The Return of Anti-Semitism
“I have awakened to anti-Semitism these days,” wrote the American Jewish author Jonathan Rosen in an article in the New York Times Magazine last November.
An odd statement for someone as well-versed as he in Jewish matters. What Jew, less than a lifetime after the Holocaust, should have to “awaken” to anti-Semitism? Where had Rosen been all these years? In 1990, according to a national survey, 83 percent of American Jews felt anti-Semitism was a “serious problem” even in the United States, the most hospitable country in history to a large Jewish minority. How could a writer and intellectual who would score in the top percentiles in any test of Jewish knowledge or identification—Rosen formerly served as the editor of the weekly Forward‘s Arts & Letters section, and has written widely on Jewish themes—have been near the bottom in worrying about the most perennial of threats to Jewish life?
But why pick on Rosen? I have awakened in the same bed. For the first time in my life, anti-Semitism scares me.
And I know where I have been. I knew the history of anti-Semitism better than most Jews. New manifestations of it did not fail to anger me. I simply believed, like Rosen, that historically it was, at long last, a spent force. Other well-informed observers had supplied the facts and figures to support this belief. In places that mattered, such as Europe and the United States, these figures showed that anti-Semitism had declined drastically and steadily since World War II. In places where it had not, like Russia and the Arab world, there were, or soon would be, few Jews left. I would have agreed with Barry Rubin, a professor at the Hebrew University, who wrote in 1995:
The starting point for any honest discussion of anti-Semitism today is the phenomenon’s unimportance. Never before, at least since the time Christianity seized power over the Roman Empire, has anti-Semitism been less significant than at present.
I doubt whether anyone would write those words today.
Admittedly, the evidence is circumstantial. I have seen no polls indicating that anti-Semitism has risen sharply anywhere. I have simply reacted to the kinds of things that Rosen has:
An acquaintance from Paris saying that never does she remember Jews being talked about there with such open hostility as they are now. A friend back from Spain relating: “It’s never happened to me before—I only had to say I was from Israel for all eyes to go cold.” An article in the respected French left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur reporting, straight-faced, a long-disproved slander to the effect that soldiers of the Israel Defense Force rape Palestinian women so that their families will then murder them to redeem the family honor. Another article by the respected British novelist A.N. Wilson in the (London) Evening Standard of October 22, coming “reluctantly” to the conclusion that the state of Israel no longer has a right to exist. A piece by Petronella Wyatt in the London Spectator, observing with dismay that “Since September 11 anti-Semitism and its open expression has become respectable at London dinner tables.” (“Well,” Wyatt recounts being told by a liberal member of the House of Lords, “the Jews have been asking for it, and now, thank God, we can say what we think at last.”) A column by the publisher of the German weekly Der Spiegel, comparing Ariel Sharon’s attitude toward Palestinian Arabs with Hitler’s attitude toward the Jews. A cartoon in the December 7 International Herald Tribune, four days after 26 Israelis were killed by suicide bombers to whose recruiters Yasir Arafat had given carte blanche: perched atop a tank with a Jewish star, a bulging “Jewish” nose (which he does not have) on his cruelly contorted face, Ariel Sharon points a cannon at the helpless chairman of the Palestinian Authority and screams, “Prove you have the authority to obey us!” On the wall of Arafat’s wrecked office is a map of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank labeled “Palestine” and showing the 1947 UN partition borders. Palestinian refugees peer through a shell hole in the wall. The International Herald Trib!
All this is quite apart from the accumulating record of actual anti-Semitic incidents in Western Europe, from the burning and defacing of synagogues to the molestation of Jewish schoolchildren. And it is apart, too, from the murderous lunacies about Israel circulating in the Arab and Muslim world, such as the widespread accusation that the Mossad engineered the September 11 attack on the United States and somehow got word to Jewish employees in the World Trade Center not to report for work that day, or the 30-part series—produced by Arab Radio and Television, featuring a cast of 400, and aired during the second half of Ramadan this past year—which “dramatized” the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “For the first time,” enthused a reporter in a leading Egyptian weekly, Arab viewers could see revealed “the central line that still, to this very day, dominates Israel’s policy, political aspirations, and racism.”
