On 4 August I posted a piece by the Washington-based historian and independent scholar Dr Steven Beller in which he discussed the question: ‘Anti-Jewish hostility provoked by the Gaza offensive: is antisemitism the right word for it?’ It generated a lively response in the form of comments on my blog, on Facebook and on Twitter.
One respondent, Dr Doron Rabinovici, a novelist, essayist, historian and politically engaged public intellectual from Vienna, posted a lengthy comment on the blog that encapsulated many of the critical responses to Steven Beller’s original post and a subsequent post by Steven on the thread responding to some of the points raised by other commentators.
Steven felt that Doron’s response deserved special attention, so they agreed to feature an exchange between them on my blog (full disclosure: we are all friends).
At the heart of this exchange is the specific question: Has the term ‘antisemitism’ outlived its usefulness as a word to describe the hostility in Europe to Israel and the continent’s Jewish communities of Muslim immigrants who support the cause of the Palestinians?
The exchange begins with Doron Rabinovici’s last post from the comment thread on Steven Beller’s first piece. Following that is an essay-length post by Steven, then a full response by Doron, with a final, brief closing comment by Steven. (If you want to see where it all began, click here for Steven’s earlier piece and the comment thread.)
The exchange consists of serious, challenging and sometimes difficult (in the best sense) and passionate stuff, which respects readers’ intelligence. And it’s a debate that is hard to host anywhere because of the strong feelings it arouses. But here, where the name of my blog, Context is Everything, is taken very seriously, free speech is respected as a value in itself.
First, brief biographies of the two writers:
Dr Steven Beller was a visiting scholar at George Washington University and a Research Fellow at Peterhouse College Cambridge. He has written a number of major books on Austrian and Jewish history and is also an expert on the history of antisemitism. He authored Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press (2007).
Dr Doron Rabinovici was born in 1961 in Tel Aviv and has lived in Vienna since 1964. His most recent novel, Andernorts, was short-listed for the German Book Prize in 2010. His non-fiction study of the Jewish Council in World War II Vienna was published by Polity Press in 2011 as Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938-1945.
As you know we share many points of view. I still hope that the day will come when a Palestinian state will exist next to the state of Israel. I oppose the settlement policy. I also understand your anger against Israeli politicians who try to delegitmize any criticism of Israel as antisemitism.
You know as well that I admire your work and that I think of us as friends and colleagues. That said I find your article very disturbing. I am astonished by your conclusions. It seems to me as if you try to outsmart yourself so as not to have to see the obvious.
You suggest the term “antisemitism” does not apply to Islamist aggressions against Jews and Jewish institutions and that a different word ought to be used. To me this sounds absurd and I would like to explain why.
Let me first remind you that “antisemitism” was never a scientific or analytical term. It was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German activist, publicist and evangelist of racist antisemitism. The word was invented to justify resentments against Jews. Marr wanted to define the Jews as an exotic race. He wanted to stress that they could not belong to the German nation. He strived for the unification of all anti-Jewish trends and ideologies.
The word itself has always been a misnomer. There is no such thing as a Semitic race. The idea of Semitic races goes back to linguistic theories about the history of languages. Nevertheless, antisemitism was always only directed against the Jews. They were denounced as a racial mixture. The Arabs were seen as the “real”, the “pure” Semites, who—according to antisemitic agitators such as Eugen Dühring—also hated the Jews. After 1943 the Nazis preferred not to name their hatred “antisemitism”. Josef Goebbels ordered the use of the word anti-Jewish. He did not want to provoke the Arabs.
Before 1945 “antisemitism” was a self-imposed term, a proud credo. After Auschwitz it became rather delegitimised. In the Western world hardly anyone wants to be called an antisemite. But the irrational and passionate hatred against Jews has nevertheless been classified as “antisemitism”. This is not an analytical, but rather a political decision. After Auschwitz any generalizing attack against Jews bears that stigma. The history of the passion against the Jews shows that the various forms of anti-Jewish aggression are connected to each other. The irrational phenomenon develops different rationalizations and serves as an excuse to persecute Jews. Many studies distinguish between cultural, religious, Christian, economic, racist, political, conservative, revolutionary, secondary and anti-Zionist antisemitism. They show how different and contradictory these variations of antisemitism can be. Some declare to hate only the orthodox believer; others detest first and foremost the assimilated Jew. There are those who want to overcome Jewish capitalism, those who fight against Jewish Bolshevism, those who go after the stateless Jew and those who cannot stand the patriotic Jew. Some pray for the final conversion of all Jews, but not too few strive for the annihilation of every Jewish human being.
Political sciences discussed several definitions of antisemitism. All forms of antisemitism share the belief that the Jews are a cosmic evil. Antisemitism—the Catholic, the racist, the economic or the anti-imperialist version of it—constitutes an explanation of the world. The Jewish identity, the Jewish religion, the Jewish nation, the Jewish economy—in the eye of the antisemite—represents the main obstacle to the salvation of the world.
Let me be very clear: There may be good reasons to criticize certain Jewish personalities, institutions or policies. There is nothing wrong for instance with punishing a Jewish criminal if he committed robbery. He has to be convicted even if his victim insults him in an antisemitic way. The antisemitic assault does not diminish the guilt of the Jew. But does it make the victim’s remarks less antisemitic?
You write: “Even when historical antisemitic tropes are used by Arab and Muslim opponents of Israel and the supporters of its policies, the core reason for them doing this (to bolster their arguments) appears to me to be Israel and its anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, policies.”
Well, I do not think that all Muslim opponents of Israel use antisemitic tropes, but the radical Islamist fanatics not only use antisemitic tropes, they propagate and they believe in antisemitic myths. They declare that the Jews are the main evil in the world. They produce films about the Jewish world conspiracy. They broadcast the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They proclaim that the Jews were behind the French and the Russian Revolution. They call the Jews the “sons of apes and pigs“. In their demonstrations—whether in Beirut, Tripolis, Paris or Berlin—they shout “Death to the Jews”, “Gas the Jews” or “Hitler was right”. They violently assault Jews. They throw Molotov cocktails at synagogues.
