Anti-Semitism–New or Old?

Anti-Semitism–New or Old?

Deerfield, Ill.


Deerfield, Ill.

Recent writings on anti-Semitism by a number of prominent authors have suggested that Jews are confronting a new brand of anti-Jewish vitriol and violence that is distinct from classical anti-Semitism because it cloaks itself in the increasingly acceptable politics of anti-Zionism. Evidence that much anti-Zionism and rhetoric that demonizes Israel is anti-Semitism in disguise, and the sense of panic that pervades much of the writing on this subject, seem to have so irked Brian Klug [“The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism,” Feb. 2] that he rejects out of hand the idea that Jews are confronting a new wave of anti-Semitism.

Klug is right to take issue with one claim made by many commentators on the “new anti-Semitism”: Advocacy of anti-Zionism and binationalism vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not inherently anti-Semitic. Both can be, and have been, advanced in ways that acknowledge the intense need that many Jews, both in Israel and around the world, feel for a strong, secure Israel–for example, in proposals for a binational confederal regime that might evolve by mutual consent from two working democratic states at peace, Israel and Palestine, modeled in some respects on the European Union. But in his zealous effort to reject the logic of the “new anti-Semitism” writers, Klug refuses to admit the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish racism that today underlies much of the anti-Zionism and anti-Israel invective in the Arab world and on the European left.

In Klug’s eyes, neither the anti-Zionist rhetoric nor the attacks of recent years on Jewish synagogues and individuals in Europe and the Middle East stem from “racist stereotyping” of Jews. Rather, they are directed, albeit misguidedly, at Jews as representatives of the State of Israel. Klug points out that Israeli leaders, inspired by the Zionist premise that all Jews are members of the Jewish people, have made every effort to portray Israel as an expression of Jews worldwide. So it should come as no surprise, the argument goes, that some in the Arab and Muslim communities who take offense at Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would take Jews personally to task, even targeting them for violent retribution. Klug informs us that when anti-Jewish, anti-Israel attitudes are motivated by a predominantly anti-Western, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist perspective–even invoking “general principles of justice and human rights”–such animus toward Israel and Jews does not reflect “anti-Semitic prejudice.”

There are several problems with this picture. First, there is a centuries-old legacy of anti-Semitism motivated not mainly by religious, ultra-nationalist or fascist prejudices and myths but very largely by political, social and economic competition, by a lofty adherence to universalism and equal rights, to anti-clericalism and anti-capitalism, among some portions of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century left–an anti-Semitism of the left, “the socialism of fools.” This strain of modern anti-Semitism owes its provenance as much to some of the Enlightenment’s founders as it does to animosities unleashed by the emancipation of European Jewry, the integration of Jews into the economic and political life of the European states.

Second, racism is commonly defined as prejudice or wrongful discrimination against a racial or ethnic group, fed by false stereotypes; anti-Semitism as unwarranted “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It follows that anti-Semitism is a form of racism toward Jews, whereby unwarranted hostility or wrongful discrimination, based on false, vilifying beliefs, is aimed at Jews as a group, or toward individual Jews as members of that group. That the primary source of these beliefs and practices lies in their adherents’ economic and political interests or cultures in no way vitiates their anti-Semitic character.

The reductio ad absurdum of Klug’s characterization of anti-Semitism becomes apparent in his idiosyncratic insistence that acts widely regarded as anti-Semitic hate crimes are not anti-Semitic simply because they are prompted in part by anger over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. Klug maintains that “the evidence suggests that the perpetrators of the anti-Jewish attacks in France were animated by political outrage, not bigotry. According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry itself, most of the incidents were a protest against inequities in the occupied territories.” European Commission President Romano Prodi is only the latest of many EU leaders, including five European interior ministers, who have publicly affirmed that they view such acts as anti-Semitic. Klug seems to want to have his cake and eat it too. He admits that anti-Semitism “without a doubt…would not be spreading within Muslim communities in Europe were it not for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” but then denies that anti-Jewish attacks by Muslims in Europe are anti-Semitic. If Klug is right, EU leaders are mistaken in outlawing politically motivated violent acts against innocent Jews and Muslims as instances of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racism. They should presumably treat such acts as nothing more than breaches of the criminal laws of assault, battery or arson that happen to be animated by political passions. Klug’s constricted view would instantly redefine as merely “reprehensible, but not anti-Semitic,” the hatred many nineteenth-century Europeans harbored toward Jews on the basis of the generalization that Jews were rich bankers and exploitative moneylenders. This hatred inspired anti-Jewish pogroms, quotas and restrictions in employment and education, and support for anti-Semitic political parties in various European states. Yet Klug’s linguistic legerdemain would define it away at the stroke of a pen. And wasn’t the stereotyping of Jews in Europe (which “exceeded the evidence” but did not rise to an “a priori prejudice,” in Klug’s idiom) rooted in the actual prevalence of Jews in trade and finance, much as the faulty inference that all Jews are responsible for Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians is rooted in the fact that Israel defines itself as the Jewish state, and in the solidarity that most Diaspora Jews (even those who dissent from the policies of Ariel Sharon) feel toward that state and its people? Klug tries to show that some element he identifies as essential to classic anti-Semitism (“a priori prejudice”) is missing from those species of anti-Zionism and anti-Israel invective that are held up by many Jews as paradigm cases of the new anti-Semitism. Yet this ignores the real question: whether the “new anti-Semitism” shares enough features with its classic progenitor to be characterized as “anti-Semitism.”

