The West has adopted a disturbingly complacent attitude towards those who consistently advocate a "world without Israel"
Contemporary anti-Semitism offers us a stunning paradox. Never has it seemed so unfashionable to be an anti-Semite, so politically unacceptable and incorrect, even beyond the pale. And never, since 1945 have Jewish communities been so fearful of its eruption and the State of Israel so concerned about it. The official consensus is amazing, almost too good to be true. Successive Popes have condemned anti-Semitism, using terms like “never again”. Governments fight it and some even legislate – especially against Holocaust denial. The Organisation for Security & Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) has organised successive conferences against it – in Vienna, Berlin, Cordoba and Bucharest. The US State Department is obligated by Congress to monitor anti-Semitism. In the UK, a parliamentary committee issued a detailed report on it. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has also begun seriously to address the subject and now sees it as an element of policy, international relations, state-to-state relations. And I was interviewed not long ago on Al-Jazeera, the Arab news TV channel, and given every opportunity to refute the Holocaust-deniers and even to discuss Arab anti-Semitism. So what is going on?
Is it not remarkable that in the European Union (which some call Eurabia) so many government leaders and officials are eager to pronounce their abhorrence of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, though levels of Jewish anxiety about Jew-hatred have never been so high since 1945? Is it not ironic that the memory of the Holocaust is so frequently and respectfully evoked – especially by European politicians, intellectuals, academics, journalists, churchmen and shapers of opinion – at the very time when Israel-bashing has become a Europe-wide popular sport which has achieved global resonance? And how is it that the UN solemnly commemorates the Shoah yet remains – despite some improvements – a world forum for vicious anti-Zionist incitement against Israel?
There is no single, monolithic anti-Semitism that we face in all these cases, but rather a cluster of loosely related phenomena – some of them irritants of the common cold variety and others potentially lethal. I do not believe there is a single master strategy to deal with these disparate ailments. But establishing priorities is clearly important. One obvious point is that we have to take into account national differences – the specific challenge in each country will necessarily reflect its history, culture, politics and the character of its Jewish communities. Another is that Jews cannot fight anti-Semitism alone – they need allies who will change response to the specific type of anti-Semitism and the conditions prevailing in a given society.
The most dangerous form of anti-Semitism today is that of radical Islam. Islamism cannot be dismissed as “extreme” because it has become increasingly mainstream. It directly threatens 5.3m Jews in Israel with annihilation. It is a danger to Europe, to America, to the whole world. The usual educational and political methods will not work because Islamist anti-Semitism is tied in to jihad (holy war), international terrorist networks and global ambitions. Petro-dollars, the cult of death and martyrdom and messianic fanatical fervour give it an especially dangerous edge. It is suicidal and genocidal at the same time. In Iran, radical Islamism is linked to preparing the next planned genocide (with Israel as a prime target) – in other words, Holocaust II while denying Holocaust I. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, could become an imitation Hitler with nuclear weapons unless Israel or the US and the “international community” stop him. But the Muslim Arab countries which need to worry about Iran as much as Israel does (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf States, Jordan) are also major purveyors of anti-Semitism – as are Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. The Iranian, Hamas and Hiz-bollah style of anti-Semitism can in my view be qualified as “exterminationist” or “eliminationist” in spirit. Already 20 years ago, in a book entitled Hitler’s Apocalypse, I called this threat “apocalyptic” anti-Semitism and presented Khomeini’s Iran as the heir of Nazi Germany, long before it became fashionable to do so. The popularity of European imports like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the widespread use of the Christian blood libel in the Muslim mass media, strengthen the feeling that here we are confronting a danger that is potentially, at least, on a par with that of the 1930s.
We are talking here about fully fledged conspiracy theories concerning Israel and the Jews, which are not amenable to rational discourse at all – hardcore anti-Semitism of the vilest kind. Spectacular series like the Egyptian production Horsemen without a Horse or Al-Shattat (a Syrian-Lebanese film series) are as bad, if not worse, in my judgment, than the Nazi anti-Semitic cinema. Much of the anti-Semitism of the Arab-Muslim world is indeed based on classic stereotypes – Jews as ruthless exploiters, cunning, selfish and cruel, always scheming and plotting, corrupt, evil and ultimately demonic. Instead of subverting Christendom, the Jews are now said to be undermining Islam, seeking to erode and destroy faith in Allah. Neither Israel nor the West does enough to expose this vicious anti-Semitism in which Jews (and, of course, Israelis) are reduced to little more than a diabolical abstraction – the source of all the world’s troubles. This is not merely the “normal” anti-Semitism based on ethnic prejudice or religious and social discrimination. This is an ideologically grounded dehumanisation and demonisation – phenomena which we know can lead to genocide. Israel is the prime target for this scapegoating not for its policies but because of its existence as such. Jewish self-determination in the form of a national state in Zion is treated by its Arab and leftwing enemies as a total heresy. Though the conflict with the Palestinians was originally national, territorial, political, it has now developed a traditional religious twist that makes it much more dangerous. You cannot compromise with that, you cannot finesse it. One has to confront the intransigent enemies of human freedom by exposing the ugliness and nihilism of this Islamo-fascist ideology. There is simply no option of running away from it.
