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The Big Lie Returns

A blurb on a book jacket would seem an unlikely vehicle for the introduction of a new and sinister tactic in the promotion of an ancient prejudice.  But in September 2011, a word of appreciation on the cover of The Wandering Who launched a fresh chapter in the modern history of anti-Semitism. And when the dust had settled—what little dust there was—on the events surrounding the blurb, it had become horrifyingly clear that the role of defining the meaning of the term anti-Semitism did not belong to the Jews. It may, in fact, belong to anti-Semites.

The flattering quotation came from John Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago professor and co-author, with Harvard’s Stephen Walt, of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Mearsheimer’s 2007 bestseller, which contends that Israel’s American supporters are powerful enough to subvert the U.S. national interest, has been controversial for its adoption of anti-Semitic tropes—tropes Mearsheimer danced around cleverly. But in endorsing The Wandering Who and its Israeli-born author, Gilad Atzmon, Mearsheimer crossed the boundary.

The man whose book Mearsheimer called “fascinating and provocative,” a work that “should be widely read by Jews and non-Jews alike,” is an anti-Semite, pure and simple. A saxophone player by trade, Atzmon was born and raised in Israel but subsequently moved to London. He proclaims himself either an “ex-Jew” or a “proud self-hating Jew” and was quoted approvingly by Turkey’s Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the Davos conference in 2009: Denouncing Israel in vociferous terms before a horrified Shimon Peres, Erdogan quoted Atzmon as saying, “Israeli barbarity is far beyond even ordinary cruelty.”

Atzmon fixates upon the irredeemably tribal and racist identity he calls “Jewishness.” The anti-Gentile separatism that compels Jews to amass greater power and influence is manifested, he preaches, in any context where Jews come together as a group. The Wandering Who finds Atzmon on territory well-trodden by anti-Semites past and present: Holocaust revisionism (one chapter is entitled “Swindler’s List”), the rehabilitation of Hitler (he argues that Israel’s behavior makes all the more tempting the conclusion that the Führer was right about the Jews), the separation of Jesus from Judaism (Christ was the original proud, self-hating Jew, whose example Spinoza, Marx, and now, Atzmon himself, have followed).

One would think this was categorically indefensible stuff. Yet, when the blogger Adam Holland e-mailed Mearsheimer to ask whether he was aware of Atzmon’s flirtation with Holocaust denial, as well as his recital of telltale anti-Semitic provocations, Mearsheimer stood by his endorsement of the book. Holland duly published Mearsheimer’s response: “The blurb below is the one I wrote for The Wandering Who and I have no reason to amend it or embellish it, as it accurately reflects my view of the book.” A number of prominent commentators—among them Jeffrey Goldberg, Walter Russell Mead, and even Andrew Sullivan, up to that point a dependable supporter of Mearsheimer—rushed to confront and condemn the professor. But Mearsheimer maintained in various blog posts that Atzmon was no anti-Semite and those who said otherwise were guilty of vicious smear jobs. He wrote on the Foreign Policy magazine blog of his co-author, Stephen Walt: “[Jeffrey Goldberg’s] insinuation that I have any sympathy for Holocaust denial and am an anti-Semite . . . is just another attempt in his longstanding effort to smear Steve Walt and me.”

And that was that. No affaire Mearsheimer unfolded.

The fact that a controversy did not erupt, that the endorsement of a Holocaust revisionist by a prominent professor at a major university did not lead to calls for his dismissal or resignation or even a chin-pulling symposium in the pages of the New York Times’s “Sunday Review,” represents an important shift in the privileges that anti-Semites and their sympathizers enjoy. Now, it appears, anti-Semites are being given additional power to define anti-Semitism by stating that it is something other than what they themselves represent—before rising in moral outrage to denounce anyone who might say different. Their views are not offensive, not anti-Semitic; no, it is the opinions of those who object to their views that should be considered beyond the pale.

This is more than a change in the dynamics of anti-Semitism; it is an inversion of the accepted logic of minorities and bigots altogether. Unlike blacks, Muslims, Hispanics, or any other religious or ethnic group, Jews alone are now to be told by their enemies who does and who does not hate them.

