The famous British philosopher Ted Honderich is threatening to sue the head of the Holocaust museum in Frankfurt, Germany, for calling him an anti-Semite. The director, Micha Brumlik, leveled the charge last week after Honderich's book, "After the Terror," was published in Germany in July. Suhrkamp, the publisher, has said it is taking the book off the market, though in practice this appears to mean Suhrkamp won't order a reprinting when the first printing of 3,000 is sold out. Germany's most eminent philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, has said he can find nothing anti-Semitic in the book, though he regrets any offense that may have been caused. Honderich is a resolute supporter of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood. But, as he emphasizes, he is in no way an anti-Semite, has a Jewish wife and stepchildren, and has always refused to lecture in Germany because of the Holocaust.

The fact of the matter is that anyone putting in a good word for the Palestinians learns swiftly to await the "anti-Semite" slur. Over the past 20 years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring out just how badly Israel is behaving. You see a brisk uptick in the number of articles here accusing the left of anti-Semitism. These articles adopt varying strategies, but the most obvious one is that nowhere in them is there much sign that the author feels it necessary to concede that Israel is a racist state whose obvious and provable intent is to continue to steal Palestinian land, oppress Palestinians, herd them into smaller and smaller enclaves, and ultimately drive them into the sea or Lebanon or Jordan or Dearborn or the space in Dallas Fort Worth airport between the third and fourth runways.

The real problem is most Jews here just don't like hearing bad things said about Israel, the same way they don't like reading articles about the Jewish lobby here.

Back in the 1970s, when muteness on the topic of how Israel was treating Palestinians was near total in the United States, I'd get the "anti-Semite" slur hurled at me once in a while for writing about such no-no stuff as Begin's fascist roots in Betar or the torture of Palestinians by Israel's security forces. I minded then, as I mind now, but overuse of the term has drained it of much clout. The other day I even got accused of anti-Semitism for mentioning that the Jews founded Hollywood, which they most certainly did, as Neil Gabler recently recounted in a very funny, pro-Semitic book.

So cowed are commentators (which is, of course, the prime motive of those charges of anti-Semitism) that even after the U.S. Congress not so long ago voted full-throated endorsement of Sharon and Israel, with only two senators and 22 U.S. representatives voting against, you could scarcely find a mainstream paper prepared to analyze this astounding demonstration of the power of AIPAC and other Jewish organizations lobbying for Israel.

The encouraging fact is that despite the best efforts of Morris Dees' Southern Poverty Law Center to prove that the Nazis are about to march down Main Street, there's remarkably little anti-Semitism in the United States, and none that I've ever been able to detect on the American left, which is, of course, amply stocked with Jews. The less encouraging fact is that there's not nearly enough criticism of Israel's disgusting conduct toward Palestinians.

Now, as noted above, being called an anti-Semite these days isn't what it was. Anti-Semitism, as Michael Neumann wrote in a recent brilliant essay on the theme, is "action or propaganda designed to hurt Jews, not because of anything they could avoid doing but because they are what they are."

But these days, people don't flourish the charge of anti-Semitism because they've heard someone quoting the Protocols or saying that the Jews kill Christian babies. Anti-Semitism has become like a flit gun to squirt at every inconvenient fly on the window pane.

I saw 2002 as a year when the Israel lobby was worrying that the grip of the gag rule might be loosening a trifle. Now, the original gag rule was adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1836, resolving that "all petitions, memorials, resolutions, propositions, or papers, relating in any way, or to any extent whatsoever, to the subject of slavery, shall, without being either printed or referred, be laid on the table, and that no further action whatever shall be had thereon."

The parallel gag rule these days, of course, concerns Israel, a collective agreement by our legislators and the larger political community that any discussion of the conduct of any government of Israel, of the relationship of the United States to Israel, of the power of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, be kept as near to zero as is possible.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I began writing on these issues, the gag rule was riding high, amid general agreement in respectable circles that Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was on the money when she declared flatly that there was no such thing as a Palestinian, and when Joan Peters got an enthusiastic reception for her book, "From Time Immemorial," which advanced the bold thesis that Palestinians in Israel were all relatively recent immigrants from adjacent Arab countries.

Things have improved since then, though not for the Palestinians, who in those days had U.N. Revolution 242 to comfort them, instead of the mini-Bantustans promised them in George Bush's "road map." Here in the United States, there's general agreement that there are people who can be fairly called Palestinians, though beyond this concession there's no agreement about anything, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly opines Israel stole the West Bank fair and square, and the Palestinians should quit being sore losers and move on. The more the gag rule slips, the more frantic and absurd the charges of "anti-Semitism" will become.

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor, with Jeffrey St Clair, of the forthcoming "The Politics of Anti-Semitism", published in October by CounterPunch/AK Press. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.