Editor’s Note: Jonah’s midweek G-File usually goes to paid members only. We’re sending this to you today because it’s an important contribution to the conversation on the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Enjoy!
Structural racism means different things to different people. But here’s a serviceable definition from the Aspen Institute, hardly a hotbed of conservatism:
Structural Racism: A system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. It identifies dimensions of our history and culture that have allowed privileges associated with “whiteness” and disadvantages associated with “color” to endure and adapt over time. Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead it has been a feature of the social, economic and political systems in which we all exist. [Emphasis mine]
Fair definitions of systemic and institutional racism, as well as sexism, track with this. These notions emerged from critical race theory and other projects intended to explain disparities in outcome when no racist intent could be found. While I have many disagreements with people who make a living using these ideas as cudgels, I am also perfectly willing to concede that there are many examples of structural, systemic, and institutional racism. Although, if you search for “examples of institutional racism” on Google, a great many of them don’t conform to this definition. Most of the examples here, for instance, are just examples of racism, full stop. You don’t need modifiers to the word “racist” when describing slavery or Jim Crow.
When Pete Buttigieg said there was systemic racism built into American infrastructure, he was roundly mocked by some people on the right. But he was right. Across the nation, roads, railroad tracks, dams etc. were constructed in ways that disproportionately and adversely affected black communities. Sometimes, the intent was primarily racist, sometimes it was incidentally so. Building a road through a poor community with little political clout is easier than building one through a community with lots of political clout. You don’t need a Ph.D. in American history to know that black communities were disproportionately poorer and less powerful than many white communities.
That said, whatever the original intent was 50 or 100 years ago, that doesn’t mean a transportation official who maintains those roads today is racist himself. Similarly, “food deserts” and affordable housing are real problems that disproportionately affect poor urban areas that tend to be populated by “black and brown” communities. The zoning policies driven largely by affluent white (and usually progressive) NIMBY-ism are often to blame. But that doesn’t make the city councils of New York or San Francisco racist.
But this isn’t a “news”letter about structural racism or the inherent discrimination built into urban zoning and infrastructure. It’s about geopolitical structural antisemitism.
The late Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the U.K., argued antisemitism is a virus that mutates over time (watch this excellent six-minute video for his full argument). He notes that in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were hated for their race (and, I would add, in some places for their culture). Today, they’re hated for their state. For Sacks, the thing that binds all three notions together is the idea that Jews should not be allowed to live collectively as Jews.
There are legitimate objections to this argument. I don’t think everyone who hates—never mind criticizes—Israel is antisemitic. If that were true, a great many Jews in the United States (and even in Israel) would qualify as antisemites.
And that brings me to structural antisemitism: According to Sacks, there are 159 nations that can be called “Christian nations,” and 56 that can be called “Muslim nations.” I think this is a little glib in that not all of the Christian nations are organized as such, and there are also about a dozen Muslim-majority nations that have ostensibly secular regimes. But it’s definitely true that there’s only one Jewish nation-state.
And the rules for Israel are different.
Right now, China has a gulag archipelago of concentration and reeducation camps for Muslims. It is well into its fourth decade of ethnic cleansing in Tibet. Outrage over these facts has increased in the last year or so, but it would have to quintuple and quintuple again to reach the institutionalized outrage Israel is subjected to constantly. Saudi Arabia has been doing in Yemen what Israel is routinely—and falsely—accused of doing. Burma’s treatment of the Rohingya is far more brutal than the worst excesses—real or even alleged—of the Israel Defense Forces. How often do you hear speeches about that from the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes and Cori Bushes of the world?
Consider the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, which routinely attracts the worst human rights abusers in the world in a geopolitical version of regulatory capture. By any objective metric, it is institutionally obsessed with Israel. It is the only country in the world that is a permanent agenda item for the council.
The invaluable U.N. Watch database shows that since 2015 alone, the Human Rights Council has issued condemnations for:
Russia: 12 times
North Korea: six times
United States: seven times
Syria: eight times
China: zero times
Pakistan: zero times
Venezuela: zero times
Libya: zero times
Cuba: zero times
Turkey: zero times
Zimbabwe: zero times
And Israel? 112 times.
In 2020 alone, it received 73.9 percent of all condemnations by the U.N. General Assembly.
You could say that Hamas launched another war against Israel earlier this month. But that would miss the crucial point that Hamas is always at war with Israel. Its stated public aim is the destruction of the state of Israel and the murder or expulsion of its Jewish inhabitants. It just sometimes holds off shooting for a while. Regardless, it started this latest conflict (and all the while, Israel has never started a war, though it has finished quite a few).
