On Bari Weiss, “Ritual Defamation,” and the end of Jewish Culture. Part 1
This article will place the recent attack by Bari Weiss of the NYT on the Palestinian feminist activist Linda Sarsour into a larger Jewish context. I will argue that Sarsour is a victim of “ritual defamation.” I will then compare the tactics used against Sarsour by Weiss to similar examples of ritual defamation in the recent past. I conclude by assessing the damaging impact of this means of discourse on Jewish culture and the state of Israel.
From “The practice of Ritual defamation” by Laird Wilcox
The Degeneration of Belief: Compiled By Laird Wilcox
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“It’s important to recognize and identify the patterns of a ritual defamation. Like all propaganda and disinformation campaigns it is accomplished primarily through the manipulation of words and symbols. It is not used to persuade, but to punish. Although it may have cognitive elements, its thrust is primarily emotional. Ritual Defamation is used to hurt, to intimidate, to destroy, and to persecute, and to avoid the dialogue, debate and discussion upon which a free society depends. On those grounds it must be opposed no matter who tries to justify its use.”
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To begin, let’s look how political theorist Laird Wilcox defined “defamation” in the “ritual defamation” term he coined:
.. the central element is defamation in retaliation for the real or imagined attitudes, opinions or beliefs of the victim, with the intention of silencing or neutralizing his or her influence, and/or making an example of them so as to discourage similar independence and “insensitivity” or non-observance of taboos. It is different in nature and degree from simple criticism or disagreement in that it is aggressive, organized and skillfully applied, often by an organization or representative of a special interest group, and in that it consists of several characteristic elements.”
Wilcox gives 16 elements to “ritual defamation.” I quote them when I think it will help readers understand what they’re witnessing. Element 12 is
12. An interesting aspect of ritual defamation is its universality. It is not specific to any particular value, opinion or belief or to any group or subculture. It may be used either for or against any political, ethnic or religious minority and also by any political, ethnic or religious minority.
In each of the following “ritual defamation” cases, we see right-wing Jewish partisans deploy ritual defamation on people with whose politics they disagree. It’s important to emphasize that in all the examples I give, most people other than ritual defamers, don’t recognize much if any wrong doing by the target of the “ritual defamation.”
And that’s the first matter to notice about the Linda Sarsour brouhaha. Most Jews don’t have a problem with her. Whatever misdeeds she is being accused of don’t cause run-of-the-mill Jews concern.
In June, more than a hundred liberal Jewish leaders issued a statement, not condemning her, but instead her treatment by Jewish critics.
100 Prominent Jewish Leaders Condemn Attacks On Linda Sarsour
More than 100 Jewish leaders condemned attacks on Linda Sarsour, the Palestinian-American activist whose Thursday…
“We will not stand by as Sarsour is falsely maligned, harassed and smeared, as she, her organization and her family suffer vicious public threats and intimidation,” the letter reads. “We unequivocally oppose these assaults against her, and publicly state our commitment to working alongside her for a more just and equal society.”
And in response to the Weiss piece Steven Davidson in the Forward found
the “unending obsession (with Sarsour) baffling:”
“The fevered pitch of the articles against her seems to have no basis in reality. You may not like her politics. You may not agree with BDS. But it is inarguably nonviolent. Why the hysteria?”
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Yet, Jews of a certain persuasion act as if Sarsour is public enemy #1:
The reason for this discrepancy over Sarsour is explained by understanding why she is being defamed.
What Linda Sarsour did or didn’t do is irrelevant; the goal is to make her Palestinian perspective taboo. We see more evidence that Bari Weiss has that frame of mind from her description of Congressman Keith Ellison in her same “hate” article. How does Weiss refer to Congressman Keith Ellison?
“Recall that only a few months ago, Keith Ellison, a man with a long history of defending and working with anti-Semites, was almost made leader of the Democratic National Committee.”