The West has, however, adopted a disturbingly complacent attitude towards those who consistently advocate a “world without Israel”. One even encounters a growing trend towards the unreflective negation of the Zionist narrative by many Western opinion-makers. Israel is not entirely blameless for this situation but for reasons diametrically opposite to the conventional wisdom that blames everything on Israeli “occupation” of Palestinian lands. The truth is rather that the more that the Jewish state under its present vacillating and at times confused leadership communicates uncertainty, hesitation, an insecure identity, or guilt feelings about its inalienable right to robust self-defence, the more emboldened its Islamist and other enemies will become. Just as in the West, Israeli intellectuals and journalists often seem paralysed or even strangled by their own political correctness. That is hardly a convincing way to defeat terror or anti-Semitism. There is no point in fighting such a war, unless one is determined, committed and intends to win; and for that one has to believe in the justice of one’s own cause and act accordingly. Unfortunately, that is not the message conveyed by successive Israeli governments, or by a significant part of the Israeli media, its academics or intellectual and artistic elites. How can one effectively diminish the global expansion of anti-Zionist prejudice when much of the Israeli elite itself appears to lack any basic conviction concerning the raison d’être of the Jewish state, its history, its heritage and identity? Israel and the Diaspora need to get their houses in order, to clean out the Augean stables and focus on a new approach, better adapted to the 21st century yet rooted in Jewish ethics, which lays out a common national purpose and a convincing universalist message to the world.
As Hillel, the Palestinian Jewish sage of antiquity, once said, if I am not for myself, who is for me? And why should others be for me or want to ally with me? That does not preclude or exclude sensitivity to the “other” but is rather a precondition for it. A secure Israel, self-confident in its identity, can be magnanimous. But first of all it must reconnect with the roots of its existence in Zion and with the meaning of Jewishness and Judaism in the world as a whole. It is this value-vacuum which facilitates endless and pernicious clichés about Israel as a narrowly nationalist “anachronism” or as the last European colonial project. Israeli leaders often seem helpless when confronted with malicious propaganda branding them as flouters of international law, serial violators of human rights, lackeys of American imperialism, colonialist occupiers, “ethnic cleansers”, founders of an apartheid state or heirs of the Third Reich. Silence in the face of such grotesque demonisation in Europe and the Middle East is not an option. This rhetoric has been aggravated by the prevalence of so-called “progressive” Jews in the front line of the Israel-bashing chorus.
None of this poison is going to disappear on its own. The struggle against the “new” anti-Semitism will have to face this challenge, while accepting the right to Jewish dissent, to engage with alternative voices. Nothing will be gained by counter-boycotts of leftwing Jews: that can only play into the hands of those all too eager publicly to show the world how “repressed” they are by the Jewish establishment. Heavy-handed tactics are useless in a battle of ideas. To win this struggle one has to go back to the more basic principles of freedom and democracy, themselves solidly anchored in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
We also need to reconsider certain conventional wisdoms in analysing the current wave of anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel in the West. For decades Jewish communities saw the traditional enemy as being on the Right – whether conservative, nationalist, Fascist, racist or Nazi. This was always an oversimplification since the conservative Right has often been a powerful barrier against Fascism. The neo-Nazi enemy has not yet disappeared but it has been considerably weakened and is often preoccupied with other (non-Jewish) targets. The populist Right is a more serious potential source of anti-Semitism that needs to be carefully watched – especially in the area of Holocaust denial and general xenophobic violence. But it lacks real respectability in the mainstream media. On the other hand, anti-Zionist anti-Semitism has for several decades enjoyed far more legitimacy and has grown at an alarming pace. Its rhetoric is “anti-racist” and it views Israel, and the Jews who support it, as an obstacle to Humanity (with a capital H), to the realisation of universal ideals and to the brotherhood of man. This liberal, humanist and leftist anti-Zionism is in love with all “others” – except the “Jewish other”. In its eyes, Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and third world immigrants can do no wrong. The only “good Jews” in this supposedly humanist discourse are usually dead Jews – the martyred Jews of the Holocaust – or else those who ostentatiously denounce Israel. With such “friends”, who needs enemies?
