Focus below the line: Guardian readers ‘reflect’ on Israel and the Jews (June 18)

This post is part of a series which will re-focus on the problem of biased moderation at the Guardian’s blog ‘Comment is Free’ (CiF) – particularly, reader comments which are off-topic, ad hominem or antisemitic, and yet not deleted by their team of professional moderators.

All of the following reader comments have been posted under ‘CiF’ op-eds which have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

It starts here with a commenter with the moniker ‘StephenStafford‘:

09 June, 6:43pm


09 June, 6:34pm


09 June, 6:49pm


09 June, 5:36pm


09 June, 2:44pm


The thread continues with a commenter named Morgenrot.

 10 June, 6:18pm


11 June, 8:56pm


11 June, 7:04pm


11 June, 7:04pm


11 June, 3:06am


Again, none of these comments have been deleted by ‘CiF’ moderators.


Israel boots Wagner: Harriet Sherwood chides state for uniting behind its Holocaust survivors

A guest post by Gidon Ben-Zvi, an Anglo-Israeli writer who blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind.

German Composer Richard Wagner

On Tuesday June 5th, the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent Harriet Sherwood reported that Tel Aviv University had denied the request of the Israel Wagner Society to have an Israeli symphony orchestra perform works by Hitler’s favorite composer Richard Wagner (Tel Aviv Wagner concert cancelled after wave of protest).

The university announced that it would not permit a scheduled Wagner concert to take place on its campus after vehement public protests.

Tel Aviv University accused Yonathan Livni – the founder of the Israel Wagner Society – of deliberately concealing the intention to perform Wagner compositions. The university also claimed that Livni did not mention the name of the organization he represented.

 Ms. Sherwood’s reporting of this story is riddled with subtle distortions and logical fallacies which should be examined.

First off, Ms. Sherwood repeatedly used the term ‘boycott’ without further elucidation. The ‘boycott’ is not official and in fact the Israeli Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that it is not illegal to play Wagner in Israel. Rather, the ban is merely a custom that goes back to the founding of the Jewish state.

Next, she refers to this “unofficial boycott” of Wagner and draws an elegant parallel between it and the BDS Israel campaign which, after all, also has the word ‘boycott’ in it. Specifically, Sherwood quotes Mr. Livni, who responded to Tel Aviv University’s decision thus:

“The issue is that here is an academic institution that is threatened daily with boycotts because of Israel’s policy in the occupied territories doing exactly the same thing: imposing a boycott.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote the following:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

While the BDS Israel movement seeks to purge Israel, both inside and outside of the ‘Green Line’, of every last vestige of Jewish character and sovereignty, Israel’s unofficial Wagner ban serves as a crucial reminder that ideas have consequences — and that those who spread evil ideas should be held responsible for their consequences.

And this dovetails into Ms Sherwood’s next logical evasion.

The tired “divide man from his art” cliché’ is invoked in this quote, once again courtesy of Mr. Livni:

I have no regard for the composer – he was the worst kind of anti-Semite and I despise him. But God gave him a wonderful gift with which he wrote this beautiful, sublime music.

Simply put, none of this is about Wagner’s music. Rather, it’s about the strength and corrosive influence of his ideas. While Richard Wagner lived decades before the birth of Nazism, his influence on the National Socialist movement and especially on its leader was enormous.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that Wagner was one of “the great warriors in this world who, though not understood by the present, was nevertheless prepared to carry the fight for their ideas and ideals to their end.”

Wagner’s music was prominently featured at Nazi Party functions. And the operatic festival that he founded at Bayreuth in 1876 became a citadel of racism and reaction, and the cultural showpiece of the Third Reich and Hitler’s artistic centre.

Upon coming to power in 1933, Wagner’s works were used by the Nazi regime as part of its plan to ‘Nazify’ German culture.

In some Nazi concentration camps prescribed music was forced on the inmates by way of radio or gramophones that played over permanently installed loudspeakers.

The music, which included the works of Richard Wagner, was used along with propaganda speeches in order to re-educate the inmates. As such, the argument can be made the Wagner’s music served as soundtrack to many who lived through, and died during, the Holocaust.

