The Brussels Jewish Museum shooting and the challenge of the new antisemitism

The details of yesterday’s attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels, in which an unidentified gunman is reported to have killed three people and injured one more four people, are still largely unknown. But this did not stop Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from swiftly condemning the attack as a result of European “slanders and lies against the state of Israel.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman elaborated: “This act of terror is the result of anti-Israeli incitement [which includes] call[s] to boycott ‘Jewish products’” – an apparent allusion to the EU’s recent decision to disallow poultry from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Never mind that “anti-Israel incitement” by EU officials is by and large a figment of Israelis’ imagination. On the contrary, the EU has consistently affirmed its commitment to defending Israel’s legitimacy, expanding bilateral relations, countering Israel’s international isolation, and opposing calls to boycott the country, despite its increasing weariness with Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Never mind that Netanyahu’s inflammatory invective against European leaders “who hasten to condemn every construction of an apartment in Jerusalem, but don’t hurry to condemn, or else meekly condemn, the murder of Jews” is, at least in this instance, groundless.

And never mind that Netanyahu is hardly one to condemn other countries for their supposedly meek responses to hate crimes, given that under his leadership scarcely a week goes by in Israel without multiple anti-Arab attacks, ranging from vandalism to lynching, the vast majority of which go unpunished.

The political motivation behind Netanyahu’s hasty response to yesterday’s tragic events could not be more transparent. “Look what happens when you criticize Israel,” he is signalling to certain of his European counterparts as they ratchet up the diplomatic pressure on his government. “Jews die.”

But this approach is almost certain to backfire – not only because its staggering cynicism cheapens the human tragedy which took place, but because implying a connection between opposition to Israeli settlements and anti-Jewish violence was a major tactical blunder. Netanyahu’s comments have unwittingly revived the question of whether certain Israeli actions, for instance expanding West Bank settlements in the face of unanimous international opposition, may indirectly put Jewish lives around the world at risk, thereby undermining Israel’s very raison d’être – to make the world a safer place for Jews.

The proposed link between Israeli conduct and international antisemitism is not a new one. A report by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism attributed the massive spike in antisemitic incidents worldwide in 2009 (a more than twofold increase from the preceding year) to Israel’s invasion of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. A similar jump was noted in 2006 during Israel’s war with Lebanon. In both instances, ideological opposition to Israel’s actions culminated in violence against Jewish communities around the world.

More broadly, the last ten years have seen a surge of interest in the link between anti-Israel attitudes and antisemitism. Numerous writers, including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, have taken to referring to certain forms of anti-Zionist ideology as a “new antisemitism” – an idea that has gained broad traction in certain intellectual and political circles.

Their theory is that antisemitism is just as prevalent today as it ever was, but that antisemites tend to largely direct their hatred at Israel rather than individual Jews, as the former is considered a more socially acceptable target. Put simply, many of today’s antisemites target Israel because they hate Jews. This theory is supported by considerable evidence that anti-Israel political movements do in fact often attract the rankest of antisemites. It sadly is not uncommon to hear Israel’s detractors use “Zionist” as a code word for “Jew,” or to hear virulently antisemitic slogans chanted at anti-Israel gatherings.

Where Foxman et al. get it wrong, however, is in terming this phenomenon a “new” antisemitism. In fact, there is nothing new about it. Like all previous manifestations of antisemitism, it is caused by intolerance, bigotry, and xenophobia. That contemporary antisemites may direct their anti-Jewish animus against Israeli flags rather than phylacteries is a distinction without a difference.

If there is nothing fundamentally new in people attacking a Jewish institution – Israel – because they hate Jews, there most definitely is something new about people attacking Jews because they hate Israel. While hatred of Israel is indeed often rooted in intolerance as Foxman and others have noted, it also seems plausible that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who have had their homes destroyed by the bulldozers of the Jewish nation may hate Israel for reasons that have nothing to do with bigotry.

This, of course, in no way excuses such hatred; inter-group hatred is inherently destructive and illegitimate, regardless of its underlying cause. But it does cast light on a new phenomenon, namely manifestations of antisemitism that are not necessarily rooted in bigotry or intolerance.

This, in my view, is the real new antisemitism, which thus far has been largely ignored by researchers. For instance, the ADL’s recent flawed but ambitious survey on global antisemitism, the largest study of its kind to date, ranks Palestinians as the most antisemitic nation on earth, with nary a mention of the fact that they have been locked in a vicious ethno-national struggle with Jews for the past century. Surely a discussion of this context would have been helpful in understanding Palestinians’ negative attitudes toward Jews and particularly how they differ from, say, Hungarians’.

After the Dreyfus Affair, the founder of political Zionism conceived of the state of Israel as a response to the problem of global antisemitism. Understandably, the mere suggestion that Israel might directly or indirectly contribute to this problem will no doubt strike many as deeply troubling or even offensive. Yet, to the extent that Netanyahu is correct about hatred of Israel having the potential to spark violence against Jews, the phenomenon merits serious study and discussion. Glibly dismissing opposition to Israel’s policies, or even to its existence, as mere bigotry, as both the Israeli government and so many Jewish organizations are wont to do, only hinders efforts to understand and counter the new antisemitism.


About the Author
Daniel Haboucha is a lawyer based in Montreal, Canada.