The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism

The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism

In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, a former socialist and anarchist, founded an organization that was novel in two ways.


In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, a former socialist and anarchist, founded an organization that was novel in two ways. It was the first political party based on a platform of hostility to Jews. And it introduced the world to a new word: “anti-Semite.”

Marr was an atheist, and the Antisemiten-Liga (League of Anti-Semites) was hostile to Jews on the secular grounds that they are an alien “race.” However, his account of “Semitism” was not essentially different from the demonic conception of the Jew that had existed in Christian Europe for centuries. It boiled down to this: Jews are a people apart from the rest of humanity. They are the enemy. Wherever they go, they form a state within a state. Conspiring in secret, they work together to promote their own collective advantage at the expense of the nations or societies in whose midst they dwell and on whom they prey. Cunning and manipulative, they possess uncanny powers that enable them, despite their small numbers, to achieve their ends. The term “antiSemitism” has come to refer to this discourse, or variations on the themes it contains, because the same rhetoric persists whether Jewish identity is seen as religious, racial, national or ethnic. Sometimes this discourse is explicit; at other times it is the subtext of attacks on Jews. Anti-Semitism, thus defined, is not new.

But a spate of recent articles and books assert the rise of a “new anti-Semitism.” This is the thrust of “Graffiti on History’s Walls” by Mortimer Zuckerman, the cover story of the November 3, 2003, issue of U.S. News & World Report. In December New York magazine ran a similarly sensationalist cover story, titled “The Return of Anti-Semitism,” which spoke of “a groundswell of hate” against Jews and suggested that Jew-hatred was now “politically correct” in Europe. At least three books recently published in English make the same claim: Never Again? by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League; The New Anti-Semitism by feminist Phyllis Chesler; and The Case for Israel by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Most of the contributors to A New Antisemitism?, edited by Paul Iganski and Barry Kosmin, take a similar view, with varying degrees of emphasis.

As the words “threat” and “crisis” in the subtitles of the books by Foxman and Chesler indicate, the “new anti-Semitism” is generally seen, by those who proclaim its existence, as a clear and present danger. Foxman believes that a “frightening coalition of anti-Jewish sentiment is forming on a global scale.” Chesler goes even further: “Let me be clear: the war against the Jews is being waged on many fronts–militarily, politically, economically, and through propaganda–and on all continents.” She even perceives a wider threat to Western civilization itself: “Who or what can loosen the madness that has gripped the world and that threatens to annihilate the Jews and the West?”

There is certainly reason to be concerned about a climate of hostility to Jews, including vicious physical attacks. On one Saturday this past November, for example, two synagogues in Istanbul were truck-bombed during Sabbath services, while an Orthodox Jewish school in a Paris suburb was largely destroyed by arson. Some researchers report a 60 percent worldwide increase in the number of assaults on Jews (or persons perceived to be Jewish) in 2002, compared with the previous year. At the same time, something is rotten in the state of public discourse. Anti-Jewish slogans and graphics have appeared on marches opposing the invasion of Iraq. Jewish conspiracy theories have been revived, such as the widely circulated “urban legend” that Jews were warned in advance to stay away from the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. And recently, certain public figures on both the right and the left have made negative generalizations about Jews and “Jewish influence.”

The authors under review tend to lump all these facts together, along with a wealth of evidence for what they see as an explosion of bias against Israel: in the media, in the United Nations, on college campuses and elsewhere. They conclude that there is a single unified phenomenon, a “new antiSemitism.” However, while the facts give cause for serious concern, the idea that they add up to a new kind of anti-Semitism is confused. Moreover, this confusion, combined with a McCarthyite tendency to see anti-Semites under every bed, arguably contributes to the climate of hostility toward Jews. The result is to make matters worse for the very people these authors mean to defend.

The claim that I am criticizing is not that there is a new outbreak of “old” antiSemitism but that there is an outbreak of anti-Semitism of a new kind. Thus the case in support of this claim is not merely cumulative: It does not consist simply in piling up one example after another. There is an organizing principle, a central idea that holds the case together. It is only in terms of this idea that many of the examples cited in the literature count as evidence of antiSemitism. Without this central idea, the case that is made with their help falls apart. So the question is this: What puts the “new” into “new anti-Semitism”?

