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9/11 and the destruction of the shared understanding of antisemitism

16/09/2011 1 comment

This piece is cross-posted from openDemocracy

Even before 9/11, the redefinition of antisemitism as essentially left-wing and Islamic prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish state of Israel—‘the Jew among the nations’—was well underway. But the popularity of this reformulation of what constitutes Jew-hatred, now commonly called ‘the new antisemitism’, gained decisive momentum as a consequence of the attack on the Twin Towers and has had far-reaching implications. So much so that Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s most prominent and possibly most influential public intellectual, could, with his trademark portentousness, confidently claim in his 2008 book, The Left in Dark Times, that antisemitism of the 21st century would be ‘progressive’—meaning essentially left-wing hatred of Israel—or not exist at all. This bizarre statement symbolises the damage caused by the influence of the notion of the ‘new antisemitism’, which has turned friends into enemies, helped open the door to fascism in Israeli politics and left Jews everywhere at the mercy of an idea that is ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.

What Levy confirmed, in a strikingly stark fashion, was that the term ‘new antisemitism’ means more than just critical discourse about Israel using antisemitic tropes. The concept contains the radical notion that to warrant the charge of antisemitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of those things which historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic view: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism, belief that Jews are racially inferior and so on. Given that the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ is fundamentally incompatible with any definition relying on elements which historians accept make up an antisemitic view, for anyone who agrees with the definition of the ‘new antisemitism’ it’s but a short step to conclude that it replaces all previous definitions and then further to argue that no other kind of antisemitism exists.

How the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ took hold

Make no mistake, this is not an argument about semantics, but about coming to terms with changing political realities. There was never any basis in fact for Levy’s 2008 prediction that there would be no old style antisemitism in the 21st century. A cursory glance at antisemitism monitoring reports from the time prove that it was an absurd statement to make. Today, with indisputable hard evidence of the persistence of far right antisemitism in Europe, as well as the revelation of the role of Jew-hatred in the thinking of the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, Levy’s rhetorical flourish looks even more ridiculous. As for the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’, it emerged as a way of explaining the reasons for the increasingly strident attacks on Zionism and Israel, which led to the country’s deteriorating international position. And it was then taken up by pro-Israel groups as a means of defending Israel and attacking its perceived enemies. The increasingly widespread acceptance of the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’ since 9/11 has profoundly affected Israel’s foreign relations and the situation of diaspora Jews, especially in the major centres of Jewish population—the USA, France, the UK, Canada, Australia—but also in Western Europe generally and to some degree in the former communist countries.

Events in the year before 9/11 already appeared to lend credibility to the idea of the ‘new antisemitism’. The collapse of the Camp David negotiations in July 2000 (presented by Israel and its loyal supporters as a Palestinian betrayal), the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in the autumn and the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish manifestations at the UN Conference on Racism in Durban in August-September 2001 were all explained as evidence of a deeply rooted, extreme, irrational anti-Zionism, seen by pro-Israel loyalists as conclusive proof that Israel was now incontrovertibly the ‘Jew among the nations’. When the Twin Towers were destroyed and the Bush administration moved rapidly to frame its response as declaring ‘war on terror’, it was inevitable that Israel, under the leadership of a national unity government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would seek to identify itself ever more closely with the US as a fellow victim of Islamist terror—indeed as the prior victim. Al Qaida’s ideology, which, in part, jointly demonised America and Israel, and also Jews in general, provided the Zionist right with even more justification for its argument that the ‘new antisemitism’ now posed the greatest threat to Jews since the Holocaust.

The far right, Israel and the battle against the ‘Islamization of Europe’

Antisemitism was thus recast as principally anti-Israel rhetoric emanating largely from Muslim sources. That rhetoric figured prominently in various forms of media in European countries with relatively large Jewish populations, like France, the UK and Germany, and was sometimes directed at Jews because of their support for Israel, but also because Jews and Israelis are often seen as one and the same. This—together with an increase in antisemitic incidents ascribed to Muslim perpetrators—led Jewish establishment leaders, while speaking the language of interfaith dialogue and the need to maintain and foster intercommunal harmony, to see the Islamist elements in Muslim communities as a direct threat to Jewish security. Some extended that fear to Muslims more generally. Despite the fact that the growing sense of Jewish belonging in Europe in the 1990s stemmed in great part from the success of multiculturalism and the positive influence of the culture of universal human rights, blame for Muslim hostility to Jews was now put down to multiculturalism’s alleged failure to integrate Muslims and the perception that rights values were being applied to all minorities except Jews. Both were seen as responsible for allowing the unrestrained attack on Israel to proceed unchecked. Add to this the fact that Israeli leaders were only too ready to redefine the Israel-Palestine conflict as a religious war, and it was but a logical step for Israel to come to be seen, in Slavoj Zizek’s words, as ‘the first line of defence against the Muslim expansion’.