Arab viewers were also recently treated, on Kuwaiti TV, to a popular political satire showing Sharon drinking the blood of Palestinian children. But of course, this may not have told them anything they did not know. The medieval charge that Jews drink the blood of Gentile children, or bake Passover bread with it, which has been raised periodically in the Arab world since the Damascus Affair of 1840, was already “proved” in The Matzah of Zion, published in 1983 by the current Syrian minister of defense, Mustafa Tlas. It was seconded two years ago by the Egyptian mass circulation daily al-Ahram, which reported “many recorded cases of the bodies of [Palestinian] Arab children who had disappeared being found, torn to pieces, without a single drop of blood. The most reasonable explanation is that the blood was taken to be kneaded into the dough of extremist Jews.” “The past,” as Rosen puts it, “has come calling.”
For me, the alarm bell had already rung at September’s grotesquely named “conference against racism” in Durban, South Africa, an event soon forgotten by the media in the wake of September 11. But Durban is not so easily forgettable.1 It was not only the largest and best-publicized international anti-Semitic rally in history, it was the first to be attended by all the world’s governments and major humanitarian organizations. Many of these governments, to be sure, including all the European ones, formally opposed the anti-Semitic resolutions on the agenda, which accused Israel of genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, and apartheid. Yet none followed the lead of the United States in walking out when these resolutions were tabled, or publicly pilloried the many delegates who supported them.
The supporters themselves, of course, insisted they were not anti-Semitic. They were merely anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. But one 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.
This is not something that is as obvious to as many people as it should be. Yet only an anti-Semite can think the world would be better off without Israel, just as only a Francophobe can think the world would be better off without France. Only an anti-Semite can systematically accuse Israelis of what they are not guilty of, just as only an Anglophobe can make such accusations against the English. “Jewish” and “Israeli” are not synonymous? No, they are not—but 40 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel. There are Jews who are anti-Zionist? Yes, there are—and there are Englishmen who revile England.
Even this is not putting it strongly enough. There are times when only an anti-Semite can accuse Israel of what it is guilty of.
Let us take the case, lately in the news again, of Sabra and Shatila. These were the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut where, in September 1982, two months after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Christian Lebanese forces murdered hundreds of Palestinians, many of them women and children, while on a mission to flush out armed Palestinian militias and terrorists. Although the exact degree of Israeli complicity in this action is unclear, there is no doubt—as determined by a special commission set up at the time by the Israeli government itself—that the Israeli army permitted the Christian forces to enter the camps and operate freely there; there is also no doubt that the army should have known what these forces were doing and stopped them immediately. Construed most leniently, this was criminal negligence. Since the army’s commander-in-chief at the time was then-defense minister Ariel Sharon, can it be anti-Semitic to try him for war crimes, as a Belgian court, responding to litigation brought by the victims’ families under a 1993 law, is now poised to do?
It can be and it is.
The reason is simple. Justice is prejudicial when not applied fairly and equally. In the case of Belgium’s courts, this means they should indict, or be prepared to indict, criminal negligence in similar cases. One of these took place in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in December 1995, when a Dutch NATO contingent, assigned to protect the town’s Muslim inhabitants against Serbian attack, pulled out and left them at the mercy of the Serbs, who proceeded to massacre thousands of them. The Dutch had every reason to know that such a massacre would take place in their absence. Does anyone believe that, were the families of these slaughtered Bosnians to appeal to Belgian justice, the latter would indict the Dutch officer in command of this contingent, or the UN and NATO officials who counseled him to withdraw?
Or a more recent example. This past December, as the Northern Alliance rolled up the Taliban in Afghanistan, large numbers of Taliban prisoners, especially those belonging to al Qaeda, were executed or permitted to die, some by being shipped long distances in sealed containers in which they suffocated. The Northern Alliance had American military advisers attached to it and was acting as an American proxy. Suppose a Belgian court were asked to indict Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Would the plaintiffs get past the courtroom door?
