Op Ed: Defining Anti-Semitism A California professor stirred up a backlash when he compared Israelis to Nazis. Monday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Obama, Neal Conan talks with guests and callers about the question: What is anti-Semitism?
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Op Ed: Defining Anti-Semitism

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Op Ed: Defining Anti-Semitism

Op Ed: Defining Anti-Semitism

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, meets with President Obama at the White House today on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, settlements, dialogue with Syria and Iran's nuclear program, and the underlying issue is the extent of their disagreement.

Anti-Semitism is not on the agenda, but it's part of the background. After Gaza and the Bernard Madoff scandal, many Jews perceive a significant and disturbing increase in anti-Semitism. For example, some students at the University of California Santa Barbara complained after a professor there distributed an email that compared Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto, and implicitly Israelis with Nazis.

So when does criticism of Israel cross the line to anti-Semitism? Is the charge of anti-Semitism used to stifle dissent? Is anti-Semitism coded into comments about Wall Street bankers?

We want to hear from our Jewish listeners today. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, "Angels & Demons" on the Opinion Page this week. Is the new number-one movie unfair to the Catholic Church, and is it a good movie? But first, anti-Semitism, and we begin with Nicholas Goldberg, deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times opinion pages, where his article "What Is Anti-Semitism?" appeared last week, and nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. NICHOLAS GOLDBERG (Deputy Editor, Editorial Pages, Los Angeles Times; Author, "What Is Anti-Semitism?"): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And give us a little back-story on this email that the professor sent and the controversy that erupted.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, Professor William Robinson sent this email out actually back in January. He's a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara. The email was one that he had received, not one he created himself, but it juxtaposed images of Palestinians who were caught up in Israel's recent offensive on the Gaza Strip with Jewish victims of the Nazis, and he called these images parallel. He compared Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto. He showed graphic photographs of dead Jewish children alongside similar photos from Gaza, and he called Gaza a vast concentration camp. Yes, go on.

CONAN: Well, I was just going to say and some of the students objected.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Some of the students objected. A couple of students wrote to complain. They got in touch with some national groups. Abe Foxman, the executive director of the Anti-Defamation League came to town. He started talking about it. More and more questions were raised. Now there's an investigation at the university's academic senate, looking into whether they should impose some kind of discipline on the professor for having done this.

CONAN: And you then, in the Los Angeles Times, attempted the, well, probably thankless task of trying to define anti-Semitism and figure out whether this fit the definition.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, I became interested. You know, I saw Foxman's comments, and what Foxman said was it's anti-Semitic to compare Jews to Nazis. He said that's just out and out anti-Semitic, and I read that, and I thought, well, is that really the case? Why is that the case? How do we know that's the case? Maybe it's a wrong comparison, maybe it's an absurd comparison, maybe it's an accurate comparison, but what makes it anti-Semitic, and who's to say? So I got kind of interested in trying to tease out some of those nuances.

CONAN: And it proved to be - well, it's an interesting process, isn't it?

Mr. GOLDBERG: You know, I think it's interesting. I mean, the first thing I did was call up Foxman, and he reiterated to me what he thought, that it's just, you know, a totally, totally offensive thing to do, and he said you can never make that comparison.

So then I called Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard Law School professor, and he said basically the same thing. He said it was absurd and absolutely offensive.

CONAN: Offensive to compare the Israelis with their oppressors.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Correct. That it's both absurd because it's inaccurate but it's particularly insensitive and particularly hurtful to compare you to your own persecutors.

So I went back and tried to look a little bit at what anti-Semitism is, and you know, anti-Semitism is a phrase that's only been around since the 19th century, but the idea of hating Jews has been around a lot longer than that. And you know, in the old days, in the bad, old days of Europe, when you know, Jews were attacked during the First Crusade in 1096, they were expelled from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492. There were pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. There was a demonization of Jews. There were forced conversions during the Spanish Inquisition, you know, and anyone who's read, you know, English literature from the 19th century has read about Fagan. Anyone who's read Shakespeare has read about Shylock.

I mean, these are clear anti-Semitic images. But today, what I said in my article, is that determining what's anti-Semitic is a lot harder and a lot more nuanced, and we're - you know, is it anti-Semitic, or is it merely true, to say that Hollywood is controlled by Jews when you think about the fact that, you know, most of the big studio chiefs are in fact Jewish.

