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New life for the oldest hatred

Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-Semitism
Edited by Ron Rosenbaum
Random House
PB, 650pg. US$16.95
ISBN: 0-8129-7203-1

By Damian Penny
web posted May 30, 2005

Those Who Forget the Past: The Question of Anti-SemitismPerhaps the most unnerving thing about anti-Jewish hatred, paradoxically, is that it isn't as shocking as it was just a few years ago. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was horrified to see Arab media outlets (and Western conspiracy theorists) arguing that a "Zionist" conspiracy masterminded the attacks and warned 4,000 Jews to stay home that day. Four years later, when British university professors singled out the Jewish state as a boycott target and "anti-Zionist" demagogue George Galloway was elected to Parliament, all I could do was sigh and think, here we go again.

It's not quite accurate to say anti-Semitism has "returned" sixty years after Hitler took his life, because it never really went away. Genocidal hatred of the Jews has continued unabated in the Arab world, where despotic governments forment anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli hysteria as a scapegoat and safety valve for otherwise prohibited dissent. (In Iran, meanwhile, politicians promote anti-Semitism because they really believe it.) Ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis remain active in Europe and North America, and even the far left's hatred of Israel - the roots of which were sown in the late 1960s, when the USSR switched its support to Israel's enemies - has been around for many, many years. Anti-Semitism is the most durable of all hatreds, and nothing as minor as the murder of six million Jews is going to eradicate it completely.

But things have gotten noticeably worse in recent years, and a slew of recent books has attempted to explain the phenomenon. Those Who Forget the Past, an anthology edited by the New York Observer's Ron Rosenbaum, is one of the best and most comprehensive.

Those Who Forget the Past features selections from various points on the political spectrum, and the blame for this continuing scourge is spread accordingly. (A handful of contributors, most notably The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, question whether the "new" anti-Semitism is as bad as some say.) Jeffrey Goldberg describes, in sickening detail, the grotesque, Nazi-esque Jew-hatred he witnessed shortly after 9/11 in Egypt, a "moderate" Arab state officially at peace with Israel - and which recieves $2 billion per year in American aid persuant to the 1978 "peace" agreement. Marie Brenner, meanwhile, shows how the hatred has spread to an increasingly large and disaffected immigrant population in France. (Personally, I wish the book had featured more MEMRI-translated articles and essays from Arab anti-Semites, to illustrate just how mainstream this poisonous hatred has become in that part of the world.) But a handful of contributors, like Judith Butler, prefer to blame the victim and accuse Israel of formenting anti-Jewish hatred through its own policies.

One of the most controversial questions about anti-Semitism is, where do you draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Jewish bigotry? Many of the essays in Those Who Forget the Past try to answer this difficult question, and while it's possible to be "anti-Zionist" but not anti-Semitic – many ultra-orthodox Jews, most notably the radical Naturei Karta movement (whose leader, it turns out, was on Yasser Arafat's payroll), oppose Israel's existence because a Jewish state is not supposed to come into being until the Messiah returns – it's unnerving and telling to note the similarities between the anti-Semitic stereotypes of old and the criticisms leveled at Israel today. One contributor reports seeing a bumper sticker reading "Israel out of the settlements" – nothing anti-Jewish about that, except for the fact that the letter "S" was changed into a dollar sign. (Them Jews love their money, you know.)

Another contributor, Eli Muller, offers this answer:

There are many things about the actions of the Israeli government that are deserving of criticism. On the other hand, some denunciations of the Israeli government are so hyperbolic, so wedded to a notion of Israel as an incarnation of the demonic, that they do constitute anti-Semitism. In other words, many negative things can and should be said about Israel's current policies without the speaker being subjected to charges of anti-Semitism. But when such remarks take on a reckless disregard for the factual, the proportional, or the right of individuals to be assessed on their own merits rather than on the basis of their ethnicity, such rhetoric begins to reek of bigotry.

For example, arguing that Israel should demolish all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is far from anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Semitic to note the objective fact of the extent of Palestinian suffering. To suggest that Israel is an apartheid state, Nazi-like in its policies, intent on genocide or ethnic cleansing, however, is to bury the truth beneath the vilest of epithets. To demonize Israel in this way, to see it as a monster among the nations perpetrating "affronts to humanity", smacks of a level of hatred beyond the limits of criticism. Perhaps we ought not to call the condemnation of Israelis qua Israelis anti-Semitic, but it is nonetheless a form of fetishistic hatred, one which imputes the demonic to a state and its people such that the reality of the political entity disappears into a symbol of human evil.

