by Ran HaCohen
September 29, 2003
The eve of the Jewish New Year is an excellent occasion for what Jewish tradition calls Kheshbon Nefesh, or soul-searching on so-called "anti-semitism", which has now become the single most important element of Jewish identity. Jews may believe in God or not, eat pork or not, live in Israel or not, but they are all united by their unlimited belief in anti-semitism.
When a Palestinian kills innocent Israeli civilians, it's anti-semitism. When Palestinians attack soldiers of Israel's occupation army in their own village, it's anti-semitism. When the UN General Assembly votes 133 to 4 condemning Israel's decision to murder the elected Palestinian leader, it means that except for the US, Micronesia and Marshal Islands, all other countries on the globe are anti-semitic. Even when a pregnant Palestinian woman is stopped at an Israeli check-point and gives birth in open field, the only lesson to be learnt is that Ha'aretz journalist Gideon Levy – who reported two such cases in the past two weeks, one in which the baby died – is an anti-semite.
Anti-semitism is an all-encompassing explanation. Anything unpleasant to anti-Palestinian ears is just anotherance of anti-semitism. Jewish consciousness focused on anti-semitism has taken the shape of anti-semitic conspiracy theories, like that of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion: whereas the anti-semitic classic relates every calamity to Jewish conspiracy, Jews relate to anti-semitic conspiracy every criticism of Israel. As we shall see, this is not the only similarity between anti-Palestinianism and anti-semitism.
It is high time to say it out loud: in the entire course of Jewish history, since the Babylonian Exile in the 6rd century BC, there has never been an era blessed with less anti-semitism than ours. There has never been a better time for Jews to live in than our own.
Up to just two generations ago, anti-semitism was a legitimate political and cultural attitude in most of the world's leading powers. Anti-semitism was something you could express openly, even be proud of. Disliking Jews was as natural then as detesting cockroaches is today. Nowadays, anti-semitism is a taboo and a criminal offence in every developed country on earth. Even truly anti-semitic groups deny their anti-semitic character, knowing it is politically unacceptable. Unlike earlier centuries, where anti-semitism stood in direct proportion to the number of Jews in the pertinent country and thus constituted a real threat to them, the countries where anti-semitism is still thriving today – mostly poor Muslim countries – are virtually empty of Jews, so that the actual danger to Jews there is minimal; representatives of Muslim communities in the West have to give up their anti-semitism as a precondition for entering the political system.
Just a few generations ago – the Holocaust aside for now – Jews were treated as second-class citizens in all major Jewish concentrations. They were denied civic and religious rights almost universally. There were limits on access of Jews to universities and many professions, to public service and to any position of power; sometimes even marrying and making children was dependent on quotas and licences. Such institutionalised discrimination and oppression is not only totally extinct today: it is utterly unimaginable. With one revealing exception (Israel, where non-orthodox religious Jews are discriminated against), Jews enjoy full religious freedom wherever they are. They have full citizenship wherever they live, with full political, civic and human rights like every other citizen. This may sound trivial, but it was not so just a few generations ago and throughout the entire first and second millennia. Repressive regimes have either collapsed, or their Jewish population has left them.
Nowadays, an orthodox Jew can run for the most powerful office on earth, the president of the United States (I personally hope he doesn't win). A Jew can be the mayor of Amsterdam in "anti-semitic" Holland, a minister in "anti-semitic" Britain, a leading intellectual in "anti-semitic" France, a president of "anti-semitic" Switzerland, editor-in-chief of a major daily in "anti-semitic" Denmark, or an industrial tycoon in "anti-semitic" Russia. None of this was imaginable a century ago. Jews have free and unlimited access to every institution in every country they live in; Ironically, a converted Jew is even mentioned as a possible successor to the Holy See. At the same time, "anti-semitic" Germany (home to the world's fastest-growing Jewish community) gives Israel three military submarines for free, "anti-semitic" France has proliferated to Israel the nuclear technology for its weapons of mass destruction, and "anti-semitic" Europe has welcomed Israel as a single non-European country to everything from football and basketball leagues to the Eurovision Song Contest, and has granted Israeli universities a special status for scientific fund-raising.
