The Politics of Self-Criticism: Cosby Gets Cheers, Lerner Gets Threats

Tuesday June 22, 2004

As a Jew who is critical of Israeli policy, I am no stranger to confrontation. Despite the strain I’ve placed on my personal relationships, despite having to stand alone in political debates, I have always been vocal in my defense of the cause of Palestine. A few weeks ago, however, I began to feel as though I was fighting a losing battle. It began to seem natural that everyone sticks by their group, right or wrong, as a simple matter of survival. Who was I to defy this basic law of human relations? This feeling nagged me until June 2, when I picked up an article entitled “Hooray for Bill Cosby.” 

Cosby’s comments at the May 17 commemoration of Brown vs. the Board of Education have received widespread attention. “The lower economic people are not holding up their end in this deal,” he said. Referring to a black youth shot to death by police for stealing a piece of pound cake, he remarked “what the hell was he doing with the pound cake in his hand?”  

Cosby’s statements implying that the ills of poor blacks are self-inflicted were met with virtually unanimous applause from the media. Dick Myer of CBSNews.com, in his May 26 piece praising Cosby, wrote that he expected to report on the controversy, but found that “there was no chorus of criticism.” DeWayne Wickham of USA Today wrote an article entitled “Cosby Isn’t Alone in Asking Blacks to Own Up to Problems.” Syndicated columnist Brent Bozell III wrote “An Ovation for Bill Cosby.” 

What an amazing double standard! When blacks criticize other blacks, they are praised for their “tough love” and for their courage in telling hard truths about their race. When Jews criticize Israel, however, they are ridiculed, labeled “self-hating Jews,” and even threatened with death. 

Though I find it disgraceful that successful writers should so unhesitatingly agree that institutional racism is dead, my purpose here is not to address that issue. Rather, I want to contrast media reaction when blacks and Jews, respectively, criticize other members of their race.  

Statements such as Cosby’s are unexceptional. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume commented: “Much of what he said I’ve been saying in my speeches.” 

Compare this with the treatment of “self-hating Jews.” Most often our activities are ignored by the media. When we do receive public attention, our views are mocked or obscured.  

Noam Chomsky, the most prominent Jewish critic of Israeli policy, has made note of Israel’s frequent disregard of U.N. resolutions and continuing illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. While Chomsky’s opinions on this complex issue are open to debate, the press rarely even engages his actual statements. Take Deborah Solomon’s interview with Chomsky in the November 2, 2003 issue of the New York Times Magazine. After some opening questions about Chomsky’s non-political work in linguistics, Solomon goes on the offensive:  

“Your father was a respected Hebraic scholar, and sometimes you sound like a self-hating Jew.”  

Chomsky responds: 

“It is a shame that critics of Israeli policies are seen as either anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. It’s grotesque. If an Italian criticized Italian policies, would he be seen as a self-hating Italian?”  

Solomon’s next question: “Have you ever been psychoanalyzed?” She ends the interview shortly by asking “Have you considered leaving the United States permanently?”  

Solomon doesn’t even do Chomsky the courtesy of criticizing his position. She goes straight into a personal attack, first calling him a “self-hating Jew,” then questioning his sanity, and finally implying that he should leave the country. A more striking contrast with the media’s uncritical approval of Cosby’s remarks could not be imagined. 

Opponents of Rabbi Michael Lerner, another critic of Israel’s policies, were not content with name-calling. In the July/August 2001 issue of Lerner’s publication Tikkun, he wrote: 

“…an Israeli website called “self-hate” has identified me as one of the five enemies of the Jewish people, and printed my home address and driving instructions on how to get to my home. We reported this to the police, the Israeli Consulate, and to the Anti Defamation League. The ADL said this was not a ‘hate crime’…” 

To date the ADL has not taken any action on Lerner’s behalf. Again, contrast with this the NAACP’s support of Bill Cosby, with Mfume even going so far as to echo Cosby’s statements. 

What are the reasons for this astonishing divergence? Cosby and Chomsky have both made roughly parallel statements criticizing other members of their ethnicity. Blacks and Jews both share a legacy of persecution. Both groups have a history of being betrayed by their own, and are leery of traitors. Cosby’s remarks establish that it’s well within the bounds of mainstream discourse to criticize one’s own race. Why, then, are American Jews prohibited from criticizing the State of Israel? 

The simplest explanation is that the powerless are easy to criticize and the powerful are not. Poor blacks make a soft target. Many of them are probably unaware of Cosby’s statements entirely, and none are in a position to bring any consequences down on him. The Israeli government, represented by the lobbying muscle of AIPAC, on the other hand, can make things very uncomfortable for its critics. 

Furthermore, it is in the interests of the business elites who hire and fire America’s pundits to discourage a costly effort to right systemic wrongs against people of color. Likewise, these elites surely want to safeguard their profitable relationship with the Israeli state, with its billions of dollars in defense and industrial contracts. 

As a Jew, I feel I have not only the right but the responsibility to speak out against injustices committed in my name.  


Oakland resident David Siegel is a writer and musician. He graduated from Columbia University in 2000.