Why Good Societies Stigmatize Anti-Semitic Language

Andrew Sullivan has noticed that some kinds of language that are sometimes used to criticize a lobby like the NRA are not considered acceptable to use to criticize Israel or “The Israel Lobby.”

I’m really going to presume that Andrew (I don’t know Andrew Sullivan personally, but it seems that if you’ve been in the blogosphere long enough, you get to call him Andrew) is acting in good faith, here, and is genuinely vexed by this, and try to explain. I think/hope that it might be useful to do so, because I do believe that there are some people who feel the same way as Andrew in good faith (though there are also a lot of people for whom this kind of talk is simply an expression of anti-Semitism).

I mean, the reasons seem obvious.

The first obvious reason is that gun owners are not an ethnic group. In post-Enlightenment society, we recognize that people who are members of a group by choice are more open to criticism for being part of that group than people who are a member of that group by birth. I’m sure Andrew is well aware of how the emergence of a consensus of homosexuality as innate, and not chosen, has affected conversation about the gay community. We would cringe if President Obama (or a white Democratic politician, for that matter) was described as, say, “pandering to the Black Lobby” for addressing the NAACP.

The second obvious reason is that there is no record in history of a totalitarian regime embarking on a plan to exterminate all gun owners as a group and nearly succeeding, or of a major figure of a currently existing thuggish regime calling for the extermination of gun owners, or of a disturbing number of clerics of a major world religion calling for holy war on gun owners, nor is there a constant drumbeat of examples of gun owners, all over the world and for all of recorded history, being victimized in various ways for being gun owners.

The third obvious reason is that the language and ideology of gun owners’ alleged behind-the-scenes political influence, itself standing for a belief in their intrinsic malevolence and treacherousness, does not have a centuries-long history of being used as a spur for discrimination, mob violence, and massacres against gun owners.

Our society, quite reasonably in my view, has developed a taboo against the use of words associated with group hatred, as a way to stigmatize said hatred. White people can’t use the n word in contemporary polite American society because that word is associated with the memory of white people who used that word and bought and sold black people as chattel. The fact that it’s possible in theory to be a Non-Racist White Person and still utter the n word is irrelevant—and quite rightly so! And the taboo is all the stronger because there still are white racists around who use the n word and want to hurt black people. And we think it’s wrong. So we stigmatize it.

By the same token, and for obvious reasons, it would not be received in the same way if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is gay” and if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is a fag.” If I wrote the latter and defended myself by saying that I was only stating a fact, I would be ridiculed, for obvious and good reason. The word “fag” is not considered noxious because it refers to a gay person or because of the sound the syllable makes, the word “fag” is considered noxious because it is a symbol and instrument of group hatred.

And expressions like “Jewish lobby”, which carries the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are a shadowy clique that secretely controls the government have been—for centuries, around the world, to this very day in some places—used as spurs to mass violence.

Now, does this mean that it’s “impossible” to criticize the State of Israel, or America’s Middle Eastern policy, or AIPAC? Does it mean that Chuck Hagel is a dhimmi or an anti-Semite? Of course not. Does it mean that there are certain phrases that you may not use to be considered civilized? Does it mean you shouldn’t write just quite the same way about AIPAC—or the NAACP—as the NRA? Yes. Is this just? Absolutely.


And I could just leave it at that, but I’ll press on, because it is (very) important and I haven’t seen formally spelled out the argument for the pressing duty of combating anti-Semitism in all its forms, including rhetorical, including accidental. In contemporary society, when someone earnestly screws up about race, the opportunity to assert moral superiority is so strong that the opportunity to explain is almost never taken.

Taboos against using certain language against certain groups is always tied to the violence that has been exercised against these groups, because the language is seen, quite reasonably, as both symbolizing and facilitating that violence.

And so, just like it would be impossible to understand the contemporary American taboo against the n word without understanding slavery and Jim Crow, if we want to understand why we have taboos against language that is redolent of anti-Semitism we need to talk about the Holocaust.

Why does the Holocaust loom so large in our collective imagination?

After all, history is nothing but a long list of atrocities, and other genocides have been committed. Mao and Stalin killed many more of their citizens than Hitler did, so why do we have to constantly hear about the Holocaust? This is a refrain we hear sometimes. And it’s a refrain that makes us cringe and react emotionally, and rightly so, but because we react emotionally, we seldom explain.

The Holocaust stands out among all of the events on the long list of human horrors as unique in its evil. (And please understand—asserting the uniqueness of the Holocaust does nothing to diminish the evil of other events.)

It is unique, first of all, because it is unprecedented. The Holocaust was the first time that a genocide was designed and executed in a complete, systematic fashion, using scientific, innovative means of destruction. Its goals were universal. It mobilized all of the authorities, civil and military, of the regime, and indeed the whole society. The Armenian genocide sought to kill all Armenians in Turkey, not all Armenians on the planet. The Rwandan genocide did not deploy new founts of human ingenuity to the end of efficient, total massacre. While Communism killed more people, and was occasionally an instrument of racist (indeed, anti-Semitic) violence, its motivating principle was not the extermination of a certain group of people because of who they were. While slavery in the American South was fundamentally racist like Nazism, slavery was not a historically unprecedented event—indeed, slavery is present in the history of every civilization—nor was its goal genocide.

