When I was about 16 and walking home one summer evening from hanging out with a friend, I saw out of the corner of my eye three boys my age running straight at me.
I tried to run, but I knew I couldn’t outpace them. They caught me up and proceeded to land blows and kicks. The beating had no reason, I had never even seen them, they went to another school but — mired as I then was in the angst of adolescence, I knew exactly what this was: a thrill attack. Bored middle class boys being bad.
One of them soon had pangs of conscience and talked his friends into running away. I made my way home and, realizing I could not hide my bloodied face from my mother, I told her what happened.
One of her first questions — not her first, which must have been, "Do you know them?" — was: "Are they black?"
In the days that followed, the question came up again and again, and from family members I otherwise knew to be, like my mother, liberal, urbane, sophisticated. I might have been at fault: I was 16 and not exactly keen to discuss the incident, and had I offered a clear narrative to each interlocutor at the outset, we might never have gotten to the "Were they black?" question.
But the question was irksome, and not because I was exactly a liberal paragon myself. It bothered me more in that teenaged "what planet do you inhabit?" kind of way.
I lived in Montreal. My whole 18 years there, blacks were not the problem, they were never the problem. I made a couple of black friends, and they were more like me than a lot of other classmates: Kids born into hard-working immigrant families trying to make it in an insular society that at times was as murky and cold as March slush. Simultaneously mortified by and fiercely proud of our parents’ accents and cooking: Exactly the recipe not for lashing out, for keeping to oneself.
The kids who beat me up — well-off nihilists. It was the late-1970s. Punks. They were the problem. Didn’t anyone get that?
Now, my mother was not a racist. No one who asked the question was. But she — we — had been battered senseless by the "Starsky and Hutch" TV culture of blacks as pimps and prostitutes and pushers and occasionally lovable sidekicks, by lurid tales of American race riots, of overheated resentments. The human mind is an astonishingly fragile thing: It allows imaginings to coat reality in a sticky, discoloring film.
Which is to say we are as much the product of our culture as we are the realities of everyday life. Jean Paul Sartre explained this better than I ever could in "Anti-Semite and Jew" but it boils down to this: The "Anti-Semite" he described was not the average Frenchman who allowed himself to be sucked into the anti-Semitic vortex of the 1930s and 1940s: It was the full-time ideologue who stirred that vortex toward inexorability. If I remember correctly (my copy was pilfered long ago by an ex), Sartre said these people never account for more than 15 percent of a population.
I have met real anti-Semites, folks who make it their fulltime business to hate Jews, to explain their hatred of Jews, to try and persuade others to hate Jews. And, pace Abe Foxman, Andrew Sullivan is not an anti-Semite. Abe’s gibe, during a Q and A at the JCPA this week, was unadorned. It’s become the latest round in what now seems like the second century of the Wieseltier-Sullivan wars, and it’s not an understatement to say that Sullivan is eating it up.
Sullivan has an obsession with Jews, it is true, but it is not his singular obsession, and I don’t think it crosses an anti-Semitic thresshold. Let’s translate this back to "black" again: It’s as if Sullivan had spent much of his career cross-dressing as an embarrassing white wannabe rapper, punctuating his thoughts with "bros" and "yos" and "hos;" and now his preferred garb is that of an embarassing white wannabe scold, quoting Bill Cosby at tedious length about the perils of single motherhood.
Is this mortification itself? Yes. Do we wish he would stop? Lord, yes, in the way that you wish the non-Jew whose romantic interest in you is stoked by your occasional Yiddishism would. Just. Stop. It’s creepy, and it’s what I think Leon Wieseltier was trying to get at in the essay that started this all:
And then Sullivan returns to his condescension toward the Jews. Contemporary Israel is “a betrayal of many Jewish virtues.” I thought that human rights, if this is what Sullivan sees Israel abusing, is not a Jewish virtue, or a Christian virtue, or a Muslim virtue, but a human virtue. Israel is a secular state. The primary offense of Israeli brutality in Gaza was not against Maimonides. But Sullivan desperately wants the Jews to be good Jews, to be the best Jews they can be. He wants edifying Jews. Don’t they realize that if they fail to edify, they may lose his friendship? The fools! Jews ought to determine their beliefs and their actions apologetically, so as not to disappoint “goyim like me.”
The charged eroticism of "Jewish virtues," somehow simultaneously quantifiable and fantastic, of the otherness of "goyim like me," needs to be called out, whatever its provenance. It is not anti-Semitism, but it is its less ugly sister. It’s objectification and it’s gross. Cast it in terms of what women deal with: It’s not the guy on the street shouting out crude parodies of the Kama Sutra; it’s the fellow in the other cubicle gushing, "Gosh you’re pretty today." It’s a more polite intrusion into one’s notion of self.
Does Sullivan flirt occasionally with actual anti-Semitism, with the cruder, more dangerous stereotypes? Yes, occasionally, especially his recent forays into "only Jews get away with it-ism."
But that "ism," much less pernicious than the "ite," is key: Sullivan is not an anti-Semite, nor are Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, nor is Jimmy Carter, or the dozens of others among the pantheon of the misguided that traipse across these virtual pages, any more than my mother was a racist. Their fulltime obsession is not Jewish evil, it’s not even Jews. I believe them, in fact, when they profess concerns about Jewish welfare.
The trick is to differentiate calling out expressions of anti-Semitism from accusations of being an anti-Semite. Both are serious, but the latter is lethal, to a career, to a reputation. The former is essential to call out, though, as a means of isolating the real anti-Semites. Back to anti-black racism: Make a conscious decision to diminish the pop-culture prominence of pimps and pushers — the racism perpetuated by folks who are not racists — and you make it much harder for the real, fulltime racists to make their case. The same goes for anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and influence.
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."
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.