Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century

Taboo no longer?

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It is an irony of Jewish life that it took the Holocaust to give anti-Semitism a bad name. So widespread was international revulsion over the annihilation of six million Jews that following World War II anti-Semitism, even of the polite variety, became the hatred one dared not publicly express. But only for a time.

At the dawn of the 21st century, virulent, open anti-Semitism has surfaced yet again, and in a big way. One need only read a Jewish newspaper or website--replete as they are with accounts of verbal anti-Semitism by high officials and intellectuals, and anti-Semitic physical attacks by common street thugs--to understand the depth of concern this has stirred among Jews.

The United States

The new anti-Semitism is most apparent in Western Europe and the Muslim world. But even in the United States, long viewed as the world's safest nation for Jews, anti-Semitism's resurgence may be seen in the proliferation of websites maintained by right-wing extremists and anti-Israel activists, and in the rhetoric of left-wing anti-globalization demonstrators on the streets of New York and Washington, many of whom equate Israel with fascism.

modern anti semitismModern Israel, the state its founders believed would provide safe sanctuary for Jews, is the prime target of contemporary anti-Semitism. It is recognizable in anti-Israel criticism that blurs the line between legitimate opposition to Israeli government policies and a barely concealed hatred that blames Israel's very existence--and by extension Jews everywhere, all of whom are presumed to support Israel's every decision--for much of the world's troubles.

The new anti-Semitism is also discernible in the claims that "neocons"--now a trendy pejorative for some well-connected, political conservatives (some of them Jews) who are aligned with Republican policies--are manipulating U.S. foreign policy for Israel's benefit. It amounts to a new twist on the age-old anti-Semitic canard that what Jews seek above all else is global hegemony.

How bad is the situation? "The combination of Jew hatred and the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction by hostile governments makes the threat of this anti-Semitism the greatest since the Holocaust," Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham H. Foxman warned in a December 2003 newspaper column.

The Muslim World

anti-semitism today

Foxman's mention of "hostile governments" was a reference to Middle East Muslim nations that view Israel as a colonialist cancer injected into their midst without any moral or historical justification. Tensions have existed between Jews and Muslims since the seventh-century Jews of Mecca rejected the religious and political leadership of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Still, the violent and ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ratcheted up Muslim animosity toward Jews--and the Jewish state--to unprecedented global levels. Making it worse are radical Islamists who, to advance their own cause, cast Jews, along with "crusader" Christians, as the enemies of all Muslims, Palestinian or otherwise.

Muslim anti-Semitism has ranged of late from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad's enthusiastically received claim at the 2003 Islamic Summit Conference that "Jews rule this world by proxy," to the Ramadan holy month broadcasts of multi-part dramatic TV series purporting to document Jewish plans to subjugate the world. Such series, widely shown across the Muslim Middle East, rely heavily on the infamous 19th century anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as "proof" of their claims.

Then there's the constant demonizing in Muslim newspapers and magazines of Jews as "pigs and sons of monkeys," and the fiery sermons of Muslim clerics who equate Jews with Nazis and maintain that virtually all Israeli measures to contain Palestinian terrorism amount to nothing less than a new "Holocaust." Yet another example from July 2003 is the charge in a Saudi Arabian newspaper that Jews of Iraqi ancestry will seek to return to their former homeland now that Saddam Hussein has been ousted "for the realization of expansionist Zionist goals."

Given the heightened state of political tensions that have inflamed the Middle East for nearly a century, Muslim anti-Semitism, it may be argued, can be understood as an inevitable, if tragic, group response to a seemingly unsolvable conflict. Surely there are also Jews who, as a result of the conflict, blindly view all Muslims as supportive of hateful terrorism without ever having spoken person-to-person to a single Muslim.

Europe

Less easily understood, however, is the resurgence of Western European anti-Semitism. There, French Jews have been attacked and Jewish schools burned by arsonists. Israeli academics--whose area of research has nothing to do with politics or Israeli policy--have been uninvited from European academic conferences that likewise aren't political in nature or subject matter. In Turkey, suicide bombers attacked two synagogues during Shabbat prayers in late 2003.