It would be mere culturalism if you said a German protestant who called a Jew “Saujud” was antisemitic, but his Muslim compatriot, who stormed a synagogue was not. Such a choice of words would be apolitical, paternalistic and eurocentric.
I think we have to distinguish between the situation for Palestinians in Gaza and a Muslim in Berlin who supports Erdogan. Context is important.
It is true that the radical Islamist demonstrations were triggered by the war in Gaza. But war was the occasion, not the root of the problem. The ideology of modern political Islamism is older than the state of Israel.
You have a point when you say that Israel’s policies are the reason for the new demonstrations against Jews. But I am not sure that traditional antisemitic outbursts were totally disconnected from reality and socio-political circumstances. The Yiddish language knows the phrase rishes makhen. It means: to cause antisemitism. Anti-Jewish pogroms by the end of the middle ages in Europe very often reacted to a financial crisis and the claims of Jewish moneylenders. In 1986 the World Jewish Congress criticised Austrian President Kurt Waldheim. Their criticism of Waldheim’s lies was not unjustified, but it triggered an antisemitic campaign in Austria. Sometimes antisemitic manifestations may be a reaction to certain Jewish activities, but they are always an excessive and irrational attack on Jewish existence in itself.
No question: A peaceful solution in the Middle East could change the feelings of many Muslims towards Jews. Israel should seek a compromise, but the most radical Islamists—whether in Damascus, Tripoli or Alexandria—do not want a compromise. For them the war with Israel is the paradigmatic conflict of all conflicts with the West.
August Bebel once called antisemitism the “socialism of fools”. Islamist antisemitism is the anti-imperialism of fools in the Muslim world.
So why don’t you want to call their anti-Jewish manifestations antisemitic? Your motives seem very clear to me. You react to those who denounce all criticism of Israeli policies as a new form of antisemitism. They do not distinguish between criticism and resentments. Strangely enough you do the same but just the other way round. You say all new Islamic and Arabic antisemitism is nothing but an unfair way of criticising Israel.
Moreover, you write: “When some critics of Israel conflate their target of hostility with the Jewish communities in the various countries, they are only doing what Israel and its Zionist supporters have said they should do…” So, in your opinion, Zionism is to blame for the anti-Jewish aggression? In other words: If the Jews were not proto-Zionists and pro-Israel, the Islamists would give up their resentments? Do you really believe that?
I find it astonishing to read these words coming from you. You are the expert on Jewish politics in Vienna under Karl Lueger. You know how often Jews tried to persuade each other that the antisemites would stop hating them if only they gave up some of their typical Jewish habits: being capitalist, being socialist, being orthodox, being liberal, being rich, being poor. Whatever. Dear Steven, you sound like one of your own historical objects of interest.
There is only one problem. The rather small European Jewish communities cannot distance themselves from Israel. It has become—whether you like it or not—a centre of their identity and of their life, because they are linked culturally, theologically, socially and also politically to this land and state. They may be very critical of the government. They may object to the war. They may lose their Zionist convictions. But they feel for their relatives, when the rockets fly. They hope the Jewish cities will be safe. They listen to Israeli radio. They read Haaretz or the Jerusalem Post. They are connected to this state since 1948. To demand from them to distance themselves from Israel will only strengthen their bondage. To attack them because of Israel will only strengthen the feeling that every attack against Israel is an attack against every Jew around the world. To demand of them to forget about Zion would sound to them like the echo of the old anti-Jewish demands to give up their Jewish identity.
But let’s suppose the Jews would forget Zion, reject Zionism, despise Tel Aviv, hate Israel. Or let’s just assume they would join the ranks of the vehement critics of Israel. Do you think the Islamists would trust them? In fact: could they ever trust them? Don’t you think they would suspect that the Jews did not really change their minds? Any empathy for the Jews in Israel would be seen with suspicion. Sounds familiar to a historian of Jewish Vienna, doesn’t it?
Do you think the Islamist ideologists would then declare: “Sorry, we made a mistake, the Jews do not use the blood of children for Passover matzos after all”?
Well, I am sorry, but I think they would not give up their antisemitic myths of Jewish media, of Jewish money, of the Jewish lobby. They would not refrain from denying the Holocaust, because the Holocaust is for them a possible justification of Israel’s existence. They would not stop referring to the power of the Jews. Erdogan would not reverse his policy and say that the Gezi park protest was not a Jewish conspiracy.
It is antisemitic if someone shouts “gas the Jews” or attacks a person wearing a kippa or the Star of David. It is not the same as blaming the Americans abroad for what the US does. No one promotes the annihilation of all living Americans, raves about a world conspiracy of all Americans or declares the Americans were the incarnation of evil since the beginning of times.
The Islamist ideology reacts to Israeli policies, but it does not share our criticism of the Israeli government. We oppose the chauvinist politics of the Israeli government in the name of human rights. The Islamists oppose human rights because of their chauvinist politics. They do not trust us secular Jewish intellectuals. If they attack Jewish synagogues or Jewish festivals they will not spare us. It is even worse: they hate Benyamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, but they truly despise us as more than any Israeli general or any orthodox Jew. We stand for everything they reject.
I think it is important to use the term “antisemitism” when antisemitic tropes are used precisely because it puts the stigma of Auschwitz on this phenomenon. It is crucial for us as humanistic intellectuals to fight against antisemitism as Jews. Hannah Arendt said: “If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man.”
If we do not name and do not fight the Islamist antisemitism, we will not have any influence in the Jewish communities and we will not have a chance to persuade Jews to support a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” solution to the ongoing Middle East conflict.
But what is much more important, we have to strengthen all Muslim and Arab forces who fight the antisemitic agitators. The liberal, democratic groups brand the propaganda against Jews as “antisemitism”. They know very well how much antisemitism they encounter in Tunis, Cairo, Teheran, Berlin and Paris. They need our solidarity. They do not want us to find a nice new term for the old and ever new passion, for—as Herzl could have said—the “Altneuhass”, for “that ole devil called” antisemitism.
