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What we talk about when we talk about anti-Semitism

Liberals downplay the anti-Semitism of the Left; conservatives do the reverse -- and both are drained and depleted by the time they face the real enemy
Illustrative: Muslim students at an anti-Israel protest at the University of California, Irvine, in 2006. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)
Illustrative: Muslim students at an anti-Israel protest at the University of California, Irvine, in 2006. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images/JTA)

Anti-Semitism has been much in the news lately. With the recent attacks at American synagogues, the incitements of groups such as BDS and Students for Justice in Palestine on campus, the bruiting of Jewish stereotypes in Congress, the spread of white nationalism on social media and the resurgence of crypto-Fascism in Europe under the rubric of anti-globalism and Holocaust denial, the winds of anti-Judaism have returned in force.

While anti-Semitism is timeless, its manifestations are topical, adjusting to period and place as needed. An animus driven by a perception that Jews are culpable for whatever social ills or personal grievances afflict the bigot, Jew hatred persists because it is protean, resilient and adaptable, limited only by the imagination of the anti-Semite. It serves boundless agendas, assumes infinite guises, and addresses inexhaustible needs that can be political, sectarian, economic or cultural. Depending on its applicability, it can be emotionally satisfying, ethnically unifying, nationally mobilizing, and ecstatically irrational. It doesn’t even need Jews.

Of equal importance to its ubiquity are its degrees of intensity. These range from defamation to discrimination, dispossession, exclusion, expulsion and ethnocide. There is an evolution in this animus that devolves downward. The patrician strain permits its plebeian variant and ultimately the state-sanctioned fulfillment. It grows by acquiescence. But distinct to anti-Semitism is its pandemic quality. Whether as globalists, communists or deicides, Jews have maintained their status on the world stage as the eternal other.

In our own era, in the name of anti-colonialism — the Zeitgeist du jour – they have been begrudged the nationhood they regained after two millennia. Wrapped in the mantle of anti-Zionism, its adherents espouse self-determination for all the world’s peoples, save one. Having refused to disappear from history, the Jews have impeded its progress by thwarting the aspirations of a more deserving people, the Palestinians, by their very national existence. To the hoary anti-Semitic cry of “Go back to Palestine” has been added the more “progressive” chant: “Go back to Europe.” If the Jews accommodated both these prescriptions, they could go back to nowhere, which is the eventual destination their enemies wish them.

With such an abundance of anti-Semitisms abounding these days, it is little surprise that Jews in the Diaspora and Israel, together with their reputed friends, have diverged on which variant is most threatening. In so doing, they have denigrated one-another’s apprehensions, inadvertently providing cover for the very anti-Semites they purport to battle.

The historian Deborah Lipstadt laments “a growing tendency among those who call out anti-Semitism to see it as a problem that exists only on the ‘other’ side of the political spectrum.” Their concerns too often reflect a political chasm between liberals and conservatives, both Jewish and Gentile. By obsessing on the “traditional” anti-Semitism of the Right, liberals downplay the anti-Semitism of the Left; conservatives repay the compliment. This is a disaster for the foes of anti-Semitism. It divides their forces, saps their energies and provides cover for their enemies.

This could not have come at a worse moment for Jewish interests. In the past, whatever hostility Jews encountered, they could marshal their resources against a common foe. Now they are facing powerful anti-Semitic movements from both Left and Right simultaneously. From the Gilded Age to the end of World War II, anti-Semitism was seen as a threat predominating on the Right, whether from czarists, anti-Dreyfusards, ultra-nationalists, or the reactionary church. Abroad, this came to a head in the Nazi era, with Fascist regimes joining Hitler in his liquidation program. At home, it was made manifest with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, racial eugenics, demagogues such as Father Coughlin, and the anti-Semitism within the America First Movement and among its ideological allies. At the time, Jews generally looked to liberal forces for support, mobilizing behind the New Deal and the fight against Fascism.

After a brief honeymoon in the postwar era, things changed in the 60s with two events: the black-power movement at home which took an anti-Semitic turn that frayed the alliance between blacks and Jews, and the Six Day War abroad, which fostered the occupation and created a rupture on the Left that, over the years, became a chasm. In time, conservatives stepped in to fill the vacuum and became champions of Israel.