Later in the article Ms Sherwood once again cites the eminently quotable Mr. Livni:

It was hypocritical of Israelis to boycott Wagner but ride on German-built trains and drive German-made cars, and for the state to buy German submarines…

The Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany  was signed in 1952 in order to:

“…address the calling for moral and material indemnity … The Federal Government are prepared, jointly with representatives of Jewry and the State of Israel … to bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”

Although public debate in Israel was among the fiercest in the nation’s history, the aim of the reparations was undeniably to address and perhaps begin to come to terms with one of the great human tragedies ever known. While a blunt and highly controversial tool, reparations that sought to seek a smidge of redemption for an irredeemable act of cruelty were guided by a higher moral imperative.

What does this have to do with Wagner being performed in Israel?

Those who advocate for Wagner compositions being performed in the Jewish State usually rely on the ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ argument.  Whether or not one concurs, this focus on the aesthetically pleasing attributes of Wagner’s works is devoid of any appeal to redemption, forgiveness or spiritual healing.

By politicizing history in order to bludgeon Israel into illegitimacy, Ms. Sherwood does a disservice to the discipline, whose purpose is “…to reconstruct the past as accurately as the intelligence of the historian and the fullness of the historical sources permit…”

Guardian reader comment of the day: Where Greek neo-Nazis aren’t too concerned with Jews

Flag of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party

Today’s ‘ Comment is Free’ piece “Open Letter: We are all Greek Jews” of May 28th, signed by Benjamin Abtan, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Elie Wiesel, Amélie Nothomb and others called on Europe to reject the Greek neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, which entered the Greek parliament this month.

Golden Dawn’s leader Nikos Michaloliakos

The letter warns that “the [neo-Nazi Greek Golden Dawn] party is the lineal heir of the German national-socialist party that led Europe and the world into chaos and bloodshed.”

The specter of a resurgent neo-Nazi movement in Europe would seem, at first glance, an anomaly and almost reads as fiction. However, as the open letter notes:

“Greece is not the only country threatened by this revival of Nazi ideology. In Latvia this year, the president of the republic has for the first time supported the annual former Waffen SS march.

In Austria the FPÖ, an extreme right organisation that nurtures Third Reich nostalgia, is favourite in the polls for the next parliamentary elections. In Hungary, the Hungarian Guard Movement, descendant of The Arrow Cross party – the former militia responsible for the extermination of Jews and Gypsies – terrorises Jewish populations and holds direct responsibility for provoking deadly attacks against Roma people.”

The following is a recent interview with Nikos Michaloliakosis – the leader of Greece’s Golden Dawn movement which will occupy 21 seats in the Greek parliament after winning 7% of the vote in the May 6 elections.

While this blog has often argued that Guardian readers are much more comfortable condemning right-wing antisemitism than the Islamist variety, note that the following comment, greatly downplaying even the former, garnered 113 ‘Recommends’. 

Stunning, really: a reader who questions the antisemitic bona fides of an extremist European movement which possesses a swastika-inspired emblem, enforces a  Hitlerian salute, references Mein Kampf, endorses racist ideology, and trades in Holocaust denial.

It makes you wonder what precisely it would take for some Guardian readers to see the hideous Jew hatred squarely in front of their face. 

Guardian changes course & (permanently) removes Gilad Atzmon’s book from their online shop

H/T Al

A quick summary:

Within 24 hours of our post in October of 2011 on the fact that the Guardian’s online bookshop was selling Gilad Atzmon’s egregiously antisemitic book, The Wandering Who?, they removed the book from their shop.

However, as we noted recently, at some point following October the Guardian placed the book back on their online shop.

Last week, however, we learned that, following an email exchange with the Guardian’s book editor by a CiF Watch reader, the Guardian reversed course and, noted that “The Wandering Who has now been removed from the Guardian Bookshop site”. They attributed the availability of the book to “a problem with [their automated] feeds.”

Yesterday, Chris Elliott, the Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, addressed the issue in “…On the inclusion of controversial titles in our bookshop“, March 11.

