Anti-Semitism in the Peculiar Context of Eastern Europe

By Ost, David | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Anti-Semitism in the Peculiar Context of Eastern Europe


Ost, David, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


In this essay I focus on anti-Semitism and Eastern Europe in order to make three broad points. First, I use Eastern Europe to criticize the popular claim of a "new anti-Semitism" sweeping the world. Second, I relate some experiences from contemporary Polish anti-Semitism in order to show how Jews are still often associated with capitalist modernity, rendering popular anti-Semitism more a symbol of non-elite disgruntlement than a real expression of animosity toward individuals or groups. Third, I discuss the pervasive belief in the reality of virulent Polish anti-Semitism, a belief deeply ingrained among western Jews with ancestors from Poland, and criticize this as an example of an unfair anti-Polonism that it is itself partly, but only partly, responsible for perpetuating Polish anti-Semitism.

I. A "NEW" ANTI-SEMITISM?

An argument has been making the rounds in recent years that a "new anti-Semitism" is haunting Europe. According to this view, "old" anti-Semitism entailed the open persecution, and often open hatred, of Jewish people. Jews, as Jews, were held responsible for the killing of Christ, or for the economic woes of society, and were to be collectively abjured, or collectively punished, because of these sins.

According to the theorists of the "new anti-Semitism" (hereafter, NAS), that type of anti-Semitism went out of fashion after World War II. The Nazis, and more specifically the war against the Nazis, made this kind of anti-Semitism unacceptable, particularly in Europe. It resonated too explicitly with Nazi ideology, and there thus ensued a general taboo on its utterance. This presented a problem for anti-Semites. They had not given up their anti-Semitism, but they no longer had any socially acceptable ways to express it.

According to NAS theorists, this state of affairs continued until relatively recently. Seizing on the fact of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and the intractable conflict in the Middle East, anti-Semites have finally found a new, acceptable way to express anti-Semitism: they no longer attack Jews, instead they attack Israel. In this view, the alleged wave of current anti-Semitism itself is not new. What is new is that anti-Semitism is taking a different form, one that need not even speak about Jews, which thus makes it more nefarious than traditional anti-Semitism, precisely because it is harder to identify, and easier for its proponents to deny.

As Phyllis Chesler, one of the most prominent of the NAS theorists writes, "Today's new anti-Semite hides behind the smoke screen of anti-Zionism. He or she knows that it's immoral, unfair, and inaccurate to hate and blame the Jews, but because they really do hate and blame the Jews, they have found that anti-Zionism is a popular and politically respectable way to do so." (1)

NAS theorists like to acknowledge that not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. They usually make some mild criticisms of Israel themselves in order to defend this point. But when it comes to citing other people's criticisms of Israel, particularly those in the European left, somehow all those criticisms are held to be anti-Semitic. "In the last fifty years," writes Chesler, anti-Semitism has "metamorphosed into the most virulent anti-Zionism, which in turn has increasingly held Jewish people everywhere, not only in Israel, accountable for the military policies of the Israeli government." (2) Abraham Foxman is even more blunt: "The harsh but undeniable truth is this: what some like to call anti-Zionism is, in reality, anti-Semitism--always, everywhere, and for all time." (3)

Brian Klug has pointed out many of the problems with the theory of the "new" anti-Semitism. (4) The first is that it magnifies the problem: "Given that both Israel and Zionism are at the center of so much controversy around the world, the effect of this logic [equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism] is to produce, at a stroke, a quantum leap in the amount of anti-Semitism worldwide, if not a veritable 'war against the Jews.

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