Director’s Column: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism in the News

Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy argued last year in Left in Dark Times (New York: Random House 2008) that the “new anti-Semitism,” if it is to become a resurgent danger, must address the three phenomena which have largely suppressed anti-Semitism since the Second World War: the “cult of victimhood,” the “duty for memory,” and “triumphant antifascism.” In order to be truly dangerous, he argued, contemporary anti-Semitism must effectively reverse these three norms, turning Jewish community strengths into vulnerabilities. Sadly, it takes only a quick perusal of the daily papers over the month of September to see that much of the recent discourse about Jews and Israel follows precisely the patterns that Lévy described.

First, Lévy argued that the new anti-Semitism must respond to what he calls the “cult of victimhood.” Since the Holocaust, most educated people have been repelled by any suggestion that Jews or other historically persecuted minorities should be singled out and punished. The notion of “Jewish victimhood,” however, can be both a strength and a vulnerability. The principal way in which the new anti-Semitism addresses “Jewish victimhood” is through Holocaust denial. The genius of Holocaust denial, Lévy explained, is that it not only strips away this protection but also serves as a basis for reproach: Jews are exposed as perpetrators of a colossal hoax, further confirming the stereotype of Jewish swindlers. This can be seen clearly, for example, in the recent speeches of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Calling the Holocaust a “lie,” Ahmadinejad insisted at a September 18 Quds Day rally that confrontation with Israel is a “national and religious duty.” Sadly, similar rhetoric is now sometimes heard on American college campuses. For example, recently the Harvard Crimson published a Holocaust denial ad, which it later attributed to a mix-up.

Second, extreme anti-Zionism addresses what Lévy calls “triumphant antifascism” or the desire to punish wrongdoers. Given the extreme disregard in which fascists have been held since World War II, Jews may have enjoyed several decades of relative immunity from the sort of attacks which characterized the rise of that movement early in the last century. Here again, the new anti-Semitism does not so much reject this sentiment as it reverses it. This is largely accomplished through extreme anti-Zionism. By characterizing Israel as a fascist or Nazi state, anti-Zionists can harness the social stigmas which had long suppressed anti-Semitism and deploy it against Jews themselves as a collective presence. For example, in words that echo 1930’s-era Nazi rhetoric, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei this month condemned the “cancer of Zionism which is gnawing into the lives of the Islamic nations.”

Ironically, this extreme anti-Zionism is often expressed by mainstream human rights organizations, who should be combating anti-Semitism but instead sometimes foment it. One such organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has long been known for its strongly worded attacks on Israel. Recently, it was revealed that some of HRW’s anti-Israel work was prepared by an enthusiastic collector of Nazi memorabilia. At first, HRW defended the analyst, insisting that he did not hold Nazi beliefs; later, however, the organization suspended him as more information about his enthusiasm became public.

Prominent figures, such as former President Jimmy Carter, University of Chicago professor Stephen M. Walt and Harvard professor John J. Mearsheimer, have recently given respectability to the notion that U.S. support for Israel is based upon the dual loyalties of a powerful “Israel lobby.” This work has been sympathetically received on many college campuses even though it provides cover to long-standing anti-Semitic stereotypes and defamations. Its significance has not been lost internationally. Recently, Osama bin Laden urged the American people to read Carter, Walt and Mearsheimer’s work so that they would “know the truth” and be “greatly shocked by the scale of concealment that has been exercised on you.” In response, Professor Walt attributes bin Laden’s endorsement to the latter’s astute understanding of the Israel problem. Addressing bin Laden’s support for his own “scholarship,” Walt explained: “He did this because he understands — along with plenty of other people — that the combination of unconditional U.S. support for Israel and Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians is a source of great resentment in the Arab and Islamic world.” For such sentiments, Walt and Mearsheimer remain as popular on some American campuses as they have evidently become within al Qaeda.

Finally, the denial of anti-Semitism itself addresses the phenomenon which Lévy calls the “duty for memory.” After the Holocaust, many socially conscious people of all religions have felt the duty to remember and to combat all forms of bigotry. Here again, Lévy explains, the new anti-Semitism must address this duty and reverse it. This is accomplished most frequently and successfully through what has been called “anti-Semitism denial.” Like Holocaust denial, it includes both denial of the underlying problem (in this case, contemporary anti-Semitism) as well as accusation of Jewish fraudulence. Jews are accused not only of manufacturing claims of abuse, but of monopolizing human compassion – and diverting it from the victims of their own crimes. Examples of this phenomenon are too frequent to list and have been provided by some of the figures discussed above. The Quad would be remiss, however, if we did not leave you with at least one salient example from recent newspapers. Serhiy Ratushnyak, the mayor of Ukraininian city of Uzhhorod, called one of his country’s leading politicians an “impudent little Jew.” When journalists asked him about this evidently anti-Semitic remark, he responded by asking: “If I don’t like Jews and Israel, does that make me an anti-Semite?” It should not take a political leader or a great scholar to answer this question, and yet many professors find it as difficult to answer as does the gentleman from Uzhhorod.