Commentary Magazine


Is There a New Anti-Semitism?

American Jews have been experiencing “a certain anxiety” since about 1967. General political violence was then at a peak. The 1967 war in the Middle East exposed some unsettling trends on the American Left. So did aspects of the black revolution, as in the 1968 New York teachers' strike. Street anti-Semitism crept out of the closet for the first time since World War II. The image of the Democratic party as a safe harbor faltered at the 1968 national convention, foundered at the 1972 national convention. Official classification of people by race and ethnicity was apparently becoming a way of life. The 1973 war in the Middle East, its outcome, the Arab oil embargo, and the energy crisis raised some additional uncertainties for American Jews.

Reporting on those years, Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein of the Anti-Defamation League have concluded that there is a new anti-Semitism abroad in the land.1 They are right: there is a “new” anti-Semitism, and they provide hard evidence of its existence, although their portrayal is made the less convincing by a vagueness of definition.

To put the Forster-Epstein thesis briefly: the old anti-Semitism was based on antipathy to Jews, whereas the new anti-Semitism is based on insensitivity. “It includes often a callous indifference to Jewish concerns expressed by respectable institutions and persons here and abroad—people who would be shocked to think themselves or have others think them anti-Semites.”

Now if indifference means indifference to Jews in particular because they are Jews, then indeed it falls within the practical definition of anti-Semitism. Some of the valuable ADL-sponsored research on anti-Semitism reveals that people who tend to answer “don't know” in response to negative stereotypes about Jews, are also people who tend to give anti-Semitic answers when they “do know.” And it doesn't take much research to realize that people who display a special indifference to the problems of Jews are really, in fact, something other than indifferent.

But there is another kind of indifference to Jews which is not in itself anti-Semitic, although it may have no less sinister an effect. It was in the course of one important piece of ADL-sponsored research that a national survey included the classic question about whether the American people would support an anti-Semitic candidate. Few said they would, but a third of the respondents said it wouldn't make any difference. Many of these people meant exactly what they said. It wouldn't make any difference. If the candidate promised what they wanted—more food, lower taxes, or whatever—then they would support him whether he also wanted to give the Jews some special advantages or whether he wanted to impose on the Jews some special disadvantages. It wouldn't make any difference.

That kind of indifference cannot itself usefully be contained within a definition of anti-Semitism. It does not represent a commitment against Jews, but a failure of commitment to the relevant principle of universal civil rights. It is similar to the indifference displayed by those who see someone being attacked on the street, and do nothing. Such people have no feeling against the person being attacked; they simply do not have a sufficient moral or social commitment to helping someone in such a situation.

Forster and Epstein fail to distinguish clearly between these two kinds of indifference in discussing the situation within the United States. They also fail to make an analogous distinction in considering the question of Israel. “The destruction of the Jewish state,” they write, “is itself the ultimate anti-Semitism”; and despite the way in which this statement grandly sweeps over some of the normal aspirations of international politics, one is tempted not to challenge it because of the awful import of the word “destruction.” However, Forster and Epstein often stretch the word in practice to mean anti-Israel bias in general, and they sometimes even interpret the failure to be pro-Israel as anti-Semitism.

Thus, on the 1973 war, they say that “the palpable erosion in worldwide sympathy and friendship for Jews” since 1967 had helped to relay “the message that yet another attempt to annihilate the Jewish people would be greeted in the mid-70's with massive indifference if not active support.” They complain that “we have no reason to believe that the world—beyond the United States government and a few moral voices here and there—is at all prepared to accept fact instead of fantasy or outright lies when it comes to the Middle East.” After Yom Kippur, the Arabs and the Soviet Union charged Israel with aggression. England, France, West Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey refused to allow American aid to Israel to go through their ports or air. The Vatican “struck a posture of neutrality.” In short, “Just thirty years after the Holocaust, a new chapter was being written in the history of European anti-Semitism.”

The policies of England, France, et al. toward Israel in October 1973 did indeed stem from indifference, but it was indifference of the kind exemplified by the voter who doesn't care whether his candidate is anti-Semitic. These nations clearly did not have a commitment to legal or moral principles which outweighed their own needs—in this case, oil. If the Israelis had had the oil instead of the Arabs, there is no question where those European nations would have stood.

There are, in other words, a number of objective conditions of disadvantage to Jews which are not anti-Semitic in nature, just as there are a number of objective conditions of disadvantage to blacks which are not racist in nature. Attempts to impose rigid quotas on the hiring or training of teachers, social workers, doctors, and lawyers are disadvantageous to Jews as a group on more than one count, but they are not necessarily anti-Semitic in the sense of being designed to hurt the Jews as Jews. Similarly, the creation of Israel set up new conditions of vulnerability for Jews, but these are not necessarily related to anti-Semitism either. If an Amish state had been set up where Israel is, the Arab nations would not have been much more hospitable toward it than they have been toward the Jewish state; Soviet strategy would not be basically different.

_____________

None of this means that Jewish anxieties over a new anti-Semitism are unjustified, or that Forster and Epstein are overstating the threats which do exist for Jews. They have accurately sensed that there is a danger abroad in America that does not fall within the old definitions of anti-Semitism and they have turned to the idea of indifference in an effort to identify it. Here too their instinct is sound, even if their analysis is imprecise.

