- Every once in a while, some left-wing Jewish writer will
take a deep breath, open up his (or her) great big heart, and tell us that
criticism of Israel or Zionism is not antisemitism. Silently they congratulate
themselves on their courage. With a little sigh, they suppress any twinge
of concern that maybe the goyim--let alone the Arabs--can't be trusted
with this dangerous knowledge.
- Sometimes it is gentile hangers-on, whose ethos if not
their identity aspires to Jewishness, who take on this task. Not to be
utterly risqué, they then hasten to remind us that antisemitism
is nevertheless to be taken very seriously. That Israel, backed by a pronounced
majority of Jews, happens to be waging a race war against the Palestinians
is all the more reason we should be on our guard. Who knows? it might possibly
stir up some resentment!
- I take a different view. I think we should almost never
take antisemitism seriously, and maybe we should have some fun with it.
I think it is particularly unimportant to the Israel-Palestine conflict,
except perhaps as a diversion from the real issues. I will argue for the
truth of these claims; I also defend their propriety. I don't think making
them is on a par with pulling the wings off flies.
- "Antisemitism", properly and narrowly speaking,
doesn't mean hatred of semites; that is to confuse etymology with definition.
It means hatred of Jews. But here, immediately, we come up against the
venerable shell-game of Jewish identity: "Look! We're a religion!
No! a race! No! a cultural entity! Sorry--a religion!" When we tire
of this game, we get suckered into another: "anti-Zionism is antisemitism!
" quickly alternates with: "Don't confuse Zionism with Judaism!
How dare you, you antisemite!"
- Well, let's be good sports. Let's try defining antisemitism
as broadly as any supporter of Israel would ever want: antisemitism can
be hatred of the Jewish race, or culture, or religion, or hatred of Zionism.
Hatred, or dislike, or opposition, or slight unfriendliness.
- But supporters of Israel won't find this game as much
fun as they expect. Inflating the meaning of 'antisemitism' to include
anything politically damaging to Israel is a double-edged sword. It may
be handy for smiting your enemies, but the problem is that definitional
inflation, like any inflation, cheapens the currency. The more things get
to count as antisemitic, the less awful antisemitism is going to sound.
This happens because, while no one can stop you from inflating definitions,
you still don't control the facts. In particular, no definition of 'antisemitism'
is going to eradicate the substantially pro-Palestinian version of the
facts which I espouse, as do most people in Europe, a great many Israelis,
and a growing number of North Americans.
- What difference does that make? Suppose, for example,
an Israeli rightist says that the settlements represent the pursuit of
aspirations fundamental to the Jewish people, and to oppose the settlements
is antisemitism. We might have to accept this claim; certainly it is difficult
to refute. But we also cannot abandon the well-founded belief that the
settlements strangle the Palestinian people and extinguish any hope of
peace. So definitional acrobatics are all for nothing: we can only say,
screw the fundamental aspirations of the Jewish people; the settlements
are wrong. We must add that, since we are obliged to oppose the settlements,
we are obliged to be antisemitic. Through definitional inflation, some
form of 'antisemitism' has become morally obligatory.
- It gets worse if anti-Zionism is labeled antisemitic,
because the settlements, even if they do not represent fundamental aspirations
of the Jewish people, are an entirely plausible extension of Zionism. To
oppose them is indeed to be anti-Zionist, and therefore, by the stretched
definition, antisemitic. The more antisemitism expands to include opposition
to Israeli policies, the better it looks. Given the crimes to be laid at
the feet of Zionism, there is another simple syllogism: anti-Zionism is
a moral obligation, so, if anti-Zionism is antisemitism, antisemitism is
a moral obligation.
- What crimes? Even most apologists for Israel have given
up denying them, and merely hint that noticing them is a bit antisemitic.
After all, Israel 'is no worse than anyone else'. First, so what? At age
six we knew that "everyone's doing it" is no excuse; have we
forgotten? Second, the crimes are no worse only when divorced from their
purpose. Yes, other people have killed civilians, watched them die for
want of medical care, destroyed their homes, ruined their crops, and used
them as human shields. But Israel does these things to correct the inaccuracy
of Israel Zangwill's 1901 assertion that "Palestine is a country without
a people; the Jews are a people without a country". It hopes to create
a land entirely empty of gentiles, an Arabia deserta in which Jewish children
can laugh and play throughout a wasteland called peace.
