Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stigmatizing anti-Semitic Language

This post is updated on Aug. 3, 2013.

Last week I posted here in its entirety the essay Why Good Societies Stigmatize Anti-Semitic Language by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry from a site called The American Scene.  At the time, The American Scene was down.  Now that the site is back up, and it is bad etiquette to reprint entire content from another site, I have edited the post to only have excerpts from the essay.  You should read the whole thing because it is that good.  I have added some of my own commentary and there is an interesting discussion in the comments section.  All boldface is my own.

Mr. Gobry begins:
Andrew Sullivan has noticed that some kinds of language that are sometimes used to criticize a lobby like the NRA are not considered acceptable to use to criticize Israel or “The Israel Lobby.”
Here is an example Andrew Sullivan uses: Why is it ok to say "Washington lawmakers’ obeisance to the gun lobby," but substituting "Israel" for "gun,"  is not ok?  Mr. Gobry answers the reasons are obvious:
The first obvious reason is that gun owners are not an ethnic group. In post-Enlightenment society, we recognize that people who are members of a group by choice are more open to criticism for being part of that group than people who are a member of that group by birth. I’m sure Andrew is well aware of how the emergence of a consensus of homosexuality as innate, and not chosen, has affected conversation about the gay community. We would cringe if President Obama (or a white Democratic politician, for that matter) was described as, say, “pandering to the Black Lobby” for addressing the NAACP.

The second obvious reason is that there is no record in history of a totalitarian regime embarking on a plan to exterminate all gun owners as a group and nearly succeeding, or of a major figure of a currently existing thuggish regime calling for the extermination of gun owners, or of a disturbing number of clerics of a major world religion calling for holy war on gun owners, nor is there a constant drumbeat of examples of gun owners, all over the world and for all of recorded history, being victimized in various ways for being gun owners.

The third obvious reason is that the language and ideology of gun owners’ alleged behind-the-scenes political influence, itself standing for a belief in their intrinsic malevolence and treacherousness, does not have a centuries-long history of being used as a spur for discrimination, mob violence, and massacres against gun owners.

Our society, quite reasonably in my view, has developed a taboo against the use of words associated with group hatred, as a way to stigmatize said hatred. White people can’t use the n word in contemporary polite American society because that word is associated with the memory of white people who used that word and bought and sold black people as chattel. The fact that it’s possible in theory to be a Non-Racist White Person and still utter the n word is irrelevant—and quite rightly so! And the taboo is all the stronger because there still are white racists around who use the n word and want to hurt black people. And we think it’s wrong. So we stigmatize it.

By the same token, and for obvious reasons, it would not be received in the same way if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is gay” and if I wrote “Andrew Sullivan is a fag.” If I wrote the latter and defended myself by saying that I was only stating a fact, I would be ridiculed, for obvious and good reason. The word “fag” is not considered noxious because it refers to a gay person or because of the sound the syllable makes, the word “fag” is considered noxious because it is a symbol and instrument of group hatred.

And expressions like “Jewish lobby”, which carries the anti-Semitic trope that Jews are a shadowy clique that secretely controls the government have been—for centuries, around the world, to this very day in some places—used as spurs to mass violence.

Now, does this mean that it’s “impossible” to criticize the State of Israel, or America’s Middle Eastern policy, or AIPAC? Does it mean that Chuck Hagel is a dhimmi or an anti-Semite? Of course not. Does it mean that there are certain phrases that you may not use to be considered civilized? Does it mean you shouldn’t write just quite the same way about AIPAC—or the NAACP—as the NRA? Yes. Is this just? Absolutely.


And I could just leave it at that, but I’ll press on, because it is (very) important and I haven’t seen formally spelled out the argument for the pressing duty of combating anti-Semitism in all its forms, including rhetorical, including accidental. In contemporary society, when someone earnestly screws up about race, the opportunity to assert moral superiority is so strong that the opportunity to explain is almost never taken.

Taboos against using certain language against certain groups is always tied to the violence that has been exercised against these groups, because the language is seen, quite reasonably, as both symbolizing and facilitating that violence.

And so, just like it would be impossible to understand the contemporary American taboo against the n word without understanding slavery and Jim Crow, if we want to understand why we have taboos against language that is redolent of anti-Semitism we need to talk about the Holocaust.
Here there are several paragraphs about the horrific nature of the Shoah.  Mr. Gobry asks "how is the Holocaust relevant today"
There are several reasons why. The first and most obvious one is that anti-Semitism is alive and well today, and eliminationist anti-Semitism to boot.

The second one, and also an aspect of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, is that it was perpetrated by a society that could reasonably be called the most advanced of its time.... [and Mr. Gobry elaborates.]

The other reason why the Holocaust is very relevant today is that for all the evil genius of Hitler and his acolytes, it was enabled precisely because of the pre-existence of anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic tropes that the Nazis believed, used and reinforced have a very long history—one that continues up to this day. In some corners of the world, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still brisk sellers. Not in America, of course—no, we’re above that.

These anti-Semitic tropes—the idea of the plotting, scheming Jew, of a Jewish Lobby which controls the government behind the scenes, of the traitorous Jew who serves Zion and not his homeland—they were the fertile terrain from which genocide could spring. And it is an ever-fertile terrain: while the Holocaust obviously stands unique, Jews have been the victims of anti-Semitic violence in every era, in every country, down to this day. And anti-Semitic tropes are the enabler and the spur.
Indeed, there is a connection between language to attitudes to actions. I agree with Mr. Gobry we should eschew the use anti-Semitic tropes. I fear we are being conditioned to see harm to Israel or even Jews as not all that tragic, as "didn't they deserve it anyway for being so evil?"

