Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Smearing of Ambassador Gutman

Howard Gutman, the US Ambassador to Belgium, is under fire from Republicans (and others) for allegedly* suggesting that some kinds of Arab antisemitism are, in some ways, a result of Israeli behavior. Does this strike anyone honest as entirely and completely false? Certainly, there are some Arabs who hate Israel because they irrationally and superstitiously hate Jews. I don't doubt that for a second. But isn't it possible, even likely, that there are other Arabs who hate Israel simply because they, or their loved ones, have suffered at the hands of Israelis? We can concede this point without also conceding that Israel has ever behaved unfairly or unjustly. Even if we stipulate that every destroyed Arab house and every dead Arab civilian were casualties of fully "justified" and fully legal attacks, the owners of those houses and the relatives and friends of those dead civilians are still entitled to feel aggrieved. And because that sense of aggrievement is a product of something Israel did it isn't wrong to say that Arab antisemitism would be less pernicious if Israel and the Palestinians reached a settlement that precluded further "justified" and "legal" attacks on Arab people and property.

As Adam Serwer correctly said: the "suggestion that [one kind of] antisemitism would subside if a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be reached isn't the same as saying Israelis or Jews are "responsible" for antisemitism." 

Some other thoughts:

(1) The Republican candidates for president who are yowling to Twitter and the newspapers about the ambassador's remarks don't really care if the remarks were, or were not, antisemitic. Their objections are completely opportunistic. They only wish to paint Obama's envoy as insufficiently supportive of Israel, because if this is achieved the entirely bogus Republican claim that the president himself is insufficiently supportive of Israel gains a droplet of credence. [I remind you again that most Israelis as well as the generals charged with protecting Israel have a favorable view of Obama.]

(2) Christians and Mormons are not the arbiters of what is, or is not, antisemitism, and it is presumptive and wrong for them to assume this role. Moreover, a Jew like Howard Gutman should be free to speak to Jews about other Jews without having to suffer criticism from outsiders who seek only to score political points. Romney and Gingrich are entitled to say if the ambassador's remarks negatively affected US interest, but only the Jews can decide if the remarks were offensive to Jewish sensibilities..

(3) And what of the ambassador's remarks themselves? In the first paragraph I slugged the word "allegedly" with an asterisk. Here's why. The newspapers all claim that Gutman blamed Israel for antisemitism and failed to condemn Islamic Jew-hatred. The proof quote they provide is this "A distinction should be made between traditional antisemitism, which should be condemned, and Muslim hatred for Jews, which stems from the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians."

Unfortunately, as Salon reports, this is a "woefully inaccurate account of his remarks." Gutman never said anything of the sort!  The incriminating words do not appear anywhere in the transcript of the speech!  

Here is what Gutman actually did say:
To some extent, I have unique exposure to these issues. And such exposure has left me convinced how complicated and changing this issue is. Generalizations about anti-Semitism in Europe are dangerous indeed – always at risk of oversimplifying and of lumping together diverse phenomena.

So let’s start the analysis with the clearest and easiest departure point. There is and has long been some amount of anti-Semitism, of hatred and violence against Jews, from a small sector of the population who hate others who may be different or perceived to be different, largely for the sake of hating. Those anti-Semites are people who hate not only Jews, but Muslims, gays, gypsies, and likely any who can be described as minorities or different. That hatred is of course pernicious and it must be combated. We can never take our eye off it or just dismiss it as fringe elements or the work of crazy people, because we have seen in the past how it can foment and grow. And it is that hatred that lawyers like you can work vigilantly to expose, combat and punish, maybe in conjunction with existing human rights groups.

I have not personally seen much of that hatred in Europe, though it rears its ugly head from time to time. I do not have any basis to think it is growing in any sense. But of course, we can never take our eye off of it, and you particularly as lawyers can help with that process.
So in some sense, that is the easy part of the analysis.

Let’s turn to the harder and more complex part.

What I do see as growing, as gaining much more attention in the newspapers and among politicians and communities, is a different phenomena. It is the phenomena that led Jacques Brotchi to quit his position on the university committee a couple of months ago and that led to the massive attention last week when the Jewish female student was beaten up. It is the problem within Europe of tension, hatred and sometimes even violence between some members of Muslim communities or Arab immigrant groups and Jews. It is a tension and perhaps hatred largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.

It too is a serious problem. It too must be discussed and solutions explored. No Jewish student – and no Muslim student or student of any heritage or religion – should ever feel intimidated on a University campus for their heritage or religion leading to academic leaders quitting in protest. No high school or grammar school Jewish student – and no Muslim high school or grammar school student or student of any heritage or religion – should be beaten up over their heritage or religion.

But this second problem is in my opinion different in many respects than the classic bigotry – hatred against those who are different and against minorities generally -- the type of anti-Semitism that I discussed above. It is more complex and requiring much more thought and analysis. This second form of what is labeled “growing anti-Semitism” produces strange phenomena and results.
As you can see, while Gutman does attempt to make a distinction between types of antisemitism, he does not excuse them, or say either of them are Israel's fault. He is not, as Romney claimed, "rationalizing or downplaying antisemitism." He is not blaming Jew hatred on the Jews. He is simply saying that Israel doesn't operate in a vacuum. Though violence and Jew-baiting is always wrong as a response to Israeli policy, it is not the same as classical antisemitism. The former will subside if Israel and the Arabs ever make peace; the latter will not.

* Republicans are lying about what Gutman said. See point 3

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