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What Antisemitism Is (And Isn't)

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This morning, I received an email from a reader informing me that I was "a chicken hawk Jew." For good measure, I was then urged to perform an act with my yarmulke which doesn't bear repeating in polite company.

What roused this person's ire was a short post of mine earlier this week about Oliver Stone. Evidently, my correspondent's opinions about Jews are little different from those expressed by Stone in his interview with the Sunday Times. I therefore concluded that the author of the email deserves the label "antisemite" just as much as Stone does.

Except that unlike my detractor, Stone quickly apologized for his remarks, prompting the question of whether it is fair to call him an antisemite. The answer lies in understanding what antisemitism is - and what it isn't.

Instances of celebrity Jew-baiting, whether Stone sounding off to a journalist or Mel Gibson drunkenly assailing a police officer, encourage the mistaken view that antisemitism is a particularly vicarious type of rudeness that can be overcome through the exercise of self-control. Particularly after the Holocaust, the wisdom goes, ranting about Jews is decidedly inappropriate behavior.

Should one's worst instincts win out, will a subsequent, timely apology annul the offense? If antisemitism is boiled down to a matter of insult, then yes, it probably will. But the problem here, as Marx might have said, is the confusion of appearance with essence.

What makes antisemitism distinctive is that it's a worldview, a means of explaining why there is injustice and unfairness and conflict in our societies. In his recent epic study, the scholar Robert Wistrich cited the French monarchist Charles Maurras' admiration for the succinctness of antisemitism. "It enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over and simplified," Maurras said.

In the nineteenth century, Maurras and his cohorts wore the antisemite's button with pride. So did Wilhelm Marr, the German rabble-rouser widely credited with coining the term antisemitism, who went on to found The League of Antisemites in 1879. For these men and their followers, antisemitism was not so much an attitude as an ideology.

When it comes to Oliver Stone's comments, it's precisely that ideology which is visible. Stone, it's important to recall, diminished the significance of the Holocaust and revived the hoary claim of Jewish media control in order to make his ultimate point: that "Israel has f***** up United States foreign policy for years."

Such views are increasingly current among the Chavistas with whom he is so starstruck. In keeping with its politically and theologically promiscuous history, antisemitism is again perfectly compatible with what would commonly, if incorrectly, be regarded as a progressive outlook, especially if the focus is upon the State of Israel.

That is why antisemitism remains one of the most furiously contested terms in political debate today. Invariably, those accused of it angrily reject the charge, retorting that they have been unfairly maligned by a crude tactic designed to muzzle what they insist is the horrible reality of Israel.

These are people who would have you believe that the victims of antisemitism today are no longer Jews, but those who are labeled antisemitic. Such sophistry, however, was not available to Oliver Stone, because of his candor in talking about Jews, and not "Zionists" or "The Israel Lobby." In recent memory, only Helen Thomas has displayed an equivalent frankness.

There is a deeper point about those who recycle the favorite themes of antisemitism, yet are careful not to do what Stone and Thomas did, and speak about Jews qua Jews. In Tablet this week, Lee Smith, who has been valiantly grappling with a cast of characters including Stephen Walt, Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan, argued that the matter at hand is not the "indiscernible beliefs of individuals," but the way in which these writers, when they write about Israel, are "complicit in the common work of mainstreaming the kind of antisemitic language, ideas, and discourse that were once confined to extremist hate sites on the far right."

It's unlikely that Lee Smith's opponents will engage in any critical reflection, perhaps because the truth is too painful to bear. For many of the grand myths of our own time - Israel as the ultimate rogue state, U.S. policy as a hostage of the "Israel Lobby," the Palestinians as the iconic symbol of human suffering - draw on a much older tradition that, just twenty years ago, most people regarded as a matter for historians, not chroniclers of the present.

It was these myths which effectively licensed Oliver Stone's remarks. If there is a lesson to be drawn from L'Affaire Stone, it is that he did not - and this is why his apology is really by the by - act alone.