writer believes Israel has no good reason to try to improve its human rights record. On the contrary, there are many compelling reasons, but the possibility of placating anti-Semites isn't one of them.)

All too cynically, Alterman says what he does because he knows he can get away with it, i.e., he's Jewish. If Pat Buchanan claimed that "the neocons" were fomenting anti-Semitism, that their actions perfectly matched the worldview of bigots, he'd get nailed just as Hymers did. The fact is, the presence of Jews among the neoconservatives is absolutely irrelevant -- to everyone. Anti-Semites would jump on their existence even if they were the only Jews supporting the war, and decent people will ignore ethnicity/religion and debate intelligently the issues that confront us. This leaves Alterman in a no-man’s-land of his own making, for as unconscionable as it is to exploit our well-founded fears about anti-Semitism, he manages to sink even lower by doing so for no other end but to poison that debate.

Incredibly, he has yet to hit rock bottom. With not even enough shame to cover his hide, he exposes the rest of his hypocrisy by concluding his piece with a condemnation of the “current hysteria over anti-Semitism that so many conservatives seek to exploit for their own political purposes.” Can he really have no idea how contemptible readers will find this? But this comes from a man who essentially argued that the “generous gift” the “neocons” gave the “Jew-haters” was legitimate grounds for their hatred.

Alterman’s column itself comes at a time when “the fires of anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred the world over” are being relit by leftists who once again insist that their bigotry isn’t bigotry because they have a reason: “Zionist imperialism.”  Recognizing the enemy of their enemy as their friend, Muslim theocrats have now embraced these Marxist radicals and vice versa – from the campuses of America (the “divestiture” movement) to the streets of Europe. Writing about the latter, Gabriel Schoenfeld (Commentary 6/02) observed that while “Muslims have taken the lead in perpetrating physical violence [against Jews], others have enthusiastically joined in or blazed the way when it comes to incitement and verbal abuse. … [I]n Brussels, not only Arab students but representatives of Belgian social and political organizations took part, including the [left-wing] Catholic movement Pax Christi, the Belgian Socialist party, and the Belgian Green party. … In France, at rallies where chants of  “death to the Jews” were heard, one could find, according to Agence France-Presse, not only the Muslim Students of France and the Committee of Moroccan Workers but also officials of various trade unions and members of the Revolutionary Communist League, the Greens, and the French Communist party, along with officials of the Human Rights League.”

Death to the Jews? Violence against Jews – in Europe? Are we seriously to believe that this – a very small sample of what’s going on over there – is not the Left’s anti-Semitism but rather its “anti-Zionism”? Are we to believe that Communists and other leftists continue to denounce “Zionist imperialism” – as if the nation of Israel constituted a vast empire (such as, say, the USSR) -- because they cannot abide any country committing “genocide”? That the same organizations and individuals who excused or even defended the slaughter of millions in the Marxist regimes, which required the Nazis to provide twentieth century rivalry in genocide, cannot abide the “Israeli occupation”?

And their Islamist comrades? Are they too not anti-Semitic but “anti-Zionist”? Does indignation over this “genocide” motivate the directed-against-European-Jews violence of these Muslims, whose many Judenrein countries forced all Jews to flee for their lives? If it isn’t anti-Semitic for Marxists and Muslims to attack all Diaspora Jews as mere extensions of a demonized Israel whose human rights abuses nonetheless do not even begin to approach those of the Marxist and Muslim regimes, then just what the hell is it?

The Left is also spreading anew the Ulrike Meinhof “Jews with money” strain of anti-Semitism. Now the Patient Zero is Norman G. Finkelstein, a Chomsky protégée who assails how “[t]oo many public and private resources have been invested in memorializing” – no, not the crimes of the Communists – but Hitler’s murder of the Jews. He believes that “American Jewish elites” have manufactured a “Holocaust industry” – “not because of [their] victim status but because they are not victims,” in contrast to “Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians.” So here’s the line-up: Studying the Holocaust is a waste and a sham because the American Jewish family earns $8,000 more than the national average (largely a product of the age demographic, as Philip Greenspun points out), but “Women’s studies,” to take one example, is a vital pursuit (no matter how much absurdity it subsumes) because of the female corporate executive who’s twenty-nine and still hasn’t crashed through her company’s “glass ceiling” and into its top boardroom.

And while no Jews are “victims” despite the presence of anti-Semitism (the one bigotry leftists can’t see anywhere, especially in the mirror), all women are indeed “victims” despite the absence of misogyny – which is exactly the reality that drove feminists to re-cast masturbatory periodicals (“pornography”) as anti-women hate literature so that they could have at least something to point to. Similarly, while history, even that of the Holocaust, doesn’t bestow victim status upon Jews, this same history so greatly bestows that status upon all women (no matter how comfortable they may be in contemporary America) that some feminists (e.g., Zsuzsanna Budapest) have re-worked the medieval killing of “witches” (which historically included both males and females) as a kind of Holocaust-of-women-by-Patriarchy, complete with demographically-impossible millions of victims. Perhaps Finkelstein and the feminists will justify this by decrying the gender imbalance of liposuction patients.

Finkelstein reveals only his own moral perversity when he denounces what he believes is that of Jews who support European reparations for concentration camp survivors (something he argues is mostly a “shakedown”) but oppose “compensat[ing] African-Americans for slavery” – i.e., giving tax dollars to persons who are only the distant descendants of slaves (and slave-owners, to put the fine point on it). But the greatest obscenity becomes clear when we just think about what Finkelstein is saying: Jews should stop braying about the Holocaust and the danger of anti-Semitism because they possess “preeminence in the United States” and therefore have nothing to worry about ever. Can there be a more demented statement in light of the history of Germany’s Jews and the rise of Hitler? So “40 percent of American Nobel Prize winners … are Jewish”? Would Finkelstein care to share with us the percentage of pre-Nazi German Nobel Prize winners who were Jewish? Better yet, would he like to compare the number of Jews fleeing the resurgence of anti-Semitism in France with the number of non-whites, women, and homosexuals fleeing racist/sexist/anti-gay America?

What is any of this if not a Left that has lost all moorings on the very issues of race, class, and gender? A partial answer: a “progressive” anti-Semitism that can now penetrate where the traditional anti-Semitism cannot – the local library, the street march, the college classroom. But there are dissidents. Among those who have spoken out are Paul Berman, Phyllis Chesler, Naomi Klein – and Todd Gitlin, who, unlike Alterman, recognizes that no matter what Jews do or don’t do, “anti-Semitism doesn’t care. Like every other lunacy that diminished human brains are capable of, anti-Semitism already knows what it hates.” Is their Judaic background the salient factor? I don’t believe so – not totally. What’s arising here is something we’ve seen many times before: a conflict within the Left that will ultimately determine the identity of the Left, i.e., who’s in and who’s out. It’s a call to allegiance, where there can be no “neutrality,” no hiding for anyone anywhere – not even for Eric Alterman in that no-man’s-land.

Recommended Reading

Ron Rosenbaum (ed.), Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism, 2004.




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