There has been a bit of a blow-up over CNN anchorman Rick Sanchez’s remarks on Pete Dominick’s Sirius XM show. I was going to ignore it because as a substantive phenomenon—a petty prejudiced nincompoop fired, perhaps unjustly, for being a petty prejudiced nincompoop—it scarcely ranks. But others aren’t ignoring it at all. At Tikun Olam, Richard Silverstein is annoyed at Sanchez’s remarks, while Phil Weiss comments that there is some truth to them and they should be legitimate subjects for discussion. (Juan Cole rushes to defend Jews and basically suggests that there was no truth whatsoever to Sanchez’s comments).

Now, it seems trivially obvious that Jewish people are over-represented in media companies’ ownership, management, and news rooms, although we don’t “control” the media. Is it clear that that’s what Sanchez meant, when you bother to look at what he actually said? It’s not perfectly clear (in the semantic sense that Sanchez has wiggle room) although frankly it is clear enough. Now, could one interpret what Sanchez said as anti-Semitic? That depends on what you think constitutes anti-Semitism. Does anti-Semitism really reduce to simple prejudice against Jews?

Or does anti-Semitism require hatred? I think the latter. Despite the inherent vagueness and slipperiness of these categories, anti-Semitism as a historical category carries with it the connotations for the kind of hatred that led to death camps and pogroms—Kristallnacht and Birkenau. We inadvertently cheapen the memory of the dead by deploying it when a silly dimwit like Sanchez says something that is in part prejudiced and incorrect, but that is the outgrowth of undeniable sociological fact. And when someone like Sanchez mocks the notion that Jews are a repressed minority, it seems pretty audacious to spit out the word, “anti-Semitism” to characterize that mockery. Repressed minority we are not.

We can also think about where and how anti-Semitism occurs in America, and whether Jews are “white.” “White” is by no means a synonym for melanin count. As scholars from David Roediger to Theodore Allen have documented, “white” is a short of analytical shorthand for social privilege. It’s a socially constructed category. For a long time Irish and Italian people weren’t “white.” Only recently have American and European and Israeli Jews become provisionally white. We have become provisionally white in a historical context in which American support for Israel has risen while Zionism has braided itself into the upper echelons of the American establishment. I don’t think those phenomena can be analytically detangled from one another.

The fact is that Jews are a disproportionately wealthy and influential group within American society, and raising the issue of anti-Semitism in the context of Sanchez’s off-the-cuff petty prejudice, which doesn’t really rise to the level of anti-Semitism, strikes me as inappropriate. The prejudice levied against Jews today comes from fringe white supremacist elements, and they don’t have power within American society. Anti-Semitism was a more virulent social phenomenon 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago. Making light of the social experience of those who endured it then is wrong—but so is pretending that it is damaging to Jews now. Jews are no longer under quota at Ivy League schools.

But are there still dangerous manifestations of anti-Semitism, beyond the fringes? In at least one respect, yes: the anti-Semitism that underlies Zionist racial assumptions. Zionists presume a Jewish essence in the same manner that Nazis did—take for example Joachim Prinz, a German-Jewish rabbi who admired Nazism as well as its end-goal of racial “purification.” This man contended that Zionists who argue for the existence of a Jewish nation and race must honor the Nazi principle of “purity.” Beyond shared assumptions, we can perceive shared outcomes—Zionism contributed to Jew-hatred by refusing to fight it in the early 20th century, and Zionism contributes to Jew-hatred now—it is Zionism that is the catalyst for the malignant growth of Arab, European, and American anti-Semitism.

Saturated in propaganda, many people see an illusion of Jewish unity behind Israeli actions and reduce Jews to Israeli criminality and the organic Israeli nation-state. Those of us concerned about anti-Semitism might look to the way our own communal practices contribute to it before obsessing about a twerp like Sanchez.

Meanwhile, Sanchez’s firing will be perceived as confirming the canards about “Jewish control of the media” in spite of their untruth—anti-Semitism has become the third rail of American cultural production, such that anyone voicing the slightest sentiment hinting at prejudice against Jews, anti-Zionism, or criticism of Israel is relegated to the category, potential genocidaire. This fact speaks to the power of a Lobby that presumes to speak for Jews but really is devoted to the ideological weaponization of anti-Semitism and Jewish suffering more broadly—so powerful that gentiles would rather fire than reprimand a Sanchez for fear of the fallout that would result from the lighter touch. It speaks to the double-standards that exist when an illiterate Islamophobic racist thug like Marty Peretz is feted at Harvard while a Sanchez is dismissed from CNN with a quick wave.

Let us really ask: who is the threat here? Which countries are being bombarded with white phosphorus and are under foreign military occupation? What was the religion of the country which dug a million graves in the past 20 years? Islamophobia contributes directly to a cultural discourse that legitimates mass murder, and so parochial concern with anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish prejudice while Arab countries are aflame with American bombs seems more than a little indulgent. 

So am I concerned with Sanchez’s rhetorical stupidity? No. I am concerned with the racism of the culture that excoriates Sanchez’s verbal clumsiness while celebrating far worse racist stupidity when it’s against a more politically vulnerable target. A racist culture is a racist culture. Jews of all people should be aware, at the level of self-interest if not of morality, that a culture willing to incite pogroms against Arabs and Muslims is one that could turn on Jews when a fundamentalist group, furious at the occupation, cites it as the reason for setting off a thermonuclear detonation in an American city. In that respect, the Jewish cultural elite are not merely morally corrupt. They are fools.

Technorati Tags: anti-semitism, Mondoweiss, Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, Zionism 

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