The current tsunami of Anti-Semitism has stunned many in the Jewish community. However, it especially baffled and horrified Jewish liberals in Israel. A friend told me that lately, she holds Jean- Paul Sartre’s book ‘Anti-Semite and Jew’ at her bedside table. She says that she desperately needs his clear thinking and even clearer writing (he does not cover behind sociological abstractions or catchwords) to unravel the emotional and conceptual chaos that has erupted following the disastrous clash between Hamas and Israel. Evidently, Sartre’s book is not what one considers the idyllic bed time story. However, she says that it helps her make distinctions between legitimate arguments and “passion…Anti-Semitism that does not fall within the category of ideas protected by the right of free opinion”. Sartre writes about the logic of this passion, often deeply- seated, that can be implemented and set forth in almost any form of a theoretical proposition.
And indeed, Sartre’s writing on this unrelenting issue is an eye-opening experience. In one of his conclusive remarks he states:” But it is of no importance that this [Anti-Semitism] is an erroneous notion; the fact is that it is a group error”. The Jew is the one who must prove that the accusations are wrong. “And yet, people will always reject the proof which he furnishes” and elsewhere he writes “Anti-Semitic passion precedes the facts that are supposed to call it forth; it seeks them out to nourish itself upon them”.
It is definitely strange to say that a book on the Anti-Semitic phenomenon can bring comfort to anyone caught in its intricate cobwebs. However, many liberal Jews, experience now an Orwellian nightmare. Whatever they held to as common truths shared by Western liberals quickly collapsed and then replaced by facts and anecdotes twisted in a way that fit the strategy and propaganda of Hamas. Moreover, they believed that they unequivocally belong to a special cultural community that shared common liberal values to find out that they are expelled with disgrace. Instead, they were allocated to a category of identity- Jews – marked by attributes such as privileged, oppressors, colonizers and many more (Simon Sebag Montefiore methodically refutes these claims in an interesting article in The Atlantic). Many liberal Jews now rub their eyes in disbelief. How is it that a totalitarian fundamentalist regime which openly calls for Jihad and “Itbah al–yahud” (Slaughter the Jews) is framed as a legitimate and well-respected organization of freedom fighters? How is it that the calls to ‘free Palestine from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea’ (de facto, annihilation of the Jewish state) is widely accepted and vindicated by liberals in Western democracies? And why is it that vis- a- vis the rising death toll in Gaza the demand to stop fighting is exclusively addressed to Israel and not to Hamas? How come that the satanic strategy of Hamas to fight amongst civilians does not trouble the protesters who call for a cease fire? All this (and much more) makes one think (what was till lately almost unthinkable) that when the Jew (to use Sartre’s logic) is involved, the perspectives are shifted and viewed differently even when they do not synch with facts or what is happening in the real world.
Current socio-political attitudes and discourse are also very frightening! To many it is a reminder of much darker times in recent European history. It particularly resonates with the vicious mechanisms of propaganda and their potential to attract masses of people to follow toxic leaders and embrace evil and deceitful totalitarian regime. Clearly, the old Latin saying Vox populi vox Dei is not always true. Peter Viereck (1956) wrote that Vox Dei may turn out to be Vox Diaboli. The potential for destructive populism grows when people tend to remain at their comfort zone of catchy, trendy and easy to digest propaganda (e.g. not to put in the effort to read the charter of Hamas and understand its core beliefs and vision). The drums of Anti-Semitism are clearly out there.
Many liberal Israelis feel completely lost and confused. They were committed to take down the ultra-right government and delegitimize the unlawful behavior of settlers in the occupied territories. They clang to the vision of Two-State solution in spite of many setbacks. However, the current omnipresent anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in the streets and campuses was a final blow to many of them. They woke up to a changed reality (or maybe it was always there) wherein Islamic totalitarian regimes and organizations (i.e. Iran) who threaten their individual and collective existence are embraced by the masses. And, Hamas is not perceived for what it is – a murderous mechanism that is mobilized by Iran in its fight to gain complete control over the region.
One can take refuge in Sartre’s writings and use his views to decode much of what is happening today and still hope that this does not cover the whole picture and, thus blocking more constructive and rational attitudes concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As I see it, there is an urgent need to understand the intricate interests and get to know the powerful players who strategize the conflict into a whole scale war wherein fundamentalist regimes take a major part. Are Hamas and Hezbollah (Iranian terror proxies together with Jihad in the Gaza Strip, Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq and, Houthis in Yemen) the best representatives of Palestinian interests? These powerful players manage to pull the ‘underdog card’ even when committing unforgivable atrocities. They are instantly excused of any wrong doing. Is it not a distorted view and an oversimplified (not to say stupid) binary worldview? I, together with many Israeli liberals who believe in a ‘two state solution’ hope that the world will come back to its senses and advocate for a just and peaceful solution for both nations.
Varda Muhlbauer, Ph. D
Varda Muhlbauer’s (together with Mina Zemach) edited volume “Behind the partition: Ultra- orthodox women, power and politics is expected to come out in January, 2024.