Meanwhile, the far right had been undergoing a process of self-sanitisation: playing down its antisemitic past and distancing itself from Holocaust denial, and refocusing its animus towards the ‘other’ on ‘immigrants’ in general, but Muslims in particular. By the early 2000s, a new far right strategy emerged, exemplified by the National Alliance (AN) in Italy, the former neo-fascist party headed by Gianfranco Fini, who reached out to the Italian Jewish community to apologise for the party’s ‘former’ antisemitism and to express support for Israel, all against the background of a supposed shared understanding that Muslims were now the common enemy. The elected head of the Italian Jewish community rejected the NA’s approach, but some members of the community were not unsympathetic to Fini’s message and the issue became very controversial.

While some evidence emerged of Jews publicly identifying with far right groups in France and Austria, it never amounted to very much. More significant, however, was the far right’s increasingly warm pro-Israel rhetoric, which began to be looked upon favourably by the right-wing Zionist parties in Israel and their sympathisers in the Jewish diaspora. Geert Wilders, in his capacity as leader of the Dutch populist, anti-Islam Party for Freedom, visited Israel in 2008 and has been back a number of times since. Leaders of four other far right parties, the Belgian Flemish Interest, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats and a new German anti-Islam party, Freedom, visited Israel in late 2010 and were warmly received by settler leaders and other far-right Zionist politicians. And yet these parties had by no means abandoned their antisemitic roots.

We saw a striking example of this phenomenon in the UK in 2009 when a far-right Polish member of the European Parliament, Michal Kaminski, whose past antisemitic views were well documented, visited the UK in his then role as Chairman of the new right-wing EP grouping of which Cameron’s Tory Party were joint founders. Strong objections to the fact that the Tories were now consorting with Kaminski and his party were raised across the political spectrum and in the Jewish community. But a number of Jewish Zionist leaders, the Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, the Israeli ambassador and non-Jewish Israel supporters feted Kaminski because of his very publicly expressed support for Israel.

It has become quite clear that, as Charles Hawley writes in Spiegelonline, ‘in the battle against what right-wing populists see as the creeping Islamization of Europe, Israel is on the front line.’ But it’s not only right-wing populists who see Israel playing this role. A melange of Jewish and non-Jewish columnists, public intellectuals, think tank specialists and mainstream politicians who would utterly reject being labelled ‘far right’—such as Melanie Phillips (Daily Mail columnist), Daniel Johnson (Standpoint Editor), Douglas Murray (Centre for Social Cohesion) and Denis MacShane (Labour MP)—express similar views and harsh criticism of the Muslim community for not tackling the extreme hostility to Jews and Israel found in its midst. This same kind of alliance can be found in America and France.

The two main parties in Israel’s governing coalition—Likud and Israel Our Home—have not only been encouraged by the range of anti-Islam forces lining up behind Israel. They have clearly seen it as giving the green light for the slew of anti-democratic bills put before the Knesset in the last few years designed to reinforce the exclusively Jewish character of the state, brand Palestinian citizens of Israel as the internal enemy if they don’t accept Israel as the Jewish state, restrict the activities of human rights groups, undermine academic freedom and curtail freedom of speech. The failure of supposedly more moderate political leaders and of the parliamentary system as a whole to turn back this mounting anti-democratic tide has led respected commentators, academics and former military and security personnel to see the growth of deeply disturbing signs of incipient fascism.

Zionism’s ambiguous relationship with antisemitism

Many Israel-supporting Jews with progressive political views now find themselves between a rock and a hard place. As supporters of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and opposed to settlements and the occupation, the last thing they would have envisaged is finding themselves in the company of the far right, whether in Europe or in Israel. And yet many such Jews are convinced that the threat of a left-wing+Islamist ‘new antisemitism’ is severe and in maintaining their Zionism or pro-Israelism are simply stuck with unsavoury allies. Some Jews have simply chosen to cut themselves loose from their traditional progressive moorings. Others who simply refuse to join the anti-Muslim bandwagon and reject the post-9/11 Clash of Civilizations-type choice—‘you’re either with us or against us’—they feel they are faced with are left high and dry. If they edge towards those dissenting Jews who have doubts about Zionism, reject the ‘new antisemitism’ thesis and refuse to put support for the policies of an occupying power above the human rights of an occupied people, they are liable to face the hatred and vilification of Zionists whose arguments contain more than a hint of ‘some antisemitic logic’. As Zizek writes: ‘their . . . figure of the Jew . . . is constructed in the same way as the European antisemites constructed the figures of the Jew—he is dangerous because he lives among us, but is not really one of us.’