Over the last two weeks, Hamas launched some 4,000 rockets at Israel. Most of them have been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, and a few have malfunctioned and fallen on Palestinians within Gaza. Israel has launched heavy airstrikes at lawful military targets—such as rocket stockpiles, weapons caches, and Hamas leaders. When there’s a reasonable expectation that doing so will kill civilians, the IDF drops leaflets or calls occupants of buildings to warn them. As David French—who served as a military lawyer in Iraq—notes, this is not only consistent with the laws of war, it’s a much higher standard. That’s not what the U.S. did in Iraq, and America’s practices are far more enlightened than Russia’s, China’s, Saudi Arabia’s, et al. Maybe we fall short of Canada, I don’t know. But you get the point.
And yet, if Israel’s critics on social media (and also in Congress and in the press) are to be believed, Israel deserves the lion’s share of the blame. Iron Dome was built primarily to protect Israeli civilians from indiscriminate killing, because Hamas’ rockets aren’t guided missiles. In fact, they aren’t even remotely accurate; they consider a blown-up grade school to be every bit as much of a win as a blown-up tank. But Iron Dome was also built—with the support of the Obama administration—to make far deadlier responses from Israel unnecessary. If Israel didn’t have Iron Dome, it would have to take much harsher actions against Hamas.
That’s the thing. Israel has to do what it can to stop attacks on its own people. There isn’t a government in the world that has a different perspective or policy. Since the first city-states were created—ironically in that neighborhood—the first obligation of any state has been to defend its inhabitants from outside aggression. But when Israel does it—and really, only when Israel does it—those behind that decision are painted as the villains. When Hamas launches missiles and Iron Dome stops them, Israel is in the wrong. Where’s Gaza’s Iron Dome? Well, as Yair Rosenberg notes, Gaza’s Iron Dome is not launching rockets at Israel. Israel gets attacked. Israel responds to the attack. And its response is the thing that angers people and shout “genocide”—which is a particularly grotesque thing to say about a nation born out of the Holocaust.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was appalled by President Biden’s statement that Israel has a right to self-defense. I don’t think Ocasio-Cortez is an antisemite, but I do think she’s perpetuating structural antisemitism. When she says it’s simplistic to say that Israel has a right to defend itself, she’s clearly right in a sense. It is simple: Israel has a right to defend itself.
But what she and countless others are arguing is that Israel has no right to act like a normal country. You don’t have to hate Jews to believe that the only Jewish country in the world is also the only country in the world that can’t behave like a normal country and defend its citizens. But the policy that flows from that argument is, in important ways, antisemitic—even if it isn’t intended as such.
That, by the way, is what Israel wants to be—a normal country. But it’s stuck in an abnormal predicament. Obviously it has never been perfect. Obviously it has made mistakes, most of which were apparent only in retrospect. And obviously there are Israelis who have bad ideas and bad intentions. Again, though, this is true of every country, normal and abnormal. (And yes, obviously the plight of the Palestinians is lamentable.)
But when people point to the fact that Israel is militarily more powerful than its neighbors, they make it sound like this is somehow unfair. On several occasions, Israel’s neighbors have declared war on Israel with the intention of destroying it. Those countries could afford to lose those wars—and they did—but Israel couldn’t, because to lose once is to lose for all time. If you know everybody in your neighborhood wants to kill you, you’re not the bad guy for being better armed than your neighbors.
Oh, I should add, Israel doesn’t just want to be a normal country. It wants to be a normal democratic country governed by the rule of law, and it wants to be a Jewish country. It strives to reconcile all of these desires, which is why the freest Arabs in the Middle East are Israeli Arabs who enjoy the same rights as Israeli Jews. Israeli Arabs are in the Knesset. Israeli Arabs criticize Israel all of the time, almost as much as some Israeli Jews do. None of this is true in Gaza or the West Bank (and the Arab countries in the region aren’t much better). Hamas wants the whole region to be Judenfrei.
You’re free to argue that the region should be rid of the Jews because the Jews are “colonizers.” The key problem with that argument, though, is that it’s hogwash. The only independent state that ever existed in what the Romans dubbed the territory of Palestine was a Jewish state. Yes, there have been non-Jews in that region for a long time. But Jews have been there at least as long. (I’m always amazed by people who seem to think Judaism is a younger faith than Islam or Christianity, or that the Hebrews are some sort of Western implant.) You can argue Israel has no claim to a nation on that ground. But by that logic, no one does.
The legal case that ignited all of this centers on six families living in properties once owned by Jews. Note the term “legal case.” It’s been wending its way through Israeli courts for decades. Do you think Hamas would defer such decisions to lawyers and judges? Again, when Israel tries to do things the right way, it’s proof to many critics that the nation is wrong.
And if you always start with assumption that the Israelis are wrong, or if you always end with that conclusion regardless of the facts, you may not be antisemitic, but you’re on the side of structural antisemitism.