Wrote Elliott:

If you put the words Mein Kampf into the search function of the Guardian’s online bookshop you get two editions offered for sale…the second carries the following text:

“Hitler’s infamous political tract…contains a detailed introduction which analyses Hitler’s background, his ideology and his ruthless understanding of political power.”

It espouses a rabidly antisemitic view of the world among other things….I am entirely convinced that it is a book that should be available to be read because it has an important lesson from history; suppression would only lend an unjustified mystique. In this area waders or a wet suit are more suitable than a standard pair of wellington boots to navigate through the depths of this subject. 

Should every book legally published be available in the Guardian’s online bookshop? This is where it becomes even more difficult. Part of me says, yes. I am opposed to the suppression of books and believe in the power of readers to make rational and intelligent decisions. Bring things into the light. But even where the sale of a book is legal, there will always be a selection process. Where the Guardian is involved in that selection process, it has the right to do what all good bookshops do and select what it offers according to its own principles such as when it is publishing its own books. Where the Guardian is not involved in selecting the title, then it has a duty to tell potential shoppers that that is the case.

…Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? was removed because of the controversy it has caused. Atzmon says he is anti-Zionist but he has been accused of making antisemitic remarks, including past praise for the “prophetic qualities” of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a falsified tract purporting to show plans for Jewish domination of the world that was written by agents of Tsarist Russia. [emphasis added]

…After strong protests last November about the inclusion of Atzmon’s book in the Guardian’s online bookshop, we removed it from the electronic feed but it was later restored on our bookshop lists and therefore other newspapers’ feeds. One reason was the technological problem but the others were considered to be broader issues. At the time Guardian executives considered that:

• If a book is removed, the impression may be created that the Guardian “approves” of all the other books on the Guardian’s bookshop feed.

• Removing a book lends an unjustified cachet to it.

When the book was restored to the list, a much clearer explanation of what the list represents for the Guardian was used:

“In addition to our recommendations, our browsable selection of books also includes a feed of the top 5,000 bestselling titles through independent booksellers (not including Amazon) as supplied by Bertrams. Inclusion in this automated feed does not necessarily denote recommendation by GNM.”

Now the book is off the list again following renewed protests.  It will remain so. [emphasis added]

While I applaud their decision to remove Atzmon’s book from their shelves, it is necessary to address Elliott’s comparison with Mein Kempf.  As Elliott noted, the synopsis of Mein Kempf on their site notes, “Hitler’s infamous political tract…contains a detailed introduction which analyses Hitler’s background, his ideology and his ruthless understanding of political power.”

That is, the book is being characterized as a hateful book, whose availability is owed to its historical significance in understanding the Nazi regime’s murder of six million Jews.

The Guardian synopsis of Atzmon’s book, however, included the following:

So, the publisher’s synopsis characterized an overtly antisemitic book – by an author who has claimed that Hitler’s views about Jews may one day be proven right, and who explicitly charges that Jews are indeed trying to take over the world – as a “unique crucial book” which tackles the issues of Jewish “ideology and their global influence”. [emphasis added]

Finally, unsurprisingly, a Guardian reader wrote the following below Elliott’s post:

Yes, the Guardian cravenly caved to the weight of “pressure” exerted by groups who fight antisemitism!

As I noted in a subsequent comment on the thread, the word “censorship” refers to a government which legally prohibits certain books from being sold. What we’re dealing with here is an independent bookseller making the decision not to sell a truly vile book. That is their right. 

As I’ve argued before, if David Duke’s books (or books by the BNP, or other extremist groups) were among the top 5000 in their automated feed, would the Guardian be obligated to sell them?  

Of course not.

“Censorship” or “Zionist pressure” has absolutely nothing to do with it.

On the anniversary of Mein Kampf: Anti-Semitism, “the hate that dares not speak its name.”

In attempting to understand and contextualize contemporary anti-Semitism – particularly its manifestation at the Guardian and Comment is Free – it’s important to understand the often misunderstood connection between what it was (historically) and what it now is.