Zizek sees this as ‘paradoxical’, but—unfortunately—he’s wrong. In fact, from very early on in the development of the Zionist movement, opponents of Zionism were characterised using antisemitic stereotypes. In his 1897 essay ‘Mauschel’, the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, angered by anti-Zionists, painted the weak ghetto Jew that Zionism was supposed to banish forever as the bad Jew who speaks with a Yiddish accent, a ‘scamp’, ‘a distortion of the human character, unspeakably mean and repellent’, interested only in ‘mean profit’—attributes of an unmistakably antisemitic kind. To a great degree the use of demonising language to describe Jewish opponents of Zionism largely disappeared from mainstream intra-Jewish discourse because Zionism appeared to achieve such hegemonic dominance among Jews everywhere. But as dissenting views became more prominent in the last 20-30 years, so the language used to attack dissidents became ever more strident, once again appropriating antisemitic phraseology, as in, for example, Melanie Phillips’s description of the founding signatories of Independent Jewish Voices as ‘Jews for genocide’. (The dangers of using this kind of language, because words can be ‘performative’, are intelligently spelt out by Thomas Hylland Erikson in his openDemocracy piece, ‘The net of hatred: after Utøya’.)

Zionists were not only content to make direct use of antisemitic stereotypes, they also understood full well that antisemitism helped advance the cause, even as they promoted Zionism as the solution to the scourge of antisemitism. Herzl said that ‘the antisemites are Zionism’s staunchest allies’. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, said in the 1930s that ‘le malheur of the Jews was the chance of Zionism’, and he and his followers knew all too well how to mobilize antisemitism for the achievement of their vision.

And there is another very contemporary example of how Israel and the Zionist movement are not beyond making common cause with antisemites. Millions of fundamentalist Christian Zionists in America are now among Israel’s staunchest supporters. Since 9/11 they have made funding pro-Israel propaganda groups, right-wing Zionist organizations and settlement activity, and providing political backing to the Israeli government’s hard line policies, a central plank of their foreign policy. But they do this because they believe that Christ’s Second Coming will only occur once the land of Israel is fully united. All believers will be transported to meet the Lord, while everybody else, including the Jews, will perish in the battle of Armageddon. So for Christian Zionists, Jews are merely a means to an end. However, it’s no secret that this ideology is suffused with antisemitism. But right-wing Zionists are quite happy to ignore such an awkward fact on the grounds that the support of Christian Zionists for Israel trumps their Jew-hatred.

Ten years on

Since 9/11, the growing popularization of the redefinition of antisemitism as hostility to the state of Israel has given licence to Jews and Zionists to act according to the maxim ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’. The forging of links between the Israeli far right and Islamophobic far right groups in Europe, embracing the position of Israel as the front line against the Islamization of Europe, turning a blind eye to the antisemitism of Christian Zionism, entrenching the exclusivity of Jewish nationalism in Israeli law and demonising Jewish dissenters using antisemitic rhetoric have all been made possible by placing Israel at the heart of what is considered antisemitism today. But as I have tried to demonstrate, these developments draw on a deeper, even more murky ideological and political reality: Zionism’s troubling relationship with antisemitism—what Professor Idith Zertal has described as the ‘complex, disturbing affinities, and mutual, even if undesired dependence and pragmatic partnership between antisemitism and Zionism’—and the ethno-national and ethno-religious exclusivism that was part of Zionist ideology from the beginning of political Zionism.

The prevailing spirit ten years on from 9/11 seems to be to draw a line under the events, admit to the mistaken policy decisions taken then and, in Jonathan Freedland’s words, abandon the ‘careless, undiscriminating monomania’ all too eagerly adopted at the time; to acknowledge that security can never be achieved by military means alone or by curtailing civil liberties and trampling on human rights. Regrettably, Israel, encouraged by hard line Jewish and non-Jewish supporters, hasn’t learnt these lessons. Not only is it continuing along the path followed since 9/11, more inclined than ever to see the world through the distorting prism of the ‘new antisemitism’, it is conniving in worsening its own isolation by drawing the wrong conclusions from events in its region. Rather than seek a positive accommodation with the democratic forces struggling to overturn dictatorships and autocracies in the Arab world, Israel has sought to prop up military juntas on the grounds of the narrowest and ultimately mistaken interpretation of its security interests. This, argues Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz, is because Israel is now run by its own form of military junta. The diplomatic meltdown with Egypt and Turkey now facing Israel, as well as the damaging exposure Israel will experience as the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to seek support for the declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations comes to a head in the next two weeks, is a case of reaping what you sow. The result is likely to be increasing defensiveness, a strengthening sense of victimhood and even more reliance on an America that the Netanyahu government has made clear it does not trust. This is a high price to pay for treating the destruction of the shared understanding of what constitutes antisemitism as a victory.

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