Writing in The Jerusalem Report, commentator Stuart Schoffman postulates that Western European anti-Semitism is both an attempt to shake off Holocaust guilt by arguing that Jews no longer warrant sympathy due to Israel's alleged wrongs, and "a twisted expression of atonement--in France and Belgium in particular, but elsewhere too--for (Europe's) own sordid colonial past."

Also a factor is Western Europe's burgeoning Muslim population. It is simply politically expedient--not to mention a hoped-for hedge against revengeful terrorist rage--for Western European nations with growing Muslim under-classes and shrinking, if not miniscule, Jewish communities, to excuse or even agree with Muslim anti-Semitism rather than confront it.

A European Union report on growing anti-Semitism on the continent unwittingly highlighted this last factor. The study concluded that Muslim youths were in large part responsible for the surge of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe. The EU withheld from publicizing the study--prompting Edgar Bronfman, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Cobi Benetoff, president of the European Jewish Congress, to jointly accuse EU leaders of exhibiting anti-Semitism. (EU commissioners said they decided to withhold the study because its methodology was flawed.)

A major development in today's anti-Semitism in Europe is its prevalence in the non-communist left. Europe's right-wingers have long used anti-Semitism as a political rallying cry. European communists, taking their cue from the former Soviet Union, also railed against Jews and Judaism as counter-revolutionary elements.

But the current surge in anti-Semitism has seen major artists, intellectuals, and politicians of the left also engaged. Among them have been Portuguese novelist José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize, who compared Israel to Nazi Germany; Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who called Jews the root of all the world's evil; and Daniel Bernard, the French ambassador to Britain, who was overheard in an unguarded moment at a dinner party calling Israel "a shitty little country" that was bringing the world to the brink of World War III.

Anti-Israel/Anti-Semitic

To be fair, legitimate criticism of Israel's actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians cannot all be labeled anti-Semitism, as some would have it. Complicating this is the fact that the Magen David [Star of David] is a symbol for both Judaism and Israel, which gives license to political cartoonists, for example, to depict the Star of David in work claiming to be critical only of Israel's actions and not of Jews more broadly. Israel's claim to be a homeland for global Jewry provides its enemies with additional reason--disingenuous as it may be--to claim that virtually all Jews give aid and comfort to the Jewish state.

Anti-Semitism, then, may be said at times to be in the eye of the beholder. Yet when Israel alone is singled out from among the family of nations as an illegitimate state, when Jewish nationhood is belittled as a modern political claim despite its 3,000-year-long history, and when United Nations officials allow an international conference on racism to focus almost entirely on the Jewish state, as happened in Durban, South Africa, just weeks before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it is no surprise that Jews believe they are facing unabashed anti-Semitism rather than legitimate political disagreement.

"Let's be realistic," David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote in mid-2003. "Given its longevity, anti-Semitism in one form or another is likely to outlive us all. That seems like a safe, if unfortunate, bet. No Jonas Salk has yet come along with an immunization protocol to eradicate forever the anti-Semitic virus, nor is any major breakthrough likely in the foreseeable future."

At the same time, Harris continued, "the Jewish community looks radically different than it did, say, 60 or 70 years ago" when anti-Semitism in Europe erupted into the Holocaust.

"Today, there is an Israel; then, there was not. Today, there are sophisticated, savvy, and well-connected Jewish institutions; then, Jewish institutions were much less confident and sure-footed. Collectively, we have the capacity to track trends in anti-Semitism, exchange information on a timely basis with other interested parties, reach centers of power, build alliances within and across borders, and consider the best mix of diplomatic, political, legal, and other strategies for countering troubling developments."

For Harris, at least, the ability of Jews to stand up to anti-Semitism is greater today then it ever has been. "We may not succeed in each and every case," he said, "but we've come a very long way thanks to a steely determination, in Israel and the Diaspora, to fight vigorously against anti-Semitism, while simultaneously helping to build a world in which anti-Semitism-and everything it stands for-is in irreversible decline."

There are, however, many Jews less confident about the future than is Harris. It remains to be seen whether Harris is correct about Jews' ability to withstand the latest tide of anti-Semitism--and whether those many non-Jews who today speak up in opposition to anti-Semitism will be there should their support become even more crucial.

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Ira Rifkin

Ira Rifkin is a national correspondent for Religion News Service based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.