Interesting take on the Wieseltier-Sullivan debate and an interview with Abe Foxman

Ron Kampeas at the JTA blog has an interesting post that seems to argue that the reason for Sullivan’s lacerating discourse about Israel and its supporters is that he’s afflicted with unfulfillable philosemitism.

Kampeas refers to Sartre’s essay Anti-Semite and Jew, which some have argued was an atheist’s attempt to de-judaize antisemitism. Whether or not that’s true, it’s still a valuable essay on the question of hatred in general.

Kampeas might want to compare and contrast the ideas in his post with what the French philosopher Andre Glucksman has taken from Sartre’s essay. Paul Berman tried to summarize it for English readers in a TNR cover story about anti-Americanism that’s no longer online. Discussing the hatred of misogyny, Berman wrote:

For why do men hate women? No one ever declares such a hatred. What men speak about, instead, is a perfection of love–a world of the perfect couple, created by the perfect woman, without fault or blemish. And yet, neither the perfect couple nor the perfect woman can ever exist, the human condition being what it is.

Yes, but the Smurf condition allows for it …

… once Papa Smurf turns Gargamel’s evil brunette creation into a perfect, harmony-inducing blond.

Anyway, back to the human condition … Kampeas called Abe Foxman on the phone, argued with him a bit, and here’s what he got:

Since this Wieseltier-Sullivan thing broke, a bunch of us have tried to make this point — David Bernstein and Eric Fingerhut have done the best jobs of it. No one serious is calling anyone an anti-Semite, no one wants to snuff out a career — we genuinely want this conversation, but at the same time, we want to make everyone aware of the hurtful stereotypes so deeply ingrained in our culture that they inevitably bubble up, and make a nonsense of the discourse.

Well no one serious was calling anyone an anti-Semite until
Abe did
, and Abe has one of the truest anti-Semitism detectors I know of — exactly why I wanted to make my disagreement with him clear. He thinks through this topic better than anyone I know.

I called him today and asked him to elaborate. But first, here’s what he said exactly; it was in answer to a JCPA delegate who wanted to know if education could remedy anti-Semitism. Abe’s answer was,
essentially, remedy, yes, cure no. There were educated anti-Semites; he mentioned Voltaire, and then, he mentioned Sullivan:

“He’s another intellectual anti-Semite, and I’ll say it, he’s an anti-Semite.”

Here’s the audio.

We live in a political culture where no one ever admits any fault —


read Walt’s astonishing admissions in points 3, 5 and 8 of this manifesto that might as well be called “Guide for the Terminally Unself-aware” — and one means of avoiding fault is to turn the tables by recasting critics as inquisitors. Everyone is itching for their own iconic “Have you no shame, Senator?” moment.

Handing Sullivan that moment only obscures the debate further.

After a little back and forth, Abe agreed:

“It’s a legitimate argument,” he said. “Under other circumstances
probably I would not have used the term the way I used it. Had you
interviewed me, I would have said he legitimized other anti-Semitic
views without calling him an anti-Semite. It’s the same thing as
Mearsheimer, Walt, Jimmy Carter, I never called them an anti-Semite. I would put Sullivan in the same category.”

And maybe he should apologize, both privately and somewhat publicly, to Andrew Sullivan. You don’t say simply that someone is an antisemite if you still hold doubts about that.

Our back-and-forth was important though: Foxman acknowledged that “anti-Semite” belongs to the toxic few who “get up in the morning and say, ‘How can I hurt the Jews?'”

But there are others — a minority, he said — who are “infected with anti-Semitism.” They do not act out except in “moments of crisis.” He cited Gen. George Brown, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, outraged in 1974 at an arms transfer to Israel that depletd his NATO stockpile, blustered, “They own, you know, large banks in this country, the newspapers, you just look at where the Jewish money is in this country.”

Such opportunities to indulge one’s latent bigotries, Abe said, are
few and and far between. Except for journalists and academics, whose
job it is — especially in this blogging century — to write and write
and express and express.

And when they express latent bigotries, “they legitimize other attitudes,” he said.

And those attitudes can spur the real anti-Semites into believing their violence has a popular resonance.

I don’t know whether I agree with Mr. Foxman’s idea about latent bigotries. Sullivan seemed to have a similar idea going, when he wrote:

Look, I am not one to dismiss any notion of anti-Semitism in me or anyone else. I believe it is such a toxic theme in human history and such a grave strain in the human soul that no one should be sublimely confident that he or she is free of it entirely. I take the moral demand to guard against it very seriously. And I have indeed searched my conscience these past few years to take stock if anything like this is unconsciously entering my soul, as I try to guard against my many other sins.

Then, I thought, if Andrew was being sincere, he was probably raising the stakes higher than necessary.

Neither Kampeas nor Foxman discuss whether a person someone can “flirt” with antisemitic tropes without having any latent bigotry. I tend to think people can flirt with a discourse of hatred, for various reasons.

One major reason might be the sense of autonomy, of individually achieving more intellectual freedom, by breaking what part of your audience considers a taboo. That sense of earned freedom is partially guaranteed by the fact that you know you are not a hater, so you do not feel so in danger of losing the freedom of the individual voice to the group voice of hatred.

As for Foxman’s and Kampeas’s belief that unfair vitriol about Jews and Israel from fundamentally non-hating persons can “legitimize other attitudes”  and “those attitudes can spur the real anti-Semites into believing their [approval of] violence has a popular resonance,” that I agree with entirely. Whenever we’re “joining the chorus” about anything, we might want to meet the people singing harmony in the back row.

[UPDATE, 3/1/10: The mp3 of the Q&A leads into the Sullivan comment at about 19:20. Hannah Rosenthal is the other person there, and you get to hear them not argue, and then maybe Abe is about to argue, but then she agrees with him and they don’t argue. For his part, Abe Foxman sounds … kinda like an old man lecturing me why I shouldn’t meet friends at a bar on Friday night instead of at the sabbath table.]

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