Commentary Magazine


Arguing Anti-Semitism

To the Editor:

My message, as far as Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article on anti-Semitism is concerned [“Israel and the Anti-Semites,” June] is, in apposite street language, come off it! Jews are not all that innocent and helpless. Three millennia of being God’s favorites have had their effect. Jews may stupidly pay one steep price for it, but it is their choice.

William B. Wilson
Pleasant Hill, California

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To the Editor:

I am stunned that Gabriel Schoenfeld had the temerity to quote Richard John Neuhaus’s article in the May issue of First Things so out of context and so piecemeal that his intent and views are seriously misrepresented. As a consequence, Father Neuhaus has been portrayed by Mr. Schoenfeld as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, which he emphatically is not.

I have followed Father Neuhaus’s writings in First Things and can only say that they always reflect his habits of candor and rigorous pursuit of truth wherever it may lead. Some of what he says about Jews, Episcopalians, Muslims, Mormons, (occasionally) Catholics, or others are consistent with his “no b.s.” manner, which may offend those who are used to the obfuscation and cant so widely disseminated in the media. We may or may not agree with all that Father Neuhaus says regarding Jews or Israel, but friends—and he is a friend to Jews—can have honest differences.

Mr. Schoenfeld has indulged in yellow journalism of the worst sort, damaging the integrity of COMMENTARY and the reputation of Father Neuhaus alike. I strongly believe that he is owed a full apology and retraction, though it is doubtful that Mr. Schoenfeld’s slander, for that is exactly what it is, can ever be rectified.

Stephen Hubert
Camarillo, California

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To the Editor:

In connection with “Israel and the Anti-Semites,” my grandfather, Mendel Beilis, was accused of ritual murder in Kiev just prior to the Russian Revolution. He never sought to be a martyr and suffered dearly throughout the ordeal, though the case did lead many Jews to leave Europe, saving them from the Holocaust. It is quite disgraceful that the Arabs are today bringing back the blood libel.

Jay Beilis
Oradell, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Is it better to ignore anti-Semitism or to fight it? I asked this question in Germany in my teens, but it was already too late. The murderous anti-Semitism promoted by Julius Streicher’s newspaper Der Stürmer was too big. But now, as the examples cited by Gabriel Schoenfeld show, simply saying “Never Again” about the Holocaust is once again not enough. For anti-Semitism itself has been redefined by the Holocaust: unless someone actually wants to kill Jews, he does not qualify as an anti-Semite. Hitler must be laughing in hell.

Emil L. Fackenheim
Jerusalem, Israel

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To the Editor:

Gabriel Schoenfeld’s article made me recall something I saw in Morocco in the summer of 1943, when I was nineteen. I had crossed the Atlantic as a replacement on the USS West Point and landed at Casablanca (I couldn’t find Rick’s café). There had been a three-day war with the French in November 1942 and the wreck of the French battleship Jean Bart lay in the harbor. We were taken to a tent city not far away. At dusk every evening, we would put on our helmets and run double-time down the highway east of the camp. At about our turning-around point, there was a black building or wall on which someone had painted, with a coarse brush, “Mort Aux Juifs” (“Death to the Jews”). No one erased it. Fortunately, none of our guys knew what it said.

Robert Kerr
Boulder, Colorado

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To the Editor:

I feel very close to the subject of “Israel and the Anti-Semites,” having spent the end of World War II in Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp for political prisoners where the inmates included the cream of the resistance in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. These men were heroes, unquestionably. Still, the fact remains that far fewer West Europeans chose to sign up with the resistance than with the German SS, especially in the period before it became evident that Germany would lose the war. The Jews of Europe could not have been rounded up without the cooperation of these indigenous forces, who on some occasions took direct responsibility for the task.

Only about a generation separates the age when Jews were depicted as sheep-like, frightened people led passively to their deaths from today’s portrayal of them as overaggressive brutes. The basic tenet pressed on Israel by so many, that concessions will bring peace and an end to hatred, was proved entirely wrong in Europe on the eve of World War II, with tragic consequences.

Ervin G. Erdös
Chicago, Illinois

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To the Editor:

In his excellent article on Israel and anti-Semitism, Gabriel Schoenfeld cites excerpts from the Guardian and the Evening Standard, British newspapers that attacked Israel’s incursion into Jenin last spring.