Liberal critics argued that they did so for the wrong reasons — rightist espousal of an Israeli ethnocracy and evangelical messianism in the Jewish state leading to Armageddon. Nevertheless, the Right — and its Jewish enthusiasts — staked a claim as Israel’s adherents, thereby deflecting liberal criticism of white-nationalist anti-Semitism. It was possible to vilify Jews and celebrate Israel. Typical is the white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer who admires Israel so much that he wants to send all of America’s Jews there.

And it is the Jewish state, its history, evolution and policies that is at the heart of half the discussion of anti-Semitism today. It is not the purpose of this essay to assume the burden of addressing so daunting a subject. Suffice to say that two emerging nationalisms clashed over the same piece of land. They are immersed in a mortal struggle in which the survival of one negates the existence of the other. The British left India, the French left Algeria, the Americans left Vietnam. There is nowhere for the Jews to go and there is nowhere the Arabs want to go. Jewish and Arab aspirations in this contested realm defy the theory of conservation of matter: that two solids can occupy the same space at the same time. It is an intractable problem.

This being said, given that Jews celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut just this week, it is important to assert unequivocally that Israel’s existence is inviolable, as is the security that underpins it. The goals of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, if taken to their logical conclusion, are Israel’s destruction. BDS disclaimers to the contrary are at best disingenuous, willfully ignorant, or, more likely, dishonest. The chimera of a bi-national state would pit demography against democracy. The prospect of a Palestinian majority would lead either to Israel curbing Arab political rights or, should the Arabs gain control, the violent end of the Jewish presence “between the river and the sea.” One has only to look at Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to imagine the fate of the Jews under an empowered Muslim majority. The democratic secular state espoused by proponents of BDS is a fantasy which, given the current direction of Arabism, would more likely become an Islamist theocracy.

It is not the occupation, but the existence of the Jewish state, that has exorcised Leftist intellectuals since its inception. Israel’s encroachments since 1967 have simply swelled their ranks in the West, providing a moral underpinning from what till then was the preserve of reactionary Arab regimes dedicated to Israel’s demise by fiat or force. Their Trojan horse was the so-called “right of return” that would have destroyed the Jewish state from within.

This stratagem ignored the reality that the Arabs who fled or were forced from their homes in 1948 were not “refugees” but “emigres.” Refugees are people who have fled war, oppression, or disaster, with scant hope of coming back and little desire to: the Hindus and Muslims who mutually fled Pakistan and India after Partition, the Vietnamese boat people, the Armenians, the Sudetan Germans and the Jews escaping Nazi Europe. Emigres are those who have fled political reverses, but hover nearby with the hope of toppling the regimes that disgorged them: The nobles after the French Revolution, the White Russians after the Russian Revolution, and the anti-Castro militants after the Cuban Revolution. They are not refugees looking to make a new life elsewhere. Rather, they are revanchists seeking vengeance at the expense of the people who defeated them. For the émigré, return means revenge. Any state with a duty to its own self-preservation would be obligated to prevent their return. Ironically, the Left has rightfully decried such initiatives elsewhere as reactionary. It is only in the case of Israel that it blesses revanchism with the imprimatur of progressives.

The tragedy for the Arabs was not the Nakba, but the catastrophe of a leadership that failed to grasp the chance for a Palestinian state when it had the opportunity to do so at Partition in 1947, at Camp David in 2000, and with Ehud Olmert’s peace offer to Abbas in 2008. Each time, they had their reasons, refusing to realize that once a state existed, it could always alter its destiny. Instead, even while haggling over the contours of independence in 2000, Arafat was signaling his own people that the Palestinian state would only be the first stage in an eventual takeover of Israel. Time and again, the Palestinian leadership has undermined its own cause and betrayed the hopes of its people.

