We would be better off – much better off – if we did not use words like ‘misogynistic’ or ‘anti-Semitic’. One refers to an adverse view of women and the other refers to an adverse view of Jewish people. But each term is used adversely to its subject and the range of conduct that might give rise to such a comment is so wide that such a comment is likely to be as unfair as it is vague. When I say that words like ‘misogynistic’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ are used adversely to their subject, I mean that we think it is wrong for people to assess the character of a person by reference to what some might see as the characteristics of other people from the same group – like women or Jewish people. Decent people do not judge others by stereotypes.
Yesterday Mr Henry Ergas published a column headed ‘Why casual bigotry of Obama’s slur must be called out’. The memoir of Mr Barack Obama referred to Mr Nicholas Sarkozy as ‘a quarter Greek Jew’. He has ‘dark, expressive Mediterranean features’ resembling the figures of ‘a Toulouse – Lautrec painting’ and ‘all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric’ reflecting unbridled ambition and incessant pushiness’ while his conversation ‘swoops from flattery to genuine insight.’ These comments, which seem to me to be fair, leaped out at Mr Ergas and led him to compare those remarks to the insults ‘notoriously hurled at Benjamin Disraeli, the first person of Jewish birth to become Britain’s prime minister.’ (I might make two observations. First, I greatly admire both Disraeli and Obama as statesmen of great character; one reason for my admiration is that both had to overcome real prejudice to get where they did. Secondly, only one epithet leaped out of the page for Mr Ergas – ‘Greek’ and ‘Mediterranean’ apparently made no impact on Mr Ergas at all.) Then we get:
…..if anti-Semitism involves using the label ‘Jew’ to evoke, emphasis or explain an inter-related complex of unattractive attributes, as Gordon Allport suggested in his classic book on The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Obama’s snide description of Sarkozy is unquestionably anti-Semitic.
Now, one might dismiss that as a mere blemish in an extremely lengthy volume. It is however indisputable that had Sarkozy’s flaw been that he was black, gay, or Muslim, each with its associated stereotypes, the slur would have unleashed storms of protest…..In reality, the only roar was of a deafening silence. From the New York Times to The Washington Post and beyond, not one of the gushing reviews considered Obama’s statement even worth mentioning.
In part that reflects the normalisation of casual anti-Semitism on the ‘progressive’ side of politics.
Mr Ergas went on to refer to a column by Mr Bret Stephens (whom I much admire) in the Times linking anti-Semitism to the criticism of Israel and anti-Zionism in ‘the left-leading media.’
Yet the left’s problem with Jews goes well beyond the blurring of the lines between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism.
He went on to refer to the benefits conferred by religion – principally for the West it seems, although both relevant faiths came from the East – and makes two further criticisms of ‘the left’ and says that it and Mr Obama are ‘trivialising faith.’
So Mr Ergas says that Mr Obama cast a ‘slur’ on Mr Sarkozy, that the epithet ‘quarter Greek Jew’ ascribed a ‘flaw’ to Mr Sarkozy, and that in its context that epithet entails the conclusion that Mr Obama used the label ‘Jew’ to ‘evoke, emphasise or explain an inter-related complex of unattractive attributes.’ And what is more – that conclusion is unquestionable, indeed indisputable.
The short answer is that the matters of fact alleged by Mr Ergas against Mr Obama are not in my view sufficient to warrant the conclusion that is alleged. And, after all, what is being alleged is a slur on Mr Obama that entails that his character suffers from a serious flaw. You may recall that Mr Ergas says that ‘had Sarkozy’s flaw been that he was black, gay, or Muslim, each with its associated stereotypes, the slur would have unleashed storms of protest…’ It does look like the position of Mr Ergas may be circular – he appears to be saying that by describing someone as Jewish, you are invoking the stereotypes that come with that label. You might also recall that the terms ‘Greek’ or ‘Mediterranean’ don’t apparently come with same heavy baggage.
But in my view, there is more than a non sequitur here. How does Mr Ergas arrive at his conclusion against Mr Obama? He comes to that conclusion because this is just what he has come to expect from a person who belongs to or comes from the ‘left’ or ‘progressive’ side of politics. Neither of those terms is defined, and both are vague, but to adopt what I said above –
When I say that words like ‘misogynistic’ and ‘anti-Semitic’ are used adversely to their subject, I mean that we think it is wrong for people to assess the character of a person by reference to what some might see as the characteristics of other people from the same group – like women or Jewish people. Decent people do not judge others by stereotypes.
In other words, Mr Ergas can only support his conclusion adverse to Mr Obama by resorting to exactly the kind of prejudice that he alleges against Mr Obama.
Indeed, what we have is a good example of the kind of commentary that disfigures our public life now – an adverse conclusion based on inadequate evidence; a conclusion alleged with total confidence; an absence of restraint; a one-sided and coloured view in a battle of us versus them; we are right and they are wrong; and appeals to mythical history.
In other words, we have a celebration of prejudice. I will not therefore comment on the venomously dangerous suggestion that an adverse comment on Israel or Mr Netanyahu may warrant a charge of anti-Semitism. It is all very sad, but some readers apparently go for this sort of stuff. The letters of congratulation have started already