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Cheapening a Fight Against Hatred

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

I started writing a column for The Post in 1976. It was about local affairs, and so it took me about a year to write my first column about anti-Semitism. Since then, I have written about 90 more, most of them full-throated condemnations of the hatred that killed fully one-third of all Jews during my own lifetime. So it comes as a surprise that has the force of a mugging to be accused of aiding the very people I so hate -- of being an abettor of something called "The New Anti-Semitism."

The accusation comes from the pen of Indiana University's Alvin H. Rosenfeld, whose report " 'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism" was published by the prestigious American Jewish Committee and given great play in the New York Times. Certain prominent American Jews -- the historian Tony Judt, the playwright Tony Kushner, the poet Adrienne Rich and I, among others -- were charged with aiding anti-Semitism with our writings. We were, in other words, enablers. As if that was not bad enough, Shulamit Reinharz, a Brandeis University professor and a columnist for a Jewish weekly, dispensed totally with Rosenfeld's qualification. She told the Boston Globe that all of us mentioned in the AJC report are just plain anti-Semites.

Among the first to call me after the Times piece appeared was the AJC itself. It apologized. It did not mean to include me with the others, and it would, its representative told me, soon set matters straight. It issued a news release saying that Rosenfeld's characterization of me does "not reflect the totality of [my] occasional writings on the Middle East." My "occasional writings" include at least 30 datelined columns from the region and a near-obsessive attention to the subject. The diligent can find the AJC statement on the Internet and the reference to me in paragraph 10, a parenthetical phrase of near-microscopic prominence. Oddly, it has not had the same impact as the Times story.

Let me take some responsibility. At times, I have written coldly and provocatively about Israel, maybe once or twice in anger. This, in turn, has angered some readers who knew what I was thinking but not what I was feeling -- that, at bottom, I had a strong emotional attachment to Israel. It is a country whose survival is not only important for the Jewish people but for the rest of mankind as well. I can enumerate many reasons why I support Israel -- it's a legitimate state, a real democracy, etc. But it is also where Jews went to escape the killers; to ignore that is to extinguish the twin lights of morality and memory and leave the world even darker than it now is.

But having said that, let me wonder about those American Jews who interpret criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism or something that abets it. The charge has been leveled at Jimmy Carter over his recent book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." I, too, didn't like the book. I, too, found the book hostile, oddly unbalanced and chillingly lacking in historical context -- not just a near-total neglect of the Holocaust but also no mention of pre-1948 Arab pogroms, such as the 1929 murder of 67 Jews in Hebron. Still, Carter's overall point about Israeli occupation of the West Bank is apt, and calling him all sorts of names does not change that. The former president has in effect embraced the current, ahistorical context for Israel. For many, it is no longer the orphaned waif of the Holocaust but the bastard child of Western colonialism.

Rosenfeld is surely right about one thing: It's astonishing that in the 60 years since the Nazi extermination camps were liberated, anti-Semitism has revived and thrived. Still, it hardly makes sense to fight it by promiscuously throwing around the word "anti-Semite" so that it loses its punch or to flay Jewish critics of Israel. I strongly disagree with some of these critics and find some of their views obnoxious, but if somehow an anti-Semite finds common ground with them, that is hardly their fault -- and certainly not their intent. After all, anti-Semites do not concern themselves merely with Israel. They hate all Jews no matter where they may be.

It's sad that the American Jewish Committee commissioned and published Rosenfeld's report. I can't imagine what good will come out of it. Instead, it has given license to the most intolerant and narrow-minded of Israel's defenders so that, as the AJC concedes in my case, any veering from orthodoxy is met with censure or, from someone like Reinharz, the most powerful of all post-Holocaust condemnations -- anti-Semite -- is diluted beyond recognition. The offense here is not just to a handful of relatively unimportant writers, but to memory itself.

Shame.

cohenr@washpost.com


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