The list of flagrant Jew-baiters is growing; those with Jewish names provide an additional frisson. In America, M.J. Rosenberg—a one-time employee of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)and now called a “foreign policy fellow” at the leftist organization Media Matters—refers to supporters of Israel as “Israel Firsters,” recycling the notion that Jewish political loyalties gravitate toward other Jews first and last. There is Max Blumenthal, whose enraged salvos against Jewish chauvinism earned him a flattering profile on the Iranian regime-financed Press TV, the most repulsive of all the English-language satellite broadcasters currently on the market. There is Philip Weiss, a blogger whose bitterly personal reflections on Jewish influence were, until quite recently, underwritten by the Nation magazine’s Nation Institute (“I felt that the form demanded transparency about what I cared about, Jewish identity,” Weiss wrote about his blog in the American Conservative.) What Weiss means by “Jewish identity” was laid bare in a 2007 posting on his Mondoweiss blog, concerning journalist Seymour Hersh’s contention that “Jewish money” was driving a new war fervor against Iran. Crowed Weiss: “This is a beautiful moment, too. Hersh is a progressive Jew. Now he is turning on other Jews. ‘New York Jewish money,’ he says. The soul-searching that I have called for within the Jewish community has begun!!!!”

To understand why such blatant expressions of anti-Semitism are no longer a cause for moral opprobrium, we have to examine the sociology that determines that Jews, in contrast to nearly every other minority group, sit squarely on the wrong side of the oppressor/oppressed dynamic and thereby make any Jewish complaints about bigotry inherently suspect.

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The origin of this warped thinking lies in the left’s commitment to anticolonialism following the Second World War.1 Frustrated by Marxist orthodoxies about class, and contemptuous of such bourgeois frivolities as individual rights, writers Frantz Fanon, Regis Debray, and others laid the foundations for a new politics based on identity. Native populations would never see the world clearly until they were liberated from the neuroses imposed on them by their white, Western colonizers. Through the revolutionary process, the colonized would become the masters of their countries, their cultures, and—above all—their discourse.

As it turned out, it was in the colonizing nations, among the disaffected students and intellectuals who swelled the ranks of the New Left, that the politics of identity were embraced most fervently. As Western progressives reassessed their own societies through the filter of identity, matters of sex and race were pushed to the fore. And when it came to defining and identifying racism and sexism, the inner logic of identity politics dictated that these words were the property of the victims.

In our own time, these ownership rights have become largely uncontroversial, insofar as most minorities can expect a respectful hearing when it comes to claims of racism. With the Jews, however, the reverse is now true: Claims of anti-Semitism are so often disputed, scorned, and denied outright. This state of affairs faithfully reflects the perception of the Jews as socially privileged, disproportionately represented in the fields of glamour, intellect, and finance, and—crucially—as the agency behind the dispossession of Palestine’s native Arab inhabitants.

This perception is not limited to the extreme left (nor, for that matter, to the far right, which thinks in near-identical terms). It now sits as comfortably with a traditional conservative realist like Mearsheimer as it does with many others who have had little interaction with the New Left or the Chomskyite school of international relations. It leads, furthermore, to a conclusion with a distinctly postmodern twist: Those who truly suffer from anti-Semitism today are not Jews, but those who are accused of being anti-Semitic. Those mere speakers of truth, so the thinking goes, are being made to pay for centuries of hateful prejudice.

Adherents of anti-Zionism have traditionally avoided speaking about Jews qua Jews to dodge the anti-Semitism bullet. Atzmon observes no such niceties, happily telling an Israeli journalist in a recent interview that he “hates” Judaism, that neoconservative Jews are responsible for the global financial crisis, and—for good measure—that the death marches the Nazis forced the last remnants of concentration camp inmates to go on should properly be seen as a Jewish attempt to escape the advancing Red Army. That Erdogan, Mearsheimer, and numerous others—ranging from Tony Blair’s estranged sister-in-law to a prominent Anglican Bishop—do not think the person who speaks such bile is to be avoided, lest his inarguable Jew-hatred be seen as infecting their own views, suggests the degree to which anti-Semitism has been normalized in the current political culture.

Anti-Semitism’s newfound respectability is not unprecedented. Indeed, the fact that anti-Semites have been given power over the definition of anti-Semitism reflects the very origins of the term. Coined in late 19-century Germany, anti-Semitism was not intended as a descriptor for a troubling social trend—like racism, or the more recent Islamophobia—but as the positive organizing principle of an emancipatory political movement.