The answer, in a word, is anti-Zionism. The “vilification of Israel,” Iganski and Kosmin argue, is “the core characteristic” of Judeophobia (their term for “new anti-Semitism”). In his contribution to their book, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, explains: “What we are witnessing today is the second great mutation of antisemitism in modern times, from racial antisemitism to religious anti-Zionism (with the added premise that all Jews are Zionists).” Sometimes the point is made by equating the State of Israel in the “new” anti-Semitism with the individual Jew in the “old” variety. Rabbi Sacks himself draws this parallel in an article in the Guardian: “At times [anti-Semitism] has been directed against Jews as individuals. Today it is directed against Jews as a sovereign people.” In the same vein, Dershowitz argues that Israel has become “the Jew among Nations.”

Foxman defines Zionism thus: “Zionism simply refers to support for the existence of a Jewish state–specifically, the state of Israel.” In a narrow sense, anti-Zionism is simply the antithesis: rejection of the very idea of a Jewish state, specifically Israel. Foxman’s verdict on this position is uncompromising: “The harsh but un- deniable truth is this: what some like to call anti-Zionism is, in reality, anti-Semitism–always, everywhere, and for all time.” He adds for good measure: “Therefore, anti-Zionism is not a politically legitimate point of view but rather an expression of bigotry and hatred.”

Foxman insists that he is not opposed to criticism of Israel. “In every public forum,” he says, “I’m always careful to say that criticism of the state of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic.” But “is not necessarily” implies “is possibly,” and what this really means is “it’s usually so.” In his view, “most of the current attacks on Israel and Zionism are not, at bottom, about the policies and conduct of a particular nation-state. They are about Jews.” This is conventional wisdom in the “new anti-Semitism” literature. The main basis for this opinion is that such attacks single out Israel unfairly or apply a double standard. As Dershowitz writes:

So long as criticism is comparative, contextual, and fair, it should be encouraged, not disparaged. But when the Jewish nation is the only one criticized for faults that are far worse among other nations, such criticism crosses the line from fair to foul, from acceptable to anti-Semitic.

Just where this line in the sand is drawn varies from author to author. But it tends to be drawn in such a way as to rule out criticism that goes much beyond a gentle rap across the government’s knuckles or finger-wagging at the laws of the land.

When I say that “anti-Zionism” puts the “new” into “new anti-Semitism,” I am referring not only to anti-Zionism in the narrow sense; I am using the word broadly to include any position that lies on the far side of the line separating “fair” from “foul.” Now, if crossing the line is anti-Semitic, and if “most of the current attacks on Israel and Zionism” cross the line, it follows that most current attacks on Israel and Zionism are anti-Semitic. By extension, any attack aimed at a Jewish target is anti-Semitic if it is inspired by a position that crosses that line. Given that both Israel and Zionism are at the center of so much controversy around the world, the effect of this logic is to produce, at a stroke, a quantum leap in the amount of anti-Semitism worldwide, if not a veritable “war against the Jews.”

It is, of course, understandable that many Jews find this logic compelling. There is a long and ignoble history of “Zionist” being used as a code word for “Jew,” as when Communist Poland carried out “anti-Zionist” purges in 1968, expelling thousands of Jews from the country, or when the extreme right today uses the acronym ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government) to refer to the US government. Moreover, the Zionist movement arose as a reaction to the persecution of Jews. Since anti-Zionism is the opposite of Zionism, and since Zionism is a form of opposition to anti-Semitism, it seems to follow that an anti-Zionist must be an anti-Semite.

Nonetheless, the inference is invalid. To argue that hostility to Israel and hostility to Jews are one and the same thing is to conflate the Jewish state with the Jewish people. In fact, Israel is one thing, Jewry another. Accordingly, anti-Zionism is one thing, anti-Semitism another. They are separate. To say they are separate is not to say that they are never connected. But they are independent variables that can be connected in different ways.

The history of the Zionist movement itself illustrates the point. Consider the background to the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, by which the British government committed itself to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was a major coup for the Zionist movement. But it would be wrong to think that it was the product of pro-Jewish sentiment within the British establishment. On the contrary, British support for Zionism was spearheaded by anti-Semites within the civil and foreign service. These people believed that Jews, acting collectively, were manipulating world events from behind the scenes. Consequently, they vastly exaggerated the power and influence of the tiny Zionist movement. Balfour himself took a similar view. Moreover, some years earlier, as Prime Minister, he introduced the Aliens Bill (which became law in 1905), aimed specifically at restricting admission of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He warned Parliament at the time that the Jews “remained a people apart.”

