What’s behind the ‘new anti-Semitism’?

The game of ‘spot the anti-Semite’ currently being played in intellectual circles misses what is new in expressions of the oldest prejudice today.

Frank Furedi

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Topics Politics

So, who is an anti-Semite today? It is very difficult to answer that question, since virtually no one in the West is prepared to acknowledge that they dislike Jewish people or Jewishness. Yet some commentators insist that we are confronted with a new phenomenon – ‘The New Anti-Semitism’ – which is apparently thriving and becoming increasingly menacing.

For evidence of a new form of the oldest prejudice, they point to a rise in the number of physical and verbal attacks on Jewish people in Europe; to the expansion of anti-Jewish hatred and prejudice to the Muslim world; and to what they consider to be prejudice dressed up as political criticism, where hatred and invective against the Jews is expressed through anti-Zionism and the criticism of Israel.

In recent months, the debate about the new anti-Semitism has shifted to the US. There, a number of individuals critical of Israel and Israeli policies have been accused of being anti-Semitic. In turn, the critics of Israel argue that the charge of anti-Semitism is a mendacious attempt to deflect legitimate criticism of Israeli policy, particularly in relation to the Palestinians.

Unfortunately it is quite easy to become disoriented in the debate about the new anti-Semitism, since its focus is often on what people ‘really mean’ rather than on what they actually say.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal is one of those who argues that many critics of Israel are motivated by an anti-Semitic impulse. However, he acknowledges that it is difficult to demonstrate, convincingly, that someone is anti-Semitic. ‘[There] aren’t many anti-Semites today who will actually come out with it and say “I hate Jews”’, he notes. Therefore, ‘spotting an anti-Semite requires forensic skills, interpretive wits, and moral judgement’ (1).

However, combining forensic skills, interpretive wits and moral judgements is not necessarily conducive to searching for the truth. Rather, such methods of ‘investigation’ might lead individuals to see something that isn’t there. Making a moral judgment call about what an individual really means is a highly subjective act, which can be influenced by the judger’s own prejudices and by other cultural and political assumptions. If such a method for ‘spotting an anti-Semite’ were to become institutionalised, we would surely end up with a definition of anti-Semitism so entirely subjective and detached from intent that it would become all but meaningless. Just as we already have ‘unwitting racism’ in the UK, perhaps we would end up with accusations of ‘unwitting anti-Semitism’ against those judged by other people’s interpretive wits to be anti-Semitic.

Stephens’ call for moral judgements on what people really mean can only encourage an inquisitorial climate. Yet he does highlight a genuine problem with public debate today. We live in a world where speech is heavily policed, and where people are actually discouraged from saying what they genuinely believe. People habitually censor themselves in anticipation of the charge that they are defying some contemporary speech code, whether formal or informal. Increasingly, fear of being told ‘You can’t say that!’ is giving rise to a culture of self-censorship. At a time when calling someone ‘old’ instead of ‘elderly’ is likely to lead to charges of insensitivity, or using the word blind or handicapped can cause a storm of controversy, people have become careful indeed about what they say and how they say it.

Matters are even more complicated when it comes to anti-Semitism. Since the Holocaust, and especially in recent decades, very few in the West have openly expressed anti-Jewish sentiments. Indeed, in some European countries it is illegal to make anti-Semitic comments, and even where it is not illegal, there are powerful cultural barriers against holding or giving voice to such views. The marginalisation and even criminalisation of public expressions of anti-Semitism are in part understandable responses to the tragic events of the Second World War. They are also a consequence of what we might call the sanctification of the Holocaust.

In recent years, the Holocaust has been elevated to the status of a secular truth and a moral compass. At a time of great moral uncertainty in the West, the Holocaust increasingly serves as a unique symbol of evil, and thus atoning for it is seen as an act of virtue. There are Holocaust Memorial Days, through which governments communicate their key values, including multiculturalism, anti-bullying and the protection and promotion of self-esteem. There are more and more Holocaust museums and memorials that seek to remind us what can happen when we lose our humanity. The Holocaust is now taught as part of citizenship or religious studies classes in numerous schools, and is discussed in a growing number of ethical and moral schoolbooks aimed at children.