While the Jews and their allies regard anti-Semites as propelled by hatred, anti-Semites regard themselves as a fraternity bound by a message of universalist love. “This book is above all a book for friends, a book that is written for those who love us,” wrote Edouard Drumont, one of the founders of France’s Ligue Antisemitique, and an especially shrill voice behind the false allegations of treason against Alfred Dreyfus, in his Le Testament d’un Antisemite. Atzmon expresses himself with similar pretensions: “When you talk about humanity, you talk about a universal system of values promoting love for one another.” Rather than being anti-moral, the moral sensibility of anti-Semitism resides in its presentation of the Jews (or “Jewishness” or “Judaism”) as the barrier to a society founded upon love. What seems at first glance to be a material battle is really a spiritual one.

With this understanding, we can better appreciate a rare modification in the nature of anti-Semitism in our own time. I say rare, because, as a framework for interpreting the world, anti-Semitism resists innovation. Charles Maurras, another French anti-Semite, took great delight in hawking a worldview that “enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over, and simplified.”

The modification rests upon a distinction between what I call bierkeller and bistro anti-Semitism. Bierkeller anti-Semitism—named for the beer halls frequented by the German Nazis—employs such means as violence, verbal abuse, commercial harassment, and advocacy of anti-Jewish legal measures. Certainly, the first and second generations of modern anti-Semitic publicists and intellectuals had no qualms about this sort of thuggery. Since the Second World War, though, this mode of anti-Semitism has waned sharply, along with the tendency to use the word anti-Semite as a positive means of political identification.

Bistro anti-Semitism, on the other hand, sits in a higher and outwardly more civilized realm, providing what left-wing activists would call a “safe space” to critically assess the global impact of Jewish cabals from Washington, D.C., to Jerusalem. Anyone who enters the bistro will encounter common themes. These include the depiction of Palestinians as the victims of a second Holocaust, the breaking of the silence supposedly imposed upon honest discussions of Jewish political and economic power, and the contention—offered by, among others, Mearsheimer’s co-author, Stephen Walt, of Harvard—that American Jewish government officials are more suspect than others because of a potential second loyalty to Israel.

To this list we can now add the assault upon what Atzmon calls the “Holocaust narrative.” This type of revisionism doesn’t deny that the Nazis killed Jews, but it redistributes a good deal of the blame among the victims. Additionally, it disputes the conclusion of mainstream Holocaust historians that total elimination was the goal of the Third Reich’s Jewish policy.

All in all, then, the bistro satisfies admirably: Its denizens can confront the cabals of Jewish power unencumbered by the vulgar anti-Semite label, and, freed from the Judeocentrism the word Holocaust reinforces, they can also reevaluate the experience of Jews under Nazi rule.

The prevalence of bistro anti-Semitism, which deals its blows through words rather than fists, is the clearest indicator of the Jewish failure to take ownership of the term originally invented by the enemies of the Jewish people. True, for a long period after 1945, there were hopeful signs that the tide was turning. Lifted by Israel’s creation and its military prowess, Jewish communities in the Diaspora spoke and acted with an assertiveness unseen during the Holocaust. Notably, their campaign in behalf of the persecuted Jews of the Soviet Union was an unashamedly public one. The charge of Soviet anti-Semitism was leveled with confidence, and—outside the circles of Western Communists and their fellow-travelers—registered in the wider public domain with few objections, bolstering the conclusion that in free societies, anti-Semitism had at last been dealt a death blow.

But that was then. Imagine, for a moment, that the Soviet Union was still in existence, still forbidding its Jews to emigrate, still barring them from sensitive jobs and higher education opportunities. Imagine, too, that the Soviets were still pumping out the propaganda of pamphleteers like Trofim Kichko—a clear precursor to Atzmon—who wrote, in Judaism and Zionism, of the connection between the Torah, the “morality of Judaism,” and Israeli “aggression.” Would a Jewish advocate, standing before a learned liberal audience, be able to categorize these as instances of anti-Semitism with the same ease that a Muslim civil-rights advocate could expect in an equivalent circumstance?

No, of course not. Actually, were he still alive, it would be entirely plausible that Kichko would be on a speaking tour of North American and European campuses. An army of professors, commentators, and student activists would line up to shield this progressive intellectual from the smear of anti-Semitism—aided, no doubt, by those self-consciously Jewish leftists whom Kichko reviled, just as Gilad Atzmon does.

The use of anti-Semitism denial as a technique of anti-Semitism comes to the Western bistros in part from the Arab and Muslim worlds, where rampant anti-Semitism resulted in the wholesale expulsion of Jewish communities from Arab countries in the latter half of the 20th century. We have all heard the ludicrous platitude that the Arabs, as “Semites,” can’t possibly be anti-Semitic. We have heard—endlessly—about the unparalleled tolerance of the Islamic world. And we have grimaced before those spokesmen who whisper that the Arabs of Palestine “are the Jews of the Jews,” the final victims of the Holocaust and the most tragic of all. All these lines of argument reject the very possibility of Arab anti-Semitism, deflecting any moral censure onto those who argue otherwise.