Or you know, is it anti-Semitic, or is just factual, to point out the fact that a lot of the neo-cons who helped, you know, bring the Bush administration to war in Iraq were Jewish? I mean, that was a point that was made by the anti-war forces. And people said that these Jewish neo-cons were too close to Israel.

And the most recent example of this is when Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer pointed to the existence of a powerful Israel lobby that wields substantial clout on Capitol Hill, and there was a firestorm of criticism for what they had said. Are those things anti-Semitic?

CONAN: Professor Mearsheimer's going to be joining us in a little bit to talk about what he did and the reaction to it. We're also going to be talking with Walter Reich, who's the former head of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But in terms of when you followed this up, could you figure out a sharp, bright line?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I certainly couldn't do it myself, but I went and looked. One of the best definitions I found was the European Union Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia. This organization back in 2004 tried to come up with a working definition of anti-Semitism, and some of the things that they came up with were calling for the killing or harming of Jews in the name of an extremist ideology, making dehumanizing or demonizing stereotypical allegations about Jews, accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for wrongdoing that was in fact committed by a single Jewish person or group, trafficking in Jewish conspiracy theories, denying the Holocaust and accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel then to their own nations.

And one of the other things that the organization talked about is they said that anti-Semitism could also target the state of Israel, and they did say specifically that comparing Jews to Nazis was a form of anti-Semitism.

CONAN: There is also, we remember, the controversy at the United Nations equating Zionism to racism. That seems to be a trigger-point, as well.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Sure, absolutely. That's a huge trigger-point, but it's not anti-Semitic. I mean, in my opinion, it's not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, and even Foxman and Dershowitz agree with that. Criticizing Israel's policy is pretty unobjectionable. The question is, you know, do you step over the line somehow with certain kinds of criticism.

CONAN: Are there certain code words that Jews hear and perceive as anti-Semitism?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Oh, I think there are plenty of code words. But in this case, you know, I talked to Danny Goldhagen, who's the author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners," and he said that what he listens for is - he says again, there's nothing wrong with criticizing Israel. You can say that the aggression - I'm sorry, the Israeli incursion into Gaza earlier this year, you can criticize it, you can say it was wrong, you can say that too many civilians died, but what he listens for is, well, are you criticizing Israel exclusively? Do you also criticize other countries when they violate human rights? Is there something specific about Israel that you unfairly single out? He says that's a key sign of anti-Semitism.

CONAN: And I wonder, these issues come up on campus quite often, and you know, obviously the situation specifically there at Santa Barbara is new, but this is not - this controversy and this kind of controversy is not new.

Mr. GOLDBERG: No, I mean, we see it all the time here in California. The University of California at Irvine has had repeated - disagreements would be a nice word between Jews on campus and Palestinians on campus. We've had it at UCLA, as well. There was a recent conference at UCLA where there was a big - there was a conference that was called by Palestinians and supporters of Palestinians, and it was - a number of Jews showed up and tried to demonstrate during it. And then there was a massive back-and-forth about who had gone over the line, who had been anti-Semitic, who had interrupted whom, who had shouted out offensive things. I mean, these are constant on campus these days.

CONAN: And part of this conversation was that the professor involved here is himself Jewish.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes, Robinson is Jewish, and Robinson makes a very strong and clear defense of what he did. He's not in hiding. He's not apologizing. He says that, you know, that he's teaching a controversial course on a provocative subject, and it's his job to challenge students and not to shut up on subjects that might offend.

CONAN: Further, he goes on to say that sometimes charges of anti-Semitism are used to stifle dissenting views.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes, he absolutely believes that. He says it's a smokescreen designed to intimidate Israel's critics and that no matter what you say that is critical of Israel, there are people who will come out and say you can't say that, that's anti-Semitic.

And he says that that is not only a violation of his academic freedom but that is - you know, it stifles debate, and it doesn't allow Israel to be discussed in a fair and reasonable way.

CONAN: Nicholas Goldberg, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Sure, thank you.

CONAN: Nicholas Goldberg, deputy editor of the Los Angeles Times editorial pages. His article "What Is Anti-Semitism?" appeared last week. Well, do you hear code words? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org.

Cynthia's(ph) on the line, Cynthia called from Vernon, New York.