- Well before the Hitler era, Zionists came thousands of
miles to dispossess people who had never done them the slightest harm,
and whose very existence they contrived to ignore. Zionist atrocities were
not part of the initial plan. They emerged as the racist obliviousness
of a persecuted people blossomed into the racial supremacist ideology of
a persecuting one. That is why the commanders who directed the rapes, mulilations
and child-killings of Deir Yassin went on to become prime ministers of
Israel.(*) But these murders were not enough. Today, when Israel could
have peace for the taking, it conducts another round of dispossession,
slowly, deliberately making Palestine unliveable for Palestinians, and
liveable for Jews. Its purpose is not defense or public order, but the
extinction of a people. True, Israel has enough PR-savvy to eliminate them
with an American rather than a Hitlerian level of violence. This is a kinder,
gentler genocide that portrays its perpetrators as victims.
- Israel is building a racial state, not a religious one.
Like my parents, I have always been an atheist. I am entitled by the biology
of my birth to Israeli citizenship; you, perhaps, are the most fervent
believer in Judaism, but are not. Palestinians are being squeezed and killed
for me, not for you. They are to be forced into Jordan, to perish in a
civil war. So no, shooting Palestinian civilians is not like shooting Vietnamese
or Chechen civilians. The Palestinians aren't 'collateral damage' in a
war against well-armed communist or separatist forces. They are being shot
because Israel thinks all Palestinians should vanish or die, so people
with one Jewish grandparent can build subdivisions on the rubble of their
homes. This is not the bloody mistake of a blundering superpower but an
emerging evil, the deliberate strategy of a state conceived in and dedicated
to an increasingly vicious ethnic nationalism. It has relatively few corpses
to its credit so far, but its nuclear weapons can kill perhaps 25 million
people in a few hours.
- Do we want to say it is antisemitic to accuse, not just
the Israelis, but Jews generally of complicity in these crimes against
humanity? Again, maybe not, because there is a quite reasonable case for
such assertions. Compare them, for example, to the claim that Germans generally
were complicit in such crimes. This never meant that every last German,
man, woman, idiot and child, were guilty. It meant that most Germans were.
Their guilt, of course, did not consist in shoving naked prisoners into
gas chambers. It consisted in support for the people who planned such acts,
or--as many overwrought, moralistic Jewish texts will tell you--for denying
the horror unfolding around them, for failing to speak out and resist,
for passive consent. Note that the extreme danger of any kind of active
resistance is not supposed to be an excuse here.
- Well, virtually no Jew is in any kind of danger from
speaking out. And speaking out is the only sort of resistance required.
If many Jews spoke out, it would have an enormous effect. But the overwhelming
majority of Jews do not, and in the vast majority of cases, this is because
they support Israel. Now perhaps the whole notion of collective responsibility
should be discarded; perhaps some clever person will convince us that we
have to do this. But at present, the case for Jewish complicity seems much
stronger than the case for German complicity. So if it is not racist, and
reasonable, to say that the Germans were complicit in crimes against humanity,
then it is not racist, and reasonable, to say the same of the Jews. And
should the notion of collective responsibility be discarded, it would still
be reasonable to say that many, perhaps most adult Jewish individuals support
a state that commits war crimes, because that's just true. So if saying
these things is antisemitic, than it can be reasonable to be antisemitic.
- In other words there is a choice to be made. You can
use 'antisemitism' to fit your political agenda, or you can use it as a
term of condemnation, but you can't do both. If antisemitism is to stop
coming out reasonable or moral, it has to be narrowly and unpolemically
defined. It would be safe to confine antisemitism to explicitly racial
hatred of Jews, to attacking people simply because they had been born Jewish.
But it would be uselessly safe: even the Nazis did not claim to hate people
simply because they had been born Jewish. They claimed to hate the Jews
because they were out to dominate the Aryans. Clearly such a view should
count as antisemitic, whether it belongs to the cynical racists who concocted
it or to the fools who swallowed it.