The Balfour Declaration was delayed by opposition. The opposition was not led by a rival anti-Semitic faction, as it were, but by Jews. Some of the most prominent members of the British Jewish community were opposed to the Zionist cause. Among them was Edwin Montagu, a member of the Cabinet. Montagu rejected what he saw as the basic premise of Zionism: that Jews constitute a separate nation. In an official memorandum in August 1917, he wrote: “I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic in result and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world.” A similar view was held by the Conjoint Committee, which joined the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association, and represented British Jewry in foreign affairs. In a long letter that ran in the May 24, 1917, edition of the London Times, the committee gave what was, in effect, a critique of mainstream Zionist ideology. Commenting on the claim that “the Jewish settlement in Palestine shall be recognized as possessing a national character in a political sense,” the committee wrote:

It is part and parcel of a wider Zionist theory, which regards all the Jewish communities of the world as constituting one homeless nationality, incapable of complete social and political identification, with the nations among whom they dwelt, and it is argued that for this homeless nationality, a political center and an always available homeland in Palestine are necessary. Against this theory the Conjoint Committee strongly and earnestly protests.

So in 1917 anti-Semites were promoting the Balfour Declaration while a significant number of Jews opposed it. Does it follow that Zionism, in and of itself, is anti-Semitic? Of course not. But this episode does undercut the converse claim: that anti-Zionism is necessarily so.

Why–on what grounds–do the authors under review or people of a similar cast of mind maintain this claim? Zuckerman argues, “Just as historic anti-Semitism has denied individual Jews the right to live as equal members of society, anti-Zionism would deny the collective expression of the Jewish people, the State of Israel, the right to live as an equal member of the family of nations.” This is a variation on an argument that is a staple in the “new anti-Semitism” literature. It goes like this: “Given the principle of self-determination for nations, the Jewish people have a right to their own state, like everyone else. To deny that right, especially if this means singling Jews out, is anti-Semitic.”

This argument assumes that Jews, or the Jewish people, constitute a nation in the relevant sense, the sense in which the principle of self-determination applies. But this question is no less a burning issue today–not least for Jews themselves–than it was in 1917, when the Conjoint Committee disputed it. (It has been disputed from the beginning of political Zionism in the late nineteenth century down to the present day.) Certainly, mainstream Zionism, insofar as it had an ideology, saw itself as a national movement. But it was unlike other national movements in one crucial respect: There was no pre-existing nation, not in the modern sense of the word, where both territory and language are already in place. Traditionally, the idea of the Jewish people was centered not on a state but on a book, the Torah, and the culture (or cultures) that developed around that book.

Within this book, it is true, there is a narrative about a people, Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) in a land, Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) or Tzion (Zion), from which they are exiled and to which they will eventually return. But traditionally, this was regarded as a sacred story, not as a political blueprint. Mainstream Zionism set out to modernize Judaism by politicizing it, nationalizing it, turning the Jewish people into the Jewish nation, in the nineteenth-century sense of that word. The idea was to put Israel, a political entity in the here and now, at the center of Jewish identity. This was a radical departure from the “old” Jewish idea of a Jew. The concept of “new anti-Semitism,” to the extent that it is based on mainstream Zionist ideology, is just the other side of the coin, the obverse of this new idea of a Jew, the national Jew. Zuckerman and others of this cast of mind are arguing in a circle; for it is only anti-Semitic to reject his argument if you have already accepted it.

However, political Zionism is larger than its mainstream ideology. In the first place, there are other ideologies that have motivated people in the movement. In the second place, people in the movement have been motivated by considerations that have nothing to do with ideology. Many Jews, as well as non-Jewish sympathizers, were drawn to the Zionist goal of creating a Jewish state in Palestine for reasons that were purely humanitarian or practical. This motive was reinforced by the catastrophic consequences of the Second World War: the extermination of one-third of the world’s Jewish population, the wholesale destruction of Jewish communities in much of Europe and the plight of masses of Jewish refugees with nowhere to go. In these circumstances, the State of Israel was seen by many Jews as a lifeline. Such people did not necessarily see the state in romantic ethnic terms as “the collective expression of the Jewish people.” They saw it simply as a safe haven for Jews, a refuge, a place in the sun.

