Commentary Magazine


The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism

The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism: Jews, Israel, and Liberal Opinion.
Bernard Harrison
Rowman & Littlefield. 224 pp. $22.95.

According to the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910), “Anti-Semitism is a passing phase in the history of culture.” Since that sanguine declaration, anti-Semitism has had several very good rolls of the dice, culminating in the destruction of European Jewry.

The latest recrudescence of anti-Semitism is by now the subject of at least a half dozen books, published in America, England, France, and Italy. Their shared conclusion, set forth from a variety of perspectives, is that the physical violence of the new Jew-hatred is largely the work of young Muslims, but that the ideological violence is the work primarily of leftists, battlers against racism, professed humanitarians, and liberals (including Jewish ones). The Resurgence of Anti-Semitism, Bernard Harrison’s superb new book, deals almost entirely with this drifting of liberals and leftists into anti-Semitism, and it brings to the subject a new authorial identity, a different academic background, and a distinctive and (despite the topic) exhilarating voice. Resurgence is also the first book on contemporary anti-Semitism by a Gentile, and a British one to boot. (According to Harrison, a professor of philosophy, this has also made him privy to the expression of anti-Semitic prejudice by apparently respectable academic people “when Jews are absent.”)

Recent years have furnished a great deal of material suited to his talents and expertise. Harrison brings to his subject the “habitual skepticism, bitterly close reading, and aggressive contentiousness” produced by “forty years in the amiable sharkpool of analytic philosophy.” His merciless deconstruction of the anti-Israel invective and smug clichés of the New Statesman, the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, and other bastions of anti-Jewish sentiment in England reminds one of the powerful literary scrutiny pioneered in this country by the New Critics.

Harrison’s method is to scrutinize the statements of Israel-haters for internal contradictions, inconsistencies, specious reasoning, misstatements of fact, and outright lies. To read the fulminations of such people as John Pilger, Robert Fisk, or Jacqueline Rose concerning Israel ordinarily requires the mental equivalent of hip-boots; Harrison, however, takes up a rhetorical scalpel and dissects their ravings with surgical precision.

He devotes all of the book’s second chapter, for example, to a single infamous issue of the New Statesman. The cover of January 14, 2002 showed a tiny Union Jack being pierced by the sharp apex of a large Star of David, made of gold. Below, in large black letters, was a question posed with characteristic English understatement: “A Kosher Conspiracy?” It would not have been out of place in Der Stürmer; and the articles that followed it had at first suggested to Harrison that he entitle his analysis of them “In the Footsteps of Dr. Goebbels.” (He decided, however, that this would be “inadequate to the gravity of the case.”)

Among the many canards that Harrison dismembers in the book: “Israel is a colonialist state”; “Israel is a Nazi state, and the Jews who support it are as guilty as Nazi collaborators were”; “Anybody who criticizes Israel is called an anti-Semite”; “Jews do not express grief except for political or financial ends.” Take, for example, the way in which he draws out the implications of the Israel-Nazi Germany equation, without which people like Noam Chomsky would be rendered almost speechless: “To attach the label ‘Nazi’ to Israel, or to couple the Star of David with the swastika is . . . not just to express opposition . . . to the policies of one or another Israeli government. It is to defame Israel by association with the most powerful symbol of evil, of that which must be utterly rejected and uprooted from the face of the earth.”

Harrison consistently criticizes contemporary liberals who have allowed their moral indignation on behalf of Palestinians to pass into something “very hard to distinguish from anti-Semitism of the most traditional kind.” Yet he just as consistently refrains from calling them anti-Semites. (He does, however, wonder whether, in their dreams, they call themselves anti-Semites.) Thus the editor of the New Statesman who approves a cover worthy of Julius Streicher is “an entirely honest, decent man,” and Dennis Sewell, author of the essay on the Anglo-Jewish “kosher conspiracy” belongs to the rank of “sincere humanitarians.”

Two factors play a role in Harrison’s mitigation of his criticisms. One is his assumption, oft-repeated, that liberals and leftists in the past were almost always opposed to anti-Semitism. But this is open to question. In France, for example, the only articulate friends of the Jews prior to the Dreyfus Affair were conservative writers who denounced anti-Jewish attitudes as “one of the favorite theses of the 18th century.” French leftist movements of the 19th century had been outspoken in their antipathy to Jews until the Dreyfus Affair forced them to decide whether they hated the Jews or the Catholic Church more. (They became Dreyfusards.) In England, Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby and father of Matthew, called English Jews “lodgers” and wanted them barred from universities and citizenship. Gladstone referred to Disraeli as “that alien” who “was going to annex England to his native East & make it the appanage of an Asian empire.” Ernest Bevin, Labor foreign minister from 1945-51, was notoriously short of sympathy in the Jewish direction.

The other, more positive motive for Harrison’s use of such delicate epithets stems, perhaps, from his education in philosophy: he seems to believe genuinely in the ability of people to self-correct, to be swayed by reason. Let us hope that he is right. My own, darker view is that a thinker’s ideas are an expression of character. If Harrison believes that he can reason into decency people like his fellow philosopher Ted Honderich, who espouses “violence for equality” and effusively sings the praises of Palestinian suicide bombers, I wish him joy in his efforts. But deductions have little power of persuasion, and I have no great hopes for his success.

Despite my quibbles, Harrison’s book is one of the necessary and indispensable utterances on the subject of these new, liberal anti-Semites, the people who are busily making themselves into accessories before the fact of Ahmadinejad’s plan “to wipe Israel off the map.” The fact that this eloquent and elegantly argued book has until now been totally ignored by book review editors is itself testimony to the alarming dogmatism that Harrison has so vividly criticized.

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