- "The Shoah is frequently exploited in America
and Israel to deflect and forbid any criticism of Israel... It gives American
Jews in particular a unique, retrospective "victim identity";
it allows Israel to trump any other nation's sufferings (and justify its
own excesses) with the claim that the Jewish catastrophe was unique and
incomparable; and... it is adduced as an all-purpose metaphor for evil
-- anywhere, everywhere and always -- and taught to schoolchildren all
over America and Europe without any reference to context or cause."
- "Anti-Semitism" today is a genuine problem.
It is also an illusory problem. The distinction between the two is one
of those contemporary issues that most divide Europe from the United States.
The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and
Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally
recognized in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances
and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and
elsewhere. Thus the increase in anti-Jewish incidents in France or Belgium
is correctly attributed to young people, frequently of Muslim or Arab background,
the children or grandchildren of immigrants. This is a new and disconcerting
social challenge and it is far from clear how it should be addressed, beyond
the provision of increased police protection. But it is not, as they say,
"your grandfather's anti-Semitism."
- As seen from the United States, however, Europe--especially
"old," or Western, Europe--is in the grip of recidivism: reverting
to type, as it were. Last February Rockwell Schnabel (the US ambassador
to the European Union) spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe "getting to
a point where it is as bad as it was in the 30s." In May 2002 George
Will wrote in the Washington Post that anti-Semitism among Europeans "has
become the second--and final?--phase of the struggle for a 'final solution
to the Jewish Question.'" These are not isolated, hysterical instances:
Among American elites as well as in the population at large, it is widely
assumed that Europe, having learned nothing from its past, is once again
awash in the old anti-Semitism.
- The American view clearly reflects an exaggerated anxiety.
The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe today is real, but it needs to be
kept in proportion. According to the Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv
University, there were 517 anti-Semitic incidents in France in 2002 (503
in 2003) and fifty-one in Belgium (twenty-nine in 2003). These ranged from
anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish-owned shops to Molotov cocktails thrown
into synagogues in Paris, Lyons and elsewhere.
- Measured by everything from graffiti to violent assaults,
anti-Semitism has indeed been on the increase in some European countries
in recent years; but then it has in America as well. The American Anti-Defamation
League reported sixty anti-Semitic incidents on US college campuses alone
in 1999, 106 in 2002 and sixty-eight in 2003. The ADL recorded 1,559 anti-Semitic
incidents in the United States in 2002 (1,557 in 2003), up from 906 in
1986. Even if anti-Semitic aggression in France, Belgium and elsewhere
in Europe has been grievously underreported, there is no evidence to suggest
that it is much more widespread in Europe than in the United States.
- As for expressions of anti-Semitic opinion: Evidence
from the European Union's Eurobarometer surveys, the French polling service
SOFRES and the ADL's own surveys all point in the same direction. There
is today in many European countries, as in the United States, a continuing
tolerance for mild verbal anti-Semitism, as well as a continuing propensity
to believe longstanding stereotypes about Jews: e.g., that they have a
disproportionate influence in economic life. But the same polls confirm
that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than
their parents were. Among non-Muslim French youth, especially, anti-Semitic
sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible. A majority of young
people questioned in France in January 2002 believed that we should speak
more, not less, about the Holocaust; and nearly nine out of ten of them
agreed that attacks on synagogues were "scandalous." These figures
are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the United
- The one thing on which European and American commentators
can agree is that there is a link between hostility to Jews and events
in the Middle East. But they draw diametrically opposed conclusions as
to the meaning of this link. It is increasingly clear to observers in France,
for example, that assaults on Jews in working-class suburbs of big cities
are typically driven by frustration and anger at the government of Israel.
Jews and Jewish institutions are a convenient and vulnerable local surrogate.