To be clear, Bari Weiss is calling Keith Ellison an “anti-Semite.” Non-anti-Semites don’t “defend” and “work with” anti-Semites. But the question that arises is that we know Keith Ellison is not an anti-Semite. Listen to the Jews who know him best:
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That Ellison is not an anti-Semite earns him no protection from ritual defamers like Weiss. The reason is because, like Sarsour, Ellison is experienced as being on the other side of political issues Weiss feels strongly about. Here is Wilcox:
“In a ritual defamation the victim must have violated a particular taboo in some way, usually by expressing or identifying with a forbidden attitude, opinion or belief. It is not necessary that he ‘do’ anything about it or undertake any particular course of action, only that he engage in some form of communication or expression.”
It is noteworthy that Weiss’s conscience is clear, that NYT readers will leave her “hate” column believing Keith Ellison hates Jews. Anti-Semitism is a stain Ellison will never remove. Think of the real world “hate” Weiss intended for Ellison. But Keith Ellison being a “Muslim peacenik,” as JJ Goldberg called him, offered him no protection from Weiss. Because from Weiss’s right-wing Jewish perspective, Keith Ellison has a “forbidden attitude, opinion or belief” that must be made taboo.
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The next example of ritual defamation was what happened to Georgia Rep Hank Johnson last year. While giving his impression of a trip to the Israeli occupied territories, the soft-spoken member of the House Armed Services Committee, said this:
“There has been a steady [stream]– almost like termites can get into a residence and eat before you know that you’ve been eaten up and you fall in on yourself– there has been settlement activity that has marched forward with impunity and at an ever increasing rate to the point where it has become alarming,”
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If in a moment of frustration with Netanyahu’s settlement policy, Lyndsay Graham, or another strong supporter of Israel, would have uttered the same words as Johnson, the word “termites” would have been ignored. But since Johnson is seen as a political or cultural threat “termites” becomes a pretext for “ritual defamation.”
Using Rep. Johnson's innocent comment to stain his reputation was the real crime
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It should go without saying that “termites” meant nothing to him or his politically progressive audience. This pattern is seen often. It is the ritual defamers themselves who call the cultures attention to something that would otherwise go unnoticed. Adam Kredo of the Free Beacon has a keen eye for “ritual defamation” opportunities:
Congressman: Jewish Settlers Are Like Termites
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When looking at the “hysteria” that ensued from “termites” it’s worth keeping in mind the 2nd ritual defamation element:
2. The method of attack in a ritual defamation is to assail the character of the victim, and never to offer more than a perfunctory challenge to the particular attitudes, opinions or beliefs expressed or implied. Character assassination is its primary tool.
Let’s pick up the story when the generous Johnson, taking the termite sensitivity at face value attempts an apology:
Johnson didn’t realize that criticizing settlement activity in apology for “termites,” might be worse than original sin of “termites”
Johnson bringing up settlement construction while apologizing for termites led to a doubling down on the ritual defamation of Hank Johnson. Here is Rabbi David Wolpe in Time magazine
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“On Monday a Democratic U.S. congressman said that Jewish settlers in Israel were “like termites.” Now, you might be tempted to not take Rep. Hank Johnson from Georgia seriously if I explain that this is the same congressman who expressed a fear in 2010 that the island of Guam might capsize if it were overpopulated. But he is on the House Armed Services committee. And a penchant for foolish statements does not excuse an anti-Semitic smear.
“Apparently he apologized. Or did he? This was his tweet: “ @ ADL_National Poor choice of words — apologies for offense. Point is settlement activity continues slowly undermine 2-state solution.” The Anti-Defamation League tweeted back that they “appreciate” his clarification. That would have been far more convincing had the congressman apologized, but he did not. To apologize for “offense” is to say you are sorry that someone else feels the way they do. That is not an apology. “I am sorry I said something stupid and anti-Semitic” — that would have been a fitting apology.
“These are not trivial issues. We are a half century away from millions of human beings who were designated as “vermin” and killed. When people say the Nazis “exterminated” Jews they unwittingly appropriate this insect metaphor. To call Jews “termites” is base and vile.