Walter Russel Mead is one of the few bloggers who can claim the mantle of public intellectual. His blog, at the site of The American Interest, is must reading for those who seek to be informed on current events with the immediacy of a blog, and the erudition of a genuine scholar. Indeed, Mead is recognized as one of America’s leading experts on American foreign policy.

Mead is a Democrat who voted for Barack Obama.

Mead’s latest post, The Hate That Dares Not Speak It’s Name“, notes, about Mein Kampf:

“The Bible of the Nazi movement was published in July of 1925 [and] you could still buy it at the international airport newstand in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur — along with other classics of anti-Semitism like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the collected rants of Henry Ford in the Dearborn Independent.”

Mead continues:

When Hitler wrote, it was still socially OK to be an anti-Semite.   In some circles it was mandatory.  As a consequence of Hitler’s life’s work, it is now as unfashionable to be an anti-Semite as it is to name your child Adolf.

The truth is that anti-Semitism is alive and well and not even particularly rare; it’s just that many of today’s anti-Semites like to think of themselves as enlightened, modern people and get all huffy and hissy if anyone accuses them of prejudice in any form.  Many who in past times would have been open and honest about their anti-Semitism, now try to hide the truth even from themselves.

Mead then continues by listing the various views consistent with modern anti-Semitism:

1. Jews are more clannish than other people and act in concert to support a specifically Jewish agenda.

2. Jews deploy extraordinary wealth with almost superhuman cunning in support of the Jewish agenda.

3. As a religious and national minority, Jews cannot flourish without attacking the traditional values of their host society.  In every country Jews seek to weaken national culture, religion, values and cohesion.

4. Jews are not a national group or a people in the way that others are; they do not have the same right to establish a nation-state that other peoples do.

5. Where Jewish interests are concerned, the appearance of open debate in our society and many others is a carefully constructed illusion.  In reality, Jews work together to block open debate on issues they care about and those who resist the Jewish agenda are marginalized in public discussion.

Mead continues:

Since Hitler’s death, the world has defined anti-Semitism down.  Nurturing ancient fantasies of secret Jewish cabals that control the media and play politicians like puppets on a string, and making political judgments based on these fantasies isn’t sort of or almost anti-Semitic.  To believe that Jews control public discourse and the media and bend the gentile masses to their sinister agenda is the essence of old-fashioned anti-Semite.  In some countries these beliefs are so common that they are no longer recognized as an aggressive and communicable mental disease.  These ideas have become so widely accepted that they are seldom questioned or examined;

On the anniversary of Mein Kampf‘s publication people of good will everywhere should remember the need to fight one of the most vicious forms of prejudice that the world has ever known. Prejudice never recognizes itself; anti-Semites honestly think their delusional beliefs about Jews are simple, obvious truths.  They are not; all five of those beliefs are demonstrably false.

While, as I’ve noted continually, the Guardian’s biggest anti-Semitic sin is their sin of omission – failing to recognize and report explicit and quite ubiquitous anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world – it is important to note that they are also often guilty of licensing narratives at CiF which advance the argument that Jews “do not have the same right to establish a nation-state that other peoples do” (Mead’s #4), as well as the increasingly banal but no less insidious argument that organized Jewry works in concert (typically described as the “Israel Lobby” or “Jewish Lobby” in a context denoting its injurious influence) “to block open debate on issues they care about and those who resist the Jewish agenda are marginalized in public discussion” (Mead’s #5).

Mead concludes:

Anti-Semitism is real, it is murderous, and it is very much with us today.  Speak the truth and shame the devil.  Whatever your religion, your politics, your views about Israeli policy, fighting anti-Semitism is part of what it means to be a decent human being.

Mead’s moral imperative represents, as eloquently as I could ever state, the mission of this blog.

What anti-Semitism is, and what it isn’t

This is cross posted at Divest This!

Given how often the topic is brought up in the comments section of this blog, readers might be surprised to know that in the hundreds of articles and blog entries I’ve written over the years on the subject of BDS, I have yet to accuse those involved with the so-called Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment “movement” of being motivated by anti-Semitism.