Interestingly, files from the British Mandate in Palestine opened in 1989 tell of an action the English themselves took against Arabs in that very same town of Jenin in 1938, after a British district commissioner was assassinated there. What remained of the city after the English went in with some 4,200 kilos of explosives to exact revenge was a “pile of mangled masonry.”

Judith Hirsch
Boca Raton, Florida

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To the Editor:

As Gabriel Schoenfeld points out, the European reaction to recent murderous attacks by Arab terrorists on Israelis was quite restrained—to put it nicely—but when the Israeli government finally took necessary steps of self-defense, suddenly the European “conscience” awoke and we witnessed the revival of the basest forms of anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, this shameful campaign finds ready support in the universities. Mr. Schoenfeld mentions the movement for divestment initiated by a group of faculty members at Harvard, MIT, and Princeton. Perhaps even more notorious is the petition published last April in the Guardian. Signed by 125 mostly British professors, the document calls for a moratorium on the awarding of grants to Israeli academics “unless and until Israel abides by UN resolutions and opens serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians, along the lines proposed in many peace plans including most recently that sponsored by the Saudis and the Arab League.” In this single sentence, historical truth is abused in the most shameful way.

What is especially appalling is that a number of Israeli academics also signed the document. Their signatures are just one more sign of how thoroughly some elements of the Israeli Left have lost any connection with the harsh and dangerous reality facing their own country.

Boris A. Kushner
University of Pittsburgh
Johnstown, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Gabriel Schoenfeld identifies something new about today’s anti-Semitism: “the left-wing strain, the strain that loathes the Jews not on explicitly racialist or religious grounds but on ‘universalist’ ones.” It is imperative to understand the roots of this peculiar ideology that extends tolerance to every stripe of humanity except the Jews.

For nearly two decades, the World Core Curriculum, conceived by the UN and based on the teachings of the occultist Alice A. Bailey, a mid-20th-century proponent of universalism, has been adopted by progressive educational institutions around the world. What is not recognized is that in her other writings, including her “divine plan” for global harmony, Bailey held that the Jews constituted one of four “world problems” that must be “solved” before the “new age” can dawn for humanity. Bailey called Israel a “real danger to world peace and human development . . . mark[ing] a point of triumph of the forces of evil,” and explained that “the Zionist dictators . . . were attempting (somewhat unsuccessfully) to be to the Jewish people what . . . Hitler and his gang have been to their people.” It is not widely appreciated how many contemporary liberals were exposed to the World Core Curriculum in their formative years, acquiring through it a deep admiration for Bailey and her various teachings.

Hannah Newman
Ariel, Israel

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To the Editor:

Gabriel Schoenfeld’s provocative and disturbing article raises a number of questions that merit further consideration. First, if public opinion in America at some point were to shift toward the views of the European and American Left, how long could Israel be expected to survive? The United States today provides the only effective opposition to Islamic, European, and academic attempts to isolate Israel, and offers the only effective opposition to calls for divestment and economic sanctions. Some American political figures would, no doubt, stand against the tide no matter what the polls showed. But how long would they hold out once it became clear that their constituents regarded Israel with either indifference or hostility?

This leads to a second question: where in American public opinion does support for Israel reside, and is it likely to remain there? As recent surveys show, the strongest base of support, Jews aside, is among Republicans, conservatives, evangelicals, and Southerners. These groups believe that Israel and America share common values as well as a common enemy in terrorism and the jihadist ideology that drives it. Hostility toward Israel on the Right is found chiefly among followers of Patrick J. Buchanan. On the Left, by contrast, there is widespread antipathy toward Israel, and a willful failure to distinguish between terrorism and counterterrorism, or between premeditated murder and unintended killing.

Israel faces a daunting challenge in seeking to broaden its support among groups that are left of center. On the other hand, Israelis can feel reasonably confident that the coalition of groups on the American Right will continue to stand with them.

Clifford D. May
The Foundation for the
Defense of Democracies
Washington, D.C.

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Gabriel Schoenfeld writes:

William B. Wilson’s epistle, with its rudimentary theological disquisition, is a useful reminder of the profoundly irrational nature of the phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Jay Beilis’s letter is a very different sort of reminder. His grandfather, a humble bricklayer, was arrested in 1911 and charged with murdering and draining the blood of a thirteen-year-old boy for ritual purposes. Worldwide protests against the Czarist authorities ensued, with the United States, a half-century before Jimmy Carter claimed credit for first injecting “human rights” into American foreign policy, even canceling its trade agreement with Russia over the affair. Would that our government today were willing to take equivalent action against some of our “allies”—like Saudi Arabia—that have been using petrodollars to propagate the blood libel on a worldwide scale.

