IT’S A WORD as ugly and irrational as the phenomenon it describes. German racist Wilhelm Marr coined “anti-Semitism” in the 1870s to give some modern gloss to an age-old pathology. Judenhass (“Jew-hatred”) was the standard German term, which at least had the virtue of honesty, but by Marr’s time it sounded harsh in the ears of the expanding middle class. So even as Western arms were subduing indigenous peoples around the globe, Marr borrowed from the same pseudo-science that “proved” the inferiority of non-whites, in order to cope with the enemy within. Despite its logical absurdity—the Semitic languages do form a group that includes both Hebrew and Arabic, but there is no Semitic ethnicity to oppose—Marr’s new word caught on. The very name we give to hatred of Jews has proved almost as protean as the hatred itself.
No matter. We all know what anti-Semitism means, and we all know it’s back with a vengeance. Jews and Jewish institutions assaulted or vandalized in France, Montreal and Toronto; millions around the world believing Internet-spawned theories of what really happened on 9/11 (no surprise: the Jews did it). And only two years ago, Egyption television ran a 41-part drama that prominently featured The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Czarist-era Russian forgery about Jewish plans for world domination that has been called a “warrant for genocide.” Decades after Christianity began seriously—and painfully—to eradicate the original religious enmity, 60 years after the Holocaust showed the obscene ends to which some would take the newer racial hatred, the upsurge in classic anti-Semitism is unmistakable.
But surprisingly enough, it’s not the devil they already know that has most alarmed Western Jews in the last few years. Many people, by no means all of them Jews, detect a new mutation in the old prejudice and, what’s worse, feel it in those they once thought friends. This anti-Semitism is mediadriven: more a matter of word and tone than act; more about what can now be expressed by prominent people in prestigious
forums. The reason for all this—the tension, the attacks, the fear—is, of course, the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. That flat statement is about all the various parties to the dispute can agree upon. Defenders of Israeli actions see a cloak of respectable political activism covering a visceral hatred. Supporters of the
Palestinian cause—some of them Jewish— accuse their opponents of trying to dismiss legitimate protest against Israeli actions by cynically playing, as Irish poet Tom Paulin put it, “the anti-Semitic card.”
It’s relatively easy to distinguish between anti-Semitism and opposition to the policies
Anti-Israeli sentiment affects Jews everywhere
of the government of Israel. Even I ardent Zionists, supporters of a I Jewish state in the Mideast, can ■ disagree with the policies of current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The harsh 37-yearold occupation has legions of critics around the world who object to the economic and
I political repression of the PalesI tinian population, the contin! ued expansion of Israeli settlements, and the racial hatred some Israelis exhibit towards their neighbours (former prime minister Menachem Begin used to call Arabs “beasts walking on two legs”). But the
clear anti-Semitism/anti-Sharon distinction begins to blur when a third concept—antiZionism—is added to the mix. In theory, at least, critics don’t have to be anti-Semitic to be opposed to the existence of a specifically Jewish state in the Middle East. There are even some Jews who are opposed, but in the minds of most, anti-Zionism and antiSemitism are very close. Much depends on what an anti-Zionist proposes for the existing nation: a non-sectarian Jewish-Arab state—or ethnic cleansing.
Anti-Zionism has two main moral arguments. That Palestine was never “a land without a people for a people without a land,” as the old Zionist slogan ran, is now incontrovertible: the Jewish state was established on territory occupied by another people. (So, of course, were all the states of the New World, including Canada.) And Israel is a specificallyjewish state, one in which the Arab 20 per cent of the population does not have the same rights and privileges, most notably in buying or leasing public land, and in the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to Diaspora Jews who claim it. Even though Israeli-Arabs have civil rights that beggar those of the population in any Arab dictatorship—and an activist Supreme Court that regularly enforces them— the existing level of discrimination troubles many liberal Israelis and continues to fuel principled anti-Zionism.
Although prominent Jewish critics urge their fellow Jews not to identify themselves so completely with Zionism, that cause seems long lost. Jewish history helps explain the identification the great majority of Jews feel with Israel—memories of how being a stateless, militarily impotent minority in other countries never stopped their neighbours’ hatred from turning genocidal; pride in Israel’s tenacious survival; the generally unvoiced fear among foreign Jews that they too may need its refuge some day. Nor does the larger world allow Diaspora Jews to keep their distance from the Jewish state. When anti-globalization activist Naomi Klein saw the sign her local Toronto synagogue put
up after a suspicious fire—“Support Israel. Now more than ever”—she thought it should have read “Thanks for nothing, Sharon.” In other words, the sins of the state were inevitably, almost naturally, visited on citizens of another country. Other commentators extend the same reasoning as far as suicide bombings, pointing to the nihilistic despair they detect in the bombers: “Yes, such attacks are wrong, but...”
The mirror identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is immeasurably encouraged by the fact that crazed Jew-haters and anti-Sharon forces often use the same metaphors, drawn from the same deep pool of ancient, twisted imagery. When La Stampa, a mainstream Italian newspaper, wanted to protest an Israeli army incursion into the West Bank in 2002, it published a cartoon of the Christ child in his manger, asking of a nearby tank: “Surely they are not going to kill me again?” That is not something that could be mistaken for anti-Semitism, that is anti-Semitism. Even if the paper was willing to believe, as many on the Left are, that the Israeli army deliberately seeks out Palestinian children to kill, to raise the ancient libel of deicide was unconscionable.
Similarly, consider the op-ed piece José Saramago, the Portuguese novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1998, published in Madrid’s respected El Pais newspaper. Judaism, he declared, preached “an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism”; Israelis’ struggles against the Palestinians partook of the “metaphysical quality of genuine evil.” Saramago, a stalwart of the proudly anti-racist Left, would presumably be outraged were he denounced as an anti-Semite, but what else can he be j called? His El Pais rant was clearly less about Israeli actions than what one commentator called the archetypical Jew “roiling around in his head.”
After the Second World War, revulsion and guilt drove anti-Semitism into the shadows, but not into extinction. Now, after 60 years of Holocaust-induced hiding, atavistic patterns of thought are reasserting themselves in new shapes. “The alcoholism of the West,” British novelist Iain Pears once called anti-Semitism. “It’s deep in us and won’t ever go away, no matter how well things are going. You cannot have a drop for years and years and everything’s okay, but then circumstances change or things fall apart and you find yourself with bottle in hand.” R1
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