- There is only one way to guarantee that the term "antisemitism"
captures all and only bad acts or attitudes towards Jews. We have to start
with what we can all agree are of that sort, and see that the term names
all and only them. We probably share enough morality to do this.
- For instance, we share enough morality to say that all
racially based acts and hatreds are bad, so we can safely count them as
antisemitic. But not all 'hostility towards Jews', even if that means hostility
towards the overwhelming majority of Jews, should count as antisemitic.
Nor should all hostility towards Judaism, or Jewish culture.
- I, for example, grew up in Jewish culture and, like many
people growing up in a culture, I have come to dislike it. But it is unwise
to count my dislike as antisemitic, not because I am Jewish, but because
it is harmless. Perhaps not utterly harmless: maybe, to some tiny extent,
it will somehow encourage some of the harmful acts or attitudes we'd want
to call antisemitic. But so what? Exaggerated philosemitism, which regards
all Jews as brilliant warm and witty saints, might have the same effect.
The dangers posed by my dislike are much too small to matter. Even widespread,
collective loathing for a culture is normally harmless. French culture,
for instance, seems to be widely disliked in North America, and no one,
including the French, consider this some sort of racial crime.
- Not even all acts and attitudes harmful to Jews generally
should be considered antisemitic. Many people dislike American culture;
some boycott American goods. Both the attitude and the acts may harm Americans
generally, but there is nothing morally objectionable about either. Defining
these acts as anti-Americanism will only mean that some anti-Americanism
is perfectly acceptable. If you call opposition to Israeli policies antisemitic
on the grounds that this opposition harms Jews generally, it will only
mean that some antisemitism is equally acceptable.
- If antisemitism is going to be a term of condemnation,
then, it must apply beyond explicitly racist acts or thoughts or feelings.
But it cannot apply beyond clearly unjustified and serious hostility to
Jews. The Nazis made up historical fantasies to justify their attacks;
so do modern antisemites who trust in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
So do the closet racists who complain about Jewish dominance of the economy.
This is antisemitism in a narrow, negative sense of the word. It is action
or propaganda designed to hurt Jews, not because of anything they could
avoid doing, but because they are what they are. It also applies to the
attitudes that propaganda tries to instill. Though not always explicitly
racist, it involves racist motives and the intention to do real damage.
Reasonably well-founded opposition to Israeli policies, even if that opposition
hurts all Jews, does not fit this description. Neither does simple, harmless
dislike of things Jewish.
- So far, I've suggested that it's best to narrow the definition
of antisemitism so that no act can be both antisemitic and unobjectionable.
But we can go further. Now that we're through playing games, let's ask
about the role of *genuine*, bad antisemitism in the Israel-Palestine conflict,
and in the world at large.
- Undoubtedly there is genuine antisemitism in the Arab
world: the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the myths
about stealing the blood of gentile babies. This is utterly inexcusable.
So was your failure to answer Aunt Bee's last letter. In other words, it
is one thing to be told: you must simply accept that antisemitism is evil;
to do otherwise is to put yourself outside our moral world. But it is quite
something else to have someone try to bully you into proclaiming that antisemitism
is the Evil of Evils. We are not children learning morality; it is our
responsibility to set our own moral priorities. We cannot do this by looking
at horrible images from 1945 or listening to the anguished cries of suffering
columnists. We have to ask how much harm antisemitism is doing, or is likely
to do, not in the past, but today. And we must ask where such harm might
occur, and why.
- Supposedly there is great danger in the antisemitism
of the Arab world. But Arab antisemitism isn't the cause of Arab hostility
towards Israel or even towards Jews. It is an effect. The progress of Arab
antisemitism fits nicely with the progress of Jewish encroachment and Jewish
atrocities. This is not to excuse genuine antisemitism; it is to trivialize
it. It came to the Middle East with Zionism and it will abate when Zionism
ceases to be an expansionist threat. Indeed its chief cause is not antisemitic
propaganda but the decades-old, systematic and unrelenting efforts of Israel
to implicate all Jews in its crimes. If Arab anti-semitism persists after
a peace agreement, we can all get together and cluck about it. But it still
won't do Jews much actual harm. Arab governments could only lose by permitting
attacks on their Jewish citizens; to do so would invite Israeli intervention.