It is not an exaggeration to say that this transformation of the Holocaust into a secular sacred symbol underpins the West’s entire moral universe today. That is another reason why, even by the standards of the prevailing climate of self-censorship, explicit anti-Semitic pronouncements are relatively so rare. This symbolisation of the Holocaust also helps to explain some of what lies behind today’s ‘new anti-Semitism’.

Is the genie out of the bottle?

Those who believe that there is a new anti-Semitism also fear that the moral authority of the Holocaust is being breached. One critic of the ‘new anti-Semitism’, Alvin Rosenfeld, writes that ‘despite the huge scandal of the Holocaust, which most Jews probably thought would prevent public manifestation of anti-Semitism from ever appearing again, the genie is once more out of the bottle’ (2). According to Rosenfeld, author of a pamphlet on the new anti-Semitism published by the American Jewish Committee, Jew-hatred has become globalised and has become particularly virulent in the Muslim world. He is especially concerned about what he considers to be the emergence of a strident anti-Zionist sentiment in the West, one that increasingly calls into question the right of Israel to exist.

In essence, Rosenfeld’s pamphlet is a response to the growing influence of anti-Israeli criticism among American public figures and intellectuals – including some Jewish thinkers. In recent years, and over the past year in particular, Israeli policy has come under fire from a variety of public figures in the US. Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer’s controversial criticism of the ‘Israel lobby’ in the London Review of Books and former president Jimmy Carter’s attack on various Israeli policies are symptomatic of a new mood of estrangement from Zionism within Washington. At the same time, numerous intellectuals – Tony Judt, Tony Kushner, Adrienne Rich – have also laid into Israel, attacking its policies and its global role.

Rosenfeld, like many of his co-thinkers, takes the view that ‘anti-Zionism, in fact, is the form that much of today’s anti-Semitism takes, so much so that some now see earlier attempts to rid the world of Jews finding a parallel in present-day desires to get rid of the Jewish state’ (3). In a world where it is still not permissible to be openly anti-Semitic, it is of course possible that some hide their real thoughts about the Jews behind attacks on Israel. But is that what motivates the new band of anti-Israeli critics? Or is it the case that, as John Judis, senior editor of the American magazine The New Republic argues, ‘what these charges are meant to do is to raise the warning flag of anti-Semitism over certain opinions, placing them beyond argument’? (4)

Before answering that question, it is important to note that the genie may indeed have escaped from the bottle. The sanctification of the Holocaust, the institutionalisation of this horrific event as a new moral absolute to guide our societies, has had the predictable effect of breeding cynicism, and in some cases giving rise to contestation over the meaning of the Holocaust. Consider Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent sponsorship of a conference questioning the Holocaust: that is only the most striking illustration of an attempt to hit out at the West by undermining the moral meaning of the Holocaust, an historic episode that is now tied so closely to Western governments’ sense of moral purpose and vision.

Even more significantly, some have sought to divest Israel from any association with the moral authority of the Holocaust. Critics of Israel, some unconsciously, others consciously, try to turn the symbolic authority of the Holocaust against Israel. So opponents of Israel frequently accuse the Israeli government of acting like the Nazis. Respectable media outlets in the West now regularly claim that Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing, genocide, crimes against humanity, all of which invite comparisons between Israel and the Nazis. Some critics liken Theodor Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, to Adolf Hitler. Israeli or Jewish complicity in Israel’s war crimes is said by some to be even more comprehensive than the complicity of the German people with the crimes of the Nazis. Some talk of the ‘Nazification’ of Israeli society, suggesting a role reversal, whereby Jews become the twenty-first century equivalent of their former oppressors.