Then there is the phenomenon of “Chavismo” – the populist, authoritarian and Third Worldist radicalism exhibited by Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez. Sitting on the largest oil reserves in the Western hemisphere, allied to Iran, as well as being an icon for Hizbollah and other Islamist groups, Chávez has developed an obsessive anti-Semitism alongside his extreme anti–Americanism. Anti-Semitic statements have emerged with increasing frequency in the Venezuelan media in recent years, casting aspersions on the Jewish community’s “dual allegiances” and on “Semitic banks” and denouncing “Zionist-Nazi” genocide against the Palestinians. Graffiti branding Jews as “child murderers” and “dogs” have increasingly appeared on synagogues and communal buildings. Worse still, Venezuelan government agents have raided the local Hebraica community school in Caracas twice in recent years, looking for weapons and signs of subversive activity.
Chávez has also compared the plight of indigenous peoples in Latin America to that of the Palestinians; he has repeatedly execrated Israel as the agent and executor of US imperialism – supposedly “the greatest menace to the future of humanity”. Among his mentors was the Argentinian Peronist, Norberto Ceresole, a bitter enemy of Israel, a Holocaust denier and populist anti-Semite. Chávez drew on Ceresole’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as well as on the Castroist agenda of revolutionary socialism to further his domestic and foreign policy agenda.
The recent undeserved legitimacy granted to Chávez by the World Jewish Congress is a major tactical mistake. The idea that this populist demagogue should be the patron saint of the “struggle against anti-Semitism” is not much better than appointing Ahmadinejad to head the fight against fundamentalist Islam.
Such appeasement strategies in dealing with militant “anti–Zionism” are not going to work. The radical Left will continue to propagate its libels against Israel while claiming to be “anti–racist” and anti-anti-Semitic. However much Israelis remain a tiny minority in the Middle East in terms of population and territory, they will never be seen as “victims”, “natives”, colonised people or the “wretched of the earth” in the sense that this is axiomatically applied to the Palestinians. But Israel could certainly frame its own narrative more intelligently by emphasising its many virtues – the courage of its citizens, their civic patriotism, self-reliance, intelligence and economic and technical prowess, as well as the faithfulness to a unique tradition that gave the teaching of ethical monotheism to both East and West. I remember when visiting China three years ago how a local university professor impressed on me how much he and his students admired Israel’s modernity and adaptability while still preserving an ancient tradition intact.
When dealing with today’s anti-Semitism, especially of the so-called “progressive” kind, the Jewish state needs to rethink and restate the principles on which Judaism, the Jewish legacy and Israel are ultimately based. If it does this honestly and confidently, showing the world and itself that Jews truly value and take seriously their Judaic heritage – religious and secular – then I believe attitudes will gradually change. Ironically, with ancient Eastern civilisations this may sometimes be easier to achieve than with Europeans because countries like China and India come to the so-called “Jewish Question” from a kind of tabula rasa, free of any Christian theological dogmas or racist stereotypes.
With Muslims, whether in Europe or throughout the Arab world, Jews must seek a completely different way to their hearts and minds: one that involves a better understanding of Arab psychology, and sensitivity to the humiliation and bitterness produced by Islamic civilisational decline, to the results of constant abuses by their own corrupt rulers, the legacy of colonialism and the blow to their self-esteem inflicted by Israeli military victories and technological successes. Sensitivity is not a question of apologetics, nor should it preclude frank dialogue based on finding common interests, while standing firm on the raison d’être of Israel and its huge potential for benefiting the entire region. This will not resolve the problem of Arab or Muslim anti-Semitism by itself. But it can create a more conducive atmosphere for neutralising the negative fallout from hate propaganda.
Israel has the right and the duty to demand that the contemporary Arab-Muslim culture of hatred be totally dismantled. Failure to emphasise this principle in negotiations has already cost Israel heavily and has been disastrous to the Muslims. The results are daily visible in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In combating Islamist terror and anti-Semitism, it is important to emphasise how self-destructive this has been to Muslim societies and especially to Arab development, how alien it is to their best traditions and to the more enlightened forms of Islamic culture that prevailed in certain periods. Anti-Semitism and the negation of Israel are completely negative forces which have held the Arab world back. They are not however irresistible. There are other Arab voices – still very much a minority, but they do exist – who recognise the toxicity both of the indigenous and European-imported anti-Semitism for Arab society and culture. We have to find more ways to encourage and empower them.
I am well aware that this will not be easy. The anti-Semitic virus has spread extensively and penetrated deeply into the body politic of the Arab world and it has also returned to haunt Europe. Even the United States is not immune. There is no proven cure to this disease of the mind. But the irrationality and mythical power often associated with anti-Semitism does not mean that we cannot neutralise it. A determined and organised effort would contribute to containing the infection.
We can help limit the damage if the common intellectual, political and societal resources of enlightened Jews, Christians and Muslims are judiciously applied in concert with those of other interested parties. True, there are no quick fixes or short cuts. But with more moral clarity, political judgment and strategic thinking, with a more systematic and global approach, we might have a chance. Where there is hope, there is a way.