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How Democracies Die

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U.S. politics are already reeling from the events of January 6, and now the Biden administration is weakening them all the more.

Sometimes democracies die from corruption, fascism, or a military coup. But other times it succumbs to terminal stupidity.

An example of how this works occurred on Feb. 2 when the State Department announced that “the Biden Administration embraces and champions the working definition” of anti-Semitism put forth by a group known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. “We applaud the growing number of countries and international bodies that apply it,” the department said. “We urge all that haven’t done so to do likewise.”

What’s the issue? After all, anti-Semitism is a universally-acknowledged problem, so what’s wrong with heeding the wisdom of the IHRA concerning what it is and how to fight it?

Plenty, as it turns out. The IHRA, founded in Stockholm in 1998, is what the British call a “quango,” a quasi-non-governmental organization that is accountable to no one, but which has somehow gained enormous stature even though no one can quite figure out why. It’s first chairman was Elie Wiesel, an awful novelist and relentless self-promoter who built an entire career based on castigating the world for saying nothing about Nazi crimes against the Jews while refusing to say a word about Israeli crimes against the Palestinians.

Not surprisingly, the organization he headed has made a complete botch of the anti-Semitism question. Instead of defining it as a hatred of Jews qua Jews and leaving it at that, it devised an eleven-point list that starts off reasonably enough but then veers off into theater of the absurd. Anti-Semitism, it says, includes such things as:

  • 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.
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

All of which is illogical, hypocritical, or both. What, for instance, is anti-Semitic about denying self-determination for the Jews? If people can argue pro or con about self-determination for the Scots or the Catalans, why can’t they do the same for the Jews without being accused of bigotry? If describing Zionism as racism is a crime, then what are people to do about Zionist policies that – sorry, there’s no other way to say this – are racist as all get-out?

David Hirst, the London Guardian’s long-time Mideast correspondent, pointed out in his 1977 book, The Gun and the Olive Branch, that, under the rubric of “the conquest of labor,” Zionist organizers in pre-1948 Palestine sought to drive Arabs out of the labor market and agricultural markets as well. As he put it, they “stood guard at orchards to prevent Arab workers from getting jobs there … poured kerosene on Arab tomatoes … [and] attacked Jewish housewives in the markets and smashed Arab eggs they had bought.” Jewish socialists in places like New York were aghast because this was precisely what Poles and Romanians at the time were doing to the Jews.

Thus, an immigrant socialist named Chaim Spivak wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward, in 1926 that the tactic “sends shudders through the Jewish workers in the Diaspora countries because the gentiles could try out this principle against the Jewish workers in those countries.” A socialist named Ben-Zion Hoffman demanded to know: “How do we react when the reactionary chauvinists in Poland fight for their ‘conquest of labor,’ meaning prevention of Jews working in Polish industrial and commercial enterprises? How do we respond to the ‘conquest of labor’ of the Romanians?” (Quoted in Yaacov N. Goldstein, Jewish Socialists in the United States: The Cahan Debate 1925-1926 [Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 1998].)

Yet not only does the IHRA suggest that people like Spivak and Hoffman were anti-Semitic, but the clear implication is that anyone who dares quote them today must be anti-Semitic as well. The same goes for anyone who dares to point out that employment discrimination is wide open in Israel and that members of the non-Jewish minority, which includes not just Palestinians but ex-Soviet immigrants as well, face a host of restrictions when it comes to marriage or divorce, finding a job, purchasing property, or renting an apartment. Everybody knows it, everyone discusses it, yet the IHRA says it’s anti-Semitic to breathe a word.

As for double standards, does the IHRA really think that critics have been tougher on Israel for its policies in the Occupied Territories than they were, say, on Britain for its policies in colonial India? Comparing Israeli policies with those of the Nazis may offend the delicate sensibilities of those who worship at the shrine of Saint Wiesel. But in Israel it’s a national sport. In 1948, Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and Sidney Hook co-signed a letter denouncing future-prime minister Menachem Begin’s ultra-right Freedom Party, forerunner of today’s Likud, as “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” In 1995, rightwing protesters paraded about with pictures of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in an SS uniform just prior to his assassination at the hands of an ultra-Zionist firebrand named Yigal Amir. In 2012, ultra-orthodox protesters in Jerusalem donned yellow Stars of David to make the point that, in their estimation, Israeli secular leaders are no better than Hitler.

Does that make Einstein an anti-Semite? Or the haredim? The sin of “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” would make more sense if the Israeli government didn’t insist at every opportunity that all Jews are collectively beholden to the Jewish state – real Jews, that is, as opposed to the self-deprecating liberal sort. Collectively responsible, collectively beholden – isn’t it interesting how neatly the two concepts fit together? Zionism feeds into anti-Semitism because, fundamentally, it’s a form of racism as well.

It’s not the least surprising that Washington would embrace the IHRA in this way. After all, Joe Biden is a self-proclaimed Zionist – “I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist” – not to mention the stupidest man to enter the White House since Warren G. Harding. In his years as senator and vice president, he couldn’t suppress that famous grin even while taking part in every U.S. atrocity from mass incarceration to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S.-backed jihad in Syria, U.S.-backed air war in Yemen, and so on. Amid growing dangers of yet another war in the Persian Gulf, his administration’s goal is clear. It’s to silence critics of U.S.-Israeli policy by threatening them with the worst thought crime of all.

This is not the only reason to be concerned, however. Real opponents of anti-Semitism should also be up in arms since the effect of such rhetoric is to undermine the very concept. Since it’s difficult to criticize of Israel without running afoul of the IHRA, everyone winds up being an anti-Semite in one way or another, which in the end means that no one is. If the greatest trick the devil ever played was to make people think he doesn’t exist (to quote “The Usual Suspects”), then the greatest trick the Zionists have played is to make people think that anti-Semitism is a con job designed to make them line up behind the next Middle East war. Real Jew-haters wind up having the field to themselves.

Rather than fighting anti-Semitism, the IHRA thus weakens the effort against it – and the State Department is doing the same. U.S. politics are already reeling from the events of January 6, and now the Biden administration is weakening them all the more. How long can this go on before U.S. democracy disappears down the drain?

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