Anti-Semitism-New or Old?

The Nation, April 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Anti-Semitism-New or Old?


Deerfield, Ill.

* Recent writings on anti-Semitism by a number of prominent authors have suggested that Jews are confronting a new brand of anti-Jewish vitriol and violence that is distinct from classical anti-Semitism because it cloaks itself in the increasingly acceptable politics of anti-Zionism. Evidence that much anti-Zionism and rhetoric that demonizes Israel is anti-Semitism in disguise, and the sense of panic that pervades much of the writing on this subject, seem to have so irked Brian Klug ["The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism," Feb. 2] that he rejects out of hand the idea that Jews are confronting a new wave of anti-Semitism.

Klug is right to take issue with one claim made by many commentators on the "new anti-Semitism": Advocacy of anti-Zionism and binationalism vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not inherently anti-Semitic. Both can be, and have been, advanced in ways that acknowledge the intense need that many Jews, both in Israel and around the world, feel for a strong, secure Israel--for example, in proposals for a binational confederal regime that might evolve by mutual consent from two working democratic states at peace, Israel and Palestine, modeled in some respects on the European Union. But in his zealous effort to reject the logic of the "new anti-Semitism" writers, Klug refuses to admit the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish racism that today underlies much of the anti-Zionism and anti-Israel invective in the Arab world and on the European left.

In Klug's eyes, neither the anti-Zionist rhetoric nor the attacks of recent years on Jewish synagogues and individuals in Europe and the Middle East stem from "racist stereotyping" of Jews. Rather, they are directed, albeit misguidedly, at Jews as representatives of the State of Israel. Klug points out that Israeli leaders, inspired by the Zionist premise that all Jews are members of the Jewish people, have made every effort to portray Israel as an expression of Jews worldwide. So it should come as no surprise, the argument goes, that some in the Arab and Muslim communities who take offense at Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza would take Jews personally to task, even targeting them for violent retribution. Klug informs us that when anti-Jewish, anti-Israel attitudes are motivated by a predominantly anti-Western, anti-colonial and anti-imperialist perspective--even invoking "general principles of justice and human rights"--such animus toward Israel and Jews does not reflect "anti-Semitic prejudice."

There are several problems with this picture. First, there is a centuries-old legacy of anti-Semitism motivated not mainly by religious, ultra-nationalist or fascist prejudices and myths but very largely by political, social and economic competition, by a lofty adherence to universalism and equal rights, to anti-clericalism and anti-capitalism, among some portions of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century left--an anti-Semitism of the left, "the socialism of fools." This strain of modern anti-Semitism owes its provenance as much to some of the Enlightenment's founders as it does to animosities unleashed by the emancipation of European Jewry, the integration of Jews into the economic and political life of the European states.

Second, racism is commonly defined as prejudice or wrongful discrimination against a racial or ethnic group, fed by false stereotypes; anti-Semitism as unwarranted "hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). It follows that anti-Semitism is a form of racism toward Jews, whereby unwarranted hostility or wrongful discrimination, based on false, vilifying beliefs, is aimed at Jews as a group, or toward individual Jews as members of that group. That the primary source of these beliefs and practices lies in their adherents' economic and political interests or cultures in no way vitiates their anti-Semitic character. …

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