Moreover, the rhetorical armory of traditional European anti-Semitism--the
Protocols of the Elders of Zion; Jews' purported economic power and conspiratorial
networks; even blood libels--has been pressed into service by the media
in Damascus, Cairo and elsewhere. Thanks to satellite television, anti-Jewish
images and myths can now spread with ease across the youthful Arab diaspora.
- But whereas most Europeans believe that the problem originates
in the Middle East and must therefore be addressed there, the ADL and many
American commentators conclude rather that there is no longer any difference
between being "against" Israel and "against" Jews:
i.e., that in Europe anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism have become synonymous.
But that is palpably false. Some of the highest levels of pro-Palestinian
sympathy in Europe today are recorded in Denmark, a country that also registers
as one of the least anti-Semitic by the ADL's own criteria--and the ADL
has worked harder than anyone to propagate the image of rampant European
anti-Semitism. Another country with a high level of support for the Arabs
of Palestine is the Netherlands; yet according to the ADL the Dutch have
the lowest anti-Semitic quotient in Europe, and 83 percent of Dutch citizens
believe the government should take a role in combating anti-Semitism.
- In other words, some of the most widespread pro-Palestinian
and even anti-Zionist views are to be found in countries that have long
been--and still are--decidedly philo-Semitic. And there is good evidence
that Europeans have considerably more balanced views than Americans on
the Israel-Palestine conflict in general. Thus, although Europeans are
more likely to sympathize with the Palestinians than with Israel, they
do so only by a ratio of 24:15, according to the ADL. Americans, by contrast,
sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, by a ratio of 55:18
- Europeans are also better placed to appreciate that old-style
European anti-Semites were, and are, frequently quite sympathetic to Israel--and
the worse Israel behaves, the fonder they become. Thus the French National
Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, in an interview in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz
in April 2002, expressed his "understanding" of Ariel Sharon's
harsh policies ("A war on terror is a brutal thing"), comparable
in his opinion to France's antiterrorist practices in Algeria forty years
earlier, which he thought were no less justified.
- The source of American anxiety and confusion is the unstinting
support given by the United States to Israel ($3 billion per annum and
uncritical backing for all its actions), and the ensuing sentiment among
many Americans that since criticism of Israel is close to impermissible,
anti-Zionist opinions must be anti-Semitic in origin. Indeed, the gap separating
Europeans from Americans on the question of Israel and the Palestinians
is one of the biggest impediments to transatlantic understanding today.
- This gulf is well illustrated in a recent essay by Omer
Bartov, a distinguished professor of European history at Brown University.
In a lengthy discussion of contemporary anti-Semitism published last February
in The New Republic, Bartov argued that just as the world failed to take
Hitler at his word in the 1930s, so we are underestimating or even ignoring
the revival, today, of similarly virulent anti-Semitism, whose consequences
might prove comparably devastating. The message of the essay was that if
anti-Zionism is a camouflage for anti-Semitism (and Bartov thinks it often
is), then we should call it by its real name and combat it as such. In
Europe especially it has become politically correct, Bartov suggests, to
ignore--or play down--expressions of anti-Semitic opinion, particularly
in the academic community. The time has come, he concludes, to call a spade
- Bartov himself does not make the mistake of tarring any
and all criticism of Israel with the brush of anti-Semitism. But by relentlessly
drawing comparisons and analogies between contemporary anti-Zionism and
the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the 1930s, he ends up conflating past and present.
If we were wrong seventy years ago not to take Hitler's exterminationist
intentions seriously, he suggests, we are just as wrong to make any allowance
for Hamas, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (who said at
a 2003 conference that "Jews rule this world by proxy"), renegade
German politicians and novelists, misguided American academics, the former
French ambassador to Britain (who several years ago referred to Israel
as "that shitty little country") and no doubt countless others.
- In Bartov's account, people might well have good reasons
to criticize the policies of the Israeli government (Bartov himself is
no admirer of Ariel Sharon). But those are not the reasons many of them
express such criticisms. It is the hatred of Jews--Jews in Israel, Jews
in Europe, Jews everywhere and always--that accounts for the virulence
of the critique. The trouble with this account of the matter is, as I suggested
above, that it does indeed make the relevant link between the Middle East
and modern anti-Semitism, but inverts the causality.
