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Playing the Holocaust Card: Are Charges of Anti-Semitism Used to Silence Debate?

By Brownfeld, Allan C. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Playing the Holocaust Card: Are Charges of Anti-Semitism Used to Silence Debate?


Brownfeld, Allan C., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


As the world commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, many commentators pointed out how little the world has learned since the Holocaust. Sadly, bigotry and religious violence have not been eradicated, and we have witnessed genocidal assaults in places as diverse as Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.

Jews, who were the main targets of Nazi racism, "face a very different sort of problem today, one that is partly of their own making," wrote Ami Eden, national editor of The Forward, in the Jan. 29 New York Times.

In an article entitled "Playing The Holocaust Card," she declared that, "Jewish organizations and advocates of Israel fail to grasp that they are no longer viewed as the voice of the disenfranchised. Rather, they are seen as a global Goliath, close to the seats of power and capable of influencing policies and damaging reputations. As such, their efforts to raise the alarm increasingly appears as bullying."

According to Eden, "In recent decades, a long list of religious, political and cultural luminaries, from Jesse Jackson to Marion Brando to Dolly Parton, have found themselves forced to apologize for thoughtless remarks that were taken to be anti-Semitic. No doubt, some calls for contrition are justified. But the eagerness of Jewish civilrights groups to play watchdog, and their tendency to err on the side of zealousness, leads them all too frequently to blur distinctions between real bigotry and the verbal blunders by well-meaning individuals."

Concluded Eden: "For more than half a century, Auschwitz has rightly stood at the heart of virtually every moral argument put forth by spokesmen for the Jewish community, a powerful testament to the consequences of otherwise decent people remaining silent in the face of evil. Yet this legacy is in peril, threatened by an increasing reliance on raw political muscle over appeals to conscience. As the world recalls the horrors and liberation of Auschwitz, Jewish organizations and advocates for Israel should remember that 'speaking truth to power' does not work when you are seen as the powerful one."

Eden is hardly alone among Jewish observers in lamenting the abuse of the term "anti-Semitism" as a means of silencing legitimate debate, particularly with regard to the Middle East.

"'Anti-Semitism' today is a genuine problem. It is also an illusory problem," wrote Professor Tony Judt of the Remarque Institute at New York University in the Jan. 3 issue of The Nation. "The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally realized in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and elsewhere....It is not, as they say, 'your grandfather's anti-Semitism.'"

In Judt's view, many Americans have an "exaggerated anxiety" about the problem. He cited a statement in February 2004 by Rockwell Schnabel, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe "getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the '3Os."

The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe "is real," Judt wrote, "but it needs to be kept in proportion...Polls confirm that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than their parents were. Among non-Muslim French youth, especially, anti-Semitic sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible... These figures are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the U.S."

Events in the Middle East have had an impact upon anti-Semitism in Europe, Judt argued: "It is increasingly clear to observers in France, for example, that assaults on Jews in working-class suburbs of big cities are typically driven by frustration and anger at the government of Israel. Jews and Jewish institutions are a convenient and vulnerable local surrogate."

Many Jewish leaders in the U.

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