The Anti-Semitism Monopoly

Recently, while defending Democratic congresswoman Rashida Tlaib from charges of anti-Semitism over her Holocaust comments, Jeremy Burton, the head of Boston’s umbrella Jewish community organization, asserted a cartel monopoly for establishment Jewish leaders on the privilege “to determine what is, or is not, antisemitic.” “[W]e must insist,” he wrote, “that the mainstream of our own community gets to make that determination. Institutions and leaders who represent the sensibility of our community will call it as they see it, both on the left and the right.” As examples of sensible mainstream Jewish institutions and leaders who should be granted this exclusive call on anti-Semitism by the “responsible media,” Burton identified the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), as well as, by implication, himself and his Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Greater Boston.

Much has been written about the ADL’s recent calls on anti-Semitism, how these calls have differed between the left and the right, and why the ADL et al. might demand a monopoly over anti-Semitism accusations at this current stage in American political history. But, as a right-leaning Jewish lawyer and activist who has been on the receiving end of one of Mr. Burton’s anti-Semitism determinations, I have a certain personal perspective on how an anti-Semitism monopoly might be enjoyed by likes of Mr. Burton and the ADL if they ever get the power to enforce it.

Earlier this year, Burton and the ADL’s New England regional director, Robert Trestan went to the Boston police and falsely accused me of an anti-Semitic hate crime for sending them “emails that are offensive/ harsh in nature in regards to their work.” Ironically, in my harsh emails, I ridiculed them for being soft on leftist and Islamist anti-Semitism. Thankfully, once detectives from the Boston police civil rights unit learned from my attorney that I am a Jewish executive director of a Jewish organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism; they knew better than to get the law enforcement arm of government involved in this particular intrareligious feud.

Indeed, while they might well represent “the sensibility of the community,” Burton’s many anti-Semitism determinations over the years have been progressively diminished in practical value by a certain pattern. Joining me on Burton’s “anti-Semitism” blacklist so far are: President Trump, the Trump campaign’s closing ad, Trump’s speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump’s inaugural speech, Trump’s inauguration in general, Trump’s supporters, Trump’s Jewish lawyer, right-leaning Jews who argue with Burton on Twitter, right-leaning Jews who criticize ADL, Brexit leader Nigel Farage, the NRA, Glen Beck (and especially Glen Beck), Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, and the Tea Party.

Totally not anti-Semitic, however, according to Burton, are: Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, several Boston Muslim clerics who preach conspiracy theories about Jews, but whom Burton calls friends and teachers, pro-Hamas propaganda taught in Boston-area schools, Iran, Syrian refugees, the aforementioned Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) biggest booster in Congress, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA).

In some of his anti-Semitism determinations, Burton often allows that Ilhan Omar herself is anti-Semitic, but mention of this fact by a Republican in public will, predictably, be met by Burton’s “Stealers Wheel” argument. Both sides, left and right, claims Burton magnanimously, have their own anti-Semites. So far so good, but the Stealers Wheel argument ultimately depends on the psychologist’s fallacy -- that, far from being the clowns on the left that they have become in the Trump era, establishment Jewish “leaders who represent the sensibility of our community” are actually the saints stuck in the middle, objectively calling it like they see it, on the left and the right, as the world goes mad.

This fallacy is often on display these days when a Republican criticizes specific far-left Democrats as anti-Semitic, causing Jewish leaders who see themselves as Democratic Party activists to instinctively reject such criticism and then reassert their monopoly over making it. If the anti-Semitism charge is undeniable, as with Rep. Omar, the fallback position is to resort to circular reasoning and ad hominem. The Republican critic thereby “lacks legitimate standing” to bring charges of anti-Semitism because the Republican critic is himself anti-Semitic by virtue of being Republican. Through such rhetorical sleights of hand -- a little informal fallacy here, a little there -- anti-Semitism monopolists like Burton try to get away with defending Democratic anti-Semites like Omar and Tlaib without actually explicitly doing so. Burton rebrands this sophistry as “nuance,” noting with a sagely affectation that Jews and those who hate them are just “going to have to learn to talk to and hear each other as individuals and communities, and that includes coming to understand that we see the events of the past century or so [here referring to the Holocaust] in very different ways.” It’s a good thing David Irving’s lawyers didn’t think of this defense.

It doesn’t take a philosopher to see that Jewish Democratic hyperpartisans like Burton peddle their anti-Semitism determinations as weapons against Republicans and as shields for Democrats. Plato defined sophistry as a sort of cynicism about reality by those in the business of selling “merchandise of the soul which is concerned with speech and the knowledge of virtue.” The anti-Semitism denunciation, or “determination” as Burton euphemistically puts it, is, for good and bad, a valuable weapon in American society and a powerful symbol of virtue when once used by Democrats in good faith and in better times. These days, mainstream Jewish leaders and groups, no longer hiding their full transformation into a spiritual wing of an unrecognizably radicalized Democratic Party, demand a monopoly on this weapon; not to call out the real enemies of their people, but to deploy it against their party’s enemies, their people be damned.

When a propagandist sells sophistry for political gain, a monopoly on legitimate speech is vital to his business model. Otherwise, reality and truth intrude, and devalue the political gain to be had from lying. Like Pravda articles in fin de siècle Soviet society, Burton’s tweets and the ADL’s anti-Semitism determinations can sometimes result in ridicule by “fringe elements of the Jewish community” -- as Burton refers to his Jewish critics. Because propaganda cannot compete with reality on fair terms, the monopoly must be enforced by other means, to the point of baiting the police, as agents of state-sanctioned violence, with false hate crime denunciations.

Robert Trestan, not coincidently, has, for decades, led the ADL’s national efforts to criminalize and ban disfavored speech online. The ADL lobbies American government at all its levels, including the tech companies that quasi-govern the online landscape and the financial companies that quasi-govern our spending, to criminalize or otherwise suppress speech that Democrats do not like. This tactic is an old trick, based on the hoary claim that dissenting speech threatens or incites violence. For his ancient hate speech crimes against sophists and mainstream religious authorities, Socrates was denounced and silenced by his own hand, as forced by the law enforcement arm of the Athenian government. His student Xenophon recorded: “Words like [his], according to the accuser, tended to incite the young to condemn the established constitution, rendering them violent and headstrong.”

In some ways like the doomed Athenians of Socrates’s time, who destroyed their community while repressing internal enemies and ignoring threats from external ones, Burton, Trestan, and the other Jewish sophists play a dangerous game. By inflating its meaning to encompass their political enemies, including Jews on the right, they embezzle the gravest term of opprobrium that can be wielded by the Jewish people, and devalue it into their own worthless political plaything. With leaders like these, some non-Jewish people might, at some point, stop buying our community’s opprobrium for what it used to be worth. When that happens, Burton and Trestan will likely be fine; “the institutions and leaders who represent the sensibility of our community” provide them with excellent physical and emotional security. More likely, it will be the “fringe elements of the Jewish community” -- the Trump-supporting Jews, the Chabad rabbis, the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox, the deplorable “West Bank settlers,” and the Zionist kids on college campuses -- who will, at least at first, pay the price for what our sensible mainstream leaders squandered.

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