- It is the policies of Israeli governments, especially
in the past two decades, that have provoked widespread anti-Jewish feelings
in Europe and elsewhere. This may seem absurd, but there is a certain tragic
logic to it. Zionists have always insisted that there is no distinction
between the Jewish people and the Jewish state. The latter offers a right
of citizenship to Jews anywhere in the world. Israel is not the state of
all its citizens, much less all its residents; it is the state of (all)
Jews. Its leaders purport to speak for Jews everywhere. They can hardly
be surprised when their own behavior provokes a backlash against...Jews.
- Thus Israel itself has made a significant contribution
to the resurgence of the anti-Semitism Bartov and others describe. This
is an outcome with which many Israeli politicians are far from unhappy:
It retroactively justifies their own bad behavior and contributes, as they
proudly assert, to a rise in the number of European Jews leaving for Israel.
At a time when many Israelis are obsessed with the prospect of becoming
a minority in their own enlarged territory, the inflow of Jews fleeing
real or imagined persecution is an occasion for self-congratulation.
- Bartov concedes a distinction between "soft-core"
and "hard-core" anti-Semitism. However, he still insists that
there is a single slippery slope leading from misguided academics and intellectuals
to pathological murderers. Historically this may be true. But today the
implications of such a conflation of different levels of criticism and
prejudice are dangerously censorious. No doubt some of Israel's strongest
critics do display anti-Semitic propensities. But that doesn't disqualify
anti-Zionism as ipso facto anti-Semitic: As Arthur Koestler observed back
in 1948, you can't help people being right for the wrong reasons. If those
of us who think Israel is behaving shamefully follow Bartov's reasoning,
we'll be constrained to silence for fear of being accused of complicity
in anti-Semitism ourselves.
- What, then, is to be done? Those of us who take seriously
the problem of anti-Semitism--but who utterly reject the suggestion that
we ourselves are in danger of sympathizing with anti-Semitism under the
guise of anti-Zionism--must begin by constructing and defending a firewall
between the two. Israel does not speak for Jews; but Israel's claim to
speak for Jews everywhere is the chief reason that anti-Israel sentiments
are transposed into Judeophobia. Jews and others must learn to shed inhibitions
and criticize Israel's policies and actions just as they would those of
any other established state.
- It may be easier for Jews to take their distance from
Israel's illegal acts and misguided calculations than it is for non-Jews--the
latter are always vulnerable to moral blackmail by Zionists, especially
in countries with anti-Semitic pasts. But we shall never be able to think
straight about anti-Semitism until this firewall is in place. Once Germans,
French and others can comfortably condemn Israel without an uneasy conscience,
and can look their Muslim fellow citizens in the face, it will be possible
to deal with the real problem. For indeed there is a problem. This is an
arena in which legitimate responses shade all too readily into familiar
- Thus, to take one notorious example: Critics of the foreign
policy of the Bush Administration who claim that it is directed in many
cases by men with close ties to Israel are not mistaken. Contemporary US
foreign policy is in certain respects mortgaged to Israel. Several very
senior Bush appointees spent the 1990s advising politicians of the Israeli
far right. But that does not mean that "Jewish interests" run
the American government, as some European and many Arab commentators have
inferred and suggested. To say that Israel and its lobbyists have an excessive
and disastrous influence on the policies of the world's superpower is a
statement of fact. But to say that "the Jews" control America
for their own ends is to espouse anti-Semitism.
