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Good Jew Bad Jew — Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning

May 6, 2024 at 10:31 am

Good Jew Bad Jew — Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning
  • Book Author(s): Steven Friedman
  • Published Date: November 2023
  • Publisher: Wits University Press
  • Hardback: 244 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1776148493

Is there any country in the world that openly and crudely defies the collective countries of the West but, in spite of that, continues to enjoy the status of their favoured and trusted ally? None, except Israel, claims academic Steven Friedman.

In his brilliantly detailed book Good Jew Bad Jew, Friedman unpacks skilfully the reasons why no other state would be able to perpetrate serial human rights abuses and still enjoy the uncritical support of all Western powers. Published in South Africa by Wits University Press, the book’s subtitle — Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning — provides an insight into a range of compelling topics covered by the author.

From the introduction, through its eight challenging chapters to the conclusion, Friedman has put together one of the most significant contributions to contemporary debates on Zionism and the “new anti-Semitism”. The wide-angle lens used by Friedman has been extremely crucial to get to the crux of the book which examines the impact of the Israeli state’s role on Jews and Jewish identity.

An interesting dimension he questions is why a wedge has been driven between discussions of anti-Jewish racism and racism against “black, brown and yellow” people. The explanation he provides is a fascinating yet accurate reflection of the manipulation by the Israeli state and its supporters who have, he claims, “converted ‘anti-Semitism’ from a description of anti-Jewish racism to a weapon against their critics, many of whom happen to be Jews who believe that the state’s attitudes and practices are racist.”

On the issue of “Good Jew Bad Jew”, which forms a recurring theme of the book, Friedman delves extensively into Jewish identity within the complexity of being both an ethnic group and a faith community.

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He writes that the use of anti-Semitism to browbeat opponents of the Israeli state is part of a larger reality. Those who do this “seek to change the nature of Jewish identity by distinguishing between ‘real’ Jews and the rest.” This means that, inevitably, some Jews may find themselves accused of being anti-Semites (as many, indeed, have).

In effect, therefore, only Jews who attach their identity to the Israeli state are “good”; those who do not, are “bad”.

His analysis of current trends based on a number of examples shows that the term “anti-Semitism” has become detached from its moorings. Friedman’s research on this emotional and at times explosive subject, is outlined in his view that anti-Semitism no longer simply applies to racism directed against Jews. It means holding left-wing or egalitarian opinions, which often seems to include being opposed to the white supremacy of which anti-Semitism was once a part, he explains.

Not surprisingly, he traces the roots of the “new anti-Semitism” to Israel in general and the ascendancy of the Israeli right wing in particular. If Zionism as the ideology that employed terrorism to create and underpin a state for Jews in historic Palestine was meant to be the antidote to anti-Semitism, it has failed. Friedman argues that such hopes were misplaced.

He writes that Zionism’s understanding of itself was that it was the vehicle for all Jews, not merely those Jews who supported the idea of a Jewish state. Hence, to reject the state — or even to criticise what it does — is to show hostility to all Jews, even if you happen to be Jewish, Friedman contends.

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By way of example, he cites the case of journalist and commentator Leon Wieseltier, known as a vocal and uncritical supporter of Israel, who was accused of being anti-Semitic by a senior editor of a right-wing American journal. This demonstrates the absurdity of “new anti-Semitism”.

“Just as branding Palestinian resistance as a form of Nazism buttresses the Israeli state, so does the claim that Jews who live outside it are constantly under threat because only the state can save Jews from a world filled with people who hate them,” writes the author.

In subjecting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism to scrutiny, Friedman dismisses it as inaccurate.

To illustrate how ridiculous it is, he writes that if the IHRA clause about denying that a particular state is a racist endeavour was applied to South Africa, it would have declared the struggle against apartheid to be a racist, anti-white movement. Which would be absurd, of course.

Good Jew Bad Jew — Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning

A view of a hardcover copy of ‘Good Jew Bad Jew — Racism, Anti-Semitism and the Assault on Meaning’

Friedman believes firmly that, instead of outlawing racism, the IHRA definition demonises anyone who refuses to accept the racist premise of the Israeli Nation State Law, which insists that the state of Israel is the exclusive property of Jews alone. This discriminates against the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are not Jews, but Palestinian Arabs.

The depth of research undertaken by the author on the themes he delves into is evident across the various chapters of the book. It is a fascinating study, the like of which is absolutely necessary in the current context of widespread global outrage over Israel’s horrific genocide in Gaza.

Friedman graciously acknowledges that the book’s title is inspired by Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim Bad Muslim. Although written more than two decades ago in the shadow of 9/11, and admittedly, as Friedman points out, covering very different ground, it does place the spotlight on identity, as does his discussion of Jewish identity in the book under review

The author deserves accolades for producing a fresh yet timeless study of a critical subject. He has sought to untangle the weaponisation of anti-Semitism and the politics behind such moves. His book is not only a testament to that, but also a valuable addition to the whole canon of Zionism studies.

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