Sense on antisemitism*

By Antony Lerman

HEN ASSESSING the threat of antisemitism today, can we distinguish between true menace and fear of our own shadows? Given that antisemitism wreaked such havoc in the 20th century, you might think that there would be clear answers to questions like "How serious is antisemitism in Britain?" or "What threat is it to Europe's Jews?" Many voices claim to provide such answers—they are, however, contradictory.

The case that antisemitism in Europe is deadly serious and getting worse was put in a famous article by Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. "In Europe," he wrote, "it is not very safe to be a Jew. What is odd is not the antisemitism of today but its relative absence during the past half-century. That was the historical anomaly. Holocaust shame kept the demon corked. But now the atonement is passed."

Dissenters are equally trenchant. In the Guardian, Rabbi David Goldberg wrote: "The alleged recrudescence of antisemitism strikes me as paranoid and exaggerated. By any objective criteria, the modern, acculturated, broadly successful Jew in the western world has never had it so good. We should never be complacent about antisemitism. But at the present time, it is far easier and safer to be a Jew than a Muslim, a black person or an east European asylum seeker."

The confusion is thrown into even sharper relief when the views of the past and present chief rabbis of Britain's main orthodox denomination, the United Synagogue, are compared. The current incumbent, Jonathan Sacks, is among those arguing most strongly that antisemitism has reached unprecedented levels. He called "the wave of anti-Jewish incidents that have gone round the world in recent months. the real, ultimately murderous thing." His predecessor, the late Lord Jakobovits, repeatedly emphasised that antisemitism was in significant decline. Speaking at the commemoration ceremony for Kristallnacht in 1998, he said: "For the first time in over 2,000 years of the Jewish experience, there is not a single Jewish community anywhere in the world where Jews are officially persecuted because they are Jews." Is it conceivable that so much could have changed in three and a half years to allow both Sacks and Jakobovits to be correct?

So what is going on? The argument begins with the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, which was followed by a wave of attacks on Jewish property, especially in European countries with large Muslim and Arab minorities. The following summer, Jewish organisations attending the NGO forum before the UN Conference on Racism in Durban were disturbed by what they saw as "a frenzy of antisemitic rhetoric and vicious anti-Israel resolutions" (Jerusalem Report). Durban was followed by 11th September which gave rise to the circulation of various antisemitic stories on the internet, the most common of which claimed that Jews working in the World Trade Centre were forewarned and stayed away. Post-11th September, the Sharon government intensified its crackdown on Palestinian terrorism leading to a further upsurge in anti-Jewish incidents in some European countries. Some synagogues were torched and desecrated, and a small prefabricated synagogue in Marseille burned down. In April, the Independent published a front page picture of a desecrated synagogue in North London. With it ran the headline: "A picture that tells a shocking story: the rise of antisemitism in Britain."

What is the explanation for, and evidence of, this alleged rise in antisemitism? First, proponents argue that we are witnessing a "new antisemitism," in the form of criticism of Israel which is so hostile that it can only be explained as hatred of Jews. Most supporters of the "new antisemitism" argument make a distinction between legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies at one end of the spectrum, and denial of the right of Israel to exist at the other end-the former, they say, is potentially not antisemitic, the latter certainly is antisemitic-but most lump all criticism together and label it anti-Zionism. And given that Zionism is the ideology of Jewish national liberation, opposition to it is deemed to be antisemitic. Just as traditional antisemitism was the denial of the right of the individual Jew to live in society as an equal citizen, so the new antisemitism is the denial of the right of the Jewish people to live as equal members of the family of nations.

Second, antisemitism is said to be returning because the taboo on it—in place since the Holocaust—has been lifted. This is because with Israel portrayed as behaving brutally towards the Palestinians (taking their land, denying their rights, using terror), Europeans can be relieved "of the residual guilt they have for the Holocaust," in the words of Michael Berenbaum, former Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's research institute.

Third, antisemitism among Muslims in the Arab world and in the west is seen as a key component of the new antisemitism. A recent example is a front page story from a leading Saudi paper which claimed that Jews bake matza (unleavened bread for Passover) and hamantaschen (seed cakes for the festival of Purim) with the blood of Christian and Muslim boys. In Europe, Islamist groups like al Muhajiroun and Hizb- ut-Tahrir preach hatred of Jews.

Finally, the number and severity of anti-Jewish incidents from 2000 through to May 2002 is seen as unprecedented. The Israeli government website on antisemitism states: "2001 saw an increase in the number of anti-Jewish activities and the upgrading of their severity." The Stephen Roth Institute at Tel Aviv University reported: "Britain witnessed a 400 per cent rise in anti-Jewish incidents for the month of October compared with the same month in 1999." An even sharper increase is reported in France.