Klug’s willingness to sanction all forms of anti-Zionism and binational advocacy–to deny that any species of this rhetoric is inherently anti-Jewish racism–sweeps under the rug two overriding, and deeply troubling, facts. First, Arab and Palestinian anti-Zionist binationalists, and their fellow travelers on the Western left, often propose, with overweening optimism, a unitary “democratic” state as an alternative to a two-state formula. In this arrangement, Palestinians will inevitably form the majority and Israeli Jews at best a tolerated, subjugated minority, most likely recapitulating the tragic fates of multiethnic polities like Lebanon, Bosnia and Yugoslavia. Much binational advocacy among Palestinians, Arabs and the Western left is thus malign and coercive, a fig leaf for depriving Israeli Jews of their basic civil and human rights in a new Arab state. In this regard, it is anti-Jewish discrimination, satisfying standard definitions of anti-Semitism as a form of racism against Israeli Jews.

Second, in those cases where Western leftists advocate a vague, naïve anti-Zionist binationalism–where their intent is not to subordinate Israeli Jews in an Arab state but to express an idealistic commitment to egalitarianism and post-nationalism as a practical program for Jews and Palestinians here and now–the real-world effect of their beguiling fantasy is to lend aid and comfort to coercive binationalism. Their blandishments stoke the frenzy of resistance to genuine two-state peace efforts, accelerating the transformation of Israel into a pariah state, fueling the campaign to realize a malign binationalist nightmare. Such misbegotten noble intentions will help pave the road to perdition, bolstering the Israeli right, feeding Jewish fear and paranoia and Arab chauvinist triumphalism. If successful, they will sweep Israelis and Palestinians down to the next rung of the raging Middle Eastern inferno, engulfing them in the great and intimate flames of civil war.

President, Chicago Peace Now


Oxford, England

Gidon Remba has written a thoughtful and thought-provoking critique of my essay. Unlike several letters I received, he does not accuse me of aiding and abetting anti-Semitism. However, he thinks that my analysis tends to undermine the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This solution, according to Remba, is the only way to avoid engulfing the two peoples in “the great and intimate flames of civil war.” Thus, on his account, my “zealous effort” to rebut the authors I discuss harms the cause of peace.

Remba is especially concerned with “the Western left.” He points out that anti-Semitism is not the prerogative of the ultra-nationalist right; there is a tradition on the left that goes back to “some of the Enlightenment’s founders.” He is right; from Voltaire on, there have been leading representatives of liberal, socialist and anarchist traditions who were anti-Semites. But I am not arguing that left-wing sentiment against Israel or Zionism today is always free of the taint of anti-Semitism. It isn’t; and sometimes the “socialism of fools” (August Bebel) turns into the “anti-imperialism of fools,” as Mick Hume recently argued in the New Statesman. But honest, principled opposition to Israel on the left is not, in itself, anti-Semitic. And in the absence of evidence, we have no right to assume that the taint of bigotry is present.

This is not to exonerate the anti-Zionist left, which, without being anti-Semitic, can “sin” in other ways. I am thinking, for example, of the way some people on the left seem to forget that Zionism, for all its failings, was a reaction to anti-Semitism. Jews had been marginalized, excluded and finally almost annihilated in Europe. When people on the left seem oblivious to this history, when they fold the Jewish story into a larger narrative of European imperialism in the Middle East, Jews–including non-Zionist Jews–are liable to feel, with some justification, that they are being marginalized and excluded all over again. Moreover, when left-wing critics of Israel speak loosely of “Jewish influence,” without taking care to qualify their statements, they can give the impression that all Jews are somehow implicated in the machinations of a few, thus feeding an anti-Semitic current in the wider culture. These offenses, and others like them, need to be exposed. But they should be called by their specific names and not branded “anti-Semitism.”

