The Anti-Semite’s Pointed Finger

Why can’t we set ourselves the goal of eradicating anti-Semitism? All across the civilized world, people track anti-Semitism, expose it, oppose it, decry it. And yet no one seriously considers the possibility of bringing about its end. Is this because of some lack of capacity or courage? Or do we face in anti-Semitism something, to use the phrase of the Yiddish writer L. Shapiro, as eternal as the eternal God?

Two other scourges of modern times have seen their power greatly diminished if not eliminated. Fascism was crushed in World War II, and Communism lost its political base in 1991. These movements still have their adherents, but their sustaining polities went down to defeat. Yet anti-Semitism, which figured prominently in both, has metastasized and, according to one of its foremost historians, Robert Wistrich, “will probably get worse.”

Many reasons—historical, religious, sociological, ideological, even epidemiological—have been adduced for the persistence of what Anthony Julius has termed the “sewer” of anti-Semitism. All have merit. But the one reason that remains but dimly understood, and even stubbornly resisted, is the political—and yet it is the one, I believe, that accounts for the phenomenon’s continuing success. Politically, anti-Semitism succeeds by working through misdirection, and its opponents no less than its adherents tend to be taken in by some of its deceptive strategies.

A good place to begin probing the resiliency of anti-Semitic deception is with the origin of Zionism. Zionism arose, in part, as a response to modern political anti-Semitism, but the movement’s history reveals an early and profound misdiagnosis of the problem.

It was first and foremost a movement of national self-determination, a familiar force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But unlike othernational movements, whose efforts to liberate subjugated peoples was opposed by existing polities—-nations and empires—Jews confronted a transnationalpolitical force that would come to be known as “anti-Semitism.” Zionists believed that the way to address the problem was by normalizing the political condition of the Jews themselves. Jews had been for too long a dependent minority in other people’s lands. Since anti-Semitism attacked Jews as usurping aliens, the provocation would presumably be removed once the Jews packed up and went home. It seemed to make independent sense, at a time of proliferating nation-states, for Jews to re-establish their homeland: once they did so, logic suggested, they would at last become a politically unexceptional people.

Zionism achieved its primary goal. I will not dwell here on the marvels of Israel, except to emphasize that Zionism succeeded in accomplishing whatever depended on Jewish effort, energy, and will alone. But what about the expectations of political normalization its founders and builders possessed so fervently? Those who settled the land and attained sovereignty were entitled to expect that they, like the populaces of other new nations, would be accorded “normal” treatment commensurate with international custom.

In this, Zionism proved mistaken.

Zionists believed that anti-Semitism could be calmed through actions taken by Jews to give their enemies what their enemies wanted: a place, a place elsewhere, to which Jews could and would go. It was as if Jews were acknowledging that their existence as a minority people was a problem, and therefore remediable.

What this hope of normalization ignored was the fact that the doctrine of anti-Semitism arose in the 19th century not to address the realities of the Jewish situation but to meet the political needs of others and to satisfy the political ends of others. The error lay not in the confidence placed by Jews in their capacity to establish a homeland but in the expectation that doing so would mitigate or put an end to the hostility directed against them.

As it turned out, anti-Semitism was launched against a people without a homeland, but it would work just as well against Jews with a state of their own.

How so? In 1945, the Arab League was founded with the common goal of preventing the creation of Israel. So far, nothing out of the ordinary: many emerging nations initially meet with opposition. But what followed was altogether exceptional. Israel won its War of Independence, and the war was concluded with an armistice between Israel and the neighboring countries it had been forced to fight. But unlike Britain’s response to the victory of the 13 American colonies, the leaders of Israel’s neighbors, plus 17 other Arab nations, actually refused to acknowledge its existence. And the United Nations collaborated in this refusal. Instead of expelling the countries of the Arab League for failing to abide by the founding principle of the international body, the UN gave the action a pass. This monumental failure of world leadership rendered Israel, the only member state to be so treated, exceptional. The establishment of the State of Israel, undergirded by the 1947 UN vote to partition Palestine into two states, meant nothing when it came to the political normalization of the Jews.

More than the offense itself, the UN’s condoning of that offense allowed anti-Semitism to become aviable international tool. At almost every step, the UN functioned to facilitate rather than to thwart the Arab war against a member state. The UN did not generate the politics of postwar anti-Semitism, but it legitimated its practice—the practice, that is, of organizing an entire politics as a means of defaming, delegitimizing, and if possible destroying another national polity.

There was nothing inevitable about this process. The Arab world might have developed differently in the wake of 1948. Had Arab leaders accepted the presence of a Jewish state alongside so many of their own states—most of them not much older than Israel, and many of them much more artificial—the Middle East could have seen peoples living side by side in relative amity. The United Nations might also have acted differently, just as it had been free to go in another direction when it voted in 1947 for the partition plan. In such an alternative scenario, the United States might have exerted pressure on even the obdurate King Saud of Saudi Arabia to accept Israel.

But it was not to be. The Zionist misdiagnosis, however innocent, raised expectations that were not satisfied. And, in the next phase, Zionism itself would be held responsible for raising these false expectations in the first place. Having expended so much creative energy in the recovery of the Jewish homeland—on the assumption that it would reduce anti-Jewish assaults—Jews found themselves facing greater enmity than before. For some Jews, therefore, it was hard to feel grateful for the acquired capacity for self-defense when the goal, as they thought, had been to need no self-defense. Instead of reconsidering the original mistake, some compounded the error by attributing the perpetuation of anti-Semitism to the Jews of Israel or to the Jewish state itself. In short, the enemies of Israel had discovered in anti-Semitism an amazingly effective political tool—and one that, into the bargain, rewarded them with wonderfully useful side effects.

Anti-Semitism works through the strategy of the pointing finger. Through political prestidigitation, the accuser draws attention away from his own sins—in the case of Arab leaders, the systematic oppression and immiseration of their own people—by pointing to the Jews, whose demonically inflated image and luridly portrayed wickedness make them a plausible explanation for whatever ails his regime. The pointing finger keeps negative attention focused on the Jews—or Israelis—and the latter, as often as not, obligingly fall into the trap by accepting responsibility for a situation they cannot control. In politics as before the law, whoever points the finger is the plaintiff, and whoever stands in the dock is the defendant. Unless they were to file a countersuit, simply answering to the charge of which they stood accused placed the Jews under the constant obligation of defending their innocence.