The Myth Of Pretext-Free Anti-Semitism

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Protests on Al-Quds Day in Berlin

Alongside the coverage of Gaza, on the Dish and beyond, has been a steady stream of coverage of a kind of shadow issue: European anti-Semitism. Writes Jon Henley:

Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, and very ugly, demons. This is not unusual; police and Jewish civil rights organisations have long observed a noticeable spike in antisemitic incidents each time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flares. During the three weeks of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in late 2008 and early 2009, France recorded 66 antisemitic incidents, including attacks on Jewish-owned restaurants and synagogues and a sharp increase in anti-Jewish graffiti. But according to academics and Jewish leaders, this time it is different. More than simply a reaction to the conflict, they say, the threats, hate speech and violent attacks feel like the expression of a much deeper and more widespread antisemitism, fuelled by a wide range of factors, that has been growing now for more than a decade.

“These are the worst times since the Nazi era,” Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, told the Guardian. “On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades. Anyone saying those slogans isn’t criticising Israeli politics, it’s just pure hatred against Jews: nothing else. And it’s not just a German phenomenon. It’s an outbreak of hatred against Jews so intense that it’s very clear indeed.”

Observers who don’t happen to be Jewish may see this and think, hmm. At a time when there are all these people being killed by Jews, is anti-Semitism really worth discussing? Indeed, it’s quite possible to be Jewish and to share this entirely understandable sentiment. (I’m Jewish and don’t share it, but more on that in a moment.) While right-thinking people balk when anti-Zionism crosses the line, it can seem just… odd, as if one is conflating the armchair bigotry Jews are experiencing on the continent that, yes, yes, hosted a genocide against them, but ages ago, when right now, there are dead Palestinian children. When Hadley Freeman, who normally writes about fashion, took on this issue, writing, “Clearly, a film festival being cancelled is not on a par with civilian deaths,” while I didn’t share the Guardian commenters’ collective eye-roll, I did understand it.

Yet anti-Semitism is intricately tied up with the situation in the Middle East, just not in quite the ways people seem to think.

Here’s what the popular conception of anti-Semitism gets wrong: The assumption seems to be that once upon a time – Nazi Germany, the Spanish Inquisition – Jew-hatred existed absent any particular justification. It was religious bigotry! Racial pseudoscience! Or, if the Jews in question were poor immigrants, hatred of the underdog! It was, people imagine, just this kind of generic bad, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, with innocent victims of ignorance. Whereas now, well, we can’t possibly be witnessing any anti-Semitism, because… look at Israel!

We see a version of this in Owen Jones’s intervention on the topic. Jones acknowledges that there are occasional snippets of anti-Semitism posing as anti-Zionism, but is dismissive of those, insisting, “The vast majority of pro-Palestinian sentiment is driven by a sense of solidarity with an oppressed people subjected to occupation, siege and a brutal military onslaught.” The real anti-Semitism comes from… basically anywhere other than the Western European left:

Take Greece, where the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn has thrived amid economic trauma. Back in May, 16% of Athenian voters opted for the Golden Dawn candidate for the city’s mayor. According to a recent study, 69% of Greeks had antisemitic views; in Poland – despite suffering some of the Nazis’ worst horrors – it was 48%, Spain 53%. In Hungary the antisemitic party Jobbik won a fifth of the vote in April’s parliamentary elections. Like most of Europe’s far right, France’s Front National focuses its bile against Muslims, but the party’s roots are deep in antisemitism; and a few months ago it topped the country’s European parliamentary elections.

While my knowledge of Jobbik’s exact platform is limited, I suspect that Hungarian anti-Semites don’t hate Jews for the heck of it, but that they, like other anti-Semites (including those whose interest in the ‘Palestinian cause’ far outweighs any interest in the Palestinian cause), have their reasons. Such as… well what do you know?

Anti-Semitism has always been about the notion of Jews having too much power. This has nothing specifically to do with Israel, let alone with anything this particular Israeli government has done. I’m quite sure the 1840s French writers holding forth about the Rothschilds weren’t reacting to anything the not-yet-existent Israel would do more than a century later. And it typically points – selectively – to real instances of Jews behaving badly. No, the deal with anti-Semitism is, it’s about highlighting Jews’ bad behavior; seeing only that; inventing some more; while at the same time ignoring good Jewish behavior as well as bad behavior on the part of non-Jews. We all know the refrain: Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism. But the presence of legitimate criticisms often hangs out within a broader ideology that puts The Jew at the center of absolutely everything terrible that’s ever happened.

Palestinians’ actual enemies thus overlap substantially with anti-Semites’ imagined ones, but this doesn’t make Palestinians who fight for their own cause anti-Semites. If you’re Palestinian, and you have objections to Israeli policies, chances are this is not because of some ambient anti-Jewish sentiment you’ve absorbed, but rather because you don’t enjoy occupation, bombing, and discrimination. (For exact ratios of how much one is to blame Israel, how much Hamas, one or two other people have addressed the topic; I’ll pass.) If you’re not convinced by ‘there are greater tragedies in the world’ arguments, it’s not because you’re putting Israel at the center of everything. It’s because Israel is rather central to your own situation.

At the same time, there’s this preexisting set of people who aren’t Palestinian, who may have nothing to do with any Jews, Israeli or otherwise, but who imagine Jews are responsible for everything that’s gone wrong in their lives, and who sit waiting for their aha! moment. For the moment when Jew-bashing and nodding approvingly and synagogue-vandalizing becomes acceptable in polite society.

All of this, then, puts Palestinians in a bind. They honest-to-goodness are being oppressed in a Jewish state. And they have this built-in base of support in anti-Semites the world over. Those who call Hamas “anti-Semitic” sort of miss the point. It’s not that Hamas hasn’t embraced whichever tropes, playing at the above-mentioned audience. But the more relevant issue is that the Palestinian cause needs to be truly separated from the ‘Palestinian cause’ for real progress to occur.

(Photo: Members of the German riot police allegedly confiscated an Israeli flag while it was waved to protest against a demonstration for Al-Quds Day, an event intended to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, on July 25, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. By Carsten Koall/Getty Images)