And there is little reason to expect such attacks to materialize: if all
the horrors of Israel's recent campaigns did not provoke them, it is hard
to imagine what would. It would probably take some Israeli act so awful
and so criminal as to overshadow the attacks themselves.
- If antisemitism is likely to have terrible effects, it
is far more likely to have them in Western Europe. The neo-fascist resurgence
there is all too real. But is it a danger to Jews? There is no doubt that
LePen, for instance, is antisemitic. There is also no evidence whatever
that he intends to do anything about it. On the contrary, he makes every
effort to pacify the Jews, and perhaps even enlist their help against his
real targets, the 'Arabs'. He would hardly be the first political figure
to ally himself with people he disliked. But if he had some deeply hidden
plan against the Jews, that *would* be unusual: Hitler and the Russian
antisemitic rioters were wonderfully open about their intentions, and they
didn't court Jewish support. And it is a fact that some French Jews see
LePen as a positive development or even an ally. (see, for instance, "`LePen
is good for us,' Jewish supporter says", Ha'aretz May 04, 2002, and
Mr. Goldenburg's April 23rd comments on France TV.)
- Of course there are historical reasons for fearing a
horrendous attack on Jews. And anything is possible: there could be a massacre
of Jews in Paris tomorrow, or of Algerians. Which is more likely? If there
are any lessons of history, they must apply in roughly similar circumstances.
Europe today bears very little resemblance to Europe in 1933. And there
are positive possibilities as well: why is the likelihood of a pogrom greater
than the likelihood that antisemitism will fade into ineffectual nastiness?
Any legitimate worries must rest on some evidence that there really is
- The incidence of antisemitic attacks might provide such
evidence. But this evidence is consistently fudged: no distinction is made
between attacks against Jewish monuments and symbols as opposed to actual
attacks against Jews. In addition, so much is made of an increase in the
frequency of attacks that the very low absolute level of attacks escapes
attention. The symbolic attacks have indeed increased to significant absolute
numbers. The physical attacks have not.(*) More important, most of these
attacks are by Muslim residents: in other words, they come from a widely
hated, vigorously policed and persecuted minority who don't stand the slightest
chance of undertaking a serious campaign of violence against Jews.
- It is very unpleasant that roughly half a dozen Jews
have been hospitalized--none killed--due to recent attacks across Europe.
But anyone who makes this into one of the world's important problems simply
hasn't looked at the world. These attacks are a matter for the police,
not a reason why we should police ourselves and others to counter some
deadly spiritual disease. That sort of reaction is appropriate only when
racist attacks occur in societies indifferent or hostile to the minority
attacked. Those who really care about recurrent Nazism, for instance, should
save their anguished concern for the far bloodier, far more widely condoned
attacks on gypsies, whose history of persecution is fully comparable to
the Jewish past. The position of Jews is much closer to the position of
whites, who are also, of course, the victims of racist attacks.
- No doubt many people reject this sort of cold-blooded
calculation. They will say that, with the past looming over us, even one
antisemitic slur is a terrible thing, and its ugliness is not to be measured
by a body count. But if we take a broader view of the matter, antisemitism
becomes less, not more important. To regard any shedding of Jewish blood
as a world-shattering calamity, one which defies all measurement and comparison,
is racism, pure and simple; the valuing of one race's blood over all others.
The fact that Jews have been persecuted for centuries and suffered terribly
half a century ago doesn't wipe out the fact that in Europe today, Jews
are insiders with far less to suffer and fear than many other ethnic groups.
Certainly racist attacks against a well-off minority are just as evil as
racist attacks against a poor and powerless minority. But equally evil
attackers do not make for equally worrisome attacks.