I think you make many good points in your critique of my suggestion that “antisemitism” might have outlived its usefulness as a word to describe the hostility in Europe to Israel and the Jewish communities in Europe of Muslim immigrants and their supporters. Part of the reason I have taken some time to respond and, I warn you, quite voluminously, is because your arguments are not easily dismissed and need careful consideration—even if, in the end, I disagree with your conclusion.
I think we are still more or less on the same page as to what should be done to calm or improve the situation, and what needs to change to reduce the hostility currently so evident. I think we disagree much more on the words we use to express these views than we do on the substance—unlike some once fashionable academic theories I think such a differentiation between language and substance is quite possible, even though I think they are closely linked in many ways. I would not have expressed a concern about the usage of “antisemitism” if I had not. I also think that things look very different in Washington DC than they do in Vienna (and different again in London or Jerusalem, or even between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I suspect).
I should try to put some of your greatest concerns at rest at the beginning. Whatever we call it, call it Jew-hatred if you like, I think any growth in hostility to Jews, in Europe and indeed around the world, whether from Muslims or non-Muslims, is an appalling development. I think radical Islamism, whether of the al-Qaeda, Taliban or ISIS variety is horrific, and against everything you and I stand for in terms of secular, liberal pluralism—otherwise known as “democracy” in shorthand. I think organizations like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood are not all that much better, especially in their militant wings, although I would not put them in quite the same category, and I think it is worthwhile trying to negotiate with their more moderate elements. You may disagree with me on this, but I think there is some sort of parallel with what eventually happened with the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, where the Peace Process involved people sitting down together who regarded each other as ruthless murderers, or at least the representatives of ruthless murderers—but a peace of sorts was achieved in Northern Ireland, and persists, if a bit rickety. You do not gain peace by negotiating with your friends but rather your enemies.
The bottom line remains, however, that violence, terrorism and homicide are—do I need to say this?—abhorrent, whether caused by antisemitism, anti-Zionism, anti-Jewism, Islamism, or indeed Islamophobia or anti-Arabism. I also completely agree with you that it is tragic, disastrous even, as much to the Arab and Muslim cause as anything, that significant parts of the ideological “tool-box” of their hostility to Israel as a Jewish state, “anti-Zion-ism”, were borrowed from a relatively early time from European antisemitism—in the case of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, and that these persist in the stated views of Hamas and many other groups. The fact that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still published in Arabic, with high distribution, as I understand it, and was even made into a television series, is terrible, does not say much good about the cynical exploitation of the public realm by past and present Arab governments, and is, to say the least, unhelpful in persuading both sides that peace is the better option—for how can you make peace with a set of world conspirators on the one hand, and, on the other, a set of benighted people on the other who believe such nonsensical conspiracy theories? (But see above vis. Northern Ireland.)
I am also deeply sympathetic with the small Jewish communities in Europe that no doubt feel besieged and threatened in the current climate, and how they look to Israel, nowadays, as their protector and spiritual haven in what appears an ever more hostile world. I can understand how even the larger Jewish communities, for instance in Britain and France, feel shocked and blind-sided when the apparent “Never again” consensus of the post-war years seems so suddenly to have been torn apart by a new antisemitism from another quarter—Muslims.
Yet I still think the use of the word “antisemitism” in this new context has had its day—that it harms more than it helps when it comes to understanding what is happening, how to counter it, and how to return the situation in Europe and indeed elsewhere to a state where everyone can feel safe, prosper and co-operate for the greater good.
You yourself point out that “antisemitism” is not a particularly accurate word, indeed is a nonsensical one, and its validity as a quasi-scientific/scholarly word for “Jew hatred” is now more political than anything else. So, if it is only a word, and is losing its explanatory usefulness in the way it is applied, then I do not see why it cannot be limited, or, depending on the context, replaced. And that is where we are now, as far as I am concerned. The term is so abused that it has lost its analytic and even (beneficial) political usefulness, especially when applied to the Israel/Palestine conflict. From over here in America, where the Jewish community is large, prosperous and very secure compared to Europe, “antisemitism” is being used, and has been used for quite a while, by Israel’s supporters, as a sort of magic wand that stops dead all critical debate about Israel, or indeed about the political tactics of Israel’s supporters. Individuals who are clearly not “antisemites” by any reasonable definition find themselves dragged through the antisemitic mud because of a verbal infelicity or some tame critical remark about Israel’s frequently poor policy decisions. It is as though “anti-antisemitism” is the new anti-communism—with new McCarthyites dragging reasonable people quite unnecessarily into a paranoid, prosecutorial witchhunt. So when the same indiscriminate usage of the term is applied to European circumstances where it is more deceptive than perceptive, then I think we should replace it.
The anti-communist analogy works well in most respects. It was also used to silence not only actual communists, but also leftist “socialist” critics. You made a good point about the fact that many extremist Islamists are going to hate Israel and Jews no matter what Israel and Jews do, but the same could be said for the actual committed communists who did exist at the time of the McCarthy hearings, and were quite prepared to spy for the Soviet Union. They too were irredeemable, just like the hardcore extremist Islamists. Yet the charge of “communist” extended over a far wider spectrum of people, quite inappropriately, and badly corrupted American ideological discourse, because anyone who was even sympathetic to the aims of communism, if not its methods, as were many socialists, were branded as “Reds”.
It still has strange and perverse results in how Americans think. A New York Times editorial from 2011 (if I remember rightly—I can look it up), defended President Obama from the accusation of being a socialist (correctly), but then stated absurdly that he had “nothing to do with the evil history of socialism”, making no distinction at all, apparently, between socialism and its more radical and totalitarian cousins such as Stalinist communism. This is what “anti-communism” does to your analytic faculties. It obstructs any ability to provide a nuanced analysis of the degree to which individuals or groups adhere to or sympathize with an ideology or political movement.
Similarly with using “antisemitism” as an ideological catch-all, it may ostensibly be aimed only at the outright extremists and terrorists, but it actually catches in its web all sorts of people who might sympathize with the Islamists and their antisemitic fantasies (there, I shall allow you that one) on some level, but on another are quite reasonable and are actually swayed by empirical reality in a way that the extreme ideologues might not be. It is this group, I believe, where the crucial battle should be fought for hearts and minds, and this group is not irredeemable—their sympathies can be swayed by reality.