And this of course is not taking into account the many—the innumerable and unambiguous—war crimes committed around the world in the last two decades from Sudan to Indonesia and from Chechnya to the Congo. It is not taking into account repeated Palestinian atrocities against Israelis, many carried out at the express behest of Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat. Though similar suits have been filed in Belgian courts against figures like Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, Belgian justice has so far agreed to consider indicting Israel alone.
This is anti-Semitism, even if the court’s judges would be shocked to be accused of it. It is anti-Semitism because, as Norman Podhoretz once wrote in these pages, “All criticisms of Israel based on a double standard, rooted as this is in the ancient traditions of anti-Semitic propaganda, deserve to be stigmatized as anti-Semitic.”2 It is anti-Semitism even if those expressing it have never made a consciously anti-Semitic remark, or had a consciously anti-Semitic thought, in their lives.
Can one then be anti-Semitic without knowing it? Of course one can, just as one can be unconsciously anti-black or anti-gay or a misogynist. When prejudice is socially acceptable, we admit it, first of all, to ourselves. When it is taboo—as, with regard to Jews, it has been in Europe and America since the Holocaust—we often conceal it even from ourselves. The preferred way of concealing anti-Semitism in our times is to judge Israel more harshly than other countries. This is why an expert on anti-Semitism like Jerome Chanes was begging the question when he said the 1990 data showed that the linkage in America between “anti-Israel attitudes” and “anti-Semitic beliefs” was “not especially strong.” The pollsters might as well have asked a neurotic about the linkage between his obsessive symptoms and their repressed cause. If the neurotic could acknowledge the linkage, the cause would not be repressed.
Certainly, this is a truth that can be abused. Labeling any negative comment about Israel as prejudicial can be an easy way of fending off criticism, just as anti-Semites like to accuse Jews of doing. Israel should be no more above criticism than other countries. There is a danger, in defending it, of coming to resemble the stutterer in the joke who, turned down for a broadcaster’s job, tells a friend, “I kn-knew th-th-they’d n-never take a J-j-j-jew!”
That is why Podhoretz’s observation is crucial. It is precisely the presence or absence of a double standard that determines whether an attitude toward Israel is biased or not.
Take, at random, the morning of December 13, 2001, when I was working on this article. At six o’clock, I switched on my television to the news on CNN. The day before, ten Israeli civilians had been killed in a Hamas bus attack. The news began with an announcement that Israeli-Palestinian tensions had reached “new heights.” It continued with . . . a report from Gaza on Palestinian suffering and anger, and footage of a Palestinian crowd accompanying the coffins of four men killed by Israel. There was no mention that all four were shot while launching mortars at Israeli settlements. There was no mention of the ten Israelis. And yet, I cautioned myself, perhaps the Israeli side of the story would be told later. Why be a Jewish stutterer?
I should have known better. At 3 P.M. a CNN interviewer was scolding an Israeli cabinet minister for not knowing that Palestinians were killing Jews because of “the illegal Israeli occupation of Arab land.” (I have never seen CNN scold a Palestinian.) At 11 P.M. there were more scenes of the carnage in Gaza, this time of the bombed musical instruments of Arafat’s military band—mangled trombones that were, presumably, every bit as bad as mangled bodies. (Of which, in this retaliatory raid deliberately conducted by Israel on an empty building, there was none.) The following morning, another interviewer handled an Israeli spokesman with aggressive sarcasm and listened with docile respect to a Palestinian one. The ten Israeli dead were by now ancient history.
This is not to say that CNN, or other international networks that behave similarly (the BBC has been worse), never give Israel a fair hearing. They sometimes do. But it is such incremental media bias that more than anything else has created a distorted picture of Israel in much of the world. It does not have to be dramatic. Week by week, month by month, it adds up.
Still, even if such bias is consistent, why insist that its only, or even its most likely, explanation is anti-Semitism? It could be a product of superior Palestinian public relations. It could reflect the instinctive sympathy of journalists for the perceived underdog in a conflict whose roots they do not understand. It could be a response to political or financial pressures that tilt more strongly to the Arabs. Why look for anti-Semites beneath every bed?