On this basis, the following argument can be made: “It is one thing to argue about the existence of Israel in 1917, another to do so after 1948, when the state was founded. History has overtaken the question. Israel is no longer an idea in someone’s head. It exists. And for millions of Jews, Israel is their home. They have nowhere else to go. To oppose the existence of the Jewish state at this point means nothing less than wanting to deprive these Jews of their homeland and perhaps their very lives. It also means depriving millions of other Jews, Jews around the world, of their protector and their safeguard. For who will come to the defense of Jews, and who will offer persecuted Jews a place of refuge, if not Israel, the Jewish state? Only an antiSemite would want to destroy this state.”

The argument, understandable though it is, makes several questionable assumptions. For one thing, the alternatives are not black and white: either preserving the status quo or annihilation. There are a variety of constitutional arrangements in between. For example, Israel could continue to exist as a sovereign state but cease to define itself, in its basic laws and state institutions, as specifically Jewish. Or there is the so-called one-state solution: a binational homeland for Palestinians and Jews. The tragic impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has renewed interest in this proposal among some Arab and Jewish intellectuals. And although this view lacks a significant constituency in either community at present, attitudes may well change. At any rate, while Jews might have embraced Israel as a safe place to be Jewish, Israel today is hardly a place of safety for Jews. And you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to envisage a future for Israel, or for Israel’s Jewish population, that is not based on the principle of a Jewish state. As for Jews around the world, whether they are safer because of the existence of Israel, or whether Israel is putting them at greater risk than they would otherwise be, is debatable.

I turn now to anti-Zionism in the broader sense: criticism of Israel that is unbalanced or intemperate. It is true that some critics judge Israel by harsher criteria than they use to judge other countries, that they misrepresent the facts so as to put Israel in a bad light, that they even vilify the Jewish state, none of which is fair. But is it necessarily anti-Semitic? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a bitter struggle. The issues are complex, passions are inflamed and the suffering in both communities is immense. In such circumstances, partisans on both sides are liable to “cross the line from fair to foul.” Moreover, just as there are those on the outside who support the Palestinians, so there are those whose sympathies lie with Israel. When the latter cross the line, they are not ipso facto racist or Islamophobic. By the same token, when others cross the line on behalf of the Palestinian cause, this does not make them anti-Semites. It cuts both ways.

A simple thought experiment reinforces this argument. Imagine if Israel were the same in every essential respect as the state that exists today, including its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, except in its religious identity. Suppose it were Catholic, like the Crusader states that Europeans created in the Middle East in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Let us call this imaginary state “Christiania” instead of “Israel.” Would Christiania be accepted into the bosom of the region more readily than Israel has been? I doubt it. Would the animosity felt toward Christiania be qualitatively different from, or significantly less than, the hostility now directed at Israel? Again, I think not. Any differences would be a matter of nuance. In fact, Israel is often called a “crusader state” in Arab and Muslim circles. In a way, this says everything about the Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Crusader states, like the imaginary Christiania, were Christian; the State of Israel is Jewish. But the underlying hostility toward it in the region is not hostility toward the state as Jewish but as a European interloper or as an American client or as a non-Arab and non-Muslim entity; moreover, as an oppressive occupying force. Some people see this disposition toward Israel as anti-imperialist or anticolonialist, others as chauvinist or xenophobic. But in and of itself, it is not anti-Semitic.

Which is not to deny that anti-Semitism enters the mix. But it is one ingredient in a complex situation, not the engine that drives anti-Zionism. When Chesler speaks of “the war against the Jews,” and Foxman refers to “the resurgence of worldwide anti-Semitism,” they give the impression that the monsters of the deep are stirring once again and that the 1930s are returning with a vengeance. Foxman says as much: “I am convinced we currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s–if not a greater one.” But there is a world of difference between then and now, as there is between anti-Semitism in Europe and the Middle East.

