I'll never forget an argument I had back when I was in high school, in American politics class. I think this was my senior year so it was either fall of '98 or spring of '99. We were talking about gay rights. I made a little speech about what an ardent supporter of gay rights I was. While I did it, though, I was making a caveat every other sentence or so of the type "I'm not gay, but...." When I got done, my good friend Nick raised his hand in that quick way you do when you're ready to shred someone. (I don't know how your classes in high school were, but in most of mine the cadre of kids who were inclined to speak the most in class had a friendly but vicious contest of wills to see who could score the most points, rhetorically.)
Anyway Nick raised his hand and asked why, if I was so accepting of homosexuality, I felt it necessary to qualify most every statement by announcing my heterosexuality. It was, I'm afraid, a perfectly good question, and one of the most direct hits against me in my educational career. I didn't have much to say, but I choked out some lame joke to save face. ("I'm not gay, but I'm pretty sure you're an asshole," I believe.) Couldn't really rebut him, because he was right. (In my defense, it was high school.)
Since then, as much because of the embarrassment of being vulnerable in that way as because of the fact that it was a good point, I take care when I write about gay rights and gay marriage not to spend every other sentence assuring my readership of my heterosexuality. Because it does contribute to the impression that homosexuality is some shame to be denied, and also because, well, who gives a shit? If my ideas and arguments are salient, they are salient regardless of my personal connection to the issue, and I should be smart enough to construct an argument for gay marriage or gay rights that doesn't require my being gay. We have a distressing habit in this country of privileging individual experience over superior logic or evidence, and to our detriment, I think. One of the simple facts of democracy is that people are going to have to make decisions that impact other people's lives, even if they have no real understanding of what it's like to live those other lives. It's inevitable. I do succumb to the temptation, sometimes, but I try to avoid it, and in particular I don't invoke certain aspects of my life history in political argument, for fear of appealing to emotion or individual experience. So anyway, no INGBs ("I'm not gay, but"s) from me.
I was thinking about that when considering this recent post on Israel. Commenter Roque Nuevo has been taking me to task in the comments, with some reasonable questions and some not. He has not, to his credit, accused me of anti-Semitism, but he has made the kind of vague appeals in that direction that you find constantly in this discussion. ("Who but an anti-Semite....") It's got me thinking, as I often do when Israel comes up, about an aspect of the Israeli conversation that is similar, a sort of INGB for discussing Israel. I don't personally spend a ton of time when talking about Israel assuring everyone involved that I am not an anti-Semite. I don't because I don't think it's necessary; the idea that anyone who is critical of certain aspects of Israeli policy must spend half his time denying anti-Semitisim merely plays into the notion that there is something inherently hateful towards Jews in that kind of criticism. That is not true. Israel, a governmental, political body, must be subject to criticism, as any nation-state must, particularly since our strategic alliance makes us investors in the Israeli state. To act as though there is something essentially anti-Semitic in valid criticism of Israel is to give the whole enterprise away, to concede to the most wrong-headed and unfair aspect of our debate about Israel.
I equally feel that there is something ugly in that kind of oft-repeated caveat. It's like the old statement "some of my best friends are black;" even when true, there's something kind of gross about it. And, as much as we should remain open to the very real possibility that any particular debater has what we would consider bigoted attitudes, the assumption should be that they don't. Alan Jacobs wrote very brilliantly about things that should go without saying (look in the comments of that post). It should go without saying that my criticism of the status quo in Israel isn't a product of hatred of Jews. The conflation of Israel and the Jewish people, it seems to me, is a mistake that is made by both zealous supporters of the Zionist mission, and zealous opponents of it. We should avoid that temptation.
But, look, maybe it doesn't go without saying that I am not an anti-Semite. Maybe criticism of Israel is just bound and determined to invite such accusations, whether that's logical or not, and I should make more of an effort to demonstrate, when I talk about Israel, that my opinions are based on both humanitarian/democratic principle, and on my genuine beliefs about what will produce the best outcomes for Israel. So look: my opposition to the continued occupation of Palestine and various Israeli policies therein is based on my belief in democracy. It is simply a crisis for democracy and humanitarianism for a group of people to live within the bounds of control of a nation and be given neither voting rights nor their own, self-determining country. You can solve this problem in one of two ways: you can incorporate the Palestinians in the territories into Israel, with full citizenship and voting rights, a one-state solution. Or you can give the Palestinian territories actual sovereignty and self-determination, with all that entails, a two-state solution. That's what my vision of human rights requires. It also helps that, in my opinion, a resolution to this conflict will be the best vehicle to lasting peace for the Israeli people.
Roque mocked my referring to the Israeli project, but I actually find that an appropriate choice of words. Israel, more than any other nation, is really a project, a mission. The question of whether I support that mission is dependent on how you define it. What exactly the Zionist mission entails is of course a matter of profound disagreement, certainly beyond my ability to divine a proper answer. So am I a Zionist? It depends. I absolutely support the continued prosperity and peace of the state of Israel. The physical security of Israel is non-negotiable. I absolutely denounce any violence against the state of Israel. It's a non-starter. My vision of Israel, though, is a secular state. I don't believe in fundamental religious characters for countries; that is simply contrary to my beliefs in democracy. No Muslim states, no Christian states, no Jewish states, if the world lived according to my preference. As important, Israel has to be a state that extends completely equal rights to non-Jews as Jews. Again, that's just a function of my vision of liberal democracy. Israel should always be welcoming of Jews from around the world as a home and place of safety. But everyone within must be equal. (That's a vision that Israel has satisfied completely, regarding non-Jewish citizens; but work remains to be done, of course, with the dispossessed Palestinian population.)
For some people, denying the Jewish character of the Israeli state makes the idea of a homeland for Jews nonsensical. I don't agree. Some people think that for the Zionist project to be really fulfilled, Israel has to be a religious state. We are not going to agree. But we can admit that our disagreement has nothing to do with hatred of Jews, and I equally think that we can admit that reasonable people can have reasonable disagreements about what the best course of action is for the Israeli state.
I continue to resist the idea that I should be making caveats about my abhorrence of anti-Semitism every time I post about Israel. But I don't know. Maybe I really should be doing that, as untoward as it seems to me. It's important to say that there are of course crucial differences between denying homosexuality and denying anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is a noxious evil, while homosexuality is nothing of the kind. Confusion about someone's sexual identity can have at worst certain socially awkward situations. Confusion about someone's stance on Jews and anti-Semitism can have much more damaging consequences. Certainly, there remains a hard-core of virulent and corrosive anti-Semitism in the world, and yes, it is particularly a problem within the Arab world.
But these facts remain: it remains true that acting as if critics of certain Israel policies are required to spend half their time denying anti-Semitism essentially confirms the notion that there is something hateful towards Jews in any criticism of Israel. It remains true that there is something self-undermining and troubling in a person constantly stating that they are not anti-Semitic, just as there is something untoward in the person who constantly assures you that he is not an anti-black racist. Perhaps most importantly, just saying it, of course, means very little, and while I can assure you repeatedly that I have no animus against Jews within me, ultimately it's my conduct and my ideas that have to carry the day. The ultimate question, if this is to be a discourse of use and pragmatics rather than one of emotionality, is whether my opinions about what is best for Israel actually produce the best possible outcomes for that country. So I remain uncomfortable with constantly disavowing anti-Semitism when discussing Israel. But I could be wrong; it may be that the terrible history of anti-Semitism requires that I take a more proactive role in denying the very real and very destructive reality of anti-Jewish hatred. I remain open to the possibilty.