I would also add one point when responding to Andrew Sullivan's initial inquiry.   Sullivan is writing about comments on the gun lobby following the failure of the Senate to pass legislation that would expand background checks on gun purchasers.  The legislation had the support of nearly 2/3 of the American public.  Gun violence is definitely harmful to Americans.  As the Senators voted against the wishes of their constituents, we can talk about "obeisance."

However, the sympathies of nearly 2/3 of Americans are with Israel.  The benefits of the US-Israel relationship are well documented.  Congressional support for Israel is consonant with the wishes of the American people.  Using the word "obeisance" would be a mischaracterization, to say the least.


  1. Wow, this was a fabulous article and so well layed out.
    thank you Barb for finding it and posting.

  2. Thank you, Barbara, for this excellent article.

    However (why comment unless there's a 'however'?), I have two comments to make.

    The first comes when Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry (P-EG) says "The Holocaust stands out among all of the events on the long list of human horrors as unique in its evil." Some years back, while he was still Professor of Political Philosophy at manchester University (in the UK), Norman Geras (now publisher of normblog - worth checking out) ran a once-a-term seminar on the Holocaust aimed at academics and grad students. One of paper-givers commented, in passing, that the Holocaust might not have been unique (a topic of much discussion in that company), but it was possibly unprecedented. This triggered me to write a paper for the seminar (later revised to become a paper at my professional association's annual conference) on this very topic, arguing for the unprecedented nature of the Holocaust.

    This links into my second comment. It comes where P-EG says "The Holocaust was the first time that a genocide was designed and executed in a complete, systematic fashion, using scientific, innovative means of destruction. Its goals were universal. It mobilized all of the authorities, civil and military, of the regime, and indeed the whole society." He argues (and isn't the first to do so) that Nazi Germany, inheriting all the machinery of an advanced industrial society, was able to mobilise the whole of society for evil ends, and to great effect. It needs to be noted that he also acknowledges that Mao and Stalin killed more people, but doesn't see this as significant. He appears to rest his argument on the NRA, for example, not being an ethnic group. But nor have have many other groups marked out for mass attack: Mao's and Stalin's victims, for example, even though huge numbers were killed.

    While it's clear that he is taking aim at Sullivan and his elision between the NRA and the "Israel lobby", it's still important to argue that P-EG is focussing too narrowly. Helen Fein ("Genocide: A Sociological perspective", 1993) includes 'cultural genocide' in her definition: many imperialist powers attempted, with more or less success, to destroy pre-existing culture and replace it with another. We need witness only the de- and re-culturisation of African-Americans to note this.

    In conclusion, P-EG might wish to refer Sullivan to the following, only half-joking, as a way of educating himself on why his question was wrong: http://www.talkingsquid.net/archives/1702

    1. Hi Brian -

      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I know normblog (which I like a lot - all though half I don't understand because it is about British things) I had the pleasure to meet Norm in NYC last year at the YIVO conference on Jews and the Left.

      I don't quite understand what you mean by "focusing too narrowly." Care to elaborate?


    2. ...And I forgot to say I liked that anti-Semite flow sheet you linked too. I had seen it before, but it is a pleasure to see again.

    3. I'll try to elaborate, Barbara. Helen Fein in the book cited above (and not her alone) is seeking to widen the argument beyond the question of just counting bodies (even though this is important) and also seeking to widen the scope of the notion of "intent".

      Thus the Nazis had the intent of killing all of Europe's Jews - and they managed to kill 2/3rds of them. Undoubtedly, had they retained control of the space they conquered, they would have murdered all those who failed to physically escape the area of conquest.

      BUT (and it's a big but) plenty of regimes have attempted to commit cultural genocide, by denying the opportunity for a cultural group to pass on their culture. Thus, the forced conversion of the Jews by both Spain and Portugal; the banning of Catalan by the Franco regime, also in Spain; I've already mentioned the 'deculturalisation' (more like brutalisation) of African-American slaves, both on the Middle Passage and on the plantations...and so forth. There have also been many attempts to destroy groups which have failed only because the means weren't there, even though the intent was (to say the least, the Federal Government's attitudes and policies towards Native-Americans in the 19th Century comes perilously close to a mixture of both cultural and biological genocide on occasions.

      I could everyone stiff by going on, but I'll stop there. Hope that comes closer to explaining my point. I think that P-EG is too intent on proving Sullivan wrong as far as his comparison is concerned, and thus overstates his general thesis.

    4. Brian -

      Thanks for clarifying. If I understand you, there are lots of horrible things that human beings have done to other human beings. I don't think his article would be any less relevant had there been no Shoah, and he only the Russian persecution of Jews to refer to.

      P-EG's point, if I understand, is the role of language as a facilitator of violence. He is responding to one specific instance as the example. I think P-EG's objection is that we have sensitivity to hate-motifs when used against other groups, but not when used against Jews.

      It's all so complicated.


    5. Barbara, absolutely so. Perhaps the real problem is that so many articulate people (or at least so many with access to the public's ear) have this blind spot when it comes to Jews and Israel. Sense applied to almost any other group by those who see themselves as 'liberals' on these matters goes out the window in this case.

      That is what gives grief.

      As I wrote to another who couldn't see this point, they had no idea how I longed (as part of the 0.25% of the world population she found so problematic) to be so unimportant as to ignorable by her.

  3. Thanks for posting this. BTW, the website is now working.


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