And why, especially, look for them when, like Jonathan Rosen, I have never been personally affected by anti-Semitism in any but the most trivial ways? In my 30 years of living in America before moving to Israel, I could count on one hand the number of anti-Semitic incidents I encountered, all in my New York childhood. Unlike the generation of my parents, who remembered signs in New England in the 1930’s that said, “No Jews or Dogs Allowed,” my generation—the one before Rosen’s—never experienced Jewishness as the slightest bar to anything. Joseph Lieberman, a prominent member of that generation, recently swept New England while coming within a few hundred votes of the vice-presidency in an election in which anti-Semitism never figured publicly at all.
Still, a large majority of American Jews, polled in 1990, thought anti-Semitism was a serious problem. What were they responding to that Jews like Rosen and myself were not? Was Earl Raab, a close student of the Jewish community for many decades, right in stating that “The large proportion of American Jews who say they worry about anti-Semitism . . . are really expressing a concern not so much about its currency as about its potential”? And even if he was, why wait for Durban when one should have been just as alarmed by the potential of the horrendous “Zionism-is-racism” resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1975? Why have some Jewish intellectuals either paid no attention whatsoever to anti-Semitism or been less anxious about it than “ordinary” Jews, more sanguine about its future, more inclined, like Raab, to the view that, “If the cycle of anti-Semitic behavior and attitude continues to wind down, if the cultural reservoir of Judeophobia is unused long enough, there is no rational basis for believing that it will not virtually disappear”?
This is not, needless to say, a question that pertains to those Jewish writers and intellectuals who are themselves estranged from, or uninterested in, the concerns of the Jewish community, or who actually sympathize to a greater or lesser degree with the attacks on Israel. Rather, it needs to be asked about those who have a strong Jewish identity and the confidence that comes from it. Is it not curious that they, too, should have been, in Rosen’s image, asleep?
And yet this is perhaps not as paradoxical as it seems. A strongly identified Jew may be less concerned than other Jews with the non-Jew’s opinion of him. Because he unreservedly likes being Jewish, it may not immediately occur to him that he could be disliked for it. He might even be the last to notice if he were, just as he might be the last to wonder what non-Jews say about him in his absence. He is like a fish in the center of a large school of fellow fish, oblivious of the tremors in the water that warn those on the periphery of the approach of sharks.
More than that: such a Jew—I am of course speaking also about myself—may resent anti-Semitism less than he resents the idea of being defined by it. The old saw that Jews who have forgotten their Jewishness will always be reminded of it by the world irritates him not so much because of what it says about the world as because of what it says about the Jews. He does not need to be reminded.
I remember the first time I read, as a college student, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew. A well-intentioned critique written shortly after World War II, it contains a classic formulation: “The Jew is one whom other men consider a Jew: that is the simple truth from which we must start. It is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew.” Had Sartre called me a dirty kike, I could not have felt greater injury. He was telling me I was a nothing, an interior cavity, a blank page waiting to have “Jew” written on it by someone like himself. I would have liked to walk into Les Deux Magots, his Paris café, and inform him that he had me to thank for being French, which he only was because I thought he was.
For the same reason, I refused to put the Holocaust at the center, or anywhere near the center, of my sense of being a Jew. The Holocaust was not a Jewish deed. It was a Gentile one, and I declined to be defined by what had been done to me rather than by what I had done. I would not have put it exactly as did Jonathan Rosen, who felt that it was “an act of mental health” to recognize that the world of his father, a Hitler refugee, “was not my world and that his fears were the product of an experience alien to me.” I had never thought of the Jewish experience in Europe that way. But not to identify with the annihilation of it was an act of mental health. One remembered one’s catastrophes—with horror, with grief, with rage, and with (yes) shame. One did not celebrate them or build more than the necessary minimum of monuments to them.
The Holocaust has made some Jews less, rather than more, able to see anti-Semitism around them. This is because, if the Nazis demonized the Jew, they also demonized the anti-Semite. In itself, anti-Semitism is not necessarily a lethal vice. But although it is more commonly characterized by the desire to exclude Jews than to kill them, and in this respect is not very different from other ethnic prejudices, its culmination in the Holocaust has forever distinguished it from them. Historically, discrimination against Asians has been far worse in America than discrimination against Jews—yet because no one has ever proposed exterminating Asians, it does not seem, even in an age of political correctness, a moral enormity to be accused of prejudice against them.