The transformation of a real, complex nation into a scapegoat for the world's ills constitutes the essence of bigotry. This type of thinking transforms the social conscience into fuel for the smug hysteria of the ignorant and the dogmatic.

Nowhere was this kind of thing more on display than just after the Israeli army's incursion into Jenin, home base for dozens of suicide terrorists and their supporters, and the discredited cries of "genocide" and "massacre" which followed. In the end, just over fifty Palestinians (and 26 Israeli soldiers) were killed, but as Those Who Forget the Past illustrates, the media - especially in Great Britain - portrayed this fierce battle as an atrocity on the level of Auschwitz or Rwanda. (This kind of thing won't stop the committed anti-Semite from believing Israel controls the very media which demonizes it so regularly, of course.)

The right does not come away from Those Who Forget the Past unscathed; Nat Hentoff describes one disturbing incident, in which conservative activist and fund-raiser Paul Weyrich, after viewing The Passion of the Christ, wrote a hysterical online essay blaming the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – the very accusation of deicide which inspired the murder of countless Jews long before Hitler came along. (One problem with the book is that the topic of Christian anti-Semitism is only dealt with during a section on Mel Gibson's controversial movie, with relatively little historical context.) Writer Evan Gahr savaged Weyrich on The American Spectator's website – and promptly found himself fired by the Hudson Institute and dropped by FrontPage and The American Enterprise magazines.

But the most notable aspect of the new anti-Semitism is how much of it comes from a "progressive" left which (nominally) condemns all forms of racism and bigotry. Where the most vicious accusations against the Jews once came from neo-Nazis and ultra-right fringe groups, today you'll find them - disguised as "anti-Zionism", of course - much in evidence at anti-globalization demonstrations and on leftist websites. Ron Rosenbaum is himself a liberal alarmed by the growing Jew-hatred of the left, and so are several other contributors to his book – most notably Italian writer Fiamma Nirenstein, a former communist and kibbutz resident, who describes the left's abrupt turn against the Jewish state around the time of the Six Day War, when the Israeli Jews could no longer be considered docile "victims":

When I went back to Italy [just after the 1967 war] some of my fellow students stared at me as somebody new, an enemy, a wicked person who would soon become an imperialist. My life was about to change. I didn't know that, because I simply thought that Israel rightly won a war after having been assaulted with an incredible number of harassments. But I soon noticed that I had lost the innocence of the good Jews, of the very special Jewish friend, their Jew: I was now connected with the Jews of the State of Israel, and slowly I was put out of the dodecaphonic, psychoanalytic, Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Philip Roth, Freud shtetl, the coterie that sanctified by Judaism in left-wing eyes.
[A letter from leftist Italian academics to "their Jewish friends", accusing them of making the Palesinians suffer as they once suffered] is an excellent summary of all the characteristics of the new anti-Semitism. There is the pre-Zionist definition of the Jewish people as the one that suffers, has to suffer by nature, a people bound to bear the worst persecutions without even lifting a finger, and is, therefore, worthy of compassion and solidarity.

And there is the well-established, democratic, militarily powerful, and economically prospering State of Israel, which is the antithesis of this stereotype. The "new Jew" that tries not to suffer, and that, above all, can and wants to defend himself, immediately loses all his charm in the eyes of the Left.

Those Who Forget the Past, at over 610 pages not counting the index, is not an easy read. As with all compilations of this nature, some of the inclusions seem redundant and unconvincing, and the book becomes repetitive at times. (Certain anti-Semitic incidents, such as the publication of an Italian newspaper cartoon accusing the Israeli Jews of deicide, are mentioned over and over.) But the oldest hatred remains a scourge which must be beaten back by all right-thinking individuals, and Those Who Forget the Past helps us understand where it came from and why, six decades after Auschwitz, it persists.

Damian Penny is the author of the widely popular blog Daimnation!.

Buy Those Who Forget the Past at Amazon.com for only $16.95 (32% off)


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