In a recent column for New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait examines how anti-Semitism, particularly on the left, intersects with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The existence of anti-Semitism makes it easier for supporters of Israel to portray criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic,” he writes. “The existence of Israeli hawks using outsized accusations of anti-Semitism as a stick allows anti-Semites to pose as silenced victims.”
Chait discussed this dynamic and more in an interview with Jewish insider Friday. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Insider: In your column, you touch on a point that is not often brought up, which is that the left and the right seem to change places in the debate on racism when Jews are involved. Do you have any idea why the left might be more skeptical of allegations of anti-Semitism?
Jonathan Chait: I think the people on the left are very keen to speak out against the anti-Semitism of the conservatives, but I think they are very skeptical in exposing the anti-Semitism of anyone on the left. In that sense, it’s a pretty close parallel on the right, which is happy to call bigotry on the left and not on the right. It’s easier for them to do this about the Jews, and especially Israel, because sometimes you find that kind of sectarianism on the left and sometimes you find people who use the existence of sectarianism on the left as a pretext. to dismiss legitimate reviews that aren’t. not at all anti-Semitic. So I think it’s the contours of the political arguments that allow both sides to follow their opportunistic impulses to use accusations of bigotry as a sword when necessary.
JI: You mention Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the British Labor Party who has been accused of anti-Semitism, in your article. It seemed that many British Jews associated with the Labor Party felt stunned by the experience of being told that Corbyn’s statements were not anti-Semitic or that he was not an anti-Semite. What do you think about this?
Chait: I would say the kind of radical politics Corbyn was trying to promote as a model of the Labor Party not only allowed, but maybe even required defending anti-Semites. I think Corbyn’s strategy was, and always has been, ‘no enemies on the left’. He was just going to open his door as far as you wanted. He wasn’t going to exclude you. And on the far left you have real anti-Semites. Also, you have a way of discussing the Middle East that lends itself very, very easily to anti-Semitism, and the further to the extreme you go, the harder it is to distinguish politics from anti-Semitism. It doesn’t get impossible, but once you get into the territory of “Zionism is Racism” – that’s right, so many people who believe they are anti-Semites, and it gets harder and harder at a time. given to conceptually distinguish this from anti-Semitism, perhaps not impossible. So I think Corbyn’s political model was, ipso facto, a decision to bring anti-Semites into the coalition and to defend them.
JI: Does this affect US policy?
Chait: In a weaker and paler way. I think what really turned a lot of radicals on about number one Bernie Sanders was the fact that he used socialist language and concepts in his rhetoric, although he often meant it metaphorically, not literally – but also that he had this “no enemies left” strategy. Bernie himself has always been, I think, quite familiar with many of these issues. Of course, he is a political liberal, he is a liberal of freedom of expression, he is not an illiberal leftist in matters of speech. And on Israel, he’s certainly a lot more pro-Palestinian than most Democrats. But he still recognizes humanity on both sides. However, he brings into that coalition a lot of people who are more to the left, and I think maybe a little – if not a lot – less careful about recognizing humanity on both sides and drawing a line against anti-Semitic discourse. So I think that on the sidelines of this coalition of people who supported him or who were welcomed as his supporters, there are people who really pushed rhetoric in an angry and sometimes dangerous way, even if he himself, I think , does not. engage in that at all.
JI: Do you think there is a deeper reason, beyond partisanship, why the left can reject accusations of anti-Semitism?
Chait: What people have said about Corbyn is that, because he’s such a doctrinaire Marxist in his thinking, he really can’t think of Jews as a category of people who would be discriminated against, because that he considers them rich. and therefore privileged and therefore in the category of the oppressors and not in the category of the oppressed. I think it is a bad idea to divide people into oppressed and oppressive classes, but given that this is what you are doing, Jews can end up on the wrong side of this formula if you are a bit on the doctrinal left. . So I think it’s a bit of a mental block that some people on the far left have to acknowledge anti-Semitism. But that said, I think most leftists agree that anti-Semitism is one thing. I don’t think they’re really going to just say, “Well, you’re Jews, you’re rich, therefore, you can’t be a victim of any prejudice.” It is really not a left vision.
JI: What do you think of the accusations that Israel is an apartheid state?
Chait: I think calling Israel an apartheid state is a controversial position. I don’t think he’s an anti-Semite, and I don’t think he’s indefensible at this point. When the Israeli government made it clear that it was just not prepared to take steps towards a two-state solution, I think we got past the point where you could just say, “Well, they’re just in there. waiting for the right moment to negotiate the two-state settlement. I just don’t think their interests should be taken seriously, and if you accept that their plan is just to hold onto Palestinian land without giving Palestinians equal rights forever, that’s pretty close to a system of ‘apartheid. Now the objection is that it is not an apartheid system in Israel, which is fair enough, but it is in Gaza and the West Bank.
JI: Does the recent rise in anti-Semitic vandalism and violence that we have seen in recent days change the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Chait: I think the way to think about it is just the simplistic, trite, but true precept that hate breeds hatred, and radicalism and extremism breeds radicalism and extremism. I think you can easily look at these events, if you criticize Israeli policies, and say, “It is horrible that Israeli policies have helped to breed radicalism among Palestinians and radicalism among Palestinians has led to this anti-Semitism, which itself helps to reinforce perversely hawkish policies among the Jews of Israel. Everything seems to feed on itself.