The same cannot be said—to the Jewish mind at least—of anti-Semitism. It can no longer be genteel. And since it cannot be, there may be a reluctance to call it by its proper name. When Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador to England, recently referred to Israel at a London dinner party as “a shitty little country” and then denied being anti-Semitic, there was a temptation to give him the benefit of the doubt by acquitting him, not of libel, but of complicity in murder.
As a Zionist, too, one may hesitate to interpret attacks on Israel as anti-Semitic. It was Zionism’s proud claim, after all, that it would eliminate anti-Semitism by providing Jews with a homeland to escape to, since anti-Semitism could not exist without Jews. Today we know that it can exist without Jews, or at least without focusing on them—and precisely because there is a Jewish homeland to represent them. But admitting this is tantamount to admitting that Zionism has failed in a central objective. It is to acknowledge that, whatever merit there may have been in the claim that Israel would weaken anti-Semitism by fostering a more positive image of the Jew, this has long been outweighed by the anti-Semitization of the image of Israel itself. For anyone believing that Zionism was the most far-sighted of all Jewish responses to modernity, and the one best calculated to restore the Jews to the family of man, this is a bitter reality to accept.
And the persistence of anti-Semitism after the Holocaust must be even more bitter for the committed Jewish secularist. Traditionally, Jews suffered from anti-Semitism; they were not bewildered by it. On the contrary, they understood not only that it existed but that it must exist; that hatred of them was hatred of the God Who chose them; and that the Gentile who “in every generation and generation rises up to destroy us” was acting a role in a conflict that would end only in the fullness of time. Anti-Semitism was sometimes devastating. It was never surprising or demoralizing.
But for the Jew unshielded by religious belief, the demoralization caused by the persistence of anti-Semitism is profound. There is simply no reasonable context to put it in. Once upon a time it could be viewed as the product of specific religious, social, or economic circumstances, something that would vanish with the advent of Enlightenment, or Emancipation, or socialism, or liberal democracy. But neither Enlightenment, nor Emancipation, nor socialism, nor liberal democracy has made good on that promise, though the last has done better than the others. Or it could be explained as the Jews’ own fault, an incorrigible something in their character that alienated others in all times and places—but the Jew who has not internalized this explanation by becoming an anti-Semite himself knows that, whatever his failings, these are on the whole no worse than those of others who are not held in contempt for them. Or it could be seen, in the words of one writer, “as a symptom of a generalized disease of the Western mind”—but it is most rampant today in Islamic countries that do not possess the Western mind. Or it could be mystically accepted, in Anne Roiphe’s words, as “a demonic force, loose in the world, that has chosen for its victim the Jewish people.” Yet as Roiphe observes, this is to despair of understanding it at all; it is to conclude that, if the moral nausea caused by the murder of six million Jews could not purge the world of anti-Semitism, nothing ever can or will.
Rather than admit that something is incomprehensible, people often tend to deny its existence, and intellectuals are more prone to this tendency than others. The two-and-a-half decades between “Zionism is racism” and Durban facilitated such a denial. They opened with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, which temporarily silenced virulent criticism of Israel. There followed the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, succeeded five years later by the first intifada; while leading to a fresh rhetorical assault on the Jewish state, these might have left one wondering whether Israel’s own policies and actions were not the cause, to which a concerned world was at most overreacting. Next, in 1993, came Oslo and another lull. But the current vilification of Israel began to build again during the Oslo process itself, reaching new heights after it broke down, and especially since the summer of 2000 and Ehud Barak’s tremendous concessions to the Palestinians.
That anti-Semitism has grown in direct proportion to Palestinian violence against Israel; that it has systematically ignored this violence in order to concentrate exclusively on the evils of Israeli retaliation; that it has gotten worse even as the world has applauded, or passively accepted, an American attack in Afghanistan, many times more destructive of innocent lives than any Israeli reprisal, on terror groups closely allied with Israel’s enemies—this defies all rationalization. It can open the eyes even of sleepers.
