By Neuhaus, Richard
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life
There are some questions of which we may be exceedingly weary, but they will not go away. Such a question is, What is anti-Semitism? Hillel Halkin, an Israeli essayist, comes back to it in Commentary under the title "The Return of Anti-Semitism." His thesis is starkly stated: "One must not give an inch on this point. The new anti-Israelism is nothing but the old anti-Semitism in disguise." He cites the UN "conference against racism" in Durban, South Africa, last summer, and rightly notes that the nations of the world solemnly assembled to tacitly, and sometimes explicitly, affirm the notorious formula that "Zionism is racism." (To its credit, the U.S. withdrew from the conference in protest.) He also cites mainly anecdotal, but deeply ominous, indications that in Europe today it is becoming increasingly "respectable" not only to deride Israel but also to make overtly anti-Semitic remarks in public.
But then he takes his argument a step too far. "One cannot be against Israel or Zionism, as opposed to this or that Israeli policy or Zionist position, without being anti-Semitic. Israel is the state of the Jews. Zionism is the belief that Jews should have a state. To defame Israel is to defame the Jews. To wish it never existed, or would cease to exist, is to wish to destroy the Jews." Drawing an analogy, Halkin writes that "only an anti-Semite can think the world would be better off without Israel, just as only a Francophobe can think the world would be better off without France."
Not quite. To be French is inexplicable apart from France. Jews and Judaism, by way of contrast, had a clear identity long before the establishment of the State of Israel only fifty-four years ago. The Zionist belief that Jews should have a state was, until World War II, rejected by most of the world's Jews. To "wish it never existed," to believe that the establishment of Israel was a mistake, is certainly not the same as "to wish to destroy the Jews." It is, rather, a matter of making a historical and moral judgment that the wrong thing was done. One may disagree with those who have arrived at that judgment without accusing them of wanting to destroy the Jews. Some of them argue that it is precisely the establishment of the State of Israel that is putting so many Jewish lives at stake.
To wish that Israel "would cease to exist" is something else. But even that is not necessarily a wish to destroy the Jews, since one might at the same time hope that the minority of the world's Jews living in Israel would find a secure home elsewhere, notably in the U.S. Halkin admits that Zionism was wrong about one very important thing. It was thought that providing Jews with a homeland would be the end of anti-Semitism, since anti-Semitism could not exist without Jews. "Today we know that it can exist without Jews, or at least without focusing on them--and precisely because there is a Jewish homeland to represent them. But admitting this is tantamount to admitting that Zionism has failed in a central objective," Halkin writes. Which returns him to the central claim that "the new anti-Israelism is nothing but the old anti-Semitism in disguise."
Trivial and Non-trivial Pursuits
There is no doubt that much that is aptly described as anti-Israelism is inseparably admixed with anti-Semitism, and not only in its Arab and Muslim expression. But it is, I believe, a grave mistake to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. …