The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism: Reflections on Anti-Semitism, Anti-Zionism and the Importance of Making Distinctions

Article excerpt

In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, a former socialist and anarchist, founded an organization that was novel in two ways. It was the first political party based on a platform of hostility to Jews. And it introduced the world to a new word: "anti-Semite."

Marr was an atheist, and the Antisemiten-Liga (League of Anti-Semites) was hostile to Jews on the secular grounds that they are an alien "race." However, his account of "Semitism" was not essentially different from the demonic conception of the Jew that had existed in Christian Europe for centuries. It boiled down to this: Jews are a people apart from the rest of humanity. They are the enemy. Wherever they go, they form a state within a state. Conspiring in secret, they work together to promote their own collective advantage at the expense of the nations or societies in whose midst they dwell and on whom they prey. Cunning and manipulative, they possess uncanny powers that enable them, despite their small numbers, to achieve their ends. The term "anti-Semitism" has come to refer to this discourse, or variations on the themes it contains, because the same rhetoric persists whether Jewish identity is seen as religious, racial, national or ethnic. Sometimes this discourse is explicit; at other times it is the subtext of attacks on Jews. Anti-Semitism, thus defined, is not new.

But a spate of recent articles and books assert the rise of a "new anti-Semitism." This is the thrust of "Graffiti on History's Walls" by Mortimer Zuckerman, the cover story of the November 3, 2003, issue of U.S. News & World Report. In December New York magazine ran a similarly sensationalist cover story, titled "The Return of Anti-Semitism," which spoke of "a groundswell of hate" against Jews and suggested that Jew-hatred was now "politically correct" in Europe. At least three books recently published in English make the same claim: Never Again? by Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League; The New Anti-Semitism by feminist Phyllis Chesler; and The Case for Israel by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Most of the contributors to A New Antisemitism?, edited by Paul Iganski and Barry Kosmin, take a similar view, with varying degrees of emphasis.

As the words "threat" and "crisis" in the subtitles of the books by Foxman and Chesler indicate, the "new anti-Semitism" is generally seen, by those who proclaim its existence, as a clear and present danger. Foxman believes that a "frightening coalition of anti-Jewish sentiment is forming on a global scale." Chesler goes even further: "Let me be clear: the war against the Jews is being waged on many fronts--militarily, politically, economically, and through propaganda--and on all continents." She even perceives a wider threat to Western civilization itself: "Who or what can loosen the madness that has gripped the world and that threatens to annihilate the Jews and the West?"

There is certainly reason to be concerned about a climate of hostility to Jews, including vicious physical attacks. On one Saturday this past November, for example, two synagogues in Istanbul were truck-bombed during Sabbath services, while an Orthodox Jewish school in a Paris suburb was largely destroyed by arson. Some researchers report a 60 percent worldwide increase in the number of assaults on Jews (or persons perceived to be Jewish) in 2002, compared with the previous year. At the same time, something is rotten in the state of public discourse. Anti-Jewish slogans and graphics have appeared on marches opposing the invasion of Iraq. Jewish conspiracy theories have been revived, such as the widely circulated "urban legend" that Jews were warned in advance to stay away from the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001. And recently, certain public figures on both the right and the left have made negative generalizations about Jews and "Jewish influence."

The authors under review tend to lump all these facts together, along with a wealth of evidence for what they see as an explosion of bias against Israel: in the media, in the United Nations, on college campuses and elsewhere. …