One must not give an inch on this point. The new anti-Israelism is nothing but the old anti-Semitism in disguise.
I will be told that my own account belies this. If Israel’s image in the world has improved or deteriorated in concert with the state of its relations with its Arab neighbors, surely the problem is not anti-Semitism but those relations. Improve them once more—stop occupying Palestinian land—and the problem will disappear.
I invoke the double standard. Who at London dinner parties makes nasty remarks about Hindus because India has militarily occupied Muslim Kashmir for half a century? What French diplomat calls China a “big, shitty country” because of its occupation of Tibet? Besides, even if an Israeli-Palestinian idyll would blunt the critics, such an idyll cannot come to pass. A truce is conceivable, perhaps even a formal settlement based on Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory conquered in 1967; a reconciliation, untroubled by further Palestinian and Muslim demands, is not. As long as these demands exist (“But why doesn’t Israel take back the families of the Palestinian refugees?” “But why doesn’t it return the land it stole in 1948?” “But why must it be a Jewish state?”) and can be met only by Israel’s destruction, anti-Semitism will go on hiding behind them.
One must keep a sense of proportion. Support for Israel continues to be strong in many places, particularly in the United States and in the Bush administration. Even in Europe, where sympathy for it is markedly lower, the country has held its own diplomatically. Polls show that Americans side four-to-one with Israel as against the Palestinian Authority; among Frenchmen the proportion is four-to-three.
No doubt it is not anti-Semitism but Arab oil and political and financial power, compared to which Israel’s own resources are tiny, that account for many of Israel’s international difficulties. Given that power, indeed, the remarkable thing is how well Israel has maintained its position. And, on balance, this position has been strengthened by September 11 and its aftermath. Perhaps Barbara Amiel, the columnist in whose London home Ambassador Bernard committed his petit faux pas, was prescient when she wrote in an open letter to Petronella Wyatt:
Don’t worry, Petronella. . . . Powerful as the truth may be, it needs a nudge from the 15,000-pound Daisy Cutter bombs [used in Afghanistan] once in a while. . . . All those people bad-mouthing the Jews and Israel will quiet down. You are looking at the tail end of the train, but the engine has already turned a corner and is going in the opposite direction. Nothing succeeds like success. America is driving this train, and the world will get on board—though the last carriage may be those London dinner parties.
One certainly hopes so. But public opinion, at least when it comes to foreign policy, usually changes from the top down, and opinion at the top is less reassuring than opinion in the middle. In a December 20 Pew Research Center survey of “opinion makers” in 24 countries, defined as “influential people in politics, media, business, culture, and government,” 68 percent of European respondents and 35 percent of Americans thought “the United States has been too supportive of Israel.” Only 45 percent of the American respondents thought the opposite.
These are worrisome figures. Support for Israel, which is difficult to justify on cold grounds of national interest, ultimately depends on broad public backing—and this is especially true of the United States, where such support entails not only large sums of money but also, more than ever since September 11, large perceived risks. The potential for slippage in the willingness to pay a price for this friendship, should Israel be seen as morally undeserving of it, is there. And at this juncture in history, the moral undermining of Israel is anti-Semitism’s primary goal. Compared to it, such arcane pursuits as Holocaust denial are trivial. Only the isolation of Israel to the point that it might one day have to stand alone against enemies stronger than it can possibly lead to another Jewish catastrophe.
Jewish leaders and friendly Jewish intellectuals have until now hesitated to raise the charge of anti-Semitism against persistently unfair criticism of Israel. They have not wanted to appear alarmist or whining. They have feared muddying the waters by stirring up an issue that seemed quiescent. With Earl Raab, they have questioned the idea that anti-Semitism is a “cultural reservoir so powerful that it cannot be emptied [but] lies there irreversibly, latent at best, like a reservoir not of water but of gasoline waiting to burst into flame.” They—I—have been wrong. Israel is only the match. Fighting the flames means knowing where they come from.
1 See Arch Puddington, “The Wages of Durban,” in the November 2001 COMMENTARY.
2 “What is Anti-Semitism?,” February 1992.