There is one area, however, where the analogy does not work well: even if they were regarded by American reactionaries as inherently traitors, communists were not completely beyond the Pale in terms of political debate, no matter how much the vast majority in America disagreed with their views. And communism outside of America, in Western Europe for instance, was an accepted part of the political spectrum all along, even if not a hugely popular one. It was quite possible to be a decent communist, and, if slightly passé now, it still is. I don’t think it is possible after Auschwitz to be a decent antisemite. (It was pretty hard to be so ever, harder after 1918, harder still after 1933, but impossible after 1945.) Hence the “antisemite!” magic wand is even stronger, and more decisive, than the “communist!” one—it stops discussion dead, and in the appropriate circumstances, as in the case of historical antisemitism, which was an extreme form of exclusionary nationalism (in Vienna, Hungary, Germany, France, America, Britain, etc.) and in the cases where this historical form of antisemitism has experienced a resurgence, such as in Hungary’s Jobbik, I see no reason why the term antisemitism should not be continued.
I also see that, at the extreme, radical Islamism is so taken up with antisemitic tropes, but also with the same illiberal, anti-pluralist, exclusory logic of antisemitism that denies all opportunity for difference—for other Muslim sects, let alone Jews and Christians—that we might as well write them off as “antisemitic” although that is also just another way of saying “anti-democratic” (see above). I do not think it necessarily Islamophobic to point out that many Muslim states are far from practicing anything like the liberal pluralist democracy of Western countries (although it might be verging on Islamophobic if one did not also point out that many others, such as Indonesia and, for now, Turkey, do) . The problem is that when we get more specific, when it comes to the conflict between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world, I do not see the same rationale for making “anti-Zionism”, or even secondary “anti-Jewish hostility” based on the actual Jewish support for Israel, completely beyond the Pale. Just as I am not a communist, but think it should be not be excluded a priori from the discussion, I might not agree with strong opponents of Israel, but there is a substantial ground for their thinking, due to Israel’s contested history, and there is a place for such views in decent political and ideological discourse. They should not be simply shut up by declaiming “antisemite!”
For instance, I find it very hard to see how, as such, the contestation of the right of Israel to exist in its current form is “antisemitic”. It is anti-Zionist, and anti-Zion-ist; it is probably anti-Jewist, because most Jews now support the existence of the state of Israel. But I cannot see it as entirely irrational or based on Jew-hatred as such. If I were a Palestinian refugee displaced in 1948 or 1967, I would see the success of the Jewish nationalist project of Zionism in founding, securing and—informally—expanding the (Jewish) state of Israel as a disaster that did take my rights and my country away from me. It might be more sensible for me to compromise and accept the situation (especially as the UN recognized Israel), but I cannot see refusing to do this as antisemitic in the usual, unacceptable way. I would think I have a reasonable case to make—and would resent my being prevented making it by being branded an antisemite.
This is directly related to the point that was the main subject of my initial post, which is the fact, in both our opinions (I believe), that the existence of the state of Israel has profoundly changed the whole character of the global Jewish community, as well as the relations of that community with the rest of the world, and hence has profoundly affected anti-Jewish hostility (what you call antisemitism) as well. The “Israel effect” predates the establishment of the state in 1948. As you rightly point out, “the ideology of modern political Islamism is older than the state of Israel”, and I assume you mean by this that it was antisemitic before Israel’s founding, and it is true that there was Arab and Muslim hostility to Jews before 1948. On the other hand, the Yishuv began in the 1880s and it would have been clear to any Arab intellectual who read the right literature by, at the latest, 1900 that a group of Jews, in the Zionist Organization, were intent on setting up a Jewish-controlled state in what was regarded by Muslims as part of the “territory of Islam”. Therefore the Arab riots, the hostility of the Grand Mufti, the antisemitic tropes in the ideology of the Muslim brotherhood, and all the pre-Israel hostility to Jews in Palestine is fairly clearly a form of, from the Palestinians’ viewpoint, anti-colonialism, and anti-Zionism, with Zionism as Jewish colonial ethnonationalism. (Jews might have another view, but I can well see that this is how Palestinians would see it.)
I think part of the problem when discussing Israel and antisemitism is the exotic language used. You describe the peculiarity of the word “antisemitism”, but “Zionism” is also a strange and loaded term. It connotes a certain religious fervor, and a return to biblical thinking, but the mainstream of Zionism was from the start Jewish nationalism—with the ethnonationalist goal of acquiring a territorial state for the Jewish nation—a classic motive of nationalism. This was a huge change. Traditional attempts to combat antisemitism always saw integral, ethnonationalism as the problem, for persecuting a religious and/or ethnic minority just because they were different; but once Zionism became the mainstream form of Jewish identity, Jewish nationalism became the dominant form of identity, and the creation of a Jewish nation-state the main means by which to “solve” antisemitism. For many decades the nationalist character of Zionism was obscured by the socialist and liberal ideological gloss given to the new, modern nation-state that the Jews would bring about. Western left-wing admiration for Israel in the 1950s and 1960s was at least partly due to the idea of Israel being a pioneer in the new ethical and socially just community. However, Israeli politics began to change radically in the 1970s and by the 1980s the nationalist basis of Israel became ever clearer. Netanyahu’s demand from the Palestinian leadership that Israel be recognized not only as a state but as a Jewish state is only the latest lurch to the right in Israel’s self-understanding. So the ever more central role that Israel plays in the global Jewish community, especially vis. Europe’s communities but also the United States, means that Jewish identity has been inevitably nationalized for most Jews, and also for most non-Jews. (It might be swinging back to a primarily religious identification, if the demographic shift within the Jewish community in favour of the strictly Orthodox continues, but that is another matter.)
