Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Mythology and Its Masters

The fracas over the recently published polemic - “study” would be a criminally inaccurate term - on the Israel lobby at Harvard University has revealed, unsurprisingly, very little about the Israel lobby, but quite a bit about the mythology of antisemitism on today’s left. Tropes of Jewish control, power, and influence are as old as antisemitism itself, which is to say, they are very, very old, and no more accurate now than they were then. The mythos of antisemitism, however, has clearly undergone a sea change, and a large one, which is what makes the plethora of nonsensical lies being foisted on us by the polemic’s supporters all the more fascinating.

Tony Judt, the last man on earth who thinks a federated Europe is going to work, sees fit to proclaim for all the world that a dialogue may finally be opened about Jewish power and influence in America. He has hit on something, presumably without realizing it, since Judt strikes me as neither particularly insightful or intelligent. What he explicates, albeit indirectly, is the metamorphosis of the mythology of antisemitism.
The essay and the issues it raises for American foreign policy have been prominently dissected and discussed overseas. In America, however, it's been another story: virtual silence in the mainstream media. Why? There are several plausible explanations. One is that a relatively obscure academic paper is of little concern to general-interest readers. Another is that claims about disproportionate Jewish public influence are hardly original - and debate over them inevitably attracts interest from the political extremes. And then there is the view that Washington is anyway awash in "lobbies" of this sort, pressuring policymakers and distorting their choices.

Each of these considerations might reasonably account for the mainstream press's initial indifference to the Mearsheimer-Walt essay. But they don't convincingly explain the continued silence even after the article aroused stormy debate in the academy, within the Jewish community, among the opinion magazines and Web sites, and in the rest of the world. I think there is another element in play: fear. Fear of being thought to legitimize talk of a "Jewish conspiracy"; fear of being thought anti-Israel; and thus, in the end, fear of licensing the expression of anti-Semitism.
This mythology is based on an old idea: the mythos of Jewish power. But its form is entirely new: the mythos of Jewish power as a weapon of oppression. Whereas the Jews were once assaulted as a disease, now they are denounced as tyrants. How humanity has progressed in fifty short years.

The fact of this mythology as a mythology is evident because it is so evidently a lie. Like its predecessors, the lie is essential to the new metamorphosis. And it is a lie as large as it is simple. This is its genius. The lie is this: we are silenced. The entire charge against the Jews is one based on the mythos of rebellion. That those who speak lies about the Jews are, in fact, speaking truth to power. A power which endlessly seeks to silence them.

In fact, there is almost no issue today which is more talked about. Far from silence, we have a limitless chorus of denunciations, all carefully composed to include the obligatory exhortations to break the silence that does not exist. As far back as its origins, the widespread support for Zionism among American Jews has been the target of opprobrium and sanctimony. Far from being suppressed, the “dialogue” on the Israel lobby, and on Jewish power, such as it is imagined, is inescapable. Edward Said, for instance, a sacred cow of Judt's, published his assault on Zionism, including its influence in America, called "Zionism From the Standpoint of Its Victims", in 1979. They Dare to Speak Out, a book length attack on the Israel lobby, was published in 1989 by a former congressman. Hardly new and hardly original. Nightline broadcast a special in 2002 on the conflict in the Middle East in which Ted Koppel asked Newt Gingrinch about "the mystique of the Jewish lobby". Koppel, the great liberal journalist, seemed unfazed by the fact that the man he no doubt considered the great spokesman of conservative intolerance considered the question vaguely suspect. Said himself spent much of the 1990s and beyond spitting rhetorical poison (Said was not particularly good at anything else) at American Zionism and its varied establishments. Noam Chomsky's Peace in the Middle East?, which contains an entire chapter denouncing American supporters for Israel and their supposedly dominating influence, was published in 1974. This is not even to mention Russell Kirk and Pat Buchanan, who made much of the Israel lobby and its supporters as a wedge against neoconservatism during the '80s and '90s. Is it even necessary to mention that the New Left's denunciation of Israel and its American supporters was one of the primary motivating factors for the defection of such leftist luminaries as Norman Podhoretz to the other side? Or that even Chomsky himself and others, such as Tikkun's Michael Lerner, have been denounced by their own comrades for aiding and abetting the cause of Zionist suppression? The "silence" regarding Israel and its American supporters is, in fact, a shrieking cacophony of rage that permeates discussion to the point where it is no longer noticed. It is so ubiquitous that the only defense against cliché is the claim of revolt. Revolt, in fact, against the brute weight of history itself. A Judt puts it:
In the eyes of a watching world, the fact that an Israeli soldier's great-grandmother died in Treblinka will not excuse his own misbehavior.
This is, of course, the real enemy. Not the supposed terrors of totalitarian Zionism nor the necessity of beginning a debate which has been raging for over twenty years. It is the need to negate, to fundamentally annihilate, the fact of Jewish history. A history which is, of course, among other things, a series of catastrophes for which a reckoning must be made by the world which is overwhelmingly not Jewish. David Ben-Gurion once said that Zionism was not merely a case of Jews confronting the Arabs, but the Jews confronting the world. Against this, the inescapable mountain of wreckage upon which the Jewish people have built an improbable but nonetheless undeniable survival, and ultimate triumph, the only weapons are denial, reversal, and righteous condemnation. The accusors of Israel are in revolt against history itself.

Revolt, of course, is not new for antisemitism. It has been the cornerstone of leftist antisemitism since the days of Prudhon, the great revolutionary and prophet of man's liberation who declared that by fire or fusion the Jew must cease to exist. Replayed again, history, as the notable antisemite Karl Marx put it, becomes farce. From the depths of the establishment, Harvard University, we hear a self-described voice in the wilderness proclaiming war on the establishment, that is, upon the Jews. Whether Jewish influence outstrips that of Harvard is left an issue of speculation. Suffice it to say, it is not even necessary to ask the question. The ease with which the new mythology has been accepted is proof enough.