- It is not Jews who live most in the shadow of the concentration
camp. LePen's 'transit camps' are for 'Arabs', not Jews. And though there
are politically significant parties containing many antisemites, not one
of these parties shows any sign of articulating, much less implementing,
an antisemitic agenda. Nor is there any particular reason to suppose that,
once in power, they will change their tune. Haider's Austria is not considered
dangerous for Jews; neither was Tudjman's Croatia. And were there to be
such danger, well, a nuclear-armed Jewish state stands ready to welcome
any refugees, as do the US and Canada. And to say there are no real dangers
now is not to say that we should ignore any dangers that may arise. If
in France, for instance, the Front National starts advocating transit camps
for Jews, or institutes anti-Jewish immigration policies, then we should
be alarmed. But we should not be alarmed that something alarming might
just conceivably happen: there are far more alarming things going on than
- One might reply that, if things are not more alarming,
it is only because the Jews and others have been so vigilant in combatting
antisemitism. But this isn't plausible. For one thing, vigilance about
antisemitism is a kind of tunnel vision: as neofascists are learning, they
can escape notice by keeping quiet about Jews. For another, there has been
no great danger to Jews even in traditionally antisemitic countries where
the world is *not* vigilant, like Croatia or the Ukraine. Countries that
get very little attention seem no more dangerous than countries that get
a lot. As for the vigorous reaction to LePen in France, that seems to have
a lot more to do with French revulsion at neofascism than with the scoldings
of the Anti-Defamation League. To suppose that the Jewish organizations
and earnest columnists who pounce on antisemitism are saving the world
from disaster is like claiming that Bertrand Russell and the Quakers were
all that saved us from nuclear war.
- Now one might say: whatever the real dangers, these events
are truly agonizing for Jews, and bring back unbearably painful memories.
That may be true for the very few who still have those memories; it is
not true for Jews in general. I am a German Jew, and have a good claim
to second-generation, third-hand victimhood. Antisemitic incidents and
a climate of rising antisemitism don't really bother me a hell of a lot.
I'm much more scared of really dangerous situations, like driving. Besides,
even painful memories and anxieties do not carry much weight against the
actual physical suffering inflicted by discrimination against many non-Jews.
- This is not to belittle all antisemitism, everywhere.
One often hears of vicious antisemites in Poland and Russia, both on the
streets and in government. But alarming as this may be, it is also immune
to the influence of Israel-Palestine conflicts, and those conflicts are
wildly unlikely to affect it one way or another. Moreover, so far as I
know, nowhere is there as much violence against Jews as there is against
'Arabs'. So even if antisemitism is, somewhere, a catastrophically serious
matter, we can only conclude that anti-Arab sentiment is far more serious
still. And since every antisemitic group is to a far greater extent anti-immigrant
and anti-Arab, these groups can be fought, not in the name of antisemitism,
but in the defense of Arabs and immigrants. So the antisemitic threat posed
by these groups shouldn't even make us want to focus on antisemitism: they
are just as well fought in the name of justice for Arabs and immigrants.
- In short, the real scandal today is not antisemitism
but the importance it is given. Israel has committed war crimes. It has
implicated Jews generally in these crimes, and Jews generally have hastened
to implicate themselves. This has provoked hatred against Jews. Why not?
Some of this hatred is racist, some isn't, but who cares? Why should we
pay any attention to this issue at all? Is the fact that Israel's race
war has provoked bitter anger of any importance besides the war itself?
Is the remote possibility that somewhere, sometime, somehow, this hatred
may in theory, possibly kill some Jews of any importance besides the brutal,
actual, physical persecution of Palestinians, and the hundreds of thousands
of votes for Arabs to be herded into transit camps? Oh, but I forgot. Drop
everything. Someone spray-painted antisemitic slogans on a synagogue.
- * Not even the ADL and B'nai B'rith include attacks on
Israel in the tally; they speak of "The insidious way we have seen
the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians used by anti-Semites"
- And like many other people, I don't count terrorist attacks
by such as Al Quaeda as instances of antisemitism but rather of some misdirected
quasi-military campaign against the US and Israel. Even if you count them
in, it does not seem very dangerous to be a Jew outside Israel.
- Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at Trent
University in Ontario, Canada. He can be reached at: email@example.com