CYNTHIA (Caller): Hi Neal and everybody. I just told the screener I'm 79 years old, and I've always loved Anne Frank because if she had lived, she'd be the same age as I am today, but she never got the chance. So I just wanted to say how come she got to live, but I didn't?

So but the other side is, and I know about anti-Semitism because I remember - I'm old enough to know when they had billboards on Long Island outside of country clubs that said no Jews or dogs allowed. But having said all of that, I believe that you can be very justifiably against the collective punishment of the Palestinian people on the part of the Israelis without being anti-Semitic.

It has nothing to do with the Jewish people - Israeli people who are working for peace, both of them. Hello?

CONAN: Yes, thanks very much for your call, appreciate it.

CYNTHIA: Okay. I'll hang on, okay?

CONAN: All right, thanks very much. Bye-bye. We're talking today about anti-Semitism, and when does criticism cross the line? Up next, John Mearsheimer, who wrote a critique of the Israel lobby, and Walter Reich, former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum join us. More of your calls, as well, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The question of what is anti-Semitism goes beyond criticism of Israel. It also comes up in everyday language, in the words we choose and the words we hear.

Do we use anti-Semitic code words when we talk about Bernie Madoff and the financial crisis? Is the charge of anti-Semitism used to stifle dissent? Again, we'd like to hear from Jewish listeners today, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's introduce our next two guests now. John Mearsheimer joins us from a studio at the University of Chicago, where he's a professor of political science. He's also the co-author of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Policy," along with Stephen Walt, and Professor Mearsheimer, nice to have you back on the program.

Dr. JOHN MEARSHEIMER (Professor, University of Chicago; co-author, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy"): My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And Walter Reich joins us from member-station KQED in San Francisco. He is Yitzhak Rabin professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University and a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and nice to have you on the program, as well.

Mr. WALTER REICH (Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior, George Washington University; Former Director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum): It's a pleasure to be with you.

CONAN: John Mearsheimer, let me begin with you. As mentioned earlier, you published your book about the Israel lobby, and were you - did you think that you got unfair charges of anti-Semitism after that book was published?

Dr. MEARSHEIMER: For sure. We were frequently referred to as anti-Semitic. We were accused of trying to de-legitimize Israel, and both of these charges, of course, were not true.

CONAN: And as you've observed this situation over the past year, in particular in the context of the financial crisis, the Bernard Madoff scandal, the Israeli offensive into Gaza, do you see anti-Semitism on the rise?

Dr. MEARSHEIMER: No, I don't. I mean, I see occasional instances of anti-Semitism, but it's hardly commonplace. I mean, the problem that we've come to in the United States is that it's almost impossible to criticize Israeli policy or to criticize the U.S.-Israeli relationship without being labeled either an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. And the reason that defenders of Israel use this charge so liberally is because it is deadly effective at silencing critics and deterring other potential critics from leveling criticisms at either Israel or the special relationship that exists between the two countries.

CONAN: Walter Reich, I wanted to ask you. Do you see anti-Semitism on the rise?

Dr. REICH: Anti-Semitism has been fairly stable during the last several years. There's been a bit of an upsurge probably in the last months following both the economic crisis and the activities in Gaza, but in general it's been fairly stable and has not increased markedly.

CONAN: In the example that we were talking about in the earlier segment, the comparison a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara drew between the Warsaw ghetto and Gaza, do you think that was unfair? Do you think that crossed the line?

Dr. REICH: Strikingly so. I got the same email, probably, or something similar to the one that the professor got. The professor may not have the kind of background that is valuable in analyzing these kinds of photos, but they went around to - it was one of those please-forward kinds of emails. I got one from someone after publishing an article, and she wrote in a cover note: This is a new era where a picture's worth 1,000 words.

It showed a number of those photos. Let me just focus on two of them. One is - they're both iconic for the Holocaust. One is a German soldier, one of the Einsatzgruppen, behind the advancing German forces in the former Soviet Union, and he's aiming a rifle. All you see is him aiming a rifle. He's aiming a rifle at the head of somebody who's not in the photo because that part of the photo was cut off.

He was shooting a woman in the head holding a baby. Probably it killed both of them with the same bullet. Paired with that was a picture of an Israeli soldier holding a rifle. The appearance is that they're both doing the same thing. One was part of a murder operation that eventually killed, in that particular part of the Holocaust, one and half million Jews by executing them or gassing them. The other one was part of a war.