Part of the reason for this is metaphysical. After all, to truly know the motivation of those I oppose politically would require the ability to look into someone else’s soul, a gift I have been denied along with the rest of humanity. How much easier it is to simply point out the dishonest, selfish and bullying actions of BDS practitioners and allow readers to draw their own conclusions (or, if they prefer, guess at the boycotter’s internal motivations).

Another reason is practical. For in the last few decades, the Israel-disliking community has developed and honed a narrative that says every criticism leveled against them (regardless of its content or accuracy) is really nothing more than direct or masked accusations of anti-Semitism, designed to shut them up and smear their noble cause. The fact that this is simply another projection (since BDSers routinely accuse their opponent of bigotry at the tiniest provocation, such as using the word “Arab” in a sentence) does not change the fact that accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism (in addition to being un-provable) runs the risk of triggering this well-rehearsed martyrdom defense.

But the biggest reason I avoid such accusations is philosophical and to describe it I must again draw from that unending font of wisdom on this and other subjects, Harvard’s Ruth Wisse.

In Wisse’s groundbreaking work “If I am not for Myself” (the controversy around its subtitle subject: “The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews” put aside for purposes of this discussion), Wisse posits two different phenomenon traveling under the name of “anti-Semitism.”

The first is a garden variety personal hatred of Jews, comparable to other forms of bigotry directed at blacks or similar minorities, a loathing (like all bigotries) formed of ignorance and insecurity, either at an individual or cultural level.

But “anti-Semitism,” according to Wisse, also describes a fully-formed ideology, comparable not to other types of racism, but to the nastiest ideologies of the past, notably the Twentieth Century’s totalitarian movements such as Fascism and Communism.

Like these movements, ideological anti-Semitism provides its adherents with a full-fledged world view, one in which all of history can be boiled down to a struggle between those in whom all virtue is held (normally the groups adhering to anti-Semitic ideology) and the shadowy evil – the Jews – standing behind everything wrong on the planet.

As an ideology, anti-Semitism is a call to action, not simply a paranoid delusion. And this action involves organizing, empowering and (frequently) arming oneself to fight this hideous evil that threatens all mankind.

While cultural factors clearly play a role in this dynamic, a much more critical motivation behind anti-Semitic ideology is the huge gap between the power of the mystical Jews in the anti-Semites imagination and the actual highly limited power of real Jews. This disparity allows the anti-Semite to arm him or herself for a struggle against a foe whose actual power to resist is highly limited in real-world (vs. imaginary) terms. And thus, anti-Semitic ideology allows the anti-Semite to play the hero, while actually living as a bully. And once forces have been gathered far in excess of what is needed to keep down real-world (vs. fictional) Jews, it’s a simple matter of using that force to seize wider, even ultimate, power.

This is why the last century’s totalitarian movements, whether Nazi or Marxist, were either born or died steeped in anti-Semitic word and deed. And this is why this century’s remnants of those movements (in the form of Arab dictatorships struggling for survival over the last month) and the Islamist totalitarians who hope to unseat them all compete with one another as to who can brand their opponents as tools of the all-powerful Jews.

The classical Jew-hating vitriol spewing from the Middle East like a modern day Vesuvius (including widespread publication and belief of classic anti-Semitic text such as Mein Kampf and theProtocols of Zion) is not simply a throwback to 20th century or even Medieval hatreds. Rather, they are practical means of uniting people in opposition to (and arming against) “The Jew,” then turning those gathered weapons against any and all opponents who (as it always turns out) are secretly in league with Hebraic evil.

As I join the rest of you watching the melt-down in the Middle East, bewildered by what might come next, the most critical metric to watch is whether the parties that come to power do so based on a platform of opposition to Zionism (the latest metaphor for Jewish wickedness). For this will truly dictate whether the millions who dwell in the Middle East are on a pathway towards positive change, or another violent and bloody Dark Age.

Given this profound reality, one more reason to avoid accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism is that they are such small beer in a much more profound struggle. That being the case, why give these self-centered losers credit for ideology that may very well be beyond their ability to comprehend?