Ritual defamation element nine informs what’s going on here:
9. Any explanation the victim may offer, including the claim of being misunderstood, is considered irrelevant. To claim truth as a defence is interpreted as unrepentance and only compounds the problem. Ritual defamation is not necessarily an offence of being wrong or incorrect, but rather “insensitivity” and failing to observe social taboos.
Connecting him to the Jewish Holocaust is the price Hank Johnson paid for criticizing settlement activity.
Notice in all this talk of termites Johnson’s complain about settlements never discussed. Element three explains why:
3. And important rule is to avoid engaging in honest debate over the truthfulness or reasonableness of what has been expressed, only condemn it. To debate opens the issue up for examination and discussion on its merit, which is just what the ritual defamer is trying to avoid. The primary goal is Censorship and Repression.
When the ADL and Wolpe finally accepted Johnson’s “apology,” it was still not the end of the story for the poor congressman:
The 'Termite' Infamy and the Jews
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Again, the reason Johnson’s apology is falling on deaf ears is because he’s apologizing for termites, but his real crime is seeing the world from the Palestinian perspective. Listen to how Mark Levin talks about Johnson and you will hear for that sin there is no forgiveness. Think of the terrible hate that is spread against the innocent Hank Johnson by Levin:
Now using Wilcox element 5 we see an interesting similarity between the Sarsour and Johnson cases.
5. An attempt, often successful, is made to involve others in the defamation. In the case of a public official, other public officials will be urged to denounce the offender. In the case of a student, other students will be called upon, and so on.
Why did Bari Weiss tell the National Review podcast audience she wrote the piece?
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“I wrote the piece to find out what Kirsten Gillibrand has to say about all this. Her, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi… If I can get a reaction from Kirsten Gillibrand to this piece, that would be a goal.”
And look at these Weiss tweets to progressive Jewish leaders:
Now contemplate this RJC tweet and its obvious the same motivation behind Weiss’s denunciation demands is behind this one too:
From the standpoint of the RJC a Georgia democratic congressman speaking about the march of West Bank settlement construction must be dehumanized (I am curious how Jason Greenblatt and the RJC would answer if pointedly asked what exactly Hank Johnson did wrong.)
The next incident of “ritual defamation” we will examine is the Abbas poison water controversy.
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“The goal of every speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to an international audience is to push his cause. That was the case with his speech to the European Parliament last week.”
And in that June 2016 speech Abbas mistakenly repeated an accusation against Israel he thought was true; that settler rabbis called on the Israeli govt to poison Palestinian water. Like “termites,” this was used as a pretext to further demonize Abbas. (The story was likely planted by settlers themselves to provoke the “blood libel” “anti-Semitic” poison water accusation https://www.richardsilverstein.com/2016/06/20/whose-hoax-is-this/ )
What happens next should be familiar from the “termite” incident. Just like with Johnson’s “termites,” “poison water” meant nothing to Abbas amid all the other complaints against Israel that he was listing. Like Johnson, Abbas’s tried to apologize for any insensitivity:
“Palestine is the cradle of the three monotheistic faiths. We stand strongly against any attack on any religion,” read the statement released in English. “President Mahmoud Abbas has affirmed that he didn’t intend to do harm to Judaism or to offend Jewish people around the world.”
Netanyahu’s non-acceptance should look familiar:
“Abu Mazen again proved that he isn’t interested in direct negotiations with Israel, and worse than that, he is spreading despicable lies about Israel and Judaism,” Netanyahu said at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, referring to Abbas. “While he was quick to issue a feeble, half-hearted apology, what he said is compatible with the things he’s said at other opportunities, including at the UN, and people can conclude from this who wishes to advance peace and who doesn’t.”
Influential American Jews and organization that see the world like Netanyahu joined the ritual defamation:
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See how even this NYT story takes the “ritual defamation” perspective as the “news” of the Abbas mistake
Mahmoud Abbas Claims Rabbis Urged Israel to Poison Palestinians' Water
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The transgression in all these examples is looking or even peeking from the wrong side of the Israeli/Palestinian divide. That’s the reason for the false “anti-Semite” accusations we have seen. The people doing the “ritual defamation” associate their own political positions, their own ideological agendas, their own interests with high principles and moral clarity. That’s likely why they feel no guilt for their behavior.
