Kenneth Waltzer

Worrisome anti-Semitism: a dynamic of its own

In recent days, Jewish institutions and Jews have been under attack in many places in Europe and elsewhere in the world. In France over the weekend, three Parisian synagogues sustained anti-Semitic attacks by throngs of Arab, African, and other protestors who were yelling “Death to the Jews” and one synagogue as well as Jewish stores in the city were firebombed.  Up to 200 Jews were trapped inside the Rue de la Roquette synagogue until riot police and Jewish self-defense groups fended off the rioters.

All this follows violent attacks on Jewish students carried out earlier during June in the French capital, and before that, during late January, just before Holocaust Remembrance Day, huge angry marches on Paris streets led by marchers shouting: “Jews, France is not yours!” “Jews out of France.”  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz asks with great concern if French Jews can really stay any longer in the land of liberty.  The third largest Jewish community in the world faces increasingly violent anti-Semitism.

In Antwerp, Belgium, speakers at a large rally last weekend called out in Arabic to “slaughter the Jews.”  In recent years, similar rallies and marches have fractured the peace among groups in Malmo, Sweden and in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  The prophecy stated earlier by the historian Bernard Wasserstein, that Europe was likely becoming a vanishing diaspora, is threatening possibly to become true.

And not merely in Europe, in Turkey too!  The prime minister, Reccep Tayip Erdogan, at the head of a neo-Ottoman and Islamic regime, calls protesters against his authoritarianism “Spawn of Israel,” blames Jews for the Soma coal mine disaster, accuses Israeli leaders of being  guilty of the age-old anti-Jewish blood libel of killing children, and prates on about a phantasmagoric “interest rate lobby” conspiring to control Turkey’s economy.  Now, amidst the Israeli ground incursion in Gaza, large angry crowds are urged to demonstrate about Jews in Ankarra and Istanbul.   A short while ago they were being told by Erdogan that Jews and Israel are the culprits responsible for the fall of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.  Now Erdogan charges Israel with committing systematic genocide.

“As Israel attacks Gaza, Jews elsewhere feel an impact,” Reuters headlined this week.  While Russians in Europe are hardly held to be accountable for Russian behavior in the Ukraine, “Jews in Europe, by contrast, are held responsible by large numbers of non-Jews … for Israeli actions.” This is one form of explanation for the phenomenon we are witnessing.  Violence against Jews in Europe and elsewhere rises when Jewish violence in Israel rises against Palestinians and when, in response, people, looking for stand-ins for Israelis, express their solidarity with Palestinians by directing their anger at Jews.

This is the “there is no such thing as real anti-Semitism, Israel is the cause” school of thought.   If Netanyahu and his Israeli Cabinet partners weren’t pummeling Gaza with ordnance from the air and sea and killing Palestinian women and children indiscriminately, there would not be hatred.  Jews would be fine. Well, they might not be highly regarded as neighbors, but they wouldn’t be targets either. If Israel weren’t oppressing and occupying Palestinian land, there would be no situation, no tension.

A second explanation, hardly more comforting, is that there is no doubt rising antisemitism in these countries – in France, against the commitments of the national leadership, in Turkey, under the sponsorship of the national leadership amidst a growing leadership crisis —  such anti-Jewish sentiment is real and palpable.  There is a new antisemitism evident in once familiar European and Mediterranean spaces, scholars say, exploring what is new and looking also at what appears a recrudescence of the old.  While such animus carries elements of the familiar, it is expressed openly by new constituencies and shaped by completely new dynamics in Europe. David Hirsh, a sociologist at London’s Goldsmith College, writes that “it was [once] comfortable for us to imagine anti-Semitism as appearing only with a silly moustache and a fascist uniform, and as being permanently discredited” after Nazism, but there is a resurgent antisemitism that contains and expresses dynamic progressive as well as retrograde impulses from the social margins – contra imperialism, contra capitalism – as it expresses itself hatefully in new ways against the Jews.