Before unpicking this argument, it is important to acknowledge that if your synagogue is vandalised, the tombstones of your relatives are desecrated or you are subject to antisemitic abuse, the world will feel a nasty place. But whether extreme claims about a resurgence of antisemitism in Europe do anything to help Jews in such a situation is another matter.

A cursory glance at some of the main developments in antisemitism in Europe since 1945 shows the absurdity of statements such as "these are the worst antisemitic days in Europe since the end of the second world war" (Avi Beker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress). In 1946, 42 Jews were murdered in a pogrom in Kielce, Poland. As the war was ending, Oswald Mosley's supporters were back on the streets of London and Manchester. Between 1948 and the 1959 race riots in Notting Hill the Mosleyites were active and violent. At that time, and probably up until the 1960s, some British public schools restricted the number of Jews to a fixed quota. In the US, admissions policies aimed at curbing the number of Jewish students at virtually every private institution of higher learning, and many public ones too, lasted well into the 1950s.

In communist Europe, Jewish communities were systematically denied the right to practise their religion and culture freely. While public expressions of antisemitism were rare, discrimination against Jews was rife. A thinly-disguised antisemitic campaign in Poland in 1968 led to the mass expulsion of approximately 15,000 Polish Jews (the largest anti-Jewish action in Europe in the post-war period). In Russia under Brezhnev, the anti-Zionist campaign of the 1970s relied heavily on antisemitic themes. And after 1989, antisemitism surfaced in many publications and political groups in post-communist countries.

What of the specific allegation that anti-Zionism is the new antisemitism? Some Israel critics are no doubt classic antisemites using anti-Zionism as a cover. But the "anti- Zionism equals antisemitism" argument says something else. Sacks summed it up when he told the Parliamentary Committee against Antisemitism that accusing Israel of "racism, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide, crimes against humanity" is itself antisemitic. Yet to exempt Israel from such allegations is to set the threshold of where legitimate criticism tips over into antisemitism impossibly low. If we say a British institution is racist, does this imply an ideological anti-Britishness? If Milosevic is accused of crimes against humanity, does this imply racist anti-Serbism?

The anti-Zionism equals antisemitism argument drains the word antisemitism of any useful meaning. For it means that to be an antisemite, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has a right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of those things which historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic world view: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism, belief that Jews are racially inferior and so on. Moreover, while theoretically allowing that criticism of Israeli government policies is legitimate, in practice it virtually proscribes any such thing. Following Sacks's reasoning, an Israeli soldier who sees elements of racism and the denial of human rights in policies towards the Palestinians must be antisemitic.

The argument that perceptions of Israel's behaviour have led to the end of the Holocaust taboo is harder to answer. After all, who would openly admit to wishing to find an excuse to offload feelings of guilt about the Holocaust? In any case, the taboo has not operated in quite the way people assume. The awareness of a unique and recognisable event called the "Holocaust" did not emerge fully formed after 1945. It was only after the Eichmann trial in the 1960s that a growing western consciousness of what (only then) became known as the Holocaust got under way, a process which has still not abated. If there is some Holocaust "fatigue," it has to be set against the extent to which the Holocaust has become embedded in western culture as history's most ubiquitous moral reference point. And is this fatigue a consequence of Israel's perceived behaviour or because the Holocaust has been over-invoked by Israeli politicians? Many Jews feel that the Holocaust occupies too prominent, and too negative, a role in forging Jewish identity, emphasising the Jewish experience of victimhood rather than celebrating the richness of Jewish civilisation.

There is no doubt that hostility to Israel and Zionism in the Arab and Muslim worlds is often expressed in antisemitic terms. But as Bernard Lewis has shown, antisemitism was exported from Europe, especially by Nazi Germany, and is not indigenous to the Arab world. In his new book on the decline of the Islamic world, What Went Wrong, he writes: "The struggle for Palestine greatly facilitated the acceptance of the antisemitic interpretation of history, and led some to blame all evil in the middle east and indeed in the world on secret Jewish plots. This interpretation has pervaded much of the public discourse in the region, including education and the media." But Lewis saw its impact as directly related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, after the Oslo agreements, observers noted a significant decline in expressions of anti-Jewishness in the Arab media.

Just how deeply embedded in the Arab world antisemitism has become is a complex issue. No doubt the lack of freedom, especially freedom of expression, and the shortage of knowledge in Arab societies are important factors, as too is the "army of young Arabs, jobless and embittered, cut off from changing their own societies by democratic means" (The Economist). Nevertheless, the mix of antisemitism and anti- Zionism in the Arab and Muslim worlds is different from traditional European antisemitism in two respects. First, the hostility to Jews is grounded in a real political grievance and second, as a result, the antisemitic form in which this grievance is sometimes expressed is mutable: it can increase or decrease according to events. This makes it different from classic European antisemitism, which is largely grounded in myth and fantasy and not susceptible to such change.