Because of this nationalizing shift in identification, many Jews have come to see an attack on the “Jewish” state as an attack on fellow Jewish nationals, i.e. other Jews, and hence as inherently antisemitic. As Tony Judt pointed out, Israel sees itself as the centre of the Jewish world, and so any hostility to or criticism of Israel is antisemitic—from this perspective there really is no distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Judt’s point was that by so doing Israel is effectively inviting its opponents to be hostile to Diaspora Jews as well, because, as Israel’s position holds, they are in fact all part of the same nation, the same community of solidarity. There is a certain inexorable logic about this, but what it means in terms of European Jewry is that their claim to be a religious community unfairly targeted as national allies of Israel for payback by pro-Palestinian Muslims in Europe and their non-Muslim supporters and allies lacks much credibility, because contradicted by the ideological claims of their own Zionism (Jewish nationalism). You may be right that gaining a critical distance from Israel is almost impossible for Europe’s Jewish communities these days, but that does not mean they have to passively agree to an unquestioning solidarity with Israel, right or wrong, and it makes it even more imperative for those Jewish communities to spell out to Israel just how badly their position outside Israel is actually affected, and that Israel should, from their perspective, do everything it can to avoid creating the conditions (such as the Gaza conflict) that exacerbates these situations.
I wrote a few months ago in my blog at Oxford University Press that antisemitism was at a crossroads, inasmuch as the two dominant ways of understanding and combating it were increasingly at cross-purposes. If antisemitism was seen only as a problem for Jews—why do they hate us?—then obviously hostility to Israel was front and centre, all the worst fears of “new antisemitism” basically justified; but if antisemitism was seen as a problem for everyone, as the most notorious example of the genocidal consequences of the persecution of difference, as it had originally been seen, then the solution was not to confront one nationalism with another, one form of exclusion of the other by another such exclusion, but rather to overcome nationalism, overcome the exclusion of difference. In this understanding it was the protection of minorities and the different among us that was the “lesson” of antisemitism, and in Europe today that means combating Islamophobia rather than calling Muslim critics of Israel antisemites (the all too popular solution of the “new antisemitism” school).
I remember you as a leading member of the most laudable efforts to combat the strong antisemitic tendencies in Austria that inhere in that odd concoction of Austrian nationalism, which has, despite all the evidence to the contrary, a strong ethnonationalist element. If I remember rightly, you were involved in the “Wir sind Österreich” campaign that pointed out the inaccuracy and indeed stupidity of this nationalist way of thinking, and I do not think you have changed radically. So I think you would happily agree with me that one more nationalism is not a solution to the problem of nationalism. But that is what Zionism is, and that is why, from a Zionist perspective, that I do not share, I cannot see how protests against Israel aimed at Jews in other countries is not, on nationalist grounds, justified. (To repeat, just to be clear, violence, murder and terrorism are completely reprehensible, and vandalism, the desecration of religious buildings, property damage, and all the other forms of hostile action against Jews that have occurred, including the use of antisemitic rhetoric, are unacceptable, even if the cause the perpetrators claim to back were to be within the bounds of civility.) Israel, which Zionism claimed would be the solution to the existential condition of the Jewish nation, just turns out to create more problems.
Instead, and I may indeed sound like a nineteenth century Viennese Jew here in some respects, or perhaps an Anglo-American Jew from the late twentieth century, the fundamental answer to the problem of antisemitism is, banal though it might sound, liberal pluralism, or what people in the West call “democracy” for short. The only way Jews and other minority groups and diasporas (including the Muslim diaspora)—in fact the only way any diverse and multifaceted society—which is in the end all of them (we are all individuals, all different at some level) can really get along, live in peace and prosper, is by learning the fine art of compromise, conflict-management, mutual respect, and the ability to agree to disagree, and all the rest of the overloaded package called “democracy”. For all its faults and current woes, and if you look at my Facebook page you will see how critical I am of the country’s politics, one of the best examples of this liberal pluralist democracy remains the United States—and without the good ol’ US of A I don’t think democracy or a peaceful world order has much of a chance, given the incredible irresponsibility of so many of the other major world actors on show at the moment. So this is why I found so intriguing your comment about the anti-Jewish hatred in radical Islamism being much more central to its ideology than its hatred of America or individual Americans. I think that is spectacularly wide of the mark, but I also think that bringing in the American example might actually create a large area of agreement between us, beyond any language issues.
Al-Qaeda attacked New York, not Tel Aviv. For the Iranians, there are two Satans, the Great Satan is America, the Little Satan is Israel. Some radical Islamists have bought into the old Nazi and antisemitic trope of America (or before it England) being just a puppet for the Jewish conspiracy or a representative of the materialist “Jewish spirit”, and the lockhold of AIPAC on Congressional policy in the Middle East does not help dispel the “tail wagging the dog” conspiratorial theory of a “Jewish lobby” controlling US policy, but I would claim that most radical Islamists nowadays have America as their main target, not Israel. ISIS is beheading American journalists as Americans. Groups like ISIS hate the liberal pluralist West more than they hate Israel, because the former is an existential threat to their way of thinking, while the latter is, for many not directly impacted by Israeli policy, a small fish when they are after the bigger one. I agree with you that “secular Jewish intellectuals” are among the targets of radical Islamists, but I think they are targeted more as secular intellectuals than as Jews, more as purveyors of liberal pluralism disguised as “democracy”, than as agents of Zion/Israel.
On this level, I am quite happy to talk, ironically perhaps, about radical Islamism being “antisemitic” precisely because it denies choice, difference and individual freedom, just like the antisemitic logic of Nazism as an ad absurdum version of nationalism. By this time, however, the danger of radical Islamism has really gone beyond any direct relation to Jews, or Israel, but is a general threat to the democratic West. You say in your letter that there was “modern political Islamism” before the state of Israel. I pointed out above that the relevant date for this subject was more likely 1900, when Zionism had become a serious concept, but in a way you are right—inasmuch as there were radical Islamist movements from much earlier (for instance, the Mahdi in Sudan who defeated Gordon at Khartoum) that were opposed not only to imperialism but also to modernity. Most Muslim societies, most Muslims, have come to terms with modernity in one way or another, and it is quite wrong, Islamophobic, to say that “Islam” is incompatible with the modern world, or with liberal pluralist democracy. But it is just a fact that what we call “Islamism” is antagonistic to the liberal “democratic” world that we (you and I, and a few billion more) cherish. Islamism—fundamentalist, extreme, radical, intolerant and murderous Islamism—is really something that we should be trying to neutralize, tame and defeat, because it is an enemy of democracy, and of reasonable people everywhere.