What, then, is the new anti-Semitism? To put our finger on its nature, we need only go back to the slogan of that champion of Jewish civil rights after the French Revolution, Clermont-Tonnere: “To the Jews as individuals, everything; to the Jews as a nation, nothing.” The fundamental idea was simple: in accordance with the new enlightened principles, the Jews were to be treated as individual citizens on their own merits, on the same basis as everyone else. But the companion thought cast doubt on the legitimacy of Jews not merely as a “nation” but as a group. The great Sanhedrin invoked by Napoleon seemed to go along with a version of the Clermont-Tonnere logic; and some Jews began to talk about themselves as individuals who just happened to have an alternative religious persuasion.

But Judaism stubbornly refused to become just another religion. It was embodied in a “national” group which persistently maintained an alien corporate identity—in institutions, customs, language, transnational connections. There were three major strains of hostility toward this distinct corporate identity, denying its legitimacy. One had its origins (as Philo tells us) in pre-Christian times but flourished in 18th- and 19th-century Europe: nationalist irritation at the presence of a persistently alien body. Another was pre-Enlightenment in origin but still operative: official Christian resentment of the continued existence of a body of Jews as an affront to theology. The third emerged from the modern belief that groups must not intervene between the individual and the state. Rousseau sounded this note when he wrote that “if the general will is to be able to express itself . . . there should be no partial society within the state, and . . . each citizen should think only his own thoughts.”

Modern Europe thus never really accepted the legitimacy of the corporate Jew—although it was at its best willing to grant full civil rights to the individual Jew. That, for the Jews, was an impossible paradox, a secular version of Christian demands to convert. In neither case—giving up his religion or giving up his communal identity—could the Jew comply without ceasing to be Jew. And in both cases, the failure to accept the legitimacy of the corporate Jew inevitably resulted in violent assaults on the civil and human rights of individual Jews.

_____________

The American Jewish experience was qualitatively different. At the time of the American Revolution, over half the population south of New England was non-English. By 1850 only 12 per cent of the foreign-born were of English origin. In 1790, the largest religious denomination in the country had only one-fifth of the nation's churches, under the impact of a “swarm of sectaries,” as one unhappy Anglican put it. Group differences—religious, ethnic, and regional—became staggering and implacable. Small wonder that under such conditions Jews were not asked to abandon their communal ties in order to become full-fledged citizens.

But it is precisely this willingness to allow the Jews their separate identity as a group which is now coming into question in America. There is, as Forster and Epstein point out, no great wave of “old” anti-Semitism—the kind which rejects, defames, refuses to associate with or hire individual Jews because they are Jews. Rather, one can detect the beginnings of a new hostility to the corporate Jew in America, even among people who would genuinely and angrily reject anti-Jewish stereotypes, and who would zealously defend the civil rights of any individual Jew.

The evidence of this new anti-Semitism is still fairly subtle. It is not an uncommon experience for Jewish public-school educators to meet with rather shocked resistance when they suggest to their colleagues that ethnic-studies programs should include Jewish studies as well as black, Chicano, Asian, and Native American studies. It is not uncommon for community chests and community crusades—which are set up as a convenient way of raising funds jointly for the needs of the various communities involved—to suggest that Jewish agencies should begin to get smaller pieces of the pie.

For increasingly the only ethnic groups which are seen as having legitimacy in America are those which are economically deprived. And for all the talk about a “white ethnic” renaissance and a “new pluralism,” the expectation is that those groups will disappear as groups when they are no longer deprived. The thrust is toward a similitude of status, some theoretical version of the concept of equality which, when achieved, will turn everyone into “other-white,” just as has already been done with the Jews by various affirmative-action agencies of the government. The Clermont-Tonnere formula is being applied anew—and, in America, really for the first time.

_____________

But ideological hostility toward the corporate Jew emerges most clearly today in relation to Israel. A leader of the Committee for New Alternatives in the Middle East, David McReynolds, touched the nerve of this animus when he said: “The best aspect of Jewish culture is its tradition of justice and compassion . . . the worst aspect of Jewish culture is the commitment to Zionism—a blind nationalism.” He was not just talking about Israel, whose legitimacy as a Jewish state he questions: he was also talking about Jewish life in general. “Justice and compassion” are attributes which Jews presumably share now with many others, including McReynolds. There is no need for them to maintain a stubborn communal existence for that.

There is a symmetry between the hostility expressed toward the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and the hostility expressed toward the legitimacy of the American-Jewish community as a distinct ethnic group—although there are many more internal restraints on the expression of the latter. It is within the context of this hostility that much of the material in Forster and Epstein's document falls more clearly into place. Some of the “indifference” they report toward Israel is founded on such hostility, especially among the Left and the clergy, and some of the “indifference” they report toward Jewish problems in this country is touched with the same hostility.

This is the new anti-Semitism in America. It can and should be distinguished from defamatory anti-Semitism (the “old” variety) on the one side and from genuine indifference on the other. As Forster and Epstein point out, the old anti-Semitism has not returned to America in any significant degree. But the new reluctance to grant legitimacy to Jews as a group is sufficient cause for anxiety, and a sufficient warrant for rethinking strategies of defense.


Footnotes

1 The New Anti-Semitism, McGraw-Hill, 354 pp., $7.95.

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