This brings me to the argument at the center of Remba’s critique. It comes to this: (1) Binationalists “often propose” a unitary state in which Jews would be “at best a tolerated, subjugated minority.” (2) This political arrangement is a form of wrongful discrimination against Jews. (3) So, such a proposal is anti-Semitic.

The first premise strikes me as tendentious. But even granting the two premises, it does not follow that binationalism (or the kind that Remba calls “coercive”) is anti-Semitic. Remba uses a much broader definition of “anti-Semitism” than I do, and then puts it to political use. Drawing on an edition of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, he holds that wrongful discrimination against Jews is, by definition, anti-Semitic. But dictionaries can deceive. According to the same publisher’s unabridged edition, “opposition to Zionism” and “sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel” are also, by definition, anti-Semitic (Third New International Dictionary). But are they? Remba himself doesn’t think so. He agrees with me, contrary to Webster’s, that anti-Zionism “is not inherently anti-Semitic.” The moral is clear: It is unwise to rely on dictionaries to do our thinking for us.

Dictionary definitions of anti-Semitism tend to be too general to do justice to the concept. Anti-Semitism, as I said in my essay, involves a particular discourse about Jews. You could also call it a doctrine, an image, a stereotype, an ideology or, in the words of noted Holocaust scholar Helen Fein, “a persisting latent structure of hostile beliefs.” The crucial point is that anti-Semitism has a specific content. It conjures up “the Jew” as someone with a certain set of traits: cunning, powerful, materialistic, legalistic, parasitic, rootless and so on. This set of traits has remained more or less constant for centuries. Thus, while “anti-Semitism” is a relatively new word, the idea it denotes is longstanding.

Moreover, belief in this idea is immune to empirical evidence. Remba, I believe, is wrong about traditional hatred of Jews in Europe. The logic of anti-Semitism does not work like this: “The Rothschilds are powerful and exploitive, hence Jews in general are.” But more like this: “Jews are powerful and exploitive, just look at the Rothschilds.” In other words, anti-Semites do not generalize from instances. They are predisposed to see Jews in a certain negative light, which is why I call their prejudice “a priori.” But when alienated Moroccan and Algerian youths in the banlieues of Paris, outraged by conditions in the occupied territories, attack Jewish individuals and institutions, the situation is essentially different. This is not, as some say, a new “mutation” of an old “virus.” Fundamentally, it is an ethno-religious conflict between two communities with opposed identifications: roughly, French Muslims with Palestinian Arabs versus French Jews with Israeli Jews.

Certainly, as I indicated in my essay, anti-Semitism is part of the “mix.” But it is not the driving force. For this reason, while such incidents should be condemned, it is misleading to classify them as anti-Semitic. My view is not as “idiosyncratic” as Remba thinks. The EUMC, a racism monitoring agency of the European Union, recognized this problem when it withheld a report on anti-Semitism prepared on its behalf. Werner Bergmann, one of the two authors of the study, has frankly acknowledged that EUMC officials “expressed discomfort with the study’s broad definition of antiSemitism, which included some anti-Israel behavior.” (The president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, said the decision to withhold the report was itself anti-Semitic, which only illustrates how that word is abused.)

In a way, what does it matter how the word is defined? Couldn’t we just decide to apply it across the board wherever Jews, as Jews, are under attack, regardless of the reasons? We could. But as Wittgenstein remarks, “Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts.” There’s the rub. When the word “anti-Semitism” is used broadly and loosely, we lose sight of the facts. We are unable to distinguish between the various factors that explain animosity toward Israel and the associated climate of hostility toward Jews; and if we cannot identify the causes, we will fail to see solutions. We are blinded by the word, partly because it is so emotive, partly because its connotations are so strong and partly because some partisans of Israel and Zionism exploit these qualities to shut down opponents. The semantic question has been politicized. This is why the definition matters. It is time to reclaim the word “anti-Semitism” from the political misuses to which it is being put.

Having just read Avraham Burg’s eloquent plea for the Geneva accords in the Beirut paper Al Hayat, I wish to say to Gidon Remba, man of Peace Now: Gai gezunterhait–go in good health! Make your argument as forcefully as you can. But don’t, in your zealous efforts on behalf of the two-state solution, bludgeon your opponents with the club of “anti-Semitism.” First, it won’t work. Second, it does harm. Perhaps binationalism is wrongheaded. Nonetheless, it is a legitimate view. Calling a legitimate view “anti-Semitic” does not delegitimize that view. It tends to legitimize anti-Semitism.


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