In any intense debate, it is easy to get carried away and exaggerate the sins of your opponents, to go over the top and slander your enemy – especially in our morally illiterate times, where it has become common to denounce your enemy for being ‘like the Nazis!’ Viewed in this context, it seems that calling Israelis ‘Nazis’ does not make you a closet anti-Semite. Rather it represents a sordid rhetorical strategy for laying claim to the moral authority of the Holocaust. At the same time, the association of Zionism with Nazism looks like an attempt to dispossess Israel of the moral authority it derives from its association with the Holocaust. Effectively, ‘ownership’ of the Holocaust, which today confers authority on those who uphold its memory, is now being contested by the opponents of Israel. In this sense, at least, the genie is indeed out of the bottle, though not in the way that many of the critics of the new anti-Semitism understand it.

Demonising Israel

In a confused and confusing debate, where much of the focus is on what people apparently ‘secretly mean’ and where there is an emerging competition over the Holocaust, it can be difficult to get to the truth. However, as a rule of thumb, it is worth judging people by what they say and do rather than what we think they mean. The criticism of Israel should be interpreted as just that. To criticise Israel, even to call into question the legitimacy of the Jewish state, is not, in itself, an act of anti-Semitism. Even the harshest denunciation of Israel can be inspired by motives that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It is certainly difficult to characterise the arguments put forward by someone like American commentator Tony Judt as anti-Semitic. Therefore, it is possible to draw the conclusion that some wield the charge of anti-Semitism against their opponents in order to defend Israel from legitimate criticism.

However, something very peculiar is emerging in the debate about Israel today, on both sides of the Atlantic. Increasingly, Israel is depicted as the biggest threat to world peace and stability. The Walt and Mearsheimer article not only suggested that the pro-Israel lobby had more or less hijacked Washington’s foreign policy; it also implicitly called into question the loyalty of American Jews to America and its interests. These days, you do not have to look very far before finding someone who is convinced of the omnipotence of the American Jewish lobby. In recent weeks colleagues of mine on both the left and right of the political spectrum have tried to convince me that were it not for the Jewish lobby there would be no war in Iraq.

This view of the American Jewish lobby as an omnipotent global conspiracy springs from a growing tendency to demonise – not just criticise – Israel. Israel is represented as a malevolent society sui generis. It alone faces regular demands for academic and commercial boycotts. It is frequently described as the greatest threat to global stability, and portrayed as an intensely racist and barbaric society. Once upon a time, leftists viewed Israel as a guard-dog of imperialism; these days they are more likely to discuss it as the very seat of the Empire. Whatever the motivations behind this demonisation of Israel, it does seem that Israel is judged by a double standard by a rising number of influential thinkers and activists.

For a variety of reasons, Israel has come to bear the cross of the West’s sins. In Europe in particular, there is a powerful sense of weariness towards Israel. ‘If only it would go away, then we would have a chance for peace in the Middle East’, is the fantasy view of some European officials and writers. Others simply resent Israel’s claims to special status on the basis of its links with the Holocaust – which is why there is a growing trend to turn the moral power of the Holocaust against Israel. The West’s estrangement from Israel today does not mean it is ready to rethink its transformation of the Holocaust into a new moral symbol. All that it means is that the West increasingly embraces the ‘good Jews’ who were the victims of the Nazis, while distancing itself from the ‘bad Jews’ who are alive and kicking in Israel.

In today’s climate of self-censorship, moral uncertainty and competition over the Holocaust, it does not look as if the genie of the ‘new anti-Semitism’ will return to the bottle anytime soon.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit his website at www.FrankFuredi.com.

(1) Bret Stephens, ‘Anti-anti-Semitism defended’ , Wall Street Journal

(2) Alvin H Rosenfeld, ‘”Progressive” Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism’, American Jewish Committee, New York, December 2006, p7

(3) Ibid. p8

(4) John B Judis, ‘The New Anti-Semites’, The New Republic

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