The question I have is whether this overarching campaign to restore sanity to the Muslim world is helped or hindered by calling opponents of Israel who protest also against Jewish communities outside Israel “antisemitic”. I think it is not helped but hindered. I think this distracts from the larger purpose, and, because the accusation of real antisemitism is misplaced, discredits people who wave the “antisemite!” banner. I think it would be much better if Jewish communities in Europe understood that the protests aimed at their synagogues really were, as they purport to be, primarily protests against Israeli policy and only secondarily protests against them as supporters of the state that perpetrates these policies—rather than simply labeling it all as “antisemitism”. This is a particularly controversial point, so let me explain more fully what I mean.
The degrees and kinds of hostility should not be lumped together but need to be understood for what they are. If a synagogue is daubed with a swastika then that is at the very least rhetorically antisemitic, and in any case a crime. Daubing “Free Gaza” on a synagogue wall is also a crime, and hugely disrespectful of a religious institution, just as daubing a mosque with some slogan would be. But the phrase “Free Gaza” in itself is not antisemitic; it is a protest, and a reasonable one in my opinion, even if I can see the other side too. Imagine if “Free Gaza” were the slogan on a banner at a peaceful protest in front of a synagogue. This would be very uncomfortable for the synagogue members, no doubt, but because of the perception, encouraged by almost all Jewish communities these days, that they stand in full solidarity with Israel (whatever that means) I think linking the synagogue with Israel’s policies in Gaza is within the bounds of civility when it comes to expressions of nationalist politics.
It is especially so if the synagogue in question has a big banner in front of it asserting “We support Israel”, as mine does, to my great disquiet. From a Jewish nationalist aka Zionist perspective this solidarity is entirely understandable, but the other side of this is that Jews in the Diaspora who mostly support this view should expect slogans such as “Free Gaza” to be aimed not only at the Israeli embassy but also at their religious, social and community centre, the synagogue. A banner proclaiming “We support Israel” means that the community involved is no longer a purely religious one, but has declared a national, political allegiance as well, and it is at least understandable why opponents would identify such a community with Israel as a result. Given the horrific history of Jewish persecution in Europe I can see how any targeting of Jews, even as peaceful protests, can feel as though it is antisemitic, but we need to be able to control our emotions and think as coolly as possible, and in this instance, I think it just gets us into more trouble if we write off even reasonable protest from the other side, reasonably directed, as just more antisemitism.
I also think it would be best if liberal democratic groups in the Arab world were enabled to distinguish between hostility to Jews that was understandable from an Arab perspective (such as the anger about the recent Gaza conflict) from that which was simply Islamist Jew-hatred based on antisemitic tropes. Currently both responses tend to be described as “antisemitism” here, and the indiscriminate nature of the term ends up discrediting Arab liberals because they are seen as siding with people who are condemning as “antisemitic” an otherwise quite understandable anger at the other side, Israel’s, policies.
The whole subject is, as you know already, a minefield, but my purpose here in questioning the use and usefulness of the term “antisemitism” when it comes to Arab and Muslim hostility to Jews and Israel in Europe today was to try and clarify the issues, and I have to thank you for your intervention, because this has helped me formulate a conclusion that I think we can probably both agree to. The main threat of radical Islamism today is not only to Israel, not only to Jews, but to the whole democratic world order, based on liberal pluralism. Antisemitism is only part of it. The whole ideology and the movements it has spawned need to be countered and the societies affected brought back to a reasonable, tolerable, and tolerant, state. Israel thinks itself the centre of all this, but it is not; America is. What Israel does today, based as its current politics and government policy are on a form of Jewish nationalism, complicates and frustrates efforts at countering Islamism, through its blockade of Gaza and its colonialist settlements policy on the West Bank, and its anti-cosmopolitan, anti-internationalist attitude to the international community. When Israel should be helping the forces of democracy in their efforts to counter the threat of Islamism, its government is instead pursuing their narrow, nationalist agenda, at considerable cost to all of us who want a better, more democratic world.
Israel’s expansionist nationalism jeopardizes the two-state solution with the Palestinians, and it also directly makes the situation of Jewish communities in Europe and elsewhere in the world more precarious, because of the understandable anger of Arabs, Muslims and other Palestinian sympathizers at these policies. Because its supporters in America have a lock on American congressional politics, Israel also has a hobbling influence on many attempts of American administrations to foster a better global atmosphere for democratic values such as human rights and education for all. AIPAC’s influence has, indirectly, caused America to lose clout in such bodies as UNESCO, because of the admission of Palestine as a state member. It is not in Israel’s interest for the US to lose influence in UNESCO, or any other UN organization, but its supporters have prevented the small legislative change that would solve this problem so far, because of the nationalist aim of, somehow or other, punishing a UN agency for allowing Palestine in. Israel’s refusal to be really serious about negotiating with the Palestinian Authority and the Obama administration to find an acceptable peace settlement, favouring colonialist settlements instead, showing up the impotence of the Obama administration in the meantime when it comes to American policy decisions related to Israel, has meant that the American policy in the Middle East has been hobbled and discredited almost from the start. Yet it is America and its influence in the UN agencies of the international community that still offer the best hope at countering the horrendous threat of Islamism (in Europe and America, among alienated Muslim youth, as well as the Muslim world) today. So Israel, pursuing short-term nationalist aims, is hindering the best options we have in countering the threat of Islamism. It is not helping, it is hurting, the global democratic cause.