A second iconic photo of that famous boy coming out of a bunker in Warsaw with a German soldier behind him, his hands up, the boy's hands up. Probably within - whether it's 15 minutes or 15 hours, he was gassed in Treblinka or shot a few minutes later. It was part of a large murder operation.

Paired with that photo was an Israeli soldier holding a rifle, and there's a little boy, Palestinian boy, in the picture. The effort was to compare them and to say it's the same thing. If that professor thought that this was the same thing, then he really needs to do a little more reading.

CONAN: John Mearsheimer, let me bring you back in here. Is this - this charge of Israelis acting like Nazis is not new, and it is not isolated to the incident in Gaza. These kinds of demonstrations, these kinds of photographs, though, are relatively new.

Dr. MEARSHEIMER: Well, I think there's no question about that. And that's in large part because during the 1990s, there was a peace process, and there was not much evidence of fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And that's all changed since the outbreak of the first intifada, and the Internet, of course, has also become a much more powerful tool for dispersing information.

But I think, Walter and Neal, it's a fundamental mistake, of course, to equate what happened during the Holocaust to what's happening to the Palestinians now. There really is no comparison between the two events. But nevertheless, one does not want to underestimate the extent to which the Israelis are brutalizing the Palestinians and the crimes that they have committed against the Palestinians since 1948.

And this is what has so many people exercised and what has pushed a lot of people to actually try to equate the Israelis today with the Germans during World War II. Again, I think that's a fundamental mistake, but we do not want to lost sight of what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians and how important it is that we fix this problem once and for all so we have no more comparisons of Jews and Nazis.

CONAN: And we'll get to calls in just a moment, but Walter Reich, I wanted you to respond to John Mearsheimer's comment.

Dr. REICH: I'm happy to respond with a memory of about 25 years ago, John. You and I had lunch, as you may recall…

Dr. MEARSHEIMER: I remember it well.

Dr. REICH: …in Washington. And you were very interested at the time in what was going on - what had gone on in Nazi Germany and in the war. And you said there was a war machine, and there was a death machine, and you understood that very well then, and I know you understand that very well now.

To make a comparison between that death machine and anything that's going on now in the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to conflate things that I'm sure you would not want to conflate, no matter what you've been accused of. It's just beyond academic or reasonable comparison. And I think mostly you would agree with me, I suspect.

Dr. MEARSHEIMER: I agree. I made the point, or at least I tried to make the point clearly, that I would not, under any circumstances, equate what the Germans did to the Jews and to others in World War II with what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.

I know a great deal about how the German killing machine operated, and there is no comparison. But the point that I tried to make is that we do not want to lose sight of what the Israelis have been doing to the Palestinians since 1948. It involves brutalizing tactics and a brutalizing strategy, and it is very important that we go to great lengths, and I hope the Obama administration will, to put an end to this conflict once and for all.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. Again, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Steve's(ph) calling, Steve from Santa Cruz in California.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

STEVE: My mom was raised in racist Texas in the '40s. And you know, she used to comment to me how she was afraid of what drinking fountain to use being a Jewish girl, you know, whether to use the white or the colored fountain, and she was called all kinds of racist names, anti-Semitic names.

She taught me that to be a good Jew was to be a good person. It was basically to follow the Golden Rule. And I feel like being a Jewish person who loves people from all walks of life and all nationalities and religions, to not speak out against the collective punishment against the Palestinians, to not speak out against these brutalities, is anti-Semitic because Semites - not only the Jewish people, they are our Arabic brothers and sisters as well. And I find that when I'm speaking out against these injustices to be called a self-loathing Jew is in and of itself anti-Semitic as well. And that is my comment.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much.

Walter Reich, is that a fair comment when people call Steve a self-hating Jew?

Dr. REICH: I don't like that term at all. And, you know, we tend not to know everything about everything at all times. So we act and do and believe things for the purpose of trying to feel as if we're good people. People are demonstrating, including Jews, many Jews, against Israeli activities based on what they know, based on what they see in the media and so on.

For example, last week I was in London. And there was a piece, probably an anticipation of the Pope's visit, which…

CONAN: Pope's visit to the Middle East.