It would be a mistake to make too much of the religion and race as reason for Sarsour, Ellison, Johnson, and Abbas being unfairly maligned. People like Bari Weiss find anyone who muddies the moral waters of the I/P discourse threatening. But the biggest threat to world view of rightwing Jews come from fellow Jews.
That’s what was so significant about the Jewish presidential candidate Bernie Sanders position on Israel.
He was introducing moral nuance into the discourse. When Sanders said, “Netanyahu is not always right” during his debate with Hillary Clinton before the New York primary last year, he was threatening a cultural revolution. “Netanyahu is not always right” is wrong answer if “who’s side are you on?” is question. The introduction of nuance by Sanders threatens the morally black and white way most “pro-Israel” commentators see and describe the conflict. Sanders was taking a “anti-Israel” stand and defending it on moral grounds. The resulting “hysteria” in instructive.
When Sanders changed political reality. And hasbara culture slapped him down.
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Like Sarsour, Ellison and Johnson, Sanders got placed on the other side, with the enemies of Israel, with those “who sanctify death and cruelty” as Netanyahu put it. But Bernie Sanders poses a unique challenge because he is Jewish. Bernie Sanders, an American Jewish senator was legitimizing the Palestinian perspective.
We shall see from the “hysteria” over Sanders that open-minded Jews pose a distinct threat to the Jewish right: because it’s easier to convince yourself and others that African Americans and Muslims like Sarsour, Ellison, and Johnson are “anti-Semites” than everyone’s favorite Jewish uncle. What then happened was Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness was turned against him. He was “ritually defamed” as a “self-hating” Jews.
Imagine this scene: an exhausted Sanders in a New York Daily News editorial in the heat of the 2016 primaries was asked about the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict and this is what happened:
“Help me out here because I don’t remember the figures,” he said before saying his recollection was that 10,000 Palestinians were killed. He then immediately added, “Does that sound right?” The interviewer did a quick search and found that, in fact, more than 2,000 Palestinians were killed and 10,000 were wounded. The United Nations has estimated that 2,104 were killed, including 1,462 civilians. Understanding that his recollection was about the total number of casualties, not the death toll, the senator immediately accepted that correction and the discussion moved onto other topics
When Sanders changed political reality. And hasbara culture slapped him down.
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Simple enough, right? Sanders knows a sickening number of people died in Gaza during the last war. As Stalin supposedly said “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” The difference between 2000 & 10,000 is just a number they are both hard to conceive. That is the “meaning” of the Sanders mistake as understood by serious people.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post pushed the story that the Sanders 10k mistake was all signal. As reading please notice how much worse Jonathan Greenblatt , the head of the ADL, whom Rubin quotes, makes the Sanders error than it was.
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“Today he (Sanders) got a reprimand from the Anti-Defamation League, which put out a statement:”
[Sanders] called Israel’s actions during the 2014 war in Gaza “disproportionate” and greatly overstated Palestinian civilian casualties, saying “my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza.”
“Even the highest number of casualties claimed by Palestinian sources that include Hamas members engaged in attacking Israel is five times less than the number cited by Bernie Sanders,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “As Mr. Sanders publicly discusses his approach to key U.S. foreign policy priorities, including Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, accuracy and accountability are essential for the voting public, but also for U.S. credibility in the international community. We urge Senator Sanders to correct his misstatements.”
The quote “my recollection is over 10,000 innocent people were killed in Gaza” is there to make it seem like Sanders “asserted” it rather than Sanders correcting himself as soon as he says it. Also see how Greenblatt makes Sanders number even “worse than Hamas;” implicitly suggesting Sanders consciously said ten thousand Gazans were killed.