In Europe, its original home, antiSemitism is an old and deeply rooted cultural trait that from time to time (as in the League of Anti-Semites) has found political expression. In the Arab and Muslim world today it is, roughly speaking, the other way around: The political conflict is what comes first and goes deep, while anti-Semitism is a secondary formation, a byproduct of aspirations and grievances that have nothing to do with a priori prejudice against Jews (although such prejudice was hardly absent from the Muslim world before the creation of Israel). Foxman says that anti-Semitism is “rampant in the world of Islam” and warns against its “spread” in Europe due to the burgeoning Muslim population. But without a doubt, it would not be spreading within Muslim communities in Europe were it not for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially the current crisis that began in 2000 with the breakdown of the Oslo peace initiative and the outbreak of the second intifada.

In the scenario painted by Chesler, Foxman and others, no distinction is made between, say, the young Muslim immigrants who carried out the vast majority of physical attacks against Jews in France in 2002, and someone like the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir’s speech to the tenth session of the Islamic Summit Conference this past October was an example of classical anti-Semitic discourse, with its peculiar combination of animus and admiration. Describing Jews as “the enemy,” he warned, “We are up against a people who think.” He went on to credit Jews with having “invented,” among other things, human rights and democracy. “With these,” he explained, “they have now gained control of the most powerful countries and they, this tiny community, have become a world power.” Mahathir was singing from the same anti-Semitic hymn book as Wilhelm Marr. But 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.

“Nonetheless,” someone might object, “the young Muslim immigrants who carried out these attacks are anti-Semites. For it’s not the Jews of France who are occupying the territories, it’s the State of Israel. If the motive for these incidents was purely political, why didn’t the protesters attack the Israeli embassy? Why attack individual Jews and Jewish institutions? This is a clear case of lumping all Jews together and holding them collectively responsible. This is what makes these incidents anti-Semitic.”

The objection, however, is misconceived, and the misconception goes to the heart of the complex situation in which Jews find themselves today. Israel does not regard itself as a state that just happens to be Jewish (like the medieval kingdom of the Khazars). It sees itself as (in Prime Minister Sharon’s phrase) “the Jewish collective,” the sovereign state of the Jewish people as a whole. In his speech at the Herzliya Conference in December, Sharon called the state “a national and spiritual center for all Jews of the world,” and added, “Aliyah [Jewish immigration] is the central goal of the State of Israel.” To what extent this view is reciprocated by Jews worldwide is hard to say. Many feel no particular connection to the state or strongly oppose its actions. On the other hand, in spring 2002, at the height of Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield, Jews gathered in large numbers in numerous cities to demonstrate their solidarity, as Jews, with Israel. Many Jewish community leaders, religious and secular, publicly reinforce this identification with the state. All of which is liable to give the unreflective onlooker the impression that Jews are, as it were, lumping themselves together; that Israel is indeed “the Jewish collective.”

Not that this justifies, not for one moment, a single incident where Jews are attacked for being Jewish; such attacks are repugnant. But it does provide a context within which to make sense of them without seeing a global “war against the Jews.” There is no such war. It is, in fact, as much a figment of the imagination as its mirror image: a Jewish conspiracy against the world. Jews have good reason to be concerned about growing hostility toward them. But while this includes the revival of hard-core antiSemitism, it is closer to the truth to say that anti-Zionism today takes the form of anti-Semitism rather than the other way round. As Akiva Eldar observed recently in Ha’aretz, “It is much easier to claim the entire world is against us than to admit that the State of Israel, which rose as a refuge and a source of pride for Jews…has become a genuine source of danger and a source of shameful embarrassment to Jews who choose to live outside its borders.”

In defense of her assertion that there is a global “war against the Jews,” Chesler wields the ultimate weapon. “In my opinion,” she says, “anyone who denies that this is so or who blames the Jews for provoking the attacks is an anti-Semite.” Since I deny that there is such a war, this makes me an anti-Semite. But since her argument empties the word of all meaning, I do not feel maligned. In his contribution to A New Antisemitism?, historian Peter Pulzer, faulting the way “the liberal press” sometimes reports the activities of the Israel Defense Forces in the occupied territories, makes a telling point about the misuse of words. He says: “When every civilian death is a war crime, that concept loses its significance. When every expulsion from a village is genocide, we no longer know how to recognize genocide. When Auschwitz is everywhere, it is nowhere.” Point taken. But equally, when anti-Semitism is everywhere, it is nowhere. And when every anti-Zionist is an anti-Semite, we no longer know how to recognize the real thing–the concept of anti-Semitism loses its significance.

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