Israel, Gaza and the Jews: a new moral pogrom?
What the return of anti-Semitism reveals about 21st-century society.
Editor’s note: on spiked we want to kickstart an open, serious debate about the problem of anti-Semitism in the twenty-first century. Here, Frank Furedi explores how the end of the Cold War and the changing meaning of the Holocaust impacted on the position of Jews in Western society. What do you think? Carry on the debate in the comments section below, or let us know if you want to contribute to our series on anti-Semitism. Get in touch here.
Placards screaming ‘Hitler, you were right!’ vie for attention with banners warning about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Demonstrators angrily shout ‘Death to the Jews’; a synagogue is firebombed in Paris; swastikas are painted on the walls of Jewish buildings in other European cities. At a London rally, young Muslim protesters casually swear at Jews without worrying about what the reaction of their fellow protesters might be. They know that the people in their throng will not take offence.
Two normally civilised Belgian acquaintances of mine look embarrassed and fix their eyes on the floor when they hear some unambiguous anti-Semitic comments on the streets of Antwerp. I await a reaction from them. I find myself wondering if they are going to say this is an ‘understandable’ or a ‘regrettable’ reaction to the events in Gaza.
The lines between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are becoming blurred. Not so long ago, critics of Israel went to great lengths to distinguish their hostility to Zionism from any kind of anti-Semitic sentiment. When called upon to account for what might have seemed like their anti-Jewish passions, protesters insisted that their statements were misunderstood or distorted since their real target was Zionism and the state of Israel. Today, many of the same people now feel relieved of the burden of having to make such nuanced distinctions. Others, who always resented the way that the Jewish race has been associated with the moral authority provided by the memory of the Holocaust, believe that their moment has arrived and they now proudly brandish placards equating Israel with Nazi Germany. They nod their head in agreement with the statement recently made by the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about how Israel has ‘surpasse[d] Hitler in barbarism’. One very important development in recent years has been the meshing together of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, so that both now express similar views and fears about the threats facing contemporary society and where they come from.
One of my leftist acquaintances, who insists that he still upholds the values of internationalism, is made uncomfortable by these developments. He concedes that anti-Semitism is in the air, but he also asserts that the reason anti-Jewish passions have been aroused in Europe is because of Israel’s behaviour in Gaza. When I point out that these passions were already in existence before the outbreak of the current war in Gaza, he signals his reluctance to continue the discussion of this troublesome topic.
It is highly unlikely that normal and rational people can be suddenly transformed into passionate critics of the Jewish race simply through witnessing some violent episodes from the Middle East on their TV screens. Gaza may have helped transform pre-existing sentiments into a more coherent anti-Jewish narrative, but the really important shift in attitudes has come about as a consequence of the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s / early 1990s, and not as a result of the recent violence in Gaza.
The Cold War interlude
In late 1944, as the Second World War was coming to a close, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noticed that many of his fellow citizens appeared less than enthusiastic about the prospect of French Jews returning home from the German concentration camps. In his essay, ‘The Anti-Semite and the Jew’, he attempted to explain French society’s complicity in the deportation of so many of its citizens. Though there are some problems with his analysis, he did make a singularly compelling point: anti-Semitism and the narrative through which it is expressed constitute a classic example of what he called ‘bad faith’. ‘Bad faith’ refers to the dishonest manner in which some individuals deal with the difficulty they have in finding their place in an uncertain world. Unable to acknowledge their fears and self-doubt, they displace their anxiety on to an external object. For a variety of historical reasons, in Europe ‘bad faith’ found its ideal expression in the sensibility of anti-Semitism.
Sartre’s analysis of bad faith highlighted the insincere language through which anti-Jewish passions were expressed in Europe. His depiction of the ‘moderate anti-Semite’ is still relevant in the twenty-first century. He wrote:
‘The “moderate” anti-Semite is a courteous man who will tell you quietly: “Personally I do not detest the Jews. I simply find it preferable, for various reasons, that they should play a lesser part in the activities of the nation”.’
Sartre, who said he had heard statements like this ‘hundreds’ of times, wrote about the ‘reasonable tenor’ of such attitudes. He would not have been surprised to encounter today’s expressions of such ‘reasonable’ statements – a statement such as, ‘The problem is not the Jew but their influence in the media and their stranglehold over the banks and the American government’, which is not an uncommon one in the twenty-first century.
Yet much has changed since the 1940s, when Sartre sought to explain the workings of anti-Semitism. In the immediate post-Holocaust era, it was difficult to be an open anti-Semite, even if such attitudes were articulated in a reasonable tenor. Both sides of the Cold War divide sought to harness the worldwide revulsion against Nazi Germany in support of their causes and political systems. This was also the period when the Holocaust was transformed into a unique symbol of evil. This was not confined to the West. The Soviet Union and its satellite states endorsed the right of Israel to exist as a state, and, at least in public, they were forceful in their denunciations of anti-Semitism.
For half a century, the open expression of anti-Semitism was ritualistically condemned as wicked, malevolent behaviour. In such circumstances, those who could not let go of their old hatreds were forced to keep their views to themselves. In the West, anti-Semitism was communicated through winks and nods and euphemistic references to ‘those people’. The fact that only the openly racist far-right fringe continued to denounce Jewish conspiracies reinforced the impression that this age-old hatred had been effectively sidelined.