That is why, I think, for the sake not only of ourselves, but also for the long-term interest of Israel and democracies everywhere, we should make a clear distinction between “antisemitism” and whatever other term you want for hostility towards Israel and Jews from Palestinians and their supporters (Muslim and non-Muslim) that is not completely beyond the Pale. If the political magic wand of “antisemite!” were taken away from Israel and its supporters that might be a rude awakening for them, but a salutary one. It might make them reconsider the shortsighted and disingenuous nature of their policies, and the dangerous path on which they have helped set Israel, and us. I do not think simply renaming something can make the problem go away. I am aware of the critical nature of the problem, but I think it behooves us to understand as well as possible what the actual problem is, and to that extent, while I acknowledge that the threat of the exclusory logic informing antisemitism is still with us, and at the moment in a more potent form than it has been for quite some time, I still think that the injudicious use of the term “antisemitism” should be curtailed, in order to fight the underlying phenomenon more effectively.
Thank you for your reply. As always you raise interesting and crucial questions.
I share your view that it is important not to put the various groups of radical Islamism into one category. I agree with you that it might be necessary to try and negotiate with the more moderate elements of political Islamism, and I also believe that it would have been better not to break off all negotiations with Mahmud Abbas after he formed a coalition government with Hamas. I feel connected to the Israeli peace camp and I am a signatory of JCall, the European equivalent of JStreet. About these issues we do not disagree.
You are absolutely right that things look very different in Washington DC as opposed to in Vienna, Paris or Berlin. In Washington DC you are confronted with an alleged fight against antisemitism which is not really a fight against antisemitism but rather the delegitimization of any criticism against Israeli policies. In this context it is appropriate to emphasize the differences between hostile reactions by Muslims to the state of Israel and the resentments of the old European antisemitism. In addition one cannot overemphasize the difference between the unbearable helplessness of Jews in former times and Israel’s current capacity to defuse the situation and solve the conflict.
In Vienna I am rather often confronted with an alleged criticism of Israel which is not at all political criticism but instead genuine antisemitism. Here you come across outspoken antisemitic attacks but also soft spoken myths about Jewish revengefulness and Jewish conspiracies. These antisemitic myths are spread by proponents of various religions and they are no less antisemitic just because they are articulated by a taxi driver whose family happens to come from a Muslim country. Do you think the denial of the Holocaust is less antisemitic just because it is voiced by a Turkish journalist instead of a Catholic construction worker? And what if the son of a Christian nurse and a Muslim teacher shouts “Death to the Jews”? Would you call him a “half-antisemite”? Certainly not.
Allow me to repeat: I agree that the context is important. When in 1952 the Czech Communist Rudolf Slansky was accused of being a Zionist, everyone in Prague knew he was convicted because he was a Jew. When a man in Gaza accuses the Jews of having stolen his land it is clear to everyone that he speaks about the Zionists. But the same sentence in Ramallah does not mean the same in Istanbul, in Berlin or in Paris.
You write that all the pre-Israel hostility to Jews in Palestine is quite clearly, from the Palestinians’ viewpoint, a form of anti-colonialism and anti-Zionism, with Zionism being a Jewish colonial ethnonationalism. But I believe the reasons for the pre-Israel hostility to Jews in Egypt or in Iraq are more complex by far. The pogroms in Baghdad, Cairo or Alexandria in the 1940s, the anti-Jewish laws and discrimination remind me of the persecutions of minorities in other postcolonial countries. I cannot help thinking about the Tamils in Sri Lanka, of the Chinese in Indonesia or, for instance, of the Tutsis in Rwanda. These persecutions were also driven by the colonial strategy of divide and conquer. But even if Islamist antisemitism was caused by Zionism, what would that mean today? Jewish nationalism and Palestinian nationalism were both the reactions to and the roots of specific traumatic experiences.
But Islamist antisemitism has become a process with its own independent dynamics. It is now an irrational passion of hate and murder.
Sadly enough I encounter quite a lot of Islamophobia in Jewish European circles. The origins of this Islamophobia are totally different from the old traditional European racism. The Jewish Islamophobes do not fear an infiltration by foreign agents. They do not fear a biological danger. They refer to the anti-Jewish hostilities of Muslims. They fear the globalization of the Intifada. They speak out because of their fear of extreme Islamism. Some of their concerns may not be totally unjustified, but should we therefore refrain from calling them racists when they rant against the whole Muslim community just because they are Jews? Some of the French Jews voted for Le Pen’s Front National. Are they any better than their Christian compatriots just because they are Jews? No. I call them extreme right-wing racists because that’s precisely what they are.
You write: “from a Zionist perspective, that I do not share, I cannot see how protests against Israel aimed at Jews in other countries is not, on nationalist grounds, justified.” I disagree. From a Zionist perspective protests against the Jewish diaspora are as unjustified as protests against the Croatian diaspora would be from a national Croatian perspective. One should be able—from every perspective—to distinguish between a nation, its national movement, its diaspora and a national government. The radical Islamists call for murder in the name of Islam, but that is no justification for Islamophobia.
I do not fight antisemitism just because I am a Jew. I fight antisemitism because I oppose antisemitism. As a citoyen of a new Europe, I regard antisemitism as a danger for a multicultural and democratic EU. It is a threat to our society. We live in a globalized world but Western culture is still a dominant force. Its images and stereotypes were exported to other continents. There they may gain momentum and grow to become a danger to our civilization. Therefore it is necessary to fight antisemitism wherever it takes root.
I am rather astonished when you suggest that to protect “minorities and the different among us” in Europe today “means combating Islamophobia rather than calling Muslim critics of Israel antisemites”. I fight Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism because I am against Islamophobia and against racism. I think it is wrong to fight antisemitism in order to combat Islamophobia and it is equally wrong to combat Islamophobia to fight antisemitism. Whoever wants to defend the “different among us” has to understand the very importance of fighting all different racisms in their different ways. The moment we start to combat one racism rather than the other we are trapped in the logic of racism.
You suggest making a clear distinction between “antisemitism” and the hostility towards Israel and Jews by Palestinians and their supporters (Muslim and non-Muslim) that is not completely beyond the Pale, because it would lead to a salutary awakening amongst the supporters of the Israeli government. I suppose this argument is also the reason why you seem to reject the whole idea of a “new antisemitism”. Isn’t that an ideological decision which somehow resembles the strategy of the Israeli right and their dogmatic decision to declare every delegitimization of Israel nothing but antisemitism?