- Moreover, the slippage between criticism of America and
dislike for Jews long antedates the founding of the state of Israel. "Anti-Americanism"
and anti-Semitism have been closely interwoven at least since the 1920s,
when European intellectuals looked with nervous distaste across the Atlantic
and saw a rootless, predatory, commercial society, the incarnation of cosmopolitan
modernity, threatening the continuity and distinctiveness of their own
national cultures. Many critics of America, in Germany or France or Russia,
were all too quick to identify the shifting, unfamiliar contours of an
Americanizing world with the essential traits of a homeless Jewry. The
link with Israel is new, but the image of "Jewish" America is
an old story and a troubling one.
- Or, to take an even more sensitive instance: The Shoah
is frequently exploited in America and Israel to deflect and forbid any
criticism of Israel. Indeed, the Holocaust of Europe's Jews is nowadays
exploited thrice over: It gives American Jews in particular a unique, retrospective
"victim identity"; it allows Israel to trump any other nation's
sufferings (and justify its own excesses) with the claim that the Jewish
catastrophe was unique and incomparable; and (in contradiction to the first
two) it is adduced as an all-purpose metaphor for evil--anywhere, everywhere
and always--and taught to schoolchildren all over America and Europe without
any reference to context or cause.
- This modern instrumentalization of the Holocaust for
political advantage is ethically disreputable and politically imprudent.
To deplore this abuse of other people's sufferings seems to me an important
civic duty. But to conclude that "the Jews" have made too much
of what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945, or that it is now time
to move on--that edges us much closer to anti-Semitism.
- This brings us to a related and equally sensitive issue.
Among European intellectuals and artists--in Germany, for example--anti-Semitism
occasionally surfaces in discussions of how to speak openly about the unmanaged
past. Why, people ask, after all these years should we not speak of the
burning of Germany's cities, or the sinking of refugee boats, or even the
uncomfortable fact that life in Hitler's Germany--for Germans--was far
from unpleasant, at least until the last years of World War II? Because
of what Germany did to the Jews? But we've spoken of this for decades--the
Federal Republic is one of the most philo-Semitic nations in the world;
for how much longer must we (Germans) look over our shoulder? Will the
Jews never just forgive us and let everyone move on? As this last question
suggests, what begins as the search for historical honesty risks ending
perilously close to resentment at "the Jews."
- In formerly Communist countries one frequently encounters
resentment and perplexity, among well-informed and educated people, at
the West's failure to understand the enormity of the crimes of Communism.
"Why won't you compare Nazism to Communism?" they ask. There
are a number of answers that one might offer, but the question is not unreasonable,
especially when posed by Communism's victims. And it must be addressed
openly, lest the citizens of Eastern Europe tell themselves what a number
of intellectuals in Romania, Hungary and elsewhere have already openly
suggested: that the reason we in the West reject the comparison is that
Nazism persecuted Jews above all, and it is Jews who set the international
agenda for remorse, retribution and reparation. Once again, anti-Semitism
emerges as the bastard child of otherwise reasonable political preoccupations.
- There is no simple answer to the dilemmas raised by such
issues. Somehow we need to juggle the need to speak honestly and openly
about present politics and past sufferings without either imposing silences
or legitimizing the resurrection of prejudices. In my view it is incumbent
upon Jews in particular--Jewish writers, Jewish intellectuals, Jewish scholars--to
address these contested and disconcerting problems. Because Jewish critics
of Israel are less vulnerable to moral blackmail from Israel's defenders,
they should be in the forefront of public discussion of the Middle East,
in America and Europe alike.
- Similarly, Jewish commentators need to take the lead
in opening up difficult and uncomfortable conversations about the past--and
the present--in Europe. Public discussion in Germany especially, but elsewhere
too, is often trapped between politically correct evasions and resentful
"taboo-breaking." The majority's fear of offending Jewish sensibilities
arouses a growing minority's desire to do just that. We can never "normalize"
the European history of anti-Semitism, nor should we. But if the charge
of "anti-Semitism" remains suspended like Damocles' sword across
the European public space--as it is today across much of America--we shall
all fall silent. And between controversial debate and fearful silence we
would be well advised to choose the former. Silence is always a mistake.
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