In America, too, the practice of anti-Semitism denial is older than one might believe. In his fascinating study, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower, Stephen H. Norwood reveals the wide-ranging sympathy for Nazi Germany on American campuses. Norwood offers an especially relevant account of how the president of Columbia University at the time, Nicholas Murray Butler, dismissed the campus demonstrations that greeted Hans Luther, Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the United States, as an uncouth smear campaign.

When it comes to anti-Semitism, American universities have too often found that there is honor not in opposing it, but in fawning before it or “speaking truth to power” by denying it. The realization that Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz is the only famous academic to have confronted Mearsheimer says more about his peers than anything else could.

Similar trends are evident in liberal and leftist media and policy circles. As in the ivory tower, in the field of policy debate these skirmishes conform to a pattern: First, make a wildly hyperbolic statement about Israel or the “Israel Lobby.” Second, prepare to be denounced as an anti-Semite. Third, assume the role of the victim—one more example proving yet again that the Jews can’t be trusted to diagnose what constitutes anti-Semitism.

Time and again, this strategy of deflecting and denying anti-Semitism has proved reliable. Following the recent controversy over claims by Josh Block, a former AIPAC spokesman, that left-wing outfits like Media Matters and the Center for American Progress  are pushing the dual-loyalty canard with growing brashness, the commentator David Frum wondered “whether it is more unacceptable inside today’s liberal Washington to use the language of anti-Semitism—or to protest the language of anti-Semitism.”  Frum got his answer when Block was relieved of his title at the progressive Truman National Security project for issuing group e-mails citing Jew-baiters in the left-wing media.

The vilification of Block leaves little doubt about the answer. In the eyes of liberal pundits, his deception was unmasked the moment he introduced the charge of anti-Semitism.

Only a few days after Block raised his concerns, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman asserted that the standing ovation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received from Congress was “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” Not to be outdone, Time columnist Joe Klein, in a sympathetic nod to isolationist Republican Presidential candidate Ron Paul, weighed in against sending “American kids off to war, yet again, to fight for Israel’s national security.” Although Friedman later regretted his phrasing—it would have been better to have said the ovation was “engineered,” he said—neither he nor Klein faced the kind of deafening censure that would have greeted similar barbs directed at another minority. That these two barometers of accepted center-left rhetoric felt safe writing such things shows just how effective the work of the bistro has been.

_____________

In the face of the unfolding reality I have outlined, the scholars, journalists, and Jewish community officials who track the troughs and peaks of anti-Semitism have not been impassive. In 2004, their efforts culminated in a noteworthy milestone. The European Union Monitoring Center (EUMC) published its “working definition” of anti-Semitism, thereby launching a counteroffensive against the anti-Semitic revival that was found in distilled form at the UN’s 2001 “anti-racism” conference in the South African city of Durban.

At the heart of the definition lay this statement: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The declaration is imperfectly worded: To the uninitiated, there is a head-scratching fogginess in the sentence, later on, that “anti-Semitism…is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’” Nonetheless, the definition was a valiant attempt, early on in the fight, to reestablish anti-Semitism as the oldest and most enduring of bigotries. Many of the favored themes of bistro anti-Semitism—Jewish power, Holocaust analogies, the denial of Israel’s legal and historical legitimacy—were purposefully included in the definition as illustrations of how contemporary anti-Semitic discourse operates.

Not long after the working definition began percolating, Yale upped the stakes by announcing the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Antisemitism (YIISA). Through a series of papers, seminars, and conferences, YIISA tackled the problems identified in the EUMC working definition with gusto. One publication laid bare the anti-Semitic provenance of the campaign among British academics to boycott Israeli universities. Several more focused on the woefully under-researched subject of anti-Semitism in Palestinian and wider Arab society.

Taken together, the EUMC definition and the research carried out by YIISA indicated that at least one anti-Semitic fantasy—that Jews and their allies control, as Mearsheimer and Walt put it, the “public discourse” about U.S. Middle East policy and the anti-Semitism charge—might just become reality. At minimum, the imprimatur of both the European Union and an Ivy League school would underline that anti-Semitism, whether in the academy, in international affairs, or on the streets of a Parisian banlieue, is a genuine presence and not another nefarious Jewish hoax.

