Logic Fail

05.29.13

Netanyahu’s Fallacious Anti-Semitism Arguments

I am never so happy to have done a degree in philosophy as when I am listening to one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speeches. Philosophy programs train you to detect logical fallacies, and Bibi’s speeches are often full of them. His pre-taped video address to the opening session of the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem on Tuesday is no exception.

The prime minister begins by warning his audience that anti-Semitism is “becoming fashionable again.” Let me be clear right off the top: he’s not wrong. Surging European anti-Semitism is a real phenomenon—just ask the Jews in Hungary or France—and anti-Semitism across the globe is, and should be, cause for concern. The problem is that Netanyahu habitually conflates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. Here, he begins with the premise that modern-day anti-Zionism is really just anti-Semitism in disguise:

After the rise of Israel, what is fashionable today is to say, “Well, I don’t hate Jews, I just don’t think they should have a state.” Or, effectively, that their state is an illegitimate one that doesn’t have the right to exist.

Video screenshot

Prise apart those two sentences—which are actually very different, despite that “effectively”—and you’ll quickly see that neither of them is inherently anti-Semitic (though, of course, you may sometimes hear them coming out of the mouths of anti-Semites). You may disagree with these statements, but that doesn’t mean they’re not perfectly valid, coherent, reasonable points of view. And it doesn’t mean they’re expressions of latent anti-Semitism. That term is (or should be) reserved for those who hate and demonize all Jewish people, not those who take issue with the idea of a Jewish nation-state. Plenty of respected Jewish thinkers didn’t think the Jews should have a state all their own—Martin Buber and Albert Einstein both advocated the creation of a binational state instead—and that certainly didn’t make them anti-Semites. As for the idea that Israel is an illegitimate state that doesn’t have the right to exist—again, whether you agree or disagree, you have to admit that the idea simply has nothing to do with hating Jews. It has to do, instead, with differences of opinion over the political and legal legitimacy of how the state came to be.

Netanyahu then says that “three arguments are put forward by the anti-Semites all the time, and they’re false all the time.” First, that Israel is guilty of war crimes; second, that Israel is expansionist, doesn’t want peace, and never agrees to compromise; and third, that Israel is guilty of human rights violations. Even before we dig into Bibi’s rebuttals of these three claims, his assertion that they’re all false “all the time” should already send our antennae shooting up. And then the rebuttals themselves come flowing in, and it all goes from bad to worse, as far as logic is concerned. 

Faced with the charge that Israel is guilty of war crimes, Bibi points to Palestinian terrorists and rocketeers, arguing that the ones doing the accusing are themselves war criminals—as if one group’s culpability necessarily exonerates the other. Faced with the charge of Israeli expansionism, Bibi says that Israel has made many concessions; that’s true enough, but again, the fact that Israel has in the past agreed to compromise and the fact that Netanyahu’s government is demonstrably committed to expansionism are hardly mutually exclusive. Finally, faced with the accusation that Israel is guilty of human rights violations, Bibi cites Israel’s free press, court system, and protection of minority rights—all of which are certainly praiseworthy democratic features—as if those features somehow ensure that human rights violations simply cannot be taking place anywhere in Israel. He also points out that hundreds of people are massacred daily in neighboring regimes—again, as if that means that Israel cannot also be guilty of human rights violations.

And then he gets to the big kahuna, the main claim, stating that all these accusations are “part and parcel of the anti-Semitic campaign that is leveled against the Jewish people and their state.” The implicit argument here is that Israel represents the Jewish people as a whole—that it speaks for all Jews everywhere—even, presumably, Jewish anti-Zionists.

This claim offends me as a Jew, because I know that Judaism is about so much more than Jewish nationalism as expressed in the contemporary state of Israel. The two are in no way coextensive, and the former does not necessarily entail the latter: not all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews.

Even worse, the philosophy major in me is just as offended. It’s bad enough that finding logical fallacies in Netanyahu’s speeches is like shooting fish in a barrel. But the fact that all the fallacious arguments to be found in this speech are actually made in the name of “the battle for truth” not only makes me cringe—it makes me want to start drawing up truth tables. When these sorts of claims are passed off as rigorous, and are then echoed by other Israeli politicians—Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett said that “modern anti-Semitism is being anti-Israel” and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin said that blaming Israel “for all that is wrong” is tantamount to “blaming the collective Jew”—it’s a sad day for logic and for anyone who honestly values the truth.