For their part, the leaders of Jewish communities in the diaspora and in Israel embraced the Holocaust as the defining symbol of their identity. At a time when Western societies eagerly participated in the sacralisation of the Holocaust, many Jewish leaders mistakenly assumed that the institutionalisation of the memory of this horrific crime would serve as a permanent antidote to the revival of anti-Semitism. However, as experience would show, the constant ritualisation of the Holocaust theme by Jews and non-Jews had the effect of turning this historical event into a subject of contestation. Soon, the term ‘Holocaust’ became an all-purpose one that could be, and frequently was, attached to a variety of often competing causes.
Between the late 1940s and the 1990s, Jews in the West enjoyed an unprecedented degree of cultural security. However, this state of affairs gradually came to an end in the years following the end of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War meant that the political equilibrium that had for 40 years prevailed internationally and domestically came to be destabilised. In such circumstances, the balance of power that underwrote Israel’s position unravelled. As far as the Western powers were concerned, their close ally Israel had become a mixed blessing. Israel was now often perceived to be a problematic factor, complicating the West’s relations with the Muslim world. The more that support for Israel exacted a hostile reaction in the Middle East, the less enthusiastic was the West’s support for the Jewish State. Such calculations had a particularly significant impact in EU states, where leaders were very keen to consolidate their relationships with their Muslim constituencies.
The potential divergence of geopolitical interests between Israel and the Western powers provided a space for the emergence of a new narrative of suspicion towards Jews. Comments about the special status of Israel as the West’s best friend in the Middle East often led to a discussion about the disproportionate influence this little nation had over America. This eventually crystallised into a discussion about the power of a Jewish Lobby in Washington. Some seized the opportunity provided by the return of conspiratorial thinking to argue that the West’s Middle East problems would be resolved if it left Israel to fend for itself. By the turn of the twenty-first century, among influential sections of polite European society the view of Israel as a little David fighting a Goliath had given way to its moral opposite.
The gradual distancing of the West from Israel coincided with three important and interconnecting developments. First, the moral authority given to Jewish communities in the West by the legacy of the Holocaust became an issue of contestation. A growing number of constituencies claimed that they, too, had suffered violence and that whatever happened in the past, the Jews did not have a monopoly on suffering. So just as Israel could no longer claim support on the grounds that it was a David fighting a Goliath, so the Jews were no longer perceived to be a uniquely oppressed people.
Secondly, this erosion of the moral authority of the Holocaust coincided with the growing influence of anti-modernist and anti-consumerist trends in Western societies. In some instances, the cultural devaluation of materialism, rationality and progress mutated into a philistine reaction against capitalist economics. Formerly, capitalism was criticised for not being able to deliver benefits to all, and for its lack of efficiency. The new anti-modernist critique attacked capitalism for being too efficient and far too concerned with materialism. Such a backward-looking and reactionary critique of capitalism readily converged with a classical denunciation of greedy bankers and financiers. As Brendan O’Neill recently pointed out, this cultural environment provided a terrain on which criticisms of the elites who ran the banks, Hollywood and related institutions could on occasion acquire an anti-Semitic tone.
One remarkable outcome of these developments was that radical hostility to the socioeconomic order readily converged with the kind of cultural rejection of the Jews that was usually associated with the political right. The coming together of the sensibility of the anti-Enlightenment left with that of the racially motivated far right over the question of Israel has been one of the most striking developments in recent decades. From this new standpoint, Israel became a standalone oppressive state that combined the worst features associated with the history of its cursed people and the exploitative imperative of global capitalism.
And finally, from the 1990s onwards, the West’s recently established Muslim immigrant communities became increasingly vociferous in their denunciations of Israel. Many Muslim youths , who came to regard their local Jewish community as part of the enemy camp, started to express their anger and frustration in a language that depicted Jews and Zionism as interchangeable enemies. One, arguably unexpected consequence of their campaigning was to erode the cultural barriers in Europe that in the postwar period had prevented the open expression of anti-Semitism. Their campaigning, alongside the growing tendency to pathologise Israel, gave permission to others to shake off their inhibitions about voicing anti-Jewish sentiments.
Although anti-Semitism is still not respectable, it has gained a significant degree of influence in Western societies. For some, attacking Jews and their institutions is justified on the grounds that it represents a blow against the ultimate enemy: Israel. Some reject Israel because it serves as a convenient symbol of the West. For others, Israel has become the focus of their bad faith. In a world of uncertainty and confusion, Israel and its people are regarded as a unique repository of evil. None of these sentiments bears the slightest resemblance to the legitimate anti-Zionist tradition of the past, which was motivated by an honest view of what was in the best interests of Palestinians and Jews. Most of the current critics of Israel possess very different motives. Instead of raising genuine questions and criticisms, they communicate a diffuse sense of anger and passion. As Sartre suggested, the source of such passion has little to do with the target of the outburst – which is why, whatever happens in Israel and Gaza, it will do little to temper contemporary Western fear and loathing of Zionism / the Jews.
The revival of anti-Semitism in Europe is not merely a problem for Jews. The speed with which the memory of the last global catastrophe has been neutralised indicates that all the gains associated with the modern Enlightenment are under threat. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the situation in Gaza, the cause of peace in the Middle East will not be served by forcing Jews to bear responsibility for the problems of the world. Xenophobia, even when expressed in a temperate tone, is always a hallmark of bad faith.
Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)
Cover photograph taken by Nathalie Rothschild at the ‘Free Gaza’ protest in London in 2009.