This combination of factors—fundamental racism, unprecedentedness, universality, scientificness, hellish ingenuity, totality of execution—is why the Holocaust justly stands in our collective imagination as unique among all instances of human evil.

That may be all well and good, one might say, but how is the Holocaust relevant today? This was 70 years ago and Hitler is gone forever. We’re not going to have another Holocaust soon.

There are several reasons why. The first and most obvious one is that anti-Semitism is alive and well today, and eliminationist anti-Semitism to boot.

The second one, and also an aspect of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, is that it was perpetrated by a society that could reasonably be called the most advanced of its time. Germany was a democracy right up to the moment when it succumbed to Nazism. Germany was the cradle of the social welfare state and the modern research university. It is the land of Goethe and Bach and Beethoven and the greatest moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Its technology and industry were world-class. It was also a country where, despite latent anti-Semitism—and which country has no trace of racism in its culture?—Jewish communities were thriving and well-integrated in the society. In the 1920s, you might have recommended to a bright young Jew to settle in Germany, where Albert Einstein taught, rather than America, where he would have been kept out of the top universities.

If these words have any meaning, Germany represented the pinnacle of enlightened civilization right up until the moment when it gleefully perpetrated the most shocking evil in all of human history—indeed it is the very fact of the Holocaust that calls on us to question whether there is such a thing as “enlightened civilization.” It was precisely thanks to all its advancement that Nazi Germany was able to commit genocide with such shocking sophistication. For our technologically advanced, liberal democratic states, the Holocaust poses a unique and blood-curdling moral challenge. For if right up until 1933 it was inconceivable, as it surely was, that such an advanced, enlightened culture could commit such unprecedented, hitherto unthinkable, evil, then are we ever safe? We can look at Rwanda, or the Gulag, and underneath our sincere horror, feel a reassuring pang of self-justification—how dreadful; thank God we’re above that. Not so with Auschwitz. Not so with Auschwitz.

The other reason why the Holocaust is very relevant today is that for all the evil genius of Hitler and his acolytes, it was enabled precisely because of the pre-existence of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic tropes that the Nazis believed, used and reinforced have a very long history—one that continues up to this day. In some corners of the world, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still brisk sellers. Not in America, of course—no, we’re above that.

These anti-Semitic tropes—the idea of the plotting, scheming Jew, of a Jewish Lobby which controls the government behind the scenes, of the traitorous Jew who serves Zion and not his homeland—they were the fertile terrain from which genocide could spring. And it is an ever-fertile terrain: while the Holocaust obviously stands unique, Jews have been the victims of anti-Semitic violence in every era, in every country, down to this day. And anti-Semitic tropes are the enabler and the spur.

I am trying to come up with words to express both how pervasive and dangerous anti-Semitism is. It’s easy in the contemporary West to feel complacent about anti-Semitism. We’ve learned our lesson, surely. But there is no culture that is truly free from it, as increasingly troubling instances in Europe—which of all places should have learnt its lesson—show. It is always ready to proliferate. And the record of history shows that it always, always leads to unspeakable violence where it is allowed to thrive—indeed, if unchecked, to the most unspeakable in history. This profound, real, highly dangerous and hitherto incurable disease of the human condition calls for constant, alert vigilance.

It seems so obvious that America is a long way from the brownshirts—and of course it is. But it is equally true that where anti-Semitism is unchecked horror quickly follows, and that we cannot ever think of ourselves as immune. This is the meaning of the powerful, incredibly important cries, “Never Forget”, and “Never Again.”

So, back to square one. Yes, phrases like “The Israel Lobby” are redolent of anti-Semitism. Yes, using crypto-anti-Semitic language is stigmatized by any decent society worthy of the name.

And if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s often a duck. We must presume good faith, and someone can say something that sounds awful out of misguided ignorance, not malice, but it’s hard, at some point, not to reach the conclusion that someone who insists on using language redolent of anti-Semitism is, well, an anti-Semite. I remember a dinner with an absolutely lovely, high-ranking French diplomat and Middle East expert. We discussed the Middle East policy and the diplomat made very reasonable criticisms of Israel. Later in the dinner, after a few drinks, a propos of the Israel-America alliance, this person banged his fist on the table and shouted “But the Jews control the elections in America!” An uncomfortable silence followed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. While in America most references to Hitler in contemporary political debates are (almost always rightly) mocked, in France the Godwin Point is reached almost daily and always with dreadful seriousness. Almost everything any politician does or says is, as the now-ritual phrase has it, “a reminder of the darkest hours in our history.” As the great French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has said, it is possible to have a “hypermnesia” of the Holocaust. And obviously, obviously, it must be possible to make fair, even strong, critiques of Israel, and American Middle Eastern policy, and—gasp—the Israel lobby without being accused of anti-Semitism. And it is also true that some people are too quick to cry anti-Semitism—and crying wolf weakens the cause of fighting actual anti-Semitism. All these things are true.

But none of these things mean that critics of Israel can ignore the history of anti-Semitism and the burden it places on critics of Israel to, at the very least, pick their words carefully.

It is not an injustice that you have to pick your words carefully—it is justice.