The Real Anti-Semitism According to the Anti-Defamation League

In 1982, Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter published a book titled The Real Anti-Semitism in America. Nathan was at the time the national leader of the Anti-Defamation League.

From Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (1999)


In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League is regarded as a civil libertarian organization, at one time, a deserved reputation. Now, it specializes in trying to prevent critical discussion of policies of Israel by such techniques as maligning critics, including Israelis who do not pass its test of loyalty, distributing alleged “information” that is often circulated in unsigned pamphlets, and so on. In Israel, it is casually described as “one of the main pillars” of Israeli propaganda in the United States. Seth Tillman refers to it as part of “the Israeli lobby.”

The Perlmutters cite studies showing that whereas anti-Semitism “was once virulent” in the U.S., today there is little support for discrimination against Jews; there may be dislike of Jews, anti-Jewish attitudes, etc., but then much the same is true with regard to ethnic and religious groups quite generally. What then is “the real anti-semitism,” which is still rampant, in fact perhaps more dangerous than before? The real anti-Semitism, it turns out, lies in the actions of “peacemakers of Vietnam vintage, transmuters of swords into plowshares, championing the terrorist PLO…” The Perlmutters fear that “nowadays war is getting a bad name and peace too favorable a press…” They are concerned by “the defamations by the Left of the promptings for our warring in Vietnam and latterly…their sniping at American defense budgets…” “Beyond oil it is the very ideology of the liberals in which peace, even if it is pockmarked by injustice, is preferable to the prospect of confrontation that today imperils Jews.” Similarly, Jewish interests are threatened “by this decade’s Leftists, here and abroad, as they demonstrate against and scold the United States for its involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador.” Jewish interests are threatened because the Central American dictators have been friends of Israel—friendship which has been and is being reciprocated with much enthusiasm, though the Perlmutters do not discuss these facts, which help explain why victims of Somoza and the Salvadoran and Guatemalan generals are not friends of Israel, not because of anti-Semitism, but for quite understandable reasons; peasants being massacred with Israeli arms or tortured by military forces who boast of their Israeli training and support are not likely to be friends of Israel. According to the Perlmutters, such groups as the National Council of Churches also threaten Jewish interests by calling on Israel “to include the PLO in its Middle East peace negotiations.” “Apologists for the Left—like those for the Right—have frequently rationalized anti-Semitism or indifference to Jewish interests as being merely a transitory phase,” but Jews should know better.

Throughout, the argument is that Israel’s interests—understood implicitly as the interests of a rejectionist Greater Israel that denies Palestinian rights—are the “Jewish interests,” so that anyone who recognizes Palestinian rights or in other ways advocates policies that threaten “Israel’s interests” as the authors conceive them is, to paraphrase Stalinist rhetoric of earlier years, “objectively” anti-Semitic. Those who are “innocent of bigotry” are now placing Jews in “greater jeopardy” than traditional anti-Semites, with their advocacy of peace, criticism of U.S. interventionism, opposition to bloodthirsty tyrants and torturers, etc. This is the “real anti-Semitism,” and it is exceedingly dangerous. So the Anti-Defamation League has its work cut out for it.

The Perlmutters deride those who voice “criticism of Israel while fantasizing countercharges of anti-Semitism,” but their comment is surely disingenuous. The tactic is standard. Christopher Sykes, in his excellent study of the pre-state period, traces the origins of this device (“a new phase in Zionist propaganda”) to a “violent counterattack” by David Ben-Gurion against a British court that had implicated Zionist leaders in arms-trafficking in 1943: “henceforth to be anti-Zionist was to be anti-Semitic.” It is, however, primarily in the post-1967 period that the tactic has been honed to a high art, increasingly so, as the policies defended became less and less defensible.

Within the Jewish community, the unity in “support for Israel” that has been demanded, and generally achieved, is remarkable—as noted, to the chagrin of Israeli doves who plausibly argue that this kind of “support” has seriously weakened their efforts to modify harsh and ultimately self-destructive government policies. There is even a lively debate within the American Jewish community as to whether it is legitimate to criticize Israel’s policies at all, and perhaps even more amazing, the existence of such a debate is not recognized to be the amazing phenomenon it surely is. The position that criticism is illegitimate is defended, for example, by Elie Wiesel, who says:

I support Israel—period. I identify with Israel—period. I never attack, never criticize Israel when I am not in Israel.

As for Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, Wiesel is unable to offer a comment:

What to do and how to do it, I really don’t know because I lack the elements of information and knowledge… You must be in a position of power to possess all the information… I don’t have that information, so I don’t know…

A similar stance of state-worship would be difficult to find, apart from the annals of Stalinism and fascism. Wiesel is regarded in the United States as a critic of fascism, and much revered as a secular saint. The reason generally offered in defense of the doctrine that Israel may not be criticized outside its borders is that only those who face the dangers and problems have a right to express such criticism, not those who observe in safety from afar. By similar logic, it is illegitimate for Americans to criticize the PLO, or the Arab states, or the USSR. This argument actually extends a bit more broadly: it is legitimate—in fact, a duty—to provide Israel with massive subsidies and to praise it to the skies while vilifying its adversaries, particularly those it has conquered, but it is illegitimate to voice any critical comment concerning the use of the bounty we provide.

Thanks for reading,

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