The Holocaust has been the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history and among the greatest crimes in human history – but the very fact that these words sound so obvious is a great victory on anti-semitism. The term genocide, coined by a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust (R. Lemkin) and modelled on the genocide of the Jews, has found its way to international legislation and been affirmed as a crime by almost all the countries on earth, including eventually (with a shamefully long delay) the US. The Holocaust has (justly!) become the prototype of genocide, a synonym for Crime against Humanity. There were several other genocides in the 20th century – enough to mention the Armenian genocide by Turks (which preceded and inspired the Holocaust) or the Tutsi genocide by Hutu in Rwanda (which was even more "efficient" than the Holocaust). However, while other genocides are still struggling even to be acknowledged, the Holocaust is the only genocide which is considered unquestionable to the extent that its denial is in some countries a criminal offence. No other genocide even comes close to the 250 memorial museums and research institutes dedicated to the Holocaust around the world, and no other genocide survivors have been financially compensated like the persecuted Jews. In such a world, whoever cries "anti-semitism" twice a day has an extremely heavy burden of proof to shoulder.
The State of Israel has always been cynically exploiting allegations of anti-semitism, condemning purported and cooperating with actual anti-semites at will. Last week, to quote just a minor example, when the world was outraged by Italy's monarch Berlusconi's claim that his fascist predecessor Mussolini "had not killed anybody but just sent people to holidays in exile" – which comes fairly close to Holocaust denial – the only official Israeli reaction was that of an unnamed spokesman for the 2nd Minister in the Ministry of Finance, who mumbled that "If the words have been said (!), one can not agree with them, since History speaks for itself" (Ha'aretz 14.9, p.12 bottom). The reason for this ear-deafening outcry is simple: Berlusconi, like most right-wing extremists, has taken a decisive pro-Israel stand in Europe. So let him even deny the Holocaust if he likes, Israel will show understanding. After all, Israel was a closest ally of the most racist regime in the post-WWII era, South Africa's Apartheid: moral considerations have never played any role whatsoever in Israel's politics and diplomacy.
On a state level, some may excuse it as Realpolitik. The institutionalised pro-Israel lobby has compromised its integrity to such an extent, that I won't be surprised if, say, the Anti-Defamation League, which cries anti-semitic wolf on a daily basis, now hails the fascist apologist Berlusconi as a distinguished statesman; Actually, precisely this world-record of hypocricy has taken place this very week. Much more disturbing is the intensive resorting to "anti-semitism" claims by Jewish individuals and institutions who do try to maintain a look of integrity.Such claims take many creative forms: for example, some Jews have a morally repulsive pastime of looking for worst cases of oppression – Russian atrocities in Chechnya (whose veterans, by the way, join the Israeli army), Chinese in Tibet – which supposedly "prove" that the media focus on Israel is anti-semitically motivated. As if it were not outrageous enough to be on the shortlist of evil-doers, as if only the gold medal in this satanic competition, but not bronze or silver, is worthy of protest. And I wonder how many of those arm-chair pro-Israel Tibet specialists ever bothered to actually do something to free Tibet, except for exploiting its suffering to distract from Israel's atrocities.
The abuse of alleged anti-semitism is morally despicable. It took hundreds of years and millions of victims to turn anti-semitism – a specific case of racism which led historically to genocide – into a taboo. People abusing this taboo in order to support Israel's racist and genocidal policy towards the Palestinians do nothing less than desecrate the memory of those Jewish victims, whose death, from a humanistic perspective, is meaningful only inasmuch as it serves as an eternal warning to the human kind against all kinds of discrimination, racism, and genocide.
Moreover, portraying the victimisers as victims – a standard characteristic of anti-Palestinian propaganda – is precisely what anti-semitism has always done: in blood-libels which portrayed defenceless Jewish victims as victimisers of Christians children, or in the ultimate accusation of Christ killing, which abused the persecution of early Christians to legitimate the persecution of Jews once the balance of power changed. Thus, evoking Jewish victims of the past to defend Jewish victimisers of the present –remember that Israel has one of the mightiest armies on earth – is a moral fault on a par with, and embarrassingly similar to, anti-semitism itself.
Happy New Year 5764.
Ran HaCohen teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature, and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. HaCohen’s semi-regular “Letter from Israel” column can be found at AntiWar.com, where this article first appeared. Posted with author’s permission.