By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
Ben Cohen’s new book, “Some of My Best Friends, A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Anti-Semitism,” is a collection and analysis of previously published essays, reporting, and commentary that meticulously capture the current climate of anti-Semitism around the world. Throughout a turbulent, modern decade dominated by war and economic instability, the author consistently provides a fair and balanced perspective of the coalescing forces critical of Judaism and the state of Israel. Where there is unjustly founded and abhorrent hatred, the subject matter can be alarming, but Cohen provides clear-headed analysis of events and attitudes. His strength as a writer is to confront the language of public discourse, tracking the trajectories of creeping intolerance.
Amos Oz writes: “Israel is a dream come true. As such, it is bound to be flawed and imperfect. The only way to keep a dream intact is never to try to fulfill it.” The award-winning Israeli author arrived at this witty conclusion after traveling throughout Israel in the 1980s, a time when Israelis were still amazed by their own military success, and yet were increasingly uneasy about their collective future. Oz’s notion, that an ideal stops being beautiful and is subject to criticism the moment it becomes reality, in this reviewer’s estimation frames Cohen’s collection.
Modern anti-Semitism does tend to reveal itself amid condemnations of Israel. “I have long argued that we live in an age of Jewish empowerment, distinguished by the existence of a strong Jewish State,” Cohen acknowledges in his introduction. Conscious that resentful propaganda is taking shape in response to the Palestinian situation, a stalled peace process, disillusionment and assimilation in Diaspora communities, and as a consequence of the violent Arab Spring, Cohen deconstructs the dialogue. The author uncovers instances where Zionism is confused with Judaism and where anti-Semitism lurks beneath the surface.
The articles entitled “The Courage of Ronnie Fraser,” published in November 2012, and “How British Justice Failed Ronnie Fraser,” published in March 2013, recount the controversy surrounding England’s University and College Union (UCU), an anti-Zionist organization sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians. Beginning in the early 2000s, the group pursued an academic boycott of Israel, isolating Israeli professors and refusing to deal with Israeli institutions. Fraser, a Jewish mathematics lecturer whose parents escaped Nazi Germany, spoke up about the discrimination he felt, causing a stir.
“When the core themes of anti-Zionism are unmasked, the denial, uniquely to the Jews, of the right of self-determination, the portrayal of Israel as a racist, and, therefore, illegitimate state, the presentation of Palestinians as victims of a second Holocaust, and the use of the term Zionist as codeword for Jew—we move far beyond the domain of permissible policy criticism into open defamation,” Cohen writes, analyzing the legal struggle that ensued.
Indeed, insensitive remarks circulated throughout the hearings that stemmed from Fraser’s complaint. When UCU commentators suggested, “Any legal action (against the UCU) would be financed by those with bank balances from Lehman Brothers that can’t be tracked,” their speech indicated the ridiculous belief shared among their members that millions of dollars had, in fact, been transferred from the bank to Israel in the days prior to its failure during the 2008 financial crisis. The claim, of course, is false, but the tone of the statement revives old myths about Jewish wealth and money practices, perpetuating a dangerous anti-Semitic stereotype that is shocking in modern times. Cohen is correct. Poorly chosen terms and phrases, used recklessly in a context of constructive criticism, quickly devolve into hurtful rhetoric. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “words are loaded pistols.”
Another problematic definition that Cohen confronts is the use of the word “apartheid” to describe the perceived unequal status of Palestinians in Israel. “What made the apartheid system peculiar (in South Africa, where the term originates) was the manner in which racism was enshrined in law,” Cohen writes. “Through such measures as the Group Areas Act (1950), the Bantu Education Act (1953)… and the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (1954) the apartheid regime micromanaged the lives of its subjects on the basis of their skin color... If apartheid is understood as the rule of racist law, any comparison with Israel—or any other country—needs to begin at the point of the law.”
Tellingly, there are no such racist laws on the books in Israel. Palestinians may feel discriminated against in their daily lives, but applying the term “apartheid” to describe their plight—as former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has done—significantly alters the meaning of that word. This is linguistic subterfuge, enabling Israel’s critics to hang a highly charged accusation on the country, while distracting attention from their own civil rights abuses and fueling perpetual animosity.
Cohen diligently explores the battle of words and the rise of anti-Israel and “Jew baiting” propaganda. His reports on the incendiary flotilla campaigns organized by Turkey and Iran to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza indicate that forces opposed to the existence of Israel as a sovereign nation will stop at nothing to create situations in which Jews are seen as the aggressors. “More than anything else,” Cohen notes, “they (protesters) want to put Israel’s defenders in the position of having to open fire so that images of Zionist brutality can then be broadcast around the world.” The author is frustrated that Israel has been subjected to a double standard, forced to demonstrate rigid adherence to a moral code its neighbors mock.
While fervent, some arguments grow redundant. But Cohen provides sound examples of where anti-Semitism is either influencing a contentious debate or evolving out of charged discourse, and he highlights the challenges facing modern Jews around the world. Many people view the fulfilled dream of a sovereign Jewish State as an utterly flawed entity. Their criticism is tolerated, if not welcomed by a democratic people—Jews in Israel and the Diaspora alike—but “Some of My Best Friends” reminds readers that the specter of anti-Semitism still haunts us in a modern era of intolerance and toxic rhetoric, laced with hatred. The best we can do is to remain vigilant. Cohen’s book provides quality analysis, and it is a worthy source.
“Some of My Best Friends, A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism,” by Ben Cohen. Edition Critic (May 2014). 230 pages.
Editor’s note: Ben Cohen is a columnist for JNS.org.
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