We face the same question about Sanders Steven Davidson asked in the Forward about Linda Sarsour: “why the hysteria?” Why impugn ugliness to Sanders when none existed? The answer is by seeing the Palestinian perspective Rubin and Greenblatt of the ADL feel the need to make Sanders and his point of view taboo.
The day after Rubin had Sanders “slapped down” in her column, he faced “denunciations.” Notice how Rubin deceitfully accuses Sanders of “exaggerating” Gaza number.
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As we noted yesterday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got slapped down by the Anti-Defamation League concerning his remarks in a disastrous New York Daily News interview. He characterized Israel’s response to Hamas shelling of Israeli citizens as disproportionate and exaggerated the casualty total in Gaza, a war provoked by Hamas’s targeting of civilians. Now historian and center-left politician Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, is denouncing Sanders’s remarks:
First of all, he should get his facts right. Secondly, he owes Israel an apology. . . . He accused us of a blood libel. He accused us of bombing hospitals. He accused us of killing 10,000 Palestinian civilians. Don’t you think that merits an apology?”
Calling Michael Oren a “center-left” politician is dishonest. But if helps destroy Sanders the ends justify the means.
The dehumanization of Sanders was just beginning:
Jaime Kirchick has shown himself to be a very effective “ritual defamer;”
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“A more revealing aspect of the Sanders phenomenon concerned his notorious interview with the Daily News editorial board, in which he incorrectly asserted that 10,000 civilians had been killed in the 2014 Gaza War. After Sanders consulted with the Anti-Defamation League, his campaign revised the number down to the United Nations estimate of some 1,500 civilians”
This is a fabrication by Kirchick, it's not what happened. Now read how Sanders and his supporters are portrayed by Kirchick:
“Bernie Sanders and his Jewish devotees can distance themselves from Israel and Zionism all they want. But as has always been the case, it will make no difference to the people they are trying to please, who continue to reduce them to a single factor of their identity which in their minds has attained the totalizing force of an epithet: Jew.
This idea that Sanders and his Jewish “devotees” are fixated on pleasing the never satisfied anti-Semites, and that’s what’s motivating their politics is not Kirchick’s epiphany. It is the go to trope used to discredit Jews on the left:
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The way Sanders was treated after his daily news interview was not because of anything he did or said but for telling American political culture there is another perspective, the Palestinian one. That’s why he was treated like a “worse than kapo” Jew.
Rubin’s use of “slapped down” and “denunciation is not an accident;” that’s the language of ritual defamation.
To further hammer my point home. Is “10 thousand” really the reason why Bernie Sanders needed the secret services to restrain irate Brooklyn assemblyman Dov Hikind, in a Brooklyn courtyard, while he was hollering “blood libel” at the Jewish nominee for president?
But it is Dennis Prager in National Review that takes the “self-hating Jew, and “auto-anti-Semite” concept to its logical conclusion. If Bernie Sanders is to be made taboo, what better way to do it than use well known anti-Semitic tropes against the Jewish candidate for president:
Bernie Sanders, the Non-Jewish Jew and Non-American American
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This is how Prager begins “Bernie Sanders, the Non-Jewish Jew and Non-American American:”
“Cut off from his own roots, he wants others to be alienated, too.”
“If you want to understand Bernie Sanders, this is what you need to know: He is the quintessential modern identity-free man. He is a non-Jewish Jew and a non-American American.
And it doesn’t get any less goebbelsesque from there:
“Bernie Sanders is a milder version of these radical non-Jewish Jews. He, too, is alienated from his Jewish and American origins. And that explains his attitudes and policies: People with no national or religious roots who become politically active frequently seek to undermine the national and religious identities of others, especially those in their own national and religious group. In the case of Sanders, that means Jewish and American identities.”
Similar shocking anti-Semitic tropes against the Israeli left are seen in Israel too: (where we will spend more time in my part 2)
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But it isn’t “radical non-Jewish Jews” Jews that bring out the most venom from right-wing Jews. Because there are other Jews that are even more threatening to their worldview.
To be continued.