About a month ago, French philosopher and public figure Bernard-Henri Levy, in an interview with Le Parisean, reported in the Daily Beast, spoke about a rising spiral of hate in France, lamenting that more and more young Jews were coming to wonder if they’re still welcome in a country that tolerates Nazi salutes in front of the Paris deportation memorial or the Jewish school in Toulouse, where four children in 2012 were killed because they were Jewish.  Levy has been talking about a new rising antisemitism in France and Europe for years, since 2006 at least, something he calls a negation of Jewish existence, and which focuses on Israel, and attributes to the collective Jew or Jewish state all that an earlier antisemitism once attributed to the individual Jew.   “Europeans are reluctant to describe the Brussels museum shooting as an anti-Semitic hate crime,” Levy observed in “The New Antisemitism,” reflecting on the killing of French Jewish schoolchildren and the assassination of Jewish tourists.  “It’s time to end this dangerous state of denial.”

The danger of thinking that such mob violence or attacks are merely refractions of the swirl of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is the danger of thinking that the hatred and related behavior in Europe and elsewhere will subside if and when a ceasefire and diplomatic progress occur in the Middle East. If only Israel-Palestine weren’t a cauldron where the people deeply hate and fear each other and periodically throw themselves into battle, Jews in Israel and Palestinians would get along fine and so would all the rest of us. But this is unlikely, as the rise of anger directed against the Jew and the development of new language and discourse about the Jew reflects also the deeper layers of the crisis of European society – the acute economic malaise effecting opportunity chances for layers of youths coursing through the continent, the crisis of values reshaping the influence of nationalists and purveyors of anti-global resentment from both the right and left. It reflects too the crisis of Turkish society, the collapse of domestic and regional hopes for a new Turkish ascendancy, the rise of protest against corruption and misrule, the bounce back of religious bigotry and sordid rule.

Pierre Andre-Taguieff named the phenomenon a decade ago: a rising new judeophobia in Europe was already visibly pushing out and up from the muck of society – a combination of new animosities brought together and rooted in new as well as old constituencies.  Such rising antisemitism and the increased, open brazenness of many persons acting it out combined with the shocking acceptance of “la nouvelle judeophobie,” the denial or deflection and failure to respond sharply to it. Taguieff’s book, Rising from the Muck, explored the multiple currents, polemical and fanciful, discursive and action-oriented amalgamating Jews, Israelis, and Zionists together as the corporeal representatives of evil in the world and targeting hate directed against Jews/Zionists everywhere.  The book also probed the multiple influences – Islamic, left progressivism, Third Worldism, and neo-Nazism – flowing into and mixing in the brew of the new hatred.

So today, amidst heightened conflict in the Middle East, we see anger and violence flaring up in multicultural Europe and rising sharply in Islamic Turkey.  Shall we expect such anger and violence to diminish and disappear if and when the conflict is moderated?  Or shall we anticipate that such rising anger and violence may be and probably is a factor itself and will perpetuate itself, feeding on its own energy and dynamic.

A Turkish journalist today published a call to the head rabbi of Turkey threatening a new expulsion or calamity of Jews to rival the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century, since which time Muslims had kindly permitted Jews to thrive and develop wealth.  In a letter written in the Turkish Daily translated by Merve Tahiroglo, the journalist Faruk Kose wrote:

“As a Muslim I believe that it is not in line with Islam’s justice to think that a person, just because they are a Jew, should “die” or “be exterminated.” I mean, if they were, I would not be upset, but I also would not argue that they should be treated this way simply because they are Jewish….

But if you come out with your “Jewish” identity and start massacring my Muslim brothers, start siding with this “Zionist/Jewish terror base” that is Israel, which implicates a complete genocide on my religious-brothers in Palestine, from babies to children, and start siding with this crime against humanity, you will be guilty of the same thing. And at that point, I will have earned the right to ask for the “an eye for an eye” approach towards you….”

Chilling?  A reflection of the momentary?  Or a reflection of something deeper?  If the latter, what then must be done?

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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