Lastly, what about anti-Jewish incidents? The trouble here is that there is no agreement as to what constitutes such an incident, no allowance is made for variations in reporting rates or the reliability of different monitoring bodies, and figures for previous decades are so incomplete that making comparisons is a risky business. There is also a range of antisemitic manifestations—such as publications and websites-which you can count and describe without being able say anything about their impact. While some of the recent incidents, particularly in France, have been shocking, there seems to be no basis either for the assertion that 2001 was worse than 2000, or that the events of October 2000 were the most devastating since 1945. The Stephen Roth Institute contradicts the Israel government's assertion about 2000 and 2001, and the International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University, whose Director Simha Epstein has tried to look at this over a longer period, says that reported incidents worldwide during the swastika epidemic in 1960 were higher than in 2000.

Two other factors relating to incidents need to be noted. First, it is wrong to think that increases in incidents must mean an overall worsening of the antisemitic climate. There is no contradiction between a rise in the number of acts of antisemitic vandalism and a decline in anti-Jewish attitudes (a phenomenon noted in the US). We live in a period in which extremists are readier to express their views in violent ways. It may be that they do so precisely because their ideas are so marginal. Second, for some decades now waves of antisemitic incidents have been linked to flare-ups in the Arab-Israeli conflict-which make expressions of surprise at the recent upsurge in incidents rather disingenuous. There were increases after the wars in 1967, 1973 and 1982, and after the start of the first intifada in 1987.

France's 600,000 strong Jewish community has been especially hard-hit by attacks on synagogues. Some people link this to what they see as a cultural climate in which Jews are criticised for remaining "different," and for refusing to accept the "universal values" of French republicanism. But there is general agreement that almost all of the attacks were committed by young males of North African Arab origin and are not the work of the traditional racist right. "The prominence given to the Israel-Palestinian conflict gives them an excuse to take out their frustrations on a group which appears more privileged and successful," Malik Boutih, president of SOS Racisme, said. And while there may be an antisemitic element to left-wing opposition to Israel, it is far- fetched to build on that a theory that throws into doubt the entire basis of Jewish life in France.

So what lies behind this claim of rampant antisemitism today? Why do French Jewish leaders make the absurd comparison between the recent attacks on synagogues in France (in which no one died) and Kristallnacht-the 9th November 1938 pogrom in Germany in which 91 Jews were killed, more than 30,000 arrested (1,000 of whom were later murdered) and 191 synagogues were set on fire? Consider these three broad explanations.

First, it is not at all surprising that many Jews outside of Israel find severe criticism of the Jewish state unsettling and seek to brand it antisemitic. Israel is a key element of Jewish identity. It came into existence at the moment of greatest weakness for Jews, giving them a sense of security and pride. So the "new antisemitism" is, in part, not new at all but rather a device for de-legitimising any criticism of Israel and a political weapon in a global propaganda battle. The claim and counter claim in an unprecedented number of articles is testament to the power of that weapon and to a world that remains sensitised to antisemitism's dangers. But the antisemitism weapon is a blunt one, especially when used to refute comparisons between the actions of Israel's army and the way the Nazis treated Jews. If such comparisons are antisemitic what about Israelis who describe other Israelis observing the actions of Israeli soldiers at checkpoints in the West Bank as "kapos"? (Kapos were Jews who acted as police for the Nazis in the death camps. Holocaust survivors lynched them.) As Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar writes in Ha'aretz: "Jews are allowed the liberty of likening Jews to Israel's worst enemies, while at the same time whining about those who liken Jews to Israel's worst enemies."

Second, the study and monitoring of antisemitism has become highly politicised. In Israel it is bound up with Zionism. It is a basic tenet of Zionism that antisemitism is ineradicable and the only way Jews will be free of it is by living in their own state. With self-mocking frankness, the professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Aviezer Ravitzky, confessed to a seminar for American Jews that: "We Israeli Zionists have an evil inclination: that antisemitism will flourish in the west but no Jew be hurt."

