For a few days last month, it seemed that John Mearsheimer had walked straight into a scandal of his own making, with no way out.
Over the previous five years, the University of Chicago professor and co-author of the much-maligned book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” had frequently faced the charge of anti-Semitism. Invariably, Mearsheimer indignantly dismissed this suggestion as monstrous.
And then Gilad Atzmon came along.
Atzmon is an Israeli-born jazz musician who currently lives in London. When he’s not blowing into his saxophone, he spends his time waging war on what he regards as the crime of all crimes — the continued existence of a separate Jewish identity, rooted in hostility to gentiles and embodied by the State of Israel, or “Isra-hell,” as Atzmon prefers to call it.
Atzmon has doggedly pushed his message through his writings and, on occasion, through his music. A few years ago, he set up an outfit named Artie Fishel and the Promised Band, whose schmaltz-soaked klezmer tunes were intended to demonstrate that anything carrying the label “Jewish” is — you’ve got it — artificial, kept alive only to perpetuate the anti-gentile ideology that is Judaism.
If Atzmon sounds like Larry David’s evil twin, be assured that he’s far worse. The kick he gets from needling Jewish sensibilities is the kick of someone who viscerally loathes the subject that produced him and now consumes him. When Atzmon traffics in anti-Semitic tropes — for example describing the “credit crunch” as a “Ziopunch,” or declaring that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is an accurate reflection of the global power of American Jews — he radiates the delight of someone liberated from a huge emotional burden.
Until now, Atzmon’s ravings have mainly been spread by various anti-Semitic and Islamist websites. Atzmon has never written for a serious publication, nor lectured at a reputable university. Most importantly, his intellectual contributions are utterly unoriginal, derived from two poisoned sources. When Atzmon separates the world into “organic” and “inorganic” (or artificial) nations, he echoes the propaganda of the Nazis. When he caricatures Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians as the modern incarnation of the Judaic racism expressed in the Talmud, he echoes the propaganda of the Soviet Union.
It is this background that explains the disbelief that first greeted John Mearsheimer’s dust jacket endorsement of Atzmon’s new book, “The Wandering Who.” Even Mearsheimer’s most trenchant critics speculated that the blurb was a ghastly mistake, and one that would fatally undermine his oft-stated insistence that he is not anti-Semitic.
But when Adam Holland, a respected and widely read blogger, e-mailed Mearsheimer to ask whether he was aware of Atzmon’s flirtation with Holocaust denial (“We should ask for some conclusive historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative,” Atzmon has written) and his recital of telltale anti-Semitic provocations (“Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their next-door neighbors?”), he received a disarming reply. Mearsheimer stood by his endorsement of Atzmon’s book.
A number of prominent commentators, among them Jeffrey Goldberg, Walter Russell Mead, the popular British blog Harry’s Place and even Andrew Sullivan, a previously reliable supporter of Mearsheimer, rushed to confront and condemn the professor. Still, Mearsheimer didn’t budge, insisting on the blog of his “Israel Lobby” co-author, Harvard University’s Stephen Walt, that Atzmon was neither a Holocaust denier nor an anti-Semite, but someone honestly wrestling with the question of “Jewish particularism.”
And there, more or less, is where the scandal petered out, forcing Mearsheimer’s detractors to consider the disturbing possibility that anti-Semitism is no longer that much of a scandal.
This conclusion, sadly, contains a good deal of merit. As far as large swaths of academia and the media are concerned, the victims of anti-Semitism are no longer Jews, but those unjustly accused of being anti-Semites.
The Atzmon episode takes this inversion one step further. So long as the target is Israel, or Zionism, or even Judaism as a set of ideas, anything goes; equally, any invocation of anti-Semitism on the part of critics is simply a smear to be dismissed.
Who, then, qualifies as an anti-Semite in John Mearsheimer’s world? One has to assume the bar is set very high: you would have to explicitly declare your hatred of Jews as individuals, for instance, or advocate that Jews should sit in separate subway cars. But if you use the Holocaust as a stick with which to beat the Jews, or slyly undermine its “narrative,” or assert that conspiracy theories bear some correspondence to reality, or argue that Jewish government officials are more suspect than others because of their dual loyalty to Israel, that’s not anti-Semitism, he would say — just an honest expression of legitimate opinions.
It’s worth remembering that when the term “anti-Semitism” was coined in 19th-century Germany, its authors were not Jews, but Jew-haters. They wore the badge of anti-Semitism with pride, creating political parties with such names as the “League of Anti-Semites.” The word was owned not by the victims, but by the perpetrators.
In that sense, nothing much has changed. The torrid controversies around anti-Semitism today indicate that the Jewish community has claimed neither the ownership nor the definition of the word. That’s why John Mearsheimer thinks his understanding of anti-Semitism is far superior to yours or mine. And that, you might say, is the greatest scandal of all.
Ben Cohen is a New York-based commentator who writes frequently on Jewish issues and Middle Eastern politics.