Dr. REICH: To the Middle East, right. And it was in a Palestinian woodworking shop, and there was a close shot of a figure of Christ and I think was Christ with thorns, crown of thorns, and it moved to the Christian Palestinian. And he talked about how it was hard for him to get across checkpoints to sell his goods, as I recall. What - so there was an equation of Christ with the crown of thorns and the Palestinian -both are suffering.

What the BBC reporter didn't talk about, probably didn't even know about, was that the percentage of Palestinians who are Christians keeps on going down. Bethlehem is now primarily a Muslim city. And they're going down largely because they're being intimidated and having to leave Palestine, having to leave the Middle East because of this kind of intimidation by Muslim Palestinians.

He also - probably, he didn't talk about - may not have even known why there were checkpoints in the first place. It's very complex. But if all you see is that, if I were a Christian, I would be very upset and I would react because that was what I would think I know.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

STEVE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking today about anti-Semitism. Our guests include John Mearsheimer, who's a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, co-author of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Policy," and Walter Reich, Yitzhak Rabin professor of international affairs, ethics and human behavior at George Washington University, former director of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Janice(ph), is on the line. Janice, calling from Springfield, Ohio.

JANICE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

JANICE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JANICE: Yeah. I was in my car very briefly and just heard a little bit from your show. I heard one of you guests say that it used to be easy to tell an anti-Semitic statement and now it's become much more subtle. And he gave the example, is it correct to say that Jews control the media because there are a lot of Jews in the media that anti-Semitic? To me, it doesn't seem very subtle or difficult to tell. You know, the word control is the key there.

If you said many Jews are successful in the media, that would not be anti-Semitic. But to say Jews control the media implies that Jews are somehow determining what people can see, that Jews working as a group -I mean, it's a ridiculous sentence.

CONAN: It's interesting we got an e-mail along those same lines from Alan(ph) in Cleveland.

When someone makes a comment about Jews whether, vis-à-vis, Israel or even about their role in finance or in Hollywood, one needs to look at the context, why is the person making this observation. For example, is the speaker trying to say that the fact that many film studio leaders are Jewish means that the Jews control the media and therefore manipulate Americans? The words themselves factually true or not cannot be divorced from the context.

John Mearsheimer, would you accept that?

Prof. MEARSHEIMER: Yeah. Let me talk about this because I have paid great attention to the word control over the past three years. When Steve and I wrote the original article and then we wrote the book, we went to great lengths not to use the word control for exactly the reason that the woman caller just said. I do think it connotes anti-Semitism.

But if you look carefully at the debate about anti-Semitism today both in the United States and in Europe, I think that what you see is that the old-fashioned kind of anti-Semitism is kind of gone by the boards. And the new anti-Semitism - and that's a phrase that's frequently used by organizations that are fighting anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States - the new anti-Semitism has a lot more to do with Israel than it has to do with criticizing Jews. People who criticize Israel and equate Israeli behavior with Nazi behavior is seen as the main problem today. People who talk about the Israel lobby and argue that it is a powerful interest group in the United States that influences policy towards the Middle East, are oftentimes labeled as anti-Semitism.

This is the new anti-Semitism. And the reason that people talk about the new anti-Semitism is that it's very hard to find much evidence of the old-fashioned anti-Semitism that Nick was talking about before.

CONAN: Nick, you were talking earlier about the - when you say, excuse me, Walter, you're - we just have a minute left, I don't mean to give you such a short time. But you were talking about in the terms of the financial crisis and Bernard Madoff and that sort of thing, you see some uptick. Do you hear anti-Semitism in Wall Street bankers and those kinds of phrases?

Dr. REICH: What was really interesting and disturbing by one - by an article that appeared recently in the Boston Review was how much anti-Semitism there is under the surface that is just lying there quietly and that is easily provoked into a kind of eruption. When the economic crisis hit, when Madoff who, after all, victimized primarily Jews, and Jewish charities came into the news, there was a great increase in anti-Semitism when people were asked about the issue and Madoff's name was mentioned as a Jew.

CONAN: Janice, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

JANICE: Can I just throw in one more comment?

CONAN: If you can do it in three seconds.

JANICE: I would just say Israel is the most criticized country in the world.

CONAN: Well, a lot of people might say United States is, too, but that's another conversation for another day. But thank you very much for the call.

And we'd like to thank John Mearsheimer and Walter Reich for their time today. Appreciate you coming into the studio.

When we come back, we're going to be talking about "Angels & Demons."

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