This politicisation is evident from the way Israel's policy on antisemitism changes with the times. In the 1980s the Israel Government Monitoring Forum on Antisemitism was set up, headed by Elyakim Rubinstein, Israel's current attorney general. It aimed to establish Israel as the centre for monitoring antisemitism worldwide, and as coordinator of the independent monitoring of antisemitism by diaspora Jewish groups. This effort was handled insensitively and the plan failed. Once the Oslo process got under way, the Israeli government downgraded the work of the forum. With the country's international position vastly improved after the collapse of communism and the beginning of serious contacts with Arab states, the issue of antisemitism receded. Now that Israel feels under threat again and believes it is losing the propaganda war, there has been a further change: in January 2002 the Israeli government established an International Commission to Combat Antisemitism. What all this suggests is that Israel is just like any other state-it places its national interests above all other considerations. Writing in International Affairs, Yossi Shain and Barry Bristman sum this up: "Israel still privileges the health of bilateral relations with other countries over the interests of Jewish communities resident there. While Israel denounces antisemitism worldwide as a dangerous phenomenon in general, it is selective in its particular condemnations, hesitant when interests it perceives as important are at stake." Israel cannot therefore be seen as an objective judge of the state of antisemitism.

The task of gauging the threat of antisemitism in Europe is made more difficult by the intervention of the major American Jewish organisations, such as the Anti- Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Wiesenthal Centre. When they look at Europe they see a continent stuck in an antisemitic time warp. They cannot acknowledge that any meaningful change has taken place. Many find it impossible to understand how Jews could live in Europe today. As voluntary organisations, they are all competing with each other for money and publicity. As a result, justifiable concern about antisemitism easily turns into damaging hyperbole or foolish demands. An example of this was the call by the American Jewish Congress, an organisation with declining membership and influence, for a boycott of the Cannes film festival because of antisemitism in France and the alleged failure of the French government to take it seriously. French Jewish leaders condemned the idea and the French documentary filmmaker, Claude Lanzman, joined others in writing an article in Le Monde criticising the proposal.

But thirdly, perhaps the most pervasive factor that clouds our ability to makes sense of what is going on is the Holocaust. All analysis and assessment of contemporary antisemitism takes place in its shadow. It could not and should not be otherwise, but the price we pay is the tendency to see all antisemitism as inherently genocidal—so that behind every question about what threat antisemitism poses today is the larger question: is another Holocaust possible and is the antisemitism now being experienced leading to it? But this question distorts analysis for it leads to the investment of every antisemitic incident, however trivial, with a degree of significance it does not deserve; it encourages the view that all forms of antisemitic prejudice over the centuries were dress rehearsals for the "Final Solution."

And there is, in the many articles arguing that antisemitism is at unprecedented levels, a hint that the genocidal impulse is alive and well and incubating at some dinner party in London or Paris or Vienna. This may represent the fears of a scarred and traumatised people who believe that their recent revival in Israel, Europe and elsewhere is only provisional. But for me these attitudes pose the question: Why can't Jews take yes for an answer? To look at Europe today, whether west or east, and to see antisemitism as the determining factor in Jewish life is to ignore the broader context. There is no mass discrimination against Jews, no state sponsored antisemitism, no suppression of Jewish culture in the communist bloc, no antisemitism encouraged by the hierarchies of either the Protestant or Catholic churches. Jews are experiencing unprecedented freedom and success. Since the end of the second world war, a legal framework, at national and international levels, has been created designed to punish racists and antisemites.

We know the extent of anti-immigrant feeling from recent European elections, but it is not Jews being demonised. They are not visible targets for racists in the way that people of African, Caribbean or Asian origin are. On the contrary, a growing sense of belonging in the countries in which Jews live has meant that, in recent years, the priorities for Jewish communities have ceased to be so defensive and have become more concerned with maintaining Jewish identity, deepening religiosity, developing Jewish culture-antisemitism is under surveillance, but has not been a major concern. Hardly any damage to a synagogue, cemetery or any other Jewish institution goes unreported today. But across Europe, numerous projects are underway restoring Jewish buildings, repairing old cemeteries, building heritage centres and educational institutions-yet only a fraction of these developments gets reported. This is not to minimise the awfulness of acts of hate, or to delude oneself into thinking that antisemitism has disappeared; but what is of greater significance for the Jewish future in Europe: some highly publicised acts of destruction or the flowering of cultural, educational and religious activity?

The dangers of exaggerating the threat of antisemitism, even if the motive is just (though that is not always the case), are serious—you devalue the currency. And by making statements that imply antisemitism is as bad now as it was in the 1930s, we are sullying the memory of the millions of Jews who were dehumanised, persecuted and murdered at the hands of the Nazis and their associates.

* This essay was first published in Prospect Magazine in August 2002, Issue 77. We are grateful for permission to reproduce it here.


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About the author

Antony Lerman is chief executive of the Hanadiv Charitable Foundation and was executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, London, from 1991 to 1999.

© Institute for Jewish Policy Research  2002


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