Emil L. Fackenheim points out that the deviancy known as anti-Semitism has been defined downward. In the post-Holocaust era, he writes, “unless someone actually wants to kill Jews, he does not qualify as an anti-Semite.” Alas, in some highly respectable quarters, even an open expression of the desire to kill Jews does not qualify. Anti-Israel demonstrators in France, for example, have carried posters reading “Death to Jews,” but the New York Times, in analyzing this development, seems in genuine doubt about what it means. Does such “ferocious” language, the newspaper asks, “mark a recrudescence of that most ugly of Western diseases, anti-Semitism? Or is it legitimate, if crude, criticism of a nation’s policies? Where does one draw the line? And how does one judge?”

Although each of my other correspondents raises points worth responding to, and I am grateful to each of them, I want to devote the balance of this reply to Stephen Hubert’s letter, which is as stridently worded as it is devoid of evidence. Mr. Hubert adduces not a single phrase from my article to illustrate his accusation that I misquoted Richard John Neuhaus or took his views out of context. Indeed, writing in First Things, the publication of which he is the editor-in-chief, Father Neuhaus has himself commented on my article, and does not claim to have been misquoted in the slightest—let alone “slandered.” But since Father Neuhaus is in fact critical of my article, as he was of a previous essay in COMMENTARY by Hillel Halkin (“The Return of Anti-Semitism,” February), it is perhaps worth considering at somewhat greater length what he has to say on the subject.

Halkin had argued as follows:

[O]ne cannot be against Israel or Zionism, as opposed to this or that Israeli policy or Zionist position, without being anti-Semitic. Israel is the state of the Jews. Zionism is the belief that the Jews should have a state. To defame Israel is to defame the Jews. To wish it never existed, or would cease to exist, is to wish to destroy the Jews.

It was these successive propositions that Father Neuhaus took exception to in the May issue of First Things. Soon afterward, I jumped into the fray with “Israel and the Anti-Semites,” where the words that so outrage Stephen Hubert appeared. In them, I commented very briefly on Father Neuhaus’s quarrel with Halkin. This in turn prompted another reply from Father Neuhaus in the August First Things, where he wrote:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, senior editor of COMMENTARY, describes me as among the “avowed friends of the Jewish state” but deplores my comments on [Hillel] Halkin’s article. “Such,” he writes, “are the tortuous rationalizations to which the swell of worldwide anti-Semitism has led.” (I note, but decline to entertain, the possibility that Mr. Schoenfeld is suggesting that anti-Semitism led me to write what I did.) My reflection, I am persuaded, was neither tortuous nor a rationalization. It was a straightforward clarification of a serious confusion in Mr. Halkin’s argument. There is a worldwide swell of anti-Semitism, except for, thank God, the United States. As American support for Israel becomes ever more crucial, those of us who advocate such support should not accuse everyone who disagrees of being anti-Semitic or of wishing to destroy the Jews. To divide Americans between those who support U.S. policy toward Israel and those who wish to destroy the Jews is, I believe, false, uncivil, and counterproductive.

Unfortunately, this does little to clarify matters, and it is also irrelevant to the issue I was trying to raise. In my article I did not, as Father Neuhaus writes here, deplore his comments about Hillel Halkin’s article. I did deplore one specific comment—which he does not address at all—and nothing he says here persuades me that the criticism I leveled was unfair or off the mark.

The single statement that seized my attention in Father Neuhaus’s earlier remarks on Halkin was his assertion that to “wish that Israel ‘would cease to exist’ is . . . not necessarily a wish to destroy the Jews, since one might at the same time hope that the minority of the world’s Jews living in Israel would find a secure home elsewhere, notably in the U.S.” It was these words that I called a “tortuous rationalization.”