Since the liberation of Auschwitz and after the foundation of Israel the phenomenon of antisemitism has undergone some dramatic changes. One doesn’t have to be a Likudnik to encounter agitators of “secondary antisemitism” (e.g.: Schönbach, 1961, Imhoff and Banse, 2008) Since the twentieth century we experience new forms of antisemitism voiced by groups that were not antisemitic before. These are the tedious empirical facts.
I suggest we should not give in to generalizations. We should propagate the obvious differences. We must distinguish between antisemitic tropes, antisemitic resentments and ideological antisemites. We should talk about the discourse of mutual insinuations. One side suspects the other of raising criticism against Israel merely for antisemitic motives whereas the other side suspects that the charge of antisemitism is only brought up to delegitimize any criticism of Israel. Quite often both sides are right. But it is our duty to look at each case independently—sine ira et studio—and not to decide that Muslim attacks on Jews are not antisemitism because something which must not be, cannot be.
This summer we can all see the totalitarian reality and barbaric irrationality of radical Islamism. We agree, dear Steven, that Israel has to stop its settlement policy and negotiate with its neighbours, but we should also not forget that this is not a one-sided conflict. We should not whitewash the new antisemitism in Muslim communities. This we not only owe the Jews in the Middle East and all over the world but all religious minorities who are haunted and murdered by Islamists in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and also in Palestine, and most importantly we owe it the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who are currently terrorized and killed by Islamist troops. We have to speak out. We have to react to the antisemitic attacks and to antisemitic language as if we did not strive for peace but we must strive for peace as if there was no antisemitism.
I think we have probably reached a point where we are in agreement on so much in terms of the practical aspect of what should and should not be done that it would be a shame to spoil this by continuing to quibble about the interpretations of a few words or concepts. I think it much more significant that we agree on what policies should be followed even as we disagree on where and when to use the term “antisemitism”.
We still disagree, apparently, on what the practical and hence political importance is of using the term “antisemitism” when referring to Muslim and Arab critics of Israel and its Jewish supporters, even when that criticism is at least understandable, as in much of the protests against the recent war in Gaza. Such criticism is hostile to Jews, but to call such criticism “antisemitism” does seem to me playing into the hands of Islamophobes, because it gives another reason to fear (and hold in contempt) Muslims. I think we need to disallow the use of the term antisemitism here, because it is too loaded. I do not think I am fighting one racism with another one–I am trying to defang the ideological weapons of both sides. You talk of the need to approach all these different antisemitisms differently–I just think that at some point one of those “antisemitisms” has such different grounds, causation and history that it confuses rather than informs our debate about what to do about it. If we called the Arab/Muslim hostility to Israel and Jews “anti-Jewism” (an option) I’m not sure whether that would that make it all that more attractive than calling it “antisemitism”, but in my view it would help to distinguish it from the well-worn (and too often abused) concept of “antisemitism”.
We still disagree about the implications of Jewish nationalism aka Zionism for the situation of Diaspora Jewry in relation to Israel. Radical Islamism is not a nation-state. Israel is a nation-state, at least in its own self-understanding. You compare Israel to Croatia. But it could be compared to Russia. If a Ukrainian at the moment were to walk up and down in front of Chelsea FC with a sign saying “Roman Abramovich! Break your ties with the fascist Putin!” I don’t think that would be regarded as an illegitimate connection between the actions of the Russian state and that of one of its diaspora’s more prominent members. Within the logic of nationalism I think it is valid to hold diaspora members of “the nation” responsible for the home nation-state’s actions, especially when they are actively supporting that state and/or its actions. However, I am not a nationalist (and nor are you, I would have thought), so I do not think this connection is really valid. (Perhaps that was not clear the first time around.) But what I cannot understand is a nationalist claiming that nationalist logic is all right when he uses it, but from the opponent is somehow illegitimate, and this argument being accepted by non-nationalists as fair. If Zionists were just called Jewish nationalists then I think the obvious logical problem with calling Arab and Muslim critics of not only Israel but also of Jewish “nationals” abroad illegitimate because of “antisemitically” conflating Israel and Jews–just as Jewish nationalism aka Zionism does–would be clearer.
I do agree with you that we should oppose racism, prejudice, exclusionary ideologies that destroy the right to be different wherever they are, regardless of whether we are Jewish or not, and I am certainly with you, therefore, in opposing extreme radical Islamism, as I am sure we both would be if there was such a thing as extreme radical Jewism, or even extreme radical Jewish nationalism. We both support the liberal pluralist principles of what is called “democracy” (even though that is largely a product of “Western culture”–one way or another, just like antisemitism). It is the threat to this “democracy”, from wherever the threat comes–xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, integral ethnonationalism, oligarchic communism, or indeed capitalist plutocracy and the military-industrial complex–that we need to identify as the main target of our intellectual and political energies of opposition. In this effort there are many occasions when the word “antisemitism” can and should be slung at democracy’s enemies, and then there are others when it is not so credible or effective, and often counter-productive. Exactly when and where the line is to be drawn between these occasions is a matter of judgement and I agree, very debatable. From my perspective, some of the current uses hurt more than help the cause of “democracy”, especially when they appear to defend policies that are actually anti-democratic. I do not think we are that far apart, and in practical terms hardly at all. Agreeing to disagree is not only a practical thing to do in such circumstances, but highly “democratic”. Let us leave it at that.
And so this debate draws to a close, for now at least. As you will have realised, much as Steven and Doron agree about a great deal, there remains fundamental disagreement about the central issue of whether it’s time to use a word other than antisemitism to describe the anti-Jewish hostility of Muslim supporters of the cause of the Palestinians. The authors and I very much welcome comments on this exchange, especially if you can bring something new to the table. Meanwhile, I am grateful to them for taking the time to formulate and express their views and to engage in this exchange. I hope it has thrown some much-needed light on what remains a very controversial topic. — Antony Lerman