Letters to Eureka Street

What is anti-Semitism?

Anthony Ham’s discussion of the new wave of global anti-Semitism (Eureka Street, January-February 2004) is welcome and timely, but his thesis lacks sufficient historical and political context.

Ham rightly condemns both anti-Jewish racism (Judeophobia), and anti-Arab racism (Arabophobia), but draws a very long bow in attempting to bracket both sets of prejudices as ‘anti-Semitism’.

Clever semantics aside, anti-Semitism has long been understood in the modern world as involving prejudice directed specifically at Jews. This is because the language of anti-Semitism—typically via conspiracy theories claiming Jewish control of either communism or capitalism—has produced anti-Jewish genocide. In contrast, there is no historical or contemporary example of anti-Arab discourse leading to anti-Arab genocide.

This equation of victims of racism also subtly neglects the subtext which is that one of these victimised groups (the Arabs) has often persecuted the other (Jews). For example, the Jewish population in Arab countries has declined from 856,000 in 1948 to just over 7000 today reflecting a combination of popular anti-Jewish feeling and discriminatory government policies. And more recently, the European
Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia report Manifestations of anti-Semitism in the European Union has confirmed that many of the worst anti-Jewish attacks in Europe have been perpetrated not by traditional fascists and anti-Semites, but rather by young


Muslims, mainly of Arab descent.

Ham then shifts course to attack the Israeli Government for attempting to discredit critics of their policies by accusing them of anti-Semitism. But putting to one side the cynical politics of Sharon and Sharansky, this claim is not entirely without foundation. To be sure, some hardline critics of Israel are not motivated by anti-Jewish prejudice, but equally some are. The distinction is not a simple one. It is clearly not anti-Semitic to argue that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are illegal and immoral, that the Palestinian Arabs living in these territories should have access to the same national rights as Jewish Israelis, and that a two-state solution should be negotiated which addresses both minimum Israeli security needs, and basic Palestinian national aspirations. These views are advocated by a healthy minority within Israel itself.

Too often international criticism of Zionism goes beyond reasonable criticism of specific Israeli policies, to a negation of Jewish national rights per se. And any actions taken by Israeli governments to defend the lives of citizens are derided as illegitimate.

Ham should be commended for trying to place Arabophobia in a broader context, and I agree that experiences of racism should not be ranked in order of  merit. But equally any equation of victims requires a careful historical and political analysis. Some forms of racism are different precisely because of their historical meaning, and their potential for genocide.

Philip Mendes
Kew, VIC

The undeserving poor

News of Frank Cicutto’s departure from National Australia Bank follows the revelation of $360 million dollar losses on the currency trading desk. Cicutto had spent 37 years at the Bank, the last five as Managing Director and Chief Executive.

I have followed these developments with interest, and contributed an editorial to the Australian Financial Review (January 2004). I have studied rogue trader incidents in the past, and in a public
lecture at the Melbourne Business School in October 2003 suggested that there was a real and present danger of such an event in the Australian financial system.

To many, the issue seems straightforward. An individual or several individuals commit fraud. An amount, possibly in excess of $360 million goes missing. The public expectation is that those concerned will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and those who supervised them up to and including the Chief Executive will be fired. Any larrikin who breaks a shop window and is caught helping himself to some of the merchandise would expect some hard time. Surely we are right to condemn those involved in the NAB affair?

Certainly this is the view of the Australian press. The fact is, schadenfreude sells. It always has. There is nothing so delicious as the downfall of the great and the good. On reading my piece in the AFR, a friend asked whether I knew this Frank Cicutto. I have met neither him nor any of the others named in the affair. Who am I to pass judgment?

My reading of this situation and similar episodes does not suggest that these young traders misappropriated large sums of money. Rather, it is a story of people caught in a hard place and seeing all of their promise—their fortunate life— about to vanish as in a dream. Yes, they respond inappropriately by venturing more. Perhapsthey break the law and commit fraud. But it is a very human response, as old as the Gospels. Don’t we read in Matthew 25: 14–30 that the servants who ventured and won shared their master’s joy, while the servant who buried his talent in fear of his hard master is punished? The demands of the fortunate life are indeed a hard master. The rewards go to those who venture and win.

They were fortunate once, but now are out of a job with families to support, facing criminal and/or civil law suits without near term prospect of employment. This is a paltry sum by comparison. Although no evidence has surfaced of his complicity in this affair, Frank Cicutto bears ultimate responsibility and his head is offered as ritual sacrifice. A sad ending for a proud 37-year career at the bank.

Dorothy Day wrote that it is indeed hard to see Christ in the undeserving poor. Perhaps these people caused their own downfall through greed and hubris. They have lost honour and position, and perhaps
also their material comforts. Must they also lose our sympathy?

Stephen Brown
New York, USA

 

 

submit a comment

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review