The grand scale of these ambitions only magnifies their eventual defeat. Who talks about the EUMC “working definition” of anti-Semitism? Virtually no one. And Yale closed down its anti-Semitism initiative in the early summer of 2011. The previous year, the initiative had staged a conference that featured a presentation on anti-Semitism’s role in shaping Palestinian identity. The PLO representative in Washington, Ma’en Areikat, accused Yale of having been hijacked by pro-Israel lobbyists masquerading as academics. Areikat’s ire encouraged those Yale social scientists who resented the new initiative’s existence to speak their minds. It was hit with the charge that its true allegiance was to the state of Israel, instead of its sponsoring university.

Having been turned into its own case study of dual loyalty, the Yale initiative was then reproached for treating the ideal of academic rigor with cavalier disregard. Donald Green, the director of Yale’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies, deemed that the initiative had “failed to meet high standards for research and instruction,” sealing its fate.

There is, of course, no disputing that the Yale initiative’s scholarship was informed by certain basic arguments: that anti-Semitism is a social curse; that its reliably consistent content is perpetuated in an array of more or less obvious forms; and that, in the present climate, the Muslim world offers it an environment more hospitable and promising than any other. In that sense, the Yale initiative was little different from other academic exercises in social inquiry, particularly those concerned with matters of racial prejudice and colonial history.

Good social scientists understand that neutrality is an unattainable state. It is perfectly acceptable for social enquiry to carry value-based assumptions, so long as its propositions are sufficiently credible to be tested. That includes those propositions that disturb the unspoken biases that become entrenched in academic research. By tossing this consideration aside in its evaluation of the Yale Interdisciplinary Initiative for the Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale undercut the very academic standards it was supposedly protecting.

Almost 70 years after the Holocaust, the prospect that a definition of anti-Semitism, as understood by its victims, might one day emerge uncontested seems as remote as ever. In his notorious peroration on “the big lie” in 1925, Adolf Hitler wrote: “From time immemorial…the Jews have known better than any others how falsehood and calumny can be exploited. Is not their very existence founded on one great lie?” In discussing the use of deceit as an element of statecraft, Hitler was actually describing the methods he would use to achieve power and maintain his stranglehold on it. Today’s anti-Semites deploy similar logic in asserting their authority to choke off discussions of their own infamy.

_____________

The truth is that the rising fixation with Jewish power in our time has unwittingly revealed Jewish emasculation instead. Jews do not control the discourse; rather, the discourse controls them.

Nonetheless, if we accept that anti-Semitism has, by exchanging violence for discourse, also been emasculated, does its persistence matter, particularly during a period of history that stands out through the presence of a Jewish state and the absence of anti-Semitic legislation in nearly all the countries where Jews live?

That question can be posed in another way: Do we need to sink to the depths of the 1930s in order for anti-Semitism to be taken seriously? Furthermore, we must ask, do Jews need to be subjected to acts of violence and discrimination in order to remind the wider world who the true victims of anti-Semitism are? And even then, can we be confident that the blame for physical manifestations of anti-Semitism will be placed upon the anti-Semites and not the Jews?

The answer, judged on today’s trends, is sadly negative. The anti-Semite who avoids violence has no reservations about enabling, excusing, and rationalizing it. Israel, the supreme embodiment of Jewishness, would ultimately be held culpable for a pogrom in Istanbul, or, for that matter, in Tehran or Caracas, in which the protagonists carried signs and chanted slogans about the suffering of the Palestinians. By the same token, should the Holocaust-deniers and conspiracy theorists massed along Israel’s borders launch a war of extermination against it, we can be assured that this same theory of culpability would be articulated even more brazenly.

Since the Holocaust, Jewish communities have mistakenly concluded that the relative absence of anti-Semitism reflects a greater awareness that anti-Semitism, as understood and experienced by Jews themselves, is a grave social ill. There is no basis to think that anymore. As long as the adversaries and enemies of the Jews control the meaning of the term anti-Semitism, Jews will remain vulnerable to that most sacred of anti-Semitic calumnies: that they alone are the authors of their own misfortune.


Footnotes

1 Leftist support for the establishment of Israel in the 1930s and 1940s was itself a species of anticolonialism; Jews were seen as staging an assault on British colonialism and were therefore to be encouraged.

About the Author

Ben Cohen is a writer and communications consultant based in New York. This is his first article for COMMENTARY.




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