Local playwright Jason Sherman was commissioned by the Globe and Mail to review The Politics Of Anti-Semitism, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, and The New Anti-Semitism, by Phyllis Chesler. But when he submitted the piece, Globe books editor Martin Levin decided not to publish it. E-mails between the two have become a source of controversy since they were published on counterpunch.org. Here is an abridged version of the review and Levin's e-mail response to it.
it doesn't take much to get your self called an anti-Semite these days. A few years ago I wrote a play that questioned some cherished notions about Israel. My "self-hating Jew" badge arrived in the next edition of the Canadian Jewish News.... Muckraking journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair co-edit a newsletter and Web site called CounterPunch... from the pages of which they have gathered 18 brilliant essays on the Middle East. It's a sort of greatest hits package called The Politics of Anti-Semitism.
Among its short, sharp blasts are those by Robert Fisk, foreign correspondent for The Independent, a fierce critic of authoritarian rule wherever he finds it, who expresses genuine disgust over the hate mail he regularly receives. ("Your mother was Eichmann's daughter" is among the most pleasant.) [Also included is] American writer Norman Finkelstein, whose trip to Germany to promote his controversial book The Holocaust Industry leaves him not a little soiled.
Cockburn, easily the sharpest and funniest political commentator around, recounts the morality tale of Cynthia McKinney, a black congresswoman who made the mistake of calling "for a proper debate on the Middle East," after which "American Jewish money [was] showered upon her opponent."
St. Clair's is one of many pieces that look at Israel's influence on American politics. This is not an issue over which every contributor agrees. Jeffrey Blankfort, a radio show host at KPOO in California... seems obsessed with proving that the Jews, and ultimately Israel, control America's wealth, media and policy decisions. He is joined by Kathleen and Bill Christison, former CIA officers, who point fingers at a Bush administration "peppered with people who have promot[ed] an agenda for Israel often at odds with existing U.S. policy." There's no question that the American administration is full of "Israelists" (the Jerusalem Post recently named deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz its "Man of the Year"), and it's important to discuss the underpinnings of the U.S.-Israel relationship, but it's quite a leap to suggest that the man behind the curtain wears a felt hat and yarmulke and wants all the world to dance the hora.
Just when the collection is beginning to sag under the weight of some arcane arguments, two pieces bring it to a powerful close. Israeli peace activist Yigal Bronner's memoir of helping to bring food and medicine to a Palestinian village does more than a hundred essays in evoking the tragedy of the Middle East war. And no other essay quite rises to the level of Edward Said's angry and hopeful j'accuse about what has happened to his people....
Phyllis Chesler begs to differ. In The New Anti-Semitism, the American psychotherapist and author of Women And Madness sets out to warn the world about "a virulent epidemic of violence, hatred and lies that are being touted as politically correct." Touted by whom she doesn't exactly say, except to point to an amorphous group of "Islamic reactionaries and Western intellectuals and progressives." (Everyone in the The Politics Of Anti-Semitism would make her list.)
Perhaps this "epidemic" explains the "fever [that] burned" in Chesler as she wrote: "Everything had to happen at once: reading, supervising the research, writing." There's little evidence of any of that in these overwrought pages: it's poorly researched and horribly written, sounding for the most part like an earnest book report by an overachieving fourth-grader.
"The world - including many people in the Jewish world - still seems to have one standard for Jews and for the Jewish state (and it's a high standard) and another, much lower standard for everyone else," she laments, without resorting to facts to support her argument, and failing to recognize that she herself holds Israel and the Jews to that very high standard.
But don't take my word for it, take hers (please, take hers). Certain "Arab-Muslims," she writes, are "barbaric and primitive; they do not hide their joy when they kill, but I do not think that most American or many Jews delight in the death of their enemies in quite the same way." That's us, still chosen after all these years.
...A book like this always ends up biting the hand that writes it. Everyone is an anti-Semite - including, it would appear, Phyllis Chesler herself. Page 245: "Anyone who does not distinguish between Jews and the Jewish state is an anti-Semite." Page 209: "Each Jew must think of himself or herself as the most precious resource that Israel has at this moment." I tell you, this new anti-Semitism, no one is immune from it.
Response from MARTIN LEVIN:
I have some real problems with your piece, largely because it seems more like a lecture by someone who is parti pris than it does any sort of moderately objective review. And it's not because I suspect that I disagree with you about some aspects of the Middle East. For the record, I think Sharon is almost every bit the disaster for Jews (and not just in Israel) that Arafat has been for the Palestinians, that the Palestinians deserve a viable state, that the settlement policy is egregious and that one has the right to be as critical of Israel (but not more so) as of any other state, person or institution.
But I do not feel these two books, especially the Cockburn book, have really been reviewed. For one thing, the title is very misleading; it's not about anti-Semitism, but what seem like a series of exculpatory screeds about anti-Israel criticism being labelled as anti-Semitism. It also seems, partly because of your set-up, that you are predisposed to like the first book, indeed came at it with a some predetermined position, and to dislike the Chesler. (As far as I can tell, you're probably right that it's hysterical, but sarcasm is not evidence, and I doubt whether her entire focus is, as you seem to suggest, on Israel and its critics/enemies).
I have no sense that the first book really engages the issue of anti-Semitism at all, other than to brush it off as a cynical political tool. Yet there's no mention at all of the anti-Jewishness worthy of the Volkischer Beobachter now being taught as gospel in Arab schools, or of fundamentalists making no distinction between Jews and Israelis (witness the synagogue bombings in Turkey), or of the preoccupation of people such as Fisk with Israel to the virtual exclusion of other issues. Fisk is, to put it mildly, a very contentious figure.... (Why [his obsession with] the Jenin massacre... when it's clear there was no massacre?) Finkelstein is trotted out by Arab media as a "good" Jew, son of a Holocaust survivor. But you'd get no sense in the review that he serves that role or that he is opposed to the existence of Israel.
There is a real "usual suspects" element to them. Finally, I have no sense that you have really broached the topic of anti-Semitism, no sense of whether it's a worrisome trend outside the jaundiced (in some ways, perhaps rightly jaundiced) purview of the out-of-the-same-litter contributors to The Politics Of Anti-Semitism.