The new anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is one of the most powerful words in the English language, a word resonant with the murder of more than six million Jews before and during World War II. In sheer numbers alone, the genocide practised upon the Jews of Europe is recorded history’s most grievous crime against humanity. It all happened because of an anti-Semitism that fed off conspiracy theories and an abhorrent nexus between a person’s race or religion and his or her right to live.

Fast forward nearly six decades and there are deep-seated fears that anti-Semitism may again be on the rise.

In early November 2003, a German MP and the commander of Germany’s Special Forces were forced to resign after the former made comments linking Jews with atrocities committed during the days of the Soviet Union. The well-known Greek composer, Mikis Theodorakis, recently described Jews as the root of all evil. His comments came barely a month after the outgoing Malaysian prime minister Mahatir Mohammed stated at a conference of Muslim leaders that Jews are ‘arrogant’ and ‘rule the world by proxy’. Little seems to have changed since deeply offensive conspiracy theories, that Jews had been somehow responsible for the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, gained widespread currency in the Arab world.

As is often the case in a climate where racist comments are widely aired, attacks against Jewish targets are on the rise across Europe. This year alone, attacks against synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and other Jewish symbols have been reported in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Belgium. These attacks have ranged from defacing Jewish memorials with anti-Jewish propaganda and Nazi slogans to attempted suicide bombings.

Jewish communities elsewhere have been similarly targeted, to even more devastating effect. On 15 November, the bombing of a synagogue in Istanbul killed 20 people. In April 2002, a truck bomb exploded at the El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Jerba in Tunisia. Nineteen people were killed.
That all of these attacks have been widely condemned does not temper the disquiet that the spectre of an old hatred may be re-emerging. As a people, no-one has suffered from racism as greatly as the Jews, and renewed fears of anti-Jewish violence are very real among the Jewish diaspora and in Israel itself.

There are, however, at least two important elements of the popular debate which must be considered alongside the recent outbreaks of anti-Semitism.

The first is the word itself. The literal meaning of anti-Semitism means racism directed towards the Semitic people or those who descend from Shem. Counted among the Semites are Arabs and Assyrians, as well as Jews. On one reading, the exclusion of Arabs and Assyrians from the world of Semites is a mere semantic distinction.

And yet, the fact that ‘anti-Semitism’ has come to exclusively refer to racism against Jews has the dangerous potential to separate racism into different, even unequal categories. The rising tide of ‘Arabophobia’ or ‘Islamophobia’, which gathered unprecedented pace after September 11, carries none of the power to shock that anti-Semitism, a term forever linked to the Holocaust, possesses.

While mainstream political leaders across Europe have publicly denounced the attacks against Jews, racism against Arabs and Muslims has become almost institutionalised in the West. In the aftermath of September 11, thousands of people with Arab-sounding names, and with origins that lie in Muslim countries, have been rounded up and detained incommunicado for indefinite periods and seemingly without legal rights. Although it no longer does so publicly, the current US administration has spoken of ‘de-Arabising’ the Middle East, while US Undersecretary of Defense, Douglas Feith, has talked of Israel’s ‘moral superiority’ over its neighbours. And among those who daily police the Western occupation of Iraq is one Corporal Kevin Harnley who was quoted in the Western media as saying:

Iraqis are the world’s best dodgers and thieves—they are descended from a direct line of Ali Babas.’

If such words, such projects of cultural stereotyping, were to be directed against Jews, the outcry would, rightly, be widespread in its condemnation. But there have been few outcries in defence of Arabs and Muslims, no public denouncing of this form of anti-Semitism.

The point is not that the racism directed towards Arabs and Muslims is somehow worse than that which has been experienced by Jews. Nor does recognising the term is often misused in any way diminish the repugnant nature of anti-Semitic acts that are targeted at Jews. The point is, however, that both are equally repugnant. To enclose one within the definition of anti-Semitism, thereby evoking humankind’s darkest days, while calling the other something else, is perhaps to suggest that some forms of racism are worse than others.

The second danger arising from the prevailing public use of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ is that it assumes that some people, by virtue of their race or religion, are somehow immune from criticism. It is a strange argument, one that seems to assert if your people have suffered from widespread racial violence or genocide, you cannot be criticised in perpetuity. Following this line of reasoning to its logical endpoint, the Tutsi-dominated government of Rwanda cannot be condemned for their role in fuelling the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, nor for their responsibility for large-scale human rights violations.

The Israeli government’s dismissal of critics as anti-Semitic is an insidious means of stifling debate.

Turning the spotlight around onto the accusers is an easy way to destroy credibility without having to address the issues in any substantive way. The equating of all opposition with an incitement to violence is, at its worst, an inverse form of racism, a form of ‘moral superiority’.

That such a belief should be sufficient to ward off criticism is a precedent as dangerous as anti-Semitism itself. Israeli government policy towards the Palestinian people includes extrajudicial killing, detention without trial, the destruction of houses and other collective punishments against the families of alleged suicide bombers, the strangling of the Palestinian economy, the construction of walls and settlements to separate Palestinians from their land in the name of security, and occupation of land which is not legally theirs.

When protests against such actions are mounted by the international community, particularly by Europe, the response of the Israeli government is unanimous. When European foreign ministers recently issued a call for justice for the Palestinians, Natan Sharansky, a government minister who once spent years as a prisoner in Soviet labour camps, stated simply that ‘Anti-Semitism has become politically correct in Europe’. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon similarly did not address the substance of the allegations but instead said that ‘What we are facing in Europe is an anti-Semitism that has always existed and it really is not a new phenomenon … This anti-Semitism is fundamental, and today, in order to incite it and to undermine the Jews’ right to self-defence, it is re-aroused.’

This is a prime minister who, barely a decade ago, claimed in an interview with Time Magazine that there was no such thing as the Palestinian people. And yet he decries as anti-Semitism (with justification) the hatred of those fundamentalists who seek the destruction of the state of Israel and deny Israel’s right to exist. This is a prime minister whose own legal system condemned him as ‘personally responsible’ for the Sabra and Chatila massacres when he was Defence Minister during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s. Prime Minister Sharon evidently feels no hint of moral hypocrisy in describing suicide-bombers as anti-Semitic terrorists.

What is at issue here is not only whether those who seek the destruction of Israel by killing innocent Israeli people, or by attacking Jewish targets across the world, are guilty of anti-Semitic behaviour. There is little doubt that anti-Semitism is invariably behind such attacks. Such acts must be condemned in the strongest possible terms and the perpetrators brought to justice.

What is also at issue, however, is the casual manner in which some forms of racism are becoming acceptable. The misuse of the word ‘anti-Semitism’, the ease with which it can be invoked to deter criticism and the excision of Arabs from those who are the victims of such racism, resembles nothing so much as an intricate conspiracy theory levelled against an entire people. In their exclusivity and exclusion, such theories allow political opponents to be dismissed as evil rather than those who simply do not agree. This unwillingness to distinguish between those who seek change through violent means and those who seek reform through political debate also enables governments to sanctify some human rights violations as justifiable.

One of the tragic lessons of the Holocaust is that people of particular races and religions can be so degraded in the popular mind and by government policy that their very existence can be called into question. The Holocaust taught us that when racism becomes widely acceptable as a political tool, violence towards the victims of such racism can take hold and become seen as legitimate, even as a form of self-defence. But when people have said, as many have since World War II, that it must never be allowed to happen again, they were not just talking about the Jews. Whether we have learned that lesson remains to be seen. 

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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