They are tortuous, to begin with, because it is impossible to conceive of the circumstances Father Neuhaus posits—namely, circumstances in which, should Israel come under grave threat or be defeated in a war, the “minority of the world’s Jews living in Israel would find a secure home elsewhere, notably in the U.S.” Father Neuhaus undoubtedly recalls that in 1975, the United States did not exactly lay out a welcome mat for its allies in Cambodia whom it had pledged but failed to defend from Communist aggression; in short order they were slaughtered by the millions. An older and even more relevant episode took place when, in the 1930′s and 40′s, the United States did its best to keep out Jewish refugees from Nazism—on one notorious occasion in 1939 refusing admission to those aboard the steamship St. Louis and forcing the ship back to Europe, where most of the 937 passengers met their deaths. It is not impertinent to note in this connection that the draconian refugee policy adopted in that period was greeted with sincere indifference by almost all of America’s Christian churches.

True, one might hope that things would be different in our enlightened age. But that hope is a reed that splinters in an instant when weighed against the practical obstacles in the way of rapidly ferrying five million Jews to safety from the Middle East. Exactly how would such a mass evacuation take place? To ask the question is to answer it. Unless we are indulging in tortuous rationalizations, we should admit to ourselves the likelier truth: if Israel “would cease to exist,” so inevitably would most of its Jews, and therefore to “wish that Israel would ‘cease to exist’ ” is, in practical effect, to wish for the mass murder of its Jews. If that is not an anti-Semitic sentiment, what is?

Of course, I stress again, as I did in my article, that Father Neuhaus himself is far from harboring a wish that Israel “cease to exist.” Nevertheless, his contention that those who do harbor such a wish are not necessarily anti-Semitic strikes me as unusually unapprehending in one who enjoys a well-deserved reputation for (in Mr. Hubert’s words) cutting through “obfuscation and cant.”

While I am at it, I should add that I have been struck by some of the other things Father Neuhaus has said as well, especially his admonishing words in the May First Things on the issue of support for Israel among American Christians. “Ninety-eight percent of Americans are not Jewish,” he wrote there,

and the great majority of them strongly support Israel for explicitly moral reasons, and those moral reasons are inseparable from a religious and theological understanding of the bond between Judaism and Christianity. It is therefore hard to understand why so many Jews and Jewish publications—COMMENTARY very much included—are preoccupied with trivial pursuits such as the fringe phenomenon of Holocaust denial, and with emphatically nontrivial pursuits such as attacks on Pius XII and the Catholic Church, and on serious Jewish-Christian theological dialogue. Such unremitting attacks—which in some cases, such as Daniel Goldhagen and Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, are of a viciously anti-Christian character—can do nothing to enhance “broad public backing” for Israel or positive attitudes toward Jews and Judaism.

It is hard to know what Father Neuhaus has in mind in stating that COMMENTARY has been “preoccupied with trivial pursuits such as the fringe phenomenon of Holocaust denial.” In the last ten years, the magazine has published, by my careful count, exactly one short item focusing on this subject. But that aside, Father Neuhaus’s real concern in this passage is the fact that “so many Jews and Jewish publications” have engaged in critical discussion—“unremitting attacks,” in his words—of the role of Pius XII and the Catholic Church during the Holocaust. Because of this, he suggests, “backing” for Israel by Christians might be negatively affected. What is more, the views of certain individual Jews on these matters are so profoundly repugnant as to jeopardize the “positive attitudes toward Jews and Judaism” held by many Christians.

I hold no brief for the two individuals Father Neuhaus names, and have been a critic (in these pages) of some of the shockingly crude formulations of one of them. But even if both of them could fairly be shown to have propounded theses of a “viciously anti-Christian character,” I fail to see why “Jews and Judaism” at large should, in classical fashion, be made to bear the blame. To judge by his previous writings, Father Neuhaus has long eschewed the notion of collective guilt, and I decline to entertain the possibility that he has changed his mind. If he is simply reporting a danger he sees on the horizon, there is, so far as I know, no evidence that the “broad public” is so radically incapable of drawing distinctions between an individual and a group—or for that matter that this broad public is intensely focused these days on the question of the behavior of the Catholic Church during World War II. In any event, the sharpest contemporary detractors of Pius XII happen to be primarily Christians themselves.

In the end, the conclusion seems inescapable that in issuing his words of warning Father Neuhaus has been aiming to terminate the debate about Pius XII by dramatically raising the stakes for its Jewish interlocutors, raising the specter of a return of anti-Semitism and an end of support for Israel. If I am right about this, it marks an ominous turn for a leading Christian thinker, especially one so deeply invested in “serious Jewish-Christian theological dialogue.”

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