All this is not to diminish Israel’s responsibility for continuing the conflict. Maintaining the impasse works in favor of the Netanyahu regime as it nibbles away at Arab land and negates Palestinian statehood. That Israel’s maximalists have been abetted by the blunders of Arab leaders and the self-defeating intransigence of its rank-and-file does not mean that the Palestinians are not entitled to fulfill their own destiny or that Israel’s encroachment in the territories is justified. By systematically dispossessing the Arabs of their land, Israel is in danger of becoming the very Triumphalist state its detractors have wrongfully accused it of being. Netanyahu is now as much in thrall to his Right as he is in control of them. For Israel’s ascendant messianists, absorbing all the Holy Land is a divinely sanctioned fulfillment of the earlier Israelite conquest of the Canaanites, which was done piecemeal. As the Lord ordained in Exodus 23:30: “I will drive them out before you little by little, until you have increased and possessed the land.” For a Jewish nation — founded as a modern, secular, democratic state — to succumb to such zealotry exposes it to the very accusations of colonialism that its enemies have charged it with. The only debate for them is whether such aggression was contingent on circumstance or built into the DNA of the Zionist enterprise.

Whatever their immediate gains, such policies are not in the long-term interests of the Jewish state. And it is up to its friends, within and outside of Israel to tell it so. Nor should Israel’s foes in the BDS take comfort from such criticism. The difference between the opposition to such policies by the adherents and enemies of the Jewish state is that its champions invoke it to make Israel stronger, while its enemies use it to denigrate. Although BDS avers that its vilification of Zionism is not anti-Semitic, its vitriol has spilled over to Jews on campus and visiting Israeli academics. It would be easier to oppose congressional efforts to stifle BDS — as we should — if its adherents showed equal respect for Zionist speakers on campus instead of disrupting their meetings, bringing us into the realm of “free speech for me, but not for thee.”

Israel’s conservative supporters have been quick to cite such behavior by the Left but less forthcoming in calling out anti-Semitic activity on the Right. Hungary’s demonizing of George Soros with its ugly anti-Semitic overtones is now a commonplace in right-wing circles, including those in the US. Poland attempted to criminalize anyone addressing Polish involvement in the Holocaust. It only backed away after a public outcry, but still intimidates critics by holding them liable to civil action in a hostile environment. Jew-baiting is now a commonplace of the neo-Nazism ascendant on the European Right. And in the US, white nationalists march openly to the cries of “You will not replace us,” while the president opines that there are some good people among them. Trump may not be an anti-Semite, but he has given respectability to an array of anti-Semites by retweeting their hateful messages. And when Jews are slain at synagogues, Israeli envoys, after a few pro-forma nods to the victims of white nationalism, segue into the need to support a resolute Israel. The alarming rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the US, while acknowledged ceremoniously by conservatives after egregious incidents, does not seem to warrant the passion they invest in responding to attacks on Israel.

The Jewish state has faced existential threats from a sea of Muslim enemies from its inception. Consequently, Netanyahu’s cozying up to anti-Semitic autocrats, like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, may be seen as a necessary evil in the realpolitik of seeking allies, of whatever stripe, in a hostile world. Nevertheless, it does not have to be embraced by Israel’s friends who defend its democratic values. Nor should they condone, the chauvinism, religious fanaticism and ethnocentrism that compromises the commitment to equality for all of Israel’s citizens in its founding documents. For all of Israel’s settlement efforts, Palestinians constitute the overwhelming majority in the territories and to rule over them indefinitely, whatever the short-term benefits, will ultimately sap Israel’s strength, materially and morally. The only long-term solution that will maintain Israel’s coherence as a democracy, secular and Jewish, is the creation of two states, one that guarantees Israel’s security and the other that respects Palestinian autonomy and territorial integrity. At present, this is only a dream, but hardly more than a century ago, so was the Jewish state.

Anti-Semitism is itself an anti-Semitic term. It was fabricated in the 1870s by Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist who contrived it to justify the case against Jews, not on religious grounds, but “scientific” ones: that as the degenerate offshoot of a lesser ethnic subgroup — the Semites (as opposed to the Aryans) — Jews manifested inherent characteristics that made them inimical to all societies. This is a canard that Jews have been fighting from their origins. It has many manifestations, more so today. None is less harmful than the others. All must be equally condemned. And this moment, a day of remembrance, should be an occasion where Jews unite in condemnation of all manifestations of “the longest hatred.”

About the Author
Jack Schwartz is a former book editor of Newsday.
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